The Problem With Origin Dates
Another look at why deeper investigations of the Hip-Hop story are needed
I was a curious child and asked a lot of questions. So many questions that my mom had an ongoing response, “I don’t know, but the encyclopedia does.” Because of that, I been a researcher since I could read c-a-t.
My mom making me proactive about my own research also produced something else in me — even as a child I could see the holes in stories. I would ask questions that the encyclopedia couldn’t answer. When I got to that point, my mom drove me a few blocks west to the library in the Dahlia Shopping Center and got me a library card.
Now that I’m older, I still love libraries (I promise you, everything isn’t on the internet), but for most of what I write, I’m looking online.
Over the course of the past year and a half that I’ve been writing these articles, this is what I’ve learned — most people don’t go beyond the first page of a search, and people love quoting information without doing a simple fact check.
People don’t challenge shit.
I got in trouble in school for asking challenging questions. (Didn’t win me friends with the gods either) But just because I got in trouble for it thirty and twenty years ago, doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop doing it now.
Just putting that out there.
Ok. Here’s my issue. The categorization of Hip-Hop is broken down like this, Hip-Hop is: DJing, B-Boying, Writing, Rapping, & Knowledge. And the story of Hip-Hop is recited like this: on August 11, 1973 DJ Kool Herc threw a party for his sister, Cindy…and Hip-Hop was born.
That story is told again and again. People will chant you down if you disagree with that narrative like Bob was chanting down Babylon. But I have one simple question…if Writing (graffiti) is a part of Hip-Hop, and Writing proceeded DJing, why is the start date for Hip-Hop on the day Herc threw that party?
You may not agree…but read, think about it, and reason with me. Aight? Aight.
I know the argument.
Graffiti goes back to the fifties, maybe even before that, Kilroy was here, and such. Got it. But let me tell you, that’s almost an argument for arguments sake because we all know that there was something distinct and different about the culture that emerged in the late 60s.
So let’s talk about that culture.
First of all, super shot out to Roger Gastman and the his level of scholarship. He didn’t just interview the right people, he asked the right questions, and put that work in the best possible package imaginable. His books on Writing are definitely collectibles. Without his work, many of the pre-73 stories would still be relegated to mythical status.
The first story that Gastman gave clarity to was the Taki 183 story. Sure, he’s known as the first writer to take it all-city in 70–71 but we finally got to learn about why he started. That goes back to Julio 204.
Although I’ve never read an interview with Julio 204, Gastman interviewed Julio’s running partner Jag who verified that Julio started writing in 67. Julio may have not covered all the boroughs, but he hit enough lampposts in Washington Heights to get the attention of one of Taki’s friends, Phil T Greek.
Inspired by the fact that Julio 204's name could be found at every turn, even in the park, Phil T Greek decided to make a go of it. For the next few years, he was one of the few people writing for fame. Taki saw the recognition that Phil was getting and in June of 1970 started to write.
A year later, his name was everywhere and he garnered the attention of the New York Times.
Mostly because it’s been retold so many times, people still say that July 21, 1971 article was the first one focused on graffiti and the new phenomenon of Writing. But not so.
Which brings me to the next story that Gastman brought total clarity to. I’ve heard about Cornbread for years, how he was one of the original Philly writers, etc. but before Gastman interviewed Cornbread for the book Wall Writing and made a documentary of the same name, it was hard finding any solid facts on him.
Wall Writing does more than interview Cornbread, it provides a clear picture of what life was like in 1967–8 Philadelphia.
Unlike New York, the writing scene in Philadelphia was huge long before the media caught a hold of what was going on. Cornbread started getting up in 67 and was quickly joined by another North Philly writer, Tity. Tity inspired Tee*Bop and by the end of the year there were a few North Philly writers including Dr. Cool 1 and Took.
On the other side of town in West Philly, Kool Klepto Kidd began getting up in 67 as well. His friend Earl wanted to be down and Kidd gave him his name — Cool Earl. They were quickly joined by Chewy, Bobby Cool, Neptune, and Cold Duck.
It’s estimated that there were approximately 20 to 25 writers getting up in 1967 Philadelphia. Writing was an alternative to the prevalent gang life that was ingrained in the cities culture. But what was also ingrained in that culture was tagging one’s name.
One of my mentors, Jehron Muhammad, who grew up in North Philly in that era, recalled that writing was something that everyone did. (He wrote Jug).
What differentiated writers like Cornbread, Kool Klepto Kidd and others from the gang writers was there sole purpose in writing was to have their name up in as many places as possible, to garner attention, and to impress women.
That first batch of North Philly writers wrote their name in a straight, clear and legible manner. The emphasis wasn’t on style. But West Philly writers, influenced by Kool Klepto Kidd, wrote their names with curves, twists, arrows, and stars.
When the North Philly writers and West Philly writers met up and began covering the whole city, they produced a whole new ‘generation’ of writers like Block, Lewis, Bow & Joe Cool. These writers had elaborate signatures and created the style that a visiting Topcat 126 would see and take back to Harlem, soon to be dubbed Broadway Style.
The writing community developed quickly in Philly and by 69 they already had their first writing crew, The Imperial Casanova Persuaders.
Newspaper articles began appearing as early as 1970 detailing the rise of “graffiti” (none of the writers ever called it that). The media coverage reached its crescendo in 1971 with the May 2, Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday’s magazine, Today article entitled, “Aerosol Autographers: Why They Do It.”
The police view them as destructive pests who are hard to catch. Many young people think of them as folk heroes, even celebrities. Sandy Padwe
The article paints a picture of a subculture of writers who already have a code of folkways and mores. Unlike graffiti writers of the past, these writers sought fame. They wrote their names everywhere and enjoyed the recognition that it brought. Often, writers assumed nicknames and to most outsiders, their identities remained a mystery. Padwe continues:
Until recently, only residents of the predominantly black (sic) neighborhoods knew the identity of people like Cornbread.
By the time the article came out, Cornbread and many of the early writers were going into retirement and the scene as a whole had reached it’s zenith. But 97 miles north, New York was just getting started. That article about Taki that we mentioned above was two months away.
Remember the time when there was no writing on the walls?
Depending on where you live, probably not. When I came back to Denver in 85, the only person writing was Zone. But he was just on the 44 bus and bus stops from Park Hill to Montbello. If a writer wanted to be known in Denver, it ain’t take much…
(If you lived in NYC in 2010, you might remember how the JIM JOE tags captured people’s imagination and stood out because they were plain, legible tags…and everywhere)
In the summer of 71, inspired by the fact that Taki 183 was seen all over the city and the exposure he received in the New York Times, writers began popping up all over New York, with different Boroughs developing their own styles. (When I look at Brooklyn writer La-Zar’s tag from the early 1970s, it looks like it could have been produced yesterday)
Writing developed beyond the straight, legible letters of Julio 204, Phil T Greek, & Taki 183. 1971 is the year that Topcat started writing. It’s the year that the Broadway Style took off. It’s the year that Lee 163rd starting writing. Phase 2 starting writing. Style became as important as getting up. Style became a way to stand out.
Another way to stand out was to start a crew. At least that was the idea that Dino Nod had when he started Brooklyn’s Ex-Vandals in 71.
And while the Ex Vandals name was seen all over the city, it was nestled among hundreds of other writer’s names seeking fame.
Towards the end of 71 and the beginning of 72, writers began outlining their names in separate colors and, looking for more places to write, they hit the outside of subway cars.
Then they began experimenting with colors. Writers like SJK 171, Super Kool 223, Stay High 149, and Hondo made some of the first subway pieces and as 73 rolled around, crews like the Ebony Dukes emerged dedicated to nothing but that — pieces. That was the impetus for Crachee and Vamm to start hitting up the 2 & 5 lines, later joined by Blade, Death, and Toll 13 forming the Crazy 5.
Tracy 168 remembered 1973 as “the best year in graffiti,” and went on to say:
Styles were coming out. We got into this thing with colors. First it was two colors, then three colors, then four. Then it was the biggest piece, the widest. Then it was top-to-bottom, whole car, whole train. We worked on clouds and flames. We got into lettering. Everybody was trying to develop their own techniques.
New York Magazine writer Richard Goldstein described the scene in the March 26, 1973 issue with these words:
In that sense, it’s a lot like rock ‘n’ roll in its pre-enlightened phase. To me, it announces the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties… …If all this begins to seem as compelling to middle-class kids as the (?) style did twenty years ago, then we are in for some inventive times.
Print Magazine covered the scene in its May/June issue where Patricia Conway described writing as “New York City’s hottest contemporary art movement…”
Long gone were the days of simply getting your signature on lampposts. Writers in 1973 had developed a whole subculture that was growing, evolving, and flourishing.
For obvious reasons, summers were the most active time for writers. As the 73–74 school year approached, a Bronx writer who had once joined his Borough’s chapter of the Ex-Vandals, decided to throw a back to school party. He wasn’t the only writer to DJ, several writers also spun records. One writer in Brooklyn reached so much fame in the realm of DJing that it’s alleged he opened for James Brown.
But it’s what the Bronx writer did later that would separate him from the others.
The party adhered to the most basic of economic theories — supply and demand.
SJK 171, who also DJ’d, recalled the type of music that he and others were demanding in 1973:
There was no such thing as hip-hop. The music was rock, funk, Latin, and world music. Anything that had a beat got through. If it was the Doobie Brothers and it had a beat, it got played.
So if any money was to be made at this back to school party, the DJ had to play what the people wanted to hear. His sister Cindy organized the whole thing, renting the building recreation center for $25. Her brother was already well-known in the Bronx for his writing name, Kool Herc, so that, I’m sure, was a part of the draw.
It was only 25 cents for girls and 50 cents for the guys. I wrote out the invites on index cards, so all Herc had to do was show up. With the party set from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., our mom served snacks and dad picked up the sodas and beer from a local beverage warehouse. Cindy Campbell
The party jumped off on Saturday, 11 August 1973. Due to the fact that there are no known recordings of that party, we can only guess what was played that day. I’ve listened to (and read) as many Kool Herc interviews as there are online. He mentions playing breaks at that party. He mentions Coke La Rock rapping at that party. But he almost always says that LATER he came up with the merry-go-round technique to extend the “get down” part. Nonetheless, that first party is recognized as the Birthday for Hip-Hop.
And that’s what my dilemma is.
Even if you exclude Philadelphia’s history or ignore Julio 204 & Phil T Greek’s contributions. Even if you start modern graffiti’s history with the boom of 1971 — that movement, the one that Herc was a part of, the one that the above mentioned Brooklyn DJ, popularly known as Grandmaster Flowers, participated in — that movement was already two years old by the time the first Herc party is thrown.
Writing had already united the Boroughs (the same way that it united North and West Philly years earlier), Writing united ethnic groups, and Writing had an established culture — a culture that was attracting media attention, a culture that a month later would be having its first art showing. Long before Fab Five Freddy and Mike Holman were bringing Uptown to Downtown, Twyla Tharp was tapping writers to paint a backdrop for what is considered the first ‘crossover’ ballet, Deuce Coupe.
Without being romantic about the frenzy of graffiti that burst upon the city, it is illuminating to find that their creators are now apt to perform onstage for others rather than just for themselves. Anna Kisselgoff, NYT
While it may be plain to see that all the things that one attributes to Hip-Hop already existed in the Writer’s community by 1973 , what we don’t often take into account is the role that the music industry plays in the modern narrative.
Rap is big business now. If you go into a Foot Locker in a suburban mall, Rap music will be blaring out of there like it was Puma Pitkin Pay in the 80s. It’s the music of the youth and as we often (under)state, Rap is a $10b a year industry.
Writing may have made the first splash (followed by Rockin’) but it would be awhile before an industry cropped up around it. Thus, like DJing, Rockin’, & Beatboxing, Writing became separated from Rap.
When I hear people say that Banksy made Writing legitimate, I cringe…and I hear it often. I was in a local used bookstore recently asking if they had any books on Writing and the clerk, possibly in his early 50s, pushed his greying blond hair to the side and said that he can’t keep those books stocked. “Every since Banksy, people gobble up anything about graffiti.”
DMX “Where My Dogs At” played in the background.
Rap and its history is now the dominant narrative, all other aspects of the culture must be told in line with that story.
But that’s the problem with origin dates, they’re often sloppy and more often than not they’re designated not by the creators of the art form but instead by the people who own the businesses that crop up around the art. One of the primary facets of that business is the documentarians — the ones that take the pictures and write the books, the ones that canonize the culture.
Whether they have an agenda or not, their stories shouldn’t be the end all/be all stories. That’s what we were addressing in If I see 1520 Sedgwick One More Time, I’m Going To Gouge My Eyes Out and that’s what Phase 2 is talking about below as we conclude. If Writing is a part of Hip-Hop like many of us proclaim, then we need to give up on that Origin Date narrative…or at least put an asterix on that mothafucka…something.
Whatever these documentarians do gets hyped to the hilt, regardless of whether the right people were consulted, regardless of what assumptions and misrepresentations are concocted to suit an audience. And next thing you know, it’s part of the hip hop canon, and nobody will criticize it. Phase 2
Rest easy, Phase 2. I will.