What Are the Four Elements of Hip Hop?

Recording Connection mentor Ric Web and students Desiree Holiday and Brian Heath and Felix Frank collaborate on hip-hop event in NashvilleBorn in a South Bronx house party in the early 70s, Hip Hop is now a dominant force of nature in the music industry. Permeating almost every other popular genre, musical elements of hip hop and electronic dance music can be found in pop, rock, alternative, and even country-western songs.

For those who grew up during the birth of this powerful style of music, hip hop was much more than a genre of music, it was a way of life. Where folk music of the 60s had peace signs and free love and disco had illuminated floors and all-night parties, the original elements of hip hop included much more than the music.

Hip hop artists led the way for this musical revolution. Others, such as the Rock Steady Crew, became hip hop cultural icons for incorporating the b-boy street dance culture. Along with graffiti artists that turned subway cars into canvases in New York City, these became the four essential elements, the pillars, of hip hop championed by African American and Latin performers on either coast of the United States.

Element of Hip Hop #1: DJing

The DJs of today may start out using digital audio workstations to seamlessly blend hooks, samples, and beats. But the earliest hip-hoppers needed two turntables to create the seemingly unending breaks that signaled the b-boys and b-girls to the dance floor.

Although there seems to be some argument about who started the hip hop musical style, it’s believed DJ Kool Herc was the first to play nothing but breaks during his sets, sometimes using the same record on both turntables to create an endless loop.

Grandmaster Flash took this early notion and became technically proficient at moving between two records and creating new tracks from existing records. But matching two records down to each individual beat, he could move effortlessly between the two and build something entirely new.

Afrika Bambaataa brought the ability to use any genre of music to the hip hop scene, including funk, jazz, rock, and even some European influences. In the mid-70s, he began to introduce a new form of EDM, a subgenre that became known as techno.

Element of Hip Hop #2: MCing

Although Kool Herc may have been the first MC as it pertains to hip hop, he generally just spoke during transitions of his records. This was a callback to “toasting,” a technique he learned in his native Jamaica. These DJs rarely rhymed but talked during transitions to keep the energy high.

Where DJs were once the main focus of hip hop, MCs (short for master of ceremonies, although that term is rarely used) became front and center during the mid-80s and early 90s, often known as the Golden Age of hip hop.

MCs are judged on their flow, the rhythm and rhyme of their raps, and how it interacts with the music, samples, beats, and breaks behind them. There are several styles of flow, from the chant, the syncopated bounce, straight-forward, offbeat, and others.

Element of Hip Hop #3: Breaking

Almost as original as hip hop itself, breaking or breakdancing was a new way of expressing yourself through dance. A boombox, a piece of cardboard, track or parachute pants, and a New York or L.A. street corner were all you needed in the 70s and 80s to face off in a non-contact battle with others in the neighborhood.

This hip hop dance style is built from equal parts gymnastics, capoeira, and acrobatics, breaking is generally made up of four different dancing styles: toprock, downrock, power moves, and freezes. Toprock consists of fast footwork that shows off coordination, flexibility, and style and serves as the “warmup” before more acrobatic moves later in the dance.

Where toprock is usually performed standing up, down rock includes using hands on the floor as well. The foundation of any downrock move is the 6-step, a combination of fast-moving feet while using your hands for balance. The procession of toprock to downrock shows opponents your proficiency with dexterity and overall rhythm before launching into power moves.

Spins, swipes, headstands, windmills, and more are bedrocks of power moves, a combination of strength, coordination, and centrifugal force. As the name suggests, these are moves designed to strike fear in your opponent and awe the spectators. Freezes are sudden stops in the action and can be incorporated into spins, handstands, and top rock or down rock moves.

Element of Hip Hop #4: Graffiti

If DJs and MCs represent the sounds of hip hop and breaking represents the physical movement of hip hop, graffiti is the visual representation. While graffiti had been around well before the birth of hip hop, the genre of music fully embraced the artistic style of the urban artwork.

Graffiti is just as much about individuality as it is about rebellion and bringing a unique aesthetic to the forefront–the same aspects of rapping, DJing, and breaking. So how could they not be linked? Just like rapping was first rebuffed by the very mainstream audience it now dominates, the best graffiti artists or taggers are now celebrated for the art form.

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