25 Years of Hip-Hop and Its’ Impact on Race Relations.

Most people over 35 can remember the early days of hip hop music, when all the fly guys wore freshly cut flattops and all the fly girls wore geometric cuts and huge door knocker earrings.   Twenty five years later we look back on Hip-Hops’ inner city origins and reflect on how a gritty, street inspired musical genre became a global cultural phenomenon, impacting on race relations around the world.

I can remember vividly attending my first hip hop concert when I was in high school, starring Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and an unknown clique at the time, called the Beastie Boys.   I recall the pitch black coliseum, buzzing with anticipation for the first act to hit the stage and then all of a sudden, a pulsating bassline began to thump and the crowd went crazy!

The entire stadium was still completely dark and all you could see were three colorful spotlights rhythmically following three white kids on stage as they surfed around on their skateboards.   At that moment, I realized that hip hop had transcended race and that a new tipping point in race relations had begun.

The evolution of hip hop from simply being a musical form to a cultural lifestyle is the most compelling aspect of its transformation.   Hip hop, before it was commercialized was defined as the style, the clothing, the dancing, the graffiti and the attitude, which we now refer to as swagger.   Rap was the art form by which hip-hop enthusiasts and musical artists expressed themselves.  The burgeoning popularity of Rap music, catapulted local New York “ghetto superstars” such as Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash, MC Lyte, Salt and Pepa, and Kid and Play into household names within the African-American community, thanks to urban radio stations and local record stores.

Many critics in the mainstream media dismissed hip hop and rap music as an urban fad that lacked originality and sustainability.   MTV in its earlier days of broadcast refused to play hip hop artist’s videos, but eventually relented, recognizing the growing presence of the genre and in 1988, created Yo! MTV Raps, hosted by the colorful Ed Lover and Dr. Dre.

Prior to all of this, Rap music remained a secular music, wildly popular among young African-Americans and had very little crossover into mainstream America.   Many of my white friends from high school rarely listened to hip hop and many of my black friends rarely ever listened to rock and roll or punk rock.   Which meant that the one thing that was supposed to unite us, was actually dividing us.

Like most high schools, students gravitated towards other people who had similar interest in music.  Which meant that if you were a hard core Rock & Roll dude, you weren’t interested in hearing the new LL Cool J cut and were less likely to befriend someone who didn’t share your taste in music.

But now 25 years later, as a result of the evolution of hip hop, kids no longer separate themselves based upon the type of music they listen to.   The norm in most schools is to have a diverse group of friends from different races and backgrounds who ALL listen to hip-hop, as well as rock and pop.

Hip-hop has supplanted Rock and Roll as the biggest selling music genre, with mega-artists like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne easily outselling their musical rivals.   But hip-hop music itself has changed and bears very little resemblance to the classic, heavy bass laden tracks with witty rhymes and clean lyrics that I grew up listening to. However, that’s the beauty of the genre, is that each generation places their own stamp on hip-hop culture and ultimately determines its direction.

One of the reasons that hip-hop has continued to evolve is the introduction of successful rap artists such as Eminem, the Beastie Boys and the much ridiculed Vanilla Ice.  Each of these artists helped to push hip-hop into the mainstream and demonstrated to suburban white youth with lots of expendable cash, that hip-hop had no boundaries; and it would be this group of eager, hip-hop wannabes that would turn rap music into a multi-billion dollar business.

No longer were rap concerts a predominately black event, young white hip- hoppers who had spent their allowances on the new Ice Cube tape, were anxious to see him perform on stage as well.  Today, rap music and hip-hop culture have invaded every corner of the world.  It’s not unusual to hear rap music in French or Spanish, or see a Japanese breakdancer.   All of this, makes me wonder if the early New York Rap promoters that staged impromptu concerts in the park—had any idea that they were giving birth to a musical revolution that would help elect our first black President and break down racial barriers around the world.

Barrington Ross


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