Understanding the 9 Essential Elements of Hip Hop

Last Updated on January 23, 2023

If you're a fan of hip hop, you need to know the most important elements of hip hop and rap.

Hip-hop is not just a music style, but a culture that involves singers, poetry, and paintings. Everyone has heard of it, but do they all know what the hip-hop culture is? Some of the main elements of this urban culture are breakdance, rap, DJs, and graffiti. As we look to dissect each of these elements, we'll first see a short history of hip-hop and how it snowballed from house parties to the large concerts and hits we see today.

A short history of hip-hop

Those who are not conversant with the history of the movement may think that hip-hop is just a musical genre, but they have no idea that the culture goes far beyond music.

In short, hip-hop is an American cultural movement that took strength in the 1970s on the outskirts of New York. It was developed by the protagonists of the immigrant communities of Latinos, Jamaicans, and African Americans, who suffered from political and social neglect and lived through the violence of drug trafficking and gang conflicts.

This melting pot of ethnic and cultural mixtures brought together different musical styles and different styles of dances in the so-called house parties. Then, later, due to the gigantic growth in the number of regulars, these were transferred to a square in the Bronx. This was when the block parties (outdoor parties) appeared.

In the early 1980s, the scene above has protagonists/organizations such as DJ Kool Herc, DJ Africa Bambaataa, DJ Holywood, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore, and DJ Grand Master Flash. These professionals are known as responsible for the origin, development, and diffusion of the hip-hop culture.

Through the organization, Zulu Nation, founded by Africa Bambaataa, the “elements of hip-hop” concept was created. This brings together graffiti, DJing, MCing, B-boy, and B-girl whose motto is: peace, love, togetherness, and fun.

Their objective is to give voice, visibility, and identity to young people who practice dance (b-boy and b-girl), painting/art (graffiti), music (DJ), and compositions/poetry (MC).

We believe that instead of “elements,” the term “language” of hip-hop is the most appropriate, as it translates what each artist wants to express; wants to tell us.
Having seen a part of the history of the emergence of hip-hop, let's talk a little bit about each of the “languages.”



What are the elements of hip-hop?

Afrika Bambaataa and her collective Zulu Nation were the first to talk about these pillars, which some current rappers don't even know about.


1. DJ

The use of turntables is one of the pillars of hip-hop. Not only scratching is a heritage from hip-hop to the world of music. So are remixes, fading, and beat drops, which are fueled by electronics, pop, and practically any current genre.

The DJ and his pickups (record players) are related to the musicality of strong beats and the instrumentalization of hip-hop. He is responsible for party beats.
It is the DJ who represents the essence of this culture because it was around music (rap) that the other elements started to organize themselves. He leads the MC rhyme, the B-boy dance, and the graffiti artist's inspiration.

Today, the DJ is considered a musician, after the introduction of the GradMixer DST scratches in the song “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock, which sees an increase in composition and not just effect.

The breakbeat is the creation of a beat on top of existing compositions. It's a kind of loop. Its creator DJ Kool Herc developed this technique allowing B.Boys to dance and MCs to sing.

Beat-Juggling is the creation of compositions by DJs on turntables, with different records and songs. There are several types of DJs: the group DJ, dance, party, anniversary, or event DJ in general and the competition DJ. They make technique and creativity the essential elements in the music, to awaken and hold the public's attention.

A competition DJ is a DJ who develops and performs presentations containing scratches, beats, and even cuts different discs (samples). These DJs compete with each other using any and every piece of music on vinyl.


2. MC

The master of ceremony is the spokesman who reports, through articulations of rhymes, the problems, needs, and experiences in general of the ghettos. Not only does he describe, but he also sends messages of alert and guidance. The MC's main function is to animate a party and contribute with people to have fun.

Many MCs at the beginning of hip-hop would give messages, send songs, and simply liven up the parties with some rhymes. The first MC was Coke La Rock, the MC who animated Kool Herc's parties.

Image source: Jimdo

The MC is one who through his rhymes, shows the various forms of claim, anguish, and injustice with the most unfavorable social classes showing the power of transformation.

The literal translation of rap is Rhythm and Poetry, that is, poetry made through rhymes, usually done at a higher speed than hip hop. Rap is most often done without the accompaniment of any instrument, or simply a DJ mixer.

The MC is considered as “the consciousness”, “the thought” of hip-hop. It is through the lyrics of his rap that hip-hop fans express their ideas and denounce their needs and disappointments with the world.


3. Breakdance

Breakdancing, by convention, includes B-boying, Popping, and Locking. Despite having the same origin, they are from different places and therefore have varying influences. Since the beginning of the 1960s, when the wave of black music hit the United States, the population of large cities felt greater proximity to these artists, mainly for their true way of showing the soul in their songs.

The gangs of the time used the break to dispute territory. The gang that stood out the best was the one that commanded the territory. The dance is inspired by the movements of war.

Those who express themselves bodily are no less important than those who do otherwise. The b-boys and b-girls tend to adapt to their influences style gymnastics capoeira and martial arts, among others. We recommend you check out the work of Rock Steady Crew.

B-boys and B-girls represent the “dance language” of the hip-hop culture. As we explained earlier, hip-hop was born at street parties, which led to the concept that hip-hop dances are street dances or urban dances. But this universe is infinitely larger.

Correctly styled, the dances of the hip-hop and funk styles are divided into:

  • Up Rock/Breaking
  • Breaking
  • Locking
  • Popping

And still, within that division, we find other styles like robot, waking, rocking, footwork, top rock, bogaloo, and so on.


4. Graffiti

Known as plastic expression, the graffiti are drawings, nicknames, or messages on any subject, made with spray, roller, and brush on walls. Being considered by many to be an art form, graffiti is used by many, as a form of expression and denunciation.

Graffiti is the most genuine expression of pigments, textures, and surfaces in urban street galleries, to create dynamics, movement, and registration of icons.

Graffiti artists, also called “writers”, often write their names on the works or draw attention to government problems or social issues, representing the plastic art of hip-hop culture.

Image source

However, graffiti in public or private places, without authorization from the respective owners, is an activity prohibited by law in several countries, including Brazil.

Nothing like a visual, artistic, rebellious, and street manifestation to complement the culture of hip-hop.


The new pillars of hip hop culture

After the 4 basic elements, there are another 5 that are considered essential parts of today's hip-hop. These were narrated by KRS-One in the song “9 elements”.


1. Beatboxing

Among the pillars of culture, many consider the beatbox as the fifth element. In fact, for them, there are 5 basics of hip-hop. It combines oral and corporal ability with rhythmic elements. What more could we ask for?

The beatbox is the generation of varied sounds through the vocal cords simulating the sound of other instruments to create music and based on rhythm and melody patterns.

Long before the origin of hip-hop, these techniques were already used in other cultures and musical styles such as blues, or even earlier, in traditional African music and even in Chinese culture.

But within hip-hop culture, its birth has a logical explanation in the lack of resources to reproduce music in the poorest neighborhoods of New York, where hip-hop was born. This is how the pioneers of the beatbox began, creating percussions with their voice, making it increasingly complex by adding bass sounds, always to serve as a basis for the first MCs to release their rhymes when there was no DJ to play music.


2. Street fashion

Image credit: Alibaba

Sneakers, caps, jewelry, and baggy pants. When it comes to fashion and the periphery in New York, we're talking about hip-hop culture. Marginalized in its beginnings, the style of the ghetto gradually became dominant and it is not an exaggeration to say that today it influences half the world. Although hip-hop has taken over the streets of all New York, it is on the periphery that new trends continue to emerge.

For Urban Dictionary, street fashion shows your personality in a cool and trendy way, although it can be controversial for those who do not belong to the culture.


3. Slang

In hip-hop, slang is a predominant language. It is referred to as “street language” and “our verbal communication” by KRS.

To understand what the artistes say in hip-hop, more attention is needed. They use their vocabularies, from a colloquial language. In the lyrics of rap and the speech of hip-hoppers, we find a new universe of words, which were collected from chats and searches on websites specialized in the theme. They are neologism, the majority created by them, that mix other languages with English.

These slangs are renewed every day and depending on the region, they have other meanings. The following are some of these expressions:

  • Back to back – DJ performance using two identical discs, reversing the direction of rotation at random intervals.
  • Ballads – Parties.
  • Bass – a type of heavier rhythmic beat.
  • Headbang – rap style most heard by skaters. It has a strong, heavy beat.


4. Street knowledge

In the book The Fifth Element of hip-hop: Knowledge, Travis L. Gosa affirms that knowledge is the fifth basic pillar of this culture since, without it, the other elements would not form cohesion. According to Gosa, Bambaataa's vision of hip-hop was focused on it as a force for social change.

For Urban Dictionary, street knowledge is what comes from the experiencing of things that are outside of your bubble. To understand street knowledge, one must walk, alone or with someone, to know the scope of reality. That is, you not only have to know things but use that knowledge in practical terms.

Common Sense is defined by KRS-One as street knowledge. According to him, it's the wisdom of the elders from way back.


5. Street entrepreneurship

Street entrepreneurship is a key element in the hip-hop industry. And it's why the genre has grown to become a mainstay of global music culture, generating a means of existence for thousands of people.

“There's no job,” KRS-One raps about the reality faced by those in hip-hop. “Just get up, call them, and get it.”


In conclusion

Hip Hop goes far beyond music, it is a mixture of culture and social movements that help the peripheral population to expose their freedom of communication and feelings related to the social policies of the favelas. Hip Hop goes far beyond music. It is related to the social policies of the ghettos. People consume and base their ideas on what the media says. Rap is music and Hip Hop is a social, political, and cultural movement.

Hip-hop is currently more than just MCs, DJs, breakdancing, and graffiti. As a culture that encompasses many aspects of people's lifestyles, hip-hop has four basic elements – some add the beatbox as the fifth element. Right from the evolution of hip-hop as a representation of the voice and culture of the community to today's adaptation, 9 pillars of the culture have been taken into account. They are the true elements of the music genre.