A bankrupt New York was the incubator for rap in the early 1970s. The ethnic demographics of the formerly predominantly Jewish and Irish South Bronx had changed, in part due to the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1960s, which displaced thousands of people from their homes and destroyed many Bronx neighborhoods. Steeply declining property values led many South Bronx landlords to simply walk away from their buildings, or to hire arsonists to burn them down for insurance money. In order to save money, the city had shut down eight fire precincts, leaving the Bronx to burn.
This beautiful map by Molly Roy, with artwork by 1970s graffiti artist Lady Pink, shows the percentage of buildings burned for each Bronx neighborhood in the 1970s, along with a legend showing key places in the evolution of hip hop. See an enlargeable version here.
All of this provides the background for the hip hop movie Wild Style.
This micro-budget project, shot on the streets (and elevated train tracks) of New York City in 1981-82, captures the birth of rap and hip-hop culture, and the energy on display is palpable . . . This was a point in time when the scene was still so underground that an uptown white liberal could ask with a straight face about “that rat music.”
When the film first screened in New York City, Vincent Canby, the powerful film critic for the New York Times, explained to his readers:
For the benefit of the uninitiated, rapping refers to a very particular kind of musical communication, in which the singer, backed by a monotonous, rhythmic beat, talks in rapid, always nervy rhymes that proclaim the singer’s superiority in one sort of endeavor or another. Like good calypso, good rapping is a mixture of the primitive, sophisticated and topical. Breaking, or break-dancing, is a way of dancing to these and other forms of music, a religious experience with extraordinary athletic skills. The high point of a great break-dancer’s turn may be a pirouette on his head.
A scene from the film: basketball throwdown between the teenaged Cold Brush Brothers and Fantastic Freaks.
Cold Crush in 2013, in a concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film:
Breakers the Rock Steady Crew, also featured in the film, with a hit they had the same year:
The trailer for a recent documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988), who was part of the graffiti/street art scene:
(Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, 1973.)
In Wild Style, a white journalist ventures uptown to the South Bronx to get a story about graffiti writers, listening to Blondie in her car, and rocking a Debbie Harry look (at 28:05):
Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture” syncretized various current forms of black popular music, including disco and rap. The video contains references to West African/Carribean religion, including Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead in Haitian voudou (and Basquiat has a cameo). What else is going on in this video? Is “Rapture” an homage to black culture, or a ripoff?
Images of the band Blondie and its frontwoman Debbie Harry were a popular visual meme in graffiti art, and the bandmembers bonded with Fab 5 Freddy and other hip hop pioneers in the late 1970s.
On the other hand, in 1979, the conservative cultural critic Nathan Glazer declared about graffiti artists:
I have not interviewed the subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable.
When we think about the beginnings of rap, we need to understand the music as a mashup of DJ-ing and MC-ing. What DJs did, as made famous by DJ Kool Here, was to use two turntables, playing the same LP, to extend the “breaks” in a song to keep the crowd dancing. This is how turntables work:
The first commercially-released rap single, the 1979 “King Tim III” by the Fatback Band, used a live funk band playing instruments, rather than rhythm breaks and samples from other recordings. MC Tim Washington rapped over the mix.
The first commercially-released rap single to achieve mainstream success was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, also released in 1979.
“Rapper’s Delight” uses samples from the song “Good Times” by Nile Rodgers’s disco-funk band Chic. Note how different the sound is from a live band.