Hip Hop and Rap in Europe:
The culture of the urban ghetto's
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By Marie-Agnès Beau


Hip Hop and Rap play such a basic part in Europopmusic of today that it’s hard to imagine that in the Eighties it was still considered an underground scene in most European countries. Western Europe picked up somewhere mid eighties but Central Europe took much longer to get into it. At first European Hip Hop mostly copied their American examples. But more and more the social characteristics of the hip-hop culture turned out to be great feeding ground to develop a specific identity of their own. And a great way to express yourself in your own language and still sound cool. But in 1996 the European Hip Hop scene was still in development. As such that the European Music Office published a report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe". It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This case study on Hip Hop and Rap in Europe was written for the occasion by Marie-Agnès Beau. Since the basics of this study are still very much relevant and give a nice historical insight in the development of Hip Hop in Europe we got kind permission of Marie-Agnès to reprint it for your reading pleasure.

The definition of Hip Hop.
The best definition of Hip Hop is the culture of urban ghetto's. It is the life style of the young people living in the street, promoting self-expression through music, dance, graphic arts (tag) and fashion wear — kids originally wear large baggy pants so they can grow up without having to buy new ones. It is also a social attitude where the "posse" is a gang or a family where everyone is interdependent and each member has got his own role.

Rap is definitely the verbal expression of the street people. It does not need any musical education nor expensive instruments, just a voice and eventually a soundmachine or a turntable. The origins of rap are various, all coming from oral traditions: the African griots, the "talk over" or "spoken words" of the Jamaican culture and the blues and gospel as artistic and verbal ways for the Black people to denounce their condition, but also from any form of street speech where people lecture others, for a spiritual or commercial purpose. The break beats were first natural vocal rhythms, what we now call "human beat box".
  Original rap is the speech of DJ's in the club scene, presenting the music they play on turntables and encouraging the public to liberate and dance. The music came to accompany the voice, as a musical and rhythmic background and patchwork of sounds. It now only needs a sampler to copy, cut and put sounds together. Lots of pure musicians think it is a robbery and no music ... Compared to traditional record, a rap record can be made quickly at home, with cheap equipment. Although, more and more rap bands realize that acoustic sounds and live musicians on stage give many more feelings and a better show. Then DJ's started to compete with each other and the social comment became also a personal speech for self valorization. This is where the aggressive attitude comes from in the whole hip hop culture: be it rapper against rapper, or break(er) dancing against another breaker, every participant has to test his skills and impose himself. Rap comes from the necessity for a certain social and age group to express its reality and get recognized in the society.

The history of rap in Europe
Hip Hop and rap music were born in the Black American urban ghetto's at the end of the 1970's and first exported to England, as it was the first natural market for American musical products. When it reached the shores of the rest of Europe in the early 1980's, Africa Bambaata had given more strength to the whole hip hop movement structured around the Zulu Nation, with its rules, its hierarchy and a non violent spirit: it grew up as a big and strong family. When Africa Bambaata himself came to Europe, notably in France in the early 1980's, he was impressed by the importance of Black culture, coming from both Africa and the Caribbean. The movement encouraged the youth to gather and express themselves.

In Europe, break dance was the first thing appearing on the public scene as it was probably less violent than the rap itself, which comes from the US most violent ghetto's with its angry lyrics. Several small underground organizations started organizing rap concerts and US rappers were regularly performing in the clubs of big European cities. European teens started to copy Americans in organizing parties and rapping in English. It was so much fun that they started rapping in their own language. In Europe the movement developed in differentiating from American rap, according to the different social and immigration contexts and the local dominating musical scene.

In England, the rap wave has rapidly been absorbed by the strong club scene and has become pop or trip-hop. There was no urgent need to use it as a strong means of political or social expression, as immigrant communities were already well structured and represented and public and artistic forms of opposition or oppression were already strongly expressed by local personalities or events for instance with the "dub poetry" of Caribbean artists such as Linton Kwesi Johnson. On the other hand teenagers had other ways of expression and opposition with punk and then grunge movements.
  In France, the urban youth is not living in the same radical conditions as in the US and they are not politically organized as in the UK. Their suburbs are not real ghetto's and kids are not racially separated — Blacks, Arabs and Whites living together in a social systems where they were all going to school and also to university with more equal chances — and therefore more integrated into society. They did not need to be so violent but still had a lot to say and desperately needed to find their own identity. Rap in French flowed spontaneously, sounded good and was much more explicit than in English. The competition pushed the kids to improve their personal style and to get organized. MC Solaar rapidly emerged probably because of his very open and positive attitude, his strong literary talents and humour. He became the spokesman of a whole generation - not only of the immigrant communities but also of the White middle class teens — who could not find itself neither in romantic stories nor in pure aggressiveness.
Solaar's tremendous success associated with the competition and solidarity inherent in this social and age group, encouraged a lot of kids to rap, in France but also in other continental European countries where they realized they could rap in their mother language. Many bands and independent labels emerged, major record companies tried to find their own Solaar, the soft rapper, and created a pop and commercial rap style that now invades broadcasts and make original rappers angry and more hard-core. Italian, German and Dutch rap started to grow with a real commercial and social impact.

The culture of a new and often multiracial generation.
Rap in Europe has grown with the second generation of immigrants, who have followed the American model but quickly differentiate themselves with their own social and personal specifics. Indeed, rapping in their own language is probably the most important improvement in their quest for identity, which is the major asset of hip hop. Among the different positive aspects of this brand new local flavour (such as understanding, literary skills, local or regional identification), the search for quality in the form, as well as in the content, seems to be one of the main skill of European rap: there is less gangsta rap in Western Europe (violent style of rap discriminating women) and a pure hard-core seems to become old-fashioned and too far from a more nuanced reality. Probably because there are less urban ghetto's in Europe than in the US, European kids kept closer than Americans to the positive message of the original Zulu Nation movement: social responsibility, culture and peace. In Central Europe, in countries like Poland and former Yugoslavia, the frustation about the unfullfilled expectations after the fall of the iron curtain sometimes cause for more millitant rap forms.

The hard-core movement stays mostly underground however and hardly ever comes up to a commercial level. On the other hand, the soft dance orientated rap style has invaded some commercial radios. Hip Hop has gone on to influence strongly every other popular musical style, not only with its vocal technic or break beats, but also with its fashion wear, attitude and lifestyle. It emphasizes different aspects of the DJ or club culture. Also rap evolves naturally and, mixed more and more with R&B, it launched back this musical style which is getting very popular now, not only among the hip hoppers but also with the rest of the population. Hip hop and rap are going far beyond an immigrant kids' fashion, it is now the culture of a whole new and often multiracial generation who wants to find its own ways to adapt and finds its place in the society.
Created with the help of Mariam Traore (Wicked, France) and Richard Wernicke (Groove Attack, Germany).

For a recent overview of hip hop and rap-artists around Europe you can always check the Wiki-page


Marie Agnès was executive manager of the French Music Export Office in Paris from its creation in 1993 until the opening of the London music office. She opened the French Music Bureau in London in May 1999, representing both the French music industry and government to promote the French popular contemporary music in the UK. In the previous ten years she held senior positions in the domestic and international marketing departments at several French majors (including Polygram, CBS and EMI). She has also managed and co-produced African, Arabic, rap and ragga artists since the 80s when she started in the music business exporting African records to the Caribbean for a British reggae producer. She is currently busy with the Afrolution project see also: www.afrolution.com.