With the 50th Anniversary this year of Hip Hop, I have often wondered, why this date? Why that event? Why even that year? What was different about that party that already wasn’t happening? If Hip Hop is 4 elements why is this event considered the starting point? Why is one man named the father of Hip Hop/Pioneer of Hip Hop when there is 4 elements? Its questions like this and various others I have pondered for years and will be looking to answer. Hip Hop is a culture, at what point does something become a culture? At what point does Hip Hop become its own culture? When does it stop being a DJ spinning other genres of music and become Hip Hop? What is Hip Hop?
What is Hip Hop? Well that seems like a great starting point. In 2023 Hip Hop has become a huge worldwide culture that has been broken into various subgenres, eras and elements. In 2001 It became a Universal Culture, it covered the globe and had expanded to 9 elements; Djing, Emceeing, Breakdancing, Writing, Beatboxing, Street Fashion, Street Language, Street Knowledge and Street Entrepreneurship. But long before that, it was the voice of the disenfranchised youth that created the culture that would be grouped into the 4 pillars (DJ, Emcee, Writer, B-Boy) and called Hip Hop.
So where did the name come from? The lore states that it was Keith Cowboy of The Furious Five and DJ Lovebug Starski. The term itself is much older though, used to describe dancing all the way back to the 1600s and as slang parents would use to refer to teenager parties; “Hippity Hops.” It wouldn’t be until many years after the late 70s to early 80’s that the term would be used to describe the culture. Crazy Legs is on record as stating that in 1975 that it “wasn’t called Hip Hop yet.” The first time it is used in print is by the Pittsburgh Carrier in ’79 and then next during an interview in 82. Though the term was used in parties and later songs it was most often referred to as ‘Disco Rap.’ This brings me back to one of my original questions; At what point does Hip Hop become its own culture?
So if it is not the name that makes it the culture, let’s look to the pillars; the original 4 pillars, DJing, Emceeing, Writing, and Breakdancing.
We will start with the most commonly used element when discussing the history/origin of Hip Hop; THE DJ. Now at what point does a DJ stop being a DJ and become a Hip Hop DJ? Is there a line? Is it the introduction of the second turntable? Is it the introduction of the Mixer? Is it the Fader? The Scratch? The Merry Go Round? How can you be a Hip Hop DJ without any Hip Hop music?
The DJ and the term predates hip hop by decades being coined in 1935 by Walter Winchell. Heading forward it would be DJ Jimmy Savile that would claim to be the first DJ to use two turntables but would be DJ Bob Casey in 1955 that would popularize it. After that we head into the 1950’s where the soundsystem and influence from Jamaica would surface. The 60’s would bring the mixer, slip cuing, the outdoor parties and the pioneering DJ’s DJ Hollywood, Grandmaster Flowers and DJ Kool Herc. By the 70’s DJing seemed like it was getting popular with a large focus on playing for the dancers, for the B Boys. 1972 would be a great year no matter which way you look at it, some of the stories taking you to the Stardust Ballroom where DJ Poppysoul states that DJ Flowers is the first to scratch and cut during a merry go round routine. DJ Kool Herc states that he used to dance at the DJ Flowers parties. Even if you are to lean towards the Bronx side of the story, Kool Herc was practicing and using the Merry go Round technique in 72. It is safe to say that easily by the Mid 70s that DJing and Turntabalism would be established and expanded on with Grand Master Flash, Grand Wizzard Theordore and many many others. This has always raised questions for me; If the Hip Hop DJ was created out of necessity to cater to the B Boy, How is the DJ the first Pillar? If we are to take and believe all the information, The Merry Go Round, Beatmatching, Scratching, Cutting, Two Turntables, Slip cuing all are in popular use in 1972. This brings me to a popular quote by Anthony Horne that states “ Some say hip hop begins with the DJ. But actually Hip Hop Culture itself begins with the B-Boy.”
It is clear to say that the B-Boy predates the Hip Hop DJ, but what makes a B-Boy Hip Hop? B-Boys started dancing to Disco, Funk and Jazz, why are they not associated with Jazz? With Funk? B-Boying is more than just that though, it has a rich history that rises out of the New York Gang culture of the time. [The Gangs and Gang culture play its own part in Hip Hop history and will be addressed in more detail later.] Before all of that, lets get into the history and influence that would form what some say is the first pillar of hip hop. Influence of hip hop can be traced back to the 1800’s and before and elements from all over the world. In 1877 we have the Salmon Polka – Rob Roy on the Baltic, in 1894 we have the “Breakdown” with Walter Wilkons, Denny Toliver and Joe Rustus. 1898 brings us headspins, but honestly do kids from the Bronx know this? Do they have access to this information? Most say it was the influence from James Brown and Kung Fu movies more so than old literature and foreign martial arts. That brings me back to the same question; What makes B-Boying Hip Hop? At what point do they stop being a Funk dancer and become a Hip Hop dancer?
The Roots of the culture traced back to the 60’s with Latinos ‘Rocking’ and “Burning.’ Rock states that in the 60’s the B-Boy, a clear Bronx creation was already a sub genre of the sub culture. So at what time does the term B-Boy come into play? When is it classified as Hip Hop? As clarified earlier, the term Hip hop wasn’t used until much later, but what about ‘B-Boy”? B-Boy looks like it has been in use right from the beginnings, the dancers called B-Boys which would have lead to the popular records being labeled as B-Boy records. So with the term in use, the dancing evolving prior to the 70s, other dancing styles that would eventually fall under the Hip Hop umbrella being developed in other parts of the US. It brings me back to the question. What in 73 was different?
Looking to the third pillar, The Emcee. Most think this element is a easy dismissal for the original element but the Emcee has deep roots as well. The roots trace back easily to the 30’s signifyin, the dozens and jazz poetry. The first emcee is a disputed title. What makes you an emcee? At what point does it become rapping? When does it stop being an MC and become an Emcee? Officially the title goes to Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggins in 75, but other than using the term Hip Hop in his chants and routines, how was what he doing any different than those before him; Coke La Rock and DJ Rapper DJ Hollywood? Prior to the records in 79, Prior to the name Hip Hop, Prior to Cowboy, Coke La Rock, DJ Hollywood and prior to the party in the summer of 73 we have arguably a handful of records released that could easily be classified as hip hop, or at least the earliest stages of the emcee. A decade prior we have the spoken word album by Mohammad Ali, followed by Pigmeat Markham’s “Here comes the Judge’ in 1968. The early 70’s would bring us from the westcoast, The Last Poets and also Gil Scotte Heron – The Revolution will not be Televised. If Emceeing is an element of hip hop and the first Hip Hop Emcee was deemed as Cowboy in 1975, how could Hip Hop have started years prior?
That brings us to the 4th element Graffiti. To this day there are many people that still do not consider Graffiti to be a Hip Hop element. Doing Graffiti is not synonymous with Hip hop and branches out into various other music genres and culture. That brings up the question, what about graffiti makes it Hip Hop? At which point did it become part of Hip Hops culture or has it always been one of its own? For this conversation we are discussing Modern Graffiti, Graffiti dates back to the beginning of time. Modern Graffiti gets its birth from the Gangs of the US evolving throughout the states from the 1800’s in Philly, Chicago, California and the Mexico bordering states. In the early stages it would be the Mexican influence and murals from the zoot suit riots in the 1940s, the Freight Monikers and most note worthy the stylistic gang graffiti from Chicago. It was here even in its infancy, graffiti knew no color, had no boundries being created by the Black, Latino and white gangs in the area. It would be artists like Sleepy from Albaquerque, Bobby Beck From Philly and Albert Mercado, A Black Spade from New York that would begin to push the boundaries and develop more style that would influence future writers such as Julio204, Tracy168, Taki183, Kool Klepto Kid and Cornbread. Jesus Saves and Kilroy was here would be movements’ years before Cornbread would take over the Philadelphia streets. The scene would explode by 71, the New York Times calling Philadelphia the Graffiti Capital of the world and in 72 the first graffiti crew , the United Graffiti Artists is formed. Again I am brought back to, what in ’73 was different? Where was graffiti at the birth of hip hop? If graffiti is an element of Hip hop and was in full swing prior to the 73 party, What made the existing art form Hip Hop?
The next question I have is, If there are 4 elements, why is there only a Hip Hop Trinity? Why is the Trinity all DJs? You would think that each major pioneer, originator figure would be included in the creation of Hip Hop. Where are these figures of each pillar of Hip Hop? The Trinity of Hip Hop as it stands consists of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Master Flash. This makes sense if you follow what seems to be the narrative, that the DJ created Hip Hop. After looking into each element, I don’t see how that can be true with both the B-Boy and the writer existing before the Hip Hop DJ. Many DJs were B Boys and writers before they became a DJ including DJ Kool Herc himself. Personally I think this should be changed to be focused on the DJ not Hip Hop as a whole. I could see how these three could be considered as the Holy Trinity of Turntablism (The DJ Element.) Herc popularized the movement and stayed ahead of everyone with his soundsystem, Afrika would change it with his programming and Flash would take it over with his Style. DJ AJ states that “Herc couldn’t draw a crowd after they saw Flash.” Flash would perfect many of the techniques used before him including beatmatching, the backspin and scratching. Flash would align himself and create the group Grand master Flash and the 3 MC’s where Cowboy would coin the phrase ‘Hip Hop’ and Melle Mel would be the first to refer to himself as an ‘Emcee.’ The dates here vary depending on who, when and where you are reading them. The dates have these three DJs in succession more so than at the same time forming the trinity. Herc influences Grand Master Flash, as well as the DJs( Kool DJ D, Disco King Mario) that would apprentice Afrika.
What was the Gangs influence on the creation of Hip Hop? Where does the Zulu Nation come into the creation of Hip Hop? Afrika Bambaataa’s contributions? The gangs of the Bronx would be heavily influenced by the Hell’s Angels and would in many cases include strong Nazi references, patches, gang called the Gestopos and even a writer name Hitler II. A variety of gangs were around in the early 70’s such as The Mongols, The 7 Immortals, The Arthur Avenue Boys, The War Pigs, Savage Skulls, Savage Nomads but most importantly the Black Spades and the Ghetto Brothers. It would be a Ghetto Brother by the name of “Black Benji’ that would begin the talks of peace. At the Peace Treaty meeting he would be attacked by Mongols, 7 Immortal and Black Spade members and killed. It would be fellow Ghetto Brothers Yellow Benji, Karate Charlie and Savage Skull Blackie that in Black Benji’s honor would push for peace. With the help of community figures such as Spanish Eddie, Manny Dominguez and Rita Fetcher that would lead to the meeting of 40 gangs. Here it would be Charlie Suarez that would lead the meeting and Melendez that would state “We are not a gang anymore. We are an Organization.” It would be this organization in combination with the Gang Unit that would lead to the breakdown of many of the gangs as they transitioned into B Boy Crews, DJ Crews and Graffiti Crews. It would be around this time a young Bambaataa would take over the Spades and would eventually form the Zulu Nation. The dates I find for the Zulu Nation vary depending on which publication or who is telling the story. Some count the creation of the Organization as the start and many others including the Afrika Bambaata Wikipedia page put the origin of the Universal Zulu Nation at 1977, much later than the 73 “Origin of Hip Hop’ party. Bambaataa’s contributions to Hip Hop are interesting, the more one dives into it the stranger it gets, “some faces about his own life are slippery like quicksilver.” Bambaata kept things like his real name and birthdate a secret, that “revealing his true age might have hurt his credibility with young fans.” To me the coincidences seem to pile up, aligning himself with the Organization, a peace treaty that The Black Spades initially opposed. “It took a lot of stress and sticking together to keep all of these groups under that whole family, or truce that the Ghetto Brother Benjy has put forward for everyone to come under.” It would be this concept along with an idea from a movie, a logo from New Orleans and some say the teaching ideals of the 5% Nation that would create the Zulu Nation. It is here that the claim of the first Hip Hop Organization is claimed but many people vary with that thought as well with the United Graffiti Artists alone predating the Zulu Nation. Musically Bambaata and the growth of the Nation would contribute and build Hip Hop with bringing together many people, pushing the Hip Hop boundries musically and the first tour outside of the US. And once again we return to the question, What was different in regards to the gang influence in 73? It doesn’t look like anything substantial happened in 73, The Organization was created in 72 and the Universal Zulu Nation in ’77.
With all the attention on giving Hip Hop its flowers for the 50th Anniversary, theres enough to give all involved. You can give Herc, Afrika and Flash their flowers without embellishing the story, pushing an agenda, furthering the orgin myth. If we are to pay homage to Hip Hop, the Forefathers, then why not a father and Godfather for each element? For me each element has its own rich history and the Origin of Hip Hop is when the 4 elements are brought together. For this it seems like the Crotona Avenue Schoolyard Jam where all the elements were showcased equally, together that makes more sense as the Origin of the culture.
“History is a collection of voices, and some people know how to yell louder than others.’
- Roger Gastman.