Hip Hop Americaby Nelson George
The culture of hip hop has endured far longer than its early critics might ever have imagined (or hoped) it would. Hip hop is a pervasive phenomenon; as award-winning cultural critic Nelson George writes in his new book, Hip Hop America, hip hop has "broken through from its ghetto roots to assert a lasting influence on American clothing, magazine publishing, television, language, sexuality, and social policy as well as its obvious presence in records and movies." Fans and critics alike will find much to challenge them in this thoughtful, thought-provoking look at an American cultural movement that soon enters its third decade with no signs of slowing down.
The New York Times Book Review
George grounds the book with recollections of his own experience, recalling the first generation of DJs setting up in neighborhood parks and discussing his own personal experiences in the hip hop business. While George's telling holds no revelation and suffers at times from too much cheerleading, it manages to stay interesting as he brings both love and circumspection to his subject.
- Viking Adult
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.91(d)
Read an Excerpt
I GOT SO MUCH TROUBLE ON MY MIND
(ON MY MIND)
I REFUSE TO LOSE
HERE'S YOUR TICKET
HEAR THE DRUMMER GET WICKED
"WELCOME TO THE TERRORDOME"
THIS STORY BEGINS AS ANOTHER IS ENDING. THE FIRST STORY IS FULL OF optimism and exalted ideas about humanity's ability to change through political action and moral argument. The next story, the plot we're living right now, is defined by cynicism, sarcasm, and self-involvement raised to art. The turning point was the early '70s. Dashikis, platform shoes, and Richard Nixon were still in vogue. The phase of the civil rights movement led by Dr. King, with its philosophy of nonviolence, its marchers in starched white shirts and narrow ties, was already literally long dead. The succeeding phase of angry, burn-baby-burn rhetoric was itself receding as heroin's vicious grip, the mercenary diligence of FBI informants, and a philosophy of benign neglect replaced liberal guilt as the engine of our government's policy toward the poor. Street agitation for social change was over. Now African-Americans could sit at the front of the bus and downstairs at movie theaters. Now we could vote all over these United States. Now black politicians set their sights on controlling City Hall in big cities and small towns. Now ambitious black graduates of white colleges began slipping into corporate America's awkward, monied embrace.
Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of civil rights as a way to open doors of opportunity was working--for some. The '70s would spawn the first graduating class of affirmative action babies. They weren't called buppies (black urban professionals) yet--there weren't even yuppies yet--but these pioneers blazed trails for them. They walked through doors cracked open by dog-bitten marchers in the South and radical nationalists in the North. They were not smarter or more worthy than their parents; they were just better trained in the ways of white mainstream protocol, proud of their new clout and poised for frustrations more nuanced than African-Americans had ever confronted.
Starting in the '70s, the new black professionals had an opportunity to pursue their ambitions with a freedom previously unknown to African-Americans. But they were faced with a new conflict between maintaining loyalty to their generally white employers--protect that job!--and espousing a problack agenda that could endanger their jobs. Just because you're in doesn't mean you fit in. It's no wonder that the business magazine Black Enterprise's July 1974 issue focused on hypertension, noting that six of the nation's twenty-three million victims were black, making it the number-one health risk for African-Americans.
This new black middle class--products of tokenism, affirmative action, and their own hard work--lived as most middle class Americans of the '70s. They moved to the suburbs, often to predominantly black enclaves like Teaneck, New Jersey; Baldwin Hills, California; and Silver Springs, Maryland. They dabbled in cocaine, seeking the slick rush and status its ingestion implied. The Cadillac, historic symbol of big money among African-Americans, slowly gave way to less ostentatious European luxury cars.
Corporations were, at last, looking at the black community with an eye to more than narrow recruitment. Along with the growth of black professionals came an acknowledgment by America's CEOs that there was money to be made in catering directly to the black masses. So the '70s saw the proliferation of "special markets" (i.e., black), divisions aimed at tapping the once ignored black consumer. In Black Enterprise during the '70s, one encounters the special markets euphemism used for hawking goods by General Foods, Johnson & Johnson, and sundry other American manufacturers. For the first wave of black corporate employees, special markets were often a velvet trap that guaranteed its employees the perks of mainstream American life (suburban living, credit cards, ski weekends) yet kept them segregated from their businesses' major profit centers and from any real shot at company-wide power. Becoming a vice president of special markets usually meant you had limited opportunity to shift to areas of distribution or production central to the core of whatever business or product you were hawking. The black executives too often found their most prominent role was to be trotted out in front of stockholders and noted in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance reports.
Until the '70s, the recording industry wasn't really viewed as part of corporate America. During the rebellious '60s it had opened its doors to dopehead guitarists and bands advocating free love and left-wing ideology, which scared the mainstream to death. Ironically, the profits from the rock revolution music, and the expanded market it created, made small labels bigger and led to a consolidation of power within the business. Fueled by revenue generated by the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and sundry other counterculture musicians, the record industry became fat with cash and had to grow to keep up with demand, particularly in the areas of merchandising and distribution. The merger joining Warner-Reprise, Elektra-Asylum, and Atlantic in 1970 to form the WEA distribution system was symptomatic of the time.
The '60s rock stars imagined a better world to go along with the rhetoric, yet like most other aspects of our public life in the '70s, they lost their utopian vision and became fragmented into subgenres that lent themselves to highly targeted marketing. However, black music--which independent labels like Motown, Stax, and Chess had dominated since World War II--seemed an area of untapped growth for the corporate labels, What had been proven in the '60s, particularly by Motown, was that R&B-based music by black singers could easily be sold in massive quantities to white teens, creating a lucrative commercial-cultural crossover.
Just like General Motors and General Foods, CBS Records in 1971 (followed by Warner Bros., Polydor, RCA, ABC-Dunhill, and the other significant American record labels) opened special markets divisions. A few even had the guts to call themselves R&B divisions or, more boldly, "black music" divisions, In essence they were established to employ African-Americans to sell black popular music within their community and identify performers with "crossover" appeal. In terms of employment opportunities, salaries, and advances paid to artists, this was an important development worth celebrating. Black vice presidents abounded. Lavish parties ensued. Soul singers, traditionally underpaid by the feisty labels that had nurtured R&B since World War II, enjoyed increases in contracts, recording budgets, and royalty rates. In the overall schemes of CBS, WEA, or RCA, these black music divisions were the farm teams, from which crossover stars, such as the O'Jays, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Michael Jackson, would be developed.
Of course this transition wasn't always smooth or without complications. Many older established soul stars couldn't adapt to the demands of the black music divisions, since the desire to reach pop consumers was always ever present. Many performers who had thrived in the old environment (including Tyrone Davis, Bobby Womack, and Candi Staton) floundered within these larger systems.
In addition, the black executives at these departments, like their counterparts at General Motors and Johnson & Johnson, were not given lattitude to work on selling the "product" (as records are called in the industry) when it crossed over. With rare execptions, any ambitious black executive soon slammed into the high, thick ceiling that cut off his or her ability to grow and gain power. While the music wasn't as boxed in by race, the staff developing the music absolutely was.
The sad irony of these divisions was that they were on their way to becoming corporate fixtures at exactly the same moment that one of African-American pop music's least creative periods began--roughly between 1976 and 1981. Two factors contributed mightily to this malaise. The first was that, hoping for crossover, producers artifically reshaped and usually diluted the sound of the records recorded and released. In many instances, singles were released only with potential crossover paramount in the label's mind. The arc of a performer's career, the taste of black consumers, and the record's quality were often secondary. While the records were initially marketed by black music departments, their long-range success was decided by the white executives who worked the record at pop (i.e., white) radio. Often the artist got lost in the translation. The second factor was the rise of disco. Not that the disco movement was, per say, bad for black music--it was not. What hurt was the perception of disco inside record companies and the subsequent attitudes of many white music fans.
DISCO TO GO
For those too young to remember, there were once vinyl records. New. Unscratched. Smooth. You tore open the plastic wrapping, pulled it out of the white paper inner sleeve and the sturdy cardboard jacket cover and in your hand was a black vinyl circle with a hole in the middle. Around the hole was paper with a design and words printed upon it. You placed it on your turntable and through stereo speakers the music played just like a CD. Forgive my nostalgia--I still love vinyl.
Discotheque is a French word coined in the '50s to describe clubs where people went to enjoy recorded, not live, music. In America, people had always danced at bars and malt shops to music from jukeboxes. But paying a cover charge for this privilege was rare. At the dawn of rock 'n' roll popularity, radio disc jockeys like Alan Freed and Murray the K hosted "teeny bopper" parties where kids paid to see the jock, see an act lip-synch to their hit, and dance to records. TV stations then began recruiting local DJs to host televised versions of their parties, which is how Dick Clark's American Bandstand got started in Philly before its two-decade-long national run. In the following decade, dance crazes (the Twist, the Frug, the Mashed Potato, the Hully Gully) established dancing to records at clubs--then often refered to as "go-gos"--as regular features of big city nightlife. Still, outside the New York-Los Angeles axis most bars and clubs featured live "cover" bands that played faithful renditions of current hits and oldies.
Up until this point technology was simple--recorded music in clubs came from either 7-inch singles played at 45 revolutions per minute or 12-inch albums played at 33 rpm on a single turntable. But the transitional decade of the '70s brought a change here too.
What happened was that a small bit of technology labeled a "mixer" was developed. The mixer allowed club DJs to shift the sound fluidly from one turntable to another, so that the party continued in a seamless flow of sound. The entire American disco experience, which flowered underground before its mainstream discovery circa 1976, was predicated on this simple technological breakthrough.
The ripple effect was profound. The continuous-sound environment created an atmosphere that was more conducive to dancing, drinking, and generally expanding the aural horizons of the customers. Live bands lost work, which meant less experience and exposure for them, which led to fewer live bands in dance music, which, along with the synthesizer, would ultimately change the nature of dance music from the arrangement of musical instruments to the manipulation of synthetic or prerecorded sound.
The advent of the mixer also inaugurated the cult of the club DJ. The record spinners behind the mixes became increasingly creative and idiosyncratic in their use of music. The more ambitious jocks began asking record labels for longer versions of their favorite cuts. Salsoul, West End, Wing & a Prayer, and other small dance-oriented independent companies began catering to DJs and their audiences by manufacturing extended 12-inch singles with vocal and instrumental versions for club use only. As certain DJs and their approach to mixing records at their clubs became known, the dance labels (and later the majors) began recording their mixes and selling them. A Larry Levan, Tom Moulton, or other star disco DJ enhanced the appeal of a record in the way a Puff Daddy mix does in the '90s, but for a smaller, more select audience.
By 1974, the phrase "disco" had become accepted as an overall description for both the clubs and the music they popularized. In New York City, discos were defined by money, sex, and race: There were gay discos in the West Village; Studio 54, Zenon, and other glitzy midtown spots for the monied; black discos for middle-class blacks, including Leviticus and Othello's; grittier black spots such as Harlem's Charles's Gallery; and white workng class clubs dominated by Italian DJs in Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey. By 1975, Rolling Stone estimated that 2,000 discos were operating in America, with 200 to 300 in the New York area. On any given weekend in the Big Apple, 200,000 people were said to be partying at discos.
Very significant, but little appreciated outside the New York's Caribbean community at the time, was the introduction of the Jamaican "sound system" style to the city's party-going mix. Using their own versions of mixing boards, since the '60s DJs around Jamaica had given "back-a-yard" parties where the bass and drum pounded like jackhammers. The "dub" style of these mobile DJs stripped away melody to give reggae's deep, dark grooves throbbing prominence. In ganja-filled gatherings, pioneering sound-system DJs such as King Tubby, Prince Buster, and Duke Reid created massive, rumbling sounds that elevated them to a star status rivaling the club DJs in the States.
If the bass beat orientation wasn't enough of a signature, over time DJs began to "toast" or talk about their prowess as lovers or DJs on microphones during their performances. One toasting DJ, U Roy, enjoyed large sales in Jamaica and even enjoyed a number-one hit on the island with "Wear You to the Ball." However, at the time the magic art of mixing smoothly--which drove disco--and the subterranean assault of the reggae sound system were not viewed in the same light. Disco was a pop culture phenomenon. Dub was an ethnic music lauded outside its community by rock critics and few others. Yet a synergy between disco mixing, dub sounds, and toasting would ultimately provide the techniques and sensibilities that allowed the birth of "hip hop."
The road that disco traveled--from underground style to regional scene to national and international trend--is a cultural migration pattern at the heart of popular culture. How the cultural artifact itself is transformed by the journey can not be predicted. In the case of disco, from 1973 to 1976, the music identified with the clubs would morph into a distinct and, depending on the taste of the club DJ, rigid formula of rhythms and instrumentation. Initially, music played in discos was dominated by high-quality black dance music, with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's elegantly funky Philly Sound productions and the lush sounds surrounding Barry White's bass voice the artistic benchmarks. Unfortunately, the most distinctive elements of the Philly Sound and White's hits gave way to a redundant blend of hi-hat drum patterns, swirling string arrangements, Latin percussion breaks, and moronic lyrics that crystalized negatively in the public consciousness as "disco."
Mainstream culture discovered this music around 1975 with the sudden appearance of disco records on the pop charts. Seeing how this music was escaping--or crossing over from--the dance underground ignited a feeding frenzy among the major labels. Black artists, most of whom were to some degree dance-floor friendly, were either pushed toward disco by producers and label executives or went on their own in pursuit of the disco dollar. This resulted in some major hits (Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady," Peaches & Herb's "Shake Your Groove Thing," Diana Ross's "Love Hangover"). More typical were records in which great voices and bands were sublimated to big, unwieldy orchestra arrangements and lousy rhythms. Among the disco era's noteworthy abominations were Aretha Franklin's awful "La Diva"; the Ohio Players' equally putrid "Everybody Up," produced by disco star Van McCoy, showing an exciting funk band pitifully selling out; and the Spinners' goofy "Dancin' and Lovin'," supervised by hack disco producer Michael Zager. Aside from wasting precious vinyl, these kinds of records (and other equally worthless novelties such as Meco's "Theme from Star Wars" and the Ritchie Family's "Brazil") sparked an antidisco backlash that tainted all black pop.
All this horrible music inspired the phrase "Disco sucks" and, sadly, it was often used in ignorant attacks against black artists in general. Despite optimistic talk inside the recording industry that disco would help black performers reach broader audiences and more lucrative careers, a glance at the charts from the period reveals just the opposite.
The willingness of pop radio to play black artists, and in the process reach a wider audience, actually decreased during disco's peak years. Look at the number of recordings by black artists to make Billboard's list of top 10 singles from 1973 to 1978: In 1973, thirty-six records moved from the black singles chart to the top 100 on the year-end pop chart. In the next two years, as disco began to enter the popular consciousness and crossover thinking gripped the music business, the numbers fell to twenty-seven in 1974 and twenty-eight in 1975. The bicentennial year saw a rise up to thirty, which suggested the pendulum was swinging back. But in 1977, which can be considered disco's peak year, the crossover number was a disastrous twenty-three, including a few black radio-driven disco cuts.
Another reflection of the criminal disrespect then granted black pop was the outcome of the R&B song category in the 1977 Grammy Awards. Of the five slots for nominations two each went to the nondisco compositions of two great African-American bands: Earth, Wind & Fire and the Commodores. Yet all four of their songs were passed over in favor of white Englishman Leo Sayer's lightweight disco ditty, "You make Me Feel Like Dancing." In the uninformed minds of Grammy voters, who at the time were almost uniformly white record industry employees, disco and R&B had become interchangeable. The corporate crossover agenda and the confusion over disco's impact on black music led to a profound musical identity crisis that--with notable exceptions like George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder--very few African-American stars could avoid.
Calculated crossover, the obsession with disco, and the increasing corporate control of American music spoke to its insularity and narrow-mindedness. This corporate reality was mirrored by simple geography. In the mid-'70s, most of the major labels were clustered together in Manhattan on Sixth Avenue or a block or two east or west. All were in walking distance from each other and from the decade's posh discos Regine's, Zenon, and the immortal Studio 54. The city's hippest black disco, Leviticus, was farther down Sixth, just off Herald Square and two blocks from Madison Square Garden. It was a place where suits were required, cognac was the favored drink, and all the newly minted special market executives of corporate America did the hustle while trying not to sweat.
The group mindset that grew out of this concentration of record companies, and the tendency of its executives to make professional judgments while doing blow in restroom stalls, is one reason the most important musical-cultural phenomenon of the last twenty years took so long to go mainstream. And, in retrospect, that was very fortunate.
THE BOOGIE DOWN
YOU GOTTA GO OUT AND PAINT AND BE CALLED AN OUTLAW AT THE SAME TIME.
--LEE QUINONES, GRAFFITI ARTIST,
IN THE FILM WILD STYLE
In 1976, after two hundred years of American history, the country gave itself a big party. Even neurotic New York, then in the depths of a frightening economic crisis, was laced with patriotic bunting and speeches full of high-minded boilerplate about democracy. In the great harbor, vintage tall ships sailed in tribute to a warm, loving America that existed only in a history that ignored Native American genocide, black lynchings, and the hypocrisy that begins with the words "All men are created equal."
America's dark side is comprised of those who don't fit neatly into the official history--unneeded workers and uneducated youth whose contact with American government is usually limited to mean-spirited policing, their filthy, abandoned neighborhoods covered up by graffiti. The suburban revolution, the one supported by the government and celebrated by major industry (auto, oil, rubber, real estate), along with prejudice against blacks and Hispanics, had left large chunks of our big cities economic dead zones that mocked the bicentennial's celebration of America as the promised land.
In the mid-'70s, when we did allow for some brief flickers of retrospection followed by judgmental finger-pointing, no place in America was held up more consistently as a symbol of our pitiful urban priorities than the Bronx, particularly its southernmost section. Despite the presence of the newly renovated Yankee Stadium and a pennant-winning team, images of burned-out buildings that left scores of blocks lifeless dominated the media. On The Tonight Show Johnny Carson and countless comedians, whenever in need of a cheap laugh, invoked the borough's name for sad isn't-New-York-pathetic chuckles. The borough had a gang problem, a heroin problem, and, like the other outlying boroughs, no industrial base on which to rebuild.
Hollywood capitalized on the South-Bronx-as-hell image in a number of exploitive films: The Warriors played the area as home base for highly stylized gang warfare and in Fort Apache: The Bronx Paul Newman revived his sagging career by playing a cop with a heart of gold languishing in the savage South Bronx. A few years later in his best-seller Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolfe caricatured and wallowed in white New York's worst fear--getting lost in the Bronx.
Yet, in 1976, the real Bronx was far from a cultural wasteland. Behind the decay and neglect the place was a cauldron of vibrant, unnoticed, and quite visionary creativity born of its racial mix and its relative isolation. It was within its boundaries that the expressions we associate with hip hop--graffiti art, break dancing, MCing, and mixing--all have roots.
Graffiti has been around since man encountered his first stone wall. Much of what we know of the world's early history comes from pictures and symbols scrawled centuries ago. As humans grew more sophisticated and paper became the primary tool of communication, walls became sacrosanct and defiling them with words was viewed as a throwback to primitive times, which is surely why what we call graffiti has endured. As a way to pass on unconventional views, mark turf, or just make a brightly colored mess, graffiti will never disappear. It's too useful and way too much fun.
After World War II, when the country was putting a squeaky clean face on its history and architecture, contemporary graffiti began its career as a formal civic nuisance, yet it remained a modest urban irritant until a Bronx-inspired explosion in the '70s allowed graffitists to refine themselves as artists. Early in the decade, a community of graffiti artists began gathering in and around Dewitt Clinton High in the Bronx. Clinton is located just blocks from a Transit Authority yard where out-of-service subway cars are stored. Scribbling obscenities and doggerel on and inside subway cars has always been a pastime of the young and idle, but armed with Krylon, Rustoleum, Red Devil spray paint, Flowmaster Ink--and a relatively new bit of technology, the felt-tipped pen--Clinton students and their peers used the tools of the painter, art student and teacher, not to defile but to create guerilla art.
Since this activity was as illegal as it was fun, these teens gave themselves flamboyant new names, called "tags," that protected them from discovery and gave their work an air of mystery. Phase 2, the tag of Clinton student Lonny Wood, became one of the first to gain citywide renown as it appeared on subway cars up and down the IRT line. The lanky, light brown Wood is African-American but many of the key early graffiti writers were Puerto Rican and white. The display of a distinctive personal approach quickly outstripped racial background as an delineator of style. Not that the racial identity of graffiti's makers mattered to the average New Yorker. Most presumed it was the work of idle, and likely dangerous, youths. In fact, for many residents the surge of graffiti in the city's public life crystalized their fears about New York's decline. It made them feel things were out of control and proved to be a very strong argument for moving to Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere.
As the decade continued, the Big Apple's subway cars and stations became as much canvases as transportation. With creativity and a total contempt for the peace of mind of their fellow citizens, graffiti artists from every borough marked, defaced, and tagged (their prefered verb) public transports with large, elaborate murals that splashed the writer's slang name in colorful, cartoony letters across the length of a car. During graffiti's heyday there didn't seem to be a single car in the system that went unscathed.
To those young or observant enough to see beyond the nuisance caused to travelers, graffiti was the voice of kids using spray paint and Magic Markers to scream for attention and make art. For Mayors John Lindsay and Abe Beame, graffiti was a public policy nightmare. For those looking for manifestations of rebellion, for some last grasp for public defiance before the '60s spirit completely died, graffiti fit the bill--which was why by 1973 a gallery exhibit of twenty giant canvases won tremendous media attention, though many of the reviews were condescending and some downright contemptuous of claims that graffiti was art.
Interest in graffiti as "high" art quickly burned out. A 1975 gallery exhibit in SoHo, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, was deemed a disappointment and the trend spotters, once hot on turning this public nuisance into a saleable commodity, turned their appraising eye elsewhere.
Hip hop is nothing, however, if not resilient. While snubbed by high-brow critics, graffiti art found new followers in cutting-edge circles. This was partly the doing of several art-savvy promoters, including a young entrepreneur-artist born Fred Braithwaite, but better known to the world as Freddie Love and eventually as Fab Five Freddie, who started organizing graffiti artists and promoting them on the downtown art scene then blossoming in tandem with the punk rock club scene. His point was that this living, aggressive art was a perfect fit with the same antiestablishment attitudes that ruled at punk landmarks like CBGBs. If punk was rebel music, this was just as truly rebel art.
This revival of interest owed much to several charismatic personalities, the most prominent of which was Sarno, a thin, curiously dreaded Brooklyn renegade who became the art world's primitive savant under his real name, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sort of Jimi Hendrix with a paint can, Basquiat lived an intense twenty-seven years in which he moved from aerosol cans to canvas to three-dimensional forms. No matter his materials, Basquiat retained the passion of his Brooklyn background, a color palate that suggested his family's Haitian roots, and an offkilter perspective that was pure bohemian.
Sadly, his career, a trajectory of rise and fall worthy a pop star and later mythologized in a film, not only mirrored Hendrix's embrace by London's rock scene in the '60s but foreshadowed the suffocating success rappers would later experience when they were loved too well by those their art was intended to make uncomfortable. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Eight years later a wonderfully comprehensive retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum confirmed his status as an enduring artist.
At the dawn of the '80s, writers and hipsters in Greenwich Village, SoHo, and lower Manhattan began making the connection between the visuals produced by graffiti artists such as Phase 2, Dondi White, and Lee Quinones and the music and dance styles filtering through New York's streets. In 1982, a young white underground filmmaker named Charlie Ahearn scraped together the money to shoot Wild Style, a vibrant little film that used Quinones, Braithwaite, and other street artists to connect the dots between Bronx street culture and the downtown folks who embraced it as rebel art. Because of its uptown-downtown synergy Wild Style remains one of the best feature-length film documents of hip hop.
We know now that graffiti's spray can aesthetics and street roots combined to have an impact on artists worldwide. As a sales tool, early hip hop party promoters always used graffiti artists to design their flyers and posters. Later, as the music soared into the public consciousness, there was a period in the '80s when nothing related to selling the culture or, often more precisely, pimping hip hop didn't use some cliched version of graffiti art. It still influences protest art wherever Magic Markers and spray paint are handy--for example, the angry scrawls of revolutionaries in Mexico and the bored paint jobs of restless teens in rich Zurich. In the gang-ridden cities of America today, warnings about turf and threats of violence are communicated via graffiti.
Unfortunately, in this country the overuse of graffiti style in advertising has drained the expression of its immediacy. Graffiti's wonderful subway-car-long pieces can now look as dated as unlaced Adidas. Yet there is a youthful integrity and humor to them that reminds us in the jaded '90s that hip hop didn't start as a career move but as a way of announcing one's existence to the world.
In 1997, the GhettOriginals, an all-star break-dancing crew that included the seminal b-boys K-Swift (Kenny Gabbert) and Crazy Legs (Richie Colon), did an international tour sponsored by Calvin Klein. Whether appearing on concert stages, in malls near the C.K. section, or at schools, these very adult men (and a few women) amazed audiences with moves they'd developed in the bygone era of shell-toed Adidas and straight-legged Lee riders.
I saw them at P.S. 122 in the East Village. I saw them at City College in Harlem. I saw them in Los Angeles at the Beverly Center mall. And everytime they performed I relived that time when breakers moonwalked for quarters in Times Square and no club was cool if it didn't have some kid in the corner spinning on his head. Breaking's story, however, is not one that fits easily into anyone's nostalgic memory.
This is because breakers are both hip hop's truest believers and its bitterest commentators. Their expression was spawned, celebrated, exploited, and spit out by the pop culture trend machine in a few overheated years. Breaking was not the only way to dance to hip hop in the '80s. You could turn out a party doing the Freak, the Smurf, the Patty Duke, or even the Wop. They were all fun, relatively simple social dances. Breaking, in contrast, was spectacular, dangerous, and, in its heart, grounded in a committment to competition. While rappers with record deals verbalize their dedication to hip hop, there are dancers who have been spinning on their heads and groovin' to "It's Just Begun" for twenty years earning only infrequent clothing deals, scant exposure, and small compensation.
Breaking, like graffiti, has two different phases to its history. The first came in the early '70s and coincided with the disco era. What came to be labeled "breaking" was actually a medley of moves adapting a number of sources--the shuffling, sliding steps of James Brown; the dynamic, platformed dancers on Don Cornelius's syndicated Soul Train television show; Michael Jackson's robotic moves that accompanied the 1974 hit "Dancin' Machine"; the athletic leg whips and spins of kung fu movies--all of which were funneled through the imagination of black New Yorkers.
The first break dancers were, according to old schoolers (I'll explain about the old and new schools of rap historians later), street gang members who danced upright, had names like El Dorado, Sasa, Mr. Rock, and Nigger Twins, and were overwhelmingly African-American. For them, breaking was just a way to dance at the time, not a lifestyle expression. Within the African-American community it came and went. Perhaps breaking would have been forgotten altogether if it hadn't been for the almost religious zeal of Puerto Rican teenagers.
Trac 2 of the seminal breaking crew Starchild La Rock remembered breaking's two lives this way in Rap Pages:
"See, the jams back then were still close to 90 percent Afro-American, as were most of the earliest B-boys, but they took breaking more like a phase, a fad. I say this because I had to see the reactions on their faces when we started doing it. They were like `Yo, breaking is played out' whenever the Hispanics would do it. For them, the `Fad' was over by the mid-'70s and most of them got into something else--writing, graffiti, DJing. But we were still pulling crowds regardless. Hispanic kids were always in the circles dancing. When [Puerto Rican] Charles Chase came out DJing, it was a big boost for us 'cause now we had a Latino representing. It didn't matter what the black kids would say--we had a Puerto Rican DJ and we were gonna dance our Puerto Ricah way."
Hispanics made breaking competitive. Breaking crews, in the long tradition of urban gang culture, challenged other dancers to meet them at a specific playground, street corner, or subway platform. Armed with large pieces of cardboard or linoleum, not guns or knives, they formed a circle where, two at a time, breakers dueled each other, move matching move, until one of the crews was acknowledged victorious. Like basketball, it was a team sport but it relied on the skill of individuals within each crew. It was a highly stylized form of combat that echoed the kung fu moves of Bruce Lee and the rituals of martial arts. The hat-to-the-back look, while practical for spinning dancers, also suggested a confrontational attitude that still flows through the culture. Grandmaster Flash once recalled, "When dancers actually started making contact, like doing jump kicks and kicking people on the floor, that's when the hat started going sideways. It was like, `I ain't dancing with you, I'm gonna try to hurt you.'"
The fascination with breaking crested in 1984 with a PBS documentary, Style Wars, and three quickie Hollywood flicks: Beat Street, Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. In addition, breakers turned up in sundry music videos of the period, ranging from R&B diva Gladys Knight's "Save the Overtime (For Me)" and the arty funk band Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime."
The durable contribution of breaking, however, is how primarily Hispanic dancers made an impact on hip hop's musical development. Records such as Jimmy Castor's "It's Just Begun," the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," and Herman Kelly's "Dance to the Drummer's Beat" didn't become hip hop classics in a vacuum. DJs played them, and often unearthed them, but it was the dancers who certified them. It was their taste, their affirmation of certain tracks as good for breaking, and their demand to hear them at parties that influenced the DJ'S and MCs who pioneered hip hop's early sound.
In the fall of 1992, I sat down with Afrika Bambaataa (Afrika Bambaataa Aasim), Kool Herc (Clive Campbell), and Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler) for a Source cover story. Bambaataa came to the interview with a small posse of Zulu Nation disciples, some of whom came to provide moral support, others to interrupt the interview and irritate the hell out of me. Bambaataa is a large man with a brooding, authoritative presence; he rarely smiled during the interview and gave up very little personal detail on or off the record. Bambaataa is so guarded on these matters that his birth name is as hard to uncover as the digits on a Swiss bank account. Yet on subjects he cared about (break beat records, the Zulu Nation, world peace), Bambaataa waxed eloquent.
Kool Herc came with his sister, who'd convinced the reluctant DJ to participate. Herc is more a myth than a man for even the truest hip hop fan. Tapes of his performances are rare and, since the '80s, he has performed only sporadically. Up until that 1992 Source interview, Herc's last major public exposure had been limited to a small role in the 1984 movie Beat Street and some speaking on Terminator X's 1994 solo album. If Bambaataa was selectively guarded, Herc spoke freely about "back-in-the-day" but didn't say much about the contemporary scene other than communicate his dismay with gangsta rap.
Grandmaster Flash came alone and was the most open and affable of the trio, perhaps because he's had the most successful career. Occasionally Herc and Bambaataa ganged up on him. For example, the question of who created "scratching" caused a bit of tension at the table. Though many initially credited Flash with its invention, it is now generally acknowledged that Grand Wizard Theodore (for a time Flash's helper) was the first to scratch but that Flash refined and popularized it. As the three legends got more comfortable, whatever tension that existed between them subsided and the conversation flowed. The hard edge of personality differences softened because this trio had so much in common. Sometime during the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Herc, Bambaataa, and Flash had created hip hop's sonic side.
Born in Jamaica and familiar with his native land's sound systems, Kool Herc is the man who, instead of just playing hits in parks and discos, sought out obscure records and played the instrumental breaks, extending them until they sounded like new records. Instead of disco spinning, Herc was doing what he called "break" spinning. Playing at the Bronx's Club Hevalo and Executive Playhouse clubs or in parks, Herc used the breaks and bridges from the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" and "Bongo Rock," Jimmy Castor's "It's Just Begun," James Brown's "Sex Machine" and "Give It Up or Turn It Loose," Baby Huey and the Babysitters' "Listen to Me," Mandrill's "Fencewalk," the Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces," and other records to create hip hop's original sound and build his rep.
It was equally important that Herc enhanced his presentation by employing a pal named Coke La Rock as his master of ceremonies (or MC) to introduce and comment on the selection. La Rock didn't rap as we'd recognize it now but was more in the style of the Jamaican sound system toasters or black radio announcers hyping a record. Still, several of his pet party motivating slogans ("Ya rock and ya don't stop!" "Rock on my mellow!.... To the beat y'all!") would become rap staples. Some old schoolers assert that La Rock was the first hip hop rapper. I'm not sure, but certainly La Rock's claim is as strong as anyone's.
While Herc's contributions were essentially musical, Bambaataa's most important contribution to developing hip hop may have been sociological. As a teenage record collector, Bambaataa attended some of Herc's parties and realized he owned many of the same records. Though he started from the same musical base as Herc, Bambaataa would range wider and include bits of African, Caribbean, soca, and D.C. go-go music in his mixes, giving his work an electric, multiethnic quality. As a result, Bambaataa was labeled "the master of records" by his many acolytes. Ralph McDonald's "Jam on the Groove" and "Calypso Breakdown," Herman Kelly's "Dance to the Drummer's Beat," the Mohawks' "Champ," and Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" are among the cuts he discovered, featured, and added to the hip hop canon.
Bambaataa is as important for the myth he embodies as for his eclectic taste. Growing up in the Bronx River Projects, Bambaataa became a member of one of the city's biggest youth gangs, the Black Spades. The standard issue story is that in the mid-'70s gangs like the Black Spades faded out (which did happen) and that the various hip hop expressions (graffiti, breaking, Djing, rapping) filled the gap, effectively killing the gang culture of New York. But when asked if he thought hip hop killed New York's gangs, Bambaataa didn't subscribe to that theory: "The women got tired of the gang shit," he replied. "So brothers eventually started sliding out of that 'cause they had people that got killed." From a '90s perspective there is something almost quaint about the idea that gangs could be ended in a major city by the love of the members' women.
In 1974, Bambaataa founded the Zulu Nation, a collective of DJs, breakers, graffiti artists, and homeboys that filled the fraternal role gangs play in urban culture while deemphasizing crime and fighting. Many crucial figures of the period were early members of the Zulu Nation (the Rock Steady Crew, DJ-producer Afrika Islam); twenty-five plus years later, the organization survives, serving as a anchor for its members and a safety valve for the culture. Over the years many hip hop beefs have been squashed after Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation came in to mediate.
Grandmaster Flash is now best known as a recording artist, but then are several purely technical DJ breakthroughs that owe their existence to his hand-and-eye coordination. As I noted earlier, Grand Wizard Theodore may have introduced scratching but Flash is certainly the man who made it matter. "Punch phrasing"--playing a quick burst from record on one turntable while it continues on the other--and "break spinning"--alternately spinning both records backward to repeat the same phrase over and over--are credited to Flash. Moreover, Flash was a showman. Unlike Herc, who primarily hovered over his turntables and didn't say much to the crowd, Flash mixed and entertained. Crowd pleasing tricks associated with hip hop, such as spinning with his back to the turntables and using his feet to mix, first flowed from Flash' imagination.
Flash, who at one point trained to be an electrician, was always exploring and refining his equipment. Out of his curiosity came the "clock theory" of mixing where Flash was able to "read" records by using the spinning logo to find the break. He converted a Vox drum machine into what he labeled the "beat box," a device that allowed him to add additional percussion to a musical mix and anticipated the use of drum machines in making rap records.
Just as Herc had Coke La Rock as MC, Flash had an on and off relationship with a group of young MCs who would come to be known as the Furious Five. Between 1976 and 1980, in the years before they began recording, Flash often performed alongside some combination of Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), Kidd Creole (Nathanial Glover), Rahiem (Guy Williams), and Mr. Ness aka Scorpio (Ed Morris). Because money was short for playing at a gig at 116th Street's Harlem World Disco or Times Square's Diplomat Hotel, there were often disputes over money and professionalism: sometimes all five MCs showed, sometimes none. At other times, another young MC, Kurtis Blow (Curtis Walker), worked the mike with Flash.
With Flash and without him, the members of what would become the Furious Five came up with some of the culture's benchmark phrases. "Cowboy came up with a lot of phrases," Flash recalled, "and had a powerful voice that just commanded attention." Cowboy is credited with inaugurating "Throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don't care!" and "Clap your hands to the beat!" and "Somebody scream!"--three essential cliches of hip hop performance.
Kidd Creole and his brother Melle Mel were, according to Flash, "the first rhyme technicians. They were the first to toss a sentence back and forth. Kidd would say `I,' Mel would say `was,' Kidd would say `walking,' Mel would say `down.' They just tossed sentences like that all day. It was incredible to watch, it was incredible to hear."
I've mentioned that we now think of "old" and "new" schools of rappers and rap enthusiasts. What today is called "the old school" are the founding fathers, so to speak--a loose community of energetic, creative, and rather naive young people from the Bronx and upper Manhattan who reached adolescence in the '70s. Naive is the key and perhaps unexpected adjective in describing this crew, yet I think it is essential. I'm not simply saying they were naive about money. That's a trait they shared with nearly every young musician I've ever met (and no amount of much touted "street knowledge" ever protects them from rip-offs).
By naive, I mean the spirit of openhearted innocence that created hip hop culture. The idea of parties in parks and community centers, which is celebrated nostalgically as the true essence of hip hop, means that money was not a goal. None of the three original DJs--Herc, Flash, Bambaataa--expected anything from the music but local fame, respect in the neighborhood, and the modest fees from the parties given at uptown clubs or the odd midtown ballroom. They may have pocketed a couple hundred bucks here or there but none thought these gigs would make them millionaires. Like the graffiti writers and the break dancers, the old-school DJs, and those that quickly followed their lead, did it because it felt good and because they could.
For the graffiti artists, tagging walls wasn't about mimicking art school technique or being self-consciously postmodern. For the Hispanic breakers, it wasn't about simply departing from the traditions of Latin social dancing with its rigorous turns and upright posture. For DJs, break spinning wasn't some departure from the norms of soul music. For all these old schoolers it was an accidental, offhand discovery of a way to distinguish themselves in a very direct, self-contained, and totally controllable way. They needed simple tools to make their art and they made their own decisions about what made it good. Hip Hop was not a mass market concept. It was not a [Illegible] move.
No one from the old school knew where hip hop would go and all were surprised, pleasantly and otherwise, by how it evolved. When I first experienced hip hop I was living out in a drug-scarred, working-class part of Brooklyn and, believe me, I had no idea I'd still care about it decades later.
Meet the Author
Nelson George, supervising producer and writer for the Netflix series "The Get Down," is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. He has written for Playboy, Billboard, Esquire, the Village Voice, Essence, and many other national magazines, as well as writing and producing television programs and feature films.
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A good read overall, a lot of knowledge, Nelson George "drops science"!
Nelson George's narrorative gives you a clear, bold and tranparent perpective of a genre of music that has freed minds and opened the eyes to the blind for many years past, present and to come. A bible for those who need a lesson in Hip hop 101.
hip hip hop is a geat life. and the write knows what he is saying. its a good read love it. thanks for the book.
I think it was a great book. Nelson told the history in a way that maid you interessed wether you wanted or not. I thought it was very clever the way he compared hiphop with other genres.