How Hip Hop Transformed into culture in New York

ON VALENTINE’S DAY 1981 Deborah Harry was the headlining musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” A product of the fertile downtown Manhattan musical scene, centered around the CBGB club on the Bowery, she had gone pop with a series of hit singles, including Blondie’s “Rapture,” which reached No. 1 in 1981. The track, a tribute to an uptown musical culture that most Americans viewed as a curiosity or fad (if they had any awareness of it at all), name-checked a few seminal New York figures, including Grandmaster Flash, the pioneering D.J. whose group the Furious Five formed in 1976 and broke musical ground at house parties in the South Bronx before cracking into the Top 100 in 1982 with the socially conscious rap anthem “The Message,” and Fab 5 Freddy, a Brooklyn-based graffiti artist who acted as a liaison between street artists, the commercial art world and downtown clubs. At the urging of Blondie’s Harry and the band’s guitarist Chris Stein, “S.N.L.” booked the Bronx’s Funky 4 + 1 (four male rappers and pioneering female M.C. Sha-Rock) to perform their single “That’s the Joint” for the show’s final number of the night. Harry’s rapped verse on “Rapture” was, for most people, a proxy introduction to hip-hop, but it was the Funky 4 + 1 that gave network television viewers the first true taste of what young New Yorkers had been experiencing in parks, subways and schoolyards for several years already.

Grandmaster Flash’s turntable. He and his group, the Furious Five, were one of the early hip-hop acts to break into the mainstream with the 1982 single “The Message.” – CreditNational Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


This culture, just starting to be described under the umbrella phrase “hip-hop,” would emerge from its Bronx and Harlem origins during 1981 to ’83, engaging in a dialogue with the city’s other musical cultures that would extend its influence. The Funky 4 + 1’s 1980 “That’s the Joint” is a great example of how hip-hop’s particular vernacular helped propel the culture forward. The idea that something was “the joint,” meaning something was exciting or pleasing, had been street slang for several summers before this 12-inch single was released. (Spike Lee still labels his films “a Spike Lee Joint” reflecting his growing up in Brooklyn in the ’70s.) “That’s the Joint” is significant in another aspect: It took a New York street slang word and introduced it to the wider world, something that became a signature of rap records. Superlatives like “fresh,” “stoopid,” “def” and the ever enduring “dope” moved from the streets to recordings to advertising to daily usage. Hip-hop records like “That’s the Joint” literally remixed the way people talk.


The scene at the Roxy nightclub circa 1982. Artist Futura 2000 (in the foreground) painting while, on the microphones, Fab 5 Freddy (left) and Phase 2 encourage a group of breakers. – The Estate of Wayne Source and Joseph Bellows Gallery


THAT this new language  was coming out of neighborhoods in Harlem and the Bronx and introduced to a wider audience  was a function of its literal journey from uptown to downtown, a passage marked by cross-racial encounters at night spots in the East Village and elsewhere. In 1981, the young impresarios Ruza Blue and Michael Holman brought Afrika Bambaataa and breakers like the Rock Steady Crew down to Negril, a downstairs reggae club at 181 Second Avenue, for Thursday night parties. In her book, “Luminary Icon,” the Bronx-bred Sha-Rock writes of performing “for a whole new type of crowd” downtown. She said, “The punk rockers knew how to party. They didn’t come to fight or hold up the walls. So, if it meant that they would throw each other up in the air to show their appreciation of having fun, then that is what they did.”

After a few months the fire department shut the Negril party down. Later Blue moved the party to the Roxy roller rink at 515 West 18th Street in June ’82, where it prospered for many years, serving as a bridge between hip-hop artists and an ever-growing community of fans. The conclusion of the movie “Beat Street,” a feature film based on the graffiti documentary “Style Wars,” was filmed at the Roxy in ’83. The film was a big hit in West Germany, introducing early hip-hop culture — scratching, break dancing and rapping as the basis for casual conversation (“eat your eggs before I break your legs” goes one famous line from the film) — to an international audience.

B-Boys in Washington Square Park, circa 1984.


This embrace of hip-hop by a wider (and whiter) audience sealed the genre’s fate in more ways than one. By 1981 a slew of new labels, all white-owned, began to displace the independent black-owned labels that put out the genre’s earliest efforts, but the language of music itself was also now irreversibly changed. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a surprise Top 40 hit in 1980, first introduced the phrase hip-hop and its overarching philosophy — “you don’t stop” — in the song’s opening lines. One year later, Blondie’s “Rapture” was a No. 1 single, and became the first video that referenced hip-hop culture to be in regular rotation on MTV, the new cable channel that launched in August of ’81. So when Deborah Harry said, “And you hip-hop, and you don’t stop,” the new-wave diva would be proved a prophet. Though the Funky 4 + 1 never made it back to the mainstream promised land, the voyage hip-hop took from uptown to downtown was the first of many steps it would take toward world wide Hip Hop culture domination.

article by Nelson George – for the NY Times

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