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What Is Hip Hop? And What Environmental Factors Helped To Propel This Phenomenal Music Into Existence?

5 Nov

In the late 1970’s, a new and distinctive sound arose from the streets of New York. The sound was hip hop, and nearly 20 years later, it has transcended the street parties and music clubs of New York to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Simply put, hip hop music consists of a DJ mixing rhythmic passages of albums on a turntable while a rapper raps over the beats. But hip hop is a culture unto itself, equipped with its own language, lyrical style, visual arts (graffiti), dance moves and look. And although hip hop is the musical outgrowth of urban African-American culture, its popularity is not bound by geography or culture.

So what was happening during the 1960’s and 70’s in the Bronx, specifically the south Bronx, that made such unlikely characters, people, and events to come together and create this amazing music?  What environmental factors played a huge role in the birth of hip hop? A number of things took place inside The South Bronx that most people outside of it are totally unaware of.

The following video describes the mood and environment of the Bronx during the 1970’s and how certain factors, occurring specifically in The South Bronx, influenced the birth of hip hop. Let’s go back in time and see what was going on.

So stay tuned. Watch and read because you are about to find out what happened and how.

Where It All Started

For many years, The South Bronx was a pre-dominantly middle-class manufacturing center, the home of over 63 piano factories, employing thousands of people.  But from 1950-1979, the quality of life for Bronx residents sharply declined. Historians and sociologists have attributed many factors to this decline. One factor, they believe, is that the Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed existing residential neighborhoods. Another factor may have been the development of high-rise housing projects. Third, there was a reduction in real-estate listings and property-related financial services (such as mortgages or insurance policies) offered in some areas of the Bronx.  This illegal discriminatory process is known as red-lining.

As a result, it became less profitable for landlords to maintain existing buildings with their existing tenants than to abandon or destroy those buildings.  Shortly thereafter, the Bronx became plagued by a wave of arson. The burning of buildings was mostly in The South Bronx and in West Farms. The most common explanation of what occurred was that landlords decided to burn their low property-value buildings and take the insurance money as profit. After the fiery destruction of many buildings in The South Bronx, the arsons slowed by the beginning of the 1980’s, but the after-effects were still felt into the 1990s.

Because of poverty, crime, drugs, gang violence, and a lack of basic services like law enforcement, firefighters, sanitation and health to name a few, lawlessness abounded. This was the environment in which many of the key players that created hip hop lived. The people didn’t have much. But the one thing they did have was their music.Their love of music led them to discover and create some great things with records. And because they had a lot of records, these pioneers invented an idea called sampling, which is the act of isolating a particular sound from one song and reusing it in another. They invented sampling along with the other key elements of hip hop through trial and error, mostly by fooling around with records at home.

The Pioneers of Hip Hop

Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, laid down the first building block of hip hop in 1973. That was when he reportedly hosted a party in his building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue with a sound system, or sound equipment used to DJ a party. The sound system was a guitar amp and two turntables.  Kool Herc also invented the now commonplace deejaying technique of breaks, or breakbeats. He would, for example, play James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” on two turntables, and would spin one of the records back to the break repeatedly. His innovation brought the breakbeat to the sound of this new movement, which later became known as hip hop.  Kool Herc’s technique was to drop a needle on a record, and then go back and forth from one turntable to the other.

DJ Afrika Bambaattaa, who formed the famous non-violent hip hop crew Universal Zulu Nation in the Bronx, used DJ Kool Herc’s breakbeats in his own deejaying. Bambaataa and other key players of this emerging new music, would take global sounds from West Indian music, salsa music, and great beats from rock records and other types of music.  Afrika Bambaattaa is best known for his 1982 song “Planet Rock,” which samples an electronic piano sound from the German group Kraftwerk.

Grand Wizzard Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Livingston, also incorporated breakbeats into his music in the Bronx. He added another technique to the hip hop toolbox called scratching. Grand Wizzard Theodore reportedly invented the technique in his bedroom.  Scratching involves DJs moving records back and forth while they are playing.  He discovered it by accident, when while talking to his mother one day, he started moving a playing record back and forth.  Grand Wizzard says he thought it would be a great percussive sound to add to this newly emerging music.

Then, there was Grandmaster Flash, or Joseph Sadler, who may be best known for his song “The Message,” which was made with The Furious Five. Grandmaster Flash began experimenting with turntables and records at home, and the results were astounding. He invented cutting, which is achieved by playing the same record at two turntables at the same time and cutting back and forth between the two turntables (and records) to repeat a phrase or sound. Another Grandmaster Flash innovation, was a technique called back spinning or pulling the record back, so you could make it repeat.

Not only did these DJ techniques invented in The South Bronx form the basis for the hip hop we know today, they also brought about the rise of a new kind of aggressive dancing called b-boying–known to most people by its more generic term, break dancing.

A new movement of street art and graffiti also came out of the beginnings of hip hop and gang culture in the Bronx in the late 1970’s. Once considered a nuisance, some graffiti art now hang on the walls of major art museums. And although the Bronx was much more violent in the 70’s and 80’s, many of the pioneers of hip hop consider the music that DJs put out back then was less violent than the music of hip hop today.  So the bustling energy that laid the groundwork for today’s hip hop culture came out of the gang culture in the 1970’s. Back then, gangs sprouted up all over the Bronx due to widespread urban decay, from heavy arson activity from slumlords seeking insurance money to the lack of basic services like law enforcement, firefighters, sanitation and health.

With the horrific environmental conditions of extreme poverty, drugs, and gang violence–these social factors combined, contributed to the birth of what became the hip hop culture. All of these ingredients combined led to the creation of what we now know as Hip Hop music.

Although they lived through such adverse environmental and economic conditions, many of the pioneers of Hip Hop music were compelled to bring this new music to the forefront of mainstream society because it allowed the voice of the poor and working class to be heard.

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