15 Years of Hip Hop: Back in the Days

Most of what you know about the old school is wrong.

THE HISTORY of hip hop is much more complex than we’ve been led to believe. When searching for a single point of origin, most people speak of South Bronx block parties in the 1970s. But the music’s roots run deeper and reach further back than that.

Just ask 39-year-old Clive Campbell (better known as DJ Kool Herc). “It started in Jamaica and became an American art form,” says the living link between the music of Kingston and that of the Bronx. Campbell still vividly recalls his boyish excitement each month when sound system operator King George rolled into his Kingston neighborhood in the mid-’60s, wheeling humongous speakers in wooden carts through the streets of lower St. Andrew, a respectable working-class community wedged between posh upper St. Andrew and Kingston, where the rude boys dwelled.

Campbell remembers the backyard dances, illuminated by a string of lights, dark and scary to a youth not yet in his teens. The pungent odor of grass hung in the air, bottles of Red Stripe were strewn everywhere, a goat’s head lay boiling in a pot. The local rudies lined up at the edge of the dance, stylish figures in slim-fit, James Bond-style suits. An occasional flash of metal sliced through the murk as a ratchet knife searched out its target. But most shocking of all was the bass-heavy attack of the sound system when it kicked in, a roar so loud it shook rib cages and windows alike.

Campbell carried these memories with him when, at the age of 13, he moved with his family to New York in search of a better life. Like many immigrants before him, he was shocked when he arrived in the Bronx. “I was expecting Leave It to Beaver — white houses with lawns and picket fences,” says Campbell. “Instead, it looked like Trench Town, except the weather was cold and stores stayed open 24 hours.”

But he adapted well to his new surroundings. His power on the basketball court earned him the nickname Hercules. When he became a graffiti writer, he shortened Hercules to Herc and added Kool. It wasn’t spray paint, however, but vinyl that eventually made his name. “My initial inspiration,” says Herc, “came from Jamaica, seeing people being entertained in the dancehall and wanting to do that for an American audience.” And so hip hop’s original DJ was born.

POP CULTURE wastes nothing; that which goes around comes around and around again. Not so long ago, the only folks getting excited about rap’s founding fathers were fanatics living in Europe and Japan. But, as befits this decade’s obsession with the ’70s, the past year has seen a dramatic revival of interest in hip hop’s origins. “In the ’80s nobody wanted to know about the old school,” says Pee-Wee Dance of the Bronx’s premier B-boy outfit, the Rock Steady Crew. “Now, all of a sudden, everybody wants to be down with us.”

Old-school flavor pervades today’s rap scene. Besides the ’70s funk feel of Dr. Dre and his Cali cohorts, and “back in the day” songs by everyone from Ahmad to Coolio, there have been a rash of “old-school reunion” shows of late. And recent albums from Terminator X and the Scotti Bros. label feature new music from the likes of Kurtis Blow, Busy Bee, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, Cold Crush Brothers, and Fearless Four. Meanwhile, the electro-funk that Bambaataa championed more than a decade ago is still going strong in the Southeast, as evidenced by last year’s “Whoomp!” craze.

Be that as it may, given the shaky acquaintance most rap fans have with hip hop history, misconceptions about the old school are common. “Back in the day” may be a favorite phrase among rappers, but what particular day they’re referring to depends on the rapper’s age and knowledge. This generation has been passed down a partial version of history, filled with inaccuracies. Numerous myths need debunking:

 Hip bop began in the South Bronx. This statement- repeated innumerable times on record, in print, and in conversation — is open to dispute. Some insist that the culture’s first stronghold was the West Bronx, but a history of hip hop would be incomplete without some reference to Jamaica and the influence of reggae sound systems.

• Hip hop’s original audience was made up of gang members. Not so, according to Kool Herc. “Most of them were ordinary kids, not gangsters. When the gangs started showing up to parties, they nearly killed the hip hop. And they might have done it, if it wasn’t for the influence that Bambaataa had over them.”

• Hip hop was exclusively a black thing. Again, untrue. At the earliest Zulu Nation jams up in the Bronx, the crowd was racially diverse, mostly comprised of African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinos. But even then, what Bambaataa calls “progressive-minded” whites were making the trip uptown. “When the punk rockers first came to the Bronx River [Houses] and started mixing with the black and Hispanic kids, people thought there’d be trouble,” says Bam. “But there wasn’t. It was peaceful.”

 Hip bop was one type of music: hardcore. “Hip hop used to be a free-form expression,” says Grandmaster Flash, one of the most technically accomplished of old-school DJs, who helped push rap toward social realism with ‘The Message’. “Now it’s more about conformity. In the old days, I played everything from Frank Sinatra to Thin Lizzy.”

Rap fans, however, can hardly be blamed for their lack of knowledge about the music they follow. “Kids today have never had the real history of the old school taught them,” says Herc. But it’s not only the kids who are passing on mistruths. Last year Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with Bam, Herc, and Flash. They were introduced by the distinguished African-American studies professor Manning Marable, who described rap’s inception as a reaction to the racist policies of the Reagan era. Hip hop, of course, was alive and breaking through the Carter years.

In the back of the room, Rock Steady Crew member Crazy Legs muttered, “This guy don’t know shit about the history of hip hop.”

KOOL HERC wasn’t the first DJ in the Bronx to talk over records. Before his emergence on the scene, “disco DJs” like Grandmaster Flowers and Pete Jones ruled such Bronx clubs as the Tunnel and the Puzzle in the early ’70s, interspersing innocuous party chants with the latest cuts from James Brown or dance-floor R&B from the mighty Philadelphia International label. Herc found their style too smooth and their playlists too limited.

Influenced by dancehall’s rough-and-ready spirit, Herc developed a style of spinning that emphasized rhythmic passages. Instead of playing the whole track, Here would go straight to the instrumental break, extending it at will by flipping from one turntable to another. Such “breakbeats” became the foundation of hip hop music. Herc claims to have coined the term B-boy for those who danced to breakbeats.

At first Herc rapped simple street slang as he mixed — “Rock on my mellow” or “This is the joint.” But later he employed MCs Coke La Rock and Clark Kent, two of many who were dubbed the Herculoids. Here soon made the transition from playing block parties and schools to clubs, where he put on theme nights: sneaker parties, hustlers’ conventions. Things went well until 1977, when Herc suffered a near-fatal stabbing outside one of his parties. “The guy who did it,” he says, “after the bouncers had finished with him, ended up staying in the hospital three weeks longer than me.”

After the stabbing, Herc’s career began to falter. Unlike fellow Bronx pioneers Bambaataa and Flash, he didn’t make the transition from deejaying to recording. “I took a fall,” he admits. “I got distracted. Drugs became a part of my life.” About a decade ago, he disappeared from the hip hop scene altogether. During the ’80s, while others got paid off his musical innovations, Herc supported himself with construction work.

Now, having completed a 12-step rehabilitation program, Herc is alcohol- and drug-free, his resolve reinforced by the birth of a son earlier this year. One myth about the old school that he is anxious to dispel is that hip hop was a direct product of the bombed-out South Bronx environment. “I lived in a nice neighborhood,” he insists. Times were hard and getting harder, but brothers still turned out in expensive sheepskin coats and A.J. Lester knits and paid their admission for Herc’s parties.

No matter how rough things got, though, Herc’s presence at the turntables guaranteed a certain code of behavior among the crowd. “Nobody ever got shot at one of my parties,” he says. “They had too much respect for me.” But if there’s one person who embodies the idea of DJ-as-authority-figure even more than Kool Herc, it’s Afrika Bambaataa.

Besides creating such seminal jams as 1982’s ‘Looking for the Perfect Beat’ and the futuristic ‘Planet Rock’, Bambaataa is also the founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, an organization born out of the South Bronx gangs but dedicated to peace, unity, and self-knowledge. “When I came out of the Black Spades,” says the soft-spoken former division leader of this notorious street gang, “and went straight into the hip hop thing behind Herc, a lot of gang members followed me. In the mid-’70s, gangs were dying out. The police were cracking down, community leaders were speaking out, women were fed up with the violence.” A not dissimilar situation exists today, and perhaps the appeal of the old-school revival is that it offers up a magical solution, albeit one based on the rather naive notion of reformed gangbangers dedicating themselves to good works in the community.

During the early ’80s, Bambaataa reigned at the Roxy, a Manhattan club on West 18th Street that showcased the newly emerging hip hop culture for a Downtown audience. Exhibiting the eclectic musical tastes that earned him the title Master of Records, Bam presided over a crowd like hip hop never saw before or since: Celebrities like Madonna and Eddie Murphy mingled with break-dancers and graffiti artists; punks and new romantics rubbed shoulders with rappers and hustlers.

But by the late ’80s, according to Bam, “it became musical apartheid. If you wanted house music, you went to this club, reggae another club, and hip hop yet another club. In the early ’80s, everything was progressive. People listened to funk, soul, reggae, rock, calypso, hip hop all in the same place.” But the Roxy wasn’t just about music; it incorporated art, fashion, dance, attitude — the entire breadth of hip hop culture.

When 33-year-old Roxy regular Pee-Wee Dance got into hip hop at the age of 11, it was called the good foot, after the James Brown song, or the boyoyoing — a cryptic, evocative name that reflects its dance music roots. The biggest difference between then and now, according to Pee-Wee, is motivation. “Back in the day,” he says, invoking the familiar phrase, “people did what they did to get attention. Nowadays, people are just in it for a dollar.” When rap became big business, the industry wanted personalities to market. MCs grew to be the focus of the music and their bad-boy antics came to eclipse the DJs. The DJ’s job had once been, in Grandmaster Flash’s words, “to energize the crowd peacefully.” But under the new rules, the rapper’s job was often to incite the crowd with ever more incendiary images of killing cops or brutal sex. Hip hop was becoming less like dance music and moving ever closer to the shock tactics of punk rock, a trend that heralded the rise of the gangstas.

WE REMEMBER the members of hip hop’s old school — or true school, as they themselves prefer to call it — in three ways. There are the legends — Bambaataa, Herc, Flash, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow — whose influence endures today, whose early innovations provided the foundation for the future of the music. There are the semilegends, like DJ Hollywood — a big influence on Herc — and Grand Wizard Theodore, who many say invented scratching as a 13-year-old. Then there are the unsung heroes — names like DJ Smokey and the Smokatrons, Disco King Mario and the Chuck City Crew, Disco Twins, the El Brothers — important in their time, but now omitted from most histories.

The Cold Crush Brothers fall somewhere between semilegend and legend. Formed in 1979 from the ashes of half a dozen previous crews, Cold Crush — two DJs (Charlie Chase and Tony Tone) and a quintet of rappers (Grandmaster Caz, Money Ray, Almighty Kay Gee, Easy AD, and JDL) — were famous for their elaborate stage routines, four-way rap attack, and ethnic mix. “We didn’t have hit records like Flash or Bambaataa,” says Grandmaster Caz. “We had hit stage shows.”

For a much anticipated battle in Harlem against their archrivals, the Fantastic Five, Cold Crush took the stage to the strains of the Godfather theme, wearing three-piece suits and wide-brimmed hats. They even sprayed the crowd with fake machine guns. It all sounds a bit corny by today’s hardcore standards, but back then, even “bad-boy” posing carried a party-time spirit. As Tony Tone says, “A lot of the fun has gone out of hip hop.”

Unlike today’s rappers, the Cold Crush Brothers didn’t hone their skills in the studio but through intense verbal jousting onstage or on the street corner. Battling was the essence of hip hop then, but “people are afraid to battle today,” says Caz. “In the old days, you battled to get a reputation. These days studio rappers are afraid to go head-to-head with real rappers because they’re scared to risk their reps.”

Rap veterans can sometimes sound like old men bemoaning how kids today have it easy. But given the number of former legends struggling to make a living, it’s surprising how free of bitterness most of them are. “The only bitterness I feel is watching something I invented being used for negative purposes,” says Kool Herc, referring to the increasingly violent and misogynist turn rap has taken.

“I don’t want people to think we’re all bitter,” says Pee-Wee Dance, “but don’t come and steal what we created and then turn and say, ‘Fuck you, I’ve got a record deal.’ If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have that record deal to begin with. We’re glad to see that hip hop has lasted this long. But hip hop is not supposed to be like this. This wasn’t the intention.”

Rap’s movement from public parks, street corners, and community centers to stadium tours, pop charts, and record company boardrooms left most of the old school high and dry. Those who kicked their dopest rhymes back before there was an infrastructure to support long-term careers had to watch from the sidelines as their culture was transformed into a multimillion-dollar industry. Of course, that is the nature of the music: Rap’s voracious appetite for new sounds and styles keeps it too busy reinventing itself to look back. Nonetheless, as Grandmaster Flash succinctly puts it, “without the old school, there couldn’t have been a new school. But then again,” he reasons, “without a new school, there couldn’t have been an old school either.”

© Frank OwenVibe, December 1994

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