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Music Glossary: Hip-Hop

By Rachael Lovette

Whenever I think about the hip-hop the lyrics to Lupe Fiasco’s “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” they immediately pop into my head.

One you never heard of I, push it hard to further the

Grind I feel like murder but hip-hop you saved me

One you never heard of I, push it hard to further the

Grind I feel like murder but hip-hop you saved my life


Hip-Hop has evolved over the years. From the rock-rap of the Beastie Boys and the smooth seduction of LL Cool J in the 1980s to undoubtedly the greatest generation of hip-hop to date the mid-to-late 90s and the cultural reset of today. For some hip-hop is life. Its meaning runs deeper than the beats, the anecdotal and poetic rhyme of the lyrics, and the visual representations.


Here are some of the most commonly used terms to help you better understand hip-hop as a whole.

808: A ubiquitous sound in hip-hop, often in sampled or emulated form from the Roland TR-808 drum machine.

Auto-Tune: Pitch-correction software.

Bars: Rap lyrics. To say that an emcee has “got bars” means that they write or improvise especially well.


Beat(s): the rhythmic aspect of a song generally, referring to its drum/percussion parts, or an entirely instrumental track.


Beatbox: This art form involves having the ability to create sounds with the mouth that often sound like music (vocal percussion).


Beef: Disagreement or conflict.


Bite(ing): Used to describe one who steals styles, concepts, or lyrics from someone else.


Boom bap: The popular style of East Coast rap in the 1980s and early 1990s, dominated by samples of acoustic drums.


Break: An instrumental loop.

Cypher: A circle of emcees who take turns freestyling verses, in a spirit that combines competition and cooperation. In a successful cypher, freestyling is continual, with no pause between one participant and the next.


Crew: An organized group of emcees, producers, etc.

Diss: A track is a song that mocks and insults another rapper.


Dope: Excellent, of the highest order.

Emcee: A rap vocalist, from MC (Master of Ceremonies.)

Flip: To creatively repurpose or alter a sample, especially in an unexpected way.


Flow: An emcee’s vocal style, usually referring more to rhythmic and pitch aspects than word choice.


Freestyle: Improved rap.

Getting Over: Succeeding

Hip-Hop: A set of cultural forms (including music, street art, street fashion, poetry, and dance), aesthetics, and political orientations arising from American urban environments as experienced by poor and working-class people of color.


Hook: A repeated song section between verses, functioning like the chorus of a pop song.

Jam: A deeply satisfying song.

King: The most accomplished emcee in a given category.

Mixtape: An unofficial album or collection of tracks, frequently released and disseminated through unofficial means. [i.e. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap & Coloring Book albums]

Nice: Meaning cool or skillful.

Old School: Way to reference one’s current style that has roots dating back to 10+ years ago.

Producer: The creator of a rap song’s instrumental track, usually completed before vocals are written or recorded. [i.e. Pharell and P. Diddy]

Rap: The most prominent musical expression of hip-hop culture.


Realness: Authentic truthfulness, hard-hitting observations, and honest expression.


Remix: An alternate version of a track, often created for a new audience or in a different style from the original. In hip-hop, the usual remix method is to take an existing isolated vocal track (acapella) and create a new instrumental backing for it.


Rhyme: A rap lyric.

Sample: An audio excerpt from an existing recording, repurposed in a new context


School: To teach someone a lesson in an embarrassing or humiliating way.


Scratch: Moving a record back and forth under the needle on a turntable.


Spit: To rap.

Trap: Subgenre of hip-hop that uses slow tempos with lyrics that are often casual or mumbled in a flat low-key affect.

Underground: Refers to hip-hop music that is not mainstream.

W(h)ack: Fake, unskilled, or uncool.



Rachael Lovette is the Digital Director at Flower Bomb Media with a passion for everything K-Pop, fashion, model advocacy, and pop culture. Make sure you follow her on Instagram as she journeys through the fashion industry from behind the lens.

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