Depending on how you count it, hip-hop is now fifty years old. Many people cite DJ Kool Herc’s mixing of drum breaks from songs on record players at his sister’s back-to-school party in the Bronx in 1973 as an origin point. In the ensuing decades, the style of music has become a global phenomenon, a massive commercial force, a medium for protest, a force for social justice, and an art form that can support academic study.
One sign of its importance is the existence of PBS’s Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, a four-hour series—executive produced by the rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy—that explores the history of the music and its surrounding cultural, social, political and economic context. WTTW spoke about the show with Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University who served as a historical advisor and consultant for the project while also appearing as an expert on camera.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why is it important to understand the political and social context of hip-hop?
I think it's that political, social, and cultural context that gives birth to the art form. We’re thinking about New York City; deindustrialization; the financial decline in the 1970s; and the rise of somebody like Mayor Koch, who comes into political power saying he's going to reform the city and stop the crime, and he's pointing squarely at Black and Latino Puerto Rican youths. The art form is very much a response to that local New York context, but also what's happening in America. You can't really understand or appreciate the form itself unless you really have a good sense of what is going on in America at that particular moment in time.
That remains true. You see it in hip-hop’s context in its origin in the ‘70s, its political maturity with a song like “The Message” [by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five] in 1982 responding to Reagonomics, and West Coast rap responding to police violence and police terror. You really can't make sense of what it is these young people are saying and critiquing without understanding that broader context.
You grew up in Brooklyn during this era—what was your experience of hip-hop?
As a youngster, we were listening to it. We were watching it evolve. I graduated high school in 1990. [Hip-hop] offered both escape and political messages. I remember listening to “The Message.” That was something that my parents were listening to. They were really captured by that as well.
We were listening to KRS-One and Public Enemy as almost Pied Pipers. At one level, they're reflecting the experiences that we're having as young people growing up in that moment in time. But then they're also helping us make sense of it. I was right there, like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.”
You bring up an interesting point in the series that, while hip-hop has these messages that resonate, it is also able to grow because of the rise of a Black middle class, especially in the ‘80s.
The class dynamic is one of the major ways in which hip-hop music spreads nationally, because African-American youth who are going off to college and families who are able to send their kids back South or out West for the summers bring the music with them. So much of early hip-hop is regional: you got New York, you got the South, you got Houston, you got West Coast. But it's not getting national airplay.
The Black working class and Black middle class have these shared experiences, they have these same issues. But [the Black middle class] have a different platform; they have access to opportunities and spaces outside of these centralized urban neighborhoods. They're able to put their stuff on college campuses. And that's where you really begin to see a lot of that spread, and a lot of the political messaging as well, from those who have one foot in the community and also one foot in these college campuses.