A Beginner's Guide to Hip-hop: Background information when reading Losing My Cool

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Losing My Cool

How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture

by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2010, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 240 pages

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Beyond the Book:
A Beginner's Guide to Hip-hop

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Hip hop, as a cultural movement, had its origins in the New York City Bronx in the 1970s, mostly among African Americans, with some Jamaican and Latin American influences.

Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins (of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) is often credited with coining the term hip hop in 1978 while teasing a friend who had just joined the army by singing the words "hip/hop/hip/hop" in a way that mimicked the rhythmic cadence of marching soldiers. The name was originally meant as a sign of disrespect, but soon came to identify this new music and culture.

What started as an underground style has become commercialized in the USA and, to varying extents, across the world.

The four traditional pillars of hip hop:

Rapping is performed by an MC (emcee, mic controller). The tradition of spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics with a strong rhythmic accompaniment, traces back to the West African griots (wandering musicians/poets considered a repository of oral tradition). The term rap is often used synonymously with hip hop, but hip hop also refers to the entire subculture. As rapper and main songwriter for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melvin Glover (Grandmaster Melle Mel) was one of the first (possibly the first) to introduce socio-political content and creative wordplay to his raps.





DJing: A hip hop disc jockey selects and plays music using multiple turntables, often to back up one or more MCs. Jamaican-born Clive Campbell (b.1955), better known as DJ Kool Herc, is credited with originating hip hop music (and for being one of the first rap artists):



Breakdancing, also known as b-boying, includes four primary moves:
Toprock: Steps performed from a standing position.
Downrock: Movements supported by hands and feet.
Power moves: Acrobatic moves, many borrowed from gymnastics.
Freeze/suicides: Freezes and suicides emphasize a strong beat in the music; in a freeze, breakers use upper body strength to suspend themselves off the ground in a controlled pose; while suicides draw attention to the motion of falling, giving the appearance that the dancer has lost control, and usually signalling the end of a routine.

One of the earliest b-boying crews was the Rock Steady Crew established in the Bronx in 1979. This is a relatively early video of the Crew:




untitled by J-M BasquiatGraffiti art: The relationship between graffiti and the hip hop culture appears to have arisen because modern graffiti, as an art form, was developing at the same time and place as the other elements of hip hop, and thus many of the early artists were involved in multiple aspects of the emerging culture. By the mid-80s, grafitti art was beginning to move from the streets to art galleries. Today, apparently, the connection between hip hop and graffiti is not as strong as it was. Brooklyn born Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was one of the first grafitti artists to achieve commercial success. To the right is one of his works.

This article was originally published in May 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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