The current revitalization of vinyl LPs
—sales of which have been on a steady uptick for several years—evokes some obvious stereotypes: monied Gen-Y tech bros nursing craft beers at some trendy new nightspot while a bearded hipster spins vinyl behind the bar; the interior of an Urban Outfitters revealing a slim selection of $30 classic, alternative and indie-rock LPs reissued for the gazillionth time amid the $200 “distressed” jeans and faux-vintage Rolling Stones concert T-shirts; the half-mile-long line of customers just before the local record store opens on Record Store Day as collectors prepare to pounce on limited-edition exclusive releases (soon to be sold on eBay at a 500% markup).

These scenarios, however, obscure a hidden, yet incontrovertible, truth: When a cultural phenomenon is experienced by the privileged, it’s frequently preceded by Black innovation born of necessity. While it’s true that the collecting of vinyl has proliferated since the advent of recorded sound, it’s the African American creators of hip-hop who came to prominence in the late 1970s—legendary names like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow—who established these sonic artifacts as tools indispensable to the creation of their art.

The demand for records was prevalent in urban communities even as other sonic formats became dominant in the ’80s and beyond. Vinyl records were discarded and dismissed as outdated, cumbersome and sonically inferior to that shiny new toy, the CD. But to the hip-hop faithful, vinyl—plentiful and inexpensive—was still the standard. Any artist worth their salt had to be as proficient in the art of record collecting as they were in emceeing, deejaying, mixing or scratching.

Indeed, the roots of the vinyl revival (which shows no sign of abating) stretch back to the birth of hip-hop. During a 1973 party in the Bronx—or so the well-worn legend goes—Jamaican-born DJ Clive “Hercules” Campbell, aka Kool Herc, used his two-turntable setup to crudely mix and scratch tracks live for the first time while his friend Coke La Rock rapped over the beats. The legendary group Gang Starr’s producer, visionary and hip-hop historian DJ Premier, explained to the London magazine I Am Hip-Hop how vinyl was used to define the sonic template of the genre: “[Kool Herc] took two copies of the same record and extended the part we call the break, which is most people’s favorite part of the song, and that was the early stages of sampling. Repeating the part that we really like to hear, even if it’s just a bar, made people go ‘Damn, that’s hot! This guy is experimenting.’”

Elaborating on the technique of repeatedly playing the drum breaks that were omnipresent on the soul, funk and R&B records DJs spun, Premier says: “They just played it over and over, so the crowd could enjoy the song for longer. Then all of a sudden, an MC is like, ‘Yo, keep that going. Play that part again.’ This was way before the professional stages of hip-hop, but it still helped shape the art form of what we did to give the record a whole different life. Without vinyl, who knows if hip-hop would have even come about?” Without a doubt, hip-hop and vinyl are inextricably linked.

How did these pioneering DJs acquire the vinyl they used so inventively? Again, most were well-versed in the soul, funk and R&B records of the 1960s and ’70s, primarily because they were in their childhood homes. Motown, Stax-Volt, Philly soul and James Brown records were staples in Black (and other) households throughout America. But as the budding rappers, DJs and mixers grew up, their musical appetites required more than the records they’d been weaned on.

To distinguish themselves stylistically, anyone involved in hip-hop embarked on a frenzied quest for the most obscure or unlikely records that could be used to accompany rappers or for DJs to use for the percussion breakdowns that came to be called “breakbeats.” This was, in fact, the birth of sampling: A DJ would grab a snippet of a drum break (sometimes accompanied by other instruments) from a record and find a way for that break to be repeated, or “looped,” while rappers dropped improvised verses over the “breaks.” Searching for hard-to-find records for sampling purposes became known as “crate-digging” in the ’90s, though the phenomenon began in earnest in the ’70s as hip-hop began its decades-long ascent toward its current peak as, arguably, the most ubiquitous music in the world.

As esteemed hip-hop historian and record collector Dave “Davey D” Cook told Collectors Weekly: “We were always trying to find a record that had a drum beat that you could catch, something that was going to be at least a few bars, that nobody had ever heard before. That meant going through every record that was in your mom’s collection. Me, I found a song called ‘Rainmaker’ by Harry Nilsson. It was on the flip side of a song, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’,’ that appeared in the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy. After I found it, it was up to me to go find a second copy of that single, because you needed two records to extend the breakbeat when mixing. I’m sure the process was similar for everybody who was trying to deejay.”

Other vinyl treasures whose breakbeats Cook and his peers would track down to sample at the parties they deejayed included “Catch a Groove” by Juice, “I Just Want to Do My Thing” by Edwin Starr, “The Fruit Song” by Jeannie Reynolds, “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch and James Brown’s classic “Funky Drummer.” The break on the latter would be sampled by dozens of artists over the years.

These platters could be had for pennies on the dollar, but demand eventually drove prices up. And as hip-hop gained prominence during the 1980s—often celebrated as The Golden Age of Hip-Hop—its practitioners followed a path like Davey D’s, searching beyond the soul, funk and R&B genres.

One album that emerged at the end of the decade, on 3/3/89, was widely considered the embodiment of eclectic, crate-digging hip-hop: De La Soul’s epochal 3 Feet High and Rising. Many hip-hop artists viewed the album—which sampled records like the kid-TV staple Multiplication Rock, ’60s bubblegum artists like The Turtles (who successfully sued the group for copyright infringement) and Steely Dan, to name a few —as an absolute game changer.

DJ/producer Chief Xcel, half of the California duo Blackalicious, describes the impact the album had on him in an interview for the book Why Vinyl Matters: “When I heard what producer Prince Paul did with [3 Feet High and Rising], everything changed… It wasn’t just about looking for breakbeats in one genre of music; everything was fair game. It was like if you’d only seen 10 colors in your life and then all of a sudden you were exposed to this world of Technicolor—it’s, like, wow. From that point on, I went from buying hip-hop records every weekend to just buying records, period… In terms of taking these samples from all different genres of music and creating a collage, it exposed me to a new world.”

Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, CDs and MP3s steadily replaced vinyl as consumers’ preferred sonic delivery system—many hip-hop DJs and producers, in turn, transitioned toward digital audio software like Serato to create tracks and store samples. But over the years, digital began to lose some of its appeal; the lure of the tactile experience and the sonic warmth of vinyl was gradually rediscovered.

As demand for these “licorice pizzas” has grown exponentially over the past decade or so, scores of the obscure jazz, funk, soul and R&B records that provided the building blocks of hip-hop have been reissued—often at inflated prices.

(High prices for—and the delayed delivery of—current product can be partly attributed to scarcity. In 2020 the only U.S. manufacturing plant for producing the lacquer discs used in pressing vinyl, responsible for 80% of the world’s supply, burned down, leaving only one other such plant in the world, in Japan. The situation is so dire that this year vinyl enthusiast [and presser] Jack White issued an appeal to the major record companies to build their own vinyl-pressing operations.)

The highly coveted original versions of those reissues fetch astronomical sums on eBay, Discogs and other e-commerce destinations. And of course, virtually every new re-lease is now certain to be issued on pristine, 180-gram vinyl to satisfy the desire of the ravenous hip-hop and collector communities.

Whether you celebrate vinyl’s streaming-era growth as a long-overdue corrective to the perceived sterility of digital audio or regard the vinyl revival as a cynical money grab, one thing is certain: Its foundation is squarely located in African American innovation.

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