Close to the Edge: Part One

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NEWS-quotation marksThe revolution will be no re-run, brothers. The revolution will be live.”

– Gil Scott-Heron

The Master Builder

Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, parting the waters so that they could traverse the dry ground and escape the enslavement of the pharaoh. Robert Moses, the city planner who almost single-handedly modernized New York City, had a similar aim when designing his Cross-Bronx Expressway.

Built as part of a plan to connect the financial centre of Manhattan directly to New York’s suburban communities, the expressway was one of a series of modernized highways designed to pass directly through New York’s outer boroughs. In 1945, Moses proposed a six-lane expressway that would cross through 113 streets, three railroads, one subway and seven other expressways, some of which were being simultaneously built by Moses himself.

The expressway was built over a 15-year span and was completed in 1963. Moses carved his way through the Bronx and in the path of over 60,000 Bronx residents. Many were left homeless, while others saw their property devalued and their communities infested with violence and drug abuse. In Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, The Power Broker, he accuses him of intentionally directing the expressway through Tremont, a particularly poor South Bronx neighbourhood, rather than choosing a more viable option one block south.

Most of the Bronx’s white population fled to suburban picket fence communities, while racialized black and Latino populations were relocated to public housing projects designed on an idyllic “tower in a park” model first introduced by the modernist architect Le Corbusier. These concrete towers were bleak and isolated, and soon they became riddled with crime.

As marginalized populations moved into previously all-white neighbourhoods, many formed youth gangs as a means of defending themselves from previously existing militant white gangs. Manufacturing jobs were lost, and youth unemployment hit 60 per cent. Drug abuse and violence increased, and the South Bronx quickly drew attention from New Yorkers who felt the community was beyond help. New York Senator Patrick Moynihan famously suggested that the best approach to be taken towards poor black communities was “benign neglect.”

The South Bronx would eventually opt for creativity and advocacy over gang violence, spawning a historically unprecedented cultural revolution.

Like any good creation myth, the story of hip-hop has many different originators. The griots of Western Africa were storytellers who would recount historical events through rhythmic spoken word over drum beats and other instrumentation. These oral traditions were transported to the Western World via the Atlantic slave trade, and developed in the West Indies, particularly Jamaica.

Blues music, which developed from the work songs and spirituals of slaves in North America, occasionally included spoken word vocals, an early predecessor of rapping. Jazz, funk music, beat poetry, gospel music and reggae have all been cited as inspirations for hip-hop music. Most notable may be dub, a sub-genre of reggae in which artists remix previously existing reggae songs, remove the vocals and emphasize the bass and drums.

But perhaps the most unwitting — and unwilling — originator of hip-hop culture is Robert Moses himself. Despite his best efforts, the South Bronx would eventually opt for creativity and advocacy over gang violence, spawning a historically unprecedented cultural revolution. His gruff persona is echoed in that of the rappers who roses from the ashes of his expressway: “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.”

1520 Sedgewick Avenue

Twelve-year-old Clive Campbell moved to the Bronx in November 1967: it was the first time he had ever seen snow. He had grown up in Jamaica during a period of political instability, but also one of social evolution. The ghettos of Kingston had given birth to new genres of music such as ska, reggae and dub.

Campbell had been particularly inspired by Jamaican sound systems — musical collectives which included disc jockeys (DJs), masters of ceremonies (MCs or emcees), engineers and dancers who would throw block parties in the streets of the nation’s capital.

Campbell carried his love for music with him to the dilapidated Bronx housing projects he came to inhabit. Construction on Moses’ Expressway had begun four years previous, and the “white flight” that had resulted was underway: by the time Campbell reached his 14th birthday, white, black and Puerto Rican gangs had each occupied areas of the Bronx, and the areas in between were designated as no man’s land.

Campbell quickly became involved in the graffiti subculture that had taken the youth of the Bronx by storm: his chosen pseudonym was CLYDE AS KOOL, which he would spray on any empty concrete wall he could find. He also quickly gained recognition at his high school for his skill at track and field and basketball: his classmates took to calling him “Hercules,” which he shortened to Herc. Eventually, Campbell dropped the “Clyde” and combined the two names. Kool Herc was born.

After a fire forced the Campbells out of their Tremont apartment and into the building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Campbell began hosting house parties in the building’s rec centre. Inspired by fellow DJs in the area, who opted for James Brown records over the disco tunes on the radio, Herc’s parties quickly began to attract large crowds.

Once Herc — who had added the moniker “DJ” to his title — had built up a loyal following, he decided to play a block party in the Summer of 1974. “And after the block party,” says Herc in the hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, “we couldn’t come back to the rec room.”

Herc’s parties had only attracted high school students with little to no gang affiliation at first, but once he began playing outdoors, many gang members began to attend. Herc and his crew enforced a strict no violence policy at his parties, and people quickly took note: he would warn people in his booming Jamaican accent that the party would end as soon as anyone tried to cause trouble.

Despite noise complaints, the parties attracted little police attention: most seemed to think that they were a positive alternative to the violent gang confrontations that so often occurred in the Bronx at the time.

These block parties were distinguished from the disco sets Herc’s fellow DJs were playing by Herc’s Kingstonian influences: inspired by the sound systems he had seen as a child, Herc enlisted the help of his friend Coke La Rock, who adapted the Jamaican practice of “toasting.”

Dancers would wait for the instrumental breaks of songs to bust their strongest moves.

He would speak over Herc’s sets, spouting rhymed verses, dissing rival DJs and encouraging partygoers to dance and enjoy themselves. He’s generally regarded as the first rapper in history: even though they didn’t know it yet, Herc, La Rock and their crew were laying the foundation for a new musical genre.

But Herc had noticed something: many of the dancers who frequented the party had developed a style of their own. Inspired by kung fu, James Brown and gymnastics, dancers — dubbed “b-boys” and “b-girls” — would wait for the instrumental breaks in the songs Herc played to bust their strongest moves and impress their fellow partygoers. Noticing this trend, Herc developed a technique he called the Merry-Go-Round.

Using two identical records, Herc would cue up the two LPs so that he could endlessly loop a given song’s instrumental breaks. The crowd loved it: Herc would repeat instrumental sections endlessly, while La Rock spewed rhymed couplets and b-boys and girls showed off their best moves.

“I put all these breaks that I know (sic) I have in my collection together. When I did that, that experiment went out the window,” Herc said in an NPR interview. “Everybody used to come and wait for that particular format, for me to get into it.” Parties often lasted well into the early hours of the morning, and many members of rival gangs would set aside their differences and enjoy Herc’s perpetual breakbeats.

Historians and fans usually point the historic party where Herc introduced this technique as the genesis of hip-hop. In the years to come, Herc would enlist La Rock and another emcee, Clark Kent, to form Kool Herc & The Herculoids; be hired as a DJ at the legendary Helova Club in the Bronx at the age of 18; and, eventually, watch the empire he had created move on without him. Meanwhile, across the ethnically segregated neighbourhoods of the Bronx, competing DJs were beginning to take note.

The Mighty Zulu Nation

No one knows for sure Kevin Donovan’s real age; he refuses to divulge the information himself, and sources list his birthday as being anywhere from June 17, 1957 to April 10, 1960. Still, we can assume that he was still very young when the Hoe Avenue peace meeting of 1971 brought New York’s most dangerous gangs — the Savage Skulls, the Ghetto Brothers, the Young Sinners, the Liberated Panthers and the Black Spades, to name a few — together to discuss a truce. 

At a Boys & Girls Club of America, gang warlords sat on folding chairs in the centre of a gymnasium to draw up a peace treaty. Though no lasting peace was established, the meeting did result in a significant decrease in gang warfare.

Then a Black Spade himself, Donovan was deeply moved by this attempt at peacemaking. Intelligent and resourceful, he quickly became one of the gang’s highest-ranking warlords, and developed a reputation throughout the Bronx for his willingness to enter enemy turfs. He established relationships with rival gangs and used his influence to promote peace across the ethnic divides of the Bronx.

When the Spades resisted his attempts at peacekeeping, he defected and formed his own group, which he named the Bronx River Organization. Inspired by the Zulu warriors who fought British imperialists in the 1964 film Zulu, Donovan changed his named to Afrika Bambaataa, which he told his followers meant “affectionate leader.”

He renamed his movement to the Universal Zulu Nation, whose beliefs included peace, equality and benevolence. “The mission was to bring peace and unity, and to pass knowledge on from one to the next,” Bambaataa told the Miami New Times.

Inspired by DJ Kool Herc, Bambaataa began hosting his own parties — and gangs began to attend in greater numbers. For him, hip-hop was a conduit through which he helped usher a new era of the Bronx. Ethnically diverse groups were united under the banner of Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation.

B-boying, which would eventually come to be known as breakdancing, had become more aggressive: instead of using violence to settle their differences, rival gangs would put their best dancers against each other.

A far cry from the slick choreography of the Step Up series, early b-boying was a dangerous hobby: dancers would throw themselves towards the concrete below, which was often littered with garbage and broken glass. The cuts and scrapes they inevitably received were worn proudly as battle scars.

The best dancers were able to reach the ground and back in a single, smooth motion, and the most talented b-boys, such as Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, became as well known as the DJs whose parties they frequented.

Joseph Saddler, an aspiring DJ from the South Bronx, frequented Herc and Bambaataa’s parties. He admired their ability to attract a crowd and to inspire a legion of dedicated followers. But where Herc was inspired by his Jamaican roots and Bambaataa by the social activism of the black liberation movement, Saddler came at hip-hop from an intellectual angle. “I used to take apart electrical items in my mother’s house, including turntables, just to figure out how they work and why they work,” he recalled in an interview with Fresh Air.

He perfected Herc’s Merry-Go-Round into a seamless loop and added new techniques, including scratching; his friend Grand Wizzard Theodore had invented the practice accidentally by pausing a record with his hand to listen to his mother speak.

Saddler’s sophisticated style took a while to catch on. “The first time I did it, the crowd just stood there, just watched me,” he says in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. “And I cried for a week.” Saddler — who had adopted the pseudonym Grandmaster Flash — was too preoccupied with his mixing techniques to be bothered with toasting.

His formula was missing a key ingredient: vocals. So he enlisted Robert “Cowboy” Wiggins, Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover, and Nathaniel “Kidd Creole” Glover. They named their group Grandmaster Flash and the Three MCs. Soon the Three MCs became the Furious Four and, eventually, the Furious Five. Flash’s crew would be one of the first to prepare their lyrics in advance, rather than improvising them on the spot.

Meanwhile, b-boying had exploded in popularity. The most famous crew of b-boys was formed in 1977 by four young inner city dancers: Jimmy D and JoJo in the Bronx, B-Boy Fresh and Crazy Legs in Manhattan. They called themselves the Rock Steady Crew. “We had the best show in the neighbourhood,” Crazy Legs told The New York Times in a retrospective of the group. “We had the moves.”

Hip-hop music’s influence was beginning to spread throughout New York City’s boroughs: partygoers would tape DJ sets and exchange them with their friends. Eventually, one of these tapes found its way into the hands of Sylvia Robinson, a blues songstress cum record producer who would go on to found the first hip-hop label, Sugar Hill Records, and release the game-changing single “Rapper’s Delight,” catapulting hip hop into the mainstream.

What had begun as a way for urban youth to express themselves and avoid the turbulence of gang warfare would soon become a cultural phenomenon, the likes of which no one could have expected.

What You Hear is Not a Test

It began just like any other night. Kool Herc, whose parties had become the stuff of legend, was in the midst of a party at a club just shy of the Cross Bronx Expressway called the Executive Playhouse. La Rock, who had been emceeing the event, stepped out for a moment. It was at this point that Herc noticed a young thug making trouble in the crowd. True to his policy of nonviolence, Herc swam into the crowd in an attempt to diffuse the tension.

That’s when the man pulled out a knife. Within seconds, Herc was being rushed to the hospital with multiple stab wounds; the perpetrator was never caught. “I got stabbed up physically and that backed me up,” Herc told Davey D in a 1989 interview. “It killed the juice in me.”

Herc spent the next few months in the hospital. By the time he was released, Bambaataa and Flash — both of whom had built up an impressive posse of emcees, b-boys and graffiti artists — were the biggest names in the Bronx. Hip-hop had gone on without him.

Meanwhile, John “Lucky the Magician” Rivas, an aspiring Brooklynian DJ, decided to enrol in the New York School of Announcing and Speech in an effort to improve his oratory abilities. It didn’t take long before he realized his passion wasn’t for performing; it was for radio. “I always kind of wanted to be a DJ on the radio,” Rivas said in an interview with WNYE. After a stint on community radio, he was approached by Frankie Crocker with an opportunity to move his radio show to WHBI-FM.

“We started talking and he asked me if I was interested in going to a commercial show with a commercial radio station. I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’” Lucky became Mr. Magic; the show was named Rap Attack. Featuring hip-hop pioneers such as Melle Mel and the Disco Brothers, Magic’s show spread the word of rap music to every corner of New York.

But hip-hop’s biggest step forward yet took place in a dilapidated New York pizza place. Henry Jackson, better known as “Big Bank Hank”, was an aspiring emcee and producer for Caz and the Mighty Forces, led by Casanova Fly, one of the most revered DJs in the Bronx.

Sylvia Robinson, who had frequented hip-hop clubs and realized its market potential, came upon Hank, who had taken up a day job as a pizza chef. While he kneaded the dough and spread the tomato sauce, Hank recited his favourite Casanova Fly raps to himself. Robinson received more than just a slice when she stopped into Hank’s pizza place — she had found her emcee.

Partygoers would tape DJ sets and exchange them with their friends, spreading hip-hop throughout New York’s boroughs.

Sampling Chic’s disco hit “Good Times,” Hank, along with fellow recruits Wonder Mike and Master Gee, recorded the single “Rapper’s Delight” under the name The Sugarhill Gang. The trio was named after Robinson’s label, Sugar Hill Records. Though not the first hip-hop song to be recorded in studio — a distinction that belongs to the Flatback Band’s “King Tim III” — it immediately eclipsed the latter in popularity, and became the first song of the genre to reach the Top 40 charts.

But Hank’s rapped verses, which dominate the track, are not his own. “I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A / And the rest is F-L-Y,” begins Hank’s second verse — the calling card of his managee, Casanova Fly.

Casanova had lent Hank his lyric book a few days before the song was recorded, an action he came to regret. “I didn’t know about lawyers, or that I could do anything about that,” Vanity Fair quotes Casanova, who now goes by the pseudonym Grandmaster Caz. “I just took it as a loss. Over the years, it became monstrous.”

“Rapper’s Delight” became a sensation, but it also marked an important shift in hip-hop’s trajectory: by using a sample from a previously existing song rather than a DJ switching records, the song took the focus away from the DJ, and gave it to the emcee. The Sugarhill Gang would go on to record several full-length albums, but they would never match the popularity of their debut single.

Still, the damage had been done: “Rapper’s Delight” reached number one in Canada, the Netherlands, and Argentina (where it had entered the charts illegally), and climbed to number 34 in the US. The era of recorded hip-hop — rechristened as “rap” by the music industry — had begun.

Chuck D, the incendiary emcee who would rise to fame as the leader of the hip-hop group Public Enemy, told the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: “I did not think it was conceivable that there would be such a thing as a hip-hop record. I’m like, record? Fuck, how you gon’ put hip-hop onto a record?”

Many lamented the death of hip-hop; mainstream attention had led to parties without dancing, emcees and DJs rushed to cash in on a suddenly profitable art form, large groups were whittled down to duos and solo acts, and the benevolent philosophies of the Zulu Nation fell on increasingly deaf ears. But the story of hip-hop had only just begun — and no one could have predicted just how far it would go.