The Beast from the Bronx

in Music

With humble beginnings in 1970s New York, hip-hop went truly global. In the first of three parts Oliver Clasper explores the movement’s roots, as it became the most potent form of African-American music since jazz.

You could argue that the single most significant and wide-reaching cultural phenomenon of the latter part of the twentieth century was hip-hop. Musically it has spawned myriad sub-genres and international stars of both the underground and the charts, while socially it has impacted the lives of at least three generations of people – particularly in America, the land of its inception. It has crossed continents and broken down racial boundaries, and as the seminal group Public Enemy said in nineteen eighty-eight: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Whether they meant hip-hop or black culture in general, it’s hard to say, but the two are so organically entwined and inter-related it scarcely matters.

From its origins as an all-encompassing term for the four distinct disciplines of rapping, DJing, break-dancing, and graffiti writing, hip-hop has travelled as wide as it has deep. And even if today’s schizophrenic, transitory, ironic, post-9/11 climate has stifled its impact (in terms of record sales at least), as well as lessened the vitality of the other key elements – leaving rap music as the sole standard-bearer of hip-hop culture – it is still a force to be reckoned with.

The history of hip-hop has been well documented, and there are plenty of resources online and elsewhere, but in short it grew out of an oppressed social group in the Bronx district of New York in the early seventies. The war in Vietnam had only just come to an end with the image of American soldiers clinging desperately to a panicked helicopter as it left Saigon for the last time. Veterans of the war were finding the transition to civilian life back home hard to handle (especially in the big cities), and unemployment was at a disturbing high. The dream that the sixties had briefly offered – even for white Americans – had slipped from memory, as numerous hopes were dashed and promises broken.

For the African-American community in particular there was a strong sense of disgruntlement, if not outright anger and frustration. The civil rights movement had achieved some notable successes, but the situation was far from positive. In many quarters racism was still prevalent, while a number of inspirational leaders who had been a force for good in the wider community had been murdered – Malcolm X and Martin Luther King chief among them. But as so often is the case, out of hardship, pain, and pressure (especially on a large group) comes an artistic force that both alleviates the suffering and challenges the status quo. That force was hip-hop.

Disco was still in its heyday in the seventies, and while many young New Yorkers of every skin colour and sexual orientation were hitting the clubs on weekends for that hedonistic mind and body trip, residents of the housing projects in the Bronx were throwing their own parties. In the fug of humid afternoons the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Lovebug Starski, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grand Wizard Theodore brought turntables down to the parks and courts around where they lived and began playing records on their homemade sound-systems that they had rigged up to the outdoor power supplies.

Rather than just spin funk, soul, R&B, disco, and reggae back to back, some DJs began to search for the most interesting breakdowns of the songs and loop them over and over, often using two copies of the same record to cut back and forth. Over the top of these breaks people began to dance (hence the term ‘break-dancers’), while graffiti writers (not a new phenomenon by any means, but certainly a movement that took on a new life with the birth of hip-hop) began tagging and spraying walls with increasingly colourful and complex images and messages.

Though arguably the most significant moment came when the MC took pride of place at the front of the stage, in the process usurping the DJ in terms of significance and notoriety. A front man on the mic was nothing new, but what was different about hip-hop MCing was that that its inspirations were more varied – from toasting in reggae and the preacher in the pulpit to the vocal inflections of James Brown and the spoken word of Gil Scott-Heron. And not only was there a strong emphasis on clever rhymes, but a sense of one-upmanship began to translate into the battle scene. Before long MCs began to challenge each other, and time and time again various individuals involved in hip-hop have said how this moment in particular saved their life. In a way MC battling took some of the sting out of real battling (be it with fists, knives, or guns) out on the streets; Notorious B.I.G. once said that as a black man you will either die or end up in jail. For most, hip-hop offered a third way.

Early tracks from the late-seventies and early-eighties still have a certain rudimentary appeal, and it would take a few years yet for the competition to heat up and the artists to begin pushing more boundaries. For now the block parties and the sound-systems had become a staple of life in the projects, but it wasn’t until The Sugarhill Gang had a bona fide hit with ‘Rappers Delight’ that the culture hit the mainstream and hip-hop was ‘officially’ born. Sampling Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and opening with the most well-known rap lyrics of all time: (‘I said a hip, hop, a hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop you don’t stop the rocking to the bang bang boogie said up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie the beat.’), nineteen eighty became the spark that lit the ember that led to the fire that became the movement we know today.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five followed suit a couple of years later with their 1982 LP The Message, and moving further into the early eighties the movement was still fresh, experimental, exciting, and, most importantly, positive.  There is an air of innocence that surrounds the early records and accounts of these block parties. It was communal, almost spiritual, with a coming together of like minds in a celebration of music, art, and dance.

But then something changed. The explosion of drugs on the streets of New York, in particular crack cocaine and heroin, began to take its toll on local communities, especially the poorer ones who already felt marginalised and cut off. Then the AIDS epidemic hit and there seemed to be an air of destruction and hopelessness amongst the desperate and disenfranchised. Ronald Reagan and his conservatives were in power, and while the rich got richer the poor stayed poor. And with this cultural shift and increased sense of isolation and paranoia came a change in the way hip-hop was made and thought of.

From the mid-eighties onwards the music in particular expanded sonically as well as lyrically. More and more groups began to emerge that made deeper, harder sounds combined with smart sampling and powerful and political lyrics that would be the blueprint for the artists that have emerged in the intervening years. Early pioneers from the East Coast began to appear, including Public Enemy, Marley Marl, Run DMC, Boogie Down Productions, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, EPMD, and Eric B & Rakim. And as the eighties rolled on hip-hop took on a new identity that has defined the movement ever since…


Kurtis Blow ‘The Breaks’
The Sugarhill Gang ‘Rappers Delight’
Grandmaster Flash ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’
Treacherous Three ‘The New Rap Language’
Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force ‘Planet Rock’
T La Rock ‘It’s Yours’
Run DMC ‘Sucker MCs/It’s Like That’
MC Shan ‘The Bridge’
The Beastie Boys ‘Hold It Now, Hit It’
Public Enemy ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’