What Makes It Hip Hop?

An interesting question; at least I thought so. Of course there are the canned and cliche responses — hip hop is a culture, it’s comprised of four key elements, etc, etc.

But, really, my question is: Is that a valid definition for what hip hop is today? Should we continue to cling to the original definition or should it be expanded to include a broader cultural canon? Maybe more-so than what “is” hip hop, the question should be, what pertains to hip hop.

I really hadn’t pondered this in too much detail (except for at one point when I raised the question whether or not skateboarding had infiltrated hip hop culture to our Twitter followers about a year ago) until recently. I heard something pretty interesting, something that made me reconsider my views and interpretations.

I saw an interview with Nas where he was talking about the early days of rap on the radio and recording songs on cassette tapes. He was listing off songs that he remembers as his favorite rap songs from the time when he mentioned something entirely unexpected — “We Will Rock You” by Queen.

Nas said that “We Will Rock You” by Queen was a rap record. It floored me.

Not so much in the sense that I thought, “he’s wrong!” But, more-so in the sense that it made me think about things in an entirely new light. After all, if Nas — one of the greatest to ever do it — said that Queen put out a rap record, who the hell am I to argue the fact?

From then on, I started thinking more about the larger definition of hip hop culture and the way that our editorial coverage has been expanding as of late. (If you haven’t noticed, we’ve begun to cover certain movies, games, technology, skateboarding, art and other cultural things we feel are closely related, if not ingrained, into the modern-day interpretation of hip hop culture).

After all, think about it. While comic books and super heroes really hold no weight in the original definition of hip hop culture — although it can be argued that they relate to graffiti in some ways — it’s obvious that a huge number of hip hop heads (or, hip hop nerds, if you will) have an attachment to the stories of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and other popular comic book characters. So, even though it’s not one of the “original four” elements, comics and graphic novels have, in some ways, grown into the culture.

It’s not like in this modern day and age people are sitting around only doing or thinking things that are explicitly outlined as “hip hop” in nature. We’re diverse people, and hip hop has become a diverse culture. For better or worse, it seems unavoidable for a publication like ours — one that has always championed artistic expression and vintage ethos — to expand our horizons to some extent.

Hopefully it’s for the better. I think it is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it. I know that I consider myself a product of hip hop culture (whatever that means exactly) and I enjoy things other than just MCing, DJing, breaking and graffiti art. I like other types of modern art, video games, movies, skateboarding, comics and anything that I grew up with an affinity for.

I think the question “what makes it hip hop?” is actually solved by answering the question, “who makes it hip hop?”.

Hip hop was founded as a culture of the underprivileged, the poor, the outnumbered and the creative. It was about expression and creativity. Art and culture. Imagination. But, it was grounded by the limited resources available to those in poverty, which meant it was about making due and making something out of nothing.

I think that’s the thing that really binds together the elements of modern-day hip hop culture. It’s not about race or location. It’s about creating culture and art from nothing, finding beauty in the barest of places.

Where do you find beauty?

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