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BLACK MUSIC MONTH:
THE GET-DOWN PART (PRE-WAX)

Like many of the musical waves that preceded it, hip-hop was born in the city, developed by black creators who at first harbored no hope of mass recognition. Rapping, DJing and breakdancing were a way of telling a story, rocking a crowd, getting over against impossible odds and the implacable grind of racism and poverty.

Now, a genre that first saw the light of day at house parties and on street corners in the ’70s is the single biggest musical force on the planet, culturally and economically.

The decades between the first glimmer of breakbeat ingenuity and the present dominance of hip-hop art and culture offer a staggering odyssey of creative evolution, verbal and technical dexterity, political resistance, poolside bling, stylistic bravado, cannabis clouds, technological leaps and bounds, tragedy and triumph.

Among other things, it is the unbelievable saga of a grassroots music that went unrecorded for much of its first decade, was dismissed by haters as it first brushed the mainstream and proceeded to become a global phenomenon.

Having launched itself from the grooves of dusty vinyl, it has flourished through the CD revolution, the bootleg crisis, the Napster disruption, the iTunes rebirth, the streaming windfall and the TikTok craze, and it will continue to do so through whatever’s next.

It has been old-school, new-wave, hardcore, electro, gangsta, conscious, bohemian, crunk, hyphy, drill, trap and a million other styles and subgenres. And while not every significant name could be included, we’ve done our utmost to paint as big a canvas as possible.

This is the story of hip-hop—well, a story of hip-hop. Let’s drop the needle.

“You love to hear the story again and again,” said the legendary MC Shan, “of how it all got started way back when.” Back when the hip-hop holy trinity of DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash appeared together on the cover of The Source magazine in late 1993, only the hardcore adherents of rap music knew its history in intimately familiar terms. Things like the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue address of Kool Herc or crews like the Universal Zulu Nation—of which DJ Jazzy Jay was an early member—were largely unfamiliar outside of the Bronx. As hip-hop developed throughout the years into the pop music of the world, spawning documentaries and historical biographies, rap’s origin story has become as well-known to music lovers as the Beatles’ roots in Liverpool.

During the late 2010s, social media clowned millennial MCs like Lil Yachty and Lil Xan for not revering the likes of 1990s legends Biggie Smalls and 2Pac. But their points of view underlined that hip-hop culture now stretches long enough (nearly five decades) for different generations to have their own “OK boomer” views about who’s hot and who’s not in rap history. The almost 50-year passage of time since its beginnings at public-park jams in the South Bronx also means that the genre spans from the mature dad rap of 4:44-era Jay-Z to the so-called SoundCloud rhymes of the late Juice WRLD.

Still, even an outsider like Australian director Baz Luhrmann felt comfortable enough creating the fictive world of The Get Down, a scripted Netflix series set in the mise-en-scène of hip-hop’s formative years in the ’70s. From the American Book Award-winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop to the Peabody-winning docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution, many have laid bare the origins of rap music for mainstream audiences—way beyond rap’s intracultural borders—and succeeded.

We totally know the story of how it all got started way back when. Or do we?

Let’s commence with a recap of the most famous facts.

Hip-hop culture traditionally consists of five elements: rapping, deejaying, B-boying (aka breakdancing), graffiti art and knowledge.

On Aug. 11, 1973, in a Sedgwick Avenue recreation room in the urban-blighted South Bronx, Kool Herc deejayed a back-to-school jam—cementing his reputation and launching a music revolution.

Afrika Bambaataa, leader of the Black Spades gang, reinvented that crew as the Universal Zulu Nation (dedicated to peace, unity, love and having fun), and recast himself as the “Master of Records.” ‚Ä®Grandmaster Flash rose as the final third of the triumvirate by inventing the backspin technique: making it easier to loop the same record on two adjacent turntables, extending the groove with a mixer’s crossfader.

Further, Coke La Rock often performed alongside Kool Herc as the first de facto rapper, hyping up crowds in Bronx parks and schoolyards.

And years after hip-hop became an entrenched South Bronx cultural phenomenon, in 1979 “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang featured three rappers flipping rhymes over the music bed of Chic’s “Good Times” to bring rap music to the wide world beyond New York City. The single’s success paved the way for Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and more, to the point where tastemakers realized songs like “The Breaks” and “The Message” weren’t faddish novelty records. Ten years passed between Kool Herc’s first community-center party and the release of Run-DMC’s “Sucker MC’s,” the single that effectively sounded the death knell for rap music’s baby-steps stage.

Those are the big beats. Let’s hydrophonic-scratch into them with some details.

Born in 1970, I spent my childhood with grandparents who lived in different areas of the financially devastated South Bronx: Mott Haven, Highbridge. My parents moved us uptown to the northeast Bronx in 1974, two years after the Cross Bronx Expressway project of city planner Robert Moses was completed. Controversy surrounded the construction, as the highway cut straight through existing neighborhoods and displaced the (largely Jewish and Italian) residents who could afford to leave. That left me pedaling my tricycle up and down East 170th Street, riding seesaws in Claremont Park with the black and Puerto Rican kids who remained. I don’t recall the embroidered denim jackets of street gangs like the Savage Skulls who roamed the hood; they were dying out. What I remember is the music.

Booming speakers plugged into streetlamps echoed funk throughout the playgrounds and public parks where my cousins and I played ringolevio. Grandmaster Flash was one of those DJs. So was the late Kool DJ AJ—immortalized on Kurtis Blow’s “AJ Scratch”—deejaying in the courtyard of the Moore Houses housing projects, across the street from my grandmother’s building. Older teenagers spun windmill and headspin moves on flattened cardboard boxes to the breakbeats: isolated sections of the most frenetic moments on records like “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band and The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun.” Some called those B-boys breakdancers because they danced to breakbeats, the prime contribution of DJ Kool Herc.

Clive Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in April 1955. The oldest of six children, he relocated with his family to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the southwest Bronx in 1967. As a graffiti writer with the Ex-Vandals crew, Clive’s tag for spray-painting walls and subway trains—Kool Herc—came from Hercules, the nickname thrust upon him in high school because of his superhero-sized frame. Deejaying a party in the rec room of his apartment building in August 1973, a modest jam of around 50 community kids to raise money for his sister’s back-to-school clothes, a 16-year-old Herc did something no other DJ had ever thought to do before. His so-called “merry-go-round” style involved using the peak percussive segments of often obscure songs and lengthening them by switching over to a second copy of the same vinyl record on another turntable.

Those segments soon became known as breaks. Herc’s party people going off with James Brown-inspired moves became known as break-boys and break-girls, or B-boys/B-girls or breakdancers. The huge wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets of Jamaican sound systems were a part of Herc’s heritage growing up, and they soon served him well on the streets of the Bronx. His Herculords sound system was even louder than the deafening speakers I remembered hearing firsthand as a boy, cherry Italian ice dripping over my fingers.

What DJ Kool Herc and his hype-the-crowd partner Coke La Rock soon did at clubs like Harlem World and Disco Fever had its mirror in more upscale downtown discotheques with DJ Hollywood and his master of ceremonies, Eddie Cheba. Their suit-and-tie audience wanted nothing to do with the backspinning teenagers up in the hardcore South Bronx. But Anthony “Hollywood” Holloway’s call and response exhortations—his “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care”—extended from the rhyming tradition of radio DJs like Frankie Crocker and Jocko Henderson. His placement in hip-hop history has been controversial because of his disco clientele, but many pioneers begrudgingly bestow him his proto-rap bona fides.

But back to the Boogie-Down Bronx.

Afrika Bambaataa (né Lance Taylor) grew up in the Bronx River Houses projects of the southeast Bronx. Inspired by unsung local DJs like DJ Tex and Kool DJ D, Bambaataa carved out his own deejaying style in the early ’70s by reaching for the obscure and diverse. He draped speeches from Malcolm X over the afrobeat drums of Fela Kuti; he blended James Brown beats underneath TV-show themes from The Andy Griffith Show and Batman, or Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther score; he mixed Kraftwerk krautrock with Daffy Duck cartoons. Heavily influenced by the psychedelic style of Sly Stone, he wore a mohawk before the Afropunk aesthetic was a glint in anyone’s eye.

Beyond his estimable turntablist contributions, Afrika Bambaataa had vision. Several rappers (Cowboy and Lovebug Starski included) lay claim to first coining the term “hip-hop,” but Bambaataa grouped  emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing and tagging graffiti under the single umbrella of the one new true faith. When party rockers were still floating the idea of calling rap “the boing-oing-oing,” Bam spread the idea of hip-hop as a culture with distinct elements. As a former leader of the Black Spades gang, Bambaataa helped shift the paradigm from street warfare to battling with rhymes and footwork by founding the Universal Zulu Nation in 1973.

Joseph Saddler was born in Barbados and emigrated to the southwest Bronx at a young age. His childhood interest in electronics and an obsession with his father’s sizeable record collection dovetailed after his parents split. Piecing together discarded bits of transformers, gaskets and copper wires, he built his own speakers and deejayed tracks like Trouble Funk’s “Pump Me Up,” Mandrill’s “Fence Walk” and “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey in his mother’s living room. His eventual protégé, DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, is credited with inventing the zigga zigga scratch that’s forever associated with hip-hop sonics. But as Grandmaster Flash, Saddler was the first DJ bold enough to lay his fingers on the vinyl albums (strictly prohibited back then), mark breakbeats off with crayon and loop those sections ad infinitum in what he called his quick-mix theory.

Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash had already won the revolution before the world had any idea. Then came the records.

Read The Get-Down Part in its entirety here.

Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is the Harlem-based author of the upcoming Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, and his writing has appeared in Billboard, Rolling Stone, GQ and elsewhere.

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