Everybody knows the four elements of hip-hop: Emceeing, Deejaying, Dance, and Graffiti (some people also include Knowledge as a fifth element). But it is not just the elements themselves that are important for hip-hop, but also the idea of the elements and the philosophical principles that that idea implies. Hip-hop culture is a single concept that can be manifested in many different ways.
This is a principle that we take very seriously at Next Level. We choose artists based on their expertise in one or more hip-hop elements, and we fine tune the elemental balance when we assemble the teams for each residency.
An important part of that process is to think about how each element will work in each environment, and how the balance of elements for each residency will work in that particular community. What are their cultural priorities? What equipment is available? Do certain elements work better in the available spaces? Are there practical concerns that might affect our ability to use certain equipment?
As it turns out, hip-hop was designed to answer precisely these kinds of questions. One of its fundamental principles has always been that artists should be able to thrive under harsh conditions. In fact, from a hip-hop perspective, the way that one engages with these kinds of challenges is itself part of the artistry. This is a big part of why hip-hop has so much power to transcend social and cultural differences….It rises to the occasion.
And because of that, we have found it very valuable to think about the challenges and opportunities that each element offers, and then – as we gain new insights from each residency – to bring that knowledge back into our practice for future residencies.
Of course, emceeing has an international appeal not only as a form of artistic expression but also as pop culture. In both contexts, it offers opportunities to define individual and collective identity, moral values, and political goals. And unlike most forms of popular culture, it doesn’t require any special equipment, and can be done literally anywhere.
Its reliance on the spoken word – and language specifically – does present some challenges, but also some opportunities. The main challenge for cross-cultural emcees, of course, is that if people don’t speak the same language, they often have trouble understanding the messages that each is trying to convey. On the other hand, choosing to rhyme in a language that is associated with a particular community – especially a marginalized community – can be a way of building solidarity.. And that solidarity may outweigh the value of the specific content.
Another interesting – and underrated - way that language issues manifest themselves for Next Level is that many of the pioneers of hip-hop culture were bilingual in Spanish and English, and this fact can offer new ways for people in Spanish-speaking countries to connect with hip-hop’s roots.
Though many people would consider beatmaking to be a subcategory of deejaying, we separate these into two categories because there is so much interest in both. Part of the reason that both of these skills are so valuable to our international mission is that neither requires language, so people who do not share a common tongue can still work together relatively easily. Deejaying and beatmaking also have a value to the community beyond just what they mean to their practitioners: they also provide a musical platform for emcees, singers and spoken word artists. This, in turn, can create a ripple effect that opens up professional opportunities for an entire scene.
At the same time, deejaying and beatmaking can present their own challenges. One of the major concerns for Next Level is simply whether the necessary technology is available to the people we work with. Though we do bring equipment with us and donate it to our local partners at the end of the residency, we also want to make sure that any technological opportunities that we help to develop will be sustainable after we leave. What that looks like on the ground, of course, will be different in different communities.
Hip-Hop dance was the first element to spread internationally, through films like Wild Style (1982), Beat Street (1984), and Breakin’ (1984). As with deejaying, part of the reason that dance was able to spread internationally was because it didn’t require language and could thus be understood by people who didn’t speak English. As a result, people in local communities around the world have been developing their own hip-hop dance styles for almost four decades. Many Next Level dancers are historical figures in their own right, which offers international dancers the opportunity to re-connect their scene with its American roots, a process that is often valuable to both communities. These connections, in turn, enable communities to create ongoing international collaborations that not only build bridges between the dance styles themselves, but also the cultures from which they emerged.
Beatboxing, the use of the body and breath to create music, isn’t technically considered an element, but it is so obviously applicable to what we do – not to mention fun! – that we now include it in our palette of techniques. As with many other hip-hop practices, it requires neither equipment nor common language, which makes its potential for cross-cultural value almost limitless.
Because the elements are all connected to each other, you can gain a deeper appreciation of almost any part of hip-hop culture by learning about other parts. Because of this relationship, the graffiti aesthetic is not only valuable for its own sake, it can also provide a visual template and inspiration for music, dance and other art forms. Moreover, like dance, many cultures have their own graffiti traditions that are influenced by hip-hop to varying degrees. Connecting with different cultures over names, letter styles, languages, and ideas about public space can provide opportunities for important conversations that may not arise in other ways.
Ultimately, each element was designed to help people define their own identity, and in so doing find a place in the world. What better tool could there be for international diplomacy?