How the backout 1977 effect on Hip Hop

Over the last thirty-seven years Hip Hop has slowly but surely become a staple of American society and has achieved notoriety all over the world. Not only is Hip Hop music consistently one of the highest selling genres of music of any kind on the market today, but Hip Hop as a whole is highly influential in dictating trends of all kinds as well. On a macro level, large corporate entities use Hip Hop as a productive means of product promotion, marketing, and advertising.

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On a micro level Hip Hop dictates fashion, hairstyle, dialect, car choice, everyday mannerisms, musical preference, and even common greetings. The term Hip Hop itself has almost become a synonym for popular culture. Hip Hop is not a phenomenon. As it enters its fifth decade in existence, it is safe to say that Hip Hop is here to stay. With this in mind, the question becomes what is Hip Hop and where did it come from? The region known as the South Bronx is actually not a specific singular neighborhood but rather it is a group of neighborhoods located in the southwestern portion of New York City’s Bronx borough. While there is debate over which neighborhoods exactly constitute the South Bronx, it is clear that sections of the borough such as Hunts Point, Mott Haven, and Port Morris each make up the South Bronx. According to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, the term ‘the South Bronx’ did not exist before the 1960’s. He contends that in reality the term was really just an invention, a shorthand way to describe physically decaying neighborhoods, rising crime and rising poverty.

Before the 1960s, the Bronx was divided into the West Bronx and East Bronx. In essence, the term South Bronx originated during the 1960s as a racial construct used to define areas in the southern portion of the borough containing nearly homogeneous populations of low-income African Americans and Latinos. Therefore, most of the borough south of the Cross Bronx Expressway and west of the borough’s Castle Hill section is designated as the South Bronx for geographically, socioeconomic, and racial reasons. Virtually all notable Hip Hop scholars recognize that beginning with Sugar Hill Records in late 1979 small independent record companies, some previously in existence and others newly formed, began signing MCs and releasing rap records on vinyl, which allowed audiences outside of the South Bronx to consume Hip Hop as a recorded, tangible commodity for the first time. Most also acknowledge that the culture has become completely commercialized over the years by corporations and used as a marketing tool.

This thesis contends that initial investments in Hip Hop by local New York City and New Jersey based independent record companies and other small corporate entities paved the way for large corporate conglomerates to use Hip Hop for profit as well. Between 1973 and 1979 Hip Hop culture, with the exception of graffiti art, was not visible outside of New York City. DJing, MCing, and breakdancing were restricted to the Bronx and parts of Upper Manhattan. At first, youth in these areas experienced Hip Hop by attending DJs’ parties at local Boys and Girls Clubs, school gymnasiums, community centers in public housing projects, and multipurpose rooms in apartment buildings. As Hip Hop expanded, DJs began to perform at outdoor block parties, in parks, and at local nightclubs. According to Hip Hop’s first photographer Joe Conzo Jr., during this period the goals of Hip Hop had nothing to do with making money. In fact on a telephone interview from his home, Conzo stated, it was a young group of kids rebelling and playing their mom’s records at local jams throughout the desolate South Bronx.17 Michael Holman, creator of the television show Graffiti Rock, a show that got cancelled after one episode, furthers Conzo’s claim by contending, Hip Hop was truly a response to these kids being marginalized. It was a way of them saying ‘we are not nobodies, we are somebody.’ Hip Hop is really ‘look at me’.18 Hip Hop was a lifestyle aimed at having fun, garnering respect on the streets, and indulging in inexpensive forms of artistic self-expression. It had no connections to the corporate music industry whatsoever. However, in 1979 this all changed when Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records conceived the idea of recording MCs’ raps and distributing them nationwide as a new genre of popular music.

In order to understand the argument that beginning in 1979 independent record companies, most notably Sugar Hill Records, commodified Hip Hop culture by recording MCs’ raps onto 12-inch vinyl records for retail distribution and damaged the culture’s authenticity in the process, it is necessary to comprehend the importance of authentic 1970s cultural institutions in the Bronx and Harlem. For example, Hip Hop was born in an apartment building located at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. The building, which was erected in 1969, served the Bronx community by providing affordable housing to low-income residents and keeping them off the waiting lists for high-rise public housing projects. According to the spokesperson for Save 1520, an organization founded to combat gentrification efforts threatening to make the building’s affordable housing status obsolete, throughout the early 1970s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue made it possible for working families like DJ Kool Herc’s to thrive and create the communities that gave rise to hip-hop.19 It is clear that this apartment building served a very important purpose to its South Bronx community during the 1970s, a decade in which the Bronx witnessed unparalleled urban decay. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue existed as an authentic Bronx cultural institution by providing both the socioeconomic and physical settings that made Hip Hop’s creation possible and by standing as a strong, private-sector affordable housing complex that did not fall victim to arson or condemnation during the most turbulent of years.

In addition, nightclubs and local parks functioned as authentic cultural institutions in the Bronx and Harlem during the mid to late 1970s as well. In 1974, a variety of clubs throughout sections of the Bronx and Harlem began to embrace Hip Hop as a performance art and contracted DJs, most notably Kool Herc, to hold jams in their establishments. In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang describes this process. After becoming well known for his house parties on Sedgwick Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood, Chang writes that local clubs such as Twilight Zone, which was located on Jerome Avenue, and The Hevalo Club often featured DJ Kool Herc and his crew of MCs.20 Soon other local Hip Hop DJs, who had built their reputations up throughout the house party scene in the Bronx as Herc had before them, began spinning at clubs such as Harlem World, Savoy Manor, Your Spot, Plaza Tunnel, and many others.21 These clubs were cultural institutions within their Bronx and Manhattan communities. They provided neighborhood DJs, which were Hip Hop’s central figures throughout the 1970s, with a place to hold organized jams, demonstrate their artistic skills, and solidify their reputations within the close-knit Hip Hop community. In order to be allowed to deejay in such a cultural institution, DJs had to be established within the inner circle of the local Hip Hop community. If not, people would not attend the functions. The arduous process of becoming well known and respected as a DJ on the local Bronx house party circuit granted DJs a sense of authenticity. Once established, playing in the clubs gave Bronx DJs a further sense of authenticity, legitimacy, and notoriety within their communities.

Soon, as Chang explains, Hip Hop jams moved to outdoor parks in the South Bronx, most notably Cedar Park, which was located at the corner of Cedar Avenue, Sedgwick Avenue, and West 179th Street. This occurred during the summer months both because of the nice weather and because gangs made club jams unsafe.22 In order to hold a highly attended, successful park jam at a cultural institution such as Cedar Park, DJs had to have a well-established, positive reputation within the South Bronx Hip Hop community. At first, DJ Kool Herc dominated the outdoor jams at Cedar Park because of his impeccably large sound system and status as Hip Hop’s founder. However, over time other DJs learned from Herc and began holding large outdoor jams as well. During the mid to late 1970s, the Hip Hop community bestowed authenticity upon DJs based on the size and volume of their sound systems, the rarity of their records and quality of their breaks, and the crowd excitement generated by their MCs. Performing in parks like Cedar Park granted a sense of authenticity to DJs and MCs. These performers’ statuses became even more authentic if their jams garnered large crowds, if their parties lasted for long-periods, and if their names were well known throughout the community. This authenticity was central to Hip Hop culture between 1973 and 1979. Without it, it would be nearly impossible to become recognized within the culture.

Before various corporate entities realized the high marketability of Hip Hop, enabled its commercialization, distributed it as a tangible commodity, and transformed it into one of the most popular music genres and forms of entertainment in the world, Hip Hop existed as a localized artistic musical, social, and cultural phenomenon born in the South Bronx and eventually spreading to other areas of New York City. The culture’s beginnings date back to 1973 when eighteen year old Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, threw a back to school party for his little sister Cindy in the recreation room of an apartment building located in the far western portion of the South Bronx. As Chang indicates, by the time DJ Kool Herc threw this party he had already been heavily influenced by the sociopolitical and musical cultures of his native Jamaica. He grew up in Jamaica between 1955 and 1967, a period in which the country endured severe political conflict, violence, and unrest. However, through all of this turmoil, music remained a critical part of Jamaican culture. Musicians often threw outdoor parties and concerts where they showed off their tremendous sound systems. These parties gave young people the opportunity to temporarily escape from the violence around them. As a young boy, Clive Campbell witnessed all of the struggles plaguing his native Jamaica and learned from the island’s sound system operators and musical traditions.35

An analysis of Chang’s arguments makes it is clear that both his experiences as a young boy growing up in an extremely turbulent sociopolitical climate and his exposure to unique Jamaican musical traditions prepared him for life in the South Bronx and enabled him to create an innovative musical culture in his new environment.

On August 11, 1973 DJ Kool Herc created Hip Hop in the recreation room of an apartment building located at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx and deejaying became the first element of Hip Hop culture. DJ Kool Herc moved to the South Bronx in 1967, three years before street gangs composed of misguided, marginalized youth began to terrorize the area, which had already suffered from the effects of deindustrialization, arson, and other socioeconomic and physical ills of urban decay36. These gangs made many aspects of life in the South Bronx difficult for youth, including recreational and social activities. For example, teenagers often frequented disco-oriented clubs throughout the city beginning in the late 1960s. However, according to Hip Hop author and journalist Peter Shapiro, street gangs had a serious, detrimental effect on this club scene after 1970. He argues that gangs made disco clubs intolerable with their menacing presence.37 Discos failed to draw large crowds from the South Bronx and other low-income African American and Latino neighborhoods, not only because many of the teens in the area did not identify with the culture surrounding disco, but more importantly because many of the most prominent clubs’ cover charges were too expensive for South Bronx youth to afford.38 It is evident that as of 1973, adolescents and young adults from the area were eager for a new musical culture and affordable recreational activity to embrace. Therefore, when DJ Kool Herc threw his back to school party in August of 1973, a party with cheap admission and no disco music, teenagers from all over the predominantly African American and Latino, low-income sections of South Bronx were excited to attend. They were not disappointed.

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