Essential Question

What are the historical roots of Hip Hop?


Hip Hop emerged directly out of the living conditions in America’s inner cities in the 1970s, particularly the South Bronx region of New York City. As a largely white, middle-class population left urban areas for the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s—a phenomenon known as “white flight”—the demographics of communities such as the Bronx shifted rapidly. The Bronx, one of New York City’s five “boroughs,” became populated mainly by Blacks and Hispanics, including large immigrant populations from Caribbean nations including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and others.

Simultaneous with the “white flight,” social and economic disruptions abounded. Construction on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which began in the postwar period and continued into the early 1970s, decimated several of the minority neighborhoods in its path; city infrastructure was allowed to crumble in the wake of budget cuts, hitting the less privileged parts of the city most directly; and strikes organized by disaffected blue-collar workers crippled the entire metropolitan area.

Amidst the higher crime and rising poverty rates that came with urban decay, young people in the South Bronx made use of limited resources to create cultural expressions that encompassed not only music, but also dance, visual art, and fashion. In music, Latin and Caribbean traditions met and mingled with the sounds of sixties and seventies Soul, Disco, and Funk. The venues for the emerging art of Hip Hop were public parks and community recreation centers, sheets of cardboard laid out on city sidewalks became dance floors, and brick walls were transformed into artists’ canvases. Turntables became laboratories for musical experimentation as old sounds were remixed in new ways. The spirit of invention was particularly vibrant against a backdrop of empty lots, boarded-up windows, and burned-out buildings.

In a borough where poverty and an eroded infrastructure meant very limited access to instruments  and music education, young music makers created with what they could find. DJs assembled their own sound systems and built extensive record collections by searching secondhand stores for old Soul, Funk, and Rock and Roll albums; they used their collections to provide entertainment within their communities. Sounds taken from these records—from James Brown’s drum breaks to Parliament Funkadelic’s funky bass lines—provided the raw materials for creative work: beats to be mixed and modified. On top of that, MCs (short for Master of Ceremonies) rapped.

While early Hip Hop was often dance music, the genre also picked up where certain 70’s Soul left off, serving as a vehicle for social commentary. Stylistically, MCs drew on a number of influences, including Jamaican “toasting,” a style of lyrical chanting over a beat that was brought to New York by the burgeoning Caribbean immigrant community.  The role of the MC expanded over time while the raps themselves blended influences from a variety of marginalized populations, reflecting the circumstances of an evolving urban America.

In this lesson, students will examine raw documentary footage, demographic charts, television news stories, and song lyrics to connect the sounds of early Hip Hop to the substandard living conditions in American inner cities in the late 1970s, particularly the Bronx in New York City.  Students will compose their own verses to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” to be followed up with a research-driven writing assignment to further explore the urban environment depicted in the landmark song.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How early Hip Hop reflected the social and economic conditions of America’s inner cities, particularly the Bronx in New York City
    • Important events in the history of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, including the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, high crime rates, and a major transit strike
    • The contributions of early Hip Hop artists including DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash
    • Key vocabulary relating to the rise of Hip Hop, including such terms as “scratching,” “rapping,” “MC” and “DJ”
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Make connections between artistic movements and the social and economic conditions from which they emerge
    • Connect song lyrics to contemporary events
    • Identify musical sources from which early Hip Hop was created
    • Students will integrate information from maps and data charts with texts and videos to make thematic connections and create deeper understandings (CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Students will apply knowledge of language to understand how word choice can evoke meaning and style (CCSS Language 3)


Motivational Activity:

Show ABC News clip of the South Bronx in 1982 (video does not contain audio). Discuss as a class:

  • What do you notice about this neighborhood? What do you think has taken place there?
  • What means do you think people living in this environment would have to express themselves artistically?
  • This video clip was left without any sound.  If you were to compose music to accompany this footage, what would that music sound like? What feelings or emotions might you try to convey through your music?


1.  Explain to students that the place shown in the clip is an area of New York City known as the Bronx, a place considered to be the birthplace of Hip Hop. Distribute Handout 1: Map of New York City. Ask students:

  • New York City is broken up into five sections, called “boroughs.” What are each of these five boroughs named?
  • What famous landmarks do you notice on this map? In which borough are most of these landmarks located?
  • Where is the Bronx in relation to Manhattan, where many of the famous landmarks are found?


2.  Guide students to the point on the map marked “1520 Sedgwick Avenue” and display image of the building. Explain that this is the address of an apartment building in the Bronx where some of the earliest Hip Hop performances occurred, including several house parties emceed by DJ Kool Herc, a resident of the building.

Ask students:

  • Are there any roads or highways demarcated on the map? [Students should find the Cross Bronx Expressway.]

Display photo of the Cross Bronx Expressway. Explain that the expressway was constructed between 1948 and 1972, and was one of the first highways to be built directly through a crowded urban environment. While technologically innovative, its construction deeply affected the communities through which it passed by dividing neighborhoods, lowering property values, and hastening the rate of urban decay in many sections of the Bronx.

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3.  Direct students back to the map. Ask students:

  • What is the proximity between 1520 Sedgwick Avenue and the Cross Bronx Expressway, and how might that affect life at that address? [Students should see that the expressway is right up next to the apartment building.]

4.  Distribute Handout 2: Bronx Demographics 1960-2000. Ask the students to answer the following questions about the socioeconomic conditions in the Bronx based on the information in the two charts:

  • The population of which racial/ethnic group increased the most in the Bronx between 1960 and 2000? Which population decreased the most?
  • What happened to the poverty rate of the total population of the Bronx between 1970 and 2000? What percentage of the total population was in poverty in 1980?
  • What overall conclusions can you draw from these charts about the socioeconomic conditions in the Bronx while Hip Hop was developing there in the 1970s?


5.  Show a video clip from an interview with Hip Hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash. Explain that this news story was produced in 2000, but examines events that occurred in the late 1970s. Discuss as a class:

  • Where was early Hip Hop performed? Who was in the audience?
  • What equipment did Grandmaster Flash use to build a new musical sound? How did he utilize this equipment in an innovative way?
  • What are “the breaks” to which Grandmaster Flash is referring? What is “scratching”? What about the way Hip Hop DJs played this music made it original?
  • How does Grandmaster Flash describe the role of the Master of Ceremonies, or MC at a Hip Hop performance?

6.  Divide class into small groups of 3–4 students. Distribute Handout 3: New York City Timeline 1960s-1970s, and Handout 4: “The Message” Lyric Excerpts; to each group.

7.  Show video excerpt of the song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, recorded in 1982. Inform students that they will work in their groups to analyze the way the song reflects the social conditions of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Students should underline specific lines in the song and connect them to specific events from the timeline.

[Note to teacher: The video and song lyrics of “The Message” contain some explicit language. The teacher is advised to assess whether or not these materials are appropriate for their students. Also note that the video clip ends before the third verse, but students should be able to complete the assignment using the lyrics on the handout.]

8.  Discuss in groups:

  • Why do you think this song was titled “The Message”? What is its message?
  • What are the images in the song that reflect life in the city in the 1970s?  (e.g. broken glass, vermin, etc.)

9.  Poll sample answers from different groups.

10.  Reconvene the class and discuss:

  • Why do you think Hip Hop became so popular with the people in urban communities such as the Bronx?
  • How did “The Message” reflect the social and economic conditions of the Bronx in the 1970s? Think about both the equipment that was needed to produce it and the themes reflected in its lyrics.

[Teacher can emphasize the idea that early Hip Hop required few resources: a turntable or two, speakers, existing records, and a DJ with a lot of imagination; students can compare this to the instruments, equipment, and resources needed to form a rock band.]

Summary Activity:

Ask students to select one or more events from the timeline not already evoked in the song and write an additional verse for “The Message” to reflect those events and their moment.

Writing Prompt:

Students will select an event from the New York City timeline and conduct further research into it, producing an argumentative essay to demonstrate an historical understanding of that event and how it affected New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Students should include a clear thesis statement declaring the importance of that event in comparison with other events on the timeline, followed by research-based evidence to support the thesis. Be sure to also explain why the event was important enough to warrant a lyrical mention by Grandmaster Flash in “The Message.”


Show video of Grandmaster Flash on ABC’s Nightline in 2012. Discuss as a class:

  • What specific musical sources does Grandmaster Flash point to as influences? What did he find inspiring about these musicians and records?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Writing 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 7: Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  • Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.1 Identify and describe the role and influence of new technologies on contemporary arts industry.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.2 Explore the role of art and design across various industry sectors and content areas.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.
    A5.4 Predict how changes in technology might change the role and function of the visual arts in the workplace.
    A5.7 Synthesize traditional art work and new technologies to design an artistic product to be used by a specific industry.
    A8.0 Understand the key technical and technological requirements applicable to various segments of the Media and Design Arts Pathway.
    A8.3 Know the features and uses of current and emerging technology related to computing (e.g., optical character recognition, sound processing, cable TV, cellular phones).
    A8.7 Evaluate how advanced and emerging technologies (e.g., virtual environment or voice recognition software) affect or improve media and design arts products or productions.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.

Production and Managerial Arts (C)

  • C3.0 Analyze and differentiate the function of the various members of a production team.
    C3.1 Identify the skills and competencies of the various members of a production team including producer, production manager, director, assistant director, stage manager, production designer(s), post production, etc.
    C5.0 Apply knowledge of services, equipment capabilities, the workflow process, data acquisition, and technology to a timely completion of projects.
    C5.1 Identify essential qualifications and technological competencies for each team member, including artists, designers, performers, composers, writers, and technicians.