The birth of hip hop is one of my favorite stories of all musical history. In the 1960s and 70s, gang violence in the five boroughs of New York City was explosive. It was even more so enhanced by the “urban renewal projects” of the time, which destroyed communities in the South Bronx especially by the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway, a project championed by public official Robert Moses. The Expressway decimated communities, and during the 1970s, The South Bronx experienced a total economic collapse — 300,000 residents had been displaced and entire neighborhoods were literally in flames. Landlords were setting their buildings on fire for their insurance value, local South Bronx residents burned vacant properties in their own neighborhoods to collect and sell scrap metal, and some Section 8 tenants even burned their own buildings in order to be granted priority status for a potentially better apartment and location. Over 40% of the South Bronx was burned or abandoned between 1970 and 1980, which fueled public disdain, drug addiction and homelessness. More and more residents also joined gangs, which served as families, providing shelter, comfort and protection. These groups of people were mostly comprised of Blacks and Hispanics, who were the predominant population in the South Bronx after the “White Flight” from the area in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1971, Black Panther Party member Joseph Mpa visited the headquarters of a reigning South Bronx gang, the Ghetto Brothers. He convinced them that the true enemy was not rival gangs, but the U.S. government. Former junkie-turned-drug counselor Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin was officially appointed the position of peace ambassador for the Ghetto Brothers, but was murdered by rival gangs while trying to broker a truce.
Instead of seeking revenge, the Ghetto Brothers honored their fallen friend by holding a peace treaty meeting on December 7 1971, at the Boys Club on Hoe Avenue in the Bronx. Over 100 South Bronx gang leaders signed an intergang alliance designed by Eduwardo Vicente, one of the Youth Services Agency’s gang crisis squad, and Ghetto Brothers president Benjamin “Yellow Benji” Melendez, who spoke at the meeting: “No more blood, no more murders of our brothers”. After the meeting, gang violence was virtually eradicated in the Bronx overnight.
With newfound possibility in an expanded and united brotherhood/sisterhood and newfound freedom to enter other gangs’ territory without the threat of attack, people travelled safely to parties in other neighborhoods, creating a cultural cross pollination. Music was an integral force of connection and expression of this fresh unity. Former rival gangs united to create and celebrate new forms of music, fashion, art and philosophy which were rising from the ashes of rubble in the wake of the peace treaty.
On August 11 1973, DJ Kool Herc threw a house party in a rec room at South Bronx’s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, which became the noted birthplace and date of hip hop. Kool Herc demonstrated a brand new art form by spinning two copies of the same record on two turntables, cross fading from one to the other while spinning the silenced record back to a predetermined part of the song, and then switching back, creating an infinite loop of the “break beat”. The music blended sounds of Salsa, Afro conga and bongo drums, jazz, and funk.
Herc, who was from Jamaica, also mixed this performance with his own Jamaican-style “toasting”, a form of chant and boast over a microphone. Herc’s friend Coke La Rock demonstrated the early incarnations of rapping. Other attendees of the famed event were hip hop legends Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee, KRS-One, and Kool DJ Red Alert.
Another notable figure present was Afrika Bambaataa of the hip hop collective Universal Zulu Nation. As the new creative movement developed, Bambaataa outlined the cultural pillars: rapping (“MCing”), DJing (turntablism), breakdancing, graffiti, intellectual/philosophical knowledge, beatboxing, street entrepreneurship, language and fashion. Ronald Savage aka Bee-Stinger, former member of the Zulu Nation, also coined the term “Six elements of the Hip Hop Movement”, which are Consciousness Awareness, Civil Rights Awareness, Activism Awareness, Justice, Political Awareness, and Community Awareness in music.
In the last 50 years, hip hop culture evolved from isolation to New York City to an international phenomenon — reigning supreme in media industries, and connecting human beings around the entire planet through mutual passion for the culture. The same happened with earlier African American-rooted musical genres such as blues, jazz, rag-time, funk, rock, and disco — all of which became some of the most practiced genres worldwide. Although hip hop has been claimed to be a “black” genre because of the demographic of its earliest creators and followers, the consciousness of the culture is universal — beyond race, gender or nationality. As KRS-One says “Hip Hop is the only place where you see Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech in real life.” Hip hop belongs to the world. It is a supreme gift that would not exist had it not been for the courageous union of peace-minded gang members in the burning Bronx of 1971.
Photo By Danny Lyon, 1942-, Photographer (NARA record: 1709309) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain]