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.






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