The South Bronx: Where Hip-Hop Was Born

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Hip-hop's foundations were being laid in the 1970s, brick by brick, by DJs in the South Bronx, sometimes even in burnt out or deteriorating buildings. These pioneers invented sampling (isolating one sound and reusing it in another song) and hip-hop's other key elements through trial and error, mostly by fooling around with records at home.

DJ Kool Herc, a.k.a. Clive Campbell, laid the first building block of hip-hop down in 1973. That was when he reportedly hosted a party in his building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue with a sound system, or sound equipment used to DJ a party. Herc's sound system was a guitar amp and two turntables.

"Kool Herc brought the idea of the Jamaican sound system to America," says Marcus Reeves, journalist and the author of Somebody Scream! Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power.

Herc also invented the now commonplace DJing technique of breaks, or breakbeats. He would, for example, play James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose” on two turntables, and would spin one of the records back to the break repeatedly. "His innovation was bringing the breakbeat to the sound of this new movement," Reeves says. "He would just kind of drop a needle on the record, and just kind of go back and forth."

DJ Afrika Bambaattaa, who formed the famous non-violent hip-hop crew Universal Zulu Nation in the Bronx, used DJ Kool Herc's breakbeats in his own DJing. "Then you would have innovators of that sound, like Afrika Bambaataa, who would take global sounds like West Indian music, salsa music, great beats from rock records," Reeves says." Bambaattaa may be best known for his 1982 song "Planet Rock," which samples an electronic piano sound from the German group Kraftwerk.

Grand Wizzard Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Livingston, also incorporated breakbeats into his music in the Bronx. And he added another technique to the hip-hop toolbox: scratching. Grand Wizzard Theodore reportedly invented the technique (when DJs move records back and forth while they are playing) in his bedroom; while talking to his mother one day, he started moving a playing record back and forth. "He thought it would be a great percussive sound to add to the arsenal," Reeves says.

Then, there was Grandmaster Flash, or Joseph Sadler, who may be best known for his song "The Message," which was made with The Fabulous Five. Flash began experimenting with turntables and records at home, and the results were astounding. He invented cutting, which is achieved by playing the same record at two turntables at the same time and cutting back and forth between the two turntables (and records) to repeat a phrase or sound. Another Grandmaster Flash innovation, Reeves says, was "back spinning, pulling the record back, so you could make it repeat."

Not only did these DJing techniques invented in the South Bronx form the basis for the hip-hop we know today, they also brought about the rise of a new kind of aggressive dancing: b-boying, known to most people by its more generic term, break dancing. B-boys' moves are physically demanding: the top rock (steps in a standing position), the downrock (footwork on the floor with the hands supporting the dancer), power moves (athletic moves like head spins), freezes (suspending oneself off the ground with one's arms) and suicides (a controlled movement that looks like loss of control).

Ringo is a b-boy who began dancing with the Mastermind Rockers of New York dancing crew when he was 13. At 48, he's still representing his crew and teaching a dance called uprock to young interested b-boys. Uprock is performed while standing, but involves two dancers, instead of one, and emulates street fighting.

"It’s a confrontational dance," says Ringo at an old school DJ battle in Crotona Park packed with dancers spinning on their heads on a square of white linoleum. "It’s ballet, jazz, salsa, meringue." 

A new movement of street art and graffiti also came out of the beginnings of hip-hop and gang culture in the Bronx in the late '70s. Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy were two of the earliest street artists in the Bronx. Then their tags were a nuisance, but these days, much of their work now hangs on the walls of major art museums.

Bronx resident Buddy Esquire remembers the Bronx back then. He is selling T-shirts now, but he used to makes flyers for DJing groups like the Cold Crush Crew. He says the Bronx was much more violent in the '70s and '80s, but the music that DJs were putting out then was less violent than hip-hop today.

"They used to come out with music at 6 in the afternoon, and it [the performance] was packed up to 2 at night," Esquire says. "It was a lot wilder back then." Now, he says, hip-hop music is more violent and the Bronx has been cleaned up.

Hip-hop historian Marcus Reeves says that the bustling energy that laid the groundwork for today's hip-hop culture came out of gang culture in the '70s. Then, gangs sprouted up all over the Bronx due to widespread urban decay, from heavy arson activity from slumlords seeking insurance money to the lack of basic services like law enforcement, firefighters, sanitation and health.

"When you have those conditions and...a group of people...trying to survive...and people getting tired of that, then you begin to have this growing new cultural movement that comes out of the gangs to counteract the violence...and the negativity that come out of gang cultures," Reeves says. He adds that the diverse population in the Bronx then--Latino, West Indian, African, White--added to the rich cultural mix that became hip-hop culture. "You have all those ingredients, and, you know, you just take it from there."

Reeves says that hip-hop, dancing and street art were significant Bronx teen and young adult contributions that spread to New York City and beyond.

"Back had a lot of black popular culture going towards disco and mainstream [music]," Reeves says. "It was very important to see that this music come to the forefront because it allowed this voice of the poor and the working class back into the mainstream."