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.
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Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.