Showing, Seeing: Hip-Hop, Visual Culture, and the Show-and-Tell Performance

Article excerpt

Nearly forty years have passed since the global emergence of hip-hop culture. When the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" hit the airwaves in 1979 around Christmastime, casual observers--myself included--viewed the song as little more than the next radio hit (I was a Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind, & Fire fan). By the time the Sugar Hill Gang became popular in the United States and Western Europe, writes music critic Mir Wermuth, "hip-hop had begun to reach a more international audience." "Rapper's Delight" is usually cited as the start of hip-hop history; the song traveled to Tokyo discos that same year. It ranks #248 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, #2 on About.com's 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs, and #2 on VH1's 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs (#1 is Public Enemy's masterpiece "Fight the Power").

What Is Hip-Hop?

Hip-hop is a North American cultural phenomenon that was created in the early 1970s. The roots of hip-hop are usually ascribed to New York's South Bronx and the introduction of the Jamaican sound system. Its cultural forms or common activities-DJing (i.e., "turntablism"), rapping (i.e., "emceeing"), dancing (i.e., "breaking" or breakdancing), and art writing ("graffiti art")--function as a source of identity formation and social status by and for Black and Latino young people. (1) While language and fashion (clothing styles) have always been part of hip-hop's cultural expression, it has been only recently that critics and observers acknowledged them as part of the phenomenon. Recently, the cultural expressions of hip-hop have expanded to include other creative forms such as writing rhymes and poetry, theater, and some forms of activism. (2)

Hip-hop has important antecedents in the 1960s and 1970s. The impact of the Black Arts Movement (1968-1972) on hip-hop cultural production cannot be overstated. As cultural critic Tricia Rose points out, its cultural production is indebted to black musical figures such as the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Millie Jackson, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Curtis Mayfield, as well as the speeches, comedy, and literary works of Iceberg Slim, Rudy Ray Moore, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Muhammad Ali.

Other iconic figures include the Jamaican sound system toasters (DJs who rapped over instrumental dub music and reggae records they played) such as Lee "Scratch" Perry and Max Romeo. Latino American influences in breakdancing, graffiti art writing, and poetry are seminal to the origins of hip-hop. The Slam poetry movement and the poetry of Nuyorican Poets Cafe are intimately linked to Puerto Rican and black oral traditions. Other critical elements that contribute to the language of hip-hop are youth gang culture, blaxploitation and martial arts films, disco, double-dutch (rope jumping), comic books and commercial advertising, skate culture, house music, Rastafarianism, and Islam. (3)

The commercial exploitation of hip-hop culture has transformed its various elements into a global force and a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2001, Ebony magazine reported that hip-hop represented a ten-billion-dollar business. In The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, journalist Dan Charnas discusses corporate America's early flirtations with hip-hop, the evolution of the record deal, corporate appropriation of rap music, and hip-hop's influence on corporate marketing. According to Charnas, there are five industry-changing moments: 1) the Sugar Hill Gang getting on American Pop Radio and "Rapper's Delight"; 2) Run-DMC's "Rock Box" video getting on MTV; 3) hip-hop record label Def Jam signing with Columbia, which was owned by CBS; 4) Yo MTV Raps!; and 5) Def Jam being sold to Universal Music Group for over 200 million dollars. Hip-hop is the predominant popular culture of global youth. (4)

Fascination with hip-hop extends to visual objects and images. In 2006, the National Museum of American History launched a major collecting initiative, "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life. …