Do You Really Know Hip-Hop?

DJ Kool, OutKast, and Run D.M.C are all synonymous with rap music and hip-hop culture. But what is hip-hop?

According to Regina N. Bradley, assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies, hip-hop is a true American art form.

“It’s an entire, thriving culture where stories, experiences and people come together to create incredible meaning and dialogue that started in the black and brown communities and has expanded into a means by which these communities communicate about where they fit in American society.”

Regina N. Bradley, assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Kennesaw State University

Bradley, who has been studying Southern hip-hop for over a decade, co-hosts a podcast with Atlanta NPR Affiliate WABE-FM called, Bottom of the Map, where she and her co-host, Christina Lee, discuss the culture and stories surrounding Southern hip-hop and its impact on society.

“Our show is not only for fans of hip-hop, we try to give perspective to this art and help explain its significance to understanding southern life and culture,” she said.

According to Bradley, to better understand hip-hop, you must first understand the five foundational elements or pillars of the hip-hop culture – MCing, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, and knowledge.

1. MCing

The MC is the person with the microphone, originally the master of ceremonies though that term is rarely used now. This is the pillar many people come to when they think about hip-hop: the immediate and powerful connection to rappers, the masters of the microphone and voices of the music.

Man with Microphone

2. DJing

The manipulation of sound is controlled by the DJ. “Many people say that the day DJ Kool Herc first used stylized breaks in music is the day that hip-hop was born,” says Bradley.  The DJ is the thermometer, the person who figures out the temperature of the crowd. “DJ Jelly told me as a DJ, he’s a therapist who finds the way to make the crowd release their worry,” she explained.

3. Graffiti

Graffiti gives a visual form to accompany the sound. “Boundaries can be spongy in hip-hop. It’s a culture that intersects with the world around it,” Bradley said. Visual identities help build and inform hip-hop. Stylized building paintings and other artwork often featured on buildings, album covers and more recently in museums, provide that visual outlet.

Hip-Hop Graffiti

4. Break Dancing

Physical movement represents the lyrical flow of the music through the body. It’s a poetry in motion with innovative, unique styles of dance that reflect the unique culture of hip-hop. The style of dance grows and changes through time from breakdancing to popping, locking and to more modern dance routines.

5. Knowledge

Knowledge is the pillar that supports and connects all of the other four elements. “It’s what hip-hop is all about,” says Bradley. “Knowledge is the stories and the experiences that are told and expressed, and it’s what makes hip-hop culture truly significant.”