Celebrating Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary With Professor A.D. Carson

August 10, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

A.D. Carson has been in high demand this summer.

Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary is Friday and media outlets ranging from Vanity Fair to NPR to Rolling Stone have asked Carson, the University of Virginia’s associate professor of hip-hop and the global South, to weigh in on the genre’s evolution and importance. He has academic and practical expertise as a scholar of the genre and as a rapper himself.

Hip-hop emerged from block parties in the Bronx in New York City, which were popular among Black and Latino youth. DJs would play funk and soul records, isolate the percussive break and create a new kind of music that would later be dubbed hip-hop.

Carson talked to UVA Today about where hip-hop began, where it’s going and what it can accomplish.

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The Origins of Hip-Hop

Few genres of music have origins that can be traced back to an exact day. Hip-hop does.

On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive Campbell threw a back-to-school party with his sister Cindy in an apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Partygoers danced to the familiar tunes of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, until Campbell – now better known as DJ Kool Herc – began to play two copies of the same record, looping the percussive sections of the song to maintain the beat. Hip-hop had been born.

“It was a wild confluence of events,” Carson said.

The new style of music took off in New York City, becoming the soundtrack for all kinds of parties and celebrations. Born in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods, the genre remained in the margins for several years, despite a flurry of artistic activity.

The Sugar Hill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight,” which experts and musicians consider the first commercial recording of a rap song, in 1979. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that musicians like Vanilla Ice and N.W.A. reached the top of the charts.

Still, the genre’s history doesn’t begin “when a song charted,” Carson said.

Though rap and hip-hop are often used interchangeably, not all hip-hop songs have someone rhyming over the beat. Rap wasn’t always the most prominent aspect of hip-hop. That came later, he said.

In fact, hip-hop is more than just a kind of music.

“Some people see it and may think ‘dance,’ some people see it and may think ‘production,’ some people see it and may think ‘DJing,’” Carson said. “That’s because hip-hop is a culture and encompasses all of those things.”

It even includes graffiti, one of the first aspects of hip-hop culture to gain widespread attention. Today, though, most people associate hip-hop with rap music.

Hip-Hop’s Evolution

Hip-hop has changed considerably since DJ Kool Herc’s back-to-school party, even though it is a relatively young genre.

“Fifty years is a long time, but it’s also a really short time,” Carson said.

Though Billboard reports that hip-hop is the most popular music genre in the world, Carson said it continues to be marginalized in some ways. When some people hear the word “rapper,” they may associate it with poverty and crime, leading to rappers being scapegoated, Carson said. He must consider those associations himself when he decides whether to introduce himself as a rapper, a professor, or both.

Nevertheless, hip-hop’s predominance is undeniable. It’s spread from the South Bronx to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and abroad. Even the fact that UVA has a faculty member dedicated to teaching hip-hop points to the music’s significance.

“So much of academia has been exclusionary of the practice of hip-hop,” Carson said. “For there to be now an associate professor of hip-hop at a place like the University of Virginia … what does that portend for hip-hop in academia?”

Portrait of A.D. Carson
Carson is both a scholar and a practitioner of hip-hop. His next album comes out on the genre’s 50th anniversary. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Carson’s position at UVA builds on the legacy of former UVA ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt, who pioneered the study of hip-hop at UVA and nationwide.

Hip-Hop’s Future

Narratives told about hip-hop have long been dominated by men, but female and LGBTQ musicians are gaining ground. Female rapper Doja Cat, for example, was the most-streamed rapper in 2021, according to Spotify. But Carson said he hoped to see more diversity within the genre.

“Will we continue to erase women from the narrative? Will we continue to erase gender and sexuality from the narrative? Will we continue to make it seem as if hip-hop culture is the product of a few exemplary men?” Carson said.

Hip-hop has called attention to racial inequality and police brutality. It is, Carson said, a historical document. Noting that it was through rap that he has tried to raise awareness of a lynching that happened in 1893 just across the street from the county courthouse in his Illinois hometown, Carson said that hip-hop can give us a fuller, richer understanding of history.

For Carson, hip-hop’s engagement with “the everyday” is part of its appeal. It doesn’t just tell stories, it makes arguments.

“Hip-hop has been doing that for a really long time,” Carson said. “It makes arguments that may not be politically expedient.”

The genre is fundamentally about striving, whether it’s for individual or societal change.

“It is maybe one of the best examples of what people idealize as the promise of America,” Carson said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications