What The Hell is Real Hip-Hop?

9 min readAug 27, 2015


Let’s be clear.

First of all, when people yammer about what “real” Hip-Hop is they are only talking about one element of the culture. They are not talking about rocking (commonly called breakdancing), or graffiti (who would even link that anymore), DJing (who even uses a DJ to really, well, DJ) and certainly they are not talking about knowledge.

Thus, talk of “real” Hip-Hop is only focused on one aspect — emceeing — and if we can agree to that then we will take you someplace that you will most certainly not agree…most people have never heard real rap — and if they did, they would be indifferent or turned off.

That’s a strong ass statement that could easily turn most readers away— I’m aware. But culture is made to be viewed critically and we will do so using the tenets coined by the Zulu Nation that we mentioned above: DJing, Rocking/Bboying/Breakdancing, Emceeing, Graffiti, & Knowledge.


Coming up, if you said you were into Hip-Hop the question was, “what do you do?”

While musically astute, I never had any desire to spin records. I tried to scratch once or twice — enough to realize that wouldn’t be my calling. Couldn’t pop…or really dance for that matter. I had a good top rock, floor work, and could pull off a few moves but I would never be any competition for any true b-boy or girl. Rap? Nah. But what I excelled at — what I was really good at was graf.

Like most people, I started off with bubble letters during the summer of ’84 — but by the time ’85 rolled around, myself and my older brother (he could do everything — I swear) were proficient in the most complicated of styles — wild style. For a fee, I would write out people’s names — sometimes a cartoon character (for a few bucks more) and they would get my work sprayed on their jackets, pants, sweatsuits — whatever. I drew on notebooks, designed flyers — I was an integral part of my middle school Hip-Hop community.

(A few years later, I would learn that making flyers was an early role of many writers — Buddy Esquire being the quintessential example. Not to mention, many emcees and DJs, from the Founder of Hip-Hop himself, Kool Herc, to the teacher, KRS 1, got their start writing…but some balk at the claims of graffiti being a part of Hip-Hop, a stand championed by Grandmaster Flash, but alas…)

Graf is more alive and in more places than it ever was in the 70s or 80s with several magazines and books on the subject. Writers are flourishing all over the world. But let’s face it — unless a person parlayed their graf into graphic design — That aspect of Hip-Hop died with the 80s….at least among the masses. Technology reigns supreme in the flyer making world — it also leveled the role of the DJ.


Originally the draw of Hip-Hop, the DJ was people’s first education into this new form of music. The DJ’s stock was in their musical choices and their obscure breakbeats — the harder it was to find, the greater the acclaim. DJs scoured the bins for possible breaks, and the old adage is that in the mid to late 70s, some DJs would soak off the labels of their records to stave off the competition.

The first bit of technology that would cut the DJ down to size was the advent of vinyl bootlegging. Record store owners were taken aback with the sweeping phenomenon of people digging through old 45s and snagging two copies of the same title. It wasn’t long before the owners took note of the records of choice and started marking up the prices. Paul Winley, a producer and label owner, took it a step further when he compiled eight of the most popular breaks — from Bob James’ “Mardi Gras” to Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio” — onto one album, Super Disco Brakes (sic) Vol. 1.

This action is akin to a non-magician, stowing away among a crew of ingénieurs, learning the tricks of the trade and how they are pulled off…and then writing a book selling all the magicians’ secrets. It’s sacrilege. This development, along with the rise of the Emcee reduced the significance of the DJ…but he had some more tricks up his sleeve.

Generally speaking, DJs were the most knowledgeable when it came to music so when sampling became the order of the day, the DJ parlayed his role into being a producer. Those obscure beats now became the source of samples and up until ‘92, unless you were in the know, those beats were as mysterious to you then as they were to early fans of the music.

We discussed the role that Copyright Infringement Laws played in the demise of sample-based music last week in The Devil Killed New York Rap . We did not mention how the laws requirements of listing samples birthed a new generation of beat diggers. (For more on that phenomenon read: The New Diggers by Dart Adams) Unfortunately knowing these beats would be to no avail. That knowledge became like music nerdom and rappers moved on to producing music on electronic programs like Fruity Loops totally eschewing the need for older music ever again.

Soon, Serato and other electronic forms of DJing became popular and gave birth to the celebrity DJ. Everyone from Paris Hilton to Gwenyth Paltrow considered themselves DJs…and amazingly even began being booked to play music from their laptop.

The demise of the DJs role was complete.


Look, it didn’t take a prophet to see this coming. Rocking, or breakdancing as it’s commonly called, was the first aspect of Hip-Hop culture that was widely successful. Therefor, I won’t even go into it’s exploitation. In fact, I’ll keep it real simple.

Originally, a B-boy or B-girl, was just that — a boy or girl that danced to the Breaks. The DJ played funk tunes for most of the party but when those extended breaks came on, the dance floor would clear up, a circle would be made and the b-boys and b-girls would take the floor. It was like a call and response.

Recorded music was friendly to the B-Boy in those early years — especially the electro rap era but after the onslaught of exploitation in the form of Hollywood (most notably Breakin’, Beat Street, and the god-awful Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) Rocking became a fad among the masses in the U.S. How to books and videos sold Rubik’s cubes type numbers but were gone quicker than one could solve that said cube. Although carried on heavily among others worldwide — the music and the dancer are now separated.


If there was ever a time that “real” Hip-Hop existed, that would be between August of 1973 to October of 1979.

In that time, the music evolved from the DJ playing rare grooves with breaks, then parties with extended breaks created with two of the same record where the DJ was king, to being MC controlled with the MCs forming routines and popular sayings catapulting them into the role of star attraction. They were the Master of Ceremonies.

The slew of “yes, yes, ya’lls” and endless routines may sound crude to the average listener accustomed to recorded Rap. There was no song structure, per se — just a series of routines over constantly changing breaks. These shows were distributed via shrewd recordings which spread like wildfire through the five boroughs. But it would be many years before most people outside of the New York metropolitan area ever heard these recordings. In fact, the first time most people were exposed to rap it was via a recorded song — and let’s look at that.

(For an hour long mix of those early years of Hip-Hop, we have: fun da Mentals presents: The Backing Band Supplement Mix)

In the same way that the average listener wouldn’t be familiar to or even have an ear for non-recorded Rap, the modern fan of Rap would be lulled to sleep by the incredibly long, non-structured songs that were first dedicated to acetate in the late 70s and early 80s. “Rapper’s Delight” set the precedence clocking in at half the time of a modern sitcom. There were no rules — so songs chugged along for 14 minutes (Funky Four Plus One “Rapping and Rocking the House”) 12 minutes (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Superrappin’”) etc; these songs were serious long players. Despite their length (which mirrored many rappers routines), they were still considered inauthentic.

The claim usually hurled about is that the Sugar Hill Gang was an unknown entity in the closed-knit Hip-Hop community. Their rhymes were cartoonish (or stolen) and they hadn’t cut their teeth in the highly competitive world that was confined to the Bronx at the time. Yet, even when known crews began recording, what they put out didn’t ring true.

As mentioned above, the Emcee was merely a support to the DJ but once recording became the aim — MCs were backed by a live band; the DJ had nothing to do. To this writer’s ear, the closest approximation would be the Enjoy Records recordings — most specifically Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap” b/w Spoonie Gee & The Treacherous Three’s “New Rap Language.” “Love Rap’s” beat, laid down by Errol “King of the Beat” Bedward (aka Pumpkin), sounds like it could be a long lost break….extended for a ridiculous amount of time. And still, most people in the know felt that the records paled in comparison to the live performances.

Ironically, Run DMC’s early Larry Smith recordings, with their bare bone beat, scratches, and occasional bass or guitar flourishes, were considered to be the closest rendition of what a party jam sounded like. And while that may be true, they spelled the end of that era. Run DMC didn’t just tour the tri-state, and they didn’t open for R&B groups (like most rap bands did). Run DMC sold out coliseums — places that only the biggest acts could fill up, they starred in movies, and even became the first rap group endorsed by a major shoe company. The bar had been raised and being a local superstar was no longer enough.


The average listener of rap music knows the music from when they started being cognizant of listening. One could argue that this has always been the case — that there have always been passive fans and active fans. There is some truth to that, but while the modern fan is conditioned via repetition and familiarity, an earlier listener of Hip-Hop was educated; their palette expanded by the variety of songs played from any and every genre imaginable; it was a music pregnant for discovery.

So what is “Real” Hip Hop? The question is almost as old as the music itself; the further we get from “Rapper’s Delight,” the more confusing that question becomes. What is the criterion by which we judge? If our test group is recorded music, then our assessment isn’t inline with those people who yelled in protest when the Sugar Hill Gang shook up the scene back in October of 1979. Furthermore, who holds the keys to what is real and true? New York? If one merely used the criteria of making music for an audience to dance to, that train been left the New York station and arrived in places like Atlanta and Oakland where dance songs are churned out on a regular (and often times never leave the region).

Perhaps it’s lyricism. (It certainly no longer has anything to do with being the Master of Ceremonies)Who knows. But if we fail to define it, someone will. Look at Rock-N-Roll — the name alone conjures images of bobby socked white girls and pompadour sporting white boys, Billy Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and all that — and the average person knows little to nothing of its Black origin. Don’t think it can happen to Hip-Hop? I’m sure fans of Louis Jordan balked at the thought of their music one day being called white music — until Jordan’s label dumped him and others for the great white hope, Elvis Presley, and put their marketing behind their newly coined genre. Which is why you never hear the argument among Black folks about “What the Hell is the Jump Blues?”