What is Hip-Hop?

Hip hop is more than a genre: it’s a cultural movement sweeping up music, poetry, dance, art, fashion, and political philosophy. A lot of people use rap and hip-hop synonymously, but strictly speaking hip-hop is a cultural movement (including music), whereas rap is a specific musical technique often employed in hip-hop music.

According to hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata, there are four pillars of hip-hop:

  • Rapping (or MCing) is a vocal style that uses rhythm and lyrics, but typically doesn’t have a melody. It’s less like singing (which by definition carries a melody) and more like reciting poetry over a backbeat. In fact, the term “rapping” comes from a 1970s slang term for “talking” – anyone talking, reciting a poem, or giving a speech could be described as “rapping.” As hip-hop culture blossomed, the word “rap” took on its narrower definition. Today, rapping is a distinctive feature of most (but not all) hip-hop music.
  • Turntablism (or DJing) is a way of making music with a turntable. Using records produced by other artists, a DJ creates mixes, combines sounds, and manipulates the music to create something new. Historically, this involved physically interfering with the machinery of the turntable, speeding it up or slowing it down to change the sound as it played. These days, DJs use digital tools to create a similar kind of sound.
  • Breakdancing (or BBoy/BGirling) is an acrobatic and physically demanding style of dance that only a few performers have mastered (example). Breakdancing was a central feature of hip-hop culture from its inception, but because it’s so difficult to learn it hasn’t gained the same mainstream popularity as other aspects of hip-hop.
  • Street art (or graffiti) is visual art typically made using spray paint and a lively, hectic visual style. Not all graffiti is associated with hip-hop culture, of course, but the hip-hop movement developed a unique graffiti style that’s instantly recognizable.


Musical Features of Hip-Hop

The central feature of much hip-hop is the interplay between the rapper and the beat. Beats are usually made from electronic instruments or samples of older recordings – hip-hop artists typically don’t play physical instruments during their performances. The creativity comes from finding ways to weave different beats and melodies together to get the right sound.

Hip-hop beats range from sparse and relaxed:

Free J Cole Type Beat - "Morning Sun"

To harsh and dark:


But they all have a driving, steady beat and (most of the time) a minimal amount of musical complexity so as not to distract from the main event: the rapper.

Rap is one of the most distinctive features of hip-hop. Rappers use rhythm, lyrics, and vocal tone to express themselves. The best rappers are distinguished by their “flow” – the way the words run together without the performer getting tongue-tied. Rappers also vary the sound of their voice, using harsh shouts or smooth flourishes depending on the creative needs of the song.

The secret to good rap is more than just music – to understand how it works, you really have to understand poetry and rhetoric. Great rappers use poetic techniques like internal rhymme, meter, and double entendre widely in their music. Rap fans hang on every word, attentively analyzing the lyrical content even as they bump along to the beat.


Subgenres and Examples

a. Classic Hip-Hop/East Coast Hip-Hop (1970s-1980s)

Grandmaster Flash – The Message

Grandmaster Flash The Message HQ

Hip-Hop was born in New York in the late 1970s as a youth movement. Its core musical ideas, especially rapping, came out of funk, R&B, and early electronic music. Lyrically, it focused on social issues – this is still an important theme in modern hip-hop, especially the “conscious” movement. (Even though mainstream hip-hop in the 1990s and 2000s switched toward more ego-centric themes like money, cars, and lifestyle.)

The vocal style in classic hip-hop is much simpler and more repetitive than in modern hip-hop. Notice how Grandmaster Flash uses a constant, steady beat and tone in his voice, rather than switching things around in each verse. In musical terms, this is known as staccato.

Important Artists

  • Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
  • Afrika Bambaata
  • Run-DMC
  • Doug E Fresh


b. West Coast Hip-Hop

Snoop Dogg – Gin & Juice

Snoop Dogg - Gin & Juice

Hip-hop originated in New York, and to this day the majority of rappers originate on the East Coast, especially New York. But there have always been a handful of hip-hop innovators from the West Coast – great MC’s like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. West coast hip-hop has a looser feel overall, and the lyrics tend to be harsher and more confrontational. The Los Angeles rap group NWA sparked controversy with their aggressive lyrics, reflective of the harsh world that gave birth to rap in the first place.

Other west coast artists played a major role in bringing commercial success to hip-hop. In Snoop’s mega-hit “Gin & Juice” (1994) you can hear the transition from classic hip-hop to a more modern style. Notice the way Snoop is using his voice – rather than the percussive staccato sound of Grandmaster Flash, Snoop has a more fluid and rhythmically varied style of rapping. He also uses a melodic “hook,” a major musical trope of pop music. The song has a well-defined chorus where he sings (“Rollin’ down the street…”) instead of rapping. This kind of song structure was important in bringing hip-hop to mainstream popularity.

c. Trap

Desiigner – Panda

Trap is a heavy, brutally melodic subgenre of hip-hop rising out of the South. Its name refers to “trap houses,” or run-down buildings where addicts buy and use drugs (feeding the “trap” of drug addiction). Trap has a slow-burn feel with heavy bass and broad use of minor key sounds.

Trap has surged in popularity in the last few years as more and more artists have mixed its brooding melodies with the frenetic energy of electronic dance music (EDM). Trap-EDM, as its known, is a growing genre of hip-hop. Many of its songs are instrumental, just an electronic beat and melody without a human vocalist – so unlike most subgenres of hip-hop, it isn’t always based on rapping!

Important Artists

  • Waka Flocka Flame
  • Future
  • Desiigner
  • CryJaxx