Bambaataa like most of the sources I used was in the habit of moving back the dates of events to give them more authenticity. (Or they either just could not remember.) Like the case of Dee who says he was DJing in Brooklyn with Fantasia in 1969, when in all likelihood, it was in 1972. Bambaataa said he was DJing in 1970, when he was only twelve or thirteen. (Apparently he is counting prepubescent parties. If Dee were DJing in ‘69, it must have been at prepubescent parties too.) Bambaataa has said he started the Zulus when he was sixteen, in 1973. But the Black Spades say Bambaataa was still carrying record crates for Mario in 1970, and according to Fat Mike, and other Black Spades, the Zulu Nation was established after the Blackout of ‘77. Moreover, Bambaataa said he was inspired to start the Zulu Nation after he returned from Afrika, and after seeing the movie Zulu (1964). However, Bambaataa said he did not go to Afrika until ‘75. So then how did he start the Zulus in ‘73? Apparently, in ‘73 Bambaataa organized the Bronx River Organization, which simply became known as the Organization. It was a group that consisted of the Young Spades and the Baby Spades. A purpose of the Organization was to organize cultural events for youth, and it is this group that he transformed into the Zulu Nation in ‘77. (Also, the Zulu Kings preceded the Zulu Nation, and might have subsequently helped to inspire the name.)
Herc stated he started DJing in 1970. He said, “His stink started to kick up in 1971.”[ii] However, in that same interview he states his first party was for his sister Cindy. Cindy had a Youth Corp job but wanted additional money for school clothes. Herc says this was his first party, but we can document this party--it was August 13, 1973. (Bambaataa confirms he first heard of Herc in ‘73.) So how and where was he DJing? Was he practicing? Herc’s pre ‘73 DJing must have consisted of him working with his father. They also call the ‘73 party, the first Hip Hop party. Yet how can we call Herc’s first party the first Hip Hop party, when he had not developed break beat DJing, his Merry-Go-Round technique, or his B-boys cadre yet? These developments would occur over the next two years, so why is his 1973 party, his first party, called the first Hip Hop party?
And how is Coke La Rock the first MC? What about KC The Prince of Soul, JJ The Disco Kid, Cheba, and Hollywood? These were all MCs that preceded him. La Rock didn’t even rap in Hip Hop style and he wasn’t even the first Hip Hop rapper to call himself an MC: that was reportedly Melle Mel. This is all fluff, a type of one-upmanship to strengthen one’s claims in the development of Hip Hop.
Hip Hop Elements and Culture Today
According to Bambaataa, four elements compose Hip Hop culture. The elements are as follows: DJing (aural), MCing (aural), Aerosol Writing (visual), and B-boying (physical). Doug E. Fresh added Beat boxing (aural) making it the fifth element. (KRS-One includes Beat boxing in DJing, keeping the number of elements at four.) However, these so-called elements are only elements because Afrika Bambaataa, who founded the Zulu Nation, has coined them as such. I agree with Cholly Rock that a lot of Hip Hop culture predates the development of Hip Hop, and that it derived from the gang culture of the Black Spades in particular. Even Herc credits gangs like the Black Spades with getting the Hip Hop scene started. Rock tells us that at first the break beat DJing and B-boying defined Hip Hop, only later did MCing become important.
Of the various elements of Hip Hop culture, some are authentically Hip Hop while others are not. Clearly Hip Hop ushered in a new way of DJing, and in fact, break beat DJing is a forerunner to sampling. B-boying created a totally new style of dancing. B-boying was a by-product of the interaction and interplay between the DJ and the dancers. It developed from Spade Dancing but built upon it. Many moves that B-boys did can be found in older dance routines performed by professional dancers. But what developed in the Bronx was the result of that period. It did, however quickly incorporated moves from other traditions and styles. (For example, Latino brothers would incorporate Mambo and Salsa steps into their B-boying.) It was started by Afrikan Americans, and advanced by various Puerto Rican/Latino dance crews. Beat boxing is also a creation of the period; it was a unique development that occurred within Hip Hop culture, particularly using the voice as a percussive instrument. MCing and Aerosol Writing or Graffiti were both nurtured by Hip Hop culture but in fact existed before its development.
As I have already pointed out, rhythm talking predates Hip Hop; moreover, Hip Hop borrowed it from Disco DJing. Rather than calling it MCing, we called it rapping, and it was already a part of the music set, and Hip Hop just incorporated it into their set. DJs in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens had brothers rapping in Hip Hop style by the late 1970s. What Hip Hop did differently was MCs rhymed to break beats instead of Disco beats. Therefore, Hip Hop culture has falsely credited or been identified with giving birth to rapping or MCing, when this is not true at all.
Besides their dancing, the Black Spades were also known for tagging. Tagging was the art of graffiti; usually it was the gang colors or a member’s name. As a young man in Brooklyn I remember people tagging their names all the time. I make this point because although Graffiti or Aerosol Writing is considered an element of Hip Hop culture, it preceded Hip Hop by many years, and we can trace it back directly to gang activity, whether in the Bronx or Brooklyn, or wherever. However, the Ex-Vandals were one of the earliest organized groups (crews) dedicated exclusively to writing aerosol art. The crew originated in Brooklyn in 1970.[iii] Initially it was mostly students from Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School but the group quickly spread to other boroughs. Other crews soon developed. These groups had nothing to do with DJing, MCing or B-boying. Herc, however, is the link--before he became a DJ he was an Ex-Vandals, and that is where he got the name Kool Herc; it was his tag. Nevertheless, like other Hip Hop elements Bambaataa simply adopted Graffiti Writing or tagging and identified it with Hip Hop. By Hip Hop including tagging as one of its elements, it helped to foster its proliferation.
Many elements of Hip Hop culture as historically defined, have in the present state of Hip Hop, diminished in importance. Even the funky beats that were the essence of Hip Hop, the funky drum loops or samples, have almost disappeared. DJs have been long overshadowed by MCs and have virtually been replaced by producers. More important, B-boying has faded. It still exists but not on a street or popular level. It is now a highly specialized guild. When was the last time you saw Lil Wayne, Rick Ross or Drake feature B-boying in a video? Graffiti Writing has also waned in importance, and like B-boying has become a specialized guild. For the most part, contemporary Hip Hop culture consists of MCing, which as already suggested, predated the rise of Hip Hop. So in the end, “What is left of Hip Hop culture?”
Neighborhoods like individuals naturally view things from their own vantage point. Looking at contemporary Hip Hop, judging from what prevails today, we can say that MCing or rapping is its most salient element. If this is so, then it is easy to see how other boroughs can make a claim to being part of Hip Hop’s origins; if you identify Hip Hop as rhythm talking to music, then the Bronx has no special claim to Hip Hop, especially when the first Hip Hop style rapper is DJ Hollywood, who (some sources say he was born in Queens and) found fame in Manhattan rapping to Disco music.
Hollywood makes an interesting point when he reminds us that: If Hip Hop was just Graffiti, or if it was just DJing, or if it was just B-boying, would it be what it is today? Without his contribution, the spoken word (MCing), Hollywood believes Hip Hop culture would not be what it is today.[iv] And he is probably right! Often, Hip Hoppers will disparagingly separate Hollywood’s contribution as rap music, pointing out that it composes only one element of Hip Hop and not to confused it with the culture, which has numerous elements, sometimes as many as seven (knowledge and fashion are often added to the existing five). But Hip Hop as we know it, does have this dual lineage: One, emanating from Kool Herc; and the other, from DJ Hollywood. Herc’s line consisted primarily of his DJing, B-boying, and Aerosol Art (Herc was a graph writer). Hollywood’s line consisted of Hip Hop style rapping or MCing. It was only when the two combined that the world came to know Hip Hop.
As this paper has shown, nevertheless, the term Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture as defined by the Zulu Nation, is a very specific thing. And nowhere else but in the Bronx did these elements combine and produce such a creative setting. Its core was the DJing and B-boying but it aptly incorporated Manhattan’s MCing innovation, and Brooklyn’s Aerosol Writing crews. If we accept the facts and arguments presented here, then accordingly, the South-West Bronx has the best, if not only claim, to being its originator. And Kool Herc is its father.
As a final note, DJ Mario should be added to the list of the Hip Hop trinity of Herc, Bambaataa, and Flash. Mario was the first to play outdoors, the first to play Hip Hop (in the area), and a Hip Hop impresario, as DJs Bambaataa, Theodore, and Jazzy Jay, as well as others played on his set before branching out on their own. Mario even had one of the first Hip Hop crews, Chuck Chuck City crew. Everyone mentions the role Mario played in Hip Hop, everyone, except Bambaataa (and Herc). Why has Bambaataa conveniently omitted Mario from Hip Hop History when Mario was the person that he used to assist, the one who loaned him his system to DJ with, and the person whom he had his first DJ-Battle against? Why this oversight? Perhaps it is because at a certain point, the Zulu Nation began to lure DJs away from Mario’s crew,[v] making the two competitors. Perhaps, Bambaataa began to see Mario as a nemesis. No one really knows, but it is clear that Mario played a key role in the development of Hip Hop, second only to Herc.
[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2xR-mc-Ikw, about 1:19:20.