The History of Graffiti and Hip Hop, Graffiti Art History Research by All Weather Artist Rik Cheetham

CHAPTER 8. A Global Movement


“Hip Hop is one place you will find Martin Luther King Junior’s,  I have a dream speech, in action”





The history of Hip Hop, demonstrates strong multi-cultural influences and technological advances that allowed graffiti writing to become artistic and also a disciplined process. When talking about graffiti specifically, we must use the word ‘allowed’ loosely, as graffiti was not allowed. It might be better to say; this is how Art overcame the challenges it faced as graffiti.  The will to create graffiti and the art produced as a result has never been successfully censored. The artists simply adapted to the restrictions that were placed upon them. New York had been tirelessly battling what they saw as a graffiti problem, but as Hip Hop spread out of New York from coast to coast by word of mouth, radio, TV and global tourism; Style based graffiti writing came with it to cities across the World.


The expressions of Hip Hop already existed globally , in its individual elements of spoken word, turntablism, dance and graffiti. Hip Hop is born of cultural syncretism, all elements of Hip Hop pre-date Hip Hop as an organised movement. In New York, the elements of Hip Hop became organised by the likes of Cindy (surname), Kool Herc, Afrika Bambataa and Grand Master Flash, becoming a vocation for New York's youth with the aim of creating love, peace, unity and safely having fun. Organising the elements of Hip Hop created the arena within which the participants were motivated to excel in their chosen discipline. The unification of the Hip Hop elements reconnected the world with arts and a means of self creation. A generation ready to find identity and respect through the arts and music. Whatever your style,  Hip Hop accepts all without discrimination.  It is the combination and unity of several independent cultures creating a hetrogeneous movement of people. In the words of KRS ONE; “Hip Hop is one place you will find Martin Luther King Jnr’s I have a dream speech in action”. Style was all it was about, but not style in the fashionable sense of being stylish, rather in finding your own unique sense of style and reflecting it via a creative discipline.


I know that the phrase Hip Hop to those who have engaged only with the corporate depiction rather than the cultural life-style, sums up a sinister, violent, urban culture within which, it might be hard to imagine where art belongs. Sadly, this is primarily the result of the commercialisation of the hip-hop product and is more a reflection of mainstream societies tastes than that of the practitioners of Hip Hop. This is not to say Hip Hop does not touch on these subjects by way of the genuine portrayal of violence and crime in the material of those who are part of the Hip Hop culture. It should not be interpted as something Hip Hop created, but as the reason WHY Hip Hop was created.  Hip Hop aimed to create an escape where love, peace, unity and safely having fun existed.


Take a moment to consider this.


Now consider the social conditions surrounding the transitional period when Hip Hop made the leap from being a localised movement to it’s journey across the globe.  At the height of a second wave of economic depression, low employment and a state of cold war with Russia. Crime was increasing on the street as times became harder and drug use was on the rise. Graffiti Artists were feeling frustrated and censored as the NYC Clean Car programme and other initiatives took effect. Parties were shut down in the Policing of drugs and gangs. Kids were being stopped, searched, beaten or even losing their lives at the hands of those that were employed to serve and protect.  Groups of young people who formed crews to ensure their safety when they were out painting, were labelled and accused of being gangs. Family, friends and neighbours were dying in the street. As a creative, impressionable young mind, what do you imagine you would be writing about? The second Hip Hop generation had a great deal to be angry about. Hip Hop provided and still provides a way to escape, document and survive in the face of extreme social deprivation.


The ideas behind Hip Hop were capturing imaginations Worldwide whilst technology and resourcefulness placed the arts back in the hands of ordinary people, carving out a channel for positive energy, and the will to be stronger creatively.


As Hip Hop music started to become popular with hits such as Rappers Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang, ‘The Message’ by Melle Mel, Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambataa; the cultural figureheads of what was still a fairly localised industry, encouraged Hip Hop to unionise in order to protect the credibility of the product and the principles of the culture.


Hip Hop is a creative product. It is made from nothing and costs nothing to create. The consequence was that the people who were innovating were also often struggling to find a way out of poverty. The product was “home made” and often recycled. People were producing mix tapes, playing live in the parks and at parties. They were creating art, music and fashion; but this was not a profitable concept for any potential investor. The idea of consumers making something from nothing was one which any business would not want to embrace or promote. If your customers are making the products, then what are they buying?


The second generation of Hip Hop was hungry and what they had done, simply for respect in their local neighbourhoods previously, they were now being offered big money to do for corporate record labels. Curtis Blow was the first to sign to mercury records in 1981 with  “these are the breaks”.  Afterwards the flood-gates opened and many MCees wanted representation.


A  young producer called Russell Simmons started Def Jam Records off the back of Sugar Hill Records. The record labels that bought in to Hip Hop culture, packaged the lifestyle into recognisable products.  Think of Run DMC’s third album, “raising hell” featuring a track named ‘My Adidas’ in 1986 celebrating the iconic Shell Toe sneakers now synonymous with Hip Hop culture.


However whilst making its transition into the mainstream the Hip Hop generation were to face the greatest social challenge of the time. A challenge which would destroy lives and pollute minds yet ironically also fund young entrepreneurs to take control and release music at a time when the World’s spotlight was upon them. Crack Cocaine. Drugs reignited the violence which Hip Hop had tried to curb in the inner city communities. Some artists spoke out publicly against the violence after Boogie Down Productions founding member, SCOTT LA ROC, was killed in a shooting in 1986. Following that, a youth was killed in a fight at a Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy Concert. KRS ONE started the Stop The Violence Movement in 1987 in response; with a vision to restore Hip Hop’s original principles to the music industry.


Crack and heroin use was prolific. Dealers were becoming ‘Ghetto Kings’, buying cars, jewellery and branded clothing with their profits which fed a new image of what urban culture was. The West Coast of the U.S was hit by Crack before New York was, and with the epidemic in full swing, rappers were documenting the brutal lifestyle they lived. Many rappers and record labels were funded by gangs and drug money,  promoting product and spreading word of their notoriety. Creating the ability to fund independent record labels including names such as Death Row Records founded in 1991. The Hip Hop product started to speak about of the pursuit of money, rather than the pursuit of excellence. With money, people could buy clothes, accessories, cars and sneakers.  All the things that popular culture wanted to sell.


In the same way as we think of the cliche “sex drugs and Rock N Roll” belonging to the rebellious generation before; The image of “gangs, guns and rap music” was placed upon the Hip Hop culture of this generation. The art influenced by graffiti production that illustrated the streets, found its way legitimately on to the billboards and record covers, which would compete with its illicit counterparts for the attention of commuters.  As a parallel of the aims and methods of marketing and branding, it was all too easy to meet the aims of image conscious corporations, who had originally installed the need for identity into this generation of artists. They now needed a piece of it back. And like the rebels of Rock and Roll, Hip Hop would mature.


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