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Perspective: Half a century of hip hop

Chris Sansbury

Hip hop is now 50 years old. And love it or not, you can’t deny its importance and influence. In the interest of time, let me highlight three items. First, like many of the pop music trends before it—jazz, blues, rock n’ roll—hip hop began in black and brown communities situated at the margins of what many would consider to be mainstream American culture. It may have begun with DJ Kool Herc at that now famous back-to-school party in the Bronx, but a just few decades later it became a global phenomenon and the soundtrack of our era.

Second, hip hop reinvented how music is made. Unable to afford expensive musical instruments, the early innovators repurposed discarded consumer electronics and turned them into a new kind of musical instrument—one that could sample, loop, and recombine the best segments or hooks from pre-recorded music. In hip hop every piece of recorded sound—from Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders to hit recordings from classic rock bands like Aerosmith—became raw material for creating new musical compositions.

Finally—and again like rock n’ roll before it—hip hop is not just about the music. Its ethos has influenced and shaped virtually every aspect of contemporary culture—from visual art and dance to film, food, and fashion. Even if you don’t listen to hip hop, you live in a world that has been significantly reshaped by this influential art form. Looking back, it’s been a really good and impressive 50 years.

Northern Illinois University professor and author