Hip-Hop, a Pillar of New York – Circa 1970s
On the corner of Museum Mile and East 104th Street in East Harlem, Reggie Rae starts his 11am Harlem Hip-Hop Walking Tour.
The founder of early hip-hop group Crash Crew narrates the glory days of the genre in landmarks that were pivotal to its formation. Think Apollo Theatre, Graffiti Wall of Fame, and Lenox Lounge. His tours, one of many others led by hip-hop’s forefathers like DJ Grandmaster Caz and break dancer B-Boy Loose Goose, are self-styled as the Hall of Fame equivalent to hip-hop. On Tripadvisor, these tours are frequent recipients of five-star reviews, favoured by tourists looking for not only a slice of hip-hop’s history, but also of New York’s.
A music and dance form that ballooned into a billion-dollar global industry that extends far beyond the Big Apple today, hip-hop was founded in the Bronx by the African-American and Latino communities in the early ‘70s, during a time when drugs and crime infected the city, and the flashy flamboyance of disco music no longer spoke to the impoverished.
The party goes on
Yet, tough times call for better parties.
And the place to be was the rec room at DJ Kool Herc’s building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue—regarded as the birthplace of hip hop today—where he started noticing the breaks in the song were more amusing to his guests than the actual melodies and chorus. More borrowed sounds and breaks were then incorporated from different records—which DJs then would keep hush in a technique called “breaking”. This paved the way for other creative manipulations like scratching, rhyming and rapping over these beats, overlapping sounds via dual turntables and more.
Credit: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip hop, Credit: Bigtimepeace / Wikimedia Commons
During this early age of hip hop, luminaries like Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Fab Five Freddy spread the genre from Harlem River to Manhattan. Topped by the New York City blackout of 1977 that saw much DJ equipment looted from shops, hip-hop spilled onto the streets, literally. Block parties dotted the city, sprouting wherever free electricity sockets could be found.
The police turned a blind eye as hip-hop advocated community, social change, and an anti-drug cultural movement during a time of rampant poverty and crime. A quintessential lyrical example can be found in “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five released in 1982: “You say I'm cool, I'm no fool/ But then you wind up dropping out of high school/ Now you're unemployed, all null 'n' void/ Walking 'round like you're Pretty Boy Floyd/ It was plain to see that your life was lost/ You was cold and your body swung back and forth/ But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song/Of how you lived so fast and died so young”.
Hip-hop also moved gangs. The first, and perhaps most successful, case of villain-turned-hero is Afrika Bambaataa, who used his influence as the warlord of local gang Black Spades to establish Zulu Nation, an awareness group dedicated to spreading the four pillars of hip-hop: deejaying, graffiti, rapping and breakdancing.
Hip-hop goes mainstream
Hip-hop’s so-called official acceptance can be traced back to when the New York City Breakers took to the stage at Ronald Reagan’s second presidential inaugural celebration in 1984 at the request of Frank Sinatra.
Scandalous headlines were also to thank. Namely, DJ Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force sampled, without permission, parts of Trans Europe Express by German robot rock group Kraftwerk in their 1982 single “Planet Rock”. A resulting lawsuit earned the European quartet a dollar for every record sold, plus early mentions for hip-hop internationally.
The true springboard to mainstream music, however, can be attributed to Aerosmith, whose popularity was dipping in the early months of 1986. Although band manager Tim Collins responded to Run DMC’s initial proposal for collaboration with a quizzical “What’s rap?”, Aerosmith eventually relented to the rap group’s request to re-record their iconic single “Walk This Way” with hip-hop elements. The resulting song shot to number 89 on Billboard’s Year-End Chart in 1986, effectively prolonging Aerosmith’s career and shining a never-before-seen global spotlight on hip hop.
As hip-hop artists rose around the globe, each adding their locale’s sounds to the genre, sub-categories like gangsta rap, punk rap and rap rock emerged. The late Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan and so many more would come to bear the torch, continuing to shape art, parlance, fashion and more for decades to come.
For more articles relating to R&B or Hip-Hop, read about:
- The Evolution and History of R&B
- Kendrick Lamar and Conscious Rap
- 1980s New York Music Scene
- Jean-Michel Basquiat Music
- Popular R&B Singers
- Crooked Beats
- Kiana Lede
Cover Credit: Gordon Cowie / Unsplash
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Writer | Joyce Yip
Joyce is obsessed with dog videos and saving Pinterest crafts and Instagram workout videos she knows she’ll never do. Her foray into music began when she and her fiancé started cleaning to Chromeo’s Clorox Wipe during the pandemic.