From Angola to the Bronx to the World:
A Timeline of Hip Hop and Breakdancing

A rendering of an installation artwork that includes a central circular stage and low, bleacher-like seating that encircles the stage. The stage is decorated with a swirl of bright green, yellow, and blue colors.
The installation Reverb (2024) for Summer Sway on the Plaza. Installation rendering: Neon Fab Studios.

By Rakia Seaborn

Born in the Bronx in 1973, hip hop soon became a global cultural movement. As we celebrate hip hop and the art forms it has inspired with our Summer Sway program this year, this timeline presents the roots of its living history. The information on this page expands on the timeline engraved in the Summer Sway installation on our outdoor Plaza.

1619
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
The first captured, enslaved peoples are brought to Point Comfort, in what is now Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. They were most likely taken from the kingdom of Ndongo in what is present-day Angola. This is the starting point of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States, in which 12.5 million African people were trafficked and subjugated as part of the institution of slavery for the next 248 years.1 Though ripped from their homelands, they carry with them embodied memories of dance, song, and worship. These memories are the foundation of African American history and culture.
1800 – 67
The Birth of African American Social Dance
Throughout the antebellum 19th century, enslaved people devise clever ways to celebrate their culture through song and dance, away from the watchful eyes of the clergy. Songs and dances that are not strictly Christian are prohibited by white slaveholders but enslaved people’s culture perseveres. Joy becomes an act of resistance! Buck dances, wing dances, and jigs are examples of movements that live on at the core of African American social dance. They are performed to highly rhythmic sounds characterized by call and response. Through the performance of these dances, components of popping, locking, and toprocking—central moves in breaking—begin to emerge along with the syncopated rhythms of hip hop.2
August 11, 1973
The Birth of Hip Hop
“This is where it came from,” said Clive Campbell a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc. “This is it. The culture started here and went around the world. But this is where it came from. Not anyplace else.”3 On August 11, 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx, in a vibrant community of Black and Latinx peoples who were pushed to the margins of a nearly bankrupt New York City, 16 year old D.J. Kool Herc, his little sister Cindy Campbell, and rapper Coke La Rock change the world when they host DJ Kool Herc’s Back-to-School Jam party. Spinning James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” on twin turntables, DJ Kool Herc toggled between the two albums, isolating the extended percussion breaks with “The Merry-Go-Round” technique. Kool Herc called these moments of extended percussion “the get down part.” Later it would be called “the break.”4 Coke La Rock was on the microphone talking “jive,” sharing rhymes and witty observations that got the crowd going. In this moment, hip hop music is born, though it won’t officially have a name until six years later!

The Four Elements of Hip Hop

Though DJ Kool Herc was instrumental in creating the hip hop sound, that sound doesn’t exist through his innovations alone. Four complementary elements compose the genre we call hip hop:

  • DJing: creating and manipulating beats and music characterized by scratching and turntablism on twin turntables
  • MCing or rapping: putting spoken, rhyming lyrics to the beat created by the DJ
  • Breaking: b-girls and b-boys performing a style of dance done to the sounds created by the DJ and MC
  • Writing: the painting of highly stylized graffiti art

(Sean McCollum, “Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice,” Kennedy-Center.org, October 30, 2019, https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/hip-hop/hip-hop-a-culture-of-vision-and-voice/.)

August 2, 1979
Rapper’s Delight
Until 1979, hip hop develops mainly as a live art form on stages, in the streets, or at house parties. On August 2, inspired by a nightclub performance she saw of Lovebug Starski rapping over Chic’s “Good Times,” record producer and CEO of Sugar Hill Records Sylvia Robinson rounds up a group of kids, including Wonder Mike, Master Gee, Big Bank Hank, and Hen Dogg, dubbing them The Sugar Hill Gang. On that fateful day in Englewood, New Jersey, Sylvia and The Sugar Hill Gang records the hit “Rapper’s Delight.” After 14 million copies of the single sale, hip hop officially joins the mainstream.5
1980
Ladies of the Arts
Led by Ecuadorian-born, Queens-raised graffiti writer Lady Pink, the Ladies of the Arts take to the streets and trains of NYC as an all-woman graffiti crew in a time when writing is dominated by men. They hop fences, climb water towers, sneak into subway tunnels like outlaws, matching the improvisational energy of a DJ’s set. “It’s not just a boys club. We have a sisterhood thing going.”6
1982
Breaking Grooves Overseas
As hip hop music gains greater notoriety, breaking grows with it. Throughout the 1970s breaking was spreading across New York City. An improvisational dance style featuring lightning-fast footwork, gravity-defying freezes, and robotic movements sliding into the smoothest waves, breakdancing grows in popularity as crews such as the Rock Steady Crew, the Mighty Zulu Kings, the Lockers, and the Electric Boogaloos sharpen their skills in the streets and in the clubs. In 1982, Roxy Night Club owner Kool Lady Blue co-produces the Roxxy European Hip Hop Tour featuring Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Mixer DXT, the Rock Steady Crew, and street artist Rammellzee. International audiences experience live breaking for the first time! The dance style appears across popular media in the 1980s including on Late Night with David Letterman, The Kennedy Center Honors TV special, and in the films Flashdance (1983), Breakin’ the Movie (1984), and Beat Street (1984). Celebrated breakers include Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, and Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones.

Breaking’s Basic Elements

The basic elements of breaking include:

  • Popping: The sudden, rhythmic contraction and release of a dancers’ muscles
  • Locking: Snapping arms or legs into held positions, often at sharp angles, to accentuate a musical rhythm
  • Top-rocking: Fancy footwork performed upright, often before a dancer goes to the floor
  • Down-rocking: Dance moves performed on or close to the ground
  • Up-rocking: Martial arts strikes, kicks, and sweeps built into the dance steps often with the intent of “burning” an opponent
  • Power moves: Acrobatic spins and flares requiring speed, strength, and agility
  • Freeze: The sudden halt of a dance step to hold a pose, often while balanced on a hand, shoulder, or head
  • Cypher: a group of b-boys/b-girls taking turns in the center of the dance floor

(Sean McCollum, “Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice,” Kennedy-center.org, October 30, 2019, https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/hip-hop/hip-hop-a-culture-of-vision-and-voice/.)

1984
Ladies First
In hip hop history, 1984 is a big year. A new generation of artists had taken the stage ranging from the party-oriented style of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and the rock-driven style of RUN D.M.C. to the politically charged, in-your-face style of N.W.A. and Public Enemy. But where were the women?!? In 1984, Roxanne Shante bursts onto the scene with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a response to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne.” This song not only introduces the world to one of the first woman MCs, it kicks off a new era of hip hop: it is the first response record, leading to a cascade of diss songs and response records. Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Salt-N-Pepa, and J.J. Fad will follow in Shante’s footsteps proving that women can hold their own in a male-dominated field.7
1989

Hip Hop Boycotts the Grammys
In 1989, Best Rap Album is added to the Grammy nomination categories. Nominees include DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, J. J. Fad for “Supersonic,” Kool Moe Dee for “Wild Wild West,” LL Cool J for “Going Back to Cali,” and Salt-n-Pepa for “Push It.” Rather than celebration, some nominated artists meet the Grammys with a boycott, refusing to attend when they are informed their category won’t be televised. Hip hop has never been a stranger to rebellion. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince go on to win the award but aren’t in attendance to accept. In protest while announcing the award for Best Male R&B Vocal, Kool Moe Dee makes a statement in verse:

On the behalf of all MCs
My co-workers and fellow nominees
Jazzy Jeff, J. J. Fad,
Salt-N-Pepa and the boy who’s bad
We personify power and a drug-free mind
And we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme
So I think it’s time that the whole world knows.8

1996 – 97
East Coast vs. West Coast
By the mid-90s, hip hop is a multimillion dollar, international business and gangsta rap dominates the airwaves. Moving beyond the NYC block party, hip hop epicenters crop up around the country with Outkast & Goodie Mob in Atlanta, Master P & No Limit Records in New Orleans, and Three Six Mafia in Memphis, to name a few. There is also a vibrant West Coast scene anchored by LA-based label Death Row Records. Artists signed to Death Row include Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac. On the East Coast, as the rivalry between coasts moved beyond response records into real-life hostility and violence, Bad Boy Records holds court, featuring artists Craig Mack, Mase, The Lox, and The Notorious B.I.G. On September 7, 1996, 2Pac dies at 25 years old in a drive-by shooting as he leaves a Las Vegas boxing match. Six months later, the Notorious B.I.G. dies at 24 in the same way as he leaves a Los Angeles party.9 The deaths of these prolific artists rocks the world.
August 25, 1998
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Ascending from a time of mourning, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill hits the airwaves like a balm on August 25. Listed at number 10 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,10 it is both a break-up album and a love letter to Black women. At only 22 years old, with songs of motherhood, lost love, and self-affirmation, Lauryn Hill is nominated for 10 Grammys. She is the first hip hop artist and one of only 11 Black artists to win the prestigious Album of the Year award, ushering in a new era of hip hop tinged with R&B soul.
2003
Hip Hop’s Got Soul
In September 2003, with nothing but a Louis Vuitton backpack, a wired jaw, and a dream, Kanye West’s song “Through the Wire” cataclysmically shifts the sound of hip hop to define the decade. Featuring a sped-up soul sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” this signature style becomes a standard tool in a producer’s toolkit. “Through the Wire” propels West to superstardom. The underground “backpack rap” is now mainstream with lyrics about anti-Black racism, materialism, middle-class life, and faith.11
2010
Girl Down!
Hip hop has a long and complicated history with toxic masculinity. With a fresh breeze of queer musicians, 2010 finds artists freely expressing their genders while getting booties shaking on the dance floor. Divas of bounce music like Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby spit rapid fire lyrics over a “Triggaman” beat with swagger and charisma.12 Characterized by a call-and-response relationship to the audience, dancing to bounce is a joyful journey of throwing your pelvis in a circle and dropping it low! New Orleans bounce artists open the door for the next generation of queer hip hop artists like Saucy Santana and Lil Nas X.
2014
Stay Woke
By 2014, socially conscious rap has moved into the mainstream. An entire generation of young people is waking up in the face of police killings of unarmed Black people. Hip hop reflects this social trend. In 2014, Kendrick Lamar releases his magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. It traces a genre-bending journey of a protagonist engaged in an epic battle with his inner demons. Lamar’s lyrics from the song “Alright” become a battle cry for protestors as they take to the streets across the country: “We gon’ be alright.”13
2020
Get It, Girl
Countering the historical domination of men in hip hop, 2020 introduces a diverse generation of women rappers sitting atop the charts. Megan Thee Stallion, GloRilla, Latto represent for the South. Cardi B, Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice carry the torch for New York City. Doja Cat keeps it poppy. Tierra Whack keeps it artsy. For the first time in a long time, it feels like there’s a femcee to everyone’s taste.
2024
Breaking for the Gold
Born in the Bronx as a joyful form of resistance, raised all over the world, hip hop is truly a global phenomenon. It makes sense that the dance form tailor-made for the DJ’s break beat will take the world stage for the first time at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Standing on the shoulders of Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, Queens’s own Sunny Choi will represent Team USA.14 What an awesome way to celebrate hip hop’s 50th birthday, what an awesome next step for a legacy defined by innovation, rebellion, community, complexity, and beauty!

Contributor Bio

A native of Detroit, Rakia Seaborn is a writer, choreographer, educator, and performer whose work has appeared at JACK, Dixon Place, La Mama E.T.C., The Tank, AUNTS, chashama, and Brooklyn Studios for Dance. Seaborn has worked with Kathy Westwater, Dianne McIntyre, Rashaun Mitchell, Jodi Melnick, and Meta-Phys Ed. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2007, earning a BA in dance with a concentration in choreography, and in 2014, she gained an MFA in dance from Sarah Lawrence College. Seaborn teaches movement for Trinity College’s Experimental Performing Arts Program at La Mama, Etc as well as Dance History Through A Political Lens and MFA Thesis Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a 2018 Mertz Gilmore Late Stage Creative Stipend recipient. Seaborn’s latest work, A RUIN, had its world premiere at JACK in May of 2022.

Notes

  1. Mintz, Steven. 2019. “Historical Context: Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” Www.gilderlehrman.org. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. 2019. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/teacher-resources/historical-context-facts-about-slave-trade-and-slavery.
  2. Defrantz, Thomas F. 2012. “Thomas F. DeFrantz: Buck, Wing and Jig.” Today.duke.edu. March 28, 2012. https://today.duke.edu/2012/03/thomas-f-defrantz-buck-wing-and-jig.
  3. Gonzalez, David. 2007. “Will Gentrification Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop? (Published 2007).” The New York Times, May 21, 2007, sec. New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/21/nyregion/21citywide.html.
  4. Gozalez, Michael A. 2023. “DJ Kool Herc: The Aural Visionary Kick-Started a Musical Movement That Changed Our Culture Forever.” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, March 11, 2023.
  5. DuBois, Maurice. 2023. “The Sugarhill Gang Reflect on ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and the Birth of Hip-Hop - CBS New York.” Www.cbsnews.com. June 1, 2023. https://www.cbsnews.com/newyork/news/the-sugarhill-gang-reflect-on-rappers-delight-and-the-birth-of-hip-hop/.
  6. Hernandez, Jasmin. “Graffiti Queen Lady Pink Still Reigns Supreme.” www.vice.com, July 28, 2016. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qkw9k3/lady-pink-graffiti-queen-new-exhibition.
  7. Quan, Jay. “Roxanne Shanté: 4 Ways She Inspired a Generation of Female MC’s.” rockthebells.com, August 16, 2024. https://rockthebells.com/articles/roxanne-shante-influence-hip-hop/.
  8. Coscarelli, Joe. “The Boycott Before: Rap and Resentment at the 1989 Grammys (Published 2016).” The New York Times, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/11/arts/music/the-boycott-before-rap-and-resentment-at-the-1989-grammys.html.
  9. Landrum Jr., Jonathan. “Inside the East vs. West Rap Rivalry That Led to the Murders of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. In 1990s.” AP News, October 12, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/tupac-shakur-keffe-rap-rival-notorious-big-2567b97c8d1542fe6c7a0804aaa2b386.
  10. Schewitz, Brett. “#10 Lauryn Hill, ‘the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998),” Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, June 30, 2013, https://www.rs500albums.com/50-1/10.
  11. Orejuela, Fernando. “History of Rap & Hip-Hop.” Timeline of African American Music. Carnegie Hall, 2021. https://timeline.carnegiehall.org/genres/rap-hip-hop.
  12. Dee, Jonathan. “New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap,” The New York Times, July 23, 2010, sec. Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25bounce-t.html.
  13. Harris, Aisha. “Is Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ the New Black National Anthem?,” Slate Magazine (Slate, August 3, 2015), https://slate.com/culture/2015/08/black-lives-matter-protesters-chant-kendrick-lamars-alright-what-makes-it-the-perfect-protest-song-video.html.
  14. Gregory, Sean. “Sunny Choi Is Heading to Paris for Breaking’s Olympic Debut.” TIME, March 5, 2024. https://time.com/6836144/sunny-choi-olympics-breaking-2024/.

Related Program

Summer Sway Read more about “Summer Sway” All details for “Summer Sway”
JUL 12 – AUG 16
A celebration of hip hop’s living legacy, with free performances Friday evenings
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