How Hip-Hop Got Its Name.

Ben Zimmer explains the origin of the term hip-hop for the WSJ:

This summer marks a vital anniversary in the history of American music. Fifty years ago, on Aug. 11, 1973, a Jamaican-born DJ named Kool Herc helped his sister throw a back-to-school party in the community room at their apartment building in the South Bronx. There, Herc came up with an innovative approach on the turntables that allowed him to isolate and repeat the musical breaks on records that got people dancing. Over those breaks, he and a friend, Coke La Rock, added another innovation: the rhythmic vocal delivery of rapping. That unique combination of DJ’ing and emceeing is widely credited as the baptismal moment of hip-hop.

At the time, this was a musical culture without a name; “hip-hop” would not become associated with the scene until several years later. Who introduced those syllables into rap parlance is a matter of some debate, but hip-hop historian Jeff Chang credits two key rhyme-slingers emceeing parties in the late ’70s: Keith Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and rapping DJ Lovebug Starski. The story goes that a friend of theirs was shipping out to the army, and at a party sending him off, Cowboy poked fun by chanting syllables like a drill instructor: “Hip-hop-hip-hop-hip-hop.” Cowboy and Starski were soon trading variations on the theme.

Performance tapes from 1978 bear out that both Cowboy and Starski incorporated those nonsense syllables into their vocal routines. In February 1979, an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier about Starski’s coming concert stated that “he is responsible for the derivation of the ‘Hip-Hop’”—the first known print appearance of the phrase in a musical context. Later that year, at the start of Sugarhill Gang’s hit single “Rapper’s Delight,” group member Wonder Mike repurposed Cowboy and Starski’s rhymes: “I said a hip, hop, the hippy, the hippy, to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop.”

The phrase “hip-hop” has a playful back story going back to the 17th century. An example of what linguists call “vowel-shift reduplication” (like “mishmash,” “crisscross,” and “pitter-patter”), it was used back then to indicate a hopping rhythm or motion. […] By the early 20th century, drill sergeants used these syllables for military cadences, as in “hip, two, three, four,” which also influenced signal-calling in football. By the time early rappers deployed those syllables, “hip” had also accrued its modern sense of “in the know” or “up-to-date,” and “hop” was used for all sorts of bouncy rhythms and dance moves.

But how did “hip-hop” come to label an entire musical subculture? The pioneering Bronx DJ Afrika Bambaataa gets the credit for that bit of nomenclature. In an interview with Bambaataa in the January 1982 issue of the East Village Eye, “hip-hop” got defined as “the all-inclusive tag for the rapping, breaking, graffiti-writing, crew fashion wearing, street sub-culture.” In September of that year, Steven Hager published an in-depth profile in the Village Voice titled “Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip-Hop.”

Bambaataa, now a hip-hop elder statesman, reflected on the name after he was appointed a visiting scholar at Cornell University in 2012. “Well, I chose the name ‘hip-hop’ because of the clichés brothers was using in their rhymes—Lovebug Starski and Keith Cowboy from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five,” he said. “And I liked the sound of what they were saying. And when the media come to speak to me…I said, ‘This is hip, and when you feel that music you gotta hop to it, so that’s when we called it ‘hip-hop.’”

While I have come to appreciate some later examples of the form (like De La Soul), the hip-hop I truly love is from my early years in New York (the first album I bought, at the long-gone Disc-O-Mat in Grand Central, was Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 [Sugarhill, 1981], and I remember that Voice profile), so Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are musical heroes to me, and “Rapper’s Delight” still induces nostalgic ecstasy… (For the early musical history, I recommend the documentary “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World.”)


  1. It’s truly amazing that the word can not only be credited to a particular person (or three) but even to a specific moment. I don’t think the same can be said for most other genres, even ones roughly contemporaneous.

    Eg, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a definitive story of what and where “reggae” came from. Possibly onomatopoeic. The stories around “acid house” can stretch credulity. I think “punk” could be narrowed down to a year and a few characters?

  2. The OED on reggae:

    Origin unknown. Perhaps related to Jamaican English rege-rege in the sense ‘rags, ragged clothing’ (see F. G. Cassidy & R. B. Le Page Dict. Jamaican Eng. (1967) 380/1, and compare note below); a connection with this word in its other sense ‘quarrel, row’ is perhaps also possible.

    For an explanation of the term given by the musician Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert (leader of the band Toots and the Maytals, who recorded the song cited in quot. 19681), see:


    Hibbert says his naming of the genre on the 1968 single ‘Do The Reggay’ was pure accident. “There’s a word we used to use in Jamaica called ‘streggae’,” he recalls. “If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say ‘Man, she’s streggae’ it means she don’t dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, ‘OK man, let’s do the reggay.’ It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing ‘Do the reggay, do the reggay’ and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound its name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things.”

    Independent (Electronic edition) 4 June 18

  3. I seem to recall that “goth”, as in the music and fashion movement dates from late ’70s Leeds and Charlie Stross said something specific on his blog about its origins, but I can’t search for it.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    The process by which “punk” got permanently affixed to a specific set of rock bands and the sort of subculture their fans were taken to embody can be pinned down to a fairly specific time frame (1975-77) although there were multiple people floating around (not thousands, but dozens to low hundreds) with the potential for lexicon-fixing when that happened. But “punk” is a much older word with a variety of shades of meaning, and “punk-rock” was in earlier use, often as a somewhat nonce or ad hoc descriptor for bands who did not fit particularly well the fixed-by-1977 sense of that combination. For example, an early 1973 issue of Billboard quotes being described as (among other things) “punk-rock” by the legendary-to-notorious, who had some (presumably financial) reason to be hyping them at the time. The 1977-et-seq. sense of “punk-rock” is preposterous as applied to FC&tCK’s, but the meaning presumably had not yet solidified.

    Compare The 1970 and ’71 uses by the still-teenaged Metal Mike Saunders are clearly early (the earliest?) instances of the long-term stable sense, but the bi-gram was floating around as at least a nonce combination in fairly similar semantic territory for a few years before that.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I think (cover date of first issue: Jan. ’76) may have played a crucial “institutional” role in making a nonce usage a standardized one, but that doesn’t by itself mean that those guys were the ones who first applied the pre-existing word to the new referent.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Another what you might call ambient factor was the Tubes’ song (released spring ’75) “White Punks on Dope,” which (eventually, not immediately) did pretty well commercially in the U.K. although the band was from San Francisco. They weren’t a punk band as such, and the characters being described in the first person in the lyrics aren’t quite punks-in-that-sense as such, yet it exemplifies and models the whole taking-a-pejorative-exonym-and-making-it-an-endonym-identifier thing. The live album they recorded in London in November ’77 as punkmania was cresting there has a new song called “I Was a Punk Before You Were a Punk,” which I guess was a pose they felt entitled to strike.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    To get back to the lexeme that the original post was about, as best as I can tell from the google n-gram viewer plus four-plus decades of my own anecdotal memories, “hip-hop” has at all times been a minority variant while “rap” has been the majority variant, so the question is whether they are strictly synonymous and, whether or not they are, who are the people who somewhat self-consciously prefer “hip-hop”?

    There are a lot of potential answers to that question, but Zimmer’s phrasing like “entire musical subculture” may be a bit of sleight of hand suggesting that people talk about the “culture” differently than the musical style as such? Or that people who are more insistent about the “culture” being a coherent thing above and beyond “the set of performers of a particular musical style and the fans who happen to like that style” (which is not obvious and may reflect an agenda) prefer the H-word? Maybe it’s more of an intelligentsia word. Schooly D’s immortal “I Don’t Like Rock and Roll,” for example, uses “rap” as the contrasting thing he does like.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “hip, two, three, four,”

    Links, zwo, drei, vier! For marching in lockstep.

  9. Isn’t mishmash an eggcorn of Yiddish mishmosh? The latter obviously still exhibits the vowel alternation, but still.

  10. As far as hip-hop vs rap, by the late 80s at the latest, “hip-hop” was at least sometimes understood to include breaking & graffiti as well as rapping & djing, so that distinction is longstanding even if it doesn’t date back to the earliest stages of the word. But yeah, as far as who uses which word, it does seem like the more “conscious” emcees (or whoever) are the ones more likely to insist on “hip-hop”.

  11. John Cowan says

    I seem to recall that “goth”, as in the music and fashion movement

    “There has never to my knowledge been any period of Gothic English literature, but the list of Gothic revivalists stretches completely across its entire history, from the Beowulf poet to writers of our own day.” —Northrop Frye

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I realize that Ben Zimmer is focusing on lexicography not the history of musical style as such, but the throwaway detail that DJ Kool Herc was “Jamaican-born” (apparently emigrated to the U.S. in ’67 at age 12) is rather important, because the vocal portion of early rap/hip-hop is remarkably parallel to, which had already developed in Jamaica prior to ’73. It was not very well-known in the U.S., but one imagines that there was awareness of it in certain neighborhoods (including in the Bronx) with a significant number of Jamaican immigrants. The particular turntable stylings do seem to have been a Bronx innovation – the way the musical background was created (typically using pre-recorded vinyl records) in Jamaica was different. And because of its interaction with the development of dub reggae probably more suited for an audience that was too stoned to really want to get up and dance?

  13. Isn’t mishmash an eggcorn of Yiddish mishmosh?

    This has come up before, I think. I always thought mishmosh was a Yiddish-tinged alteration of mishmash, which goes back many centuries in English. But apparently they have separate origins. Convergent evolution at work.

  14. January First-of-May says

    For marching in lockstep.

    Russian ать-два – I had no idea that the distinctive ать has parallels in other languages.

    (Russian Wiktionary claims that it’s a Swedish borrowing.)

  15. dub reggae probably more suited for an audience that was too stoned to really want to get up and dance?

    I think you are confusing dub reggae (which was always dance music — the music played at blues dances) with hippy prog rock. Dub, on the other hand, reduced reggae to its rhythmic essence — drums and bass.

    In di bubble an di bounce
    An di leap an di weight-drop
    It is di beat of di heart
    This pulsing of blood
    That is a bubblin bass
    A bad bad beat

    (Linton Kwesi Johnson, Bass Culture)

  16. Anyone curious about dub should check out Burning Spear’s wonderful Garvey’s Ghost (YouTube).

  17. David Marjanović says


    Oh, that’s real? I thought it was just a LOT-PALM-merged American spelling.

    Mischmasch is common in German, and the DWDS only says it’s from mischen “mix” plus sound symbolism, attested since the 17th century, also as Mischmesche in the 16th. Yiddish is nowhere mentioned.

  18. John Cowan says

    Oh, that’s real? I thought it was just a LOT-PALM-merged American spelling.

    By no means. There’s a story of a politician being told he’d never get elected (probably in NYC, possibly somewhere else) if he didn’t stop saying mish-m[æ]sh instead of mish-m[ɑ]sh (because he would alienate his Jewish constituents). The LOT-PALM merger doesn’t seem to generate very many spelling errors, unlike the intervocalic /t~d/ merger, which gives us things like Partyville for Pardeeville (in Wisconsin).

  19. David Marjanović says


    So it does have /a/ and not /o/ in the original Yiddish? That’s what I mean.

  20. John Cowan says

    No, it has /o/ [ɔ], because that’s a (Standard/Litvish/Northeastern) Yiddish sound-change: dos, tog, zogn. L1 American English speakers would change that further to [ɑ]. But that’s not about the spelling, which is conservative.

  21. David Marjanović says

    *lightbulb moment*

    (Soon to be an LED moment.)

  22. John Cowan says

    I had no idea that the distinctive ать has parallels in other languages.

    AmE hut/hup two three four, or after enough repetitions hut hoo hree hore. I am not sure why we use four numbers: we are not quadrupeds.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    Are there any march steps where “3” is “attention” and “4” is “rest”? Perhaps in the Austrian army, Viennese Waltzers…

  24. David Marjanović says

    I don’t get that – Walzer rhythm is 1́ 2́ 3 1́ 2́ 3, with equal stress on 1 and 2.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    All those people on the other thread banging on about Mozart v. Bach when they could be listening to Garvey’s Ghost …

  26. The LOT-PALM merger doesn’t seem to generate very many spelling errors

    I suspect names like Tonya and Sondra are often conflated with Tanya and Sandra. OTOH spellings like Donte are innovations rather than errors.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Tonya is Antonia, but what is Sondra? I’ve never encountered it.

    innovations rather than errors

    It’s usually hard to tell if parents meant to create a new & unique spelling or just didn’t know the regular one.

  28. this pink picture says it is Scottish. Google books for 19 century are almost exclusively in German (though the first English text mentions brother Sondra). Confusing indeed.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Oh, etymological nativization…

  30. @JWB @Matt A:

    the canonical (since the 80s) art forms that fall within hiphop culture are rapping, djing, break[danc]ing, and [grafitti] writing. often there’s a fifth added, to make up a full set of 5 elements* – usually knowledge, self-knowledge, or (for the more practically inclined) beatboxing.

    rappers often use the name of their art form as a synecdoche for the whole; i don’t know that i’ve heard folks whose main practice is another art do the same very often when talking in contexts related to the culture. but because of how the music industry has operated in its incorporation of hiphop – focusing on rappers, because their vocalist role was the most legible as commercializable within a practice of making stars out of singers – the most influential out-group channels** established “rap” as the overall genre name in many contexts. i think the difference you’re seeing with “conscious” artists has to do with their deliberate insistence on self-definition, and general refusal to use exonyms***. but i think most hiphop artists who do use “rap” as a general term shift to “hiphop” or “the culture” when they’re talking about things broader than the world of vocalists.

    *possibly because of influence from the Supreme Mathematics of the Nation of Gods and Earths (often known as the Five Percenters), in which 5 is Power/Refinement – truth and the ability to liberate. i think any influence from the chinese 5-element system is a later addition, likely through 5%er-connected channels (like the Wu-Tang Clan).

    ** “Yo! MTV Raps” (launched in 1988) is a prime example, from a network so resistant to featuring black music it took a boycott threat from CBS to get the video for Billie Jean on the air.

    *** which may also be related to 5%er influence (which is really impossible to overstate – there’s good journalistic writing on it, but michael muhammad knight’s books are i think the best accounts of the Nation as a whole), which builds on earlier practice in the Moorish Science Temple and Nation of Islam.

  31. I look askance at WP’s etymology of Sondra; I suspect most people who give the name to their children probably think of it as a variant of Sandra.

    I found this male Sondra, in an 1890 Mormon context.

  32. I look askance at WP’s etymology of Sondra

    No kidding: “Sondra is a feminine Greek given name meaning protector of man” is total bullshit (google Σονδρα and see for yourself). How has that stayed on Wikipedia for so long?

  33. It probably came from one of those darnel baby-name sites.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    In Eighties American youth subcultures associated with lighter skin color, you could find people who insisted that certain sorts of punk bands were part of a “culture” inextricably bound up with skateboarding, as if you were missing the point if you just wanted to listen to such-and-such a band without giving a tinker’s dam about skateboarding. I found these people tiresome. Or weirdly pseudo-British, since over there there’s been an industry since the Fifties of manufacturing fake-tribal “youth subcultures” mostly associated with some sort of clothing/fashion trend and then assigning suitable musicians to be part of the package.

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