Rap Culture: From The Streets to Mainstream

Sunday, April 18

By Rocio Mourelos

If I had to name a music genre that has made it to the main scene by growing its roots and showing the importance of its culture, despite the lack of people taking it seriously, I definitely have to talk about rap. It is not just my opinion; anyone can assure this by only taking a look at Billboard’s Hot 100, where most songs are rap music or incorporate elements of it. How a genre despised by the masses made it to the top charts?

Rapping first gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s as a kind of street art, especially among African American teenagers. It specifically emerged from the Bronx in New York City. Its development reflected the negative effects of post-industrial decline, political discourse, and a rapidly changing economy, consequently creating massive unemployment and building closings. These places that were once shops turned into rap stages, where youngsters would go and improvise, just for the thrill of it.

But those impros needed a beat, and that’s when hip hop appears. One of the most influential hip hop pioneers was DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant regarded as the father of hip hop. Kool Herc made history in 1973 when he hosted the “Back to School Jam” in the recreation room of his Bronx apartment building. But it was a couple of years later in 1979 that The Sugarhill Gang’s hit “Rapper’s Delight” made it to radio stations, setting the genre in the market and started growing an appetite for rap among listeners.

The 80s were starting and record labels started recognizing the genre as an emerging trend and invested a lot of money into the movement. They were releasing records at a fast pace in response to the demand generated by the public. New scenes and different styles of rap and hip hop also emerged as the culture popularized, while technology kept on evolving and the early rhythmic chant progressed into metaphorical lyrics exploring a range of subjects, helping the genre to grow even faster. Hip hop fashion also hit the mainstream. Various clothes and hairstyles became a form of expression. Street slang, later known as Ebonics, also crossed over into the mainstream.

Now, there’s a moment in which rap hit one of its peaks, and that’s when Run DMC, a rap trio from New York, collaborated with Aerosmith on a rap remake of Steven Tyler’s band hit, “Walk This Way”. This made rap enter other genres, combining and creating on the way, without losing any piece of originality, and keeping it real, being grateful for how they got from nothing to everything in just a blink.

Rap music became even more commercial, becoming the top-selling music genre by the late 90s. Artists like Jay Z, Dr. Dre, or Snoop Dog moved from the streets to sold-out arenas. By the end of the decade, hip hop was an integral part of popular music.

Today is even easier for rappers to make music, by just creating a beat on a computer and dropping in a voice note. That’s it; you have the beginnings of a song. Add the power of streaming platforms like SoundCloud or Spotify, which makes it easier for fans to discover emerging voices. That’s how you create a hit these days.

It’s impossible to talk about rap as a genre without also talking about issues of race and class, and in a national moment of deep division, it’s apt that people turning to music to find an outlet. The barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been; the visibility of those who have made it is, thanks to social media, higher than ever before. Moreover, hip-hop’s recent ascendency means greater visibility for people of color at a moment when many feel under attack, whether as a result of police brutality or changing immigration policies. And even though several of rap’s rising stars are white, its most influential voices maintain deep roots in historically marginalized communities.

The fact that it’s now the new normal is a triumph for voices that haven’t always had platforms to call their own and finally do. What differs this genre from others is its capacity of joining people together, despite their characteristics and backgrounds, just to listen or create music, spreading creativity all around the world.

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