When we hear “hip-hop” or “rap” (we hardly hear just one of those term separately, because of their common origins), we talk about a musical and cultural phenomenon that covers at least five decades, now consolidated as a real music trend: Kanye West, Jay-Z and before them Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2-Pac, Notorious B.I.G… Today hip-hop is fashionable, but its origins, now forgotten, come from the ghetto, where it was the real counterculture.
Counterculture to what? To that disco music that dominated the 60s and the 70s: Champagne, Rolls Royce, elegant outfits. This was the New York style showcased by these festivals, of course with a hidden face behind it. Hip hop was born in New York’s Bronx, in the period of highest social and political crisis: the South Bronx was devastated by fires, murders, robberies, and the unemployment was at its highest.
Far from the social status of the disco parties, the boys in Bronx were looking for something different and the turning point were the festivals of Kool Herc. The first took place at the 1520 Sedwick Avenue, in August 11th, 1973, organized for the local gangs. The admission price was very low (25 cents for women / 50 for men) and the parties didn’t initially accept more than 50-100 people. Looking for something different than disco, Kool Herc pursued a return to the origins: soul, funk, jazz, music that you would never listen to in the radio. Scorpio and The Mexican seem to be two of the songs played at that parties. Now they are a legend.
But the main characteristic of Herc’s style was the ability to find a particular break in the records, to isolate and highlight against all other instruments: in that moment, Kool Herc silenced all the rest and let just bass and drums emerge. That specific break, present in all the songs selected by Kool Herc, became crucial in the history of hip hop: just think of the break dance born in recent years, the B-boys who danced that break. Herc tried to stretch that break by passing from a disc on a plate to the same disk on another plate. It was something revolutionary: Herc brought to his parties two copies of the same record, to lengthen the breaks, until he actually created something new. This technique was named Merry-Go-round.
The boys at Herc’s parties were the first hip-hop followers. The evolution was gradual, but it still goes on. The first DJs were greatly impressed by Kool Herc and tried to refine his creations. These include Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. The latter has evolved Kool Herc’s raw style, reaching a sort of primitive “editing”, paving the way towards what today’s DJs do. Whereas Afrika Bambaataa was not only an incredible DJ, but also a personality of great social influence: he managed to bring together the various gangs in the “Universal Zulu Nation”, composed by MCs, DJs, B-Boys, etc. As the name of the group and the DJ itself confirms, it was necessary to recover the original cultural identity (the African one), as Kool Herc already did. From that moment, they never forgot it again.
For a deeper knowledge of how hip hop was born, you can find below Nicola Palagiano’s infographics.