Hip-Hop: How We Got from a South Bronx Birthday Party to a Global Force

Even though it took time and intervention for hip-hop to expand beyond the South Bronx, that may have been for the better in the long run.

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 wasn't 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.

Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years

Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Price: $27.95
Author: Joseph C. Ewoodzie, Jr.
Length: 256 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

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 wasn't 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 the Bronx, an engaging study of how both genres and communities take shape.

Break Beats isn't 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 didn't 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 the South Bronx, that may have been for the better in the long run. Break Beats in the 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 the 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's 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's why it's 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 the 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 the South Bronx are still intact -- not just rhyming and beatmaking but also creativity, resourcefulness, swagger, and pride.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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