Hip-hop might be the biggest genre in the world today. But every cultural movement started somewhere. This is the story of the early days of hip hop.
In just less than half a century, hip-hop has gone from beats in the background at Bronx block parties to beats in the earbuds of Beats by Dre headphones. There’s no doubt hip-hop is a global cultural phenomenon, but every cultural phenomenon had to start somewhere.
Pinpointing hip-hop’s origin
Those looking for a straightforward narrative point to one specific party as hip-hop’s birthplace. The party took place in the recreation room of an apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx on 11th August 1973. It was called the ‘Back to School Jam’. Price of admission was 25 cents for ladies, 50 cents for fellas. The DJ was Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc.
At this party, Herc debuted a DJ technique he had been working on for a while. He called it ‘Merry-Go-Round’. It involved switching back and forth between records, blending together drum break sections from the same track or similar tracks into one long danceable breakbeat.
As Herc explains in this video, he noticed that people at a party would wait for a specific section of a track to bust out their signature moves and really go wild on the dance floor. What if he could make that moment last longer? What if he could make it last all night? The result was a resounding success. The story goes that word spread from this party and hip hop music was born.
But it’s not that simple.
The prehipstoric era
Like every movement or music genre, hip-hop came about through a slow combination of many elements. One of these elements was this early ‘Merry-Go-Round’ technique pioneered by DJ Kool Herc, which laid the groundwork for turntablism. Herc’s experimentation behind the decks was no doubt inspired by the DJs of his Jamaican hometown. DJs in Jamaica were already isolating instrumental sections of tracks and MCing over them in a style known as ‘toasting’.
But there were many more influences than this. Over the years, many American artists had recorded tracks that predated the ‘birth of hip hop’, yet still included many hip hop elements. Artists like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets combined spoken-word poetry and funky basslines from as early as the 1960s.
Going back even further, jazz artists had incorporated spoken word poetry into their songs since as early as the 1920s. These artists were not necessarily rapping in the syncopated style of hip-hop, but the influence is undeniable.
The spirit of hip-hop
Whether we count DJ Kool Herc’s party as the starting point or not, hip-hop as we know it was born in the Bronx in the 1970s. It wasn’t just about the music. The fashion, the breakdancing, the graffiti, the language, the attitude – all of these things were hip-hop. In New York City’s impoverished neighbourhoods, hip-hop was a creative outlet, a lifestyle, but it was not an escape. Hip-hop was rooted in a love of community. And while racism was still rife in America, hip-hop was a way for young Black Americans to celebrate their identity.
For the first half of the decade, hip-hop was almost entirely about performance. DJs would bring the breaks, MCs would rap over them. Only simple sound systems were needed, meaning performances could take place anywhere, from barbecue to block party. Popular DJs included Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Hollywood and Grand Wizard Theodore. Popular MCs included Lisa Lee, Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel.
What was the first ever recorded hip-hop song?
It was only in the late 1970s and early 1980s that hip-hop artists began to focus on making records. With vocalist Tim Washington delivering syncopated rhymes over a bass-heavy funky beat, The Fatback Band’s 1979 track ‘King Tim III’ was one of the first hip-hop songs to hit the radio.
More famous though is the track often cited as the first commercially successful rap song of all time, The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’. At 14 minutes long, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ easily evokes the joyful spirit of the NYC block parties, and with an instrumental version of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ as a precursor to hip-hop sampling.
To the Break of Dawn
The real innovator behind sampling, though, was Grandmaster Flash, who was also signed to Sugar Hill Records. Leader of the Furious Five, Grandmaster Flash took turntable techniques developed by DJ Kool Herc and DJ Hollywood and built on them. The Furious Five track ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ is a thrilling example of his rich turntablism in play. Grandmaster Flash splices together choice cuts from a range of songs, including ‘Good Times’, drawing the roadmap for hip-hop production. He even sampled spoken dialogue, predating the use of movie samples on tracks by Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and the Wu-Tang Clan years later.
But it was another Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five track that paved the way for hip hop’s future, thematically and lyrically. On ‘The Message’, Melle Mel discusses his poverty and crime-stricken surroundings, and his attempts to stay safe and sane. This song’s social commentary is the bridge between the upbeat party songs of hip-hop’s early days and the politically-charged work of artists like Public Enemy. ‘The Message’ also started the shift in focus from DJ to MC. Because hip-hop, even within this small time frame, was constantly evolving.