Reflections on Hip Hop Origins
Origins of Hip Hop culture and Rap music are complex. One could examine musical aspects rooted in African retentions and ongoing aesthetic manifestations played out in late twentieth century and early twenty-first century geo-technological spaces. This framework could also include major composer-innovators, orator/lyricists, graphic artists and dancers. One could examine historical, socio-cultural and economic factors. This series of brief reflections will use the above interdisciplinary fields intertwined with personal narrative as a means by which to think about the multi-layered genre we now call Hip Hop/Rap.
Hip Hop culture and the Rap Industry began in South Bronx New York City before the 1979 release of the hit single “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. Several scholars point to urban oppressed African American and Latino youth culture as the hearth place of the music and “way of life.” African American scholar Dr. Eileen Southern, a traditional musicologist, was a groundbreaking researcher who published documentation about Rap in an academic framework in the third revised addition of her seminal text on Black music published in 1997.
A Bronx (New York) disc Jockey, Afrika Bambaataa, is credited with being one of the pivotal forces in the development of the music that early picked up the label of “rap.” Bambaataa, an ex-gang member, and self-taught student of black culture as well as the philosophy of Malcolm X and other black nationalist leaders, came to believe that the arts could be used to combat the rampant street violence of the youth gangs in his community (which included the Bronx River Project.) In 1973 he founded the Youth Organization at Adlai Stevenson High School (later renamed the Zulu Nation), which brought together large numbers of teenagers and young adults who shared his interest in the street arts. 1
Southern sites Bambaataa (Jamaican by birth) as being one of the first to use rap street “battles” as a non-violent way to fight without physical use of weapons.2 This type of battle continues today. I have witnessed it on the streets of San Diego. Similarly, one of its roots–the “Dozens” (non-violent word play in which verbal skills are used to “beat down” an opponent) was popular among 1960s Black youths in Buffalo New York. I watched and listened to some of these interactions among my peers and was also on the receiving end of “dozens” barrages several times. Eileen Southern also sites another important African diasporic influence in the sound system/turntable innovations of Jamaican Clive Campbell (Kool DJ Herc), who moved to the South Bronx in 1975. Kool Herc’s creative use of record technology changed the sound of pop music.3
According to second generation Hip Hop scholar Dr. Michael Dyson,
Hip Hop took root in a culture of hardship. Even the technology that played such a crucial role in rap’s origins derived from hardship. Many black and brown kids in vocational schools were sent out to work repairing the turntables for rich suburban kids. But that circumstance drove their experimentation with various technological forms to under-gird hip hop’s aesthetic expansion. So these young folk ended up putting turntables next to each other, and out of that emerged the practice of cuing listening to it, finding the exact spot to extend and repeat the break beat through scratching, and eventually with looping.4
Listening, putting in breaks, smooth blending became a common practice among cutting edge Djs at the time. As a San Diego club kid I experienced Djs who had a rough time with the new style. Others, one in particular, a woman known as Dallas who was respected by men DJs of color, could really rock the house with these techniques. She kept people partying and in a positive groove all night. Her spin was so smooth, we often continued the party after hours.
Kool DJ Herc and Bambaataa helped expand these techniques into clubs outside of the Bronx. Another interesting aspect of Bambaataa’s DJ life was the influence of James Brown. Many researchers note Brown as a Black music innovator whose explorations into rhythmic explorations not only led to rap, but was also used in early rap. Excerpts of a 1984 interview conducted by Gavin Martin pinpoints aspects of Brown and BamBaataa’s relationship. “Some of Brown’s male offspring by previous marriages and his newest collaborator–Overlord of The Zulu Nation, self-proclaimed, undisputed King of Hip Hop Afrika Bambaata –are also present”. 5
In this written interview excerpt, Brown was in the process of working on a hip hop duet. Known for his sometimes naivete when it came to some opinions on politics, Brown was a strong advocate of African American economic and social solidarity. He says of Bambaataa,”On thing we are critical of, Bambaataa and myself, is people killing each other.”6
Gavin later states:
Bambaataa had met James Brown several times in the ’60s and ’70s when e came to the Bronx, sometimes making an appearance at one of the special annual Brown tribute nights that Bam Dj’d. Just as James Brown stopped a race riot by going on 24 hour TV in the late ’60s, so when the calm of his club was one night disturbed by an outside shooting incident Bambaataa quelled the crowd by playing nonstop JB.(James Brown).7
Years later in an interview, Bambaata discusses experiments with what we now call Hip Hop and some of his top choice musical influences on his early life as a DJ.
Not seemingly particularly politically or socially inspiring in their first hit song, the New Jersey trio/concept group called Sugar Hill Gang performed Rappers Delight with two thirds of the tunes lyrics written by Cold crush Brother’s member Grandmaster Caz. 8. It took the commercial music world world by storm. It’s boasting lyrics however can be considered a statement of Black male iteration that “I am here. I exist in a defined space of my own”
Marcus Reeves notes, “The Sugar Hill Gang’s version of rap, performed a thumping replay of the bass line from Chic’s hit “Good Times,” succeeded at bottling the feel of hip-hop music(the rhymes, the style, and the attitude) into a fifteen-minute record.” 8
It was more successful than one of the first rap cuts with less studio and PR support. “Two months prior, the Fatback Band released “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” featuring the party-rocking rhymes of the New York rapper King Tim (Tim Washington). 9 Here are a couple of tunes around during that watershed year when Funk, Techno, House, and Jazz stilled held court and the coded construct of partying-hard in your specific culture house ( to release stress from an oppressive social climate) was a very political statement.
1. Southern, Eileen, “Currents in Contemporary Arenas– The New Pop Music: Rap,” in The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed.( New York: W.W. Norton& Co. ,1997), 598-599. Note, the 2nd ed. published in 1983 did not include Rap/Hip Hop which seemed at that time to be a short musical fad. Southern acknowledged it as a legitimate pop genre before many musicians and critics of her generation. Scholar Earl L. Stewart also has a chapter, “Rap and Beyond: 1980 to Present” in American Music: An Introduction, New York: Schirmer Books, 1998, 251-269
2. African American scholar Dr. Eileen Southern’s earlier research in Medieval music The Buxheim Organ Book and Anonymous Pieces in the MS. El Escorial gave additional weight to her later examination of African American music. She is recognized as one of the founders of African American music studies as an academic discipline. Southern’s research collection and selection of manuscript and interview excerpts for her groundbreaking work,” Readings in African American American Music” is an important work in the canon.
3. Southern, Eileen, “Currents in Contemporary Arenas– The New Pop Music: Rap,” in The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed.( New York: W.W. Norton& Co. ,1997), 599.
4. Michael Dyson, “It’s Trendy to Be the Conscious MC,” in Know What I Mean?Reflections On Hip Hop, Intro by Jay-Z Outro by NAS (New YorkBasic Civitas Books), 72-73.
5.Gavin Martin, “The Renegade & the Godfather” (excerpts), in The James Brown Reader: 5o Years of Writing About The Godfather of Soul, eds. Nelson Geprge and Alan Leeds (New York: A Plume Book, 2008), 177.
6. Ibid., 173.
7. Ibid., 177.
8. Marcus Reeves, “The New Afro-Urban Movement: Rap Redefines the Voice of America’s Chocolate Cities” in Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Afterschock of Black Power (New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2008), 22. Reeves examines and critiques that impacted the post-Civil Rights movement generation that created hip-hop.