What is hip-hop? An attempt to define the cultural phenomenon as it celebrates 50 years

Hip-hop is everywhere.

The phenomenon has threaded through society since it was born in the Bronx in 1973. Hip-hop is on radio, television, fashion and sports arenas. This year the movement is celebrating a special birthday: Hip-hop is turning 50, marking half a century of musical hits from greats like Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, Run-DMC, Missy Elliott, as well as iconic dances, fashions, movies and so much more.

While hip-hop has become such a massively known culture, like many great movements, it’s not easy to define.

So, as we look back at a society-changing culture, USA TODAY breaks down what hip-hop is and its significance.

Missy Elliott performing onstage during the Strength of a Woman's MJB “Celebrating Hip Hop 50” Concert in Partnership with Mary J. Blige, Pepsi, and Live Nation Urban at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.

What is hip-hop?

Hip-hop is more than musical hits from greats like Drake, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Snoop Dogg, Kanye, Doja Cat, Jay-Z and a slew of others.

Baseline, hip-hop is a cultural movement that incorporates some basic elements including rapping, DJ-ing, dancing — breakdancing in particular — graffiti and more: it’s visual art, sonic art and physical art, A.D. Carson, assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south at University of Virginia and a performance artist, tells USA TODAY.

“It’s not just these products, but it’s the way that those certain products get made, or those cultural forms get made. And so it’s sort of a cultural force,” Carson says. “That is, it’s more than just what it produces. It’s also how it produces those things.”

Its staying power, Carson says, comes from the resilience that is embedded in hip-hop. “I think it is sort of …. America’s extractive relationship with Black culture.”

Who started hip-hop and how?

August marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Legends Recording, the organizers behind a slew of events honoring the milestone, sums up the birth of hip-hop at a party in 1973: “Clive, better known as DJ Kool Herc, plays two copies of the same record, a technique known as the merry-go-round where one moves back and forth, from one record to the next, looping the percussion portions of each track to keep the beat alive,” the anniversary website reads. “And amongst this community of dancers, artists, musicians and poets… Hip-Hop is Born.”

The Kennedy Center also acknowledges DJ Kool Herc’s “throwing the switch” moment as what really kicked off the hip-hop movement.

“The effect that night was electric, and soon other DJs in the Bronx were trying to outdo Herc,” The Kennedy Center says on its website. “It was a code that has flowed through hip-hop ever since: 1) Use skills and whatever resources are available to create something new and cool; 2) Emulate and imitate the genius of others but inject personal style until the freshness glows. Competition was, and remains, a prime motivator in the hip-hop realm.”

The way the marker is being used is what Carson calls a “narrative investment in seeing all of the things that are going on in a lot of different places under the same umbrella.”

What is the difference between hip-hop and rap?

Hip-hop is at times accepted as synonymous with rap. But the reality is nuanced, says Carson and suggests a metaphor: “Imagine you have a multi-car garage. Then rap would be one of the cars that’s in the garage, the garage itself would be hip-hop.”

Why is it called ‘hip-hop’?

How the wave of art, music, fashion and more came to be called “hip-hop” is a blurry. There are plenty of people, Carson says, who have tried to pin down where the term came from.

“Many folks make make the case that it’s the first words of the song ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ the first words are ‘hip-hop,'” Carson says, referring to Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 track.

Others say that ‘hip’ is intelligence and ‘hop’ is movement, so hip-hop is “intelligent movement,” Carson says.

The naming, he says he believes, is a function of media environment and capitalism, naming something that was operating on its own terms — and then the name sticks.

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