Hip hop is everywhere today, but sometimes we forget to talk about where it comes from and why. African and African Diaspora Studies scholar La’Kayla Williams joins us to discuss how Black musicians continue to build on hip hop’s powerful foundation and helps us understand the importance of speaking up about the negative messages that sometimes come out of hip hop. Hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm show us how we can use rap and hip hop to use our voices powerfully and creatively.

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*Riders Against the Storm (RAS) performs one minute of music*

Cristina Saltos (CS): Hello and welcome to the third episode of Reflective Rhythms! I’m Cristina Saltos, I’m a musicologist, which means I study how humans make music, why humans make music, and how human music-making has changed over time. We’ve just had the amazing pleasure of hearing Chaka and Qi Dada who make up the illustrious Riders Against the Storm. Welcome!  

RAS: Wassup, wassup, wassup!

CS: We are so excited to have you here today. Chaka and Qi Dada are also living in Austin where we are recording and they are having an event this weekend.

Qi Dada (QD): Yes, this weekend—February 8th—we’re celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Body Rock ATX which Chaka and I have hosted with our homie DJ Chorizo Funk.

Chaka (C): Yes, yes.

CS: Doing amazing things for the Austin community with music. We also have someone else who studies music here today, a colleague of mine from African and African Diaspora Studies La’Kayla Williams. La’Kayla, welcome to the show!

La’Kayla Williams (LW): Thank you so much Cristina! I appreciate you having me.

CS: I am excited we’re all here today together. Today, RAS and La’Kayla and I are going to learn a little bit about the origins and evolution of hip hop. Before we really dig in, I have an important fact we need to talk about. You may know this, you may not know this, but its that hip hop is both a culture and a type of music. A *sound effect* culture is a set of ideas, values, beliefs, and practices that unite a group of people. Hip hop culture was created through dialogues (or discussions) between four distinct elements: breakdancing, which is a style of dance that incorporates breaking with the rhythms in the music with imitation, spins, backflips, and poses; graffiti, an artform that emphasizes creating art in forbidden places through the use of materials like markers and spray paint; DJing, which is a practice of using turntables (or record players) and a mixer to create music; and rap, which is a practice of rhyming over the music. Because this podcast focuses on music, we’re going to be concentrating on DJing and rap today. If you’d like to see some examples of breakdancing and graffiti, you can find them on the website.

To understand how hip hop came to be, we need to talk about what was going on in New York City in the 1970s. During this time the city was having a lot of trouble with money and changing from being a manufacturing city, which means that they made and shipped things, to being a technology focused city  that didn’t require these skills. A lot of Black and Latinx (particularly Puerto Rican) folks relied on and trained for manufacturing jobs, making it hard for them to find work once the city began to change. Things were made worse by the fact that there wasn’t a lot of housing that people could afford. Many Black and Latinx people were also displaced due to city initiatives that benefitted wealthy and White folks. This displacement led to lots of African-American, Caribbean-American, and Latinx folks living in the South Bronx, the area of New York City that hip hop developed.

Hip hop emerged as a way for young people living in the South Bronx to talk about the realities of their lives, reflecting and going against New York City culture. Scholar Tricia Rose has found that all four elements of hip hop did this by flow, layering, and rupture. Flow refers not only to the rhythmic movement of the music and dancing, but to the ways in which folks in the South Bronx navigated the difficulties of their lives. Layering refers to the ways in which hip hop musicians and visual artists add things on top of one another to create new ideas and messages. Rupture, or breaks, refers to how musicians, dancers, and artists abruptly stop the flow in their music, mirroring how they often stop doing things in real life in order to anticipate hardships. Hmm, I have a question though, maybe you can help me La’Kayla. How do these things manifest in sound?

LW: Well, DJs incorporated all of these ideas into their work. In fact, DJs actually came before rappers! DJs started out providing the music for dancers at neighborhood block parties and rent parties, playing records on devices called turntables (which are record players) and mixing them through the use of mixers. One of the most famous DJs is DJ Kool Herc, a man who immigrated to the United States as a young boy from Jamaica. DJ Kool Herc is famous because he created breakbeats, long instrumental sections that loop the best rhythmic parts of a song. These breakbeats were great for dancers, who could then dance over these highly rhythmic sections. Many of the breakbeats used samples, which are selections from other songs. DJ Kool Herc sampled from a variety of sources including rock, jazz, and funk to create unique breakbeats. Using the mixer to blend different samples, DJ Kool Herc was able to create totally new sounds.

Another DJ who helped solidify the sound of hip hop is Grandmaster Flash. Grandmaster Flash made the practice of scratching popular. Scratching is when you rub a record back in forth in a groove while a record plays on another turntable. He also created the backspin, which allowed a DJ to repeat a section on a record by quickly spinning the record backward with their hand. We’ve included some examples on the website if you’d like to learn these cool skills!

Rappers, also known as MCs (which is short for master of ceremonies) were actually originally hired to hype up the crowd for DJs. Rappers then and today were known for being amazing storytellers. Rappers would go onstage not only to help with the crowd, but to tell stories about their lives and experiences. What makes rappers special is not only what they say but how they perform. Rappers are often praised for use of complex rhythms, flow (which refers to how you declaim something), and how they reference and dialogue with other songs, ideas, and events, known as intertextuality. Scholars have connected rapper’s amazing storytelling skills to other Black musical and cultural traditions including toasts (African-American tradition that celebrates telling incredible stories of bravery and cleverness) and soul raps. Rappers are also praised for how well they work with the music, going with it and working against it to shape a song. The way rappers use words and music together is what makes their tradition unique and special.

CS: There’s also something else I found in my *sound effect* research—are you ready? A big thing that helped with the creation of hip hop music was *sound effect* new technologies. Hip hop artists began experimenting with *sound effect* samplers, which are machines that can record any sound and play it back higher or lower and put it back in a new order—very cool. Hip hop artists sampled all kinds of things, from the sounds of city life (like the rumbling of a truck) to the music of James Brown. Musicians also used *sound effect* drum machines to help them create new beats. Samplers and drum machines helped and continue to help hip hop artists create samples and beats and arrange them in new and creative ways. Sometimes they even layer sounds on top of each other to create something totally new! Scholars have also linked this practice of layering sounds originally created by someone else to the Jamaican tradition of versioning, which is a practice of taking another person’s melody and making it your own. Hip hop is amazing because it combines technology with influences from many different Black musical traditions.

Wow! I’ve learned so much from this research and had no idea hip hop has such a rich and varied history. But I have a question—how did it become so famous?

LW: The 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang introduced the term hip hop and the genre to the world. It also made rappers, not DJs, the star of the show. Many famous hip hop artists around the country credit this song as their introduction to hip hop.   

CS: Oh, it all makes sense now! That’s why we have many different styles of hip hop not only in the United States, but around the world. I have another question for you La’Kayla. Early hip hop artists used hip hop to talk about their lives and build community. Have you found in the wonderful research that you do that people are still doing that?

LW: Oh absolutely Cristina. My works talks about Solange from Houston—

CS: *Gasps* I know her!

LW: Yes, who is not a hip hop artist but uses hip hop in her music and uses the influences, as well as Earth Gang from Atlanta. And I’m researching the ways these artists create music that connects with the spiritual traditions of Black people in the United States. 

CS: Wow, that’s amazing! There are, however, some things in hip hop that we should look out for though. The important thing to understand about hip hop is that it is a form of expression created as a response to racism. Issues like job and housing discrimination, and other issues the Black community were facing, caused many of the people we spoke about earlier to create something special. Unfortunately, part of the experience that hip hop comes from shows up in lyrics and videos that are harmful to Black women and others in the Black community. It is an important and valuable thing to express yourself, but its important to notice the things in our culture we want to make better. So, La’Kayla, what can we love hip hop and work to make it better?

LW: Of course! Scholar Tricia Rose tells us that to love something means to also talk about what’s not okay and ask for positive change.

CS: Kind of like when my mom tells me she loves me, but I should learn to be responsible and clean my room?

LW: Exactly. She also talks about how each and every one of us can contribute to changing hip hop for the better by talking about and working to change the systems that hurt Black people, and modelling what we want through our own behavior. This can include researching hip hop artists that make music that is uplifting and sharing it with our friends and loved ones—like RAS. Or, if you love music, you yourself can make the kind of music you want others to hear.

CS: That’s great advice, thank you! We can all do things to not only change hip hop, but to advocate for a better life for everyone both in and outside of our own communities. Part of this is being creative with our voices. We have a very special treat today—RAS is going to teach us how to do our rhymes and be creative. Where should we start? You can all help us at home if we’re listening!

QD: Yeah, this is going to be a pretty simple exercise. It’s one a kind of feel like you do on a regular basis. It’s simple, we’re just gonna have a beat, I’m going to put out one word and you rhyme the next word—but you have to keep it on beat. It kind of goes back to nursery rhymes. I don’t know if you’ve every played a game called “Eighty-Five Hands Down,” where you can’t hesitate and you have to say the next thing that come to you and it has to be on topic. This doesn’t have to be on topic, it’s more free form. But if I’m going to rhyme a word, you rhyme a word, you rhyme a word…right Chaka?

C: We’re gonna go around in a circle?

QD: Yeah we’re gonna go around the circle. As per proper hip hop etiquette as in the cipher.

CS: Ohh. And a question too, for our kids at home—when you’re making up rhymes, what are some things you’re thinking about?

QD: Nothing

CS: Nothing?

QD: Mmm-hmm, when you’re in a circle like this it’s best not to think too much. But if you’re writing a song, you’ll start with a subject matter or a you’ll start with a feeling. And you’ll see what that feeling wants to explore. And you let yourself be honest with what you’re feeling, whatever that is. It can even not be so nice *laughs*, yeah.

C: Yeah, it all comes from feeling. I feel like—you know? You just want to see what you’re feeling today and just try to write something about it. And sometimes it turns into a song and sometimes that’s just practice for your next rhyme. But it’s always good if you want to get into being a rapper just to write how you’re feeling. And if you can start to do that, you can start turning it into a rhyme if you want to. The key is if you can every day just to write how you’re feeling. What happened today? How am I feeling? You know? Just write a few paragraphs or a paragraph. And then you can turn that into a rhyme if you wanna have fun with it.

CS: Wow what great advice!

C: Yeah

CS: Okay, we’re ready, should we with the beat?

QD: Yes. *Beat starts* We’re going to put out a word. I’m going to go to the right and start with Chaka, that means you’re next Cristina. All right here’s the word—simple word—can

Can

Ban

Anne

Ran

Stan

Man

Land

Van

Comprehend

Scan

This is harder than I thought! Ok, I have to come up with a word? Car

Bar

Star

Jar

This is hard! It’s okay to make mistakes everyone! We’re gonna keep going

QD: Exactly, that’s how you get to it! Start with another word

Jam

Pam

Plan

Lamb

Slam

Fam

Scan

Did you say fam already? I’m having trouble hearing words over here.

CS: That’s good! Can we do one more?

Chaka and Qi: yeah

CS: And if you’re home, you can try this at home with your friends and see what you come up with

QD: Exactly

C: Is my turn to start? Light

CS: Might

LW; Fight

QD: Mike

C: Bright

CS: Slight

LW: Height

QD: Hype

C: Type

CS: Ripe

LW: Kite

QD: Skype

C: Sight

CS: Right

LW: Light

QD: Trite

 *Laughter*

QD: That was a good round!

CS: That was a good round!  RAS thank you so much for helping us use our voices creatively today and La’Kayla for sharing with us all your amazing knowledge

LW: Thank you so much for having me, this was so much fun!

CS: Yes! Remember that your words are powerful and that you can use them anyway you want to—but we hope you use them for good, If you have more questions about hip hop, let me know via the website and we can explore them together next season. Also if you’d like to know more about RAS you can find them on social media at RAShiphop. We’d also to take this opportunity to thank the UT Austin Rainwater Innovation Grant and the UT Austin Fine Arts Diversity Committee for their financial support throughout this project. We’d also like to thank you for hanging out with us this season and exploring music with us. We’ll see you next time!

LW: Bye-bye

Works Cited

Learn More about Cited Works

Hebdige, Dick. Cut `n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge, 1987.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.         Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

—————. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters. New York; BasicCivitas, 2008.

Miyakawa, Felicia M. “Hip hop.” In Grove Music Online, 2012. Accessed February 2, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2224578

Peel, Ian. “DJ [Disc Jockey].” In Grove Music Online, 2014. Accessed February 2, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2256356

Saloy, Mona Lisa. “The African American Toast Tradition.” Folklife in Louisiana. Accessed February 1, 2020. http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_toast_tradition.html

Toop, David, revised by Charise Cheney and Loren Kajikawa. “Rap.” In Grove Music Online, 2013. Accessed February 2, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.   A2225387

A special thank you to ZapSplat for our sound effects.