“What’s the difference between rap and hip-hop?”
This is a common question for people becoming interested in hip-hop culture. It is also a distinction that is extremely important for Next Level and the work we do around the world.
The standard answer is that hip-hop is a culture with four elements* – deejaying, MCing, graffiti, and dance – and rap is a form of popular music that grew out of Hip-Hop culture.
In this view, hip-hop is deep and cultural. Rap is superficial and commercial.
In his song “Hip Hop vs. Rap,” KRS-ONE famously summarized the distinction with the classic aphorism, “Rap is something you do. Hip-Hop is something you live.”
But sometimes when we focus on the differences between rap and hip-hop, we overlook what they have in common. After all, there would be no reason to compare them in the first place if the two concepts were not related to each other.
For Next Level b-boy Ken Fury, rap is a part of hip-hop that is particularly vulnerable to corruption due to its commercialism.“Hip-hop started as a rebellious effort to overthrow oppression,” he says, “but over time corporate America infiltrated and promoted rap as everything hip-hop was against in the first place…[So] I think there is a difference commercially, but culturally they are part of the tree of hip-hop.”
Next Level artist and site manager Jaci Caprice also sees rap as a one of many manifestations of hip-hop’s energy, and one which can be used or misused depending on the artist’s intentions. “In regards to the topic of hip-hop and rap, my opinion is that hip-hop is the culture in which rap exists,” she says. “It’s like trying to define an apple as being just its seeds…or vice versa. They both exist because of each other. Rapping is just as vital to the preservation of the culture as deejing, b-boying/b-girling, graffiti, and the many other elements that make up the whole. These are the ‘seeds’.”
From this point of view, rap and hip-hop are not opposites – rap is a product of hip-hop culture. But this is not just a way of thinking about the relationship between the two forms. It is also an approach to making music. There is no inherent reason why someone couldn’t appreciate hip-hop for its own sake as an activity and also appreciate what it produces. And when one starts to view rap music as an expression of a broader and deeper set of hip-hop processes, the focus starts to shift away from what rap music is and towards what it does.
And that’s where Next Level comes in. By focusing on rap music as part of a larger hip-hop culture, we can direct our energies more effectively towards what it can do for individuals and communities.
We do this in several ways. When rap music is understood in the context of hip-hop’s culture, history, philosophy and ideals, those elements naturally come into play more fully. Ideas of identity, community responsibility, self-discipline and personal expression – which are fundamental to hip-hop culture – become central to rap as well. That is not necessarily the case when rap is treated as pop music.
But even when rap music is made for commercial purposes, it still doesn’t have to be exploitative or superficial. It can still be done in a way that is ethical, personally fulfilling and responsive to community needs. Moreover, as a cultural practice, hip-hop tends to manifest itself as a community activity. That makes it an extraordinarily flexible and useful tool for bringing people together, because it is defined by the people who are participating at that moment. They make it what they want it to be. And that simple process – a group of people talking to each other about how art should work – can actually be one of the most powerful creative acts that humans can engage in.
When we create music – or dance, or visual art – with people from different backgrounds, we share our strategies and processes with each other, and work together to achieve common goals. Of course, rap music doesn’t necessarily have to be made in that way. But the important thing is that it can be.
How do you think about the difference between rap and hip-hop?
*The question of how many elements are part of hip-hop and what they are is a complex one with many implications. The most common view is that the four main elements are MCing, DJing, dance and graffiti. In the 1980s, the Universal Zulu Nation promoted the idea that there was a fifth element of hip-hop that held the other four together, which was “knowledge”. Other activities that have been considered part of hip-hop at various times include theater, spoken word poetry, and double dutch.
For practical reasons, Next Level originally structured our program around music and dance, but we have recently added graffiti and beatboxing.