2023 was a big year for hip-hop. Missy Elliott and DJ Kool Herc were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Tupac Shakur was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary. The cultural milestone took place on 11 August as a way to celebrate how the genre has evolved since the 1970s when rhythmic poets and innovative DJs from the South Bronx unknowingly took the first steps in shaping American culture as we know it today. It’s a history that’s at the centre of Dr. Todd Boyd’s book, Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made The World.
‘In a lot of ways I feel as though I have been writing this book since I was nine years old,’ Dr. Boyd tells me over Zoom. Today, the author and cultural commentator acts as the Price Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Cinema and Media studies at USC. His visual exploration of hip hop, published by Phaidon, traces the evolution of the genre from its underground origins to becoming one of today’s primary cultural influences.
Each chapter serves as a time capsule, chronicling the transformation of contemporary American culture fuelled by the revolutionary voices of the movement including, ‘God MC’ Rakim, Public Enemy Lil Kim, and more. While hip hop's origins are rooted in the music scene, for Dr. Boyd there’s more to the story. ‘The music is what people connect to’, he tells me. ’It’s the beginning.’ Citing everything from cinema (like 70s classics Super Fly and The Mack), to sports and even political movements like the Black Panthers.
So how do we define hip hop? ‘For a lot of people they think about rap music,' explains Dr. Boyd. 'And rap music is a major component of hip-hop culture but there is a distinction between rap and hip hop'. For him that distinction is culture. At its core hip hop is a reflection of the simultaneously diverse and hegemonic experiences of Black urban communities. A creative outlet of storytelling and cultural expression that trickles into everything from fashion to poetry and attitude. All of which is refreshingly showcased in over 400 archival photographs with every turn of the page sure to fuel anyone's creative curiosity.
When asked about where hip hop stands compared to other genres, such as punk, Dr. Boyd is quick to differentiate hip hop's cultural influence. 'We're talking about 50 years. If you exist that long, you transcend subculture and become culture.'
In regards to hip hop's influence on fashion, Rapper's Deluxe covers moments that continue to be talked about today, like when burgeoning artist Aaliyah was made the face of Tommy Jeans in 1996, propelling the American sportswear brand in an entirely new direction from its preppy roots. Or the complicated history of Harlem designer Dapper Dan, who from 1982 to 199 reimagined luxury fashion for his superstar clients like Mike Tyson and Jay-Z.
Dapper Dan would inevitably be sued by brands like Gucci for copyright infringement which led to him shuttering his doors. The tables were turned however when former creative director of the Italian luxury giant, Alessandro Michele, referenced one of Dapper Dan's designs in his Cruise 2018 collection. This led to Michele tapping the designing for a collaboration solidifying his status as one of fashion and hip hop's top tastemakers.
Of course, when the predominantly white populous pulls from black culture, there isn't always a happy ending as was the case with Dapper Dan. When asked about the effects appropriation has on hip hop at large, Dr. Boyd's answer isn't all that I expected. ‘Appropriation is about power but at the same time black culture is so integral to American culture. In a lot of ways they’re interchangeable,' he explains.
As his book explores in its nearly 300 visually packed pages, hip hop is a curation of cross-cultural references and a celebration of the multifaceted as much as it is a testament to resilience. Which is exactly how I would define American culture today.
Rapper's Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made The World is available now.