The Birth and Infancy of Hip Hop
On August 11, 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York, there was a party. Clive Campbell and his sister, Cindy Campbell, lived in the 102-unit apartment building in Morris Heights. Clive Campbell, it should be mentioned, is also known as DJ Kool Herc. It was at this address that Herc developed “the break,” isolating the beat track from a record and extending it using two copies of the same record on his two-turntable system. He debuted his mastery of “the breaks” in the community room of that apartment building on that day in 1973.
Using breaks and record scratches, DJ Kool Herc extended the beat, making the track longer. Long enough so that the breakdancers could keep dancing, and long enough that he started rapping to add some more flavor to the track. And, so, hip hop was born. The breaks were so important, so elemental to hip hop, that Kurtis Blow released a single on his 1980 debut full-length album called, what else? “The Breaks.”
Before the advent of the breaks, however, there was Grandmaster Flowers. Flowers is largely credited with inventing the mixing of records in sequence, hosting block parties in Brooklyn where the music never stopped and flowed from song to song without a break. Herc was able to build on this with the breaks, making one song go on and on and on rather than have to match tempo or beats per minute from track to track which, despite keeping the rhythm going, could change the mood on the dance floor.
Even earlier, before Flowers and before Herc in 1968, Pigmeat Markham and “Here Comes the Judge” became part of the hip hop panoply of song. Grandmasters Flowers and Herc forever changed the music, but Pigmeat Markham gets some credit for changing the way the microphone got worked. All of these things taken into consideration, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue is still officially recognized as the birthplace of hip hop.
At this point, there’s little denying that wherever it happened around the boroughs, hip hop was born and raised in New York City. Where Boogie Down Productions claimed “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, Bronx keeps creating it and Queens keeps on faking it” (note how Staten Island doesn’t even get an honorable mention), there was no consideration given to the Disco Twins and their part in the hardware battles over who had the loudest sound system. While Queens may not have been making it or creating it, they were making pretty sure hip hop got heard.
The Disco Twins are perhaps but a footnote in hip hop’s story, but their possession of one of Richard Long’s sound systems and his famous “Berthas” speakers in 1977 made them a force to be reckoned with (or to rent from) in their borough. It makes sense to mention at this point the blackout of 1977 which Grandmaster Caz credits as helping hip hop permeate the entire city.
Richard Long, who is no longer living, was (and his company still is) a designer of custom sound systems. In the mid- to late-1970s, he was selling mobile consoles and “Bertha” speakers (the latter at $4000-plus, each, almost forty years ago) to anyone who was looking to have a system that would drown out their competitors in the parks of Queens and other boroughs of New York. Imagine the late 1970s, summer, New York City, where extension cords were running out of high-rises and into city parks or where deejays were tapping into power sources like streetlights to plug in their mobile consoles and hulking huge speaker systems to play the latest sounds from the other boroughs.
Let’s return to the point of beginning and to the breaks. Before he released “The Breaks” in 1980, Kurtis Blow made it onto a major label in 1979 with his song “Christmas Rappin’.” While “The Breaks” is instantly recognizable, he did not beat Sugar Hill Gang to the punch, as the trio broke the Top 40 in ‘79 with “Rapper’s Delight” and made hip hop commercial, for better or worse, because the long-standing battle to protect the integrity of the art form began with the Sugar Hill Gang, perhaps the first manufactured “boy band”. Kurtis Blow, then, might be the first commercially successful of the ‘real’ rappers.
As hip hop grew and grew in New York City, Afrika Bambaataa formed the Universal Zulu Nation in the mid-to-late 1970s. At this time in history, the Civil Rights Act was not yet ten years old and almost every person living in the United States had witnessed first-hand state-sponsored segregation. There was racism, there was tension, and before long, there would be rampant freebase cocaine abuse. The Zulu Nation was a collective of conscious emcees, breakers, and other artists and former gang members from South Bronx. Bambaataa and his group saw an opportunity to use hip hop as a new voice of the community and the people, organizing youth events and ultimately synthesizing several elements into what became known as the “pillars of hip hop” as explained by KRS-One.
Whether hip hop was born in 1968 with Pigmeat Markham, or in Grandmaster Flowers’ or DJ Kool Herc’s parties, the fact is that by 1980, it was a cultural force to be reckoned with, and one that was ripe for both controversy and exploitation. Affiliations like the Zulu Nation sought to protect both hip hop and its participants, but A&R people and record labels would seen see a great opportunity to make money from these new sounds coming out of the streets. As hip hop got its legs and learned to walk into the coming decade, it was also already losing its innocence.
This story is a continuation of an exploration of the history of hip hop, primarily an exploration of the Golden Age, which began here. Follow the author here on Medium and also on Twitter @anygiventues. I’d love your support to help me keep researching and writing: Show how much you loved this particular piece or maybe you want to support on a sustaining basis and get some perks?