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Hip-hop on its 50th birthday: Exulting in monotony

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Master1305 | Shutterstock

Matthew Becklo - published on 08/11/23

Catholicism and hip-hop may seem like an awkward pair, but go deeper and you'll see why there's an affinity

On August 11, 1973, in the rec room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, hip-hop was born. 

DJ Kool Herc was spinning records for a birthday party with 40 or 50 people present when he introduced a new technique. He called it “the merry-go-round”: when a record reached the infectious “break” of drums and bass, Herc then flipped to the same spot on the same record on the other turntable, creating a continuous loop of the most exciting part of the song for partygoers to dance to.

In the popular consciousness, hip-hop tends to be associated with breakdancing, beatmaking, and rapping. But in fact, all of these features trace back to Herc’s merry-go-round. It is the source and essence of all things hip-hop. 

And it would change the landscape of music forever. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the genre — once isolated mostly to Black and Hispanic youth in one corner of New York City — exploded in popularity across the city, state, country, and eventually the whole world. Today, you can’t throw a stone without hitting hip-hop culture. Its influence is felt everywhere, and all ages and ethnicities are drawn to it. 

How do we explain this pop-culture phenomenon? On this 50th anniversary of the genre’s birth, the whole conversation has to turn on Herc’s turntables. Hip-hop’s deepest essence and greatest asset has always been repetition

In G.K. Chesterton’s classic book Orthodoxy, he reflects on a child’s instinct for repetition — what he calls “exulting in monotony.” He writes,

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”

When an adult hears a good joke, he laughs at the punchline and moves on with his day. But when a child hears a good joke, she wants it repeated again and again (and again). Knowing the punchline is not a problem: the joke is good, and she exults in its goodness. 

Perhaps even God himself, Chesterton goes on to say, has this quality: “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon.” When we see a beautiful sunrise, we might marvel at it for a few seconds, but eventually, we tire of staring. But God never tires of his sun: every morning, he commands its beauty again and again. 

Chesterton’s genius is, as usual, in turning our expectations upside down. This love for repetition is not a sign of immaturity, but rather of strength. It is not sophistication that makes us bored with the goodness and beauty of things; it is weakness. And it is not naïvetéthat makes us excited about them to no end; it is vitality. Chesterton’s eventual conversion to Catholicism is illuminating on this point. In the Catholic tradition, we see an affinity for repetition in countless ways down the ages: the repetitive words of the Mass, the repetitive Liturgy of the Hours, the repetitive prayers of the Rosary, the repetitive Litany of the Saints. 

Hip-hop, at its best, is simply this “Do it again” in musical form. Herc and other DJs honed in on that part of popular songs that most affected people and asked: Why should we wait until the song comes on again? Why should we lift the needle and go back to it with an awkward pause? Instead, they isolated the break and said, “Do it again.” They exulted in monotony. In fact, a 90s ode to hip-hop by the group Whodini has, appropriately enough, exactly this title: “Do It Again.” Catholicism and hip-hop may seem like an awkward pair, but in light of this connection, a track like “O Maria” by Found Nation makes perfect sense: hip-hop, like Catholicism, has an affinity for repetition.

Understandably, this musical technique has always had its detractors, and always will. Some ask: Isn’t it unimaginative, even unethical, just to “sample” what someone else created? Doesn’t isolating the best part from the whole weaken and cheapen it? Most importantly, doesn’t hip-hop’s great blessing also become, at times, its great curse? How often has that creative and positive energy of early hip-hop given way to destructive and negative tones — which is all many people will ever know, or care to know, of the genre? If endless repetition of good and beautiful things can be a little glimmer of paradise below, aren’t endless repetition of wicked and ugly things a little glimpse of hell on earth?

If hip-hop is going to overcome these challenges — and become not just a lasting cultural force but a force for good — it has to remember Herc’s merry-go-round and what exulting in monotony means. Hip-hop was not about money or private gain: it was about communal celebration. It was not about being ignorant of songs more broadly; it was about knowing them more deeply. And it was not about repeating ideas and sounds that hurt the community: it was about repeating those that built it up and made it stronger.

This is hip-hop’s past. Hopefully, it is also its future.

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GK ChestertonMusic
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