The roots of Hiphop are found in West African and African-American music. The griots of West Africa are a group of traveling singers and poets, whose musical style is reminiscent of hiphop. Within New York City, griot-like performances of poetry and music by artists such as The Last Poets and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin had a great impact on the post-civil rights era culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Hiphop arose during the 1970s when block parties became common in New York City, especially the Bronx. Block parties were usually accompanied by music, especially funk and soul music. The early DJs at block parties began isolating the percussion breaks to hit songs, realizing that these were the most dance-able and entertaining parts; this technique was then common in Jamaica and had spread via the substantial Jamaican immigrant community in New York City, especially the “godfather” of hiphop, DJ Kool Herc.
Dub had arisen in Jamaica due to the influence of American sailors and radio stations playing R&B. Large sound systems were set up to accommodate poor Jamaicans, who couldn’t afford to buy records, and dub developed at the sound systems (refers to both the system and the parties that evolved around them). Herc was one of the most popular DJs in early 70s New York, and he quickly switched from using reggae records to funk, rock and, later, disco, since the New York audience did not particularly like reggae. Because the percussive breaks were generally short, Herc and other DJs began extending them using an audio mixer and two records. Mixing and scratching techniques eventually developed along with the breaks. (The same techniques contributed to the popularization of remixes.) Such looping, sampling and remixing of another’s music, usually without the original artist’s knowledge or consent, can be seen as an evolution of Jamaican Dub music, and would become a hallmark of the hiphop style.
Later DJs such as Grandmaster Flash refined and developed the use of breakbeats, including cutting. As in dub, performers began speaking while the music played; these were originally called MCs; Herc focused primarily on DJing, and began working with two MCs, Coke La Rock and Clark Kent—this was the first emcee crew, Kool Herc & the Herculoids. Originally, these early rappers focused on introducing themselves and others in the audience (the origin of the still common practice of “shouting out” on hiphop records). These early performers often emceed for hours at a time, with some improvisation and a simple four-count beat, along with a basic chorus to allow the performer to gather his thoughts (such as “one, two, three, y’all, to the beat, y’all”).
Later, the MCs grew more varied in their vocal and rhythmic approach, incorporating brief rhymes, often with a sexual or scatological theme, in an effort at differentiating themselves and entertaining the audience. These early raps incorporated similar rhyming lyrics from African American culture, such as the dozens. While Kool Herc & the Herculoids were the first hiphoppers to gain major fame in New York, more emcee teams quickly sprouted up. Frequently, these were collaborations between former gang members, such as Afrikaa Bambaataa‘s Universal Zulu Nation (now a large, international organization). Melle Mel, a rapper/lyricist with The Furious Five is often credited with being the first rap lyricist to call himself an “MC.” During the early 1970s, breakdancing arose during block parties, as b-boys and b-girls got in front of the audience to dance in a distinctive, frenetic style. The style was documented for release to a world wide audience for the first time in Beat Street.
Although there were many early MCs that recorded solo projects of note, such as DJ Hollywood, Kurtis Blow, and Spoonie Gee, real notoriety didn’t appear until later with the rise of soloists with big stage presence and drama, such as LL Cool J. Most early Hiphop was dominated by groups where collaboration among the members was integral to the show.