What’s the Difference Between Hip-Hop & Rap?
Whether you bounce to Beyonce or your vinyl library brims with the likes of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, hip-hop and rap are two of the most mesmerizing art forms in music and are probably some of the best sellers in any record store.
Playful, seductive, hilarious, raw, enthralling, insightful—all could be used to describe these hypnotizing styles. And if you use rap as a synonym for hip-hop—or vice-versa—you certainly wouldn’t be faulted: Even Rolling Stone, Apple, and Amazon drop them into the same category.
But are hip-hop and rap the same?
Purists, historians, and professional musicians will quickly assert a resounding ‘no.’
To that end, let’s unpack the primary distinction between the two.
Are Hip Hop and Rap the Same?
If you gave a hip-hop song and rap song a quick glimpse—or, rather, listen—you may feel that rap and hip-hop are one and the same.
Deep bass, swift cuts, scratching, sampling (or extracting pieces from other artists), and foot-tapping tempos—these are the signature motifs that you can hear in both rap and hip-hop. This commonality is because one art form gave birth to the other. Here’s how it breaks down in history:
- Hip-hop is primarily defined as an art and a cultural movement
- Rap is one of its most popular and prolific children
So, to answer the question, “what's the difference between hip-hop and rap,” you need to begin with hip hop.
What is Hip Hop?
American rapper KRS One put it perfectly when he said, “Rap is something you do; hip-hop is how you live.”1
What does this mean, and who created hip-hop? Hip-hop isn’t just a music genre–it’s an ethos.
Hip-hop emerged in the South Bronx in the 1970s as a response to the inequities people were experiencing amidst tremendous social and economic change.2 It was defined by four primary creative outlets:
- Break Dancing (or b-boying and b-girling, as it was called)
Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of hip-hop, asserts that it has a fifth element: Knowledge. Others still insist it encompasses posture, slang, and politics.
What Has Hip-Hop Influenced?
Hip-hop is a choice, a lifestyle, expressed in everything from fashion to behavior. It has had a hand in influencing:3
- Music styles
Rap isn’t the only sound hip-hop spawned. Boom bap, crunk, alternative, and Miami bass are part of the hip-hop milieu. Since its inception, hip-hop as a whole has captivated audiences and fueled what’s been called “moral panic.”4
Today, it’s the biggest field of music and accounts for more than 20% of annual record sales.5
What is Rap?
Call it emceeing. Call it spitting beats. Call it rhyming. Whatever you call it, rap is one of the chief elements of hip-hop culture. It’s a musical style of lyrically chanting, talking, or singing to a beat.
Here’s the predominant theory of how it all went down:
Graffiti, breakdancing, and deejaying at block and house parties were ubiquitous in New York before August 11, 1973, rolled around—the birthdate, many argue, of hip-hop music.
A brilliant young Jamaican American DJ who went by the moniker DJ Kool Herc introduced attendees at his Back-to-School Jam to the “breakbeat,” a 4- to 16-measure percussive “pause” to enliven partygoers and encourage breakdancing.6
Later referred to as the Merry Go Round in turntabling, it became the defining sound of hip-hop. From this touchpoint, rap started to manifest:
- Taking a cue from his Jamaican roots and its toasting technique (chanting or talking over a rhythm), DJ Kool Herc infused the music he spun with shout-outs to the crowd, calling out phrases such as “This is the joint! Herc beat on the point” and “Don’t stop,” the sort of phrases we continue to hear in hip-hop music to this day.
- Kool also handed over the mic to his pal Coke La Rock, whose lines, “There’s not a man who can’t be thrown, a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s no disco that I Coke La Rock can’t rock,” are sometimes rumored to be the first MCing to take place in hip-hop history.7
Rap went beyond the party circuit with the release of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, which flew to the 36th slot on Billboard’s Top 40 list.8 Three years later, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” laid the foundation for using rap to tell a story and as a vehicle for social change.
Together, these artists—and the styles and rhythms that inspired them—kicked off the genre.
The Origins of Rap
This is only one theory of rap’s origin. Rap music is also thought by some to predate the hip-hop cultural movement. The act of lyrical rhyming, often to a beat, borrows from several cultures and techniques:9
The Griots of West Africa
From The Notorious B.I.G.’s tales of moving from rags to riches or Eminem’s saga of rising above his bleak upbrings, thousands of rap songs and albums tell a story. This is believed to be inspired by the Griots of West Africa, clusters of individuals who were responsible for carrying genealogical and historical narratives of note to others, typically over rap-like songs.10
There may be ongoing debates about the differences between poetry and rap, but rap music has the lyricism of poetry at its heart. The Last Poets, Amiri Baracka, and Gil Scott-Heron are just three wordsmiths believed to have contributed to rap.
Talking Blues Songs
Talking Blues is exactly as it sounds: Its speech is set to a melody that traces its roots back to the Great Depression.
“The Dozens” is a street game of rapid-fire insults and verbal combat, reminding many of the duelings in rap battles.
The slang bandied about in old school to 21st-century rap—think crib, axe, and cat—is thought to date back to 1920s Chicago.8
What are the Components of Rap?
While rap may have an impressive, spontaneous edge, it’s also a hyper-technical art form. Its key components include:
Even though there are overlaps between the content of, say, an Eminem and a tune by Ye, there are marked differences between the two. The content of rap songs usually varies according to its subgenre. Gangsta rap has heavy, gritty tones of crime and violence; conscious rap tends to have a political message. In short, content is what is being said in a rap song.
Cadence is the flow and speed of a rapper's words; the whole tempo of the MC.
Delivery refers to how a rapper gets their message across, whether aggressively, comically, confidently, or emotionally.
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Hip Hop and Rap?
This question is a bit tricky, given that rap is just one part of hip-hop.
Still, consider the difference between Nicki Minaj’s music and Eminem’s. Nicki tucks some raps into her songs, but they also bleed into the realm of pop and R&B. Yet she’s thought of as one of the most recognizable faces of hip-hop culture.
Eminem, however? He’s predominately noted for his MCing (rapping) skills.
And yet, both artists are called rappers and hip-hop artists.
A better way to look at it is this: Does the music have the rhythmic chanting that characterizes emceeing? If not, but it contains the scratching, cutting, and sampling hip-hop bred, it might veer more towards hip-hop than rap (or one of rap’s many iterations).
Who Are the Biggest Hip-Hop Stars?
Hip-hop has continued to evolve throughout the decades, gifting us one excellent song after another. A few of the biggest hip-hop stars to emerge over time include:
Who Are the Most Influential Rappers?
There are countless flat-out spectacular rappers, with more mic-dropping their way onto the scene each year. Check out our list of the Greatest Rappers of All Time for some of the most seminal figures to ever come out of this art form.
And this is only the start of the list. For more, check out our whole collection of rap and hip-hop gems.
Spin the Track, Drop the Beat—Victrola
What’s the difference between rap and hip-hop? Rap is just one component of the larger cultural movement, much in the same way that literature is a single element of Romanticism.
Victrola honors the hip-hop movement and the music it birthed in its vast library of vinyl albums. Whether you want to amplify your energy with Drake, dance the night away to Cardi B, or jam to a collection of the best 90s female hip-hop artists, our records will bring you one pleasure after another.
Listen, MC, dance, or simply contemplate the sounds of your choice with Victrola.
- Ebony. The difference between hip-hop and rap. https://www.ebony.com/the-difference-between-rap-hip-hop-798/
- Forbes. The man who invented hip hop. https://www.forbes.com/2009/07/09/afrika-bambaataa-hip-hop-music-business-entertainment-cash-kings-bambaataa.html?sh=6f71b7d2676d
- Icon Collective. Hip hip history: from the streets to the mainstream. https://iconcollective.edu/hip-hop-history/
- Red Bull. History of hip-hop: how the genre took over the world. https://www.redbull.com/in-en/history-of-hip-hop
- Statista. Share of total music album consumption* in the United States in 2018, by genre. https://www.statista.com/statistics/310746/share-music-album-sales-us-genre/
- Deep in the Mix. What is a breakbeat? https://www.deepinthemix.com/what-is-a-breakbeat/
- Rock the Bells. DJ kool herc’s 1973 part gave the world hip-hop. DJ Kool Herc's 1973 Party Gave the World Hip-Hop – Rock The Bells
- African American Registry. RAP (music, business, culture, and heritage), a story. https://aaregistry.org/story/rap-a-music-an-industry-and-a-culture/
- Britannica. Hip-hop. https://www.britannica.com/art/hip-hop
- World History Commons. The griots of West Africa. https://worldhistorycommons.org/griots-west-africa