Not since the early days of rock & roll has an African American-driven cultural art taken such a strong hold of mainstream American society as hip-hop.
With roots that go as far back as the zoot-suited, over-the-top braggadocio of big-band leader Cab Calloway and R&B jump-band sensation Louis Jordan, hip-hop began in African- and Caribbean-American dance clubs, discos and block parties in the South Bronx section of New York City in the late Seventies. The movement became identified by four related artistic expressions: the turntable wizardry of the DJ, the rhythmic recitation tradition of the MC, the spray-can dexterity of the graffiti artist and the explosive gymnastics of the break dancer.
Most of the originators of hip-hop, including Kool Herc, D.J. Hollywood and Afrika Bambaataa, were either first or second-generation Americans of Caribbean ancestry. Both Herc and Hollywood are credited with introducing the Jamaican DJ style of cutting and mixing into the South Bronx music scene. Most credit Herc as the first DJ to use two copies of a record on two turntables to mix back and forth, indefinitely extending an instrumental break. DJ Grandmaster Flash invented back spinning, the technique of playing one record while spinning another backwards, and Grand Wizzard Theodore invented scratching – manipulating a record back and forth under the turntable needle. Soon, these skills became part of the standard repertoire of the DJ -- deconstructing and reassembling “found sound,” or “sampling” – using the turntable as an instrument.
"Freedom"Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five perform "Freedom" at the 2007 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
any sound could be sampled, added to the collage.
Tapes of early DJ block parties circulated throughout the Bronx and other boroughs of New York City, inspiring neighborhood DJs to set up sound systems on their blocks. Sound-system competitions between DJs, like the cutting contests common in the jazz world, were held at city parks, equipment powered by hot-wired streetlamps. DJ Afrika Bambaataa began to branch out from the standard mixing fare of soul, funk and disco tracks by utilizing rock music, TV soundtracks – any interesting sound could be sampled and added to the collage.
By the late 70s, DJs became an attraction of their own, and dancers would stop to watch a skillful turntablist. DJs recruited MCs, or “mic controllers,” to keep people moving by instigating call-and-response or urging the crowd to “get up” or “get down” or “jam on the beat.” Grandmaster Flash’s MCs, the Furious Five, completed rap’s development when they began speaking in rhyme to the music’s rhythm. In 1979, the first rap records appeared – “King Tim III,” by the Fatback Band and “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.
"Bring the Noise"Public Enemy performs "Bring the Noise" at the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
"Bring the Noise"
In 1986, hip-hop reached the Top 10 with “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” by the Beastie Boys and “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith. Both tracks signaled the diversification of hip-hop started by Afrika Bambaataa when he sampled his first rock record at a dance – by letting white America in on the party, as both performers and audience.
In its more than 35-year existence, hip-hop has transformed itself as much as it has transformed the culture. Like a griot, hip-hop functions as a voice for a community without access to, or interest in, the mainstream media. Sometimes it has served, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D has said, as “Black America’s CNN.” Hip-hop reflects the culture from which some of it arises – the violence, despair, the sexism – and gives vent to its frustrations. What is clear, is that its main concerns, from simple human relationships to the burning social questions of the day, echo those of early rock & roll. Hip-hop just pumped up the volume.
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