Meet the Beat

Hip-hop's here. Deal with it. Check the local MCs and DJs moving up from the underground.

Rap originated in New York City in the late '70s, the result of a collision of cultures and a few mastermind DJs who took their experiences with Jamaican sound systems and put them on the streets of the Bronx. They'd set up massive stereo systems in parks or on streets and pump out the music, almost immediately starting a party. "A synergy between disco mixing, dub sounds, and toasting," writes Nelson George in his recent history of the genre, Hip Hop America, "would ultimately provide the techniques and sensibilities that allowed the birth of 'hip-hop.'" Add to the left hand that is the DJ the right hand of the MC (for master of ceremonies), whose original job was to verbally pump up the partiers, and the basic blueprint for rap was born.

This blueprint has remained strong since its inception and acts as the spine that holds an entire culture together. Alongside the DJs and MCs, graffiti artists and break-dancers ("the fours pillars of hip-hop," says Finsta of the Ruckus Crew) added visual stimulation for creative minds not interested in making music or writing rhymes, and those interested in the DJing and rapping have a wide spectrum of styles from which to draw.

In 1999, several strains of the music fight for supremacy on the charts, each appealing to different audiences. First you've got your Southern rap, with the bass-heavy swing and satellite high-hat and snare patterns to provide some texture. Chances are, if a car drives by and rattles your windows, the music being played is by the king of the Southern style -- specifically, New Orleans -- Master P. (He's the most mentioned individual in hip-hop these days, mainly because his New Orleans-based label, No Limit, has set the nation on fire with his sound while remaining completely independent of the major label system.) Or perhaps you're hearing one of two of the Southern style's ancestors. Miami bass is the darkest, rawest form of the music -- nearly all bass and rhythmically simplistic; if you're hearing bass music, there's a good chance you're hearing DJ Magic Mike. West Coast gangsta rap has stretched away from its late-'80s/early-'90s LA roots and gone nationwide. At its core, though, is the music of N.W.A. (an acronym for Niggaz wit' Attitude), one of the most influential crews (white-bread glossary: a crew is like a band, not like a gang) in the history of hip-hop. They defined the rough, streetwise sound of LA with their landmark Straight Outta Compton (containing the notorious anthem aimed at LA's finest, "Fuck tha Police"). The music and rhymes were hard, raw invectives aimed at illustrating the reality of the criminal-minded. The result set the tone for the next 10 years and continues to make its presence known.

New York City, though, continues to be ground zero -- the be-all and end-all -- for the hip-hop heads and DJs. For the collector, the record geek, the "sophisticated shopper," nothing tops NYC. Since the rise of hip-hop, New York has been the critics' darling. From the music's inception, this has been the case: Among those who have emerged from the competitive and innovative New York scene are Boogie Down Productions, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Wu-Tang Clan.

Of these distinct sounds and subgenres, the breakout of gangsta sounds in the early '90s served to introduce hip-hop to suburbia. The music's dark illustrations caused the mainstream media to panic and cluelessly portray the gangsta style as the sound of rap in general, in the process igniting a firestorm of conservative criticism. The rise of gangsta rap was a landmark event in the history of hip-hop, serving notice that the music was not a passing fad but a whole new youth movement that appealed equally to white suburban kids and inner-city blacks. And its unfamiliarity was indeed threatening to many.

In this sense, the rise of hip-hop mirrored another youth movement that sounded warning bells in the suburbs and polarized generations: rock & roll. "It's sort of the bastard child of a lot of the music forms that exist right now," says Darren Owens, a.k.a. DJ Add Verb Superb of the group In Limbo. "It's treated much the same way that a lot of, say, suburban households (in the '50s) responded to an Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry or Little Richard. There was too much hip-shaking for that era. In hip-hop, we're not trying to take from you -- we're incorporating to make a new genre of music."

This "incorporating" has been criticized both as outright theft and as the sign of a dearth of creativity, both of which stem from the music's use of sampling and melodic quotes. But it's important to look at the big picture: The history of music is the history of artistic license, "borrowing" ideas and outright theft. There are no new melodies; they're all used up. Of course, you can spin melodies and ideas in new directions, because every creative mind is different, and how one uses the music given will obviously shape the resulting sounds. The best way for an outsider to come to at least appreciate the nuances of hip-hop is to look at it alongside another American music, folk. Folk music -- be it the country blues of Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt, the blue-collar folk of Woody Guthrie or the revival music of early Bob Dylan -- made no bones about stealing melodies, lyrical lines and entire songs. But it wasn't considered stealing; it was an understood component of the music. Two completely different songs, once stripped of their lyrics, reveal themselves to be identical. It happened all the time -- it was part of the fun, a dialogue that linked one song with another penned 20 years earlier.

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