Hip Hop the Elemental History

In 1967, Clive Campbell also known as DJ Kool Herc, immigrated to New York and settled in the West Bronx. Kool Herc was born in Kingston Jamaica, the birthplace of another great musical forefather, the legend, Bob Marley. DJ Kool Herc’s parties were becoming well known in New York City. In fact, Hip Hop ‘jams’ were an affordable alternative to the high price clubs were charging. As early Hip Hop DJs began to develop the various techniques of early DJing, the potential of the culture emerged in excitement amongst young Bboys and Bgirls. The early Hip Hop DJs invented the concept of scratching, skillfully manipulating vinyl records to sonically rupture recorded music and play fragments of it back at will. Even before scratching was developed, DJs isolated and looped break beats from popular records. Break beats, the portion of a song where the music and vocals take a back seat to the beat, became the signature sound of Hip Hop, hence the evolution of Break Boys or BBoys who relished the extension of the most danceable moments of popular soul and disco music.

Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambatta.
Early BBoys would battle and through battling the various technical aspects of Breakdancing were honed and developed. There were several crews of young folk who participated in the development of Break Dancing. One of the earliest and now most legendary Breaking crews is the Rock Steady Crew. In addition to DJs and break dancers, there were also MCs of/at these early Hip Hop jams.

Block party
Beatboxing, like graffiti, began its life as an urban art form. The beginnings of hip-hop are well known – DJs spinning the breakbeats in records with MCs rapping over the top. When MCs starting to rap over drum machine (beat box) beats in the urban communities of New York City, especially in the Bronx, drum machines and synthesizers were not very affordable. Samplers were well out of reach even for well-paid musicians.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and without machine-supplied beats to rap over, a new, more accessible instrument was adopted – the mouth – and thus human beatboxing was born.


As a point of clarification, all MCs rap, but not all rappers are MCs. A rapper is an entertainer. An MC is an artist who is committed to perfecting the crafts of lyrical mastery and call response audience interaction. MCs were not initially (as they are now) the front men and women of Hip Hop culture. Noted MC, KRS ONE once remarked that as an MC he was happy to just carry his DJs crates. These days Hip Hop culture, especially rap music, tends to marginalize most of the foundational elements of the culture and over emphasizes the role of the MC which stands for Master of Ceremonies in standard parlance. However, according to Rakim, an MC who is widely referred to simply as “the god,” ‘MC means move the crowd’ or ‘Mic Control.’ MCs hone their skills through freestyling and battling as well. Free style rhyming is when an MC raps without aid of previous rhymes committed to paper or memory. Much like their Jazz improvising counterparts, a freestyling MC pulls lyrical rifts and cadences from an ever-evolving repertoire in order to perform spontaneous rhymes that reflect their immediate environment and/or address the present opponent. Battling is when MCs engage in lyrical combat in a series of discursive turns. In fact, battles between MCs have become legendary and at times notoriously violent on and off record.

Crazy Legs & the Rock Steady Crew
The final foundational element of Hip Hop culture is represented by the graffiti artist. To many people, graffiti artist is an oxymoron. Graffiti is vandalism. It is against the law to spray paint names and images on public property. Somewhat unlike the other elements of Hip Hop culture, graffiti completely predates the development of the other three elements. Graffiti actually dates back to Old World, premodern times. But there are some distinct qualities to how and why graffiti has developed in Hip Hop culture. The earliest documented Graf moniker belongs to Greece born, Demetrius from 183 Street in the Bronx. He made himself famous by tagging Taki 183 throughout the five boroughs of NYC via subway trains. This moment is distinct for several reasons.

Early art on the subway
1) Considering Hip Hop’s global prominence in the early part of the new millennium, the multicultural origins of Hip Hop certainly explain some of its universal appeal. A Greek Graf writer fit in perfectly with a diverse array of cultural constituents, including African Americans, Jamaicans, West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Dominicans, Cubans, etc.

2) Several scholars have referred too much of the activity of early adopters of Hip Hop culture as a process of reclaiming public spaces. Sometimes this reclamation is done through sound; Consider the boom boxes of yesteryear or the current boom box like sound systems in cars. But sometimes this is done through the writing of names and images on/in public spaces.

3) The use of the subway, as a means to circulate the tag, Taki 183, throughout the five boroughs was a masterstroke. It underscored the urge to manipulate public property and services for the benefit of youth culture and in particular here, the processes of self-identification amongst inner city youth.

In addition to the four foundational elements of Hip Hop culture (DJ, MC, Graf, and Dance), there are several secondary elements of the culture as well. These elements include fashion/modes of dress, entrepreneurship, and complex systems of knowledge (particularly elaborate language and other linguistic phenomenon). Fashion has always been a component of Hip Hop culture. After all, the DJs, Bboys, Bgirls, and MCs had serious dress codes. Some of the earliest brands of choice were Adidas, Puma, Lee Jeans, Cazal (eyeglasses) and Kangol (hats). Some of the early graf artists would spray paint names and designs onto sweatshirts, jackets, sneakers and hats. So a distinct sense of fashion was present early. As the culture grew in popularity, fashion became the outward sign of Hip Hop culture’s entrepreneurial sensibility. Hip Hop clothing brands such as Karl Kani, Cross Colours, and eventually Phat Farm, FUBU, and Rocawear all signified the fact that youth influenced by and living through Hip Hop culture were deeply invested in economic empowerment most readily manifest in owning one’s own business.

The UK Story
II. British hip hop music grew from dub music that migrated to the UK from Jamaica during the 1960s and 1970s. Dancehall and reggae deejays who were “toasting” over instrumental tracks helped influence the genre. These instrumentals were often b-sides to popular American hits, as deejays adlibbed rhythmic lyrics over instrumentals. Musically, the styles grew from Caribbean dub, mento, calypso, ska and reggae. Dub evolved from reggae as a subgenre and is based on manipulating existing recordings with reverb or enhancing the highs and lows of rhythm through equalization.
An early pioneer of toasting was deejay Count Matchuki from Jamaica in the late 1950s. He was influential to another deejay named U-Roy, who also helped develop the rap style. Both Matchuki and U-Roy imitated American radio announcers by talking over the intros of songs. One of the initial inventions that came from this activity was beatboxing in which deejays added elements called “peps” to parts of recordings they thought needed enhancement.

Born out a time of change in a country whose people were beginning to find their own identification comes the frontline sound systems.

Rising from the down-town areas of Kingston to the world these pioneers took it to every club, party and music event in the world setting the scene for DJs, MCs and sound systems for ever. Being so close to Jamaica the US was the islander’s main source for all things new.

The first real big name in Jamaican Sound System history was ‘Tom the Great Sebastian’. Possessing a system that’s hailed as the classic model and influence for many of the systems that came later on.

Though there were other systems about with some equally great names like ‘Count Smith the blues blaster’ and ‘Sir Nick the Champ’ it was Tom the Great Sebastian who’s widely seen as something of an originator in the history of Jamaica’s sound systems.

Styles of ‘toasting’ by the early Sound System selectors would mimic the US radio DJs they’d pick up coming over the water by coming up with their own rhymes and announcements, which took its own form as a clear distinction was being made between the DJs (Mic) and the Selector/Operator (those playing the records).

Sound Systems in the UK

Early Sound system
Though one Sound System DJ/Selector who resisted the trend towards dance hall staying with roots-reggae turned out to be a pretty heavy influence on the British punk bands of the late ’70’s like the Slits and Public Image, was the Jamaican born ‘Jah Shaka’.

Moving from Clarendon to London as a youth he started his trade working for the Soul/R’nB system ‘Freddie Cloudburst’ as sound man- going on to put his own system together in the very early ’70s and by the end of the decade he’d built a sizable and enthusiastic following in and around the capital.

Taking his name from the Zulu leader Shaka he’d play a popular Friday night residency in Hackney at Phoebes Club as well at the Noreik on Severn Sisters Road in Tottenham, and all the time sticking with the sound systems original sounds – blanking the dance hall craze which was felt as moving away from the word of Rastafari, roots reggae and its spiritual content.

As toasting developed throughout the sixties in became a practice of telling funny stories and commentary over music with rhymes. This type of music pre-dated DJ Kool Herc in America, who emerged in 1974 as a social commentary storyteller over beats, which influenced the music of Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and Sugar Hill Gang. Herc was originally from Jamaica before making his mark in New York and was influenced by the pioneers of Sound Systems and toasting.

UK Flavour
British hip hop started to become experimental following the American success of artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang in the late seventies. Early pioneers of British hip hop included Dizzy Heights, who had a hit called “Christmas Rapping,” The heart of the scene was around Covent Garden and Leicester Square around 83 – 86. The hip hop culture was strong thanks to the whole diversity of cultural skills graffiti, breaking, popping and locking this was only part of our story. Guys were hustling trying to realise their dreams. West end clubs had a no blacks getting in, door policy so they would rush the back doors to hear the music they loved. The real UK hip hop pioneers from back in the electro days Flash lazer, Daniel Francis, Gordon Simba Hudson, Mello, Zarkoff, Malady Parker, Gary Tennants Rahsheed, Victor Glider, Deana Johnson, Frenchie Droopa, Kashif MC Duke Adham, Dolby Dotanuki, Billy Biznizz, Bionic, Siepo, Rodney P, Cutmaster Swift, DJ Fingers, Billy Foster, Scribla, Ossies crew, London All Star Breakers, Sidewalk, Mastermind Roadshow, Rapperattack, Cookie Pryce, London posse, Tyrone Sinclair, Kelly Nicolas, Dieterville, Karyn Hughes, Jo Hughes, Jungle aka Godfrey Smith, Sam Soulboy Soulboy Fury, Speedy Ranks. UK pioneers like Dizzi Heights, Sir Drew Nichols, krew scam Kd fahty Nutriment, Froggy, Danny of renegade soundwave, the Mighty Ethnicz, N.S.O, Cash Crew, London Rhyme Syndicate, Paradox Brothers, Powerlords, MCD, Black Twang, Rootz Manouver, Hijack, Caveman, Demon Boyz, MC Mellow, Cooki Crew, Monie Love, DShe Rockers, Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Overlord X, Freshski, Icepick, MCM, Derek B, Asher D and Daddy Freddie, Bryan Darkman Mitchell, Zulu King Echo. To name a few of those who laid the foundation for what we all love today.

Many people said we took on the American accents and it was fake. It was more that Hip Hop gave the young men and women an identity. We couldn’t identify with the UK that is why there was so much unrest. The young people took on their Jamaican heritage and embraced the sounds and attitude that came from the East Coast of America.