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1. It Existed Long Before Rap Music, Or Even Rapping Hip-hop culture has always had strong roots in music, but elements of the culture predate its musical ties. For that matter, its association with music likely began in the late ‘60s, with Black Spades street gang members blaring music from their “ghetto blaster” radios; many influential figures in hip-hop (notably pioneering DJ Afrika Bambaataa) started out in street gangs. A general truce that was called between Bronx gangs in late 1971 paved the way for a less destructive, more cooperative atmosphere among Bronx youths, typified by the house and block parties (thrown by the first hip-hop DJs) that began to pop up in the neighborhood shortly thereafter.
Oddly, the first known practitioner of a traditional hip-hop art form was a short Greek man named Demetrius. As a teen, he started writing his nickname and street number everywhere he went — and since he was a foot messenger, he went a lot of places. The ubiquity of his “tag” made him a folk hero of sorts; the New York Times ran a piece on him in the summer of 1971 and, to this day, TAKI 183 is known the world over as the father of modern graffiti art, the oldest of hip-hop’s four elements. He still won’t give you his last name, though.
2. It Has A Birthday: August 11, 1973
Many of the aforementioned parties were thrown by a 16-year-old Jamaican boy named Clive Campbell, in the rec room of his apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick in the Bronx. The tall, muscular guy nicknamed “Hercules” (or “Kool Herc”) was the first to experiment with isolating drum breaks from popular records of the day, by switching back and forth between two turntables to repeat the same musical phrase. Dancers would always wait for “the breaks” to showcase their best moves, so Herc figured that extending them indefinitely was a pretty good way to keep people dancing. Incidentally, Herc was also the first to refer to these dancers as “break boys” (or “b-boys”) and the style of dance they developed came to be known as “break dancing.”
Herc threw a “back to school jam,” to raise money for school clothes, on August 11, 1973. This party is widely acknowledged as the first time that all elements associated with rap music were brought together — Herc rocked the breaks for his “b-boys” all night, while his friend Coke La Rock acted as MC, exhorting the crowd to dance over a microphone. While rap didn’t even exist yet, this was its humble beginning – a 16-year-old’s back-to-school party.
3. Its Formative Recordings Aren’t Rap Songs
Today, Kool Herc is recognized as the “Godfather Of Rap,” and his eclectic musical tastes largely determined the direction of the new genre. While the “breaks” he employed were always heavy on drums and bass, there were absolutely no criteria as to where those breaks came from other than “it has to sound good.” The breaks that established rap’s sonic template came from practically every genre in existence: funk, rock, disco, and even early electronica like Kraftwerk.
Of course, many of these recordings were sampled extensively throughout rap’s “golden age” (roughly 1986 to 1993.) As a result, a handful of obscure songs from Herc’s record bin have become a deeply ingrained part of popular music. Take a listen to “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch; “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band; or “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James, and try not to get dizzy as your brain attempts to process the dozens of times it’s heard these songs sampled.
4. The Word “Hip-Hop” Has A Definitive Origin
Some of the elements of hip-hop we’re familiar with – rapping, DJ’ing, break dancing – were being called by these names long before anyone outside of New York City knew what they were. But throughout much of its formative years, the culture itself pretty much had no name. When it got one, it was in a manner typical of the culture — by a young MC making fun of one of his friends.
Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins was one of the very first MC’s, and a member of seminal group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. “Hip/hop” was a simple scat phrase he began chanting one day while mimicking the cadence of marching soldiers, mocking a friend who had just joined the Army. For some reason, the phrase worked its way into his stage performance and, during the Furious Five’s early appearances with disco bands, they were at times derisively referred to as “hip-hoppers.” Afrika Bambaataa has said that DJ Lovebug Starski was the first to use the term to describe the culture as a whole, with the words first appearing in print in a 1981 Village Voice piece about Bambaataa.
Wiggins unfortunately passed away in 1989, but the phrase he accidentally invented while being a smartass to his Army-bound buddy will live on forever.