Hip Hop and the Media in the USA

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

32 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Function of the Media

3. The Development of Hip Hop in the Media

4. Categories of Rap

5. Authenticity in Hip Hop

6. Violence, Drugs, and Misogyny in Hip Hop

7. Against the Law - A Call for Censorship

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction:

In the following study the relationship and interaction between “Hip Hop and the Media in the USA” will be discussed. The aim of this paper is to put hip hop into a wider framework of media and culture.

Hip hop has triumphantly emerged from the underground to take its place in the mainstream of popular culture. It is clear that the pervasive influence of hip hop extends to television, film, advertising, fashion, the print media, and language itself. Although it has taken almost twenty years to reach this level of mass exposure, the movement now stands as a multimillion-dollar enterprise and a dominant cultural force that continues to grow. To put it quite bluntly, hip hop cannot be considered as an independent entity on its own; it has to be explained in a broader context - a creation out of a reaction with and against existing conventions. Hip hop must be reinvented from moment to moment, centered around the impossibility of closure - the moment it becomes identifiable, its modes reducible, it dies - but hip hop’s ability is to reinvent itself continually. Hip hop is, as Potter puts it, “a cultural recycling center, a social heterolect, a field of contest, even a form of psychological warfare” (109).

This paper tries to shed light on the following questions: What is the media’s influence on the history and development of hip hop culture? How are the different rap categories treated by the media? Why is authenticity especially appealing to a white audience and consequently to the major spending power? In how far are violence, drugs and misogyny important for the development of hip hop culture, how is the media coping with these issues? The latter question leads to the next one: Why is rap, as a part of hip hop, the subject of a permanent call for censorship? To answer this question some examples will be illustrated.

2. Function of the Media

To understand the relationship between hip hop and the media, it is necessary to explain these two constituents. Since hip hop, its elements, form, and development will be discussed in separate chapters, it is appropriate to include a short definition of “the media” at this point. As stated by McQuail “the mass media institution is a distinct set of activities (sending and receiving messages), carried out by persons occupying certain roles (regulators, producers, distributors, audience members), according to certain rules and understanding (laws, professional codes and practices, audience expectations and habits)” (33). Thus, the key activity of the mass media is production and distribution of knowledge. The direct product of the media is not knowledge itself but messages with a potential for knowledge-forming messages. This knowledge, again, enables people to shape their perception of the world. In addition, most people agree that the media influences American culture and the complex monument of beliefs, ideals, opinions, and ideologies that make up its values, but disagreement ranges wide and deep over the degree of influence the media exerts on American society (Dyson, Reflecting Black, 75). This apprehension of the role of the media in shaping cultural values is pivotal to understand the interaction between hip hop and the media. The media's elements which will be dealt with in this paper are the following: the news media, radio, the film industry, the music industry, the fashion industry, and advertising. Without these industries there would not be hip hop as we know it ± it would have remained in the underground. However, as part of popular culture it is subject to monetary, ideological, and cultural exploitation through the media. Hip hop is filtered through the corporate pipeline and, thus, market forces play a decisive role in shaping and propagating the message itself. On the other hand, hip hoppers regard the media as a medium for their messages and concerns, as a platform to encourage discussion about the inner-ghettos, deindustrialization, the public school system, family structure, poverty, teenage pregnancy, AIDS, crack cocaine, or alcoholism. Consequently, the media needs hip hop, and hip hop needs the media.

3. The Development of Hip Hop in the Media

What is hip hop culture? Fernando names three elements that constitute hip hop ± rap music, break dancing, and graffiti writing (2). However, as hip hop culture spread, it was rap, the culture's musical element, that by the late 1980s became more commercialized. Therefore, outsiders as well as critics often regard to rap music as hip hop, as if the two descriptions were interchangeable.

The story of hip hop begins in the mid-1970s, in the ghettos and barrios of New York city (del Barco 65). Each of the three forms of hip hop had grown out of a long history of interaction between black and Latin urban cultures. One should keep in mind that the original hip hoppers were not confined, as some outsiders imagined, to a single, monolithic black culture. As del Barco observes, one “gets the misconception when you look at a rap video that it's all black people” (65). Moreover, hip hop history can be divided into at least five distinct African-influenced cultures: 1. English-speaking blacks from Barbados who live in the Bronx (Afrika Bambaataa's mother, Grandmaster Flash's famil y); 2. black Jamaicans who live in the Bronx (DJ Kool Herc); 3. blacks from Cuba who live in the Bronx; 4. boricuas ± Puerto Ricans ± they augmented the Afro-Cuban impact; 5. North American blacks, whose music was jazz, soul and funk. In short, to live in the Bronx was to live in a multicultural happening (Thompson 214). To speak of Puerto Ricans in rap means to defy, as Flores calls it, “the sense of instant amnesia” ± it involves sketching in historical contexts and sequences, tracing traditions and antecedents, and recognizing hip hop as more than the simulated images, poses, and formulas to which media entertainment tends to reduce it (87).The delay in the acceptance of Spanish rhymes, thus, was due in no small part to the marketing of rap, through the mid-1980s, as a strictly African American musical style with a characteristically Afrocentric message. Coverage of Puerto Rican rap has been limited to an occasional article in the Village Voice or Spin magazine, generally as a marginal note in discussions of rubrics like “Hispanic,” “Spanish,” or “bilingual” rap (Flores 95).

As a means to call attention to the extent of urban decay, graffiti emerged by the mid-1970s. It heightened already existing fears over a loss of control of the inner- cities (Fernando 44) . Graffiti developed into an elaborate communications network with its own codes of behavior and aesthetics to reflect the identity and concerns of African American and Latino teenagers. Therefore, it was a means for the youth living in the Bronx to gain some recognition because graffiti was moveable art,

transmitted citywide by the communications network of the subway, and, thus, a means to gather some fame and respect among other writers. In the early 1980s, graffiti experienced an explosion of hype and critical appreciation, when it moved from the subway trains and ghetto walls to the trendy galleries of SoHo (Fernando 18).

As with graffiti, breakdancing did not survive corporate America's raid on hip hop culture, probably because it was truly street art; by 1986, breakdancers in mainstream press copy all but disappeared (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 15). Breakdancing was primarily a means of expression with clear precedents in early African-rooted forms like the jitterbug and rumba (Guevara 50). At break points in the DJ's performance, the dancers, i.e. b -boys and b-girls, would breakdance, executing moves that initiated the rupture in rhythmic continuity as it was highlighted in the musical break (Tricia Rose, Black Noise, 47). The only remains of this style are incorporated into aerobics classes and exercise videos.

Rapping, the last element to emerge in hip hop, has become its most prominent facet (Tricia Rose, Black Noise, 52). Rap was the name given to a novel musical style then gaining popularity among young people in a few African American and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City. When rap first appeared in the late 1970s, culture and music critics falsely predicted a quick demise. With a few exceptions, black and white entertainment executives alike believed that rap was “too black” to sell to a mass audience, a spectacularly mistaken judgment. Rap music grew and flourished, simultaneously reshaping the entire terrain of American culture (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 1). The popularity of rap, the sheer diversity of its sounds, its wealth of insight, images, and ideas, confirm that the music has become an important part of American history (Morley xxviii).

DJs ruled during hip hop's early days, and it was the DJ who established the foundations for the MC (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 6). With two turntables and a sound mixer, DJs could switch from one record to another to create a never-ending dance groove. This technological potential enabled DJs to exploit an infinite number of samples from vinyl, advertising jingles, movie soundtracks, etc. It is sampling and mixing that gives rap music its self-renewing character. DJs discovered they could keep a dance crowd hopping by playing catchy instrumental breaks from popular records. In addition, they could pump up the crowd by using a microphone to call out the names of people in the audience (“Sweet Pea is in the house!”) or to boast about themselves. Soon a division of labor emerged. DJs concentrated on perfecting the techniques of scratching records, while the masters of ceremonies (MCs, mike controllers or rappers) concentrated on rapping in rhymes (Morley xv). The era of the DJ peaked around 1978, and gradually the spotlight shifted to the MCs. The MC developed a basic lyrical style, mixing elements of street jargon and slang, personal experience, and an occasional dose of humor to create a mixture of simple verses that could function as both match and counterpoint to the DJ (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 10). Rappers use names that convey identity and separate them from the crowd, while celebrating attributes that embody the personality the name gives, e.g. Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, NWA (Niggas with Attitude), King Sun, Hurricane Gloria. Moreover, rappers have been using the ever changing idiom of the streets (some slang terms have now been incorporated into the English language), which captures and epitomizes contemporary African American and Hispanic culture as nothing else; it captures life as vividly as a photograph and as precisely as any other form of reportage. Rappers, therefore, fulfill a role as oral journalists, documenting their culture, environment, and society (Fernando 281).

Rap generates its own history by recycling music and reintroducing the previous musical genres to new audiences and markets; it constantly feeds off other styles and creates something new and original (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 9). This technique constitutes a reversal of the traditional modes of production and consumption because in order to create something new, the archive of African American and Hispanic music history is used and, thus, consumed. Rap has the ability to make a future out of fragments from the archive of the past. At the time, music licensing organizations were not paying much attention (Potter 42). To sum up, rap interprets and shapes the experience of American life. It is thus a social as well as a musical innovation (Morley xxviii). As Morley puts it, “rap music is history in the literal sense: an account, a body of language that tells what happened and why, a combination of information and interpretation that summarizes, dramatizes, and makes comprehensible what African Americans were doing from the late 1970s to the early 1990s” (xxix). This observation is still valid for the late 1990s, despite rap music's hyped commercialization its tough, raw, hard-core street essence cannot be dampened because today, rap is still the voice of reality, fable, humor, entertainment, education, protest, and above all, opinion and personal style (Fernando 256).

The force and style of several personalities gave rap the charm of a new and potentially important art form, still unnoticed by the recording giants of records, television, and movies (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 10). The distribution of rap was by word of mouth or by audio cassette tape.

Rap's first commercial hit, “Rapper's Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, reached number 36 on the US charts and became the largest selling twelve-inch record in 1979 (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 10). It was not the first rap record but it was, as mentioned earlier, the first major hit, it became the first rap song to receive wide airplay on radio stations and established both rap and Sugar Hill Records (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 11). However, “Rapper's Delight” is not a hip hop single at all, but a rapping novelty single that recycled the disco-flavored backing track of Chic's “Good Times” ± “Rapper's Delight” did not represent what rap and hip hop truly were, because crucial elements were absent, but in the mainstream and nationally, it was everyone's first taste of what hip hop was (Potter 45). Nevertheless, the financial success of Sugar Hill Records was an incentive for the corporate recording industry, always in search of novelty and new markets, to investigate this emerging genre and to sign prospective artists. As a result, the next major rap personality was Kurtis Blow, whose hits made him rap's first commercial success on a white label ± Mercury (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 12). However, in the beginning, the established media corporations were ignoring rap, therefore, the market was wide open for entrepreneurs (Morley xvii). One of these entrepreneurs was Russell Simmons, a rapper and promoter from Queens, who founded Def Jam Records, who soon became the godfather of much of hip hop music and culture (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 11). His main collaborator was Rick Rubin, a long-haired white record producer who saw rap as the successor to rock among alienated youth. (Morley xvii). According to Fernando, Simmons pursued his creative vision of selling hip hop culture to the mainstream. (171). He saw his vision come true with Run DMC. In 1986 Run DMC's career peaked with their album “Raising Hell.” It was the first rap album to go platinum and led to widespread coverage of hip hop culture by the mainstream media. Moreover, it contained hip hop's first MTV hit, “Walk this Way,” performed with the aging heavy-metal rock group, Aerosmith, having the time of their lives, which launched hip hop into the crossover mainstream ± Run DMC's sound symbolized the merger of the black urban street sound with a polished pop overlay (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 15). “Walk This Way” made rap accessible to white rock fans for the first time. In addition, Run DMC were the first ones to sign an endorsement deal with a major company to promote Adidas's products (Fernando 166). Simmons also discovered the Beastie Boys, the first white rap outfit, whose rough debut album, “Licensed to Ill,” sold four million copies (Morley xvii).

To sum up, as a major player in the evolution of hip hop, Def Jam has become one of those legendary institutions in music itself ± just like Motown or Blue Note. Almost every record they have released ± from a comparatively small artist roster that includes rap stars such as L.L. Cool J., Public Enemy, and Onyx ± has sold gold, prompting the media to call Def Jam's owner Russell Simmons the “mogul of rap.” Today, Def Jam's parent company, Rush Communications, overseen by Simmons, is a multimedia conglomerate involved in television, film, radio, music publishing, artist management, and even a line of clothing. Rush's expansion into the mainstream of American culture, in fact, mirrors the explosion of rap and hip hop culture, whose commercial success Russell and associates had everything to do with. The story of Def Jam illustrates rap's rise from the underground to its current position of power and prominence (Fernando 153).

During rap's early days, small, independent record labels were making profits. However, the early 1980s witnessed the planting of hip hop within the large record companies, thanks to the acquisition of several major hip hop labels by large corporations, and the assignment of agents to pursue rap's street sound. Only two substantial independent labels ± Priority and Profile ± could offer artists an alternative to corporate ways and means (Potter 113). This development of rap's incorporation into media businesses was intensified due to the fact that companies realized that hip hop culture was appealing to a white audience. Middle-class white kids were desiring “real” aesthetic, searching for a new identity in a postindustrial, globally interconnected new world order - hip hop speaks to youth's desire for identity, for a sense of self-definition and purpose, sometimes it seems, no matter how lawless or pointless (Perkins, The Rap Attack, 36). Consequently, hip hop turned into an interesting commodity. Prior to this tendency, the difficulty underlying all of the marketing problems with hip hop was the fact that its central black urban audience had only a fraction of the buying power of white suburban listeners. As alternatives to purchase, whether listening to the radio, dubbing tapes for friends, or buying lower-priced bootlegs, have been a necessary part of rap's urban circulation, none of them, however, add up to sales figures, giving more affluent fans a distortedly high influence on the artists and albums the music industry considers “successful.” (Potter 114). Therefore, hip hop is continually commodified by the music industry, “made safe ” (it is only a song) for the masses, recycled again into breakfast-cereal ditties and public service announcements. In short, since the popular market has embraced hip hop as a marketing strategy, movement and music once identified with African American, West Indian, and Latino male street associations are being used to sell everything from pastry to autos. For television and movies, in dance competitions, and in commercials, professional choreography have adopted hip hop energy and style (Hazzard-Donald 231). For example, hip hop songs have been frequently used in the advertising industry. As early as 1987 the Wall Street Journal reported: “... a lot of advertisers were afraid at first to use rap because it came from the street culture” (Perkins, Youth's Global Village, 268). However, only three years later, in 1990, the New York Times wrote that corporate giants like Coca-Cola, British Knights, and Pepsi-Cola were using rappers to promote their products because rap is “perfectly suited to the television commercial's short form ... It's an easy way to tell a story.” (Perkins, Youth's Global Village, 268)

Besides the music and advertising industries, the film industry, too, recognized hip hop's potential as a commercial medium. Hip hop has inspired black f ilmmakers and helped convince white movie producers in Hollywood that the black feature film is a sensible commercial venture. Thus, hip hop has helped to fuel the African American cinema resurgence in Hollywood because in 1990 Hollywood produced more black films than in the previous ten years combined.. However, Hollywood's depiction of black life lacked credibility, - “Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City,” and “Menace II Society,” which try to depict the reality of the ghetto to a rap soundtrack. Nevertheless, it became obvious that rap was a black musical style that could easily be modified to suit white tastes (Morley xvii). Commercial networks provided the youthful hip hop audience with such shows as “the Fresh Prince of Bel - Air,” “In Living Color,” and t he “Arsenio Hall Show.” To sum up, over the past few years, a rash of Hollywood hip hop movies, together with a flood hip hop spots have spun a hype fantasy-image of South Bronx b-boys boogying, breaking, and scratching records for a mainly white viewing audience (Guevara 49).


Excerpt out of 32 pages


Hip Hop and the Media in the USA
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (American Studies)
Transnational American Culture Studies
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
640 KB
Consideration of the relationship betweeb Hip Hop vs. Medien
Hip Hop, Medien, Rap, Violence, Media, Zensur, Censorship
Quote paper
Dana Kabbani (Author), 1999, Hip Hop and the Media in the USA, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/7569


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