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Way Back In The Day When Hip Hop Began

hansthijs / Flickr / Creative Commons

When hip hop began, it sounded like this:

This is Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, from 1979-- the year I was born, and six years after DJ KoolHerc invented the breakbeat. As one of the first hip hop records, it’s emblematic of a lot of early rap music: it’s a long track and the emcees throw in pretty much every rhyme in the book. At that point, hip hop was still largely party music, with rappers functioning primarily as boosters for the deejay.

By the time hip hop got to my ears, it sounded like this:

This is KRS-ONE. The year, 1995, is generally regarded as the tail end of the “Golden Age” of hip hop, a period of incredible artistic development and diversity. To me, a white kid from Kansas, the music was as far away from my experience as New York City is from Wichita. But like any great storytelling, hip hop excels in its capacity to speak to those qualities and experiences that make us human.

In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from KoolHerc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not.

This is the new American Songbook.