Whether it was the sound systems and block parties of the mid 1970s, an aspiring DJ selling records out of a crate, or a brother break dancing on cardboard on a street corner, hip hop culture emanated from the streets, with rap music as its unapologetic anthem. In the early days of hip hop our intimacy with the technology that delivered booming base and scratching turntables was an experience shared with anyone within earshot. Hip hop’s early artists were like frontiersmen moving into the western wilderness, bringing a sound never heard before. As disco took its last breath before heading back to the underground for its conversion to house and electronica, rap music boldly stepped up to fill the void with the intent of planting its flag in permanence.
And it appears that hip hop is here to stay. The late stage Baby Boomers and early stage Generation Xers have passed the hip hop torch to today’s Millennials not only in terms of style of clothing or music but also in the way that the music is delivered. Today’s technology, namely the internet, has helped accelerate the pace at which hip hop culture has become globalized. Listeners to rap make up a diverse audience and artists around the world are using the energy and beats of rap music to produce and deliver a message that is unique to their own experiences, whether those experiences are expressed by France’s Joke or PNL, Kenya’s Khaligraph Jones or South Africa’s AKA.
It has not always been a comfortable relationship between the emerging technologies and artists. The internet’s wild west days saw file sharing technology such as Napster threaten to whittle away at the livelihood of artists as consumers shared digitally filed music instead of purchasing an artist’s work. For up and coming artists already facing the barriers of competition, file sharing only worsened the feast or famine environment.
Today’s artists no longer have to look at technology as a threat. On the contrary, the Millennial generation’s propensity for being wired reflects its ability to both connect selectively with the music environment while sharing at the speed of light its enthusiasm about the music it connects to. For example, music can be accessed via multiple platforms such as iTunes, Spotify, or Pandora. It can be played on various devices including iPods, laptops, or on mobile phones. But with social media, communities can be built around certain artists and savvy artists can connect directly to these communities. You longer need rely on Billboard to tell you whether Beyonce’s latest album is doing well. Between Facebook likes and the number of tweets on Twitter, metrics are instantaneous.
The days of passing by a street corner and hearing the latest tune blare from a boom box are long gone. Globalization and commercialization may give some of us the feeling that the soul of hip hop culture has strayed from its core, from the source. I see today’s technology as a way of bringing the music back to the community, this time to a digital community. An emerging artist no longer has to sell her music from the crates in the trunk of her car. Her corner is now located online and she can bring more of the world back to her neighborhood.