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Something You Do Vs. Something You Live

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One of the primary topics emcees rap about, aside from their own skill on the microphone, is hip hop itself—the music, the fashion, what hip hop is and what it isn’t.

It’s a tautology that, as far as I can tell, is practically non-existent in other forms of music. Rock and roll dabbles in the occasional self reference, but the act is nearly compulsory in hip hop. If every emcee’s first verse is about how amazing they are, their second verse is about how much they love hip hop.

The uninitiated might ask if rappers are really just rapping about rapping, to which we reply, no, they’re rapping about hip hop. As KRS-One has pointed out, “rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” Rap is one part of a larger hip hop culture, which also includes dj-ing, graffiti and breakdancing, and sometimes street fashion.

So, how do you tell if a song you’re listening to is actually hip hop, or if it’s merely music with rap? The right answer, but also the least helpful one, is that you know it when you hear it-- although my personal taste almost always requires that a dj be present, and not just a producer. Turntables and record-scratching are essential. Beyond that, if an artist gives a nod to graffiti, djs or break dancers at least once in a while, that seems to be good enough to be counted.

Oh, and they have to write at least one good verse about hip hop. Minimum.