Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary: Genre started in New York, but has been influenced by Detroit

Hip-hop’s 50th birthday is Friday, with concerts and other events scheduled in cities nationwide, but more than music, scholars who have studied the genre say, it’s a cultural movement that has influenced much about the way we live.

And while it started in New York, it has been influenced by artists and experiences in Detroit.

Opinion:From Coleman Young to Big Gretch: Exploring Detroit hip-hop’s political evolution

Hip-hop has shaped fashion, dance, visual arts and even — one hip-hop scholar, Michigan State University Professor Emery Petchauer said — has led to a sport that will receive global recognition at the Olympics in Paris: break dancing.

With the anniversary comes considerable reflection, including conversation about the accomplishments of the cultural movement, consideration of what it has meant over these past five decades and contemplation about where it’s going next.

Hip-hop producer J Dilla, or Jay Dee, whose real name was James Yancey.

Petchauer, who is connected to two books on hip-hop, told the Free Press the anniversary is both “real and symbolic,” but also raises questions about what counts as the origins of a culture or artistic practice.

It’s real, the professor said, in that it commemorates the date of a party that Cindy Campbell threw in a Bronx, New York, apartment, and her brother, DJ Kool Herc, served as DJ. He focused on looping instrumental breaks in songs in which the drummer plays, the “most stripped down, bare-bones percussive part of a record” — innovating the break beat.


But others, the professor said, including Detroit artists, have also had roles over the years in shaping hip-hop, including the late J Dilla — real name James Yancey — a record producer, songwriter and rapper who influenced the genre’s sound.

His synthesizer and drum machine are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Active from 1993 to 2006, Dilla’s innovative style that juxtaposed straight and swing rhythm influenced producers across the genre, also affecting modern pop and jazz music.

Dilla disciple Karriem Riggins is this year’s artist-in-residence for the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place Labor Day weekend.

More:Karriem Riggins named 2023 Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence

Fighting social injustice

The anniversary also is symbolic, Petchauer said, because the activities of hip-hop — dance, rapping, DJing, and the visuals — have “much longer, and sophisticated evolution periods.” They also are more challenging to define.

It wasn’t until 1982, he said, that hip-hop even became a term in use by mainstream media.

Moreover, Petchauer said, hip-hop has been tied to trying to fight social and economic injustice, which is evident in Detroit. The city, he said, has had a “rich, community-based, activist-oriented hip-hop tradition.”

In a recent New York Times Magazine column, Wesley Morris offered his description of hip-hop:

“Half a century of effrontery, dexterity, elasticity, rambunctiousness, ridiculousness, bleakness, spunk, swagger, juice, jiggle and wit, of defiant arrogance, devastating humor, consumptive lust and violent distress, of innovation, danger, doubt and drip.” 

He also described some of his own emotions about it and questioned whether the movement’s genesis can be pinpointed to a specific date, while acknowledging that it has influenced modern culture nationwide.

“I knew the magazine covers and concerts and TV specials were coming, but I wasn’t feeling it,” Morris wrote. “Seemed too arbitrary a date. Or maybe just impossible to ascertain. What I did feel was that hip-hop has so thoroughly infused the atmosphere of American life (we’ll just start with this country), that it has pushed so much forward — who cares that it’s pushing 50?”

Hip-hop in education

Petchauer contends that hip-hop as a tool for social justice has been a part of the movement from the start. Black and Latino youth, he said, used “whatever was around them to be creative” and it grew into “global entertainment industries.”

It also, he added, has had a role in educating younger generations.

A professor in MSU’s English and education departments, Petchauer has studied hip-hop’s connections to teaching. His book, “Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives,” is described by MSU as the first “scholarly study of hip-hop culture on college campuses.”

Petchauer studied how hip-hop artists used the culture in their educational lives, and, in another book, at how teachers and educators have used the elements and expressions of hip-hop in their classrooms and their influence on students.

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Ruth Brown, who also is a MSU professor and the inaugural chair of university’s department of African American and African Studies, adds that hip-hop is not just “something we consume,” but it also is “something that we make and do.”

“Hip-hop’s influence in the United States and globally is undeniable,” she added. “Hip-hop culture is expansive. Hip-hop is informed by and also transforms the social, political, economic, educational and cultural systems through which it is expressed, created, produced and circulated.” 

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

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