The Art of Hip Hop - 50 Years of Greatness

Published August 11th 2023
By Jay Sanchez

Image by Darius Himes

Let me take ya’ll back to 93’, that’s’ right 1993. My neighborhood was just starting to recover from what we all know as the L.A. Riots, the craziest shit I’ve ever witnessed or experienced in my life. At that very same time the legendary Dr. Dre was putting together one of Hip Hop’s greatest body of work. The Chronic was released on December 15, 1992; this album was successful in capturing the raw emotions of the streets, at the same time it was a groundbreaking work of art. The sonics and vibrations emitted from the speakers were a hypnotic experience that still resonate deep within this very day. The Chronic went on to cement itself as one of the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time. This body of work gave recognition via its prowess and storytelling abilities. Through powerful and poignant lyrics, artists capture the realities of their experiences, focused on social issues such as racism, poverty, and systemic injustices. This form of storytelling gave the potential to raise awareness, challenge existing narratives, and prompt social change. The album successfully documented the anger and tension surrounding the streets of Los Angeles as the 1992 riots unfolded.

To truly appreciate Hip Hop, one must first examine its historical roots. The socio-economic struggles faced by Black and Brown communities in New York during the 1970s played a crucial role in the emergence of this artistic movement. Hip Hop served as a means of expression and an outlet for these marginalized groups to voice their concerns and frustrations. We also must account its influence in pop culture, for example the beautiful contributions made to art and fashion. Names like Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink, Keith Haring, A-One, Kool Koor, ERO, Futura, and of course SAMO were all part of what’s believed to be one of the most overlooked movements to take place in the 20th century. Graffiti or street art created a major bridge in the art scene in those early days. These amazing artists were all responsible for bringing the anti-establishment creative process from the streets to the canvases, and to spaces accustomed to only white wine and white walls. Hip Hop is 100% anti-establishment; no different to what Jean Michelle Basquiat was to contemporary art in the 20th century. Basquiat was Hip Hop; Hip Hop is Basquiat…

Basquiat’s powerful body of work is known to be raw, spontaneous, and uninhibited aesthetic. His work defied traditional conventions, imbuing his works with a raw energy that resonates with the vibrancy of Hip Hop culture. The graffiti-inspired motifs, bold colors, and expressive gestural marks found in Basquiat's paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to the visual language correlating Hip Hop and graffiti, with both forms of expression utilizing urban landscapes as their canvases. This shared visual language underscores the parallel intentions of Basquiat's art and the burgeoning movement - to challenge societal boundaries and give voice to overlooked perspectives.

The cultural movement that originated in the Bronx, New York in the early 1970s, has since transcended geographical boundaries, becoming a global phenomenon. It encompasses various artistic expressions, including rap, breakdancing, graffiti art, and DJ-ing. “Let me take y’all back to 73, yes 1973.” The date was August 11, 1973, turntables and speakers arrived at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. The legendary DJ Kool Herc was on tab to spin for a back-to-school celebration. In case you ain’t know, Kool Herc is known as The Godfather of Hip Hop. He is responsible for introducing a technique he called ‘The Merry-Go-Round.’ Herc pioneered a way to strip down the music by isolating the percussive nature of the breakbeat, this is known to be the instrumental section that is considered a break from the main musical pattern.

The crowds would hit the dance floor during this break. Using two copies of the same record, he turned a short moment into prolonged minutes of dance floor action, allowing break boys or ‘b-boys’ as he dubbed them to take over the floor and battle with their bodies in rhythm to the beat. Fast forward to this very day, Hip Hop Artist have continued to carry the torch while taking the culture to unimaginable heights. Why many still consider Hip Hop to be just another genre of music still fucken baffles me. This so called “genre of music” has become the most influential movement of the 20th & 21st century. It has infiltrated every urban environment from Alaska to Argentina, from Spain to Tokyo; this way of life is everywhere.

Hip Hop has also created cultural bridges while transcending language barriers. This has allowed diverse communities worldwide to connect and share their experiences, fostering understanding and empathy. For the last 5 decades, artists have created a space for cross-cultural dialogue and appreciation by challenging stereotypes and celebrating diversity. The educational potential of Hip Hop should not be underestimated. As an art form rooted in storytelling, it provides a unique avenue for engaging and empowering youth. Through Hip Hop infused curriculum, educational institutions have utilized the genre as a tool to promote creativity, critical thinking, and cultural appreciation. Moreover, Hip Hop has become a medium for youth-led initiatives and mentorship programs, providing platforms for self-expression, personal development, and social change advocacy.

The 50th anniversary of Hip Hop is also being celebrated here in Nashville, TN. Yes, Music City; a nickname that originated while The Fisk Jubilee Singers earned the praises from Queen Victoria and even Mark Twain while performing in the White House. Extraordinary painter and muralist Woke3 has partnered with Amazon, Candaid, Bonafyde Inc, and Liberated Grounds to bring 2524 Heiman Street in North Nashville yet another community healing mural. Woke3 goes into KRS-ONE mode and starts flowing “Hip is to know, it’s a form of intelligence. To be hip is to be update and relevant. Hop is a form of movement, you can’t just observe a hop, you gotta hop up and do it.”

His reference to the legendary MC and Hip-Hop pioneer becomes a visual as he caresses the concrete canvas on a hot Nashville day “through Hip Hop we’re moving towards healing; we’ve got to heal ourselves in order for Hip Hop to survive” he says. “We are also breaking free of chains through enrichment and empowerment of our communities, we’ve got to break free of all obstacles in the way” that symbolism is deeply expressed on this piece. Woke3 captures the pure essence of Hip Hop with his bold strokes and a prolific palette in a mural titled “Heal Hop”. “In the piece you also see the focus on health and wellness, this has a self representation with a spirituality aspect aiming to create healing for my community.” As his spray-can rattles, the mural suddenly takes me back to 2012, way back to the days Justin Bua created inspiration in his early work. “Hip Hop has created a space for me to be around likeminded individuals, growing up I was deep into graffiti. Through street art, I was able to create a tribe focused on individuality and self expression.” The great KRS-ONE once said “Hip Hop is an idea; It’s the pursuit of one’s authentic being through the arts. It is not a physical thing; it is an attitude-even an aptitude.