Ever wondered where Wham! and Malcolm McLaren got their ideas from? Or how rapping and scratching actually started? The answers lie in the Bronx — a borough of New York City — and in its club music, street art and dancing. They call this mixture “Hip Hop” and it’s been gradually working its way into British pop. Dave Rimmer heard it was hip and hopped over there to find out just exactly what was going on. And where. And why.
IN 1979 A RECORD called ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang introduced us to rapping. Similar stuff soon followed — Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the like. Even from white artists like Blondie, Tom Tom Club and Wham!. The next thing, Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel’ hit us with the notion of “scratching” — creating new dance records by cutting together bits of old ones. Once again the “new wavers” followed — Malcolm McLaren came up with ‘Buffalo Gals’. His video showed some incredible acrobatic dancers called Breakers.
Meanwhile, a version of Eddy Grant’s ‘Walking On Sunshine’ by Rockers Revenge introduced us to a radical new style of re-mixing. The production credits belonged to Arthur Baker and John Robie, names that also appeared on Afrika Bambaataa And Soul Sonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’ — a compulsive rap to a riff filched from Kraftwerk.
Suddenly a whole new style of electronic dance had arrived, the most recent being ‘Hip Hop, Be-Bop (Don’t Stop)’ by Man Parrish. This, and other equally hypnotic discs currently form the soundtrack in the New York clubs. And it’s there that our story begins…
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
IT’S FOUR IN the morning at Manhattan’s Roxy club. The crowd on the huge dancefloor is beginning to thin out a little, but those who stay are nowhere near tired of dancing yet. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly: the crowd is a cross-section of ages and cultures; and DJ Afrika Islam is still spinning furiously.
He cuts together bits of different records, plays everything from Yazoo and Men At Work to ancient Motown and modern electronic rap. Near the turntables, a couple of guys are fooling around, trying to outdo each other with the odd flip or twirl on the hands. Friends come along and join in; gradually they make a bit of space for themselves. Someone does a few spins on his forehead and ends up lying on his back waving his legs in the air. Lesser dancers nearby stand back and watch, laughing along as he mocks the others. Then one of his friends leaps out and flips repeatedly from hands to feet. A few more folk stop and stare…
Before you know it, a circle has developed. A six-deep crowd nods and steps in rhythm while dancers take their turns in the middle, twirling on their foreheads, bumping into imaginary obstacles, doing forward rolls in the air, spinning on their hands, miming jolts of electricity passing through their bodies and generally appearing to defy the laws of gravity…
Your reporter shakes his head in amazement. So this is break dancing.
THE FIRST THING to realise about Hip Hop (the umbrella name for rapping, scratching, break dancing and grafitti art) is that it’s really nothing new. The outside world first got an inkling of it when the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ took the charts by storm in 1979, but before that it had been growing in the Bronx for years.
The Bronx is a rough, run-down and multi-racial New York borough. In 1975 it was still suffering from the street gang warfare that had plagued the place for over five years. But something better than knife-fights and routine shoot-outs was beginning to take root.
In the West Bronx, a DJ called Kool Herc was beginning to make a name for himself. He’d moved to New York from Jamaica in 1967 and had learnt his style from the “toasting” DJs who’d talk over the instrumental side of reggae records. In the Bronx nobody liked reggae, so he started talking over disco records instead, mixing his own slang with rhyming local gossip: the first rapper.
Herc’s parties began to attract young dancers called B-Boys (B for “break”). Usually decked out in rolled-up bell-bottoms and sailor caps, they’d join circles and take turns dancing. At first the moves were fairly simple — a hop and kick here, a spin there — but as the B-Boys tried to outdance each other, the style rapidly grew more acrobatic.
While the dancefloor contests began to replace fighting as an outlet for aggression, and B-Boy style began ousting the Levi jackets and big boots uniform of the old gangs, another kind of gang was forming.
These days Afrika Bambaataa is one of New York’s number one DJs. Then he was a former gang member and a follower of Kool Herc. Bambaataa formed a new gang called the Zulu Kings, a gang who ditched violence in favour of music and dance. After his Mum bought him a sound system, Bambaataa began airing his huge collection of records publicly, earning a reputation for playing the unexpected and gathering a huge following. These days the mighty Zulu Nation, as it’s now known, numbers literally thousands of people.
Another Bronx DJ called Grandmaster Flash began around 1977 by wiring his sound system into the nearest lamp-post and providing free shows in local parks. He surprised audiences by cutting together lots of short bits from a variety of records while somehow managing to keep a steady, danceable beat. Flash also pioneered the use of the “beat box”. Scratching was invented around the same time by a DJ called Theodor who liked the effect he could get by shifting a recording back and forth by hand. Soon Flash began scratching too.
Meanwhile, Flash’s group, the Furious Five, were beginning to expand the idea of rapping. They emphasised rhyme and rhythm, used a lot of new slang and wove it all into an elaborate routine as they each took turns at the mike. All the other Bronx rap crews, known as MC groups, began to pick up the same style.
Since then, rap has moved out of the Bronx, into the rest of New York, right across America and over to Europe. Break dancing has merged with mime, various other dance styles and gymnastic and karate movements. Scratching has become a precision technique and been promoted by the likes of Malcolm McLaren. And the use of the beat box has blossomed into the synthesized style of records like ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Hip Hop, Be-Bop’.
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
OVER IN THE Paradise Garage,it’s about five in the morning now and the place is still packed. Up in the DJ booth of this disco that’s reputed to have “the best sound system on the planet”, Larry Levan looks out over the dancers and thoughtfully twiddles a few knobs on the mixer.
Along the back wall there’s an enormous rack of amplifiers whose flashing lights he consults from time to time. Next to them is a huge revolving record rack. Chatting to your reporter, Levan almost misses the end of a record, then leaps into action at the last minute.
He stabs at a button, the rack spins round and he plucks out a disc. Lining it up with one hand, he carries on twiddling with the other and with only seconds to spare executes a breathtakingly ingenious change-over.
Minutes later, a familiar voice booms out over the dancefloot: “There’s not a problem I can’t fix, ‘Cause I can do it in the mix, in the mix, in the mix…“
Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records estimates with a shrug that there are 8,000 to 10,000 DJs in New York City. They might or might not be able to save people’s lives, but their role is crucial. If it weren’t for DJs there would have been no 12″ single, no “breaks” where a dance track drops down to a basic beat and then builds back up again, no re-mixes, no rapping or scratching. In a world that thrives on rhythm and rhythm only, DJs are guardians of the beat. And without them, major record labels would have no idea what the disco-going public are after.
There are two main types of DJ. The first are the club DJs like Levan or Jellybean Benitez at the Funhouse. Their art is mainly in spinning the right records, re-mixing them on the spot, contriving smooth changeovers from one to another, making them last longer or overlaying them with bits of other records. Club DJs are now also beginning to call themselves “re-mix consultants”, as major record labels regularly call them in to beef up tracks in the studio.
The other type are the hip hop DJs. They usually don’t have a regular residency. Afrika Bambaataa began playing in community centres, gymnasiums and high schools. Flash began in a park. The art of the hip hop DJ is the quick cut, making new dance tracks out of five second bits of old ones mixing the unfamiliar with faves everyone wants to hear. Club DJs re-mix records, hip hoppers make their own.
Flash and Bambaataa are the two most important DJs here. Below them there’s a second division of less familiar names: Afrika Islam, Grand Mixer DST, Whiz Kid Jazzy J. Each of those DJs has followers who’ll copy what they play, until you get down to the fledgling DJs who play maybe one party a month. And so the music spreads…
Since 1975, the DJ has become a kind of cultural hero in a way that formerly only sports stars were. Being a DJ, you see, can be a ticket out of the ghetto. Or a way of bringing some money back in.
ANOTHER NIGHT, another club. The Funhouse is packed so solid there’s barely room to dance. About 2,500 people — mainly Puerto Ricans and Italians with a sprinkling of black and white — cram into here every Friday and Saturday. The atmosphere is charged. The crowd, mainly dressed in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts cut off above the waist, is young and lively. And the music is mainly electronic.
Here is where Tommy Boy test out all their records. If they hadn’t worked in the Funhouse,things like ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ would never have been released. On offer now is ‘Salsa Smurph’, a kind of latin Kraftwerk.
That record was written by Carlos DeJesus, a DJ on 92 KTU — one of New York’s three “urban contemporary” stations. Once they were called black stations, and the change of name reflects the same thing as the crowd at the Funhouse:neither the music nor its audience are purely black anymore. Instead, there’s the beginnings of a breakdown in the barriers between New York’s traditionally self-contained ethnic groups.
At the same time, English music has its place. Yazoo and Wide Boy Awake are popular in clubs here. And if it wasn’t for the influence of Kraftwerk, followed a couple of years later by English electronic pop, the current stage of synthesized hip hop might never have happened.
If this visit to New York convinces your reporter of one thing, it’s that the New York dance music isn’t just a few one-off good records. It’s a thriving, bubbling scene, ever-ready to come up with something new.
At one point we went shopping. Charlie Grappone, manager of the disco shop Vinyl Mania, was almost too busy to talk to us.
“Dance music?” he gestured round the small shop, strung everywhere with 12″ singles, crammed full of Saturday afternoon shoppers, and shrugged: “It’s happening man. It’s really happening!”
(your pocket guide to hip-hop)
ARTHUR BAKER: With synthesizer-player John Robie, pioneering co-producer of a large slice of New York dance music.
BREAK DANCING: Acrobatic disco-dancing fused with mime, karate and gymnastics. You’ve probably seen it on Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’ video.
THE BRONX: One of five New York boroughs and the original home of Hip Hop.
CHILL: To relax or “cool out”. To be totally relaxed is to be “chilly most”.
CLUBS: The main New York Hip Hop nightclubs are: Disco Fever, the Roxy, the Funhouse. Other important clubs which aren’t just Hip Hop include the Paradise Garage, Bonds and The Loft.
DEF: When a record is really fab, Hip-Hoppers say it’s “Def!”
DOUBLE DUTCH: a dance involving several people and one skipping rope. Frankie Armstrong’s ‘Double Dutch Bus’ was a big selling rap record.
GEAR: Clothes. Next time your sister’s all dressed up for the local disco, try saying to her: “Check out your smurfin’ gear, S’really def!”
GRAFFITI: Believe it or not, another expression of Hip Hop. It started off by people simply spray-painting their names and then, as with break dancing, trying to outdo each other in daring, originality and scale (these days individual graffiti murals cover entire subway trains).
JUICE: power or force. If you like something you say “it’s got the juice”.
KICKS: Shoes for dancing in, rather like gym shoes.
KRAFTWERK: Pioneering German electronic group. Their ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was a huge New York club hit in 1977, laying the basis for the current fusion of European electronic music and Hip Hop.
LABELS: Most Hip Hop records are released on independent labels, labels like Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, Streetwise, Enjoy, West End, Emergency, and Next Plateau. Major labels are too big and clumsy to keep up with it.
RADIO STATIONS: Hip Hop is played continually (and often remixed on the air by club DJs) on three “urban contemporary” stations: 92KTU, WBLS and WRKS
THE SMURF: A dance named after the Smurfcartoon characters.
TREACHEROUS: Roughly translatable as “brill”. The Treacherous Three are a New York rap group.
WHACKED: if something is really naff, then you say it’s “whacked”.
WHEELS OF STEEL: Record turntables.
WOOF! WOOF!: Barking noises were first used as a sound effect on Planet Patrol’s ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ and now appear on lots of Hip Hop records. People also shout “Woof! Woof!” in clubs instead of applauding. (really!).
(THE MIGHTY) ZULU NATION: Originally a small Bronx gang, it’s now a self-styled “Tribe” numbering thousands in several cities. Afrika Bambaataa founded it (his name means “affectionate leader”). Members of the Nation are dedicated to non-violence.
With many thanks to everyone at Tommy Boy records for invaluable help, and to an article by Steven Hager in the Village Voice for much of the historical information.
© Dave Rimmer, Smash Hits, 14 April 1983