Just a couple weeks ago, hip-hop celebrated its 44th birthday. For those unfamiliar with how the genre was conceived, in August 11, 1973 a young cat by the name of DJ Kool Herc threw a “Back to School Jam” party in the Bronx and invented a new technique on the turntables called “the break”, in which he would extend the instrumental parts of the song so people could dance longer – a simple move that would go on to change music and popular culture forever.
Google pulled off a nice tribute on their homepage for this year’s anniversary, and when I saw it, it really made me think about it just how far hip-hop has come since Kool Herc decided to bust out a new move on that night, 44 long years ago.
Over the course of the last four and a half decades the United States has endured countless changes and conflicts on social, economical and political fronts. Internally, there was the war on drugs during the 1980s and the housing market crash in the 2000s. Externally, we engaged in multiple wars in different parts of the world. It’s not all bleak of course. Advancements in technology allow us to connect with each other at any given time from any given location and have done wonders for progressing research and knowledge in important fields like health and medicine.
What I’m alluding to with all this, is that in reflecting on all the ups and downs that have occurred in the past 40 years, I’ve realized the one thing that never slumps: culture. Through all the struggles our society has withstood and the triumphs it has fulfilled, culture is the all-pervasive entity that cannot be destroyed.
In the case of hip-hop, culture is the catalyst that has enabled the genre to thrive in every imaginable circumstance since its very inception. The drug wars in the ’80s gave birth to N.W.A., just like lean and “bling” culture created Southern rap stars like Lil’ Wayne. No matter the state of things, culture has always prevailed and hip-hop has piggy-backed it to the top of the food chain.
Perhaps no event symbolizes this principle better than the Presidency of Barack Obama. Known for being an admirable public speaker, avid basketball fan and meme-friendly, it seems fitting that hip-hop’s 44th birthday falls in the year after the 44th President of the U.S. left Washington. Obama’s time in office as the first U.S. President of African-American descent perfectly represents hip-hop’s inhabitancy at the forefront of popular culture.
It’s pretty remarkable just how many milestones took place for the hip-hop community in the span of Obama’s 8 years as top dog of the free world. Drake shattered Billboard records for having the highest total of songs charting at one time, a Kendrick Lamar song turned into a protest anthem and recently, there was even stories about the word “stan” being added to the Oxford English Dictionary – haha! What a time…
While those reports ended up being untrue, I don’t think anyone stopped to question the actual possibility of them being real. The biggest stars in the game are bigger than they have ever been before, and as a whole, hip-hop’s influence on pop culture remains uncontested. Think about it, how many kids did you see this past year, walking around rocking a Chance 3 hat?
Reflecting on all these instances, it’s clear just how relevant Obama’s presidency is to the current times. Earlier this year he inducted Jay-Z into the songwriters’ hall of fame as the first rapper to ever earn the prestigious honor, and in listening to his speech, it couldn’t be any more appropriate. He even had Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean over at his last state dinner.
Evaluations of Obama will always vary widely, but it’s hard to dispute his role in bridging the gap between hip-hop and politics. His connection to the game runs much deeper than his self-proclaimed affinity for artists like Kendrick and Chance. He served as the symbol for just how dominant rap culture has become in modern day America. His time in the White House has come and gone, but his name still rings as familiar as the chorus to “No Problem”.
Sooner or later, the tides may change and hip-hop may lose some of its steam as the cultural climate shifts with the times, but as of this moment, I don’t see that happening quite soon. I don’t care for when people say “hip-hop is the new rock” because in reality, it’s not. Sure, its appearance is constantly evolving, but at its core, it’s the same it’s always been: expressive, fearless and cutting edge. The difference between now and the day after Kool Herc’s party back in 1973, is that everybody knows it.
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Thanks for reading, hope you guys enjoyed this piece. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend you go check out the Netflix produced series called Hip-Hop Evolution. It goes really in depth on how hip-hop was started back in 1970s New York and eventually started turning into a commercial monster over the next two decades. It’s got great interviews with a lot of classic DJs and MCs who were there for the start of it all. Must watch if you’re a hip-hop head or music fan of any kind.
(Featured image via Pitchfork)