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VIVRANT THING the aesthetic of hip hop









This research recognizes Hip Hop as a culture that has become a transformative art movement for the past three decades and is designed to investigate the cultural theories and practices found in African American culture and Hip Hop culture to connect a paradigm between design and the aesthetic nature of Hip Hop. The aim of this study is to determine whether Hip Hop culture translates into a visual language that can augment design methodology and visual communication. The methods of this research will underscore four elements of Hip Hop: graffiti, MCeeing, breaking dancing, Deejaying as well as the ideas and practices of sampling and remixing as a vehicle for creating visual experiments. These visual experiments will emphasize imagemaking, reapportion of space, identity and visual language, while studying the formal conventions of graphic design and framing a series of visual exercises using both digital and analog medias. These experiments will be documented to find the best methodologies for combining analog and digital medias using the perspectives afforded through the Hip Hop culture.

THE RESEARCH QUESTION How does Hip Hop culture translate into a visual language that can augment design methodology and visual communication?


Hip Hop has become one of the most far-reaching and transformative art movements of the past three decades. If Hip Hop was considered nothing more than the musical style it produces we would be deprived of the culture it has created since the 1970s. The culture was identified in the early 1980s when Afrika Bambaata coined the dynamic urban movement as “Hip Hop”. The culture we know today as Hip Hop was formed by youth street culture in New York City ghettos (Chang, 2006). Hip Hop draws meaning of its aesthetics from this street culture. Hip Hop’s origins are multifaceted, politically conflicting, often debated, and highly complicated (Chang, 2006). Despite all this, Hip Hop aesthetics can be found in the social context and urban environment in which it developed. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the 21st century Hip Hop culture has permeated films high and low fashion, and popular culture. This cultural movement has fundamentally altered our perceptions of not only music, but literature, fashion, dance, and the cinema, as well as visual arts (Jones, 1994). Rap music and Hip Hop culture is linked to it’s African roots (Chang, 2006). Hip Hop culture undoubtedly references the oral traditions of African American oral and musical traditions that encompass the hidden messages of slave folktales.

Rap music is rooted in the pain of black-American experience, which began with slavery. Slaves adapted to the religion of their masters. The services of the slaves were reminiscent of religious ceremonies in Africa. They were lively, complete with music and chanting. The high point of the service was the preacher’s sermon or call and the congregation’s response (Jones, 1994). Rappers draw from the African American traditions of call and response as the essential elements of rap music’s overall structure (Perkins, 1995). The repetition and rhythm of rap music can be translated into the design that is recognizable to the urban communities around the world (Wilkins, 2007). Rap undoubtedly references the oral traditions of African American oral and musical traditions that encompass the hidden messages of slave folktales. Rap music is rooted in the pain of black-American experience, which began with slavery. Slaves adapted to the religion of their masters. The services of the slaves were reminiscent of religious ceremonies in Africa. They were lively, complete with music and chanting. The high point of the service was the preacher’s sermon or call and the congregation’s response (Jones, 1994). Rappers draw on call and response and the traditions of story telling are an essential element in rap music’s overall structure (Perkins, 1995).

Hip Hop is very much about identity. In the Bronx the young men and women of the misunderstood and underrepresented area had to invent Hip Hop to regain the voice that had been denied to them through media indifference or manipulation. We see the identity of the youth of the Bronx is shown each element of Hip Hop. There are four original elements that make up the fabric of Hip Hop: Graffiti, DJing (deejaying), Breaking (B-boy/B-girling), and MCing (emceeing), which will also be referred as rapping. This research is focused on the four elements of Hip Hop. Each element has its own history and terminology that has contributed to the development of the cultural movement of Hip Hop. Rhythm gave all these elements a common pulse, demonstrating the beats that DJ’s selected, dancers movements, the MC’s rhyme patterns and the writers name or message highlighted in flowing (Wilkins, 2007).

Danny Hoch, list these aesthetics stemming from Hip Hop’s original four elements: codification of language (spoken and written), dress, gestures and images, call and response, sociopolitical context and legacy (post-civil rights/ ‘70’s nationalism/ Reaganomics), metaphor and simile, illusion (magic), polyculturalism (immigrant and migrant), battle braggadacio (competition), lack of safety, barriers, boundaries (stage), African – Caribbean –diaspora performing traditions, lack of resources and access, approtiation by Hip Hop creators of materials, technology, and preservation of culture, urban blight (a run down area of the city), criminalization of poverty and criminalization of culture (Chang 2006). All these aesthetics also give meaning to the visual aesthetic of Hip Hop. Jeff Rice, list several important theories that relates to Hip Hop and design: juxtaposition, appropriation, commutation, chora, and nonlinearity. This research will look closely these aesthetics and theories as a means of signifying meaning through visual experiments. Another major aspect of Hip Hop evolution is sampling and remixing. More than any other form of music, Hip Hop represents democratized technology. Grand Master Flash, born Joseph Saddler, who is one of the

founder of Hip Hop honed technical skills that paved the way for record sampling and helped launch the rap revolution. Rappers have continued to reinvent the musical form by mastering the techniques of multitracking, mixing and remixing samples (Perkins,1995). Hip Hop evolved to technology,developing another key element in the Hip Hop equation-“what’s old is always new” (Chang, 2006). Sampling was and is Hip Hop’s ongoing link with history and tradition. Hip Hop generates its own history by recycling music and reintroducing the previous musical genres to new audiences and markets (Perkins, 1995). This research will investigate how a design can create images through sampling and remixing ideas as well as materials. This research will focus on the four elements of Hip Hop culture as well as the practices of sampling and remixing. By sampling, remixing, and interjecting the elements of Hip Hop vernacular we can engage, disrupt or rework the meaning of design (Dixon, 2001). Hip Hop culture looks to its own creations as resources; this idea can be translated to the field of design. Hip Hop has become the nexus between my interest in urban culture and its aesthetic.

This research will examine the cultural theories and practices of African American and Hip Hop culture to produce visual experiments focusing on image making and appropriation of space, identity and visual language. These experiments will be done using both digital and analog mediums while documenting the best methodologies for combining the two. Hip Hop gives voice to those at the social, political, and economic margins and offers a critical paradigm especially for artists of color (Dixon, 2001). Many artist and designers find their inspirations in roots and social context of the Hip Hop culture. “By adapting Hip Hop’s culture’s “shared approaches to sound and motion found in Afrodiaspora… flow, layering and ruptures in line,” and incorporating Hip Hop’s ability to transform existing, discarded, materials into new and creative uses in our design approaches, we reverb our way to developing that style the no one can deal with” (Wilkins, 2007 pp ,207). The perspectives afforded through Hip Hop culture provide a vehicle to create new meanings in the practices of graphic design.


Many theories introduced by Jeff Rice in his book, The Rhetoric of Cool, create an umbrella under which Hip Hop falls. Rice examines the idea of “cool” as it relates to teaching composition studies in new media. Rice explains that cool can be understood in terms of chora: an argumentative strategy in which different meanings are associated and placed in tension in order to produce discourse. Rather than choosing one meaning, the practitioner of chora uses all of them. Rice, discusses and describes various meanings of “cool,” drawing from sources as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, William Burroughs, and texts on jazz, hip-hop, and anthropology. Rice’s theorical framework is linked closely with the ideas of Hip Hop. Introducing the idea that Hip Hop is a way of learning, through sampling and reusing past discoveries, juxapostioning ideas, commutation of cultural theories and practices and appropriating, just as youth did to urban space through tagging, breaking and breakdancing, This research attempts to investigate the nonlinearity process of our learning and the application of Hip Hop culture to design methodology. Chora, appropriation, juxapostion and commutation are present in the elements of Hip Hop and design. Rice illustrates chora as means of pattern making, pattern recognition and pattern generation, like semiotic design. The ability to link, manipulate, and morph information, as Hip Hop does, lends itself to choral practices. Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky, a renowned writer parallels Rice’s ideas in both Sound Unboud and Rhythm Science, that the DJ is a digital writer and appropriation becomes a sampling practice. “DJ-ing is writing, writing is DJing” (Kid, 2004). The DJ is a model for the type of digital writer who negotiates a variety of unlikely test and ideas by juxtaposing them and producing new meaning.

flâneur: Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”

Rice revisits Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flaneur, who is the inheritor of new poetics in which cultural artifacts guide the composition process. The flaneur acts a collector, his writing come from findings repositioning new meaning and becomes a kind of urban flaneur. DJ’s such as Afrika Bambaata, born Kevin Donovan and Grand Master Flash, built collections from bargain street sales, picking up things as they stumbled across them. That is exactly what Hip Hop is, nonlinear collection of moments, places, things, that become juxtaposed and recontextualized in order to evoke alternative understandings of cultural history. Along with sampling and remixing, Hip Hop mirrors the cultural practices and theories of African American history. In traditional African societies, speaking was a sophisticated and highly developed form of expression. At different occasions oration included reciting poetry, storytelling or speaking while being accompanied by a drum or other musical instrument. Oration had two purposes: to inform and to entertain. This task was carried out by griots, professional singers and poets who traveled from region to region throughout their kingdoms carrying news of wars, birth, deaths and other events. The job required a remarkable memory and a love of details. The mastery of oral communication became an art.

When understanding the griot tradition and its aesthetic we see the connections with rappers like Ice-T (Tracy Morrow), and Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr). In the African American culture during slavery the preacher became the griot , introducing the concept of “ call and response” (Jones, 1994). Call and response is spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and the audience in which all of the statements (calls) are punctuated by expressions (responses) from the audience or listener. For example: A rapper may ask, “Can I kick it?”, and the audience would respond by saying, “ Yes, you can!”



Afrika Bambaata makes this quote in 1993: “Rap in general dates all the way back to the motherland, where tribes would use call and response chants. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, you had Cab Calloway pioneering his style of jazz rhythming. The sixties you had the love style of rapping, with Isaac Hayes, Barry White, and the poetry style of rapping with Last Poets, the Watts poets and the miliant style of rapping with brothers like Malcom X and Minister Loius Farrakhan. In the 60’s you also had “The Name Game”, a funny rap by Shirley Ellis, and radio djs who would rhyme and rap before a song came on” (Perkins, 1995, p. 2).

Rap drew from its African roots that developed over the years into many styles that are recognizable to many people as rap music. Afrika Bambataa, one of raps founders points to several important roots of rap music. Rappers like their ancestors commonly practice the call and response form. (Perkins, 1995, p.6). Muhammad Ali, who recited poetic couplets in the peak of his boxing career, introduced new inspirations to the inner city youth who specialized in “signyfing”. Signifying refers to a way of encoding messages and meanings indirectly. Rap is one way to practice signifying meaning as means to engage in verbal competition. Break dancers and graffiti artists (re) claim territory and space through artistic expression Rappers adopted names that confer identity and celebrate attributes that embody the personality that the name gives them, much like a graffiti artist’s tag name. Rhythming and naming became a rappers birthright contributing to his or her image and personality (Perkins, 1995 p. 4). Rapper, MF Doom, born Daniel Dumile, embodies this tradition by using a mask to actually uncover the depths of what the human persona can become. He covers his face to unleash his creativity as many entities: MF Doom, Victor Vaughn, King Gheedorah, Metal Fingers, and others.

One of Hip Hops’ pioneers: Afrika Bambataa


As previously explained rap is clearly rooted in African traditions. The battle, the griot, the storyteller and the call response are all elements of this tradition. These traditions were adapted and developed by the youth that resided in New York City during 1970s. During this time, NYC Board of Education realized it was failing to adequately educate the city’s poor Black and Latino population, they implemented and unofficial curriculum of limericks in English classes. Instead reworking the entire system they figured they would try to get those children to rhyme. Young people appropriated limericks and made them about their own experience, much like everything else in Hip Hop. The limericks recited were over the instrumental disco beats that the DJ’s were playing. The DJ’s were the original rappers who recited these to get the crowd exited between songs. DJ’s then brought in specialized MC’s (rappers) who would do the rapping. Soon the rappers were the stars instead of the DJ’s. Rappers began by stringing together relatively simply phrases then the art progressed to the employment of metaphor, simile, alliteration, and internal rhyme. Rap music is an element of the Hip Hop culture but is not Hip Hop itself. African American poetry, call and response, storytelling, limericks, urban blight, corporate demand, exaggeration and battling make up the aesthetic nature of rap (Hoch, 2006).


The reason DJ’s did what they did in the first place was to get people to dance. The dance traditions of West Africa , Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominincan Republic can be found in breaking. It is generally agreed that breaking emerged as a dance form in concurrence with disco in 1973 or 1974 (Perkins, 2006). Breaking involved acrobatics that used headspins, backspins, moonwalking, waving and the robot. Most poor youth could not afford to go to clubs, and most DJs did not own their own clubs, so they illegal improvised outdoor parties. The closest street lamp provided electricity. Fighting moves and martial arts were apart of the choreography of this high energy breaking done on cardboard and linoleum. The New York sanitation department was known for leaving cardboard and linoleum in poor neighborhoods. The backspin, windmill, glide and headspin would have been invented if youth did not appropriate these to mundane items. They defied the ground by spinning on it on their backs, on their heads on garbage. Breaking dancing embodies some interesting aesthetics: gang fighting or battling, stylized kung fu, asphalt or concrete dance space, sanitation, and cardboard and linoleum.


In the 1960s African American and urban youth began to write their names in public places to claim a public place in the face of powerlessness and poverty. The blocks style became the basis for Hip Hop- generation graffiti lettering. A counterculture where youth were marking codified names on public property such as public transit and schools was a clear challenge to the status quo. The highly evolved language emerged from “crews” who were battling for graffiti stakes and fame in certain neighborhoods to claim space. City walls and facades of the train defined the painting style as well as the limitations and properties of a spray can and the wide-tip marker that these artists used. These materials have become influences in choosing materials for many artist and designers. Graffiti artist encode their work not only for the police or property owners, but for each other, some don’t even paint a name, just their style. The aesthetic of graffiti has changed, because of crackdowns from authorities. We now see graffiti such as Jeffrey “Doze” Green incorporating and commutation these art forms (Hoch, 2006). The aesthetics of graffiti included: the block lettering style, reclaiming of public space, codified ownership, using a train as canvas, 1970s-80s art supplies and colors and the criminalization of the form (Hoch, 2006). This research will focus on the codified of ownership and the block lettering as approaches to making images.


Deejaying originated in Jamaica during the 50’s back 1950’s from Jamaica and moved to New York in the early 1970’s. Selectors or record programmers looped and reverbed the instrumental segments of reggae records because they extended playability and the dance ability of a song. Along with this technique Jamaican immigrants brought the tradition of large outdoor speakers, which made it possible for DJ’s to play for more people and bring the club outside (Hoch, 2006). The aesthetic of Deejaying, lies mostly in the codification of recorded sounds by sampling and remixing, toasting (talking or chanting), the 1970s-80s electronic musical technology as a musical instruments, dancers appeasement and most of all writing, and creating new meaning (Hoch, 2006).

Grandmaster Flash


Hip Hop’s contributions to graphic design have been overlooked (Chang, 2006). Hip Hop design exploded the rise of inexpensive sampling technology, the growth of the Hip Hop industry and the development of the high-end urban market and the emergenceof digital software. Hip Hop transformed commercial arts and fine arts as well. Hip Hop’s remix aesthetic affords new forms of perception and designers created a visual vocabulary. (Chang, 2006). Hip Hop design is adaptive and is committed to transformatively and creatively using and reusing materials. Professor Laverne Wells- Bowies describes architecture design as a cultural practice and acknowledges diversity of a location where people can think creatively about the transformation and reinvention of space. The organization of Hip Hop space is in the call of rhythm and repetition and is the base of the beat, the flow, the rupture and the call and response (Wilkins, 2007). Hip Hop removes the “hegemonic proper”, or

Design by Mike Orduña the political correct instruction of art schools.“Art schools and university art departments continue to instruct students on the history of art as an evolution of styles and insist they selfconscious about their own place within its development… Aspiring artist are compelled to internalize and strive to position themselves within this seeming monolithic history (Dixon, 2001 p. 19). The disciplinary concerns of art history and design principles between Hip Hop present boundaries for artist and designers. Hip Hop and design explore a wide range of issue, including style and identity, social and political concerns, aesthetics, black vernacular, and historical precedents. Designers must critically and reflexively draw from the aesthetics, politics and social contexts of the Hip Hop culture.

VISUAL EXPERIMENTS Through the knowledge of existing design conventions and the development and application of a personal visual vocabulary or style, designers are able to make more effectively use of their perceptions and discoveries, and to work practically and creatively with a reference to a wider cultural context (Noble, 2004). This methodology will focus on the stage of the design process that involves the development of potential visual solutions to generate feedback on a range of criteria: the use of color, choice of typeface and images, and clarity. From these developments, I as the designer hope to gather and document detailed ideas about the imagemaking process. This research will test a series of visual projects for a new class called “Visual Culture of Hip Hop�. The course of study will be based on some of the basic tenets of Hip Hop culture, which include: sampling and remixing, appropriation, bricolage, juxtaposition, repetition, and commutation. The experiments are designed to be interdisciplinary, interactive, exciting, and useful to employing Hip Hop culture in the image-making methodology for visual problem solving. By utilizing Hip Hop as a type of visual rhetoric, which undermines the fixed meanings in our society, it is possible to readdress issues surrounding ownership of meaning, authorship, and social constructions of identity as it relates to Hip Hop.


“TAG YOURSELF” This simple black and white image represents the new “tag” (graffiti tag) or persona of the designer. This is a creation of a persona that evokes empowerment. The name should be powerful, exciting, and something that creates response on a primal level.


“FREEZE SAMPLING” Using the screenshot of a breakdancer use a image-making program and draw arrows over the body of the dancer highlighting the “lines” and directions their bodies are making use these sampled lines to create non-objective images.


“MF DOOM” Using MF Doom’s mask as a form, using an method or medium for creating least five distinct interpretations of MF Doom’s mask.




DJ SPOOKY POSTCARDS Using 5x7 inches as the dimension, this experiment will be the creation of a postcard that reflects a quote from DJ Spooky to send out 9 to perfect strangers using a pseudonym.

Vivrant Thing: The Aesthetic of Hip Hop  

Research Documentation

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