Hip hop's building blocks

Disc JockeysEntertainmentMoviesSportsPhilosophyJennifer Beals

People tend to define hip-hop as music, but in fact it's an entire culture. Historians say hip-hop comprises "four elements" -- tagging, b-boying, DJing and rapping -- that emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These days, rap is the focal point, while the other elements have evolved into different forms. Still, all four elements continue to define the look, sound and character of hip-hop culture.

Tagging

Before rappers made their names with rhymes, graffiti artists made their names with spray paint. In the late 1960s, inner-city kids "tagged" subway cars with their names, aiming for quantity rather than quality. The first "famous" tagger was the prolific Taki 183, featured in a 1971 New York Times article.

Those monochrome tags became increasingly multicolored and complex. "I loved the art of it," says Bronx rapper Grandmaster Caz. "I had large art books and drawing books of my graffiti. I would do it every day."

During the late 1980s, though, city governments battled graffiti with a vengeance. Nevertheless, graffiti has gone mainstream. Clothing designer Marc Milecofsky fashioned his Ecko logo after his old tag. Jean-Paul Basquiat and Keith Haring helped parlay grafitti into fine art. There's even a building in Long Island City that showcases what's now called "aerosol art."

DJing

In 1974, when Kool DJ Herc wove together the funkiest parts of records -- "the breaks," consisting mainly of drums and bass -- he laid the foundation for hip-hop.

The DJs who followed became even more creative. Grandmaster Flash introduced "backspinning" to repeat a single sound or break. Grand Wizard Theodore invented rhythmic scratching. DJ Cash Money created the "transformer scratch," cutting the volume in and out while manipulating records.

Today, rap producers use computer programs to whip up rhythm tracks, but DJs remain popular. "Turntablists" such as New York's The X-Ecutioners are famous for their rapid-fire cuts and flashy moves. In 2002, Run-DMC's DJ, the late Jam Master Jay, helped found the Scratch DJ Academy in Manhattan.

B-boying

No one knows who invented the corkscrew body movements of breakdancing, but Bronx-based Kool DJ Herc reportedly coined the term "b-boy" -- short for "break-boy," a reference to the break in the songs DJs played over and over -- for dancers who grooved to his rhythmic beats.

Early b-boys adopted names such as Lil Carlos and Crazy Legs Colón (founder of the long-running troupe Rock Steady Crew). For b-boys, a unique style and a sense of humor are as important as skill. "This is not ballet," says touring breakdancer Ivan "The Urban Action Figure" Manriquez. "You express yourself by who you are."

In the early 1980s, breakdancing reached its peak, spawning movies such as "Breakin'" and "Beat Street." In 1983's "Flashdance," Crazy Legs donned a wig and stood in for Jennifer Beals during the film's climax.

Artists from Missy Elliot toR. Kelly have used b-boys in recent videos to evoke an old-school image. You can see breakdancers at halftime sports shows and in television commercials for nearly everthing from soda to clothing.

Rapping

Rappers began as humble MCs, introducing DJs at parties and occasionally making announcements (birthdays, lost children, a blocked car). Eventually, they began making up rhymes. "Almost like nursery rhymes, bland little rhymes," says Charlie Chase, a DJ for the Bronx's Cold Crush Brothers. "But they would do it to the breakbeats."

Early rappers such as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and Darren Robinson of The Fat Boys distinguished themselves by "beatboxing," mimicking drumbeats and turntable sounds.

More and more, rap's cadences and slangy vocabulary are informing the whole spectrum of popular music. Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit kick-started an entire genre that mixes rap with hard rock. Even country singers Big & Rich employ a rapper named Cowboy Troy who rhymes in both Spanish and English.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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