19 Hip Hop

Hip Hop

A Sidewalk in the Bronx Becomes a Playground for These Youngsters
Figure 19.1 The Bronx, New York City in 1973.

Hip Hop is the name for a cultural movement which originated in the 1970s and encompasses Deejaying, MC’ing, B-Boying, graffiti art, style, and other elements. While beginning firmly as an African American cultural movement, it has gained popularity throughout the entire world. With origins in the approaches and techniques of Jamaican Dub, centered on the DJ and the playback of portions of existing records (often called “Sampling”) built on a backbone of African-American Funk and Disco, hip hop blended existing styles to create a brand new, unheard of approach to popular music. Amazingly, this worldwide phenomenon came out of the most inconspicuous time and place: The Bronx, New York City in the 1970s.

By the 1970s, the Bronx was in a cultural and economic crisis. The South Bronx was hit particularly hard as it had lost 600,000 jobs, the average income had dropped to half the NYC average, and the official youth unemployment rate hit 60% (Chang pg. 13). A mixture of neglect and  the aforementioned economic depression caused building after building to become abandoned and vacant, and this led to arson; fires that became a regular occurrence throughout the city. These fires grew to massive proportions. Between 1973 and 1977, 30,000 fires were set in the South Bronx alone and on one single day in June 1975, 40 individual fires were set in a single 3 hour period. (Chang pg. 15). On July 13-14 1977 New York City experienced a blackout affecting most of the city. Widespread looting and arson (over 1,000 fires were set) plagued the city and especially the Bronx during the blackout. Inadvertently, this blackout may have jumpstarted the growth of hip hop. Grandmaster Caz, an MC and DJ of early hip hop, admits that he took advantage of the blackout and stole DJ equipment from Hi-Fi stores. Caz, claiming of the blackout, “It was like Christmas for black people. The next day there were a thousand new Deejays.”

In this climate of chaos, gangs began to thrive, leading to increasing violence but also, unusually, a greater sense of law and order as some residents saw the gangs as the real law on the streets (Chang pg. 49). Gangs such as the Savage Skulls, Ghetto Brothers, and the Roman Kings staked out territories within the Bronx. It was in the midst of this upheaval that Hip Hop emerged. The lyrics of much early Hip Hop is a socially conscious reflection of the turmoil of inner city life at the time.

Exercise 1

Please read this article from the New York Times.

DJ Kool Herc

Black and white photo of DJ Kool Herc
Figure 19.2 DJ Kool Herc.

DJ Kool Herc, born Clive Campbell in 1955, was a Jamaican-American living in the Bronx when he began providing music for parties. His reputation for massive, crystal clear sound (due to his modifications to his sound system) made him well-known and in demand, and soon he was making money as a DJ. His parties were positive environments for youth at the time, and while deejaying he made a point of diffusing any violence or altercations he happened to see. Influenced by Dub music and artists such as King Tubby from his native Jamaica, Herc began looking for new ways to hype people up and get them dancing. His biggest innovation began with recognition of the fact that audiences responded excitedly to “the break”, the instrumental middle sections found in many songs from funk to disco. Herc began using two turntables so he could play the breaks the dancers enjoyed most, and quickly and seamlessly transition between breaks on two or more separate records. This led to what became known as the “Merry Go Round” technique where the breaks are repeated as “loops”. Using two copies of the same record, back-cueing a record to the beginning of the break as the other reached the end, Herc could extend a 5-second break into a 5-minute loop of fury. (Chang, pg. 79) The use of parts of existing recordings in this fashion paved the way for sampling, an important feature in Hip Hop. Herc also incorporated a practice called “toasting”, a Jamaican style of rhythmic “patter-talk” that radio DJs would commonly practice while reggae and ska records were playing. This proved to be very important to the development of rapping.

B-Boys and Graffiti

Color photo of graffiti in a New York subway car
Figure 19.3 Graffiti in a New York subway car in 1973.

Along with Herc’s parties came a new development in dance. Break Boys or B-Boys for short began presenting a new showy form of dance in which competition was the name of the game, spoken or unspoken. This atmosphere began to slow replace the gang culture as an outlet for competition and recognition. Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon says of the B-Boys at the time, “A lot of times in my neighborhood I didn’t see smiles on their faces. They were on a mission to terrorize the dance floor and to make a reputation, ghetto celebrity status”. (Chang pg. 115) The best dancers became well known local figures in the same way Kool Herc was becoming a star in the Bronx. The style of dance evolved over the course of a decade or so, later becoming known for the gravity-defying “Freezes” and athletic ground-work.

At the same time, graffiti art had already been developing parallel to DJ-led parties and B-boys. Graffiti is defined by an underground and largely illegal practice of “Tagging” or spray painting using various buildings, trains, and other surfaces as the “canvas”. With all the abandoned buildings in the Bronx through the 1970s, it was an environment ripe for the development of graffiti art. Hugo Martinez, the organizer of the first graffiti association, United Graffiti Artists, said this of the early art form, “Graffiti is a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have identity.” (Chang pg. 118) In other words, Graffiti artists were staking territories in a sense and also trying to outdo one another with ever more audacious “canvases”.

Afrika Bambaataa

Black and white photo of Africa Bambaataa
Figure 19.4 Africa Bambaataa.

DJ Kool Herc and B-Boy culture were part of a general movement at the time to improve the situation for Bronx youth. Afrika Bambaataa (born Lance Taylor, 1957) took the momentum and organized the Zulu Nation, a collective of hip hop artists and others centered around positivity and strength in numbers to help avoid the sphere of influence exercised by the gangs. “My vision was to try and organize as many as I could to stop the violence. So I went around different areas telling them to join us and stop your fighting.” Bambaataa says. (Chang pg. 101) Bambaataa himself began Deejaying as well as developing a loose philosophy for his Zulu Nation.

Listening Examples 19.1

DJ Kool Herc describing the first time he developed his “Merry Go Round” technique. This revolutionary technique would provide the basis for the accompaniment to break dancers and later, rappers (also known as MCs) who could improvise words over top of the particular section of music indefinitely.

Afrika Bambaataa: “Planet Rock”

MC

The DJ is one half of the hip hop sound, the other being the MC. MCs in hip hop are vocalists who “rap” lyrics over top of an accompaniment (usually provided by a DJ) and have their origins in the “Toasting” practiced by Jamaican DJs like Kool Herc and also in live performances of poetry by groups like the Last Poets. The Last Poets would recite poetry set to musical accompaniment, and their lyrics were political social commentaries about racial inequality and other social concerns. MCs became popular features along with the DJ at house parties and the musical style eventually became popular enough to reach out to the music industry. These MCs moved beyond the reciting of poetry to integrating the words rhythmically over top of the accompaniment, and the rhythms generated became increasingly sophisticated. In addition to social commentary, a common lyrical feature was “boasting”, the sharing of pride in one’s abilities, possessions, accomplishments, etc. Notably, boasting is something often seen in blues lyrics as well.

Sugar Hill Gang

Black and white press photo of Sugarhill Gang
Figure 19.5 Sugarhill Gang.

In 1979, a follower of Kool Herc named Henry Jackson, known as “Big Bank Hank”, would unknowingly play a pivot role in creating the first hip hop hit. According to journalist Jeff Chang, Jackson was working, making pizzas in New Jersey and rapping along to a tape by Grandmaster Caz when Joey Robinson entered, overheard Jackson, and asked him to come and audition for his Mother Sylvia’s record label, Sugarhill records.  (Chang pg. 130) Jackson agreed and was joined by MCs “Master Gee” Guy O’Brien and “Wonder Mike” Michael Wright, and the trio successfully auditioned. Essentially unknown in hip hop circles, this group became known as the Sugar Hill Gang.

The newly named trio recorded a track on August 2, 1979 called “Rapper’s Delight” (see Ch. 19 Listening Examples) that became one of the earliest recordings of rapping and ultimately introduced hip hop to a wider audience, in the United States and around the world. While the original recording of “Rapper’s Delight” was nearly 15 minutes long, a shortened version became a hit on the charts, reaching #36 on the pop charts and #4 on the RnB charts. The track features ‘boasting‘ (especially from Big Hank who talks about his cars, clothes, TVs, etc.) which remains an important element in much of hip hop music. It also features a form of sampling which again refers to the taking selected sections from other recordings and repeating them as background music for the rapping. In the case of “Rapper’s Delight”, the song sampled was “Good Times” (1979) by Chic but actually features a group of live musicians playing a repeated backing track from “Good Times”. Later hip hop hits would feature direct sampling: actual selections of a particular recording.

The unexpected success of “Rapper’s Delight” opened the door for other hip hop artists including Africa Bambaataa who released “Planet Rock” in 1982 (see Ch. 19 Listening Examples). Bambaataa intended to use his albums to send messages and try to help on wider scale, going beyond the Bronx. “Planet Rock” was a mix of samples (from both the pioneering electronic group Kraftwerk and the British Progressive Rock group Babe Ruth) and original creations on the synthesizer. The song went on to sell 650,000 copies and created many new fans of hip hop, achieving a crossover success.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Black and white photo of DJ Grandmaster
Figure 19.6 DJ Grandmaster.

Grandmaster Flash (Born Joseph Saddler 1958) is an innovative DJ that developed and perfected many of the modern techniques now common among Deejays. With these techniques, the DJ wasn’t simply playing back records anymore. Rather, they were now creating brand new music through a newly discovered musical instrument. Saddler’s boyhood fascination with electronics and sound was partly due to encountering the performance of DJ Kool Herc, and it led him into a lifelong passion for music. He began spending time learning about electronics, modifying his own equipment, and thinking about how he could develop what Kool Herc and other Deejays like Pete “DJ” Jones were doing. After a gestation period of months, in summer 1975 Saddler debuted his new approach to a crowd that more or less ignored him. (Chang pg. 113). He realized he needed to get people excited somehow and that surgical-musical precision wasn’t the key. He decided to look for MCs to perform with him and this eventually led to the formation of his own group, The Furious Five. This group featured Saddler, now known as Grand Master Flash, as the DJ and five rappers. They became one of the most influential hip hop groups of the early 1980s. With songs such as “The Message” (1982, see Ch. 19 Listening Examples) they expressed and exposed the realties of ghetto life, moving rapping beyond the normal party and boasting topics into the realm of social commentary. This was enormously influential on the course of hip-hop, inspiring genres that talked of urban life such as “Gangsta Rap” and groups with a socially-conscious focus like Public Enemy. “The Message” became the fifth rap single to reach gold-selling status (selling in excess of 500,000 copies). (Chang, pg. 179) The form, a standard pop song form, can be seen by looking at the lyrical excerpt below:

It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
‘Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under
Standin’ on the front stoop hangin’ out the window
Watchin’ all the cars go by, roarin’ as the breezes blow
Crazy lady, livin’ in a bag
Eatin’ outta garbage pails, used to be a fag hag
Said she’ll dance the tango, skip the light fandango
A Zircon princess seemed to lost her senses
Down at the peep show watchin’ all the creeps
So she can tell her stories to the girls back home
She went to the city and got so so seditty
She had to get a pimp, she couldn’t make it on her own
Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under

Some of the techniques developed by Grand Master Flash were:

Backspinning – Using duplicate copies of the same record and replaying the same section of music back and forth between the records creating a loop. This loop could be repeated as long as desired.

Punch Phrasing  – Punching in musical elements such as horn hits over top of the existing beat.

Scratching – The manipulation of the record and rhythmic use of record scratching to form new music and musical phrases.

Listening Examples 19.2

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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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