They “don’t mean to brag, don’t mean to boast” — but 50 years later, pretenders to the hip-hop throne are, in a roundabout way, taking the rap for perpetuating one of the longest feuds in Black cultural history.
Rap music, rap, or rappin’, the rhyming locution of inner-city neighborhood youth that was, to pimp a line from Audre Lorde, created out of their will to survive on Black terms in early 1970s New York, purportedly turns 50 today. Purportedly, because along with that historic milestone has come its own dysfunctional family of putative patriarchs, each challenging the notion of a single creator of rap music, each assuring that an enduring noise over the validity of the tales told by the genre’s self-avowed founding fathers will continue to beg the question “Who’s your daddy?” — or your mama? —for years to come. While vying for recognition, myriad mountebanks and triflers, who came late to one of the longest feuds in Black cultural history, are bragging and boasting with self-righteous piety.
This war of words over rap’s origin and originators, in retrospect, helped to power its rise from the bastard offspring of America’s musical pantheon to the global cultural phenomenon known as hip-hop. In the voluminous trove of storytelling memorialized by two prior generations of rappers — and currently being passed down to Gen Z through the venerated African griot tradition (if we go by the controversial date rap music is believed to have been inaugurated) — the very opinionated accounts tracing rap’s deep local roots have reignited a half-century-old family quarrel.
“I didn’t learn hip-hop from Kool Herc,” the hip-hop curator Paradise Gray recently told me, referring to Clive Campbell, the Jamaican-born “toaster” who is considered, by many to be the father of rap. “I learned hip-hop from my mother, meaning, 50 years is an arbitrary date. Hip-hop has always existed in our Afro-indigenous culture, and always will. Kool Herc deserves to be respected but that doesn’t mean his contribution started it all.”
That’s why, on the eve of August 11, 2017, 44 years to the day after a house party in the Bronx supposedly gave birth to rap music, the gauntlet was thrown down: The rapper and lyric historian KRS-One had acquiesced halfheartedly to his participation in an emergency round-table meeting of pioneers of hip-hop culture. At the huddle, convened in the Bronx at the home of breakdancing legend Crazy Legs and also attended by DJ Afrika Bambaataa, rap’s “Godfather himself,” and the hip-hop activist Ahmed, KRS-One conceded that during an onslaught of passionate lectures aimed at critics, he might have unintentionally weaponized the artistic boast that ignored the complexities of hip-hop’s birth. Though participants agreed to draw a red line between fact and fiction (as they know it), the full-throated attacks KRS-One had mounted against defamers of DJ Kool Herc raised doubts about anyone ever getting the true story straight.
“Real hip-hop heads” or “back-in-the-day” historiographers had long challenged Kool Herc’s account of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, being the birthplace of rap music. As the story goes, on August 11, 1973, Cindy Campbell, Herc’s sister, threw a back-to-school party (or rent party, popular since the 1940s in Black neighborhoods) in their apartment building, where Herc was said to have first used two turntables to extend the instrumental break of songs, known as “breakbeats,” and introduced the art of DJing and MCing — or as Jimmy “Super Rhymes” Spicer would say, “mixin’ records while they go ’round” and talking over their rhythms. The party, the most talked about event in hip-hop history, was, to borrow a line from journalist Tom Wolfe, “a highly probable incident in American urban life.” The revelers represented what the urban studies theorist and economist Richard Florida would define as “the [disadvantaged] class of our time … and its members’ tastes, preferences, and proclivities were reshaping not just … [Black] culture [but] society at large.” DJ Kool Herc epitomized this creative class, which was considered crucial to the development of hip-hop culture and its explosive growth and worldwide influence.
“And yet, the Bronx narrative leaves too many people out and the verbal games we used to play,” asserts Paradise Gray. “If rappin’ was created in the Bronx, how do we explain Muhammad Ali, the Last Poets? The Double Dutch [the world’s most popular jump rope game reimagined by Black girls]? Playing the Dozens [the art of the devastating insult, once a popular game in ’60s and ’70s ghetto culture in which would-be combatants exchange a variety of putdowns]?” Referring once again to Kool Herc, Gray said, “If you’re gonna talk about the DJ being the foundation of hip-hop, then you have to name Disco King Mario, DJ Smoke, Grandmaster Flowers, and many others whose names have been conveniently left out.”
KRS-One backs Herc’s and Cindy’s story, but Herc’s account of the meeting at Crazy Legs’s home, posted by the YouTube channel Hip-Hop: The Culture … Since ’71, which promotes “real underground hip-hop history,” was viewed as a subtle dig at KRS-One. (Much of the controversy over the past two decades has been played out in broadside YouTube postings. Among the critics who’d been clamoring for a revised history was the late Michael Wayne, host of WayneTV, who crystallized the debate with a series of provocative videos deconstructing the drip, drip, drip narrative about rap’s and hip-hop’s beginnings.) The channel’s teaser touted the fact that KRS-One “admits he made errors trying to teach hip-hop history.”
And indeed, the oracle had equivocated: “We all are aware that many people have concerns about the history of hip-hop, the history that I’m teaching, the history that others are teaching as well. Some people are concerned also about the father of hip-hop, the Godfather of hip-hop, the creation of hip-hop dates, and so on,” KRS-One says in the video. “That’s why Crazy Legs caused this meeting between ourselves here … to begin a discussion about what should hip-hop’s history be, now that we’ve lived it for 40 years. And we know that there were more players involved than just Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and [Grandmaster] Flash. Now, it was Bam, we realize, that gave Kool Herc his accolades. Herc, of course, could speak for himself. We know this, and we know the story of Herc and Cindy is part of hip-hop’s folklore.… Because some of what was said, even to me, was wrong. So, now that we have a 40-year history, now we looking back on it. Ahmed, scholar, been there from the beginning. He now can bring forward the other members that are now coming to him. Disco King Mario, if I may respectfully call your name, Cool D. These are other figures that were left out of hip-hop’s history because our history was basically documented through rappers, rap artists, and videos and fanzine magazines, as Legs [said], ‘We were young, hip-hop was happening. We are hip-hop. So, we wasn’t documenting ourselves. We were being ourselves.’”
KRS-One emphasized that the group “honestly talked about the errors, the scholarly errors that we were actually making,” as when “Legs was saying that some of the information that even he was getting, you know, was questionable even to him. I mean, Legs is now dealing with Cornell University and other universities as well.… Legs was talking about, you know, how history is now being looked at by other people. And, and, you know, they’re trying to add up what years, what went down and trying to add up what and what month, what went on, and that’s real scholarship. So, it’s like now hip-hop is leaving the realm of folklore, which is what we’ve been living off of for so long. You know, the basic story: Kool Herc, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Afrika Bambaataa, 1974, Grandmaster Flash, cutting, mixing, and scratching. You know, and Sugar Hill, Run DMC — that golden era…. You know, this is the folklore. Now we’re now talking about, ‘But wait a minute, was there more people there than Herc? Who else … was part of Soul Sonic Force, for instance? What else was going on?’”
After the Sugar Hill Gang came to prominence, in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight,” I overheard many arguments in the streets about who was the first to spin rhymes that would influence the various rappin’ styles we hear nowadays. I explored several versions of the same story as told to me by the hip-hop heads, and understood how easily these multiple iterations could become the dominant spiel. Many, unabashedly, had claimed the honor. So, in 1980, with a growing number of aspirational innovators seeking me out to tout their “vicious rhymes,” I suspended my crime beat reporting at the Amsterdam News and embarked on a quest to catechize the masterminds behind the rivalries.
If not DJ Kool Herc, who had conceived this craze?
Just who started verbalizing hyperrhythmic yak has been one of the longest disagreements among rappers, and even if we limit it to a narrow debate over which inner city is its true home, the blurred lines become even murkier. From the beginning of my investigation, I applied Langston Hughes’s methodology of validating poets, whom, he theorized, “usually have their fingers on the emotional pulse of their people, of their homelands.” Were rappers modern-day poets? (Like The Last Poets? Like Gil Scott Heron?) Could this emotional pulse be equivalent to what Sugar Hill’s Wonder Mike called “the rhythm of the boogie, the beat”? And is his shoutout — that “‘hello’ to the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow” — to the people to whom Hughes was referring? And six years earlier, at that house party, had DJ Kool Herc truly exploited, as Hughes put it, “linguistic echoes” of his own homeland of Jamaica?
Next, I extended Hughes’s criteria of corroborating how much the rappers knew and when they knew it, because, argued Hughes, “traditionally, poets are lyric historians.” And if, from “the days of the bards and the troubadours, the songs of the poets have been not only songs, but often records of the most moving events, the deepest thoughts and most profound emotional currents of their times,” could rappers also be dubbed bards even when they fit Hughes’s description as “singer[s] of the songs of bards?”
My research and interviews have turned out to be an oral history of rap music’s founding fathers’ rivalry, and are based on the intimate recollections of DJ Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Grandmaster Flash, DJ Hollywood, DJ Eddie Cheba, Kurtis Blow, Sylvia Robinson, Big Bank Hank (of the Sugar Hill Gang), Jimmy “Super Rhymes” Spicer, Doug “Jocko” Henderson, Reggie Wells, the Mercedes Ladies, the Harlem World Crew, and a host of other rap icons, deejays and documentarians. It was not my intention to chronicle every rapper who claimed to be a forefather.
For this Voice story, marking the 50th anniversary, I have selected excerpts from my never-before-published 1985 interview with DJ Afrika Bambaataa. A former South Bronx gang leader and the driving force behind his own youth movement, called the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa took me back to the gritty streets of the Bronx of the 1970s, where survival was a daily struggle, and artistic expression through a vibrant mix of graffiti, dance, music, and lyricism was a form of rebellion.
Without hesitation, Bambaataa credits DJ Kool Herc, DJ Grandmaster Flash, and himself with pioneering and popularizing rappin’ over rhythms in the ’70s:
“In 1970, we used to have parties in the Bronx River Community Center. We had one table: put something on, take something off. Sometimes I had one guy on one side with one turntable and I’d be on another side with another turntable. This guy named Cool DJ D was the first to come out with a system that had two turntables, a mixer, coffin, and big GLI speakers. Cool DJ D and I were members of the Black Spades, which was a big street gang at the time. A few years later, around 1974, ’75, Disco King Mario, who was also a leader in the Black Spades, came out with another system. Around ’74 I began hearing about this brother named DJ Kool Herc. He was from the West Bronx and was bringing up this different form of music-heavy percussion, drum breaks, and bass; it was making people go wild and stuff.”
“I was really strong with Cool D and I didn’t know Kool Herc at first. I said, “What was he bringing on our people in the Bronx?” All this dipping and stuff. But then he came and did a block party in my area and I started checking him out. I was listening to records he was playing because I was a heavy record collector since the age of 6. He was playing the type of records I had in my house, like Apache, Scorpio, and these funky break records. So I said, ‘Yeah, I want to be a full-fledged deejay; not just deejays like Kool Herc, Disco King Mario and Cool DJ D.'”
“When I graduated from JFK high school I got my first sound system. Around ’75, I gave a tribute to James Brown and Sly and Disco King Mario.”
Why did you pay tribute to James Brown and Sly Stone?
“James Brown always had this type of funky music that was making Blacks go crazy in the 1960s. If you didn’t play James Brown you just wasn’t down and stuff; you just didn’t know what was happening. We consider hip-hop another type of funk music. Rap is really a style of funk. It’s just that they are rappin’ instead of singin’ funk. Rap is another form of funk music. I got into Sly Stone because I thought it was a crazy group. I said, “Look at these Blacks jumping up acting crazy like white people.” They had big epaulets and white hair and long costumes looking like vampires. When I heard “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” and started seeing the Temptations do harmonizing and start changing their music psychedelic like Sly, I started listening to what he was saying: like, “Stand,” “Nigger,” “Whitey,” and stuff like that.”
Did you command a large following because of your worship of James Brown and Sly?
“I always had a large following before I became a DJ because I was heavy into gang activities and knew people from all over. I came out as DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. The whole center was packed and everybody liked the songs I was throwing down. They say, ‘Hey, he sounds like Kool DJ Herc. He got some bad slides and stuff. When Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and myself started out.… Well, Kool Herc been out first. Myself and Grandmaster Flash came out about the same time. Herc been out since 1970, but you know [he was a] West Side Bronx local DJ, whereas Flash came from the South Bronx and myself came from the South East Bronx. All three of us could give parties at the same time and have hundreds of people at each place.”
“I played at Junior High School 123. In fact I was one of the first DJs to start playing in high schools. I played at Bronx River Center, People’s Halls, Masonic Hall one time, people’s weddings.”
How did you come up with the name Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation and what was the concept behind your movement?
“I seen a picture back in 1963 called Zulu with Michael Caine. I was really heavy into the ’60s when I was young. You know, when people use to go to the movies and crack a scream for John Wayne, when the cowboys kill Indians? I was screamin’ for the Indians. When I seen the Zulus, these Black people in Africa fightin’ off the British, they were out of sight. The white people didn’t know that the chief of the Zulus used his own men to send out there and count the British guns. The white people just shootin’ them and everything, sayin, “Yeah! We killed them!” But another white man had to tell the British, “They countin’ your guns.” A lot of them died fightin’ that way. At the end of the picture the British started singin’, “Ah, we beat them! We won!” The next thing you know, you see a whole mountain stretch across with Zulus chantin’ to them that they fought like warriors, so they were going to spare their lives. It just made you feel good to see these Blacks because of what you was experiencin’ in America with the marches and all that. It was really strange for this picture to come out in ’63 showin’ Africans fightin’ for somethin’. Whereas, in the other pictures we were watchin’ it was makin’ us look like clowns: “Yes, massa!” Back in the ’60s, we’re fightin’ the Ku Klux Klan and the government, so it made you feel kind of good. I got proud and said I wanted a group like that.”
“When I went to Catholic school, and you supposed to take communion, my mother gave me the name David. But my godfather who was heavy into the ’60s movement, the Black Panthers and stuff like that, said my name is goin’ to be Bambaataa. So I said this was a good chance to call myself DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulus. My group was patterned after that fightin’ way. A lot of people was joinin’ and some took it different ways. Some left out of New York and went to Philadelphia and some guy started his Zulu Nation out there. They became a large street gang that was terrorizin’ the whole place. Other people went to Job Core and started havin’ Zulu Crews, different leaders for different areas.”
What were the groups like back then?
“We were a group of DJs and dancers. I used to have five dancers. They used to break well and take out other groups and winnin’ talent shows. I started gettin’ more members. Girls became Zulu Queens, then the Zulu Kings was getting’ so big we started formin’ outside groups. I had a group called the Organization that used to be my backup group for static or anybody tryin’ to mess with the Zulu Nation. By ’76, the Organization started dyin’ out and the Zulu Nation was gettin’ bigger. They got so big I formed another group called the Shaka Zulu Kings and the Shaka Zulu Queens.”
How would you associate the development of rappin’ with the street gangs?
“Every street corner you walk in the Bronx belonged to some kind of gang. You had to belong to a gang if you wanted to really survive in the Bronx. I credited people who stayed out, who had strong will power. There was also a lot of graffiti before rappin’ came out. People always used to want to write what gangs they was in and what’s their name: “My name is Cool T 163,” “My name is Lee 163,” “Phase 2,” and stuff. Other people in other gangs used to write “I’m from the TBS Group.” “I’m from the Black Pearl.” “The Bachelors.” “The Savage Nomads.” “The Savage Skulls.” So graffiti and breakin’ came along with the street gangs. All three of them tied in together. When the rap came on, graffiti artists was making flyers for the rap DJs. So all of it just fitted together and became a South Bronx culture. It began stretching all over the place.”
“Rap is also a form of chantin’. The Spades and other gangs had a certain chant to boost their group. We used to take James Brown’s “Soul Power” and yell out “Spade Power! Say soul power! Say Spade power!” We also used to say, “Sawed-off shotgun!” “Sawed-off forty-five!” When it got real wild we used to take Sly Stone’s “I wanna take you higher!” Everybody used to say, ‘Spades gonna take you high, higher.'”
Was breakin’ also associated with gang behavior?
“Around that time there was a dance that was out when gangs was out, called “B-Boys Breakin’.” And also there was girls so we call them B-Girls, meaning Break-Boys, Break-Girls. The person [who] started namin’ them Break-Boys and Break-Girls was DJ Kool Herc. The main dance that started it — really, where people was goin’ to the floor and hittin’ in the face and kickin’ in the air — was a dance called “the Goodfoot,” from the James Brown record “Get on the Goodfoot.” It was a dance where you throw one leg to the left, the other one to the right, swing your hand in the air and make like you puttin’ on powder, shove the other person in the face then another person would drop to the floor and come back up and start swingin’ around. Then everything just came naturally. Everybody would say, ‘Oh, that nigger’s breakin’!'”
What happened after the gangs died down?
“When the gangs started fadin’ out around ’74, ’75, underground hip-hop-type DJs and Crews started comin’ out.”
How were the crews different from the gangs?
“The crews were like smaller sections of the gangs. You had from three people in a crew to ten, to one hundred. But you didn’t call it a street gang because nobody was wearin’ dungaree jackets, big boots, big Hells Angels type emblems and being dirty and havin’ all kinds of spokes in your hands. It was more like puttin’ on a nice shirt with letters printed on it. Some people had high school emblem jackets and had their crew names on it. The crew look, the crew parties is what was happenin’. It wasn’t no more “My turf and if you come here I’ll kill you” and stuff.”
Who was the first to start talking over rhythms?
“Kool Herc started in the West Bronx but it then spread into the south. It took a couple of years before it even started stretching out of the Bronx and Harlem, going into Brooklyn and Queens. Later on, in 1976, I had a fella by the name of Mr. Bigs, one of my first rappers to start talking, saying anything on the mike. Kool Herc, who had people like Clark Kent, his rapper and DJ Timmy Tim, Coke La Rock, was havin’ a whole slang style of his own. They were the first ones to come out with echo and sayin’, “Rock on my mellow! What’s happenin’? To the beat y’all!” All this is DJ Kool Herc: “Gonna rock you to the a.m., to the break of dawn.” The way he was doing it was almost the same style as toasters, like Jamaican rap. Herc was Jamaican, myself was Jamaican, and Grandmaster Flash was from Barbados. Kool Herc just took like what he was seeing in his country and came over here and did it with American music. Instead of talking like a West Indian he used American words to get to the Blacks over here and used percussions to break part, not the whole record, to keep that beat going. And he was saying, “Now everybody, rock on, come on y’all to the beat y’all, you don’t stop.” People just was going crazy with what he was doing and people was doing the Hustle.”
But critics were annoyed that KRS-One was going around broadly insinuating that West Indians invented rap music. A soft prejudice dredged up parallels between the attacks on DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican West Indian celebrated as the progenitor of rap music, and Stokely Carmichael, a Trinidadian West Indian who coined the iconic slogan “Black power.” Both immigrants faced resentment and hostility from various quarters within the Black American community, owing to their heritage, groundbreaking contributions, and tensions arising from the fear of cultural appropriation. “With all due respect,” intoned one YouTuber, “is krs one trying to glorify and romanticize west indians in hip-hop History?? Krs one, Grandmaster Flash, and afrika Bambaataa all have west Indian background.”
As a native of Trinidad and Tobago, I felt no qualms about exploring rap music’s indebtedness to calypso and reggae: extensive theorizing that Bambaataa and others readily indulged in during our talks. “I was raised up on West Indian music,” Bambaataa told me. “My father’s side is from Jamaica and my mother’s mother’s side is from Barbados. In the ’60s, I listened to calypso and reggae.… I got heavy into the Mighty Shadow [and] liked the Lord Shorty when he came out with that Soca music. Calypso music was gettin’ real funky, but it wasn’t breakin’. Reggae got more stronger because it was speakin’ more meaningful things about what was happenin’ in life.”
Bambaataa misspoke about calypso not being able to both educate and entertain. Calypso singers and reggae toasters (the Jamaican vocal style of rhythmic chanting or talking over a rhythm track) constantly harangue, as Bob Marley would say, “those crazy baldheads” (politicians). As the indigenous music of Trinidad and Tobago, calypso is more than just a genre of raunchy ditties about excessive indulgence in sex, rum, and Coca Cola: Nestled between the “madder music, stronger wine,” is the lived experience of West Indian islanders bawling out in a spontaneous passion of social and political commentary. “In the Caribbean, mostly in the West Indies, where Blacks control the music industry, strong African traditions persist in calypso and reggae music,” the Trinidad-born writer Isaac Ferguson pointed out to me. “Political and cultural ideas are transmitted through these two genres and Black history remains grounded in the people; it is their voice of praise and their avenue of protest. Music as a means of expression is a people’s right, with its foundation rooted in hundreds of thousands of years of tradition and practice. Thus, in many Third World countries, where all other mediums of protest have been curtailed, the powers that be dare not touch calypso and reggae.”
The calypso historian Rafael Deleon, who was known as “The Roaring Lion,” told the Trinidad magazine, Mas Parade, in 1975, “Calypso has always been the eye-opener for the underprivileged…. As a Calypsonian, I have to find avenues and topics that people are either afraid to talk about … and take an angle and try to come out with something that people will listen to. The main responsibility of the Calypsonian is his conviction; whatever he feels and how strongly he feels it, is his role.”
Advocates of the rap-calypso theory argue that rappin’ over rhythm might have planted its early roots in a particular Trinidad carnival masquerader called “The Robber.” In 1975, two years after DJ Kool Herc is said to have taken credit for inventing Black American rappin’, Trinidad journalist Keith Smith asked the Roaring Lion about The Robber’s role as a rapper.
“Yes,” recalled the Lion, “the Robbers were the former gentlemen of the road and they copied their style of holding you up … from the clown or what, today, we call the Pierrot. The following used to be one of the popular Robber talks: ‘For the day my mother gave birth to me the sun refused to shine and the wind ceased blowing. Many mothers that day gave birth, but to deformed children. The plagues and pestilence pestered the cities, for atomic eruption raged in the mountains. Philosophers, scientists, professors said, ‘The world is come to an end.’ But no, it was me, a monarch was born. Master of all I survey, and my right where none could disrepute.’”
But who were these Pierrots from whom the Lion argued the Robbers copied? “Again, they borrowed from the Calypsonians. Their question and answer jesting was a version of Calypso picong (ridicule). The whole ‘Pierrot’ talk was based on punning a word you will find in your dictionary. The whole aim was to show just how learned and Englishified the masquerader was.”
New York rappin’s affinity to Jamaican toasting could be traced back to the early ’60s, when talking over rhythms was also first believed to be mastered. “Rappin’, to me, started with Reggae music,” Big Bank Hank, of the Sugar Hill Gang, told me during a 1981 rap session at Sugar Hill Records, in New Jersey. “Reggae started it all. I listen to a lot of calypso and reggae. But rappers today — instead of using a heavy calypso or reggae beat and the mentality of the calypso and reggae singers — are using music with a lot of bass, not necessarily disco. As the beat grows, you groove into it, then it is even more high-powered. Bob Marley was not a singer. He was a Rasta Rapper. His voice flows over the music, always projecting a message. Rappin’ is basically the same. Reggae music, perhaps, is the closest thing to rappin’.”
Most Jamaicans would tell you that the world’s first rap record came from a “sound system” deejay named Prince Buster. During the ’60s, one of the main sources of entertainment for Jamaicans was the transistor radio. Jamaicans monitored broadcasts from New Orleans and Miami on nights when there were strong prevailing winds blowing across the Gulf of Mexico. They listened to favorites like Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, James Brown, and Little Richard. But when these R&B records became overladen with strings and the flow of Black American music to Jamaica slowed to a dribble because of a depression in the pop music industry, Jamaicans responded to the crisis by creating a few homegrown variations. Deejays at huge outdoor parties began rappin’ over popular records as they spun. A spicy mixture of street gossip, political conditions in the reggae heartland, humor, smut, nursery rhymes, and sexual braggadocio, seasoned with Jamaican patois, was delivered to the audience in nonstop, bullet-fast discourse. At intervals, the deejay would fade out the R&B tune and fill the vacuum with his ragged rap. In time these rapper-deejays, who could rap their dancers to the highest, became famous. Competition grew fierce and deejays commanded huge gatherings who followed them wherever they played: “Dillinger is the star!” one fan would say. “Never ’appen, U-Roy!” another would insist. The supporters would finally come to blows, a brawl ensue, and the dance breaks up.
I asked Bambaataa to describe the impact other reggae artists had on the fledgling hip-hop movement. “With our style of hip-hop you can’t play too much mellow reggae music,” Bambaataa said at the time. “You can play Bob Marley every now and then and [Peter] Tosh stuff, but they don’t want to hear too much of the Gregory Isaac–type singing. They are heavy into toasting like the Yellowman type. The first people I started playin’ was Trinity and Dillinger. I liked Dillinger’s style because it was a different type of funky reggae from what I used to hear in the ’60s when I used to buy a lot of I-Roy, U-Roy records, and Aka-type music. Trinity had a different sound when he came out with ‘Set Up Yourself’ and ‘School Days.’ Trinity also had girls singin’ about uptown skankin’. Then next thing you know he’s faded off. You didn’t hear too much about Dillinger or Trinity. Then we started hearin’ about this brother singin’ about soldier takeover and stuff. It was a funky bass; it was the funkiest bass we heard in a while. It was Yellowman and he was becoming even big talk in West Indian music. Then when Papa Michigan and Smiley made ‘Diseases’ everybody went crazy over that. Everybody was more crazier about Nicodemus and the other side, Bowman Connection. We played this for a year and a half. I used to report it to the radio stations. WKRS [KISS FM] picked up on Bowman Connection, and Mr. Magic started playing ‘Diseases’ on WBLS.”
As the popularity of these deejays swept Jamaica in the ’70s, rapper-deejays like U-Roy, Prince Jazzbo, and King Tubby began renting two-track studios to experiment with new techniques. King Tubby, a self-taught music engineer who became known as one of Jamaica’s foremost sound-system men, experimented with dubbing out the rhythm tracks from songs. The effect was powerful and mesmerizing as it resounded from the powerful speakers. King Tubby was responsible for other musical innovations by adding squawks and echoes to the entirely new sound. He gave the Jamaican rapper-deejays what they needed to put their own styles and raps on vinyl. Not only did the emerging New York City rappers emulate the rappin’ technique of the Jamaican toaster, he also invoked the ubiquitous sound systems. The sound systems were huge public address speakers mounted on the top of vans and trucks. These vehicles were a kind of mobile disco, equipped with turntables and the popular records of the time.
In their book Reggae Bloodlines, authors Stephen Davis and Peter Simon wrote: “Sound systems had vociferous followings whose collective ardor in support of the favorite disc jockey would send the claques of La Scala back to the woodwork in shame. When systems like Coxone’s and Prince Buster’s would set up within hearing distance of each other in the early days, squads of police usually were called in to control the resultant punch-outs.”
When the rap phenomenon was in its embryonic stages in New York City, similar sound system deejays began popping up all over the five boroughs. Soon, the Black American youngster, with the spark of genius in him always itching to ignite, popularized what had become a dormant technological miracle — the portable cassette recorder. They referred to their sound systems men as “rapper-deejays,” “mixers,” and “cutters.” When New Yorkers saw these Black youths walking down the streets toting their “ghetto blasters” and other jumbo-size, portable tape recorders, their idea was to dismiss this new thing as a crazy vogue. But even up to today, these “beat boxes” can be heard blasting everywhere. Critics loathed these “wretched boxes” and were extremely indignant of “an annoying gibberage” coming from the radios: “Ah … beat, beat. Say hip-hop, a hippity hip-hop, to the beat y’all.” Public outcry against the ghetto blasters drew the attention of Mayor Ed Koch in the ’80s, and a law was passed banning radio playing on subway platforms and on the trains.
DJ Hollywood, who considers himself no less an authority than Bambaataa, proclaimed to me in a more gentle and nuanced manner that he started rappin’ as we know it today, but that he had copied the verbal skills of another rapper, called Pete DJ Jones. “Hollywood might have been the modern inventor of his disco type of rappin’ for the club scene,” Bambaataa acknowledged, with a condescending grin. “Like he says, he seen Pete DJ Jones, Maboya, he was from Brooklyn, and Grandmaster Flowers at the time. If you ask anybody who is in our field, we ain’t never heard of Hollywood until after ’78. I challenge all of them to come sit around the table with me, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash, and start speakin’ facts about when they came out and what Crews they was bringin’ — and to who they were doin’ their disco thing to.”
“A lot of them are gettin’ on TV sayin’ they started it first and the Disco Fever, in the Bronx, is the home of the rappers,” Bambaataa bluntly complained to me one afternoon as we rapped in the confines of my tiny apartment in Harlem in that same interview:
“I remember times when rappers couldn’t get inside the Disco Fever. Rappers played more at home in their own communities. But the place that really became the true home of the rappers was the T-Connection [a popular dance club in the Bronx]. Everybody that had dealings with our style of rappin’, the hip-hop, that goes for Starski, Flash, Herc, the Funky Four, Grand Wizard Theodore, the Cold Crush Brothers, would come up to the T-Connection at one time or another. This was where everybody would come see and hear that style of rappin’. A lot of people didn’t want no rappers in their clubs. Then Harlem World [a former disco on 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, in Harlem, that became a popular hip-hop hangout] jumped on the idea because they were tryin’ to become the cultural disco center. Rappin’ started reachin’ white people in 1980. It’s been about [eight] years old in the Bronx. Some people still think it was like a whole new thing when the Fatback Band [a funk group, the Fatback Band released the first rap record, called “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” in 1979, beating “Rapper’s Delight” to the airwaves by a couple of days] and the Sugarhill Gang made the first rap records, in 1979.”
Who invented the term “hip-hop”?
“The Lovebug Starski is the one who named the whole scene “hip-hop”. He used to always say, like, “To the hip-hop, you don’t stop, to the beat y’all” and started goin’ into his rhymes. Rappin’ was called hip-hop or bebop music. Bebop, like jitterbuggin’ in the street, and you called the young people who was jitterbuggin’ bebops. Hip-hop was a music that made your feet start jumpin’ and wavin’ your body from side to side. But the whole thing with the dancers, the rappers, and the DJs is called the hip-hop style.”
Where did the HO-oh! chant come from?
“I really think it came from the Johnny Carson Show, when this guy would introduce Johnny Carson sayin’, “Here’s Johnny!” and everybody would say, ‘HO-oh!'”
Have you been credited also with inventing some hip-hop slang?
“In ’77, I made a thing called, “Shock the House.” I used to say, “Lightin’ strikin’ all over the world. Everybody, shock the house! The whole world, shock the house!” That became a word that everybody started usin’. “Rock the House” was by Kool Herc. [Grandmaster] Flash had a sayin’, ‘Say what? Say We-O.'”
You have given a lot of credit to Flash.
“Flash was big. When he came out he had Cowboy with him, Mean Gene, Lovebug Starski. He started doin’ quick mixin’ and stuff. His rappers took rappin’ in a different form and took it to rhymin’. Flash and the Furious Five were one of the great rap groups of all time, until DJ Breakout and the Funky Four came out. Flash, today, still thinks they are the greatest. But there are other ones I like, too, like the Treacherous 3.”
Why couldn’t you guys settle who was number one?
“Flash used to be battlin’ with the Funky Four for the number one spot. Sometimes there were turntable wars or sound system wars. Like one time, Flash had a battle with Disco King Mario. In 1977, me and him was supposed to have battled at Junior High School 123, but they didn’t show for that. Then one time they sent word for me to battle and we wasn’t ready for that either.”
Did you and Flash finally battle?
“We never sat down and battled or got together until 1980. And when we got together, there wasn’t no battle thing; they were playing my system and we were just goin’ together.”
How were these battles fought?
“Somebody would come with their system and he might have ten speakers; another person might come with two, but he might not be heard because the other guy is killing him. I had a little cheap system and Disco King Mario had a big system and we used to battle back and forth, but my records would outdo him. I didn’t care what kind of system he had. He wasn’t playin’ the stuff I had. In ’77, they dubbed me “Master of Records.” Up until this day I have more records than any of the hip-hop DJs could dream about. A lot of them would talk things to papers but when I am face-to-face they change their whole story around, because they know a lot of the records that they got I gave them. Every year, I give away hundreds of records that radio stations or record companies send me, because they knew I was breakin’ records whether they was old or new. I was bringin’ these records to audiences up in the Bronx. People used to ask, ‘You got that Bambaataa beat?'”
A bevy of witnesses assembled in awe around the 10-foot pole that had been erected for the momentous event that was about to unfold in front of the nondescript apartment tower at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx. As they jostled playfully against the looming shadow of the building, rising 20 stories high, on this historic afternoon, June 8, 2017, they had grown all too wary of the political machinations that enticed them there.
In the past, successive waves of builders and speculators would come into this iconic neighborhood, manipulate achievements to be played off as pyrrhic victories, then abandon the community’s interests once more to well-heeled property barons who lord it over the hoi polloi, who own nothing. But after years of politicians’ broken promises, the residents had gained the upper hand against “the social malevolence of [the] system”: Planning and arranging the co-naming of this stretch of the avenue, “Hip Hop Blvd.,” while simultaneously recognizing their building’s address as “the birthplace of hip-hop,” was nothing short of, as J.R.R. Tolkien would put it, “letting fly at incautious” predators, a deftly choreographed warning shot. As this “shot noise” ricocheted against the New York City skyline, it had the serendipitous effect of once again unnerving real hip-hop heads, who stuck to their doubts that the rap movement started with DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick, and chafed at granting the building historic landmark status.
But many, who had mimicked Kool Herc’s style, lacked the temerity to match him rhetorically. Any expression of admiration was restrained by fear and reverence. In a no-holds-barred interview with the YouTuber Chuck Creekmur, in 2015, Crazy Legs argued that while Kool Herc’s influence on DJing cannot be denied, hip-hop’s evolution didn’t follow a straight line: Artists borrowed inspirations from various sources, whether it be imitating Cab Calloway or the Last Poets, while blending their unique styles into the growing culture. He used himself as an example, humbly admitting that there were dancers before him and acknowledging that he played his part in expanding the art form, inspired by the music spun by Kool Herc and other influential DJs of the time.
“At the end of the day, when I got into this, there was no such thing as calling it hip-hop,” Crazy Legs recalls in the YouTube video. “[Kool Herc] inspired people like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Tony Tone, from the Cold Crush Brothers; all these people he inspired because of songs that he was playing…. To inspire people to be B-Boys? No, maybe when he played certain breaks. Yeah.… And, I mean, if you’re talking about rap, a lot of people that were rhymin’ were imitating Cab Calloway, Wolfman Jack, and all this other stuff. So, the inspirations come from many places. But when you apply Kool Herc and Bambaattaa and the L Brothers, and all that together, and see what everyone was doing, I think it becomes a collective — more than one particular person.”
But while the earliest pretenders to the hip-hop throne were busy stretching facts and inventing yarns — some confessing that they may have taken artistic liberties with their story about rap music’s founding fathers — it was a Black woman, Sylvia Robinson, who created the Sugar Hill Gang (out of her near-bankrupt indie label) to make rap music more captivating and delightful to the world. The sense of wonder and enchantment in “Rapper’s Delight,” a rap highlighting understanding of the role of African American verbal dexterity, baffled the major recording companies, who had seen no potential market for commercialized ghetto talk.
Sylvia was no slouch herself: She was the singer and producer of the song “Pillow Talk,” considered one of the pioneering tracks in the genres of disco and sensual R&B music after its release in January 1973, eight months before DJ Kool Herc’s claim to fame. Some called her “the mother of rap music,” but Sylvia graciously settled for being crowned “the Queen of Hip-Hop,” an honorific she acknowledged in 1982 with her own rap, called, “It’s Good to be the Queen.” The irony is that no one has ever contested Sylvia’s lyrical boast, which is a fitting postscript to my investigation into the founding fathers’ rivalry:
“It started back in ’79
My whole darn future was on the line
I created a plan
A new sensation
Blew my mind and the whole darn nation
With the Big Bank Hank and Wonder Mike and this kid called Master G
Would you believe their Rapper’s Delight went down in history?”
Peter Noel writes mainly about social, racial, and criminal justice, focusing on police violence, culture, poverty, and politics. He is the author of Why Blacks Fear ‘America’s Mayor’: Reporting Race, Crime and Black Activist Politics Under Rudy Giuliani.
This story was originally posted at our sister paper the Village Voice.
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