The Original Voice of the Ghetto
“Hip-Hop has different elements dealing with music, rap, graffiti art, b-boys (what you call break boys)… and also dealing with culture, and a whole movement dealing with wisdom and understanding, as well as peace unity and fun.” - Afrika Bambaataa
“Hip-Hop is more than music. Hip-Hop has crossed cultural boundaries that other music genres never crossed. Hip-Hop is not only the music you listen to, but the way you walk, talk, dress and act. Hip-Hop is a state of mind. An entire generation, thirty years strong. We are the Hip-Hop generation. Rap is what we do. Hip-Hop is how we live!” - KRS One
The Original Voice of the Ghetto
In an era long before, Curtis and Kanye sat atop, what is today referred to ‘hip-hop’ bickering over record sales, long before Def Jam and Death Row introduced the world, and well before Queens and South Bronx sized each other up for the inter-borough ‘Roxanne Wars’ there was hip-hop. It stood as a culture, a code of ethics and way of life in the shadows of the mainstream. Even before a Jamaican legend plugged in his Herculoids on Sedgwick and Cedar and warlord Bambaataa turned gangs into entertainers, there was hip-hop, Now we’re getting warmer. Like an ‘Omerta’ within a punk and disco scene an almost secret society breathed silently underground throughout the five points of New York. A generation of aerosol artists scrawled their identities and turf in a format recognisable only unto themselves, gangs roamed within and without these limits bound by honour and code. They spoke in their own language, dressed in stylised uniforms and gate-crashed parties to battle crews in careful choreography. This was unknown by most and unappreciated by anyone outside their culture. It would take over the globe, encompassing race, religion and region through four main elements. This was hip-hop, and we live and die for it! The way you walk, the way you talk and the way you dress, and being real carried hip-hop. This ran through the truest essence of it’s culture. Freedom fighters fought for civil rights for their offspring who evolved with their brand of urban civilisation. They in turn inevitably exercised these rights and freedoms to be who the fuck they wanted to be! The power and responsibility commanded by the hip-hop industry today had no place in the four main elements that were bound together to create a way out for a damned generation otherwise trapped in a perpetual cycle of ghetto irrelevance. This was a chance to escape the pressures of economic struggle and authority and stand alongside those of the same concerns and express themselves at any throw-down in the neighbourhood. In New York’s Bronx during the early 1970’s a rose grew from concrete, the “Boogie-Down” Bronx was ablaze with enthusiasm behind every struggle. This is where we begin our journey to the biggest phenomenon in today’s popular culture.
“B-Boying is the bastard child of hip-hop, graffiti is the black sheep, DJing is the obedient child that always does what it’s told. And rap is the spoiled brat who is actually the youngest of the four.” - Robert ‘Crazy Legs’ Colon
Early hip-hop was a cultural evolution germinated from four elements which held strong the same beliefs of freedoms and expression. Graffiti, deejays, b-boys and emcees make for the cornerstone of a legacy. Like Crazy Legs quoted, the MC was the brat of the family and not seen till later in the development, although today they are rewarded with all the credit of hip-hop over the other three components. Evolution has it’s own way of developing, regardless. The original “Voice of The Ghetto” before the deejay and emcee took the mic and turned up the volume, graffiti started as one of the very first expressive movements of ghetto youths and gave artists the impression of New York boroughs as one big free vacant canvas on which to bring both colour and emotion to. Modern graffiti pre-dates the hip-hop culture by over a decade, but still carries the same purpose and unwritten code. Adolescents confused with a broken compass of direction or identity and armed with an ethos of anti-everything brazenly formed posses, clicks or even street gangs. They started “tagging” on playground walls marking the dawn of an era within the emerging cook pot of the Boogie-Down borough to “bombing” on the New York transit authority rail. The youth trapped in a sub-culture of an anti-establishment punk rock had yet another way to define themselves in a muddled quest for fame and notoriety. Before every teenager was a DJ or MC rockin’ small park jams and house parties, and sporting fresh Adidas kicks and Kangol hats cutting up the floor with raw spasmodic dance routines in the break of a song, punk kids were expressing themselves by way of aerosol art. You were down with the scene, doing it your way. Though many of New York’s residents found this offensive and were not appreciative of this expressive art and pigeon-holed this simply as vandalism, this adversary only made it stronger and the birth of graffiti took New York by stranglehold.
Earliest recollection of this art in urban culture is said to be from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the mid ‘60s well before the New York birth. CORNBREAD and COOL EARL started ‘bombing’ throughout the city resulting in much local press fame. Later cats like, TAKI 183 from Washington Heights, Manhattan would popularise tagging with his nickname, (TAKI) and street, (183rd St.) to a national level, receiving attention from the New York Times in 1971. Such publicity charged competitive tagging by hundreds of youth across the five boroughs of New York, sparking presidential candidates to press for a ‘War on Graffiti’. Such attention only inflamed the crusade further. Other inspired artists developed techniques further. The evolution of the nozzle caps on spray cans enhanced pieces in new flair. The use of narrower width and wider spray with varying sized nozzles allowed the artists to re-develop their style with definitive features such as outlining. The first masterpiece is credited to SUPER KOOL 223 of the Bronx and WAP of Brooklyn. Further flamboyance was added to the format by decorating the interior lettering with first, polka dots, crosshatches, stars and checkerboards. This was called “Design”. Writers eventually utilised the entire surface area of a subway car. These covered pieces were called “Top To Bottoms”. This gave way to new styles in block lettering, leaning letters and blockbusters. PHASE 2 developed Softie letters or Bubble letters. These were the earliest styling of pieces. Soon arrows, curls, twists, adorned letters and tail connections were brought into the sub-culture. This became the basis for Mechanical or Wild Style lettering. Soon after the strength of interest in graffiti led it to abandoned train yards and subway stations. By 1979 Artists like Lee Quinones, Dondi White and Lady Pink (Sandra Fabera, who considered the subways a rolling canvas) were signing off art on whole train cars with elaborate murals, top to bottom of whole carriages, catapulting the culture to billboard-like notoriety. The New York subway system became the catalyst for this vast urban spread jungle providing the five boroughs with a community centre for each graffito to communicate for all and to both inspire and mark territory. This shaped a noticeboard-like visual spectrum to institute the foundation of inter-borough competition, and scrawling to further something of a disorganised movement arising from the forgotten.
During the glory years of the 1970’s this culture seemed at the height of its urban underground fashion. A complete way of life was born for those looking for an identity in the ghetto. Graffiti opened the doors for the inventive minds to redevelop this seemingly endless art form. Notable artists brought colour and style to the drab walls of the concrete jungle that formerly oppressed their left-brain intuition. Aerosol art would never reach a creative block. This first spray of hip hop brought the first element to the culture widely celebrated now across the world. Street artists painted a visual warning of what was to follow, an unstoppable youth rebellion of expression.
From 1976 to 1979 Henry Chalfant would follow the energy of writers and document pieces across New York’s subways snapping his camera at train ‘top-to-bottoms’ for high-society to embrace much later in uptown art galleries as trend and art to collect. For now this same class would regard this as vandalism. From the shadows of inner-city struggle, soon emerged the soundtrack to a generation of hip-hop. About this time funk & soul superstar, James Brown was pouring his heart and soul into musically tracking the sign of the times and plight of the black nation of America. Despite his commercial career being in steep decline due to a change in political and racial climate across the country, the synergy of his moves and records became outlaw cult-favourites by a fresh budding hip-hop generation.
During this period of burgeoning youth rebellion, tunes like, “Give it Up or Turn it Loose” and “Get Ready” by Rare Earth were classics through most Saturday night dance floors in the Boogie-Down. Rare Earth’s latter record was a huge hit due to it being 21 minutes of funk and a two-minute drum solo for rug-cutters and hot-steppers to flaunt their James Brown-esque moves. Young Jamaican immigrant who tagged, CLYDE AS KOOL over the neighbourhood was also known across West Bronx as an athletic talent, embraced the atmosphere the Godfather of Soul gave the people. He would later revolutionise this new brand of expression as would two others completing the trinity of hip-hop with Flash and Bambaataa who were later crowned, the three kings. The Bronx River projects gave birth to their ruler, Afrika Bambaataa, a Zulu warrior of gang-life in New York City. A fearsome leader hands-down who walked a thousand deep through all 5 points of the city. The only thing bigger than Bambaataa was his name and rep. Inspired by the film “Zulu” Bam envisioned a united black army, the Zulu Nation. Years before this monumental step, as an impressionable teen he would join local protective gang, P.O.W.E.R. for counter-attacking the Black Spades from across the way. He rose the ranks to overruling both POWER and the Spades to eventually unite as one. He became a voice of gangs, forging new relations with other like-minded gangs. He became a Napoleonic Warlord consolidating boroughs of the entire city of New York unto his own command. He ruled the city’s biggest gang. He offered his people a way forward and changed the direction of his army toward peace. The receding period of gang warfare developed into the increasing trend of expression, or anything Bam thought was ‘cool’. This would be throwing block parties or house parties at his housing community centre. He studied DJing from former Spades, Disco King Mario and Kool DJ D who succumbed to the catching interest made popular over the Cross Bronx Expressway by CLYDE AS KOOL, known now as DJ Kool Herc who threw famous block parties at his local park. Clive Campbell grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, a small town within called Somerset Lane. He was bottled-fed an environment enriched by vibrant culture of music and celebration. Led by local hero King George, who would hold elaborate yard parties, from the sidelines Clive would witness these yard parties in the making and be a part of the community jubilation. Clive’s father, Keith was a collector of American jazz, reggae, gospel and country records.
Clive grew up well-versed in sounds eclectically ranged from Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong to country’s Jim Reeves. His mother would further his education when at the age of twelve, Clive and his family emigrated to the Bronx where she would introduce him to new American interest of Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and most definitive, James Brown records played at various local parties. Here he saw the atmosphere further developed with guys dancing, rapping into girls’ ears in sweet whispers as the DJ would constantly interrupt the groove by upsetting the tempo with mismanaged record changing, Clive picked up on this and questioned their selections. He started to collect records with ambitions to someday, host his own events and become a more polished DJ. Clive’s father was also hosting events around their West Bronx club circuit, with an impressive Shure P.A. speaker system he became the sound man for a local R&B band. Clive as a teenager had started hosting his own jams, but was forced to borrow sub-standard speakers from a neighbour. Fiddling with his father’s columns one day, he managed to have it peaking much louder than previously. He took out the speaker wire and connected it to a channel port with a jack giving him more power and a reserve bank allowing him to control it from the preamp. This was at a time where if you had the loudest speakers, your parties were the most popular. He got two Bogart amps, two Girard turntables and used the channel knobs as a mixer. The system could now also handle eight microphones; he had a regular mic in one and another as an echo chamber where he could speak through the speakers plainly and wait for an echoing half way through.
Soon Clive and his father shared the system and regularly played jams at their downstairs recreation room on their Sedgwick Avenue housing block to predominantly high-school kids. Herc would also cater for the older folk with slow jams and jazz joints. This became a much anticipated monthly occasion. Before too long discos across South and West Bronx were closing down doe to heavy gang activity by the Spades making them unsafe to attend and attracting attention from the authorities. Here gave birth to the house party revolution making Sedgwick Ave. a new hotspot for the movement. This opened doors for young Clive to give Kool Herc its predestined legend. Not long after Herc’s sister, Cindy was to hold a going-back-to-school party to be held at the rec-room to help pay for her school expenses.
One evening on August 11th, 1973 Cindy’s organised Dodge High School event would later become one of the single-most pivotal moments in hip-hop’s early time line staining Kool Herc in history forever as the foremost revolutionary hip-hop DJ. Herc opened the evening with some dancehall classics, which was a signature of Herc’s as most American kids weren’t familiar with this Jamaican soundtrack, they wanted the funky interludes supplied by soul music. Herc boosted the energy of the crowd by giving them their soul and funk hooks and astonished his audience by adding his own vocals on the mic, echoing heavily through the speakers. He would holler to Mike who controlled the house lights, as a basic form of atmospherics, “Okay Mike, Mike with the lights!” He stole the show! With James Brown making his entrance into the soundtrack of a generation’s most unforgettable experience, they shifted back history making this auspicious event hip-hop’s early equivalent to that of rock and folk music’s Woodstock. Herc had brought back the life into the concrete Boogie-Down and had now become the King George he idolised as a young child at his native Kingston Yard parties. Cindy and Clive counted their success at the end of the night and opened a new future. Soon Herc’s reputation would out-grow the recreation room of his building, he carried a strong local following behind his Jamaican soundtrack of U-Roy and I-Roy records which became an early cross pollination of reggae and rap music. Herc took his new brand of Saturday nights out to hosting free block party events held nearby at Cedar Park, providing the environment for Herc to max out his massive speaker system, (later renowned as the ‘Herculoids’) as well the crowd in attendance. He connected his speakers up by tapping into the power source from lamp posts. He sucked the juice right out of the lights with his 300 watt per-channel Mackintosh amp. Adding to that he had the Technics 1100A turntable which needed its own source of power, he plugged it into a nearby tool shed. It was a trouble-free event to a three-thousand thick crowd that grooved the neighbourhood till daylight the next morning. This too would flourish into a regular fixture in the neighbourhood. The balance of energy of the Bronx had shifted toward the west, Sedgwick and Cedar was The Shit! Herc’s concentration was too intensive on the turntables alone. He couldn’t find the time to hype the crowd with his chanting and rhyming over the mic like in the rec-room. He employed local emcee, Coke La Rock to become the Master of Ceremonies, thus becoming the first ever hip hop MC. Herc introduced his fellow immigrant friend Coke La Rock as an MC and he began to send shout-outs or toasts over popular yard-classic Jamaican records such as Count Machuki, Big Youth, King Stitt and U-Roy and hooked up his mic to a space echo box. This element of vocal support over the break beat heightened the crowd onto another platform. The pair developed their own slang to use. Soon after at an after-hours spot a drunken regular would verse “To my mellow! My mellow is in the house”. Herc soon developed a new revolution in DJing as he noticed the crowd of dancers fading down through verses, waiting for short instrumental breaks giving way to the rhythm section to spring back into life and ignite their dance moves. Herc learnt to manipulate this and isolate this section to repeat or loop over, allowing the dancers to have their way for longer stints. Now he owned the ‘Break’. He would start to favour records based on their break potential. Songs like the everlasting conga classic, “Bongo Rock” and “Apache” from the Incredible Bongo Rock album and James Brown’s “Give it Up or Turn it Loose” live version from the Sex Machine album, Johnny Pate’s theme to Shaft in Africa and Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio” as well as experimenting with soul and white rock records depending on their funk-influenced back-beats. Then in true Jamaican DJ style he soaked off the LP labels to hinder the competition’s chance of stealing his beats. He introduced a new arsenal to his repertoire where he used two copies of the same record placed on each turntable back-cueing one copy to the start of the break section ready to take over once the other had finished, looping the break over stretching it from several seconds to a five minute moment of madness. He focused all his efforts on this new weapon of choice sending dancers into ecstatic fits of fury. Too excited for routine grooves and moves befitting the slow jams, these kids would break out wildly, trying to outmanoeuvre each other in fight-like dances. This he dubbed the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ and the hot-steppers for whom he adopted as his “Break Boys” or “B-Boys” for short. Hip-hop was growing into a multi-talented circus performance.
B-boys, Tricksy, Nigger Twins, Wallace Dee, Sau Sau, Norm Rockwell, the Amazing Bobo, Charlie Rock and Elorado Mike would dress in Turban-like pompom top hats as they would wiggle and stretch out, shaking back and fourth giving off the “boyoing” effect, bouncing all over the place. This was called, “Boyoing” or some called it the “Cork and Screw”. A style of dance with more points for creation and individualism than acrobatic routine, bopping down to the floor and back up again with maybe a James Brown split. This was developed into bottom-rock freezes and spinning on their butts. As the element of competition or ‘battles’ took over, development of different styles brought on moves such as Footwork’ or ‘downrock’ which was for any dance movements that take place on the ground, as opposed to ‘uprock’ or ‘toprock’. ‘Later routines would start with ‘toprocking’ and continue the move with a ‘6-step’ down on the floor ending in a signature ‘freeze’. Herc’s break was building up the complete atmosphere as the main event to any park jam or house party. The excitement, flair and creativity of the b-boys brought on new enthusiasm and dynamo of another aspect to the evening. Soon the gang-life was dispersing and remoulding into bands of DJs, b-boys and MCs. Herc assembled his own DJs, b-boys and MCs he called the ‘Herculords’. Coke La Rock, DJ Timmy Tim with Little Tiny Feet, LeBrew, Pebblee Poo, DJ Clark Kent the Rock Machine, the Imperial JC, Blackjack, Sweet and Sour, Whiz Kid and Prince. Flyers splashed with the two magic words: Herculoids with the Herculords was a recipe for the hottest throw-down event throughout the seven-mile of the Bronx. Teenagers too young for the clubs would form their own gatherings, parties where various crews would rock up and battle other crews with their new moves. A beatbox blaring, a cleared living room, dropped cardboard and a circle of enthusiastic athletes would provide the venue. DJ Jazzy Jay recalled one time crashing a small do with his cousin Theodore and a few cats, “Some guys was playing some music there. We went in there and took out the whole crew. At first they were jumping and everyone wanted to get in the circle. After we got done with our thing nobody wanted to get back in the circle. We went and scooped up all the girlies and we was out, you know?” Later the b-boy craze would take on a more serious approach as a sport thanks to crews like the Dynamic Breakers, NYC Breakers and Rock Steady Crew with founder, Robert ‘Crazy Legs’ Colon from Manhattan who developed techniques and contorting repertoires still prevalent in today’s basement-culture of break-dancing, to use the media-terminology. This element was always a part of hip-hop but never quite gathered the same acclaim as the DJ or MC would. Through the early periods of the 1980’s several groups, Rock Steady Crew and Dynamic Breakers would battle their show across the globe to world stages including the Royal Variety Show performing to Queen Elizabeth in 1983 as well as appearing in various mainstream films including ‘Flashdance’. Today it stands as a sport alone from the element of today’s hip-hop although not exclusively. Today’s brand of rap music does not cater for the b-boy. Of old, B-Boys always added the visual element to park jams and are forever etched integrally into makes hip-hop.
Herc’s celebrity was growing so rapidly he attracted some real numbers in crowds. Notable fans were Aaron ‘DJ AJ’ O’Bryant and Joseph Saddler, better known today as the legendary Grandmaster Flash who followed him on every show he put out emulating his style and techniques with aspirations of taking this phenomenon to another level. Like a magnet, his sets were attracting the whole of Bronx including inspired up-n-comer, Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation crew. Bam had flipped his gang-infested Fort Apache community of Black Spades, P.O.W.E.R. and Javelin gang members into the Bronx River Organization modelled off the Ghetto Brothers holding to the motto: “This is an organization. We are not a gang. We are family. Do not start trouble. let trouble come to you, then fight like hell!” But the gang climate was at a closing chapter and he formed an alliance with Bronxdale’s Chuck Chuck City Crew ran by Disco King Mario and soon they became the Organization transforming into Bam’s travelling entertainment venture for parties. He was taken in by Herc’s style of break-centred format and he crossed this with his ethos for peace and opened set-lists at his own events to break down his philosophy. He mixed records from Sly Stone and James Brown with Grand Funk Railroad and The Monkees under Malcolm X speeches for unity. He adopted a range from rock, soca and salsa music and soon became the most renowned programmer in Bronx, known as ‘Master of Records,’ boasting a collection of over 20,000 Vinyl’s. Every weekend he hosted his Organization-backed rituals of celebration and preach block parties. During the summer of ‘75 after a tumultuous period in the Bronx’s history with crumbling relations between local police and the people after two brutal murders almost set the borough ablaze in anger. Bambaataa collected the community’s focus and started recruiting talent into what he called the Zulu Nation. Inside were the Zulu Kings, a five-man dance outfit with Zambu Lanier, Shaka Reed, Aziz Jackson, Kusa Stokes and Ahmad Henderson. They were soon accompanied by the Zulu Queens and rapping MCs, Queen Lisa Lee, Sha-Rock then Pebblee-Poo from Herc’s crowd. They scrapped their leather-down gang look, jackets were replaced by satin gowns with aerosol back murals added by new recruits, the graffiti artists. A new credo was adopted by all within embracing knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Later it would be elaborated into fifteen tenets.
The Zulu Nation controlled the South Bronx, visiting DJs for battles and integrating crowds knew they were either down with the Zulus or face their might. Legends like Grandmaster Flash would not set foot down south without the expressed permission from Bambaataa himself. By 1977 Herc’s most fierce competitors were Bam’s Zulu Nation under-graduates and the Casanova Crew-backed Grandmaster Flash trying ferociously to step out of Herc’s mammoth shadow and sustain their own spotlight. Bam and the Nation held down the Southeast, in the North stood DJ Breakout and DJ Baron and the West was still won by Herc as well the East Bronx clubs, and he was still the un-disputed king of the Seven-Mile. This did not, however stop attempts at dethroning him. These outside block parties were beginning to come together as an all-round spectacle, where the first DJ battles took places bringing together local titans. Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation would crash Herc’s events to put their under-developed talents to the test against Grandmaster Flash and Herc. The famous Herculoids sound system was put into effect to shut down these brazen up ‘n comers. Jazzy Jay from The Zulu Nation recalls: Herc was late setting up and Bam continued to play longer than he should have. Once Herc was set up he got on the microphone and said “Bambaataa, could you please turn your system down?” Bam’s crew was pumped and told Bam not to do it. So Herc said louder, “Yo, Bambaataa, turn your system down-down-down.” Bam’s crew started cursing Herc until Herc put the full weight of his system up and said, “Bambaataa-baataa-baataa, TURN YOUR SYSTEM DOWN!” And you couldn’t even hear Bam’s set at all. The Zulu crew tried to turn up the juice but it was no use. Everybody just looked at them like, “You should’ve listened to Kool Herc” Young Flash was also victimised by the might of the Herculoids upon his challenges. He would take his techniques up to the Hevalo club to battle Herc but he would always embarrass Flash by cutting out the highs and low of the sound system, leaving only the midrange. Then after calling out Flash’s amateur technique, crank up the highs to sizzle through the crowd, then the booming bass, vibrating straight to the bones of everybody in the house. Flash was always swallowed by Herc’s performances. He nevertheless learned a lot from Herc and waited his turn to hold the crown.
Raised in the Fort Apache section of Boogie-Down on Fox and 163rd street, he was of Bajan Barbadian decent, Jospeh Saddler was deeply amerced in the birthing culture of hip-hop music. The funk, soul and reggae-rooted soundscape of his neighbourhood provided him with the inspiration and love of music. He developed a strong bond with vinyl as a boy playing with his father’s reggae records. By the time he was a teenager he was a true scholar of electronics and engineering at school and putting it into practise with spinning records in his own unique format, performing public block parties in his neighbourhood. He idolized the work of local DJs Kool Herc and Pete Jones and studied their turntablism, Flash elevated his techniques and aspired to take this DJing format to another level of creation. He would rearrange recorded song structure, extending the break sections by using duplicate copies of the one record and going from one turntable to the next to continue the flow of the one particular section. He would physically manipulate his wrists and elbow back and forth while holding his finger down on the edge of the record, a discovery made by associate, Grand Wizzard Theodore Livingstone. By ’71 he was inventing methods and concepts he called ‘The Quick Mix Theory’ which encompassed the technique of ‘Cutting’ which was later refined to ‘Scratching’ as well as ‘Crab Scratching’, ‘Transforming’, ‘Flaring’, ‘Doubleback’, ‘Backspinning’ and ‘Phasing’. He created an element of scientific approach to the art form. Lastly the ‘Clock Theory’ was established which was a technique in finding the exact spot on the record where the break was, using the naked eye rather than listening through headphones to find it. He would mark the spot with crayon and continually hit the right spot each time. Nowadays DJ turntables are complete with so many buttons to alleviate this raw practise. Clearly Flash had become the master of this and one to revolutionize DJing.
When Flash first kicked off his elementary career in 1975 at his first park performance he staggered on stage, his new flashy techniques on the decks fell flat to the crowd of hundreds. Despite this he dusted himself off and continued to explore the engineering of turntables and began performing with his homeboy. Mean Gene – one of three brothers called The Livingstone Brothers with Cordeo and Grand Wizzard Theodore (who would later become an innovator of DJing himself.) Through the early years they were kids enjoying the birth of this new era, having a good time as a dance click at Kool Herc’s Sedgwick Ave. rec. room parties. He would DJ for later recording star, Kurtis Blow and later he would hook up with local Spades member, Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggins (R.I.P.) who acted as his MC hyping crowds, spurting, “Throw your hands in the air and wave ‘em like ya just don’t care!” The pair linked with two other locals at Flash’s jams, the Glover brothers, Melvin ‘Melle Mel’ and Nathaniel ‘Kid Creole’ who formed a unique group of emcees interlacing their raps over each other, finishing each others verses over Flash’s wheels of steel. By 1976 they took their act to local clubs, Back Door and Dixie where they recruited the muscle of the Casanova Crew for backup. Flash’s crew built up, renaming them from Grandmaster Flash and the Three MCs to the Furious Four adding Rahiem, (Guy Todd Williams) and then, Furious 5 with Scorpio AKA, Mr. Ness, (Eddie Morris). They would later be made famous with their break performing at Disco Fever in The Bronx. They remained rocking the park jams stretching from St. Ann’s, Mitchell, 63 Park and 23 Park. The scene was blowing up from all sides focusing now more on the showmanship of the event than the speaker system and it’s volume. In this era, Kool Herc was losing his crowd to Flash’s more complete show and refined DJ handling. Flash would enthral the crowds with his fresh bag of tricks, elbow scratching, flipping round, cutting and cross-fading with various body parts. He would introduce his protege, Grand Wizzard Theodore, a thirteen year old who invented the scratch accidentally while pausing the record on the turntable in his bedroom to hear his mother yelling at him. Inadvertently slipping his finger back and forth scratching the needle on the record. He was also renowned for having the technique of dropping the needle right onto the spinning backbeat. The compete show Flash brought to the table was now the latest benchmark to beat for all other DJs. Soon after DJs were forced to enlist rapping groups to hold the audience captive while the DJ spun records behind the emcees.
By 1977 the DJ took a back seat in hip-hop while the MC took the wheel and steered us all into a new direction. Bring on Busy Bee Starski, Kurtis Blow, the Cold Crush Brothers and the Furious Five into the fold. The climate of hip-hop had changed forever. Originally The DJ always carried top billin’ at shows, and the MC was his sidekick. Until a cat named The Original Chief Rocker Busy Bee Starski, the backbone of the microphone, (David Parker) took the stage and shone brighter than any DJ with his performance. From $20 a night help to the DJ to the forefront of hip hop iconic stature. Busy Bee Starski was a member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation when he earned his legendary emcee reputation as he became the now club-culture’s first solo MC with a sharpened lyrical flair. He would rock the mic for Disco King Mario’s sets, his shout-outs were second to none. He performed his best routines alongside Cool DJ AJ (later DJ for well-known MC Kurtis Blow) Busy Bee became a heavyweight Emcee pioneering the early battles. Most notable was against the king-hitter Kool Moe Dee. Thousands of copies of this battle continue to circulate on the streets over 20 years on. His spoken word drew enormous crowds. Although busy Bee would never make success through the recording industry, he stood as a breakthrough MC introducing the last of four elements into hip-hop, forever the DJ would remain behind the rapper on-stage in support. Busy Bee would inspire a new generation of super stars to follow behind him, each artist delivering a more polished and poetic rhyme than the last. One of the early legends at this would be the Casanova Fly.
Bronx native, Curtis ‘Grandmaster Caz’Fischer wanted nothing more than to be a DJ after seeing Kool Herc’s show one cool summer evening in 1974. He brought all the equipment and teamed up with another aspiring talent, his best friend DJ Disco Wiz (Luis Cedeno). Later he teamed with JDL (Jerry Dee Lewis) who became The Notorious Two. Caz, also known as Casanova Fly became the first DJ to incorporate rhymes into his repertoire. By ‘79 after the turn of the MC, DJ Charlie Chase (Carlos Mandes) from The Cold Crush Brothers asked Caz to help audition MCs for his group. This was a cover for Charlie Chase to lure Caz into joining the super group, Cold Crush Brothers. The original group consisted of the founder, Original DJ Tony Tone, Easy A.D., DJ Charlie Chase, Mr. Tee, Whipper Whip and Dot-A-Rock. The Cold Crush Brothers had gained a reputation for their multi-skilled thematic routines in the game, featuring three MCs rapping simultaneously while two DJs worked the turntables. They began to attract so much attention that various crews queued to battle them. Caz was quoted as saying once,
“It’s like I don’t care if God, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, come down here to battle us, we bustin’ they ass.”
Grandmaster Caz later became known as the Captain of the Cold Crush. He had been recognised for his formidable lyrical talents. He taught the fundamentals of rhyming, structuring and formatting to fellow rappers, Whipper Whip (James Whipper) and Dot-A-Roc (Darryl Mason) before they eventually left to join The Fantastic Five. He also came up with about the deafest rhyme going around at the time and now a classic called “Dear Yvette.” Sugar Hill records founder, Sylvia Robinson had over-heard night club bouncer and group manager of the Cold Crush Brothers Henry ‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson rapping to a tape of Grandmaster Caz while working at a local Pizzeria. He was invited to be the third member of a group she was putting together called The Sugar Hill Gang. Hank accepted, but since he wasn’t an accomplished MC he went to Grandmaster Caz and asked to borrow his book of rhymes. Caz handed them over, no questions asked. When Hank would use the lyrics for “Rapper’s Delight” (which became a huge successful hit in 1979 selling two million copies, the first hip-hop single to land in the Top 40 charts and the first time the term ‘rapper’ was used to describe a person rhyming to a beat on the microphone) Caz figured Hank could hook him and the Cold Crush Brothers onto the Label. Caz would never receive the credit or compensation for the rhymes he contributed.
The Sugar Hill Gang would later be acclaimed as hip-hop’s first standard for the recording industry. A definitive new direction for the culture toward the path hip-hop has taken today as it sits in popular culture. The Cold Crush Brothers were later well covered on the film, ‘Wild Style’ battling against Grand Wizzard Theodore and the Fantastic Five while playing a basketball game. They also went against each other on the battle tape, ‘Live at Harlem World 1981’. Also that year they toured with Wild Style to Japan and became the first group to sign with CBS recording label, Tuff City Records. They never released a full length album, but on ‘Live in 82’ Cold Crush is shown performing on-stage. The most memorable quote from the album remains today as a sign of the times before the industry took over the art. “Ya’ll gotta excuse us, we can’t bounce as much as we want to cause if we bounce too much the record’ll jump.” - That’s hip-hop! At the height of their game, they were the dopest crew out there, the cultural standard for any emcee coming through. As new standards were being set, the recording industry would take a wider view on hip-hop’s marketability. Solo artist, Kurtis Blow would become public poster boy for rap. Former native Harlem b-boy, Kurtis Blow from outside the Mecca Bronx,was a towering figure in the roots of hip-hop and is considered to be the breakthrough artist of mainstream media. His good looks and talented charisma captivated big wigs of industry. Inspired by fellow performer, DJ Hollywood’s rapping performances, by 1979 Blow had recorded the 12-inch single, “Christmas Rappin” with Mercury. This was the first major label hip-hop release. His second single was, “The Breaks” which reached the top five of Billboard’s R&B charts when released right after the Sugar Hill Gang’s breakthrough hit, “Rapper’s Delight”. He would later become the first hip-hop talent to record a full-length album, and cultural trailblazer as he introduced the world to the small, defining culture of hip-hop as a music. Other recording labels such as Enjoy, Sugar Hill and Tuff City soon saw the potential of hip-hop and tapped into it’s talented beehive bringing many to sweet success. This segued to the legendary releases of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s well-heard, ‘Message.’
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would become part of the recording fraternity by the turn of the eighties closing the underground culture and offering up hip-hop to public spectacle. The group recorded the single, “We Rap More Mellow” on Brass Records under the name, The Younger Generation. Under the name of Flash and The Five they released a live version of “Flash To The Beat” on Bozo Meko Records before they settled at Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records and scored with a hit on on the R&B charts a year later with, “Freedom” and “Birthday Party”. By 1982 “The Message” became an explosive, ground-breaking hit, a rap classic. Premier emcee, Melle Mel, the original G.O.A.T. was responsible for most social commentary lyrical content on the cutting edge track. This harsh, descriptive reality into life within the ghetto set the pace for what was referred to later as ‘reality rap’ or the unfavoured media term, ‘gangsta rap’. This was a monumental turn in direction for trend of subject matter for most rap music today. Kool Moe Dee and his Treacherous Three soon followed behind the Furious Five in 1981 into Sugar Hill Records, recording “Feel the Heart Beat” and “Whip It”. One of their live recordings with The Funky Four plus One appeared on the long playing 12-inch, Live Convention ‘81 (Disco Wax) and were later featured in hip-hop docu-film, ‘Beat Street’ performing, “Christmas Rap” with rising star, Doug E Fresh. Kool Moe Dee and Special K co-hosted a short lived television show called Graffiti Rock in ‘84 in which they battled Run DMC and performed the segue into commercials. Flash broke through with some triumph, Afrika Bambaataa dabbled as he laid down various cross-genre recordings with pop artists through the eighties, even Kool Herc attempted the new platform of hip-hop, but to little success. The three kings of hip-hop would remain the forefathers of a movement, remaining on the grind as professional DJs and forever Gods and the real essence of hip-hop’s entity. Other groups, solo artists repping other boroughs of New York, such as Queens jumped head-first into the game, as the Juice Crew, LL Cool J and recording giants, Run DMC would show the strength of their own belonging in hip-hop. Of course the Planet Rock Bronx super force saw fit to throw-down and show them who the originals were, but through adversary and the Roxanne Wars, they showed that hip-hop was not exclusive to the Boogie-Down seven-mile radius. Queens super-producer Marley Marl’s, Mr Magic’s Rap Attack Friday and Saturday night shows on WBLS radio station would promote this new line of music through the early eighties, giving strength to the birth of rap music in popular culture for today’s mainstream entertainment and the recording industry.
The recording industry has furthered hip-hop greater and faster than any other vehicle in it’s short history. Acts like Whodini, Juice Crew, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys took rapping to yet another level and with great minds like Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons with their Def Jamimprint of commercialism allowing standards of the industry to seem limitless and economically paint the American dream. The emcee grasped the reigns of hip-hop firmly and opened doors to the global colossus. The cultivation from a neighbourhood park jam into today’s most influential artistic achievement in popular culture took over like a juggernaut. Some argue that traditional hip-hop of social and politically-conscious topics have been pushed aside by mainstream media outlets in favour of it’s bastard-child, gangsta rap. Today this industry is a cross-marketing giant worth billions of dollars from music sales to clothing brands, multimedia ventures, even vitamin water. An environment where one’s recording name is stamped on any saleable commodity based on the overwhelming trend of hip-hop as a household name. Today, this is hip-hop. But it will always be more than that. It’s the way you walk, the way you talk. It’s about being real. it is a way out, a state of mind and above all an art form of self-expression. Hip-hop thrives as a culture, a music industry and lifestyle for the global community who support it. Although most will agree, the four elements are no longer necessarily prevalent in today’s description of hip-hop, it allowed the culture to blossom into a worldwide celebrated phenomenon. Some thirty years later, a young teenager grows up with the freedom of self-expression pushed to endless boundaries thanks to the visionaries who fought and endured the hardships of exploring hip-hop to where it stands today, and forever.