Language, perception and Hip Hop

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Language is ambiguous, arbitrary and abstract.1 It’s symbolic and historical and yet, intrinsically devoid of real meaning. Words have the ability to define ideas and objects and allow for communication between individuals to take place, but maybe even more importantly, enable the individual to hold thoughts in their own mind for self-reflection and hypothetical thought. Words and language are ways for people to organize perceptions in their own mind and relate those thoughts to others in a way that can be understood.1

When we examine a word, history and meaning immediately influence our perception of the symbol, but only if we can read it. Words intrinsically have no meaning at all. They are only symbols for ideas and objects people have observed in the past. We can understand this concept easily when contemplating other languages. The meaning of words familiar to most people are hidden when represented in a different language because the letters themselves have no intrinsic connection to whatever idea or object is being contemplated. They are merely symbols which represent those ideas to people who understand the language of that culture. Because these words have meaning for a particular culture, they automatically contain historical meaning and cues to where they came from.


The root connection to where words come from, or their meaning, in one way, limits the perspective one has when using the word. That is part of the cultural limitation of words. They shape how a concept is being represented, even in one’s own mind. Words are organized into groups or contexts which are sometimes very subjective or even stereotypical. Still, for the individual, the unique combination of words and concepts their language allows them to contemplate, can provide them with the ability, to reflect on hypothetical situations. From this perspective, one can say that because the word ‘hypothetical’ exists in the English language, individuals are able to contemplate such an idea. In one way, that could be true, but the combination of other words which describe the idea of holding thoughts in one’s mind which speculate about future situations, is the meaning compiled into the word ‘hypothetical’. This ability to reflect on ideas is part of the symbolic nature our perceptions are defined by.  Words define the boundaries our perceptions rest in, yet also provide us with the ability to go beyond those boundaries.


The ability to hold thoughts in one’s mind is the power of words, used as meaningful symbols. As an apprentice of KRSONE’s Temple of Hip Hop in 2008, I spent many hours contemplating the meaning of the word that defines our culture, Hip Hop. To us, Hip Hop is not just a random word. It has deep meaning and symbolism.2 In its first incarnation, hip hop referred to the sonic symbolism, the two, one syllable words have. It referred to movement or beat pattern, hip-hop, hip-hop. In 1963, a pop group called the Dovells had a song called, You Can’t Sit Down, where they said, “You gotta, slop bop, flip flop, hip hop, all around.” Here, they referred to dancing. This is one example of how the phrase hip hop could mean movement. Later, Keith Cowboy, a member of the rap group Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, was credited with using the term to make fun of a friend who was entering the army. He mimicked the cadence “…hip, hop, hip, hop,” like marching and used it later as a cadence in his rap songs. Another emcee by the name of Lovebug Starski also used the term hip hop on his first record called Positive Life, in 1981. Because hip hop wasn’t a phrase or recognizable term yet, it meant something much more ambiguous back then. Then it referred more to movement, cadence or dancing.


But as cultures evolve, words take on new meanings. Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc would also become known as those who used the term to refer to the kids who liked hip-hop music. These kids started to become known as hip-hoppers or Hiphoppas (proper). In its latest incarnation, Hip Hop with two capital H’s, signifies a culture of elements and people. The artist known as KRSONE, coined phrases including, “Rap is something you do, Hip Hop is something you live.” And, “I am Hip Hop.” As KRS explains it, hip means to know, “It’s a form of intelligence. Hop is a form of movement. And together hip and hop when spelled correctly as Hip Hop means moving or jumping intelligence. Even knowledgeable movement.” (KRSONE, The Gospel of Hip Hop, 2009 pg. 71) This process of developing words to self-reflect on, as a means of hypothetical thought, about how to communicate a certain perception to oneself and the World, is epitomized in the evolution of the word ‘Hip Hop.’


Hip Hop as a word has come into meaning only over the last 40-50 years. At first, it meant nothing more than a sonic placeholder; hip hop, bebop, bip bop. It was almost incidental. Then, as the term came to refer to a subculture of people, the word grew in significance and meaning, because of the self-reflection of Afrika Bambaataa and others. Finally, it has come to be defined by those like KRSONE, who use hypothetical thought to describe the word with much more complexity, as a means of opening awareness in those who search for the meaning. This contemplation, allows the person to perceive their culture and therefore themselves, in a more positive way, than they have been defined by the mainstream society. The re-defining of Hip Hop Kulture (proper), in the Gospel of Hip Hop, released in 2009, was an attempt to recapture the sense of responsibility the culture started with. The book defines Hiphop consciousness as, “The perceptual ability to transform subjects and objects, in an effort to express one’s inner being.” Here, Hiphop (meaning consciousness or mind-set) is a perceptual ability to take an object like a dj turntable and turn it into a musical instrument, which could now headline or orchestrate an entire show. This is also the same mentality that inspired gold “fronts” or “grills”, spinning car rims, breakin, beatboxin and graffiti art.

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This logic, defines Hiphop as a conscious effort to transform the things around an individual, to no longer just be that symbol, but an expression of that person’s inner being. Hip Hop does that with nicknames, the way it dresses, talks, walks, dances, plays music, makes art, makes money and teaches knowledge or ‘drops science, wisdom and jewels’ which are the more appropriate words here.


  1. J. Woods, Interpersonal Communications: Everyday Encounters, 7th Ed., Cengage Learning, 2013

(Woods, Int. Comm.)

  1. KRSONE, The Gospel of Hip Hop, Powerhouse Books, 2009
  2. The Dovells, You Can’t Sit Down, #3 Billboard Hot 100 1963
  3. Lovebug Starski, Positive Life, Tayster Records 1981

Kurt Nice

Kurt Nice aka Kurtiss Jackson is a behind the scenes pioneer in the Hip Hop Kulture, creating the first nationally distributed video mix tape series, Shades of Hip Hop, in the late 1990s. Since touring the country with the Stop the Violence Movement and the Temple of Hip Hop as KRS-ONE’s National Marketing Director, Kurt Nice has been a constant commentator on conscious Hip Hop and its relevance to the new rap music of today, through radio and cable appearances. contact Kurt at

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