The History and Linguistic Structure of Hip Hop Music

Categories: Hip HopMusic
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Modern day hip-hop music developed its own linguistic structure and culture but through background and practice it can be understood just as any other language. When listening to or creating hip-hop music, we use a different form of language, which has its own rules and creative barriers. Given the culture and modern usage of hip-hop, it can be classified as a language within itself. The time in America that Hip-Hop music began to be recognized was a time characterized by the public recognition of wide spread racism.

This gave rise to discussions of rebellion, Black Nationalism, and black identity. The discussion of these concepts greatly impacted early hip-hop artists to incorporate these ideas and current societal issues into their lyrics. By conveying the cultural realities of the African-American experience, hip-hop has made the transition from expression to subdialect to language, without the proper recognition. Without public recognition of hiphop as a language, the expression of experience or dreams and aspirations in America is subtly invalidated.

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It should be understood that modern day hip-hop lyrics are a language, because they use unique sentence structure, rules of rhyming and a diverse synthesis of art styles to convey the specific message of black cultural realities in America.

Hip hop music, is a genre of music consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that comes from simple beats but complex rhythms related to traditional African drum-circles. Originating in a fusion of cultural realities and descriptive wordplay, hip-hop music began in New York City in the 1970s, quickly gaining popularity with the AfricanAmerican youth of the US.

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Matched with rapping, chanted and rhythmic speech, hip-hop music reflects African traditions of music and storytelling. James Baldwin in his essay “Black English” Baldwin states “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are Submerged.)”. Looking at the origins of hip-hop music, it is easy to identify it as an attempt convey the realities that surround many African-American communities, especially given the inability of members of these communities to control their circumstances. Whether it is police brutality, gang violence, drug problems, or lack of proper funding in areas necessary for success. All of those things are circumstances many communities are effected by. By James Baldwin’s definition of language, hip-hop would certainly be included as a language – despite using ‘common’ languages; it conveys important messages of identity to its participants. HipHop conveys cultural realities of some African American communities by including messages of drug use, gang violence, race pride, and social or sexual aspirations. For example Kendrick Lamar’s song The Blacker the Berry the song opens:

“Everything black, I don’t want black (They want us to bow)
I want everything black, I ain’t need black (Down to our knees)
Some white, some black, I ain’t mean black (And pray to a God)
I want everything black (That we don’t believe)
Everything black, want all things black
I don’t need black, want everything black
Don’t need black, our eyes ain’t black
I own black, own everything black”

This intro is Kendrick’s description of the struggles that many African Americans experience in day-to-day life. He also briefly describes the disappointment that comes with yearning and deserving a better quality of life then you have. These messages are aimed internally at members of the black community. Similar to that of everyday conversation, rappers and modern hip-hop artists use their lyrics to communicate a message to other artists within the African American community.

Today, we communicate in a variety of ways through the use of language. Anything that uses a unique structure or grammatical rules to convey a specific message is a language. With the advent of modern technology, arguments have been made that coding and emojis are languages. If this is true, certainly hip-hop is as well. These two relate in the way that they both are means of communication within a community for rap that consists of the African American communities of America and in the case of Emojis it would be the tech savvy community. Hip-Hop uses a unique rhyme scheme similar to that of poetry but often more up-tempo. Though the African music style incorporated into hip-hop can be seen as organic and lacking structure the beats and rhythms of this style follow critical and complex rules. The rhyme scheme of Hip-Hop can be divided into three different groups: ABAB, ABBA, and ABCD form. By having these subdivisions Hip-Hop resembles any common language. English for example has Scotch, Irish, Welsh, English, and American dialects. Though artistic license allows participants to break these grammatical rules the organic nature of language is present in all cultures.

The social experience in America is divided. Language used to describe and convey white experience may not always be able to express the black experience in America. James Baldwin argues that both the Jazz Age and the Beat Generation were both originally attempts at African American expression, hijacked by white America. It is undeniable that hip-hop has also suffered the same fate, yet retains much of its autonomy from wider American discourse. The expression of the black experience is made through increasingly complex allusion and slang, incorporated into rhyme. By increasing the complexity of the language, artists have also protected the internal communicative nature of hip-hop. Rapper A$AP Rocky is a perfect example:

“I bet a lot of ni**as plottin’ so you know I got that heater, bruh
Drive my side of Harlem, catch me ridin’ with my nina, bruh”

Rocky is speaking on the topic of how many people within the community are attempting to shake him down or in other words rob him. Rocky then goes on to state he keeps his “heater” with him or in other words a weapon on him at all times. This statement portrays a lot about the community and the fact that through the use of slang and rhyme Rocky is able to the community he comes from and anyone that understands this use of slang that he is not playing around. Another means by which hiphop artists have maintained linguistic sovereignty from popular culture is through the use of derogatory language and phrases. Distancing the language of hip-hop from what is accepted in white discourse has kept hip-hop as a language for African-American consumption. Just as other languages often embody the experiences or social standings of sub-groups in society, hip-hop projects and communicates the experience of a subgroup of our society. James Baldwin argues that internal nature of language, and its imperceptibility to outsiders lies at the center of its validity.

Musicians can communicate and identify social issues, race issues, aspirations and concerns of otherwise isolated communities in America through hip-hop. The diversity of styles of hip-hop (West Coast, Gangsta rap, new school, Atlanta, alternative) does not hinder its consumption across America. The recent release of Beyoncé’s “Formation” has done much to anger mainstream America. The realization that the message of the music is not, in fact, directed at the entire American people, but instead to Black America, has done much to confuse and distress. Backlash against Beyoncé’s music can easily be seen as recognition of that fact, and the discomfort of white America at being labeled ‘outsiders’ by an experience of a community within the nation. Though diverse and complex, hip-hop provides a means of communication, foreign to ‘outsiders’, of the experience of AfricanAmerican communities.

People may believe that modern day hip-hop lyrics are just an extension of the English language. Some may argue that it is just the English language spoken over a rhythmic tempo. In some cases hip-hop as a language is opposed to because it can be interpreted as a improper use of the English language through the lack of standard grammatical limitations and necessary sentence structure. The artistic, poetic style of writing and expression in hip-hop lyrics can also be closely associated with concepts of traditional English art and poetry. This argument attempts to invalidate hip-hop as language of its own by tying it in with the lineage of the English language. Just because Hip-hop lyrics take root in a specific language does not mean that it cannot be a language of its own. Jews living ghettos of Europe used Yiddish to communicate and speak on their specific circumstances.

Yiddish is a unique language that has its roots in that of German and Hebrew, yet it is still considered a language of its own. Similar to Yiddish hip-hop combines traditional English with modern slang, African language roots, and African music styles. By synthesizing the old with the new hip-hop lyrics deviate from Standard English the same way Yiddish deviates from that of German. The critique of hip-hop being a bastardization of the English language is invalid also. Hip-hip utilizes internal standardized rules the same as that of any other language. In these ways hip-hop solidifies itself as a sovereign and independent language from that of the English language. Unlike some other genres of music hip-hop has had an admirable longevity in the modern age. Lasting since the 1970s, hip-hop has gained traction and notability within popular culture. As a source of expression for the African-American experience with its own standardized grammar and structure, hip-hop has solidified itself as a burgeoning language.

Drawing its lineage from a fusion of modern slang and African influences, hiphop has branched from the modern English language. Despite arguments attempting to invalidate hip-hop as a bastardization of the “pure’English language, an analysis of structure and diction in hip-hop reveals internal mechanisms for communication, the same as any other language. In providing a means of unique communication and expression, hip-hop falls within James Baldwin’s definition of language in America. The expression of black experience, through allusions to drug-use, gang violence, and racism in America, hip-hop gives voice to a group that has been historically silenced. By including regulations and complexities into the use of hip-hop lyrics, the message carried within hip-hop is created for reception only by those who share a culture, much like any other conventional language. Meeting his criteria for a black language, as well as satisfying traditional notions of language has doubly ratified hip-hop as a modern language. Through its ability to express experience, its use of internal regulations and structure, and blending African art styles and the English language, hip-hop must be recognized by broader culture as an autonomous language of the modern age.

Works Cited

  1. DasBender, Gita. “Black English” Language: A Reader for Writers. IE ed. N.p.: Oxford UP, n.d. 157. Print.
  2. Lamar, Kendrick. “‘The Blacker The Berry” Lyrics.” KENDRICK LAMAR LYRICS. AZ Lyrics, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
  3. Rocky, A$AP. “A$AP Rocky – Excuse Me.” Genius. Genius, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
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The History and Linguistic Structure of Hip Hop Music. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from

The History and Linguistic Structure of Hip Hop Music

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