Again, it is important to stress that Mario, Dee, and Tyrone were all Black Spades. To play outdoors one had to have “back.” In those days, without sufficient back, they would rob you of your equipment or shoot it up. We have to remember the South Bronx at this time was gang laden. For all that matter, so were the other boroughs. To come outside and play, one needed gang affiliation or be cool with gangsters. In the Bronx, the leading DJs of the South Bronx were all Black Spades. This meant that gang culture would heavily affect the musical culture. This influence was perhaps strongest in dance. Black Spade Karate Pete said gang members started to, like in the movie Westside Story, battle through dance rather than with fist.[i]
Besides their colors, and chants, gangs had steps/marches/dances. The Black Spades had the Spade Dance. It was done to a marching cadence that consisted of rhythmic stomps, turns, and twists. As older members became less active in the gang, younger members did less Spade Dancing and more Burnin.’ Burnin’ was a dance that was a mock battle between two dancers. One dancer would gesture in the face of another, mimicking taking off his opponent’s head, and kicking it down the street, all in a rhythmic flow. After one dancer was done, the next would try to outdo him. These dancers wanted to dance at the break point of the song, or at the break beat, therefore this dancing became known as Breakin.’ They actually call it Breakin’ because the dance was characterized by exuberant moves, where they said that the dancer was “breaking wild.”
This type of dancing needed a particular beat—a highly percussive one as dancers danced to the rhythm as much as to the beat. As already stated, Herc was not the only DJ who played Hip Hop music. Nevertheless, he is the DJ that played to and for people who wanted to dance to the break beat.[ii] Early before he began DJing Herc said he attended the parties given at St Joseph’s and the first Friday parties at the Murphy’s projects. (He does not tell us what DJs are playing at these parties. He also says that they were Burnin’ or Breakin’ to funk jams. This was in ‘69.) He paid attention to the music that they played, and the demands and complaints of the partygoers. He said he developed his music set from these experiences and the concerns of the younger crowd who wanted to dance freestyle.
While DJs Mario, Dee, and Tyrone included Disco and Hip Hop in their sets, Herc eschewed “Disco” and this is one of the main reasons we credit him as the father of Hip Hop. The title does not belong to Herc because he was the first DJ to play outdoors. That was Mario. Herc was not the first to play Hip Hop—that apparently was Mario too. The title belongs to him because he created an environment where Breakin’ was the dominant dance. Herc played such tracks as James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” Creative Source’s “Corazon,” The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Only Just Begun,” Booker T and the MG’s “Melting Pot,” Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band “Apache,” Dennis Coffee’s “Scorpio,” and many other obscure songs by known and unknown artists. It was not just the songs he played but how he played them that made his set unique. It was a new way of “playing” music, one centered on highlighting a particular part of an existing song. But more important, his innovations to DJing led to the development of B-boying or Breakdancing, as it commonly came to be called.
We must credit the development of breakbeat DJing, the foundation of Hip Hop DJing, to Kool Herc. Rather than play the entire song, Herc would start his tracks at the break beats, then either extend the song by mixing two of the same break beats or using his Merry-Go-Round technique, where he mixed the break beats of different songs. By extending the break beats dancers had more time to dance, leading to more elaborate and innovative moves.
According to Bambaataa the purest hip-hop dance style began in the early 1970s as elaborations on how James Brown danced to his song “Get on the Good Foot.” “The Good Foot” dance was the first freestyle dance that incorporated moves involving drops and spins,[iii] and became part of a battle dancer’s repertoire. Apparently, and particularly in the Bronx, Spade Dancing, Burnin’, and the Good Foot synergized providing the framework for B-boying. According to Cholly Rock, an original B-boy (a Zulu King) and Black Spade, dancers rather than remain standing while dancing (Top-rocking or Up-rocking as they called it in Brooklyn) began going down to the ground and rather than jump back up on beat, as done in the Good Foot, began staying down adding footwork or Down-rocking. A set of twin brothers, Keith and Kevin Smith, who Herc titled the “Nigga Twins,” (now referred to as the “Legendary Twins”) were the first to really take to the floor with footwork and mixed in vertical moves including the sling shot; they were the first to Down-rock giving birth to B-boying,[iv] [v] a quintessential element of Hip Hop culture. Two other Afrikan Americans called Clark Kent and Sa-Sa followed them. The Zulu Kings were next. And it would be this eleven-member crew that helped to ignite the B-boying craze in the Bronx. They would take it to the next level and many of the original moves that created the foundation for B-boying started with them, including footwork styles, head spins, back spins, chair freezes, baby freezes, basic top-rock styles, around the world spins, and Zulu spins.[vi] And this all happened at Kool Herc parties. Herc is the one that coined the terms B-boys and B-girls and it referred to the dancers that danced to his sets. According to Rock, this is the birth of Hip Hop DJing and B-boying, and is the real foundations of what became known as Hip Hop. It was Herc that nurtured the music and the dancing, giving these youth an outlet, a vehicle for expression. And it occurred in the South-West Bronx, though events in the South Bronx nurtured it.
Cholly Rock makes a distinction between Disco DJs and Hip Hop DJs. For example, Rock classes most Bronx and all Brooklyn DJs (plus the other boroughs with maybe the exception of parts of Manhattan) as Disco DJs, while he sees Herc, Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash as Hip Hop DJs. (Flash by the way began as a Jones protégé.) However, the venue or location of the party is what made the difference. For example, Rock acknowledges that DJ Mario (The Disco King) played Hip Hop but because he played Disco, he does not see Mario as a “pure” Hip Hop DJ; Dee and Tyrone he dismisses as “club” DJs; more important, because break beat DJing and B-boying did not originate in their sets, they cannot lay claim to starting Hip Hop. However, Herc, who he sees as the first true Hip Hop DJ, admitted that when he played at after hour spots, and played for an older crowd he made changes to his set. He had to change his format and play a cooler set, especially if it were a more jazz-oriented crowd.[vii] A certain amount of fluidity existed between the two types of DJs depending on the crowd. (DJs play for the crowd not themselves.) But clearly, Herc played predominantly for the younger crowd, the youth that did not want to identify with Disco and its associated “culture.”
Cholly Rock likes to make the distinction between Disco DJs and Hip Hop DJs, but when Hip Hop hits the commercial world, i.e., the radio, Disco music backs it. “Rapper’s Delight” is rapped to the Chic track, “Good Times,” an undisputed Disco song. (Or so you would think. But Hip Hop DJs claimed the Chic classic as one of their songs. In Hip Hop, it is possible to convert any musical genre into a Hip Hop song by the DJ adding scratching or cutting to the track.) Even Kurtis Blow’s two hits, “Christmas rap” and “The Breaks,” were rapped to Disco-esque or Chic-like tracks.
Brooklyn and the B-boys
Cholly Rock has an interview on the Internet where he debunks the claim that Hip Hop was not born in the Bronx. His points are right and exact. I was a Brooklyn “cat” as he would say. Rock states that in Brooklyn, “Love is the Message" was our anthem, but actually, it was a NYC party classic. And every borough, including the Bronx played it. By 1977, brothers in East New York were already rapping in Hip Hop style to the break beat or breakdown in “Love is the Message.” Rappers would line up and take turns rhyming beginning at 3:50 after the beat came back in. At first mixing two copies of the record extended the beat, but later DJs began recording their own mixes to vinyl. They extended the beat not so B-boys could dance but so dancers could Hustle, and later so rappers could rap.
I know in Brooklyn, we felt that Hip Hoppers were gangsters, thug-types. When Hip Hoppers came to the parties, they requested break beat songs from the DJ. When one was played they would start dancing, Up-rocking (we never saw anybody B-boying). We called these guys hard rocks and perceived them as potential troublemakers. Rarely did these Burnin’ sessions result in a fight and mess up the party, but that was a chance we were unwilling to take. As Cholly Rock points out and I can personally confirm, B-boys, their music, and dancing we disdained in Brooklyn. Rock claims it was unwelcome in all the boroughs except the Bronx.[viii]
Hip Hoppers were the outsiders, the nonconformists--the renegades. These folks even had their own type of Hustle called the five-step Hustle, while we did the more flowing and stylish “Fred Astaire Hustle.” There was a sense of them being different, and if you listen to Herc and Cholly Rock a perceived dichotomy did exist; they used terms like “bourgie,” the slacks and shoes wearers vs. the jeans and sneakers wearers. It was a street vs. the club thing, a younger crowd vs. an older crowd. The truth was we wanted no parts of (them and) their music because we could not Hustle to it. Though their music was our music—funk—funk was not something you could easily Hustle to; and the Hustle ruled during the Disco era, until the “Freak” came along.
[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-K7_s09ZZA, at about 3:10.
[vii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJkojOSppUE, about 3:28.