Celebrating 44 years of hip hop

Today, the 11th August, 2017, marks the 44th anniversary of the birth of hip hop. 44 years ago DJ Kool Herc was playing records at a party in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue, when he introduced the musical innovations that ultimately produced and defined this legendary musical genre.

DJ Kool Herc – founding father of hip hop; image found here

From Wikipedia

DJ Kool Herc developed the style that was the blueprint for hip hop music. Herc used the record to focus on a short, heavily percussive part in it: the “break”. Since this part of the record was the one the dancers liked best, Herc isolated the break and prolonged it by changing between two record players. As one record reached the end of the break, he cued a second record back to the beginning of the break, which allowed him to extend a relatively short section of music into “five-minute loop of fury”… For his contributions, Herc is called a “founding father of hip hop,” a “nascent cultural hero,” and an integral part of the beginnings of hip hop.

On 11 August 1973, DJ Kool Herc was a disc jockey and emcee at a party in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue [at which he] “extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing. … [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.”

— History Detectives

The front of 1520 Sedgwick Ave., where Kool Herc lived with his family and threw his first parties, image found here

From its inception, hip hop has been the integral sound of a vibrant, grassroots culture of resistance and resilience; a call to, as Tupac said, “Keep Ya Head Up” in the face of ongoing systematic oppressions:

Like its contemporary UK descendant – grime – it has always been inherently political. Forged in the context of the poverty, ghettoisation, and structural racism faced by people of colour in the South Bronx of New York, its legacy continues to shape culture today, as has been explored in my favourite documentary: How Hip Hop Changed The World (highly recommended viewing). Princess Nokia gives a contemporary definition of the sustained relevance of hip hop; of its roots and origins in New York; and of the continuance of the social problems that gave rise to hip hop in the first instance:

I’m hip hop because I’m a black and brown woman from New York: that’s enough as it is. My parents and me are Nuyoricans, from New York. Our lives, our narratives, how we grew up: that’s hip-hop in itself. Hip hop is a joyful and yes, also tragic, form of expression, that takes from the old… you know, origin of storytelling, from African diaspora. It comes from poverty, and creating celebration IN POVERTY… I try to navigate my harshness and my life, and I use joyful expression. I create a compositional album, and I use narratives and ways of expressing myself to uplift myself… and that’s hip hop. For this dark time and period of life, I have the pleasure of making some happy, joyful, resilient for people – that, yes, may need it… you may not realise that, darling, but on the opposite side of town, black and brown people are herded into the ghetto like cattle. And the stigmas and circumstances put against them, are disgusting and gross and saddening.

Like a lot of white, middle class kids, I first enjoyed hip hop as a teenager where the main attraction was the swearing. Growing up in a Christian state school with a staff whose moral integrity struck me as being deeply questionable, and who were more about the joy of punishing children than spreading the loving message of Jesus, Fuck tha Police was a fantastic incitement to defy authority. Our fundamentally racist school neglected to give us any deeper context for understanding hip hop music, and we only learnt the smallest and most basic details about the civil rights movement in America. We definitely didn’t learn anything about the history of racism in Britain; and it wasn’t until far later that I found a deeper and more critical way to engage with, and appreciate, what Fuck tha Police is really about (both in the USA and here in the UK).

Missy Elliott’s discography was what first got me really listening. In my early twenties, the resilience and creativity of her records and videos spoke to me. Swollen on steroids, finding it difficult to walk, sick of being patronised and pitied by people around me, angered by the lack of provision for disabled people in an ableist world, I Can’t Stand The Rain offered a game-changing perspective on ways to resist injustice. White as I am, privileged as I am, the defiant mood of self-definition embodied in that record spoke – and still speaks – to my experiences of being both disabled and a woman. I owe hip hop music, for this.

I saw Missy Elliott play at Bestival in 2015. I cried over-excitedly all the way through the gig and it was the greatest live music performance I have ever seen in my life. It’s hard to put into words what it meant to me to see her performing live… her vocal flow; the fun, innovation and breadth of her discography; the incredible energy of her dancing; but most of all the epic power of her presence. It was legend.

I am gutted I didn’t finish my knitted THIS. IS. A. MISSY. ELLIOTT. EXCLUSIVE. sweater in time to wear to that concert, but it remains a staple of my wardrobe and a lasting testimony to my deep love for all Missy Elliott’s records.

The Missy Elliott Sweater!

Since discovering Missy Elliott’s music, I have found many other amazing artists making hip hop records, and have learnt more about the context and history for hip hop. I think it is incredible; a sustained, beautiful, colourful form of creative protest; the soundtrack for revolutionary dreams and resistance to structural racism.

But whatever hip hop means to me, its origins, its roots and the conditions in which it was born must never be forgotten. To all my fellow white hip hop fans whose lives have been massively culturally enriched by the invention of this life-giving, vibrant music, I say this: enjoy playing with the amazing virtual mixer and record crate set up on the Google homepage; bust out your favourite hip hop records; shout out your favourite artists on Twitter and instagram. But don’t forget that the social problems called out in hip hop music have not gone away, and that the social injustices that gave rise to this resilient music are still very much here and present.

We have a lot of work to do and, in the words of the amazing Speech Debelle (another vital voice in hip hop music today) “the work can’t done”.

DJ Kool Herc does not have medical insurance; when he fell gravely ill in early 2011 his family set up an official website through which you can donate towards his continued well-being. In 2007 Herc successfully campaigned for 1520 Sedgwick Ave to be officially recognised as hip-hop’s birthplace; today he campaigns for universal healthcare. If you don’t feel you owe him anything personally, and if you don’t much like hip hop but are a knitting buddy who believes in social justice, you could also honour this auspicious date by contributing to The Yarn Mission in America who are to knitting what hip hop is to musi: a knitting group that centers people of colour; is pro-rebellion; and which collaborates “with other likeminded organizations for the advancement of justice and the end of oppressive systems.”

Thank You for hip hop music; Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

6 thoughts on “Celebrating 44 years of hip hop

  1. Felix, Thank you for educating me. As an American woman, I have been really turned off and disgusted by the misogynistic language in much of main stream hip hop, and that has kept me from the entire genre. But I loved the Missy Elliot video, and especially the Rocky Rivera.
    I teach 6th grade literature, and I’m always looking for ways to help my students connect and relate to the issues we’re reading about. The history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement are a big part of the curriculum. It’s difficult for many students to connect what they see today with that past, and to understand that the struggle is ongoing. Living in the racially insulated PNW, these kids only see people of color as their favorite athletes or musicians, not as a group of people who are still struggling against institutional racism. You’ve inspired me to try using the hip hop movement and music to bridge that gap. Thank you.

  2. Update: here’s the response I got: ‘I am absolutely SCREAMING INTERNALLY WITH JOY!!!! This is such a fantastic and relatable blog post, and the Yarn Mission looks like an amazing organisation, doing such cool & important work! Thank you for sharing this with me :) :) xxxxxxxxx

  3. This is great, Felix. I’ve just sent the link to one of my sproglets, who is in their twenties and having to cope with steroids and all sorts of things for a rare health condition. They are also a very keen performance poet so this will really resonate. (Not a knitter yet though – my shame!)

  4. thanks for this, and the wonderful links. i think of the british knitting renaissance as more of a straight edge DIY punk thing, but i love the idea that it’s hip hop too. many happy returns of the day, dear felix.

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