The first concern is where did it originate: Was it in the Bronx, or was it the result of influences coming from various boroughs? The first question deals with an online debate between folks saying that the Bronx gave birth to Hip Hop, and within this school exist disagreement between whether it happened in the South Bronx or the South-West Bronx. [ii] Then there are folks from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, who claim that Hip Hop was developing simultaneously in their respective boroughs, and that no one borough can claim to be Hip Hop’s originator. It was a New York City phenomenon.[iii] The second concern or question is, does Hip Hop have Afrikan Caribbean roots? The latter point is stressed by Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of the Zulu Nation, which is the organization that first defined, nurtured, and spread Hip Hop culture.
I have relied on the accounts of the following persons: Cholly Rock, Kool DJ Dee, Tyrone the Mixologist, DJ Boogieman (Mario’s brother), DJ Hollywood, Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, Fat Mike, The Green Eye Genie, and Afrika Bambaataa. I will use their words to develop my arguments. Of the various sources I found Cholly Rock’s the most truthful, accurate, and reliable. Rock is always clear and consistent. Herc is probably next, but at times is guilty of doubletalk, and he does overlook DJ Mario, who everyone, even Cholly Rock and Grandmaster Flash give him his due. Kool DJ Dee and Tyrone offered reliable information, though they sometimes seemed suspect, and they also failed to explain clearly their relationship with DJ Mario. (Reading between the lines, Dee and Tyrone felt they put Mario on the map.) Afrika Bambaataa, who is a major figure in changing the social climate in the Bronx by creating a cultural movement called Hip Hop, and the link to everybody, I found disingenuous. Even his account of winning a trip to Afrika needs better documentation.
According to Bambaataa, UNICEF had an essay contest in 1974 where the winner won a trip to India. He missed the deadline because he was giving out flyers for a party. The next year UNICEF’s essay-writing contest sponsored a trip to Afrika. Bambaataa entered and won, and spent two weeks in Afrika, in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Guinea-Bissau, and one week in Europe. He does not say what he did while in Afrika nor does he even remember what his trip-winning essay was about.[iv] A Black Spade member remembers Bambaataa’s trip but said that gang members sponsored his trip and not UNICEF.[v] Other accounts say Bambaataa’s trip to Afrika was the result of winning a Housing Authority contest. Honestly, this all seems a little incredible.
Bambaataa, nevertheless, is invaluable and indispensable to this topic and though he may be guilty of several oversights, misstatements, or exaggerations, fortunately, many people he references and credits for their role in Hip Hop, have often explained the role of people he has overlooked. Because Bambaataa was a Black Spade, I relied on several accounts given by them. Most of their commentary I used to fill the gaps, and read between the lines.
The Pre-Disco Era
To understand the advent of Hip Hop, we need to understand the cultural landscape of the early ‘70s. Black music in the US was in its funk stage; therefore, this was the pre-Disco era. If you had gone to a party in the early ‘70s you were likely to hear Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” Mandrill’s “Fencewalk,” Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin,’” Cymande’s “Bra,” Creative Source’s “Who Is He and What Is He To You,” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost,” which some music enthusiasts have argued was the genesis of the Disco era. In this song, Earl Young, the drummer for Philadelphia International Records’ studio band, MFSB, perhaps for the first time, plays the distinctive open hi-hat cymbal (and four on the floor drum beat) that became the foundation of Disco drumming.[vi] DJs could now easily mix records since they could clearly hear the cymbal in their headphones and use it to cue the next record. This was essential to Disco because it enabled seamless transitions from song to song, allowing longer uninterrupted dancing.
In New York City, several DJs rose to fame in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The first was an Afrikan American named Jonathon Cameron Flowers. He was the first DJ called a Grandmaster. A first to use two turntables to mix his records (he was even known to use three), Flowers’ fame was such that he opened for James Brown when Brown played in Yankee Stadium in 1969. Other DJs of renown in Brooklyn were DJ Maboya, who was from Panama, and added a Caribbean flavor to his playing, and the Afrikan American DJ (Ron) Plummer. Two Afrikan American DJs gained fame in Manhattan, Eddie Cheba and DJ Hollywood. Queens had King Charles, a Jamaican sound system, DJed by various Afrikan American DJs. Another Afrikan American DJ, Pete DJ Jones, owned the Bronx, and was probably the most celebrated DJ around.
Since most of these DJs began in the pre-Disco era, they initially played R&B and Funk music during their sets. When Disco became the rave they followed the wave and played Disco. Were they Disco DJs—no—they were just DJs, who played to the crowd. Their playing was not simply a community-based recreational activity; they were professionals paid to play.
Disco from its beginnings faced resistance from certain elements of the Black community, especially Funksters, who were generally avid Black fans of Funk music. Funksters and funk bands alike disliked Disco. George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic often attacked it. The album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome is a “loose concept album that warns the listener about falling into the ‘Placebo Syndrome,’ which according to Clinton is consumerism, and listening to Disco music, which he saw as a simplification of funk music in an attempt to gain commercial success.”[vii] Many of his comic themes and references poked fun at Disco. James Brown was also initially against Disco, but unlike Clinton, he eventually came around (or sold-out?) to Disco and won (or was rewarded with) a Grammy in 1986 for Living in America.
[i] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCk6XLRd58YNyhu-Vh8yWQBg/videos was the primary source for this paper.
[ii] This is the main point of Michael Wayne--that Hip Hop started in the South Bronx, the Bronxdale Houses, and DJ Mario was its creator. The other school is that 1520 Sedgwick Ave is the birthplace of Hip Hop and Kool Herc is its father.
[iii] This is the thesis of the video, The Founding Fathers of Hip Hop, narrated by Chuck D of Public Enemy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2xR-mc-Ikw.
[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXP_ZSqcMNk, at about 2:10.
[vi] John A. Jackson, A House on Fire, NY, NY; Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 154.