The Folk Arts of Hip Hop

This week’s post is by guest blogger Elena Martinez, Guest Curator for ArtsWestchester’s Folk Arts program.

Graffiti is only one component of what has come to be called hip hop. Most people agree that the graffiti writer is one of four main “elements” of hip hop’s aesthetic expression. There is also the MC, who “raps” and is the lyricist. The DJ provides the music for the MC and dancers with the “breakbeat” – the drum solo and rhythmic groove in the song, found by the DJ who, through their talent, extends that beat by mixing two records together. Lastly, there are the b-boys and b-girls who dance to the DJ’s beats. All of these elements, which culminated in the 1970s, grew out of the social conditions in the Bronx. Following World War II, there was a housing crisis in New York City, influenced by the heavy Puerto Rican and African-American migration north. While a housing shortage was going on, homes were being razed.

As the physical environment and the local support institutions were demolished, hip hop culture emerged as a way for youth to achieve social status and to form an identity. The roots of hip hop culture were in the streets and playgrounds of the Bronx in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where Blacks and Latinos would gather for outdoor parties and a DJ would patch his sound system into the power box of a streetlight and play records. What makes this all the more significant is that the young people, who were involved in the music, dancing, and visual arts of what soon became a worldwide phenomenon, were from low-income families living in neighborhoods that many writers and commentators have compared to Dresden after the bombings during World War II. With few resources, and maybe in spite of these limited resources, the young people of this area of the Bronx gave form to new cultural expressions.

Elena Martinez
Guest Curator for ArtsWestchester’s Folk Arts program
City Lore, Folklorist
Bronx Music Heritage Center, Co-Artistic Director

(l to r): DJ Perly (photo courtesy of the artist) and GrandWizzard Theodore (photo credit: Joe Conzo Jr.)

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