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From Hip-Hop to Rock n Roll


By Desi K. Robinson


Hip hop and rap music have seen over 25 years of sceptics, onlookers, self-made moguls and worshippers. Hip hop music emerged in New York City, specifically the Bronx, in the early 1970s. 


Pioneers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaata, with Jamaican influences, developed their energy from parties, the element of the live show, using spontaneous ‘toasting’ (making up short raps to the beat of music) over vinyl tracks, offering a call and response from the D.J. to the M.C., and the use of turntables to cut and mix over the main piece of music creating “break beats,” mixing lead guitar riffs and drum beats at the breaks.


This music that came from the streets spoke directly to the condition of New York’s economy and took storytelling of the social condition to another level. Rap too, has infiltrated the mainstream and hip hop culture and speaks not only from and to a black urban audience, but also the world.


Rap music is used to tell the stories of youth in Europe, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Through the gangstas, hotties, hoochies, bling bling, and reaction to incidents like the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, hip hop, in the year 2001, emerged with a mission of peace.


Although politically, hip hop has rarely been on the positive side of politics, the hip hop community decided it needed to make a strong political statement and presented a Hip Hop Declaration of Peace to United Nations leaders. The declaration contained 25 paragraphs of thought and opinion from leading rappers about the socially conscious direction they believe rap needs to take to continue on a path to social change and empowerment.


    Hip-hop pioneer: Grand Master Flash

Rock N Roll is probably the most loosely defined of genres, as the influence of rock n roll is far-reaching. Rock N Roll started off in the
U.S. in the early-to-mid 1950s. African American artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino played a rousing brand of dance music predominantly to African American crowds.


While these key early rockers were indisposed to racism, local authorities and dance halls were very much divided upon racial lines. Mainstream acceptance of rock n roll came shortly after when white artists signed to major labels and started covering their material. Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash often toured and played together in dance halls and clubs across the U.S. and Britain.


The original artists began to get a bit more of the respect they deserved by the end of the 1950s. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was played to “chessboard" crowds (both black and white patrons). What is now known as the “British Invasion” followed shortly after, with the Beatles leading the way.


There are offshoots of rock and roll in surf music, psychedelic rock, folk rock, soft rock, classic rock, hard rock, grunge and the list goes on. With the promise of sex and the reckless abandon of drugs, rock n roll speaks on many levels. Where country music calmly asks the listener to contemplate compromised freedom and justifies war, rock has traditionally saved the rage for the war not fought for emboldening its music.


One of the most defining sounds of this era is Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar riffs and heavy feedback as he satirized the U.S national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," as a protest against the Vietnam War. Artists like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin, and Simon and Garfunkel used rock n roll as their platform to sing out about war, justice, peace, free love and the occasional LSD trip.

If Rock N Roll was rebellion, then punk rock begged for a scolding. Originally a reaction to the lush, producer-driven sounds of disco and the perceived commercialism of progressive rock, early punk borrowed heavily from the garage band ethic, which did not require excellent musicianship. Punk was stripped-down, three-chord music that could be played easily.


Many of these bands also intended to shock mainstream society, rejecting the “peace and love” image of the prior musical rebellion of the 1960s which punk thought had degenerated into mellow disco culture. CBGB is to punk what Studio 54 is to disco. Artists like Richard Hell, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads and others took to the stage at this clearinghouse of underground rock in New York’s lower east side, changing music for years.


The punk movement was born out of an intellectual movement, then spread to Britain, where it became a more violent form of expression with the proto-typical band The Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols chose aggressive stage names ("Johnny Rotten" and "Sid Vicious") and did their best to live up to them, deliberately rejecting anything that symbolized the establishment in Britain when they toured.


Their first two singles, "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen" got folks talking and, despite an airplay ban on the BBC, the record rose to the top chart position in the UK. The Sex Pistols paved the way for many other political bands like The Clash, whose approach showed less anarchy but was more overtly political and idealistic.  Artsier bands like Wire and The Fall gave punk another side.

Top 40/Pop music salutes artists from every genre and each side of the middle. Pioneers like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince have revolutionized the genre with the inclusion of dance and video as staples in the production. Who even dares produce a song without a video in this day and age? Even they are not without their platform, be it children’s rights, sexual freedom, free speech or artistic liberties. Pop music is a catchall net that leaves room for fun, creativity, tradition, and even error.

Music will continue to tell the story of our lives. The story of our lives reflects the journey of the man, the woman, and the child. This journey is reality as we see it. We recognize the deepest part of our own existence in music and our existence is continually validated in it. Because everyone’s reality and interpretation of it is dictated by the human condition, it serves as a mirror of what we want and do not want to see.


The beauty, rage, greed, compassion, hatred, recklessness, devotion, giddy delusion, success and perversion all exist in soul, jazz, hip hop, punk, blues, reggae, gospel, rock n roll, pop, country and folk music and everything in between.


Some of the most recognizable people in the world are musicians because they have made a living out of holding up that mirror. 


Desi K. Robinson is with Ricenpeas - an award-winning film production company.


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