Happy Birthday Hip-Hop: raceAhead

As disco was turning and the Bronx was burning, hip-hop was being born on August 11, 1973.

It began, of all things, as a “back to school jam” hosted by DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican–American DJ in the rec room in an apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. It is believed to be the first-ever hip-hop dance party.

The party ran from 9 pm to 4 am and was “only .25 for the ladies and .50 for the fellas,” according to the hand-lettered flyer. (That’s a cool $2.66 and $5.32 in today’s dollars, respectively.)

The room only held 50-or-so people, and according to Herc, there was an unusual permitting procedure. “At the time, gangs were terrorizing house parties and stuff,” he says. So, he asked their permission. “They liked what I was playing, and the rest is history.”

If you were one of the lucky ones who showed up, then you get some of the only bragging rights the Bronx had to offer back in the day.

DJ Herc was known for “the Merry-Go-Round,” an innovative technique that had him moving back and forth to the identical record on two different turntables to extend the drum break of a particular song. It was theatrical and new. Extended breaks begat break-dancing. Rap became the rhymes delivered over the breaks. MCs turned DJs into stars and block parties into revivals. And the issues top-of-mind for “urban” youth—police violence, prison reform, racism, economic inequality, and the one-way war on drugs—gave the lyricists and their fans a shared lexicon for activism, art, and solidarity.

And plenty of joy and red solo cups. 

Early rap was “CNN for black people,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D famously said. And some will tell you, it still is, even if the people don’t need rappers to lead in the same way as back in the day. 

Fair warning: Nobody wants to hear from Macklemore on this subject. He’s a different subject altogether.

But if you want to feel like you were there from the beginning, or just celebrate the milestone, check out the first episode of Hip-Hop Evolution, an interesting but flawed documentary series from Netflix, narrated by Canadian rapper and documentarian Shad Kabango. He goes back to Sedgwick Avenue and interviews some of the true legends, including Herc. But he also offers a powerful reminder of how profoundly abandoned the Bronx was back then, and how hip-hop emerged from literal rubble, enabled by decades of racist policies.

(That the series all but leaves out the role of women in hip-hop is largely unforgivable, frankly. But the interviews and original footage are worth your time.)

DJ Herc, whose given name is Clive Campbell, has had a rough go of it over the years. But he’s still making history. Campbell, who knows a little something about the permitting process fought alongside tenants to save the building on Sedgwick Avenue from predatory developers and to preserve it as affordable housing. And in 2013, they won.

I hope Mr. Campbell had a good hip-hop birthday. The genre he helped make is now a multi-billion global industry that has touched every aspect of commercial and creative life. Hip-hop was such a revolutionary form of music, it created the only meaningful opportunity for black writers to work in mass media. (Love dream hampton? Hip-hop was her first way in.) World leaders have the music on their playlists and the stars to their inner sanctums. Universities offer hip-hop degree programs. A rap artist has won the Pulitzer Prize.

Hey, none of it is perfect, but it gave us what we needed: Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, to fight the powers that continue to be.

So yeah, the rest is history. 

On Point

Missy Elliott to get the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award Elliott is getting all the props she so richly deserves these days. She became the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year, and was given an honorary degree by the Berklee College of Music this year. It was an extraordinary insight into her humble heart. This latest award will mean she will return to the VMA stage for the first time since 2003. She thanked @KidFury and @crissleson on Twitter: “I Thank my FANS ‘Supafriends’ who fought diligently to see this day come…” Fortune

The Trump Administration introduces rule to restrict legal immigration It’s a move that’s being seen as targeting lower-income legal immigrants, particularly those who rely on government assistance. According to Politico, it “builds on” language from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which permits denial based on “taxpayer burden.” But Trump’s rule expands the definition to deny anyone who simply uses a public benefit—not just relies on them. CNN reports: “many green card and visa applicants could be turned down if they have low incomes or little education, and have used benefits such as most forms of Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers.” The new regulation, announced shortly after the Mississippi raids, will go into effect in October. CNN

Members of the Jewish community coordinate national protests to protest the Trump administration immigration policies The signs and shirts read “Never Again” and “Never Again Is Now,” and planned protests popped up in some 60 locations around the U.S. yesterday, as part of a growing wave of activism that aims to link the treatment of refugees at the border with the past history of detainment, violence, and genocide against Jewish people. This wave of protests coincided with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish annual day of mourning. “On this day, to take action against something like this feels particularly poignant,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Washington Post

People keep stealing ‘Old Town Road’ signs Lil Nas X’s now chart-busting classic “Old Town Road” may not be classic old school hip-hop—though it did fuel a real debate about race and inclusion—but it is inspiring an old-school devotion from fans. So much so that the fair citizens of Wellesly, Mass. are just about ready to change the name of the 510-feet-long stretch between Ox Bow Road and Dean Road, which is unfortunately named Old Town Road. The street sign has been stolen three times since spring, she reports, now wishing raceAhead had a street sign making side gig, like the good people of Sicamous, British Columbia set up after a series of similar thefts. NME

On Background

Researcher: You can’t understand America’s gun debate without understanding white supremacy Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University and author of a new book on the subject, says that American’s preoccupation with guns only makes sense through the lens of whiteness. “Carrying a gun in public has been coded as a white privilege. Advertisers have literally used words like 'restoring your manly privilege' as a way of selling assault weapons to white men,” he says. It started in the colonial era when the idea of gun-toting patriotism became the strategy of choice for managing Indian and Negro encroachment. It also explains the confirmation bias at work when white shooters are discussed. “When the shooter is white, the context is the individual narrative—this individual disordered white mind. When the shooter is black or brown, all of a sudden the disorder is culture.” What compounds the problem is that white people are dying in gun violence and by suicide. “What it means to carry a gun or own a gun or buy a gun—those questions are not neutral. We have 200 years of history, or more, defining that in very racial terms.” The Guardian

Here’s why there are so many Jeff Davis highways everywhere After Virginia decided to rename one of its most notable state roads, other people from non-Confederate places like Arizona and Washington State remembered that they too had Jeff Davis byways of their own. Blame the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a dedicated group of secessionist descendants working in the 1910s, who created a campaign to pitch and help pay for a national highway system dedicated to the Southern general back when the municipalities were struggling to upgrade their country roads. The Atlantic

A Swedish man went undercover with the alt-right You’re going to want to bookmark this extraordinary piece about Patrik Hermansson, a 25-year-old graduate student from Sweden, who posed as a grad student studying the suppression of right-wing speech and was welcomed into the alt-right, “the much discussed, little understood and largely anonymous far-right movement that exists mostly online and that has come to national attention in part because of its support for Donald Trump.” There are incredible insights into the personalities of the members who seem to love a spectacle—there was some mead drinking—but also brag about their connections to the White House. They also practice racism light: “If we don’t appear like angry misfits, then we will end up making friendships with people who don’t agree with us,” one told Hermansson. The story is two years old now, further proof that the current uptick in violence should surprise nobody. New York Times

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.


"Hip-hop is far from being beyond reproach, and its treatment of women, specifically Black women, has been its biggest hindrance to functioning as a powerful tool for collective liberation. Along with rampant homophobia, capitalist infiltration, and a disconnect from its origins, hip-hop continues to struggle to elevate beyond the conditions that created it. However, hip-hop’s transformations over the years have sparked important and necessary public conversations about racism, sexism, queerphobia, and other societal plagues. And with the advent of social media and developments in technology, people continue to find a home in the culture as creators, consumers, scholars, and entrepreneurs."

Feminista Jones

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