This essay was originally published by The Lifted Brow‘s magazine blog.
All Rapped Up: The Creation of a Hip Hop Space in 1970s South Bronx
The right to the city … can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life.
— Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities
The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.
— David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’
Hip hop … came from desperation … from people’s basic need for an outlet. We were either going to start hip hop or start a Revolution.
— Grandmaster Caz
As I walk up the steps of Melbourne Town Hall I can already feel the pulsing echoes of the sound system inside. I’m five minutes late and the party is already bursting at the seams. Inside, those who were on time have already staked their spots at the front. The mostly-white hipster crowd is four rows deep, awkwardly two-stepping to Chic’s 1979 classic ‘Good Times’. As the crowd starts to warm up, the peripatetic DJ – fluctuating between his three turntables with a grace and ease hinting at muscle memory – grabs the microphone and shouts: “Put your hands up! I wanna see you put your hands in the air – put ‘em up and leave them there!” The crowd obliges, and over the next hour we are taken – shoulders aching – through a sampler series of the backlog of funk, hip hop, and rap classics, punctuated by directives to “Make some nooooooiiiiiiise!”
The energy is phenomenal. And this isn’t even the main act. That honour is reserved for The Avalanches’ sixteen years’ in the making return – it’s an exciting night. But this opener could top it. This is no ordinary Friday night at the local set list. This DJ is a master of their craft. There are no dance floor lulls or drink breaks here. Every sound melts and flows into the next; every song is a relentless and joyful command to move. The DJ knows what the crowd wants to hear before they do; knows when to stop the beat, hold it thumping in perpetual revolution; knows when to speed up, when to slow down; when to throw in a teaser sample for a song we will never hear, and when to use an opening beat to show what’s coming up next. Play that funky music, but don’t blame it on the boogie: jump around till you feel crazy in love and don’t you stop till you get enough, cause I’ve got the power to be faithful and we’re all just stayin’ alive. The crowd dance with abandon, lost to each other in the music, but also right there together. And the best of the set is yet to come. Because when The Avalanches take the stage later in the evening, we will hear snippets of this set: themes, riffs, samples – future echoes of The Avalanches’ performance. To contemplate the time and effort and thought that went into creating this set is astounding. But in the moment it is seamless, pre-ordained, visceral.
As the set finishes, there is the requisite rush for the bathrooms. Waiting in line, I listen in to the conversation in front of me: “That was better than I thought it would be.” The person in front of me says to their friend. “Yeah,” the friend agrees, “I’m surprised so many people came to watch it though – it’s just a guy pressing play on his laptop.”
I bite my tongue to prevent myself from pointing out that there was no laptop on the stage, that the mix was created and played manually, that there is a world of difference between a DJ who has been at the top of their game for over four decades and a fleeting sensation like Skrillex or even Jamie xx. And that, if sampling other people’s music to make your own is an issue, why even come to an Avalanches gig?
I am soothed the next morning by Bryget Chrisfield’s review lede: “You’d have to be a total dipshit not to arrive in time to see legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash’s entire set.” Indeed. And an even bigger dipshit to not even know who Grandmaster Flash is. Because Grandmaster Flash is one of the pioneers of hip hop.
Anyone who’s seen Straight Outta Compton could be forgiven for believing that LA is of primary importance to hip hop’s history. But, while it is an integral part of the story of the reclamation of a city and identity for black LA residents in the 1980s and 1990s, there is another home of the birth of hip hop: the place where Grandmaster Flash hails from.
Let me take you back to another party. A generation before even Grandmaster Flash was on the scene.
In a deserted, dilapidated apartment building one of the rooms is overrun with people and on a stage at the back surrounded by massive speakers a DJ stands at a turntable. He chooses a record, spins it, and the beat drops. Then the sound changes. Placing his fingers on the record, the DJ stops it from completing a full revolution. Pulling the disk back and forth, the needle scraping over its vinyl finish, the DJ makes a new scratching sound amplified by a nearby microphone. As he pushes and pulls, playing with speed and length, he creates new rhythms, new beats, new melodies: a never-before-heard undercurrent to the blaring and familiar music. Entranced, the crowd goes wild. There are people dancing, people singing, people yelling and jumping: everything melts together in that beat break scratch.
The party continues long into the night.
The DJ is DJ Kool Herc. It’s 11 August 1973 and the party-goers dancing in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx have just witnessed the birth of hip hop.
Later that decade, fellow South Bronxite Grandmaster Flash used this scratching method to create his own backspin technique. Grandmaster Flash would stop and run the record at specific intervals to isolate extended drum beats. Using two turntables simultaneously, he would then manually edit one drum solo onto another, elongating the beat so that an MC – those Masters of Ceremony who came to be known as rappers – could rap, sing, and speak over it. Alternately known as the ‘quick-mix theory’, Grandmaster Flash had his own name for the technique: the get down – a term which may seem familiar to Netflix fans.
In August 2016, Netflix premiered Baz Luhrmann’s latest project: The Get Down. Receiving mixed reviews, The Get Down was nevertheless a passionate ode to hip hop and an attempt to answer a question Luhrmann himself had posed about New York almost a decade ago: “why was so much creativity bursting out of one place at one time?” It’s a good question.
What was it about the South Bronx that allowed hip hop to develop and flourish?
Though considered at the time to be a passing fancy, hip hop was a rich sub-culture which included its own style of dance (breaking), idiom (rapping), and performance (DJing). This culture was produced by the peculiar mix of languages, cultures, and isolation that characterised the South Bronx of the 1970s. Cut off from the rest of the Bronx and greater New York by an unsightly and unpopular Robert Moses-built freeway and populated by various black and Latin American cultural and linguistic groups forced south by mid-town slum clearances, the South Bronx of the 1970s was a peculiar space: at once a derelict neighbourhood, and also a site of reclamation and new-found public pride through the creation of a South Bronx identity. The creators of hip hop weren’t looking to change the world, they were looking to change their world by using their bodies to create something for them and them alone.
By the end of the 1960s, the South Bronx was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in America – a dubious exceptionalism which can be traced to infamous city planner and ‘Master Builder’ Robert Moses, an individual who no one has ever accused of being popular. What Georges- Eugène Haussmann was to nineteenth-century Paris, Moses was to twentieth-century New York. His biographer, Robert Caro, held Moses personally responsible for the near-destruction of New York and cultural theorist (and Bronxite) Marshall Berman likened him to that “sphinx of cement and aluminium” named Moloch in Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl. But while it’s often fashionable to blame Moses for New York’s twentieth-century ills, his Cross-Bronx Expressway and fundamental reconfiguration of post-war New York undeniably contributed much to the ethnic and socio-economic segregation of the city and its boroughs. Indeed, it was Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway that created the South Bronx in the first place.
In the early twentieth century, the Bronx was an affluent, energetic, and bourgeois borough, home to predominantly wealthy white and Jewish families. The symbol of this opulent city-within-a-city was the main boulevard: the Grand Concourse. A four-and-a-half-mile long, 182-foot wide thoroughfare running the length of the borough, the Grand Concourse was the stage for these wealthy families’ conspicuous consumption, even during the Great Depression from which the Bronx was comparatively insulated. From the 1920s to the 1950s, it was this wealthy, white, family-focussed image – an imprint of the American Dream – with which the Bronx was associated.
After World War II, slum-clearing activities in Manhattan pushed many black and Puerto Rican communities into the Bronx, instigating a now-familiar process of ‘white flight’. Many of the former residents with the means to move to the utopian post-war suburbs did so, while others congregated in the Grand Concourse and its immediate surrounds to remain, for a while, apart from the newcomers who were largely located in the cheaper area south-east of the Concourse. But the slum clearances continued, and it was at this point that Moses’s concrete behemoth came to fruition.
The Cross-Bronx Expressway took twenty-four years to build—1948-1972—a period that coincided with this shifting Bronx identity and slum-clearing forced migration. Although it had been designed in the post-war economic boom, when it finally solidified its placement seemed horrifyingly prescient. This concrete structure sliced through the centre of the borough, severing the new, poor, slum-clearing migrant area known as the ‘South Bronx’ from the rest of the borough and New York City.
The Cross-Bronx Expressway ferried people over the South Bronx without them ever having to set foot in the place – or even lay eyes on it. The effect of this was twofold: those who now called the South Bronx home were symbolically trapped and physically isolated from every other borough in the city; and for those shuttling from one location to another through its canopy, it allowed the increasing poverty, violence, and desolation of the South Bronx to be swept under the rug in a symbolic, but no less powerful way. Fuelled by media-induced fear of increases in violence, the few remaining in the Bronx who hadn’t already left but could did so. The Moses-led exodus of the Bronx was completed.
Symbolising destruction, devastation, and the desire to escape, the Cross-Bronx Expressway became the embodiment of the new 1970s Bronx. Not the decadent site of the American Dream, but of its shadow alter-ego: the dilapidated and burning slum. This is not mere rhetoric: the late-1970s cry ‘the Bronx is burning’ – mythically attributed to sports journalist Howard Cosell – was a very real, very literal description. Owing to the isolation of the borough, increasing gang presence, drug trafficking, violent crime and the concomitant nosedive of property values, landlords and building owners discovered it was more lucrative to burn their properties and collect the insurance money, than it was to either sell or rent them.
It was from the burning rubble of this violently rejected mini-borough that hip hop emerged. Hip hop reconstituted the meanings associated with this suffocating built environment. It became a way for South Bronx youth to connect with each other outside of a gang environment. By using burnt-out, abandoned buildings as their clubs, hip hop even managed to lessen the horror behind ‘the Bronx is burning’: more fires meant more clubs, more places for them to go. But this was not pre-ordained; it may not have been so.
In December 1971, 25-year old ‘Black Benjy’ was killed while trying to mediate a dispute between two rival gang members. One week later, a resultant meeting took place on Hoe Avenue in the South Bronx; a meeting to determine a way forward for the area, a way to stop the violence, improve the city, and give a sense of hope and pride back to its residents. This wasn’t a government or local council meeting (though members of those groups were present). This meeting was instigated by Black Benjy’s gang, and brought together all the rival gangs of the South Bronx.
The Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting marked a turning point for the South Bronx; a new era of street-rule. As one gang member stood up and said: “the whiteys don’t come down here … and live in these fucked-up houses … so we gotta make it a better place to live.” Realising that no one else was going to care if the South Bronx was blown away in a gang war, the gang members themselves took a stand for peace, softening slightly the boundaries of gang territory.
Traditionally for the Bronx’s black residents the streets had been a site of exclusion: the Grand Concourse, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, gang rule. Thus, this reappropriation of the streets as public and publicly accessible created a new ideology for the space. And although poverty, anger, and gang violence continued, the stage was set for the South Bronx’s residents to reclaim the streets.
Hip hop was about South Bronx residents re-claiming the streets, demanding their right to the city. When DJ Kool Herc and others first started throwing parties, they were out in the open; in parks, on the streets. These parties would originate spontaneously with the DJ generally hooking their equipment up to street lamps to take advantage of the ‘free’ electricity provided. If those nearby liked the sound they would come over to join in and, suddenly, a party was underway. The music and the dancers embodied the streets with movement, crowds gathered to watch, to enjoy.
Standing in such unremarkable places as basketball courts and abandoned warehouses, these artists introduced a new sound, one which mingled with the sounds of traffic, fire alarms, people talking and yelling, gangs, and children playing. These sounds of hip hop – the music, the rap, the interaction between the DJs, the MCs, and the breakdancers – were formed by and in the streets of the South Bronx.
The DJs’ music and the breakdancers’ moves were formed from interaction with Latin American dance, music and language, from elements of traditional African dance and music style, as well as from the impact of the South Bronx as a broken and burned city. By just being in this place, by using their own style and movement to create a hip hop space, these dancers, MCs, and DJs rejected a history which had denied them access to such public places, and remade their city as their own.
While the DJs were the original stars of the show, the MCs and their creation of a new form of voiced expression—rap—was also important. Language presupposes community. As Afrika Bambaataa has pointed out, rapping in your own language is essential since it allows you to “rap about your own problems or your own party-type moments.” Informed by interaction with Latin American immigrants, as well as in response to the environmental and socio-economic conditions of the Bronx, as language rap provided South Bronx residents with a basis for the formation of a new Bronx-based identity. As with all languages, however, this new dialect also distinguished its users from those who could not speak it.
In reclaiming the South Bronx, the black community created their own boundaries that were impenetrable by those deemed outsiders. In an inversion of the denial of black Americans’ access to the Grand Concourse, there was in the mid-1970s a series of ‘get whitey’ days in which some gangs targeted white and pale-skinned people who came into predominantly black areas by intimidating and robbing them to remind them that they “came to a place that [they] weren’t supposed to go to.”
Women have similarly had to navigate the boundaries of hip hop as a predominantly black, masculine, and heterosexual space. Historians such as Tricia Rose and Robin Kelly have shown that there were women artists performing in the Bronx in the 1970s: Lisa Lee, Sha Rock, and Debbie Dee were all prominent MCs. Yet it is the names and achievements of the men – DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash – which have taken centre stage in the recorded history of hip hop. Initially, MCs were the lesser-known members of the entire hip hop movement. It was the DJs and breakdancers with their amazing new sounds and moves who became the local celebrities. Yet, women DJs were few and far between: most women performed as MCs alongside male DJs. Women breakdancers – with notable exceptions like Baby Love – were also relatively scarce because breakdance was considered ‘unfeminine’.
Although hip hop brought many positive aspects to the borough, no single social movement can erase the inequality, violence, and trauma of the world which encapsulates it. This distinction became even more important as hip hop disentangled itself from the suburb in which it was born to become a global movement. In 1979 the hit vinyl record ‘Rapper’s Delight’ propelled rap into the mainstream. Curiously, the group – The Sugarhill Gang – weren’t from the Bronx but New Jersey. The top Bronx-based artists approached in the mid-1970s to produce an album turned their offers down. Many did not release records until the mid-1980s. It seems that, for these artists, the move to capture rap and place it on a record – a static space – was initially too far removed from the movement’s inception as live performance, and neighbourhood and identity reclamation. It was indeed a move that fundamentally reconstituted what hip hop was about.
The appropriation of hip hop by a US—and later global—audience through its commodification disallowed it to continue to develop within the black space that created it. Rather, it had to develop within the parameters set by a predominantly white culture which both desires and rejects the black ‘Other’s’ culture (a process which I—with this piece, my love of the music, and my desire to see the greats perform live—am no doubt implicated in as a white Australian). Importantly, this is a process that impacts how and where critiques of hip hop can and should be voiced. There are many important critiques to be made of the representations of gang violence and women in past and present hip hop culture, but, today, such issues are often brought to the fore to discredit the broader movement. This is most evident in the response of women artists to claims of sexism and misogyny levelled at hip hop culture. Understanding, as historian Tricia Rose has so eloquently explained, that “sexism against black women is being used to attack black men rather than reconstruct power relationships between black men and women”, women artists have by and large rejected ‘feminist’ critique of rap as a white space for perpetuating racial difference and power relations.
The hip hop movement of the 1970s Bronx may have struggled with issues of violence and sexism which characterised both its city and country at the time in question. Yet it was still a grass-roots, city-based movement which enabled a group of people to reclaim their streets and assert their right to their city. An act that would ultimately contribute to the Bronx rising ‘like a phoenix from the ashes’ in the wake of the 1970s – and making its way to the Melbourne Town Hall almost half a century later.