Run D.M.C. glasses and Adidas sneakers in a glass museum case

"The Message": The Birth of Hip-Hop Culture

Born in the Bronx in the early 1970s, hip-hop culture changed the world.

The Bronx—the most impoverished of New York City’s five boroughs—struggled with unemployment, urban decay, and violence in the 1970s as the region dealt with major demographic and economic changes that had occurred in the postwar period. City planning, including the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, also had a significant impact on communities in the region at the time. Hip-hop culture includes many different forms of expression that rose up in response to these conditions: visual art, movement, and of course—music.

In “'The Message:' The Birth of Hip-Hop Culture,” students learn about key elements of early hip-hop: MCing, DJing, graffiti, and dance. By focusing on music production and interpreting vocal raps, students understand how artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa expressed a point of view to American audiences about what life was like in their inner-city communities.

Related content areas: Language arts, social studies, fine arts / music
Level: grades 5–8 & 9–12
Days offered: Tuesday–Friday (October to June)
Times offered: 10:00am or 11:30am
Duration: 60 minutes
Capacity: Up to 150 students per session
Available supplemental materials: See below! 

Register for This Class

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The program is FREE for schools within zip codes that begin with 440, 441, 442, or 443. Regional groups can participate in Rockin’ the Schools for a discounted rate.

Questions? E-mail [email protected].


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One of the best ways to learn about early hip-hop music and culture is to listen to the voices of people who were there when it was developing. These videos with hip-hop icons will help your students dig in!

Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. (inducted 2009) describes the block party scene that was an important part of early hip hop culture—what was it like to be there?

DJ Hurricane, known for his work with the Beastie Boys, describes the important turntable technique known as "scratching." This video is shown during "The Message," so we suggest saving it for after-class review.

Spinderella spoke and performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on February 15, 2012. Spinderella began DJing in New York City while still a teenager. In this clip, she demonstrates one of the sets she used to spin in her earliest days as a member of the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa. This video is shown during "The Message," so we suggest saving it for after-class review.


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Hip-hop music and culture started as an artistic response to the social and economic crisis in the 1970s Bronx. In the wake of extreme violence and poverty, block parties encouraged embattled communities and neighborhoods to come together peacefully. Disc Jockeys (DJs), while not new to hip-hop culture, provided the musical soundtrack. These DJs began using their vinyl records on turntables in new and innovative ways.

DJ Kool Herc—famous in the Bronx for throwing the best parties—played the “break” of different songs. The break is a danceable section of a song that often highlights the drums, bass, and other rhythm section instruments. Grand Wizard Theodore rhythmically enhanced songs by moving a record back and forth on a turntable to produce a “scratching” sound. Grandmaster Flash wowed audiences with his technical prowess, developing his “quick mix theory”—a rapid-fire back-and-forth between two records.

During the early block parties in the Bronx, the Master of Ceremonies (MCs) would only use a microphone to make announcements. MCs then started rapping because the repetition of the rhythmic breaks gave the MCs a musical foundation to rap over. This made parties more exciting and interactive, and eventually paved the way for more complex rhymes and concepts. In addition to party themes, lyrics started expressing the anger, mistrust, and resentment felt about peoples’ brutal circumstances in US inner-cities. This is heard in “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Teachers: please preview all content for appropriateness for your students.

Early Hip-Hop Playlist

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Use this link to download a PDF copy of this playlist & background information.

Inductee Biographies

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Read more about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees covered in this class!