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Before Hip-Hop Was Hip-Hop

I keep coming across old essays I wrote that seem to have disappeared off the face of the planet--this one was for a high-school textbook. Glad to see it's holding its own.

Tell me what you think:

by Rebecca Walker
© Prentice Hall Literature Textbook

If you ask most kids today about hip-hop, they’ll spit out the names of recording artists they see on TV: Eminem, P. Diddy, J. L o, Beyonce. They’ll tell you about the songs they like and the clothes they want to buy. They’ll tell you about the indisputable zones of hip-hop like “EO” (East Orange, New Jersey), the “ATL” (Atlanta, Georgia), and the “West Side” (Los Angeles, California), neighborhoods they feel they know because they’ve seen them in all the glossiest, “flossiest” music videos. Hip-hop is natural to these kids, like air or water, just there, a part of the digital landscape that streams through their lives.

I watch this cultural sea change with fascination. It astounds me that hip-hop has grown into a global industry, a force that dominates youth culture from Paris to Prague, Tokyo to Timbuktu. I can’t believe that in small, all-white towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, high school boys wear their clothes in the latest “steelo”: pants sagging off their waists, sports jerseys hanging to their knees, baseball hats cocked to one side. Even in the pueblos of Mexico, where mariachi bands and old school crooners still rule, it is hip-hop that sells cars, sodas, and children’s toys on TV.

The vast empire of hip-hop amazes me because I knew hip-hop before it was hip-hop. I was there when it all began.

July 5th, 2009


Comment #1 by Super Amanda on July 5, 2009 - 10:51am

I love this essay so much. It really sounds like a fun school too! Despite a vibrant music scene, I'm afraid most of the Bay Area I recall in the early days of hip hop was very segregated racially and musically, though I think Berkeley High had a bit of your 141 in it from what I heard through friends, seems as if no city competes with Gotham in that regard.

Bling culture seems to kill off most progressiveness in the arts especially music. Rich kids and those who aspire to flaunt garish wealth ultimately never make it as truly dynamic and complex entertainers-intrinsically devoid of edge and struggle I guess.
Still, the stereotype smashing effects of Hip Hop are fascinating. May its more prominent stars cease to be stagnant (Beyonce et al and their made in sweatshop clothing lines) and actually get much more political, hopefully...

Comment #2 by BrownImani on July 13, 2009 - 2:43pm

Hey Rebecca !! I am about 12 years ahead of you and East Coast for real. I too remember early hip hop. I also remember rap before it morphed into hip hop. It was culturally relevant and political (not all of it of course) and all of the living generations of Black people could relate to it on one level or another. Black women were Queens and sisters. I can not say the same for what is playing out here now. THe "music" seems to be for $$$, entertaining "others" and not for teaching truths or history and perpetuates the worst stereotypes of Blk people and especially our women.There is still rap and "real" hip hop but the young people are not getting to hear it. The old heads know where to find it but the young ones aren't interested. Sad. I hope like Life that hip hop will come full circle and return to it's roots and the airwaves. Soon. Thanks for this post. I'd like to hear some more of your early work.

Comment #3 by rebecca on July 17, 2009 - 7:03am
Thanks Imani! I've written so much, sometimes I'm amazed to come across these pieces. I think I'm going to bring back some of my posts from my motherhood blog atThe Root, too. Most of them were lost when the site went through redesign (!!) but I think I will begin to bring back what I have.
Comment #4 by Umm Sarah on November 16, 2009 - 2:21am

Thank you for posting this ! I am a homeschooling mom who has been trying to locate this essay to use in a lesson with my daughter. I had almost given up looking for it.

Comment #5 by someone on February 3, 2010 - 3:46pm

heyy rebecca ...wuzz up..we are now taking your story at school and i have some question about the story....i wish u could answer them soooon...1:why are u amazed by the fast empire of hip-hop ...2:why was it so important for you and your friends to define ur selves through dress,,slang,,dance,,muzic....& plz tell me about you cuz ur new for mee....:p:P..btw nice to know you and meet you..hope you read it...and what do you mean by before hip-hop was hip-hop??

Comment #6 by Charine and Jacquie on February 9, 2010 - 5:52pm

we think your work is great! we are working on it for a school project, soo awesome ^^

Comment #7 by PENIS on February 17, 2010 - 7:06pm


Comment #8 by Anonymous on April 5, 2010 - 9:37pm

this essay is orrible very long

Comment #9 by Anonymous on April 5, 2010 - 9:38pm

this is too long

it sucks
i hate your work

Comment #10 by Kayla on September 21, 2010 - 11:24pm

Hey, Rebecca ! I am high school Freshman. We just read your story in our textbook just about a week ago. I thought it was interesting and very convincing. I love your style of writing and how you can really connect with the readers. When I read your story, I got zoned out. I was glued to your piece like the middle of Oreos that keep the two cookies together. I thought it was amazing and very well-thought out. Hope to find more stories from you. I'm sure you won't disappoint. ;) -Kayla

Comment #11 by web design chicago on October 14, 2010 - 1:20pm

I still remember when hip hop first came about. It was rhythmic and a bit annoying and load at first. But we all came to get used to it and eventually became part of our culture.

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I love your style of writing and how you can really connect with the readers.....

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Comment #15 by loco on January 7, 2011 - 3:13pm

Would I speak frankly? I like to be at designer jeans although to be on your page is much charming for me

Comment #16 by Clay pigeon shooting on January 8, 2011 - 10:34am

I watch this cultural sea change with fascination. It astounds me that hip-hop has developed into a all-around industry, a force that dominates adolescence ability from Paris to Prague, Tokyo to Timbuktu. I can’t accept that in small, all-white towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, top academy boys abrasion their clothes in the latest “steelo”: pants billowing off their waists, sports jerseys blind to their knees, baseball hats artsy to one side. Even in the pueblos of Mexico, area mariachi bands and old academy crooners still rule, it is hip-hop that sells cars, sodas, and children’s toys on TV.

Comment #17 by Anonymous on January 30, 2011 - 5:47pm

OMG i hate your essay is horrible long and i don't like hip hop

Comment #18 by nike shoes on February 23, 2011 - 6:28am

I can’t accept that in small, all-white towns like Lincoln,

Comment #19 by AdriannaBanana on April 11, 2011 - 3:15pm

To all the ignorant morons posting crap like "your essay is too long" and "I hate it", PISS OFF. Firstly, this is not even a long essay. Two paragraphs is by

    no means

a long essay. You clearly haven't done your work in school; if you had, you'd have written essays longer than this. Second, Rebecca's essay is not stupid. I would greatly appreciate if you'd school yourself on web etiquette (and proper grammar, while you're at it). Obviously, some people's parents didn't raise them with manners. My apologies Rebecca, no one should have to put up with rude, stagnant, closed-minded garbage like that.

Comment #20 by online criminal justice course on April 11, 2011 - 4:32pm

Well I also thought hip hop means like those children think when they see those artist on TV but I have got a new meaning from you.

Comment #21 by Anonymous on April 18, 2011 - 11:15am

thanks 4 your paper it wil help me for my research............

Comment #22 by Train Games on April 24, 2011 - 6:24pm

Before hip-hop was something like tribal songs from Africa, from there are the "beats". :)

Comment #23 by anemia symptoms on May 6, 2011 - 2:30pm

Very well written. Thanks for posting this.

Comment #24 by oak furniture maker on May 9, 2011 - 5:42am

Hip-Hop has a stylistic trend of flashiness that appeals to teenagers who pledge allegiance to the popular culture. College and high-school students perceive it as a sort of party music..

Comment #25 by business valuations on June 12, 2011 - 1:58pm

Unfortunately, people especially the youth follow less and less of those cultural and spiritual moorings much cherished by our forefathers. In this regard, no one bothers about influencing and shaping the youth for stable future. All cheer up that hip hop.

Comment #26 by hgh on June 17, 2011 - 9:28am

I really don't get what you mean by it was hip hop before hip hop. Sorta complex to understand. lol.

Comment #27 by gestational diabetes on July 14, 2011 - 7:59pm

Hmm I dont get it.. I mean hip hop music...

Comment #28 by outdoor classroom on August 13, 2011 - 7:45am

Yeah great entertaining for kids.

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Comment #33 by Julia on October 9, 2011 - 8:37pm

Yep, this is a good thing.

Comment #34 by on October 24, 2011 - 4:09pm

Thanks for the tipss and I’m glad I found this blog .

Comment #35 by gun grips on November 2, 2011 - 10:27am

I love hip-hop songs, it's makes you dance like the techno or party songs. It's popular now especially to the young teens.

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Comment #38 by Jackson on April 18, 2012 - 1:02am

I came to this site as an assignment for english, thinking it would be some other boring non-fiction piece. But instead I found a deeply insightful, truthful, and engrossing piece of literature that amazed me. I have always found 'hip-hop' irritating, but this completely changes my view of this part of culture. Bravo I say, bravo.

Comment #39 by miname on July 8, 2012 - 9:55pm

What were you saying??

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I was looking for a summary and this is just a horrible essay that dont make sence.

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Comment #48 by Anonymous on February 4, 2013 - 10:27pm

On looking out a bus window in New York City, Rebecca Walker thinks the world is divided. According to
“Before Hip-Hop Was Hip-Hop,” how did Walker’s personal experience differ from the world she saw from the
bus window? Cite one detail from the essay to explain your answer.

Please answer!

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Comment #50 by Author Appreciator on April 22, 2014 - 10:09pm

I just read your essay in class today. I understand where you are coming from as I grew up listening to songs like this from a young age. This is the type of music i love to listen too, though sadly you dont hear much to compare it to anymore. I want you read a little of this essay I had to write about your essay.

2. What differences does Walker find between music of her youth, and today's hip hop?

The originality of those days estounds me. You never hear the same beat twice. All of the music was different, while now artists seem to reuse the same beats. A song can turn on the gospel channel on the radio, but it shares the same beat as a rap song. Besides being different, the beats were also dance-worthy. Kids were break-dancing, crumping, and doing all types of cool dance moves to those funky beats. It didn’t matter if somebody was rapping ontop of the music, everything fit together perfectly. Now all you can pretty much do is bob your head. The songs aren’t danceable. I experienced that firsthand at our Eighth Grade “Prom” where nobody really danced since there was nothing to really dance to. Most of the songs nowadays seem to all blur together.

Early hip hop was an escape. The artists just weren’t spitting “bars” to be the biggest in the rap game or to win tons of money. You were escaping your surroundings and opening yourself up to the world. Kids were expressing themselves in one way they knew how, through music. Early hip hop was created on diversity. The whole thing was a mixture of several different cultures. You and kids from different backgrounds were connected through this thing called hip hop. You may have different religions, heritages, and speak different languages, but hip hop you could understand. Hip hop now does the same, but it doesn’t have quite an impact as early hip hop.

There you go. I hope you enjoy it.

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