Today, hip hop/rap is the fastest growing music genre in the
U.S., accounting for more than 10 percent of the $12.3 billion
music sales in 1998. 1 Rap music has become the
linchpin of the hip hop culture. The overall hip hop culture has
been established by this musical art form. The language (street
slang), dress (baggy pants, caps worn backwards, expensive
sneakers), and style of the hip hop culture have all evolved from
To illustrate rap's widespread popularity, according to
Soundscan, a company in Hartsdale, N.Y. that monitors music
sales, at the end of 1998, 9 of the 15 albums on the pop chart
were rap. At the end of 1998, three of the top selling albums
were rap acts: Jay Z, Outkast, and A Tribe Call Quest. According
to Neil Strauss, rap is replacing rock and roll as the most
popular genre of music among youth.3 Ten years ago, in
the suburbs you heard teenagers blasting music from such rock
artist as the Byrds, Doors, the Eagles, Van Halen, and Guns `N'
Roses. Today, teenagers are blasting rap music from such artist
as Jay Z and Outkast.4
According to the Recording Industry Association of America,
rock music accounted for 32.5 percent of the industry's $12.3
billion in sales during 1997. But this figure is down from 46.2
percent a decade ago. Meanwhile rap music's share of sales has
increased 150% over the last ten years and is still rising.5
HISTORY OF HIP HOP
Busy Bee Starski, DJ Hollywood, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa
(founder of the Zulu Nation in New York) are the three New York
artists who have been credited for coining the term hip
hop.6 This genre began in the`70s with funky
beats resonating at house parties, at basement parties, and the
streets of New York.7 According to Geneva Smitherman,
the foundation of rap music is rooted in Black oral
tradition of tonal semantics, narrativizing, signification,
playing the dozens, Africanized syntax, and other communicative
One can trace the commercial history of rap back to 1979 when
the Sugar Hill Gang produced the enormously successful
song entitled, Rapper's Delight. The raw begginings of
contemporary rap music can be traced to the Bronx in the mid
1970s.9 Rap music was a way that urban black youth
expressed themselves in a rhythmic form. Rap music, along with
graffiti and breakdancing was the poetry of the street.
As the interest in rap music grew, so did its message. The
collective message of rap told candid stories of the urban
streets--stories of drugs, violence, and crime. No matter how
hedonistic the message, urban youth found a platform to outwardly
express their rage towards the system. To them, the police
embodied the system; they were indeed a reflection of America's
attitude towards them. Hence, vicious verbal attacks on police
behavior reflected urban youths' most intimate conceptualization
of the system.
According to Patricia Rose, rap music continued to blossom
after the release of Rapper's Delight. It was
discovered by the music industry, the film industry,
and the print media. Artists such as Run DMC, Whoodini and the
Fat Boys helped what seemed like a fleeting phenomenon persist in
changing popular culture.10 Krush Groove, a highly
successful movie depicting the life of rap music, further
elevated rap music into the mainstream. This movie earned Warner
Brothers $17 million worldwide, a gold soundtrack, and most
importantly, highlighted the potential of this art form.11
Street language is transmitted to the hip hop culture through
rap music. One can hear a Chinese or Filipino hip hopper using
the same slang as the African American hip hopper. Irrespective
of their ethnicity hip hoppers use adjectives such as dope, da
bomb, legit, hittin, all that, to describe something that is
excellent. The word nigga is one of the most popular
words of hip hoppers. Contrary to the traditional derogatory
meaning of the word, hip hoppers use the word as a term of
endearment. One can hear a white, Asian, or Latino hip hopper
saying, TJ is my nigga, which means TJ is my
good friend. The vernacular of this culture changes
constantly. What might be a cool statement today, might be
played out (outdated) in a year.
Street language has become a pidgin language of sorts. Even if
hip hoppers have different first languages, they still can
understand the slang of hip hop. Hence, this culture is bounded
linguistically. I can personally recall my trip to Japan in 1995
in which my friend saw a Japanese teenager with a Snoop Dogg cap on--the teenager could barely speak English
but he was fluent in street slang.
Why has the hip hop culture transcended ethnic boundaries? The
urban street prep seems like an oxymoronic term. However, urban
hip hoppers adorn themselves with the most unlikely preppy
labels. Clothing styles that include such bourgeois labels as
Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Ralph Lauren, seemingly contradict
the image of the fearless street soldier.12
According to Michiko Kakutani, young urban blacks have coopted
the dress of upper crust whites as a manisfestation of their lack
of power in American society. While actual material success maybe
unattainable, the rationale for adorning expensive Polo shirts,
blue jeans and sneakers is to present an image of success.
Suburban white kids scoff at the material success of their
parents and their parents' friends. One way to express this
disdain, is by identifying with the renegade image of the street.
Many white kids are "cultural tourists who romanticize the
very ghetto life that so many black kids want to escape. Instead
of the terrible mortality rate for young black males, they see
the glamour of violence. Instead of the frustration of people
denied jobs and hope and respect, they see the verbal defiance of
Kakutani suggests that this vicarious outlet of symbolic
expression is why white suburban males have become the largest
audience of gangsta rap. In the 1950s popular culture was
dominated by the Happy Days scene. Black leather
jackets and greased hair represented the zeitgeist. In the 1960s,
the hippie and bohemian look had the greatest influence on pop
culture followed by the polyester and bell bottoms of the 70s and
the preppy influence of the 1980s. The 1990's have been dominated
by hip hop fashion.14 This fashion consists of baggy
pants worn very loosely, baseball caps worn backwards (NBA, NFL,
or successful university athletic teams), oversized rugby or polo
shirts, and expensive tennis shoes. Hip hop fashion, unlike the
fashion of other generations, has uniquely cut across almost
every ethnic boundary. Indeed, a significant number African
American, Whites, Latinos, and Asians youth between the ages of
12 and 22 dress the same irrespective of their ethnicity.15
According to Russell Simmons, hip hop's first millionaire
entrepreneur who is chairman and CEO of Rush Communications,
states that one reason rap is so popular is because of the
resistance it has met. The more resistance there is and the more
controversy there is the more people are going to want to buy it.
The heated debates that took place in the late 1980's and early
1990's about censoring the lyrics of rap music only spawned
sales. The infamous group 2 Live Crew was the
beneficiary of their highly publicized court case regarding the
First Amendment.16 Individuals such as Tipper Gore and
C. Delores Tucker have led the charge to censor the lyrics of
rap music.17 According to Simmons, kids like the fact
that status quo does not condone the music and tries to control
it. It becomes a liberating experience for kids to rebel against
the status quo.18 Some parents are leery of rap music
and its rebellious message. According to Nelson George, hip hop's
most prolific and perhaps best chronicler, New music of any
generation is always scary to the parents.19
Before rap music, there was Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob
Marley, and more recently, punk rock, that galvanized the
rebellious spirit of youth across the U.S. Now what seemed to be
a passing trend, chronologically fitting between heavy metal and
alternative rock, has become the chosen platform of rebellion for
A good example of how rap music and hip hop has cut across
ethnic boundaries can be found in the Asian community. In Los
Angeles, there is a blossoming Asian American rap scene,
consisting of groups like Bubula Tribe, Undercover, Asiatic
Apostles, Brotherhood from Another Hood, the Seoul Brothers, Lani
Luv, and the Boo-Yaa Tribe. These groups represents various
styles. Messages range from social issues such as hate crimes
against Asians to relationships between blacks and Koreans in
nearly every major city.21 White rappers such as The
Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, and Vanilla Ice have also had success in
the industry. Cypress Hill, Fat Joe, and Big Punisher, are Latino
artists who have impacted the hip hop culture.22 The
overall message of this music is the same. It is cool, didactic,
and unabashedly rebellious. According to Russell Simmons,
"Hip hop has transcended beyond just music. It has become a
lifestyle and/or a culture for people worldwide. Hip hop is an
attitude and hip hop is a language in which a kid from Detroit
can relate to a kid in Hong Kong. Seventy-five percent of our
audience is nonblack kids. Now you have kids in Beverly Hills who are sensitive to situations in Compton."23
Simmons goes on to state that although racism still exists in
our society, it was not strong enough to thwart the collective
enjoyment of rap by the youth of America and around the world.
SIT-COMS, MOVIES, MAGAZINES
The hip hop culture has prompted various industries to pay
attention to their appetite. Sit-coms such as the Fresh Prince of
Bel Air, Martin, Malcolm, Steve Harvey, and the Jamie Foxx Show
all capitalize on this population. In the past, black humor
appealed to few outside of this population; now it is widespread.
Movies such as Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, Jason's Lyric,
Juice, and Menace II Society are rugged movies that depict the
reality of the urban streets. These movies have been highly
successful in cutting across ethnic boundaries. Movies such as Friday, Booty Call, I've Got the Hook Up and Wu have been
comedies that have depicted the humor that is still strangely
ever present on the treacherous urban streets. These comedies
have also been widely popular among a diverse population.24
Magazines such as Vibe, Blaze, The Source, Rap Pages and
Stress were created to appeal to this population. Because of its
multiethnic popularity, Vibe Magazine's circulation has risen to
606,237, a 17.1% increase from 1997 to 1998. Advertisements that
appear in these magazines run the gamut from small unknown
companies to powerful companies that are household names.25
Vibe's editor-in-chief, Danyel Smith states, Although
Vibe may seem like a black magazine, its perspective and appeal
are much broader than its covers would indicate. Vibe is a
multicultural music magazine based in the African American
culture and sensibility.26 Magazines such as
Vibe, along with the aforementioned sit coms and movies, have
done a remarkable job of keeping it real--speaking
the language and to the imagination of this culture.27
One of the many positive side effects of the hip hop culture
is that it encourages corporations to recruit a diverse cadre of
individuals. Hence, recruiting minorities who have the pulse of
this culture becomes an imperative. The African American market
alone has $325 billion in buying power. A myriad of organizations
that appeal to the hip hop culture have diversified for
competitive advantage. It makes good business sense. For example,
half of Universal Muscic Group's employees are minority. This
organization is number one in market share in the U.S., Europe,
Latin America, and Australia. The record label's overall market
share is 23 percent globally and 25 percent in the U.S. 28
92.3 The Beat is the most popular radio station in Los Angeles.
It appeals to a broad multiethnic hip hop population in the
greater Los Angeles area. They have taken advantaged of their
broad appeal by launching initiatives to bridge ethnic cleavages.
They host several community panel discussion on issues such
as: Asian-bashing, hate crimes, and African American and Asian
Relations. In the Fall of 1997, this radio station sponsored a
No Color Lines essay contest for Los Angeles high
school students. The participants were to write in 92 words or
less what the words no color lines meant to them. I
was one of the judges of this contest. The following are two
essays written for this contest:
What No Color Lines Means to Me
To undertand no color lines, one must see what a
blind man sees--nothing; he hears and feels, and thus, is able to really see each person's heart. As a
Chinese-American Student, I have been spit on and told to
go home. I have been excluded because I am
yellow. But we can take our first step toward
eliminating such acts of racism by looking through the eyes of a
blind person. This way, we can surmount the color barrier that
prevents us from discovering the kindness that is within us all.
What No Color Lines Means to Me
Lost, in LA, I feared the homeless black man following me.
Ashamed, I discovered it was the trash can he pursued in hope of
food, not me. I'm no racist. I'm a girl who learned the meaning
of no color lines the hard way. It is not pointing
fingers at those who display hate and ignorance aloud. It is
looking in the mirror and finding that spot hidden which holds
all the ugliness and prejudices we've developed, and doing
everything in our will to overcome them--being blind to further
Out of the 700 participants in this contest, I was struck by
the common concerns and the common language of this diverse
group. While I was reading these essays, I realized the potential
of this population to mend ethnic relations. There were several
positive aspects about this essay contest, but one was that it
encouraged a diverse population of high school students to think
about ethnic relations and what their roles were in enhancing
If messages of love, peace, anti-racism, and human uplift are
resonated among the hip hop population, it can have an enormous
impact on ethnic relations in our society. In the 1950s and 1960s
the Beat Culture spoke of love yet challenged the
status quo in ways that did not compromise their rebellious
spirit. In the same vein, it is possible for the hip hop culture
to keep its rebellious street flavor and speak to issues such as
love and respect for all. It is possible for rap artists such as
Master P, Wyclef Jean, and Busta Rhymes to empower America and
the world's youth like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bob Marley
did. Artists, such as the late rapper Tupac Shakur, have rapped
about such compassionate issues without losing the rugged flavor
of the streets. In his song, I Wonder If Heaven's Got A
Ghetto, Shakur sings,
"I see no changes, all I see is racist faces misplaced
hate makes disgrace the racist...I wonder what it takes to make
this one better place...take the evil out the people (then)
they'll be acting right cause both black and white are smokin
crack tonight and the only time we deal is when we kill each
other, it takes skill to be real, time to heal each
Millions of hip hoppers all over the world have heard these
lyrics. If more artists concentrated on positive messages such as
this, the impact could be revolutionary.
Unlike any other subculture in American history, the hip hop
culture has transcended ethnic boundaries. Because of its
eclectic audience, it has the greatest opportunity to build
ethnic bridges and mend ethnic relations. Hip hop has taken hold
and permeated significant regions of the world. The clothing,
music, mannerisms, and lexicon, are unmistakably the same in New
York, Los Angeles, Paris, Zurich, Milan, and Tokyo. Indeed, this
culture has the potential to make it cool not to commit hate
crimes, not to discriminate or be homophobic or mysogynistic, and not to be racist.
1 Keith L. Alexander, Hip-Hop Magazine Gets Fiery Start,
Good and Bad,
USA Today, December 30, 1998, B1.
2 Gregory Lewis, Hip Hop Gives Birth to Its Own Black
Economy,The San Francisco Examiner, December 6,
3 Strauss, Neil, The Pop Life; Crossing Racial
Boundaries, Rap Gains Ground,
4 The New York Times, October 15, 1998, E1.
5 Robert Hilburn, Year in Review/Pop Music; In the
Shadow of Hip-Hop; Rap is Where the Action is, and its Popularity
Still Hasn't Peaked. Could Rock `N' Roll Be Finally Dead? The
Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1998, 6.
7 S.H. Fernando, The New Beats, (Anchor Books
Doubleday: New York, 1994), IX.
8 Chris Dickinson, 3-CD Set Chronicles History of
Rap, Everday Magazine, January 4, 1998, 3.
9 Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words And Phrases From The
Hood To The Amen Corner , (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1994),
10 S.H. Fernando, IX.
11 Patricia Rose, "Fear of a Black Planet: Rap Music and
Black Cultural Politics in the 1990s,.The Journal of
Negro Education, 60, 3, Summer, 1991, 3.
12 Maximillian Potter, Black by popular demand, Premiere , v.9, January, 1996, 39.
13 Woody Hoschswender, Prep Urban, Esquire,
v.125, March, 1996, 131.
14 Michiko Kakutani, Common Threads: Why Are Homeboys
and Surbanites Wearing Each Other's Clothes?The New York
Times Magazine , February 16, 1997, 18.
15 Linda Mae Carlstone, (1997), Teens and Fashion, Baggy
Still Rules, But More Than Ever, Anything Goes, Chicago
Tribune, Sec. 1:1, June 1, 1997, 17L.
16 Lewis, E.3.
17 16 Is Rap Music Here to Stay? Jet Magazine,
V.94, no.12, August 17, 1998, 56.
18 Lewis, E.3.
19 Jet, 56.
20 Lewis, E.3.
21 Hilburn, 6 and Strauss, E3.
22 William Eric Perkins, Droppin' Science: Critical
Essays On Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, Ed., (Temple University
Press: Philadelphia 1996), 282.
23 Jet, 59.
25 Fernando, xviii.
26 Alexander, 2B.
27 Teresa Moore, Finding Her Groove at Vibe; Danyel
Smith Calls the Shots at Fast-Rising Hip Hop Magazine, The
San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 1998, E1.
28 Alexander, 2B.
29 Chuck Philips, Company Town; Diversity Is Sweet Music
to His Ears; Entertainment: Doug Morris Set Out to Build a
Multicultural Team Essence Magazine, February 21,
1996, D2 and Universal Music Group Web Site, Universal
Music Group Fact Sheet, available: http:
//www.universalstudios.com/music, January, 1999.