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How We Got From A South Bronx Birthday Party To A Global Force

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Break Beats in the Bronx.

Many, many people with an internet connection, including yours truly, spent a fair amount of time on 11 August 2017 entranced by a Google Doodle.

This was not your typical such creation, no short animation linking to a Wikipedia entry. This particular Doodle was a full-blown, interactive immersive into the world of hip-hop music. After a brief tutorial from longtime rap evangelist Fab 5 Freddy, Doodlers were turned loose to not only hear some classic hip-hop breakbeats but also work a digital turntable hookup and try their hands at rocking the house.

The occasion for this wizardry was the 44th anniversary of what is now widely acknowledged as hip-hop’s birth: a party in the housing project at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in New York City’s South Bronx, where a young Jamaican expat named Clive Campbell brought a slice of his homeland’s culture to his sister’s birthday party. His sound system consisted of booming speakers, two turntables, and lots of funky records. That enabled him to go back and forth between records like they did on the radio and at dance clubs, but instead of playing the records in full (as he typically had done deejaying parties around the neighborhood), he isolated the funkiest part of select funk jams—the section where the beat comes through at its most pristine—and turned the party out. Campbell’s local moniker, DJ Kool Herc, would eventually become his global moniker, too.

But if hip-hop was born that night, no one was passing out cigars. It was not until years later, after hip-hop exploded into mass consciousness, that Kool Herc’s breakthrough was officially noted as the music’s big bang, or any sort of historic event at all. For pretty much everyone outside of New York City, the “official” debut of rap would happen six years later, with the Sugarhill Gang’s out-of-nowhere hit “Rapper’s Delight”.

Those years between Kool Herc’s party and “Rapper’s Delight” were a period of codification by trial and error, with the common conception of rap—vocalists rhyming over beats created by a DJ, with dancers redefining how the human body can move—taking shape over time. Where most hip-hop histories to date have covered that stretch in broad strokes, sociologist Joseph Ewoodzie digs deep into hip-hop’s hidden history with Break Beats in Bronx, an engaging study of how both genres and communities take shape.

Break Beats is not entirely a music history book. Ewoodzie centers on the concept of “things of boundaries”, as developed by Andrew Abbott. Through this frame, Ewoodzie argues, we can see how a culture or community comes into fruition by not only the conventions it adopts, but also the lines drawn between those conventions and the broader world. With those boundaries in place, a culture can emerge and evolve within them, with elements from beyond the boundaries coming into play only to the extent they contribute to the central culture (Ewoodzie notes a linkage between this framework and Dick Hebdidge’s concept of “subculture” as a factor in the evolution of punk and reggae in England during this same time).

In this case, the boundary that midwifed hip-hop was both cultural and socio-political, and specific to South Bronx. The area had become predominantly black and Puerto Rican by the ‘60s, just as local manufacturing jobs had left and urban renewal commenced. Young people banded together in various ways—first as gangs, but later as graffiti and dance crews when gang activity declined after a major peace treaty. Afrika Bambaataa, who took his name from a ‘60s film about a battle between Zulus and British soldiers in South Africa, was pivotal to this transition. His role in facilitating that transition through the Zulu Nation has long been part of hip-hop lore, but Ewoodzie doubles down on the black empowerment messages Bambaataa attempted to communicate through the vast record collection at his disposal.

Around the same time in another part of South Bronx, Joseph Saddler refined hip-hop’s crucial artistic innovation. Soon known as Grandmaster Flash, he went Herc and Bambaataa one better by stringing together beats seamlessly, with some back-and-forth rotating of a turntable (a young brotha Flash took under his wing, soon to be known as Grand Wizard Theodore, stumbled upon the concept of scratching by accident) to facilitate transitions. Ewoodzie suggests that by this time, 1975, hip-hop had not only established some basic conventions but was already in the habit of morphing them.

Witness the rise of the MC, most notably in Flash’s crew. Most DJ’s at the time had someone on the mic if not themselves, but the main purpose of that was to exhort the dancers and keep things moving along. Flash’s eye-popping wizardry gave rise to a different function: vocalists who kept the audience’s focus on the music and not what Flash was doing to create it. In time, Flash’s cohorts Cowboy, Kid Creole, and Melle Mel not only amplified the beat and Flash’s talent, but then began to develop group routines of their own. Soon enough, they became part of the main attraction, and eventually, every DJ set out to have a crew of rappers.

As it turned out, virtually all of those rappers were men. Ewoodzie points to existing cultural norms within the boundary—men as tinkerers and pathfinders, women as caregivers—to explain why few women played central roles in this critical development period. Those who did, like the early all-female crew the Mercedes Ladies, had to navigate a world defined by men, even when they were respected as local entertainers (sound familiar?). Similarly, hip-hop would soon be seen as primarily a black thing, although there were Puerto Ricans on the scene as DJs and rappers. There were also Puerto Rican b-boys dancing and performing to the beats, but the prominence of b-boys in general waned, says Ewoodzie, as the prominence of rappers rose.

By 1979, hip-hop’s general parameters were pretty much set in stone. But it was more of a local entertainment and way of life than a path to broader notoriety or monetary gain, except for performing in clubs and selling tapes of live performances. No one seemed to think beyond the boundary of hip-hop in Bronx, unless it meant a gig at the legendary Harlem World nightclub. That took penetration of the local boundary from the outside, a phenomenon Ewoodzie classifies as the introduction of an unintentional convention.

Sylvia Robinson, the Harlem-based performer, producer, and record label owner, first heard hip-hop at a birthday party at Harlem World in 1979. She tried to recruit performers to make a record, but they all poo-poohed the notion. A convoluted chain of coincidences followed. Her son Joey auditioned a guy at a pizza parlor who’d dipped a toe into the hip-hop water. While he was making a booming noise rhyming over a tape playing in Joey’s car, another guy heard the commotion and wanted to try his hand at it. Thus did Big Bank Hank and Master Gee become the first two members of the Sugarhill Gang. The eventual third member, Wonder Mike, cemented his status by improvising “the hip, hop, hibbit hippy hippy…” at the tail end of his audition.

When “Rapper’s Delight” hit the streets that fall, on Robinson’s newly-created Sugar Hill Records, almost no one active in the scene knew who any of those guys were. But their world would never be the same. Soon, other indie entrepreneurs rushed into the newly-created market (including Mercury Records, who beat the other major labels to the punch by signing rapper Kurtis Blow), and many of rap’s pioneers recorded a single or two. Flash, who turned down Robinson’s initial invitation to record, circled back around to Sugar Hill along with his crew, by now the Furious Five.

Ewoodzie stops his story at “Rapper’s Delight” without looking at how the interjection of industry commerce affected the community within hip-hop’s initial boundary. Many other hip-hop histories begin to trace that, but without the sociological detail of Break Beats. In some respects, they gloss over the early ‘80s just as they did the late ‘70s, in their rush to get to the next totemic figures, Run-DMC and the birth of Def Jam Records. Part of the value of Break Beats is Ewoodzie’s digging in the crates of two crucial oral history archives, the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle and interviews recorded by Harlemite Troy L. Smith, to rescue lesser but important names otherwise lost in the Great Man-ification of hip-hop’s perceived evolution.

Indeed, it’s not at all obvious to anyone mindlessly timesucked into that Google Doodle how we got from a South Bronx birthday party to a global force. It did not happen overnight and without the glimpse of potential from an outsider (even one like Robinson, who would end up being despised by many in hip-hop), who knows what would have happened to that hyper-localized scene? Maybe it would have evolved like go-go in Washington, DC, another hyper-localized scene that thrives to this day without ever having established a permanent foothold in the broader pop awareness, drawing sustenance from its fierce hyper-locality and familial-like bonds engendered across decades.

The generally known timeline goes straight from Herc’s party to Bambaataa and Flash to “Rapper’s Delight”; Ewoodzie does a valuable service by fleshing out the unheralded stops and developments along the way. All those who mourn (or not) Netflix’s cancellation of Baz Luhrmann’s fantasy The Get Down, set during the tail end of the period Ewoodzie studies, would be totally fascinated by reading how things actually got down. Further, Break Beats helps ensure the passing down of that story to the next generations of hip-hop, alerting them of the culture’s true elders. Even though it took time and intervention for hip-hop to expand beyond South Bronx, that may have been for the better in the long run. Break Beats in Bronx makes a case that hip-hop’s initial insularity not only nurtured its growth, but prepared it for survival.

* * *

That Google Doodle did more than just commemorate the first moment of a cultural movement. It underscored how rare it is to actually put your finger on one.

As I explored last time around in this space, blues music was first performed well before it was first recorded. The same applies to gospel music and jazz. Even with something as comparatively recent as rock ‘n’ roll, there’s no consensus on the first rock ‘n’ roll record, let alone the first time anyone played it on a stage. Moreover, while jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B also took shape away from the mainstream, those processes didn’t happen exclusively in one specific location.

But Kool Herc’s breakthrough, and when and where it happened, was known to hip-hop heads well before Google celebrated the anniversary. It is central to the story hip-hop tells of its genesis, to the point where 1520 Sedgwick is enshrined as a cultural landmark. Where jazz relies on the legend of the never-recorded Buddy Bolden and tales from his contemporaries to construct the story of its birth, much of hip-hop’s creation myth is all but fully documented, between information captured in the moment, early coverage of hip-hop in independent media, remembrances of pivotal figures recorded for posterity while the memories were still fairly fresh, and in-depth research based on those sources.

This early-on attention to history, this fierce determination virtually from the jump to mark its own importance, separates hip-hop from other musical genres and cultural movements. Hip-hop benefits from both its early recognition of its impact on the world and the wherewithal to make note of its major milestones.

Part of that is because enough documentation is around to keep the memory of 11 August 1973 alive (hip-hop history and its students benefit greatly from early memorabilia being far more abundant and accessible, due to more people conscious enough of the stuff of future history to preserve it, than in prior generations). Historians prior to Ewoodzie have honored that date, and not the release of the first record, as hip-hop’s starting point. The Google Doodle was fun, and probably illuminating to many younger hip-hop listneners, but it was not needed to stamp the date for posterity. There would have been no reason to drop it on an 11 August had not that specific day already been universally established as hip-hop’s birthday.

Beyond that, hip-hop has gained more than just sources for beats from its ancestors. Its self-awareness stems in part from valuable lessons gleaned from both the good and the bad old days. It is painfully aware of how black musicians have been ripped off down through time. Its elders learned the stories of how musicians were routinely cheated out of publishing royalties, paid a pittance for recording sessions, and passed over for recognition in favor of white imitators. As a result, its artists have become savvier about the business, and at a younger age, than their counterparts in earlier eras (which is not to say that no rappers or beatmakers have ever been exploited). It was born in an ethos of doing for self, without the blessing of industry or media gatekeepers (Sugar Hill and other early hip-hop labels may not have been born in Bronx, but they certainly weren’t housed on Madison Avenue). And it has forever been its own best cheerleader, asserting at every turn the greatness of the music and the culture that spawned it. Hip-hop not only thrives on getting its props, it demands them.

That is why the origin of “Rapper’s Delight”—the creator of many of the rhymes on that record, Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, did not ask for or initially receive payment when Big Bank Hank used them—sticks in lots of craws (like JAY Z’s, on “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”). That’s why there was such a stink in 1989 when the Grammys, after having established hip-hop as a separate musical category for awards, refused to present the first awarding during its prime-time broadcast. That even helps account for why it was big music industry news earlier this summer when Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” became the first rap single by a woman in 19 years to top the Billboard charts.

That sense also helps account for how hip-hop became institutionalized far sooner in its evolution than other black music genres. That is why it Is significant that Q-Tip is beginning his post-A Tribe Called Quest life as artistic director at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, doing for hip-hop at that prestigious institution what Jason Moran is doing there for jazz. That’s why hip-hop archives, such as those at Harvard, Cornell, and Tulane universities, matter, or even exist. That’s why the National Museum of African American History and Culture las launched a Kickstarter to produce a massive hip-hop anthology, similar to those Smithsonian Folkways Records has done for jazz and the Leadbelly canon.

Hip-hop’s existence as an ecosystem-turned-galaxy of culture, a world impossibly beyond any forseeable vision within the boundary Ewoodzie outlined, stems from the foundations, conventions, and sensitivities formed there. One can easily think of South Bronx as hip-hop’s womb, and the six years from 1520 Sedgwick to “Rapper’s Delight” as a gestation period, during which the genre developed its shape and tone, unfettered by the outside world. Hip-hop’s non-stop heralding of its birth and flowering, even as its permanence in pop culture is no longer at issue, can be annoying at times (Exhibit A: older rappers and their fans who perceive insufficient respect from the ungrateful, snot-nosed Migoses and Lil Yachtys of today), but remains rooted within that long-transcended boundary, and has served to sustain the culture through both political attacks and worldwide growth. Now 44 years after the fact, as that Google Doodle underscores, the essential elements that came together back in South Bronx are still intact—not just rhyming and beatmaking but also creativity, resourcefulness, swagger, and pride.

 

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Break Beats in the Bronx.