Many histories of hip hop have been written since the first b-boy upped his first uprock, and while almost each has its own claim as to who was the first, who was the best and who made the old sound new, most agree on a few pivotal figures without which hip hop would never have formed. For example, after paying due homage to West African griots, who use music to accompany their epic tales, and drawing direct ancestral lines from them to late ’60s and early ’70s revolutionary African-American poets like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, every history of the music worth its salt describes Jamaican-born, Bronx-based DJ Kool Herc as “the godfather of hip hop.”
DJ KOOL HERC
In the mid and late-’70s DJ Kool Herc applied techniques prevalent in Jamaican dub music to U.S. dance music, specifically focusing on “breaks,” which are the moments in a song when the drum beat rhythms that underlie dance music appear on their own, and “toasting,” which is the act of speaking to the audience rhythmically during the breaks. Herc would use two turntables, each with a copy of the same record, isolate the drum beats from disco or funk songs on one and play that section through, go to the next record and play that same section, then back and forth and back and forth, a technique that came to be called “looping.” (In the highly competitive culture that developed around early hip hop–at least according to legend–Herc used to soak the labels off his records so no other DJs would steal his beats.) Herc also had the loudest sound system around, and hauled it from block party to block party in the Bronx, always guaranteeing a good time. (Watch Herc explain how he developed the idea of “the Merry Go Round.”)
AFRIKA “BAM” BAMBAATAA
The next hip hop legend who features prominently in most histories of the genre is Afrika “Bam” Bambaataa, who began his storied career in hip hop as a South Bronx deejay and co-founder of a brutal street gang known as the Black Spades, and went on to become known as, among other things, “THE GODFATHER/GRANDFATHER OF HIP HOP, FATHER OF ELECTRO-FUNK, MASTER OF RECORDS, AMBASSADOR OF HIP HOP, GREATEST DJ ON EARTH, HIP HOP’S FOREMOST DJ, THE BEST DJ IN BUSINESS.” Afrika’s family, some members of which were active in black liberation struggles of the late ’60s and early ’70s infused him with a political consciousness that would ultimately shape his approach to music. Having won a trip to Africa in what his many biographies vaguely refer to as “an essay contest,” Bambaataa–at that point still known by his given name, Kevin Donovan–found inspiration in the South African Zulu nation’s struggles against the apartheid regime. He adopted his now famous pseudonym, choosing “Bambaataa” in honor of a Zulu chief, Bambatha kaMancinza, who led a 1906 rebellion against British colonizers, and returned to the Bronx determined to use the power of music to improve
the lives of the African-American and Latino youth in his community. He soon transformed the Black Spades into the Universal Zulu Nation, a peace-seeking alternative to the violence of street gang culture, and spread the Zulu ideology, and by his extension, early hip hop culture, by DJ’ing (“disc jockeying”) at massive street parties around the city.
More about Bambaataa:
Meet Bambaataa in this excerpt from British documentary about hip hop | Watch Bambaataa perform his biggest hit, “Planet Rock,” in 1982 (“Gotta rock it don’t stop it, gotta rock it don’t stop, keep tickin’ and tockin’, working’ all around the clock.”)| In this 2011 Chicago Tribune article, Bambaataa states what can only be seen as a reasonable life goal: “The only thing I want is to awaken all humans on the planet that we are living on Mother Earth.”
THE SUGARHILL GANG
In the late ’70s rappers (deejays speaking rhymes over rhythmic breaks) began to attract attention from musicians outside the Bronx, and even outside their own African-American and Latino communities, such as Debbie Harry of the punk/New Wave band Blondie and members of the British band The Clash. As rap music moved from the Bronx Streets to the Manhattan mainstream, record producers became eager to bring this music to a wider audience (or, as some may say, cash in on it). At just this time a fledgling New Jersey-based label called Sugar Hill Records pulled together a group of MC’s (MC=”master of ceremonies”) into an entity that became known as The Sugarhill Gang. The Gang’s three rappers–Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee–were not experienced MCs who had come up through the street party ranks, but they sure put together one catchy tune; in 1979 the Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap song to become a radio hit.
“Rapper’s Delight” lit up the airwaves, literally introducing this new form of urban rhythmic and poetic expression to the world with Wonder Mike’s lyric, “now what you hear is not a test–I’m rappin’ to the beat, and me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.” The Gang had “borrowed” the song’s basic groove from “Good Times” by the R&B/disco band, Chic. (The song’s composers eventually got co-writing credit for “Rapper’s Delight.”) Big Bank Hank also borrowed–well, directly stole–most of his rap in the song from established rapper Grandmaster Caz. Deejays from the Bronx balked at the fact that The Sugarhill Gang hadn’t come up from the streets, but beyond the local hip hop community all listeners knew was that much-maligned disco music had a ready and able replacement.
More about The Sugarhill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight”: NPR’s take on “Rapper’s Delight” (aired in 2000) | [this link not completely appropriate for everyone, due to some of
the “adult” imagery in the lyrics. But for the rest of
us, it’s something to behold.] Watch Sugarhill Gang perform “Rapper’s Delight” live in 1979 and you’ll see how disco laid the foundations for hip hop.
GRANDMASTER FLASH and THE FURIOUS FIVE
With the almost unfathomable success of “Rapper’s Delight,” everyone from deep-pocketed New York record producers to big market radio deejays to suburban kids yearning for a kind of music that was both new and true immediately realized the potential of hip hop as a danceable replacement for disco. What they didn’t know was that hip hop also had the potential to be an agent for personal and political change (see Afrika Bambaataa above). Rappers in the Bronx weren’t just rhyming, as Wonder Mike famously did in “Rapper’s Delight,” about having a bad meal at a friend’s house [see the not-completely-appropriate for kids lyrics of the song here], but were boldly addressing the harsh realities of life as a non-white urban youth in late ’70s and early ’80s America. This changed in 1982 when Sugarhill Records scored second hit with “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Grandmaster Flash was an innovative and highly respected DJ who had begun
to rival DJ Kool Herc (see above) as the most popular DJ on the street party scene. Flash was among the first to employ a technique that allowed him to take lyrics and rhythmic phrases from one record and play them simultaneously over other records. Also, while he didn’t invent “scratching“–hip hop histories generally agree that Grand Wizard Theodore was the first DJ to popularize it on the streets–Flash perfected the technique and became well-known as a disc-spinning master. He and his crew of rappers, known as the Furious Five, rose to prominence in the New York hip hop scene; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had even opened for The Clash in 1981. (They were not well-received.) In 1982 Sugarhill records released “The Message,” a rap about the many frustrations and struggles non-white youth faced on America’s streets and the song became a massive hit. (“Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head….It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”) The rap’s success assured lyricists that they didn’t necessarily have to dilute their messages to find radio play or even achieve stardom well beyond the boundaries of the Bronx.
Watch Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five perform “The Message” live in 1983 in front of a mainly white New York audience. The group’s main rapper on the song isn’t Flash himself, but Mellie Mel. (Listen to NPR’s Terry Gross interview Mellie Mel during “hip hop week” on “Fresh Air.”)
From that point forth rap and hip hop became big, big, BIG business. While most respected rappers still came up from the streets, after hip hop became mainstream, all knew that stars of the genre could earn a whole lot of money. In an upcoming session focusing on the global roots and ramifications of American music, “All Around This World” will take you on a tour of New School Rap, Gansta Rap, the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, etc., connecting the dub beats DJ Cool Herc spun in the early ’70s in the Bronx more directly back to West Africa, back to Jamaica, and then beyond America’s borders back out to the world. For now, this week in class, we’ll bring back “Rapper’s Delight,” reveling in the wondrous rhymes of Wonder Mike, and even do some breakdancing–we may even try this!
A bit more hip hop history: An excellent 1990/1991 hop history video from the UK featuring an overview of hip hop, to that point, with Afrika Bambaataa | AcesandEighths.com hip hop history, including an exciting tour of Global Hip Hop | Mr. Wiggles’ extensive — though not 100% appropriate for kids — hip hop timeline