What’s beat got to do, got to do with it?

Somewhat unexpectedly my research took a direction I never expected it to have: hip hop and the transformation of urban space. Even though, yes, the mix of music and space is rather evident to finish in queries on hip hop. Apart from guilty pleasure songs like Ice Ice Baby or some Lauryn Hill classics, I’ve never really considered myself a big fan of hip hop, not to speak of rap, probably because the rap I knew was about bros and hoes and about finding 50Cents in the club and Doggy Dogg Worlds etc. There is, however, way more to hip hop than speaking dirty about ladies and money-making. There is the fundamentally spatial aspect of hip hop being born in the suburbs as a contestation to urban regeneration plans.

Even though the first commercial hip hop song was released in 1979, the roots of hip hop go back to the 1940’s. According to Romero (2010), hip hop is based on three different rhythms: R&B, soul/funk and disco. The first of them initially emerged in the 40s as race music, practiced and consumed by coloured people. Only some time later the genre that was nurtured by jazz and gospel, received the politically correct name of Rhythm&Blues. Ike Turner, Fats Dominio and Solomon Burke are a few of the artist to remember from those days. R&B was slowly taken over by the slightly more refined soul music that appeared in the 1960’s with names such as Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin who all left huge footprints in the musical track that maintained its ‘gospelish’ sound.  Parallel to political movements such as the Black Panther Party and the  notable influence of Martin Luther King, soul became the voice of black North America. With the passing of time, the justice-verbalising tone of soul music was gradually substituted by more festive moods, characterized by faster rhythms and often more jovial lyrics. Soul fused into funk, even and the two have ever since maintained very close ties. The essence of both genres is very much reachable in the Soul Train TV episodes that featured not only the latest trends in music, but also in fashion and dance moves. James Brown, his Sex Machine and other sensual lively tunes turned another page in the history of music, joining people in dance and diversion. As the genre evolved, synthesizers and rhythmic boxes were involved in the making of funky rhythms that would soon start defining hip hop on the streets of South Bronx.

An important step towards hip hop’s eventual character is the introduction of disc jockeys that would pick the background beat for the MC-s. Picking the music and playing it in public originated in Jamaica with aficionados who’d often bring the newest sounds from the U.S. and play it in their mobile sound systems that essentially consisted of medium-sized vans with special sound equipment that turned the vehicle into a mobile disco.  Many of these Carribean melomaniacs established themselves in New York, in search of better opportunities. And diversion. Lacking economic means to access clubs, the same mobile discos took the streets of the latin neighborhoods of NY. Musically equipped trucks and other DIY musical platforms that “borrowed” electricity from the public utility poles to play music at open air parties became the veritable precursors of an urban movement composed of music and marginality.  Two or more DJ-s would often connect their equipments to closeby poles and end up having battles for best sounding music, both in terms of volume and quality.  The person to come up with the final rhythm of hip hop was the Jamaica born DJ Kool Herc who was famous for his ultra-powerful sound systems and for his impressive record collection. Herc understood that the tunes he played at parties would always have a climax point where people went nuts for the music.  Seeking to extend this moment, he picked two examples of the same vinyl and played that peak sound for several times altering the two records. He called it the break beat that would eventually become the percussion or the rhythmical base of hip hop.  In musical terms, it’s the four basic bars that define hip hop tunes.

Besides DJ Kool Herc there were other central figures developing the first sounds of hip hop. Grandmaster Flash was a Barbadosian young DJ with excellent skills of street battles of DJ-ing. He also developed the technique of scratching (with pretty much all his mobile body parts) and as his limbs were occupied with mixing the music, he had to hand over the control of the microphone to fellow aficionados, giving way to MC-s who became the Masters of Ceremony, in this case, the vocal entertainers of the party. As hip hop parties had little or no protocol to be followed, the MC-s simply became Microphone Controllers, often announcing rather unrelated messages to liven up the public. With time, though, MC-s stopped being the ordinary entertainers of the party and started to spread a message that would interest the public.  “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (his MC companions) was precisely one of the first commercialized hip hop songs with lyrics that expressed a particular concern about the life in the ‘hood.

It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car


The discourse of the MC-s became more coherent, often speaking about everyday life issues that concerned the marginal neighborhoods and their inhabitants, going back to the justice-seeking roots of the urban black music.

Hip hop would not be complete without its remaining 2 elements: break dance and graffiti. Tagging and the latter ‘urban writing’ date back to the 1960’s with the first signs on subway trains and marginal spaces being spread in NY. Break dance, on the other hand, emerged at the same time with the outdoor sound system parties where dancers would accompany DJ-s. James Brown, the father of funk music undeniably inspired many of the future break dancers with his eclectic moves. However, break dancing had various influences, from African rite dances to acrobacy and martial arts mixed with fashionable moves straight out of the dance hall.  Break dance, just as the break beat was something unseen at the time, yet it summed to the urban movement, adding an even more embodied practice of spatial contestation.

Before hip hop’s commercial success, and before it became a means of traspassing a ‘message’, it was primarily a jovial phenomenon that emerged in the marginal neighborhoods of New York. It was about simple gatherings around rhythm, scratching or dance moves. It took a while to become the protesting resistance music against the established social paradigm.  However, in the first half of the 1980’s hip hop did start to get commercilized and began its track towards a somewhat stereotypical bling-bling-inpired style. But that’s another story for another day.






Some effects of musicking


Rhythm is a dancer
It’s a soul companion
You can feel it everywhere
Lift your hands and voices
Free your mind and join us
You can feel it in the air

(Snap, Rhythm is a Dancer, 1992)

The positive effects of music on human behavior have been studied in musicology, music anthropology, sociology of music, in psychology and in many other fields. For this research, the following aspects have been taken into account to develop the discussion upon the relationship between human beings and their everyday space that is intermediated by music.

  • Music, rhythm and the brain
  • Music, identity and community
  • Music, society and power
  • Music and space



The inquiry of music and its effects on human beings must begin with the influence that music has on the human brain. It has been widely discussed that listening to music releases endorphins (Dunbar et. al., 2012), that it helps relax the mind and increase concentration levels (Lesiuk, 2005). In a study on the effects of music listening on work performance, Teresa Lesiuk points out that the beneficial effect of music on task performance  may  be  explained  by  increases  in  state  positive  affect: when music evokes a pleasant mood  and  an  increased  arousal  state,  participants  perform  better  on  non-musical  tasks that require problem solving (Lesiuk, 2005: 173).

Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and best-selling author of books based on clinical studies has conducted numerous neurological researches and written extensively about patients with different health problems that entail memory loss or partial physical disability. In his seminal book Musicophilia (2007), Sacks explains several cases of brain damage that have been alleviated by the implementation of music. The most noteworthy of Sacks’ patients was the man who “mistook his wife for a hat,”[1] due to a severe case of amnesia that left the eminent English musicologist with a memory of just a few seconds. Reintroducing music in the patient’s life improved notably his wellbeing. Despite an almost complete loss of memory, the patient’s piano playing skills had remained intact, allowing him to interpret long musical pieces. Also, singing helped him manage everyday tasks that would otherwise result impossible: “eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs, everything. He can’t do anything unless he makes it a song” (2007: 258)[2].  Sacks emphasizes the role of music on the motor area of the brain, specifically how rhythm can help perform tasks that require physical movement. There are also numerous studies and footage of patients with Parkinson’s disease who temporarily manage to recuperate their mobility thanks to some familiar tune that awakens the motor area of the brain. The same mechanism used to be implemented by peasants working the fields. Before the Industrial Revolution work was often wedded to song, the rhythm of labor was synchronized with the human breath cycle, or arouse out of the habits of hands and feet. As Murray Schafer claims, singing only ceased when the rhythms of men and machines got out of sync (1977).

Familiarity of the songs is important, as John Blacking, a pioneer in ethnomusicology confirms. Rhythm or timbre can make listeners “move to the beat” if they find some kind of excitement in it. Blacking says that music, as bodily stimulus, may portray motor impulse and/or nervous tension in the listener if the “ideal motion of music (i.e. its rhythm) and/or its tone-stress […] is perceived in relation to cultural experience” (1995: 38). That is to say, there must be some familiarity, some recognizable characteristics or simply some pleasant features in the music that trigger the listener into movement.

Rhythmicity is also important in binding people together as it turns listeners into participants and synchronizes the brains and minds of all who participate (Sacks, 2007).  Blacking adds that the “collective movements of musical performance can generate collective feelings and collective thought, which is the basis of cultural communication” (1995: 152). Therefore the initially physical experience can transform into an emotional experience, from one individual to another, communicating nothing less than pure emotion. Oliver Sacks asserts that the primary function of music is collective and communal in all societies; it binds people together and because of it, music has a crucial role in community making.


An individual’s musical preferences form part of his personal identity and may facilitate his belonging to a determined group if the values of the individual prove to be similar to those of the community. For Simon Frith, musical practices (be it listening or active music making) are processes in which identity is actively imagined, created or constructed. He insists that rather than coming from the inside; identity is something we “put or try on, not something we reveal or discover” (Frith, 1996: 122). This type of “identity testing” is especially recurrent in the earlier stages of life when intentional aesthetic and ethic decisions that construct self-image are delivered. Listening to a particular type of music is but one of the many preferences that define a person’s values and may help the individual pertain to a certain group.

Participating in conversations about the most recent musical findings and performances, assisting concerts and certainly playing in the same band are all ways in which music may create a shared community. Essentially, what defines a community is its values through which a sense of belonging is created. By sharing the same values and experiences, individuals empathize with one another and are likely to identify themselves with a determined group. Identities evolve from an individual to a group and back forth. As Frith put it: “Music, like identity[…]describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social” (1996: 109).

Sharing music and its multiple values can be done through analytical or emotional discussion, it can be shared through a mutual embodied experience of listening live or recorded music, and it can be actively shared in the act of making music together. Christopher Small coined the term musicking to introduce the idea of music as an activity rather than a still-standing aesthetic product.  “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing” (Small, 1988: 9). Following Alfred Schütz’s phenomenological approach, musicking can be defined as a social relationship that is established by “the reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together, by experiencing this togetherness as a “We”” (1951:96). Music is what people make it to be, its meaning lies in the relationships that are established in a time-space where the act takes place. Furthermore, music is not only about relationships that “actually exist in our lives as about those that we desire to exist and long to experience: relationships among people […] and also perhaps with ourselves and with our bodies[…]” (Small, 1988: 183).  Thus forth, in music lies a potential for what is yet to come, it can be the temporary realization of life as we would like it to be.


Therapeutic uses of music, music accompanying labor tasks and conforming individual and collective identities have shown this far that music has a purpose, it is not neutral, not even when used as Muzak –as background music to accompany purchasing or to create a relaxing meditational ambience. Music has a purpose, it is “more than a decorative art; […] it is a powerful medium of social order. Conceived in this way, and documented through empirical research, music’s presence is clearly political, in every sense that the political can be conceived,” (DeNora, 2000: 163). In her groundbreaking study of music in everyday life, DeNora develops a theory of music’s active role in the construction of social life and highlights the aesthetic dimension of social order and organization in modern societies. Focusing on the non-verbal aspects of music, the author explains that music may act as a clarifying material that serves as an index of conduct for matters as diverse as how to move, how to imagine one’s self-identity, how to mould one’s appearance, and how to think, feel and act.

If not always verbal, music has the power to express opinions, it can empirically manifest one’s ideas, or it can accompany, encourage and incite the expression of repressed feelings.  As Jacques Attali declares in his seminal book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, “Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future” (Attali, 1985: 11). Prophecy or not, there are plenty of examples of groundbreaking music, from Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971) that represented the elusive nature of political culture in Nixon’s America, to patriotic resistance songs, such as No Country Is Alone (Matiisen and Leesment, 1987) in Soviet Estonia.

Christopher Small’s thesis of musicking being both about existing relationships as well as about those that are yet to come can be expanded with the idea of prophecy, the idea of music as a container full of revolutionary potential, as a means of imagining an alternative world.  As other previously mentioned authors, Frith too underlines the importance of music in the construction of our sense of identity, time and sociability that situate us in imaginative cultural narratives (Frith, 1996). Music, as other forms of art, can be a way of dreaming, but also a way of portraying new realities, as DeNora says, music is a resource that provides affordances for world building (2000: 44).  Attali goes even further to assert that sound, whether constructed as music or noise, is the most important component in the construction of a community or other social entity (Attali, 1985). According to the author, all music or any organization of sound is a tool for the creation of consolidation of a community. Just as church bells used to mark the counting of time and summon villagers to mass, La Marseillaise was meant to mobilize and motivate the Frenchmen to fight for the patria; work songs synchronized the cutting of crops, capoeira was born as a secret martial arts practice among Brazilian slaves, and hip hop aimed to denounce injustice and show opposition to the urban transformation projects. What must be asked then is who is in control of the music? Whose interests does the consolidation of a community serve?


In a study of the nationalization of rap in Cuba, Geoffrey Baker asserts that “music-making can enable a community to generate rather than simply embody a different social order and a distinct set of moral values,” (2006: 225) further developing the idea of music representing a potential change. According to Baker, the collective practice of music is not only an ambiguous embodied experience, but one that can lead to actual deeds. This study focuses on how space can be changed through the practice of music. This far we have seen that musicking is about relationships that are established in the place where music making happens; therefore music also concerns the place where it happens. Consequently, musicking is not only about the existing and future relationships between persons, but also about the relationships that are established with the environment, with spaces that are dwelled through music and with places that appropriated through musical practice. Music is more than decorative art; rather, it is a medium of negotiating and transforming hierarchies of place and social order (Stokes, 1994; DeNora, 2000). It provides affordances for transforming space.


[1] The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985) is Sacks’ most famous book. One of the chapters is dedicated on the case of the British musicologist Clive Wearing who was left with a memory of a few seconds after suffering from herpes encephalitis.