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Threads, grillz, kicks: Decoding hip-hop’s visual legacy

BySukanya Datta
Apr 28, 2023 07:42 PM IST

The ripples from the Bronx have spread far beyond music. 50 years on, elements infuse everyday life in ways that are familiar, but bear deep roots. Take a look.

Dance: As with the music, a myriad influences have shaped the dance forms associated with hip-hop. Salsa from the Hispanic community; capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian self-defence-and-dance form; Afro-Cuban, African and Native American dances; even the Lindy Hop, are tucked into the fluid moves of breaking, funk, uprock, b-boying, popping, locking and boogaloo.

The dance moves have become universal; seen here is the award-winning Indian crew Kings United.


The dance moves have become universal; seen here is the award-winning Indian crew Kings United.

It may seem like anything goes, but what holds a hip-hop routine together are the rhythm and the breaks. That, and the spontaneity that defines dance-offs, jams and cyphers, where rappers and dancers build waves of expression from action and reaction.

From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the banlieues of Paris and the sprawling slum of Dharavi in Mumbai, new moves are being born and old ones celebrated. Indian troupes such as Kings United, from the suburb of Nallasopara near Mumbai, have danced their way to international titles. All eyes are now on Paris 2024, where breaking will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

Fashion: Who are you, when the lights go out and the party’s over? As a cultural movement that was born as a form of revolt against the marginalisation of Black and Hispanic Americans, hip-hop is almost as much about the look as it is about the music. Because how does one carry oneself through a world filled with bigotry, if not with a shrug and a swagger?

The oversized T-shirts, baggy pants and giant sneakers were a defiant “So what?” It was born of a DIY approach to fashion (the bling came later, and that was oversized for the opposite reason – “Look ma, gold chains!”).

Eventually, as with so much else, capitalism would supersede subversiveness, and by the early Aughts, American rappers such as Puff Daddy were doubling as designers, their oversized clothes and jewellery migrating to fashion houses such as Dior, Gucci and Ralph Lauren. Today, rappers from Cardi B to Kanye West and A$AP Rocky continue to collaborate with fashion houses. Meanwhile, tank tops, neon hues, fur… on the street, hip-hop fashion is still anything the artist wants it to be.

Subway cars in New York City. Graffiti is designed to challenge ideas of art and ownership. (Getty Images)
Subway cars in New York City. Graffiti is designed to challenge ideas of art and ownership. (Getty Images)

Graffiti: It started out as tags painted onto public walls by gang members, to mark territory. “Graf writers” would conduct “bombings” to mark walls in other gangs’ territory, or in contested zones. When hip-hop arrived, graffiti became a carrier of the art form’s street ethos; a way for non-gang-members and community-building former gang members to challenge ideas of art and ownership in public spaces.

Graffiti would become the fourth pillar of hip-hop as self-expression, covering New York streets and subways since the 1960s and spreading outwards around the world. It is marked by big, bold art and writing; bright colours; subversive origins and messages.

Street art is also a vibrant and popular art form, but a key distinguisher is permission. Street art involves sanctioned activity, often performed in collaboration with the owner of the wall and local authorities. Graffiti recognises no ownership; seeks no sanction. It is beautiful but transient; it cannot even claim the space it occupies. Works may be beloved, may become landmarks. They can still be painted over overnight.

Turntablism: The term has been credited to the 1990s California-based DJ Babu. He used the phrase to describe the art of manipulating and creating new sound through the use of two turntables and a mixer. The practice itself goes back to the 1940s, which is when music was first created using turntables. In the ’70s, as hip-hop spread across New York and beyond, a new breed of DJs who were music creators rather than just players, led by icons such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and of course DJ Kool Herc, experimented with and established turntables as one of the foundations of the genre. Over the past five decades, pioneering turntablists such as Grand Wizzard Theodore, Babu and Jazzy Jeff have introduced the world to the scratch, tear, crab and flare.

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE): “We gonna do this”; “Ain’t no one like you”; “Welcome to the ’hood”; “Keep it trill” — African-American Vernacular English has trickled into everyday use through hip-hop culture. It is an idiom that has been globalised by rap music. It prioritises a certain rhythm, isn’t concerned with conventional spelling or grammar. As a language that reflects and influences what is heard on the streets, it is also always evolving.

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