A few years ago, KRS-One was asked if he’d ever met someone who excelled at all four of the original elements of hip-hop. “Not yet,” he replied, as if holding out hope that it could still happen—maybe on one of his tours of the college lecture circuit. But who would actually want to be the guy who’s good at MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti—the so-called “Original Four Elements” of hip-hop? If you actually encountered such a fellow, would he really strike you as the living embodiment of rap culture? Or would he be more like a Civil War re-enactor in an Adidas tracksuit?
The concept of the Four Elements is only powerful insofar as they inspired and incited the teenagers who first assembled a hip-hop culture in the bombed-out and violent New York City of the 1970s. But the great thing about hip-hop is that it has always cared more about the present than the past. The kids who invented DJing and graffiti weren’t respectful of the traditions of the previous generation. They wanted to shock the world. They wanted to tear everything up and rebuild it for themselves. They wanted to get their kicks in the moment and infuriate their elders at the same time. That’s the only essence of hip-hop. Not rules but the breaking of rules.
As with any culture, hip-hop is an unending sequence of bizarre trends; collisions of taste; tensions between the commercial and the anti-commercial; shifting appetites for newly maddening and exotic sounds. The hip-hop purist is a fool. Anyone who believes the culture rests on the four elements formulated in the Bronx is no different than the guy who thinks all rock ‘n’ roll should sound like Buddy Holly and Little Richard. And let's be for real: How many current rappers/rap fans actually b-boy or do graffiti?
The only way to participate in the living culture of hip-hop is to embrace its weird and sometimes unseemly mutations, because that’s what keeps it alive and keeps it fun. Because, trust, if those kids who came up rapping in the parks of the South Bronx were growing up today, they’d be sipping lean, trading downloads, and complaining about this list in the comments section. So come along, young and old, fundamentalist and insurgents alike, because we’ve taken upon ourselves to REVISE THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF HIP-HOP!
Written by Sam Sweet
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