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The Origins of Hip Hop

Updated on June 30, 2012

Hip Hop as a Social Movement

Today, most people do not think of hip hop as a social movement. Instead, it is commonly misunderstood as just another sub-culture for urban youth that became popularized in the early 1980’s. However, hip hop was originally a social movement that revolved around a culture of protest and freedom of expression. Sociologists Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper define a social movement as “conscious, concerted, and sustained efforts by ordinary people to change some aspect of their society by using extra-institutional means."

Kool Herc

The Bronx
The Bronx | Source

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Kool Herc and the Beginning of Hip Hop

In the early 1970's, a Jamaican disc jockey known asKool Herc moved from Kingston to the South Bronx borough in New York City. Here, he attempted to incorporate his Jamaican style of disc jockeying, which involved reciting improvised rhymes over the dub versions of his reggae records. Unfortunately, New Yorkers were not, at first, very responsive to the reggae genre. Thus, Kool Herc adapted his style by chanting over the instrumental or percussion sections of funk records. Because these breaks were relatively short, he learned to extend them indefinitely by using an audio mixer and two identical records, in which, he continuously replaced the desired segment.

As the legend goes, Herc and other disc jockeys would illegally tap into the power lines to connect their equipment and perform in abandoned buildings and basketball courts. During the 1970’s, most of the original hip hop musicians lived in poverty-ridden areas of the South Bronx. Several factors contributed to the decay in this borough of New York City, such as white flight, landlord abandonment, and a major shift in economic demographics. Hip hop music became extremely popular in this neighborhood because it was an art form accessible to anyone, regardless of wealth or status. More importantly, its message offered young, disadvantaged, New Yorkers a chance to freely express themselves during a period of significant economic hardships.

Rza of the Wu Tang Clan
Rza of the Wu Tang Clan | Source
The Koran in a British Museum
The Koran in a British Museum | Source

Islam and Hip Hop

At the same time, pamphlet teachings of an Islamic organization called the Nation of Gods and Earths began to circulate widely through African-American neighborhoods in the South Bronx. The N.G.E were the next generation of the Nation of Islam, whose teachings had shaped leaders in the African-American community like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The newer school was initially founded in 1964, by a Harlem student minister known as Clarence 13X, who was referred to as “the father.” Clarence 13X was looking for a quicker and more powerful way to bring those teachings directly to America’s black youth, so he condensed the Nation’s Lost-Found Lessons into a philosophical core called the 120, which formed the basis of the Lessons taught by the Five Percent Nation in New York.

The Nation of Gods and Earths provided spiritual and scientific lessons in order to help young, disadvantaged, African-Americans understand their relationship to the universe. The RZA, a hip hop founder and elder member of the N.G.E, wrote in his autobiography, The Tao of Wu, that:

The [N.G.E.’s] method of instruction has power of its own. When the father brought these lessons to lost and confused young black men like me, he was promising a transformation that the lessons actually provide. The fact is, if you get through the rigors of study with the Gods, you truly are a different person.

This quote is important because it identifies that religious education was a tool of empowerment for the poor, black youth of the hip hop generation. Furthermore, the quote suggests that lost and confused inner-city youth collectively identified with one another as being part of the same struggle. Goodwin and Jasper write that this “feeling of being part of a broader group can be exhilarating, providing a major incentive for collective action”. Without the system of learning put in place by the Nation of Gods and Earth, the hip hop movement would not have been able to effectively organize, protest, and change many aspects of their daily life through music.

Hip Hop Today

Flo Rida: A great example of today's "hip hop" music (more appropriately known as "rap").  He and his music is full of references to wealth, money and riches.
Flo Rida: A great example of today's "hip hop" music (more appropriately known as "rap"). He and his music is full of references to wealth, money and riches. | Source

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Unfortunately, most people still do not think of hip hop as a social movement. This is, in part, due its commoditization over the past two decades by American media. Commercial rap, a form of music that stemmed from hip hop culture, began to romanticize the dangerous and drug-fueled life within the ghetto. This was a fundamental shift in the original values of the hip hop community and movement, which always had protested the atrocious social living conditions of inner-city youth in New York.

However, hip hop was originally a social movement that revolved around a culture of protest and freedom of expression. It was a response to historic oppression and racism, as well as, an educated system for communication among black communities throughout America. Furthermore, the Nations of Gods and Earths were crucial to the empowerment and intellectual development of the founders of the hip hop movement in New York City. While the state of the hip hop movement in today’s society is in rapid decline, it is not too late to restore it back to its original values and messages.


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    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 

      7 years ago from California, United States of America

      One of my favorite subjects. I first started listening to Hip Hop music back in the early 80s and I've seen it go through changes. Definitely always was an undercurrent of social and political issues in Hip Hop; Melle Mel's ferocious delivery of politically charged lyrics, KRS and his philosophical and social commentary, and Public Enemy's up in the face of the establishment with their digging under the skin artistic noise. I like your run down of the history and culture of Hip Hop. Great article.

    • brittanytodd profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Kennedy 

      7 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you so much, Rebecca! A lot of people know hip hop is a genre, but it truly is one of the most artistic social movements and I believe that it was a great way to get others to listen. Thanks again for reading and for your comment!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is very interesting information. I have always considered Hip Hop as a genre of music. You did a great job of explaining it as a social movement. Fantastic idea to write about!

    • brittanytodd profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Kennedy 

      7 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Alecia, thank you so much for your comment. The new Kanye and Jay Z reminds me of their old stuff (not that 808 Heartbreak nonsense). Thanks again for reading and for your insightful comment. Have a great day.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      7 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I think Hip Hop as great as it was in the golden era-the exposure received in the golden age of MTV was almost a death knell to its creativity and innovation.

      I was born right before the golden year of hip-hop (1988) but I relate better to that then what we have now. I do like some music by Jay-Z and Kanye West but even their music really is a base for pop hooks than actual raw social commentary. But I guess they had to change for the times- maybe we'll get back to what made it great.

      Excellent hub!

    • brittanytodd profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Kennedy 

      7 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Mundane, I totally get it. I don't like his stuff either (which is why I used his photo as a symbol of materialism.) I'll check out your blogs. Thanks again!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I do apologize if i was too blunt, i can't stand Flo Rida, mainly cause i dont know what he is lol

      hey if you don't know check out some of my blogs later i'll be writing some on hip hop just haven't gotten to it .. Public Enemy ? good choice --that line about Elvis was "hard"

    • brittanytodd profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Kennedy 

      7 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thanks for your comment, MundaneMondays. I was using Flo Rida as an example of how "hip hop" today is not really based on hip hop's origins. I love Slum Village and Tribe Called Quest, along with kings like Public Enemy that had lyrics that were based solely on class conflict. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Mahalo.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Flo Rida is a great example of hip hop ? really ?.... I'm sorry i just had to say that .....O.k..... Brittany, this is a great hub-- It pays to know how the "mecca" started--I really appreciate the part about the Nation of Islam, I used to be from the 5 percent nation--It plays a huge part in hip hop --I'm into the "lyrical" side of hip hop, I'm 26 and i have an appreciation for the old rappers more than the new. I also dig the "lyrical" quality of rap, it's an art that shouldn't be obstructed---more importantly-- some fail to realize everything now this day in age is hip hop..they're is a difference between an MC and a Rapper.

      I love guys Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Nas--Slum Village, that give a good message you know ? positive lyrics that uphold the "real" side of hip hop instead of all this "POP" music that's killing it, the origins are the foundation--thank you this was truly inspiring

    • brittanytodd profile imageAUTHOR

      Brittany Kennedy 

      7 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      I will! How cool, mosaicman. I was born around that time, but still am fond of the original hip hop artists and the meaning of hip hop itself. Not what we hear on the radio nowadays. Thanks for your comment and I can't wait to check out your hubs! Peace, Britt

    • mosaicman profile image


      7 years ago from Tampa Bay, Fl

      I grew up in the golden age of hip hop 88-93. I remember when Biggie and others began to resurrect it in 95. There was always a social message that connected the music to us the listeners. We identified with Hip Hop, we lived Hip Hop. Maybe it is because I'm getting older, or that they aren't saying much right now, but I am not paying them any attention at the moment. I am digging deeper and deeper into the House Music that was out when I was in high school and college.

      I have a couple of cool hubs on Hip Hop, check them out and tell me what you think,




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