Hip Hop Overview: 

If hip-hop culture has metastasized from its urban American roots into the global juggernaut it is today, then that's largely thanks to the insistent, irresistible appeal of rap: the most high profile of the three elements that comprise the movement. While "B-boying" and graffiti art have also found worldwide constituencies, rap's easily replicated "two turntables and a microphone" formula has had an enormous impact on our rapidly urbanizing world. From the favellas of Sao Paulo to the slums of Dar Es Salaam to the suburbs of Marseille to the high rises of Tokyo, rap is truly a global music.

But even this global phenomenon has local roots: rap grew up in the Bronx, the poorest, northernmost borough of New York City, in the 1970s and '80s. Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, transplanted his country's "soundsystem" tradition—huge banks of speakers rigged up to a DJ console for outdoor parties and "yard dances"—to the streets and playgrounds of the Bronx (often plugging directly into lampposts for free electricity). Herc spun R&B, soul, funk and obscure disco favorites, and used a popular Jamaican technique: playing the same record on two turntables and rewinding one to the most exciting part of the song (the "break") for extended play. Subsequent DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore would push this practice even further, introducing such techniques as "quick-mixing," "crossfading" and "scratching" into the hip-hop DJ's repertoire—an art form that would eventually become known simply as "turntablism."

The art of rapping—the intricate rhymes and rapid-fire wordplay—has an even longer history, with many tangled roots. Some claim that rap is an ancestral echo of the West African griot tradition and others say that it grew out of Jamaica's deejay and "toasting" traditions. But there are plenty of homegrown African-American antecedents, too. From the "Signifying Monkey" rhymes and verbal "dozens" contests of black American folklore, to the "pimp toasts" and "party records" of more recent vintage—and even the "Double Dutch" jump-rope rhymes—rhyme and performance have long been connected in African-American life. While there were more than a few rap "crews" rhyming over records at street and house parties in the Bronx in the early years of hip-hop, it was veteran funkateers the Fatback Band who first put the music on record with 1979's "King Tim III (Personality Jock)." That same year, the Sugarhill Gang, a group from New Jersey with little connection to the Bronx, scored rap's first chart success, when their classic "Rapper's Delight" cracked the Billboard Top 10. With that, rap was well on its way to becoming the worldwide phenomenon and multi-billion dollar industry it is today.

Internationally, hip-hop has emerged as the world's favorite youth culture. Thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, kids from Valparaiso to Vladivastock rock Sean-Jean and Roc-A-Wear clothes, while the relative merits of Biggie vs. Tupac are still a topic of intense debate in many languages. But while just about every country on the planet seems to have developed its own local rap scene, some places still manage to stand out above the rest. France, with its grim suburban housing projects and volatile postcolonial ethnic mix, was one of the first countries outside the US to boast a homegrown rap scene, with early '90s pioneers such as Senegalese immigrant MC Solaar and multiethnic Marseilles crew IAM gaining international exposure. The U.K. also produced some notable artists early on, including Money Love, Stereo MCs and Roots Manuva, but the scene quickly evolved according to its own rhythms, producing a dizzying array of micro-genres, from jungle to grime.

But rap's biggest international impact has been in Africa and the Caribbean, where local acts have adapted hip-hop's strut and swagger to fit their daily realities. In the Caribbean, rap has infiltrated all sorts of local styles, from timba to calypso (even spawning a new style called "rapso" in Trinidad). The Latin Caribbean has especially embraced the music, with rap en Espanol competing with reggaeton for young ears in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Even Fidel Castro has embraced rap as a suitably revolutionary artform, and Cuba has lent official sponsorship to more than one rap festival. Jamaica, too, has felt the impact of rap, as its own dancehall reggae has grown harder and slicker in emulation of its American cousin. In Africa, significant rap scenes have emerged in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, with artists as varied as Daara J, Pitch Black Afro and X-Plastaz breaking into the international market. But hip-hop is a force all over the continent, adopted as keenly as reggae and rumba once were by previous generations. Africa raps in a babel of local languages and the next great African rap star could come from anywhere between Cape Town and Cairo. —Tom Pryor

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Photo: Daara J

Daara J

Senegalese rappers Daara J combine rapid-fire Wolof-language rhymes with high energy showmanship, socially conscious lyrics and dancehall reggae thunder.
Photo: X Plastaz

X Plastaz
Maasai Hip Hop

X Plastaz have created a unique style that brings together local Maasai a cappella chants with rapping in Swahili and Haya languages.
Photo: Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal

Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal went from former child soldier to international music sensation thanks to his album Ceasefire.
Photo: Zola


Zola is a poet, actor and musician who has emerged as the superstar of South African kwaito.

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