The birth of hip-hop in the late 1970s was a profound moment in the history of musical expression. Aside from its political and cultural significance as a radical form of protest for an entire generation of disenfranchised youth, hip-hop also introduced new methods of producing and consuming music. In fact, it is these methods which differentiate hip-hop from other genres and styles and, at least from a musical perspective, are the source of its profound importance.
Although most commentators and listeners ascribe hip-hop’s uniqueness to rapping, the rhythmic spoken delivery of poetry (as Wikipedia describes it) has existed for decades, if not centuries, in other musical forms, including West African folk music, Caribbean toasts and even Gaelic drinking music. Hip-hop’s distinguishing feature therefore derives not from its most celebrated figure – the emcee – but rather from the producers and djs who make the beats upon which the genre stands. In fact, as most educated heads will tell you, hip-hop began when Kool Herc mixed two breaks together in the mid ’70s and was propelled into the ’80s, and eventually the pop culture mainstream, by big name party rockers like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Only later did record companies, eager to profit from the burgeoning New York rap scene, promote emcees above their traditional role as hype men for the much more popular djs (or so the legend goes).
The work of innovators like Flash is important to consider. He, and others like him, revolutionized music by legitimizing a technique that academics now called recontexualization. By physically manipulating the records spinning in front of them, early hip-hop djs chopped, cut, extracted, and rearranged pre-recorded music into new compositions. In effect, they were creating new music from old music. And therein lies the originality and importance of hip-hop.
After all, on the surface hip-hop doesn’t sound dramatically different than any of the genres it samples from. For example, although they’re both hip-hop classics, Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” has more in common, musically speaking, with Leon Haywood’s funk jam “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” than it does with Nas’ “Street Dreams,” which is based on “Sweet Dreams” by The Eurythmics. Aside from the rapping (as mentioned above, a style of delivery not necessarily unique to hip-hop) and the 4/4 drum beat (a pattern nearly ubiquitous in modern populuar music), these two tracks share absolutely nothing in common. What is it then that makes both of them belong to the category ‘hip-hop’? The answer lies in how their beats were produced – by sampling.
Hip-hop is thus a genre defined methodologically rather than aesthetically. In other words, to classify a song as hip-hop isn’t to say it sounds a certain way (as it would if you classified a track as being jazz, funk or rock), it means it was made a certain way: by sampling and altering pre-recorded music for the purpose of creating new music.