What is hip-hop?

Now before you Reader readers jump on me, reciting that hip-hop is “a music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping” – something that any Wikipedia-loving American could come up with, I pray you to hold your proverbial horses.

What I’m talking about here is an ideal. A culture. A way of life. While your “stylized rhythmic music” is indeed a major part of hip-hop, it is just one part of a cultural movement that is decades old.

I must warn you; this story is bigger than hip-hop music.

It was back in the ‘70s when hip-hop got its start in the South Bronx area of New York City. Pioneered by DJ Kool Herc, the underground movement began spreading, giving a voice to those that wished to speak. From Herc’s house parties spread a whole new movement, one which really gained steam when DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Group defined the subculture and its four main elements: MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing.

From the graffiti artists to the breakdancing B-boys and B-girls, the rapping Mic Controllers to the beat-making DJs, multitudes of musicians, artists, and others subscribing to the hip-hop culture have contributed to the lifestyle.

As the years passed, hip-hop saw the genre change from the early record-scratching pioneers of the ‘70s, eventually shifting from the disco-influenced early ‘80s to the beginnings of a more socially-conscious era, ushering in artists like Run-DMC and Public Enemy during what is known as the “golden age of hip-hop.”

The underground movement finally broke through in 1990, scoring a critical and commercial success when Public Enemy released “Fear of a Black Planet,” leading Time Magazine’s Bill Adler to opine, “Rap is the rock ‘n’ roll of the day. Rock ‘n’ roll was about attitude, rebellion, a big beat, sex and, sometimes, social comment. If that’s what you’re looking for now, you’re going to find it here.”

Hip-hop’s popularity continued to grow throughout the decade, eventually becoming the highest-selling music genre in 1999. The genre grew, expanding with the heavy bass of Southern hip-hop and alternative hip-hop experimenting with alternative styles like glitch-hop and dubstep, helping the movement grow from a small community in the Bronx to a worldwide phenomenon.

“I’ve been influenced by it ever since I was a youngster, and I’ve seen how it’s grown and been accepted,” said Jeremy Salter – who performs locally as DJ SALT, of the rise in the popularity of hip-hop.

“I wouldn’t have even imagined that a hip-hop song would be played on a popular radio station like Star 104,” DJ SALT said, his voice smooth and relaxed. “People understand it’s an art now. They understand that it’s a gift and it takes talent.

They are actually using hip-hop to teach children on Sesame Street. I’ve got a 2-year-old daughter and I have her watch it all the time.”

Hip-hop is everywhere, with rap communities spanning the globe, with National Geographic even recognizing hip-hop as “the world’s favorite youth culture” in the past. According to DJ SALT, no matter where you go in the world, whether it be France, China, or whatever country pops into your head, there are going to be rappers there honing their craft.

Ah, I’m starting to see that inquisitive twinkle in your eyes again, O Reader readers. With hip-hop influencing everything from the music business to commercials urging you to purchase a domain name for your canine apparel line, what does it mean to Erie – a cover-band loving town with nary an urban radio station, save for the weekend programming on Gannon University’s 90.5 WERG? You may think that there isn’t much of a hip-hop scene here in The Flagship City, but there are plenty of subscribers to the culture that would like to prove you wrong.

One of those people would be Jason “Iggy” Imig. As a local hip-hop promoter and member of the 2189 Crew, Iggy has been at the center of a recent surge in hip-hop awareness in this town, although he had immersed himself in the community long ago.

“I got into hip-hop about fourth grade,” he said, shortly after we sat down at the Starbucks on the corner of West Fifth and State streets. “I started breakdancing with my friend Joel Polacci. He was teaching me in his attic. To me, that’s when it was implanted in me, that’s when I started the culture, that’s when I started to see graffiti and breakdancing. At the time, I was so young that I didn’t have the opportunity to link up with a lot of other people.”

Eventually, Iggy, a self-described “short man with a beard,” said that he moved out of Erie for a bit, living in Eugene, Ore. in the early 2000s. While there, he was impressed by the amount of hip-hop talent the city would bring in to an area that, according to Iggy, was demographically very similar to our fair Erie.

“They had the best music scene going on,” he said, his slightly nasal tenor swelling as he remembered his days in the Pacific Northwest. “They had amazing hip-hop groups from San Francisco all be a part of it, and it’s just like ‘Why can’t I get that going in Erie.”

Now, Iggy is doing just that. Along with Jon and Dom Box of The Box Street Couture, local artist Doc Proto, and others, Iggy has helped push the hip-hop scene out of relative obscurity, promoting a new movement of socially-conscious performers.

“We’re not doing it because we’re trying to get famous,” Iggy said. “I wanted to show Erie that there’s another side of hip-hop. A lot of times, it’s getting wrapped up in the violence, the materialism, and the misogyny, and I was hoping to focus on the positive aspects by bringing in true lyrical MCs and hopefully have an impact on the younger kids.”

This excerpt was from an article by Alex Bieler, ’11, originally published in the Erie Reader on Mar. 5, 2013. You can find the rest of this article here.