Hip-hop music -- born in the rough and tumble of America's predominantly black inner city neighborhoods -- is one of the most successful musical styles in popular culture today. But music is just one face of the hip-hop phenomenon. Hip-hop has also had a significant impact on youth slang. For this Wordmaster segment, VOA's Adam Phillips went to a hip-hop gathering to learn about the lingo.
ADAM PHILLIPS: In Newark, New Jersey, one of the East Coast cities where hip-hop began, teenagers like Dancette still like to dance to the latest hits with their friends -- right on the sidewalk. She says hip-hop slang is a big part of the fun. She especially enjoys the way hip-hoppers sometime invest mainstream American words with new meanings.
DANCETTE: "Like when some people say 'phat.' It's not really 'fat,' like 'not small.' Phat is good. I don't know why they do that, but it's a street thing. Something cool to say."
AP: "Give me another example."
DANCETTE: "'Gangsta.' Usually when people say or when I say gangsta, it's more street, more underground, and not too preppy like 'straight' [conventional]. It's more relaxed. It's more down. That's what gansta is."
DANCETTE: "When you down, it's like being a part of something."
AP: "You go along with it."
DANCETTE: "Yes." AP: Dancette's friend Jett, one of the more free-spirited dancers on this street corner, loves the word "crunk."
JETT: "And crunk really means just let loose [relax], be your own person, have fun and do what you do -- not worrying about what anyone thinks about you."
AP: "So getting 'crunked' is just being natural?"
JETT: "Yeah. Being natural and having fun." AP: As in any living language, hip-hop words keep evolving. But this young woman says the meaning of some hip-hop slang words can change -- literally overnight.
WOMAN: "One thing I always liked about hip-hop -- you could use a word one day and the next day it's something else. That's the beautiful thing about hip-hop. Three are new inventions for the hip-hop generation every day. So you gotta keep up!"
AP: She and her friend say that "off the chain" is one phrase they've heard quite a bit lately. FIRST WOMAN: "Off the chain -- it's 'off the hook.' It's cool. It's good. So extraordinary. You could go to a concert and it just be off the chain. It just means 'wow' and 'it was fun' and exuberant and everything."
SECOND WOMAN: "Some words we take and reinvent it. Like 'crazy' could mean something good. Crazy, something spontaneous. 'That was crazy!'"
FIRST WOMAN: "Our language is cool. It's a hip-hop language. It's just us. It's a way of our life. That's what we do every day." AP: Hip-hop speech isn't just for teen-agers. Adults use it to express themselves as well. (MUSIC)
That's Ameen, a young man from Oakland, California, rapping his own hip-hop number for his friend Rudy Corpus Junior and another buddy. RUDY CORPUS: "He's talking the [San Francisco] Bay in the house. We hold the dam from the O to the 'sco. Huh! We put it down like four flats on a Cadillac. Huh!
AP: "What are the words you're using?
RUDY CORPUS: "It's slang. It's words that was borrowed from the ghettos, you know what I mean? Cats come up with different types of slang just to tell you how they feel or just to express emotions. And it just comes naturally. Because we was born into this, we wasn't sworn into this." AP: Some hip-hop slang is used as a sort of secret code. FRIEND: "You don't always want people to understand exactly what you talking about anyway, you know what I mean? You could be talking about something illegal. And you don't want to be saying 'oh yeah, I got the elbow,' you know what I'm saying? You don't want to tell everybody what you got and what you're working with. So you want to have a way to talk to your people and get the message across without everybody knowing what's going on.
AP: Indeed, many hip-hop words originate in prisons. Rudy Corpus.
RUDY CORPUS: "I'm gonna give you a word, 'merkin.' Yeah, merkin means choking somebody out, man. Grabbing them from behind the neck and just choking them; someone who is 'out of pocket,' someone who ain't respecting you, someone who isn't coming at you properly, you gonna have to merk his ass out. You feel [understand] me? Like the police merkin people out all the time. You know what I mean?
AP: Many hip-hop words have entered the world's working vocabulary. The words chillin' (pronounced without the g), meaning relaxing or taking it easy, and bling-bling, meaning fancy and expensive goods, are just two examples. Still, Ameen says that true hip-hop slang will always be rooted in the local neighborhoods where one's friends are and where life is lived. AMEEN: "It's like being a part of that brotherly bond. And that's the thing that feels good about it. It's your people, and you hear other people using it, it's kind of flattering, you know what I'm saying? Even if they don't give the recognition like they are supposed to! It feels good to hear people out there 'biting' [using] your slang, basically. It's communication, you know what I mean? It's communication."
AP: For Wordmaster, this is Adam Phillips reporting from Newark, New Jersey.