Hip-hop is composed of four organizing elements, each one represented by a particular art form. These four elements structure hip-hop and define it, and they are all celebrated as a unique cultural heritage. Any functionary knowledge of hip-hop must begin with a basic understanding of these elements, in no particular order.
DJ is an acronym for “disc jockey” – a name given to those who perform shows broadcasted on radio, or those who play vinyl records or CDs (discs) at social gatherings. The DJ in early hip-hop was someone who played records at large block parties, and who used two turntables and an audio mixer to separate and combine the elements of funk, disco, reggae, and rock records into what came to be known as “break beats” (named for the pivotal break in a song where the rhythm section, particularly percussion, dominated and singing and other instrumentation receded to the background or disappeared). These breaks were extended by the DJ because they were the most exciting and danceable section of a song. This was the beginning of the looping and sampling that would become the staple of recorded hip-hop music.
DJs soon began the practice of cutting and scratching as a distinctive way to aestheticize and prolong these breaks beats, manipulating the record back and forth under the needle so that unique sound effects can be produced. These sound effects were the sparks that blossomed into a new genre of music, also making the turntable a new musical instrument. Early hip-hop DJs often spoke over the microphone as well, which became the birth of another element of hip-hop: MC-ing.
MC is an acronym that stands for “microphone controller,” or more traditionally, “master of ceremonies,” which refers to the host of a party or event. Though the DJ in early hip-hop often spoke words into the microphone to excite partygoers, this responsibility quickly fell into the hands of the MC. The MC is someone who delivers spoken word poetry to the beat of the music. Lyricism is the key component of MC-ing, which can also be called “rapping.” Sometimes these lyrics are improvised on the spot, a practice known as “freestyling,” and sometimes they are written before the fact, as traditional song lyrics.
Rapping can be traced to its African roots in the “griot,” who delivered stories rhythmically over drum beats, to early American blues, and Jamaican toasting and dub music. In early American slang, the term “rapping” meant “to converse or to say.” The MC is a charismatic conversationalist. If, as Chuck D from Public Enemy has said, “rap music is black America’s CNN,” the MC is the reporter. From an early date, and still today, the MC quickly evolved into the most visible and popular artist in hip-hop. In many ways, the MC is the symbol of hip-hop.
B-boy-ing, or break dancing, is the art of dancing to break beats, which is where the name comes from. This is a dance style that itself embodies four basic elements: toprock, downrock, power moves, and freezes. B-boy crews were originally groups of dancers who competed at early hip-hop parties against each other, dancing as a way to avoid violence when disagreements arose, and also dancing as a way to promote the crew’s name. B-boys dress in a particular fashion to aid their dancing, and this fashion quickly grew to become accepted hip-hop fashion in general (caps, sneakers with fat laces, sweat suits, etc.), also making hip-hop fashion an expanding sub-element.
B-boys utilize discarded linoleum or cardboard as surfaces to dance on, due to their smooth and slick consistency. Though originally a form of street dancing, as hip-hop is a street culture, B-boy-ing has enjoyed worldwide popularity, and is practiced everywhere on all levels of social standing, as is hip-hop in general.
d. Graffiti writing
Graffiti writing is the practice of painting on public spaces utilizing markers and spray paint. Through writing and drawing on public spaces has been in existence since the days of Ancient Greece, in hip-hop culture, graffiti is an urban method of promoting your likeness or message in the public view in an effort to achieve notoriety. Graffiti writing is the most dangerous and transgressive of all the hip-hop elements, as it is considered illegal in many places. Furthering this outlaw aesthetic, some graffiti writers feel that the purest and only method of working is to steal their artistic tools.
Graffiti re-appropriates public buildings, walls, and trains as canvases in the urban community. If B-boy-ing is the physical expression of hip-hop culture, MC-ing the rhetorical expression, and DJ-ing the musical expression, graffiti is the visual expression. In the dreary urban decay of the South Bronx of the late 70s, the birthplace of hip-hop, graffiti was and is a colorful explosion of unlimited creativity, and its branches spread far and wide across the globe.