The Power of Street Knowledge: The Origin of These 9 Hip-Hop Words

Last update: 3/3/2023

street knowledge

Words are beautiful things, and no art form has harnessed their power over the past fifty years quite like hip hop. From its DIY beginnings in the late 70s to its world-dominating success today, rap music has become the mainstream music genre of the 21st century.

Both a voice of rebellion, freedom, and community, hip hop, and its many offshoots and offspring, have proven a real cultural force in contemporary society, affecting art, fashion, and language itself. With rapping and rap stars arguably being the biggest exports of the scene, let us take a quick look back at the strangely long history of the world, ‘rap.’

Changes: The Evolution of the Word

Jump back around 700 years, and we have the word ‘rap’ begin to appear in old English. Probably borrowed, or originating from Scandinavia, ‘rap’ or ‘rapp’ first meant, as it still does, “light blow.” By the mid 14th century, this had evolved to include “strike, smite, knock,” and by association, the verbsrapped’ and ‘rapping’. Hop into a time machine once more, and we find ourselves in the early twentieth century, 1929 being the year that ‘rapping’ became a term for “talking informally” or simply “chat,” rather than solely a physical act.

By 1965, this had become popularized in African-American vernacular and soon became married to the music scenes of the time. Through the act of ‘toasting’ as found in reggae, funk, and dub music, a mixture of music and rhythmic talking (speaking syllables or words in time to a regular beat, often using words ending in similar sounds) soon gained a more political slant, led by the likes of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Before long, MC’s (from “Master of Ceremonies”) began improvising rhymes over electronic beats created by dancehall and club DJ’s all over New York City. It’s argued that this musical slant on the word may in fact be a shortening of ‘repartee’ - conversation or speech characterized by quick, witty comments or replies. Sounds accurate to us.

Come 1979, the first true hip hop song released on a major label was dropped, 1979’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the Fatback Band. Later that same year, The Sugarhill Gang released the classic “Rapper’s Delight” (based on Chic’s “Good Times”), which became a huge hit and opened the floodgates for every rap artist since. Throughout the ’80s, hip hop went from strength to strength, leaving the underground and creating its ‘Golden Age’ which lasted from roughly 1986 to 1997. In 2017, hip hop finally took the rock genre's throne, becoming the most popular music genre in the US and a constantly-evolving force.
Whether its origins are based in smiting or quick-witted replies — both devastatingly used in battle rap culture — ‘rap’s journey from Scandinavia to New York has been quite the ride. To show just how much these artists have changed the game, we’ve collected 8 words popularized by the scene which haven’t just entered common usage, but the dictionary itself...

The Takeover: Rap Words in the Lexicon

Meaning: Shapely and sexually attractive
Origin: A combination of the words delicious and booty (buttocks), the term had been popularized by the likes of Snoop Dogg and appeared in the videogame "Duke Nukem: Time to Kill" before gathering worldwide fame thanks to Destiny Child’s 2001 hit of the same name.
Example: “She’s bootylicious and she knows it!”

Meaning: An abbreviation of ‘You only live once,’ commonly used on social media when describing doing something rash
Origin: The acronym was popularized by Canadian rapper Drake, who had planned to release a 2011 joint mixtape titled YOLO along with rapper Rick Ross.
Example: “Let’s grab another drink, YOLO.”

Meaning: To dance in a sexually provocative manner while thrusting your hips in a squat
Origin: The earliest use of the word "twerk" in a song was the 1993 track ”Do the Jubilee All” by DJ Jubilee. The word is associated with inner-city 'Bounce Music' from New Orleans.
Example: “As soon as my song came on, I started twerking.”

Meaning: Expensive and showy clothing and jewelry
Origin: The term was coined by New Orleans rap supergroup Cash Money Millionaires in the late '90s, gaining national awareness via the song "Bling Bling" by Cash Money artist BG.
Example: “That guy’s got so much bling on him he’s shining!”

Meaning: Excitedly energetic or uninhibited, often in a sexual manner
Origin: “Jiggy” was first used to mean “jittery” or “fidgety," but in recent times has evolved into its current form with less negative connotations. The term skyrocketed into the mainstream thanks to Will Smith's 1998 Grammy award-winning song “Get Jiggy With It.”
Example: “Did you see Phil on the dancefloor last night? He was getting jiggy.”

Meaning: Excellent
Origin: In the 70s, "phat" was often used to refer to an attractive woman, but from the 90s onwards, it has been most widely used to describe something as ‘cool’ or ‘excellent.’
Example: “That beat is phat. Play it again.”

Meaning: To speak disrespectfully or to criticize someone
 An abbreviation of ‘disrespect,’ evolving from both Jamaican English and African American vernacular. It is commonly used in the US, UK, and Canada after gaining prominence in the mid-90s.

Meaning: An overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity
Origin: Similar in meaning to 'stalker' or 'superfan,' the term 'stan' originates from the Eminem song of the same name, released in 2000. The song's narrative describes a dangerously obsessed fan who writes the rapper several increasingly angry letters.