In 1973, the Bronx in New York City was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Robbery, muggings and murder were part of the residents’ everyday life. Youths organized themselves into street gangs, taking control of their blocks and fighting each other.
The Bronx was on fire — literally. Firefighters regularly had to put out blazes in tenement blocks, as landlords used arson to speculate on insurance premiums.
The streets were littered with debris and junk; the neglected parks attracted drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. The entire neighborhood was crumbling, with many residential buildings empty and increasingly dilapidated.
As photojournalist Allan Tannenbaum wrote in an essay describing his personal experience of the area, in the early 1970s, the Bronx and other parts of New York City, such as the Lower East Side, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Harlem, looked like European cities after the Second World War.
There was great poverty, with a majority of residents living on welfare. Not because they didn’t want to work, but because there was no employment at all.
Those who could afford it fled the neighborhood, but they also had to find a landlord who would rent them an apartment elsewhere. Although racial segregation was officially abolished in the US in the early 1970s, many white people did not want to live alongside African Americans, and continued to discriminate against them, making it difficult for Blacks to change their situation. Structural racism also contributed to the fact that it was predominantly African Americans and Latinos who stayed behind in the socially disadvantaged and neglected neighborhoods.
A teenage party turns into a founding myth
“At the time New York city was almost bankrupt. There was really nothing there for kids to do,” recalls Cindy Campell in a video produced by auction house Christie’s, which is holding a special auction to mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop’s founding.
At the time, Campbell was in high school and, in order to be able to buy clothes for the new school year, she decided to throw a party. Admittance for boys was 50 cents, while girls paid 25 cents, according to the flyer for her “DJ Kool Herc Party.”
DJ Kool Herc was her 18-year-old brother, Clive Campbell.
So on August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc dragged his sound system, consisting of two turntables, a mixer, an amplifier and a set of speakers, into the community room of the tenement building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.
The smell of marijuana was in the air. The bass pumped and ripped through the sweating crowd as they danced and partied in the darkened room. DJ Herc’s buddy Coke La Rock grabbed the microphone, greeted the guests and started rapping.
This later earned him a reputation as the first “MC” (Master of Ceremonies).
Around 50 people came, friends and young people from the neighborhood. They experienced the first hip-hop party in history — before terms like hip-hop or rap had even been coined.
How DJ Kool Herc created new sounds
DJing was nothing special, and rapping wasn’t new either. US comedian Pigmeat Markham had already released a track, the single “Here Comes the Judge,” with rhythmic spoken word in 1968.
What was revolutionary about DJ Kool Herc’s technique was that he created new tracks by using the instrumental parts of other songs, breaks with drums and bass. Since those lyrical breaks are often very short, DJ Kool Herc simply used a second copy of the same record on another turntable to lengthen the excerpts, by playing them back to back. He called this technique the “merry-go-round,” and thereby developed a new, extremely danceable sound made of breaks.
That’s also where the term breakdancer comes from — referring to those who dance to the music generated from breaks.
DJ Kool Herc mixed different styles of music in his performances. He wouldn’t reveal which records he was using, to make sure people would keep coming to his parties to hear his exclusive sound.
He inherited his passion for music from his father, who was an avid record collector and had jazz, gospel and country records at home. DJ Kool Herc was also interested in soul, as well as in modern disco music. He was always looking for sounds from which he could create a beat — the basis for a good hip-hop track.
The parties just kept getting bigger
The DJ had set off fireworks on the turntables, and word spread quickly around the Bronx. Everyone came to Herc’s parties, recalls rapper Coke La Rock in the Netflix documentary series “Hip-Hop Evolution”: murderers, thieves, dancers and normal people all came to the events, which ultimately moved to the streets and parks when the lounge became too small.
The block parties were a regular feature in New York City in the 1970s. Street lamps were often tapped to supply the music system with electricity.
In order to stand out as a DJ, you had to be loud, and DJ Kool Herc had the biggest and loudest speakers in the neighborhood.
Hip-hop — more than just music
Right from the start, hip-hop was not just a music genre, but an entire culture, encompassing DJing, rap, breakdance, graffiti and knowledge. It all came together at DJ Kool Herc’s parties. Just one more reason the legendary party on Sedgwick Avenue is considered the birth of hip-hop.
Anyone who wanted to hear hip-hop had to come to the block parties, because in the mid-1970s hip-hop albums weren’t available for sale, nor was the music on the radio.
It wasn’t until 1979 that The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip-hop song to make the US charts. It’s a song that is now considered a classic, just like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, which came out in 1982 and tells of life in the New York ghetto.
“Hip hop has been the Voice of the Voiceless, the story of marginalized communities, where people can tell stories about the social inequities that are happening in communities, black and brown communities. Not just here in America but all around the world,” said Rocky Bucano, director of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in New York, in a promotional video for the museum’s planned opening in 2024.
In a video of the web video series “Black History in Two Minutes,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay called hip-hop the “CNN of the Black community,” because it poetically reports on everything that Black people experience in everyday life.
From niche to mainstream
Many US rappers who have made it to the top don’t come from the middle class, but from the poor backgrounds where hip-hop originated.
Moving from subculture into the mainstream, hip-hop is now one of the most popular music genres in the world, with superstars including Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, the Wu-Tang Clan, Timbaland, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Nas, Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Drake, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, to name just a few.
From the United States, hip-hop culture has spread worldwide, influencing music, fashion, film, advertising and art.
In Germany, where a hip-hop scene with different trends has also developed over time, hip-hop is truly a political culture: In 2017, a hip-hop political party was even set up. It has yet to enter the German parliament.
This article was originally written in German.