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From beats to B-boys, fashion to flamboyance, the culture of hip-hop is an all-encompassing movement that reaches beyond the music
By Jenn Danko

If you love watching the latest music videos or swapping iPod playlists with your friends, chances are you also love some form of hip-hop music. Although many of the popular dance and radio tracks are influenced by hip-hop, the culture includes much more than music.

Aaron McMickle, a contributor of the book Profiles in Black: Phat Facts for Teens, describes hip-hop as a mix of music, rapping, fashion, art and political activism. “It came from a place where people felt they didn’t have a voice,” he says of early hip-hop, which was identified as both a musical genre and a cultural movement.

Today, hip-hop is still widely tied to music, but its cultural significance and political implications are less recognized. What are the movement’s origins and what kinds of messages are still carried with it today? How can the library help you discover the multi-faceted movement that is hip-hop?

Beginning Beats

Hip-hop grew out of the South Bronx area of New York City in the early 1970s. Many of the African-American youth living in the impoverished neighborhoods were frustrated with their standard of living and felt like second-class citizens. “The first ‘hip-hoppers’ vented these frustrations creatively in music, verbal, physical and visual artistic expression—what we now call hip-hop culture,” McMickle says.

The Four Pillars

Think hip-hop is all about the music? Think again. The movement encompasses four separate pillars, which include:

  • DJing (mixing records)
  • MCing (or rapping)
  • Break dancing
  • Tagging (graffiti or spray art)


The influencers of early hip-hop, DJs, B-boys and B-girls (or break dancers), graffiti artists and MCs, melded into one vibrant scene.

Just ask hip-hop historian Darryl Khalid, founder and choreographer of the hip-hop dance group Foot Klan and current holder of the “Mr. Soul Train” title for 2009. He says hip-hop’s flamboyant mix of fashion, creativity and dancing were once equally important as the music itself.

Hip-hop has always been about storytelling, he says. Often times, the pillar of dance would help communicate the particular line of the moment.

“Nowadays, an individual story is not being told as much,” says Khalid, noting that hip-hop has transgressed from an art movement into a commercial industry. “People move like robots and are not feeling independent with themselves. Everyone wants to copy everyone else and water down the energy.”

Movement of the Music

Hip-hop’s true energy can still be found in mediums of art, dance and by exploring the pioneers of the culture at your local library.

“The good thing is that many of the pioneers and legends are still here, and they are expanding the energy of their experiences to new audiences,” Khalid says.

Hip-hop legends such as Grandmaster Caz, Nelly Nel and Grandmaster Theodore all pioneered the early sounds of hip-hop; their influence can still be felt through more socially conscious rap artists, including Common, Talib Kweli and Blackstar .

When it comes to pioneers, there is perhaps no one more influential than DJ Kool Herc, who is credited with throwing the first hip-hop party in the streets of New York in 1973.

“The DJing, MCing, dancing, tagging, fashion—it all came together as one,” Khalid says.

But nearly 40 years after the first parties started, he says many who still embrace hip-hop have forgotten about its cultural mission of promoting individuality and resilience.

“Hip-hop is not just about the dance party,” he says. “It’s also about the action taken after the dance is done.”

Can’t stop getting enough hip-hop? Check out these book, music and movie selections to learn more about the culture at your local library.

Recommended Resources


Profiles in Black: Phat Facts for Teens
By Marvin A. McMickle
Hip-hop culture finds a historical context in Profiles in Black, a chronological survey that tells about the stories of some of the most influential faces in black America. Through illustrations, famous quotes and “Phat Facts,” you learn about everyone from the first African slaves and first black professional athletes, to today’s most recognizable faces in pop culture.

Hip-Hop High School
By Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Bright and ambitious, the beautiful Tee-Ay tries to play by the social rules on her journey through high school. With a narrative that spans from 10th grade to graduation, Hip Hop High School puts the culture in the context of classrooms and hallways.

Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement
By S. Craig Watkins
Watkins takes a more critical look at the culture of hip-hop, championing the efforts of “conscious rap,” which he says can champion and revolutionize teens. The book is a far-reaching study of hip-hop culture and the power of its reach.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation By Jeff Chang
Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang puts the music of hip-hop in the context of the streets, showing how the culture came from the Bronx in the 1970s. The vivid narrative features first-person accounts from some of hip-hop’s most historic voices as well as modern rappers, tying the culture together in one historic fold.


Black Star
By Talib Kweli, Mos Def & Blackstar
The hip-hop trifecta of Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Blackstar team up on this mature release of hip-hop in some of its finest and most modern forms.

By Talib Kweli
Widely considered as one of the most talented and thought-provoking voices in the conscious rap realm, Talib Kweli brings the origins of hip-hop back to the forefront.

Finding Forever
By Common
A heralded, multi-faceted hip-hop artist, Common brings a tougher edge to the conventional forms of music, echoing the early days of 1970s New York.


Wild Style
Directed by Charlie Ahearn w/ Fab Five Freddy
This underground hit movie from 1983 ties classic hip-hop music performances by Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, Busy Bee Starski and the Rock Steady Crew with the artistic influences of graffiti, breaking, DJin and MCing.

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