Who Created Hip Hop?
By all accounts, the night of August 11th, 1973 was steamy and hot as people piled into the rec room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Clive Campbell, just 18 years old, along with his sister Cindy, had posted fliers advertising a “Back to School Jam;” $.25 for ladies and $.50 for “fellas.”
DJ Kool Herc
Clive was better known by a different name among the neighborhood teens. He had dubbed himself DJ Kool Herc, and soon developed a reputation for his innovative approach to music. Using a two turntable setup, Herc’s parties usually consisted of him spinning funk and soul records, with a notable twist. Herc began to focus on a percussive part of a song, think a short drum solo or a funky beat on a disco record; the part of the song that got people up and dancing. Herc would play one of these “breaks” on one of his turntables while cueing up the beginning of the same break on a different turntable, alternating between the two to extend the break.
With his crowd dancing, that’s when Herc took to the mic. A Jamaican immigrant and the son of a musician, Herc was more than accustomed to the Jamaican art of “toasting,” a method of rhythmically chanting over music. Herc modified traditional toasting, making up humorous rhymes and encouraging the crowd to keep dancing.
If it’s beginning to sound like something familiar, it’s because DJ Kool Herc’s party is now widely considered the birthplace of hip hop. While Herc never made the jump to mainstream music, his new style took over the Bronx in a furious manner. The dancers at his parties weren’t just dancers. They were now “breakdancers.” Partygoers weren’t audiences, they were now “b-boys” and “b-girls.” It was becoming apparent that Herc hadn’t just come up with a new genre of music, but that an entire culture was developing around it that would soon take the world by storm. While Herc never made the jump to mainstream music, he became a legend in the Bronx, and other young musicians were starting to take notice.
Present at some of Herc’s parties was a young DJ named Joseph Saddler, who began hosting his own parties around 1975 and performing under the name Grandmaster Flash. While he considered Herc a “hero” and a major influence, Flash quickly developed his own style and innovative technique. Flash was something of a musical prodigy, transforming his turntables into full-fledged instruments. Flash’s first major innovation was something he called “quick mix theory.” Flash calculated mathematically the number of revolutions he had to turn the record back to get to the start of a bar, using a two turntable setup and crossfaders to create an endless sample loop.
Do you like the slipmat on your turntable? Thank Grandmaster Flash for that one. Flash recognized the need for a vinyl record to move quickly and fluidly on the turntable, using felt and wax paper to create a surface that allowed him to manipulate the record more easily. How about the universally recognized record scratch? Flash may not have invented it, but he sure perfected it, using it to essentially “play” his turntable.
With the hip hop bubble about to explode, record companies began to take notice. Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records, assembled a trio of rappers, naming them the Sugarhill Gang. In 1979, they released “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip hop single to chart in the top 40. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had also signed to Sugar Hill Records, releasing The Message in 1982. Hip hop gradually gained in popularity thanks to rappers like Kurtis Blow and DJ Hollywood.
The years that followed saw hip hop experience a rapid rise. Artists like Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys brought hip hop to mainstream America. Groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy popularized gangsta rap, a more socially and politically conscious brand of hip hop. The 1990s saw the East vs West Coast feud and the proliferation of Southern rap. As the 2000s came, hip hop was arguably the biggest musical genre in the United States.
50 years down the line, hip hop has maintained its tremendous popularity. Hip hop, however, is more than just a musical genre. It is a culture, with its own fashion, its own language, and it was a movement created by and popularized by Black Americans. As we approach hip hop’s 50th birthday, check out some of our recent posts highlighting essential hip hop records of the 1980s and 1990s.