This past Wednesday in New York City, hip-hop pioneers Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Melle Mel, photographer Joe Conzo and others were honored at City Hall for their contributions to the culture that began so many years ago in the Boogie Down Bronx.
“New York City is more than eight million strong, but for nearly 40 years, a completely unique rhythm has galvanized into a signature style known as hip-hop,” said the City Council proclamation. “Since its birth in the South Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop has given those living in neighborhoods with abandoned buildings, crime and poverty a means of escape. Today, hip-hop is an international multibillion dollar phenomenon that encompasses much more than just music.”
That same afternoon, some of the old schoolers took the opportunity to announce their hopeful plans to open a Universal Hip-Hop Museum inside part of the Kingsbridge Armory, a long vacant facility that’s currently being renovated into an ice sports center. According to The New York Times, the museum would utilize interactive technology to provide a comprehensive look at hip-hop, including its historical and cultural roots as well as the contributions of B-boys (or break dancers) and DJs. “Many people have a misconception of what hip-hop is,” Bambaataa said that afternoon at City Hall. “When they say hip-hop, they say it’s the rapper, and there’s a whole culture behind it.”
Personally, as a person who grew-up in New York City, I would relish the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, and wouldn’t even complain about travelling to the Bronx to pay homage to the innovators that changed pop culture over 40 years ago. Indeed, the city was a vastly different place back then. As seen in cinematic classics like The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Shaft, the so-called Big Apple was rotting, seemingly on the verge of death. While a few decadent souls danced at Studio 54, orgied at Plato’s Retreat or dined at Elaine’s, most regular folks were just trying to get by without losing their cool, or their lives.
“The whole city was in disarray,” pioneering DJ/rapper Grandmaster Caz told me many years back. A former member of the Cold Crush Brothers, even Jay Z agrees Caz is the best from the original school. “Back then, everything was corrupt and bankrupt. The Bronx was filled with burned down buildings and empty lots. But we were kids, so we didn’t really realize how things were.” Although the once majestic metropolis was steadily sinking from fiscal decline and rising crime rates, there were still signs of artistic life bubbling beneath the tarred surface.
Uptown, in the Bronx and later Harlem, many of those same kids Caz saw playing on those broken down blocks began fueling their energy into becoming virtuoso artists who were also urban outlaws. Coming from the ghetto, as far as those kids were concerned, the socioeconomic realities of shattered glass littering the sidewalks, junkies nodding on the corners, drunks slouched on the stoops or the flying colors of street gangs wreaking havoc in the hood weren’t going to stand in the way of expressing their raw passions, which later became known as hip-hop culture.
Looking at the newspaper pictures of Caz, Bam and Joe Conzo (a brilliant photographer who began documenting the scene in stark black and white as a teenager), I couldn’t help but be proud that these B-boys were being honored in such a grand way. Though I’ll admit, the journalist voice in my head was wondering about the whereabouts of their Bronx brothers Kool Herc (the man who started it all) and Grandmaster Flash (the former engineering student who took the whole “turntables as instruments” theory to a whole other level of aural perfection).
Back in my childhood days, when I lived in what’s commonly known today as Hamilton Heights—that weird territory between Harlem and Washington Heights—me and little boy crew used to cross the bridge at a 155th Street to play football in Macombs Dam Park to play football. Turning 10 in the summer of 1973, I had no idea that a mile away history was in the process of being made. That same year, a hulking 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant calling himself Kool Herc (nee Clive Campbell) dragged his daddy’s turntables and Shure speakers to the recreation room in his Bronx housing project basement, and began spinning records in a completely new way.
Inspired by the soundsystem blaring yardies from his homeland, Herc had refined a new record-mixing technique in his second-floor bedroom. Instead of spinning the complete cut, Herc played “the get down part” of a funky song. As Jeff Chang reported in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, the DJ had “discovered that people responded rhythmically to: the short instrumental breaks when the band would drop out and the rhythm section would get elemental. Forget melody, chorus, songs—it was all about the groove, building it, keeping it going. Like a string theorist, Herc zeroed in on the fundamental vibrating loop at the heart of the record, the break.”
Music wise, Herc was open to using a beat from any source, as long as it sounded fresh. Herc bought new records that week from Sounds and Things, and he was ready. At his sister’s back to school party in the Bronx on August 11, he unveiled this new style. “I never thought of myself as creating a new musical art form. I just wanted to see people having fun,” he said. What Kool Herc invented, later augmented by his buddy and Coke La Rock (the first rapper), soon spread like wildfire.
Within weeks, teenagers were putting together their crumpled dollars to buy equipment. One of those kids was a boy named Joseph Saddler, who’d soon be known by the hip-hop moniker Grandmaster Flash. Indeed, if Kool Herc was the Little Richard/Chuck Berry of hip-hop, then Flash was the Jimi Hendrix/Sly Stone. As author Ulf Poschardt notes in DJ Culture, “…it was Grandmaster Flash who turned the DJ into a turntable virtuoso.”
Whereas Herc never got the opportunity to make a record, Grandmaster Flash’s recorded contributions are legendary. Though “The Message” is deservedly famous, it was Flash’s solo sound collage gem “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” that was my favorite. Flash’s old friend Gary Harris, who used to work at Sugar Hill Records when Flash was signed to the label, says, “Flash’s sound captured the wild reckless fury of the Bronx. From breakdancing to subway art, Flash projected the feeling of those visual art forms in the music he was creating.” That record has influenced countless DJs to step behind the wheels and perfect their skills.
In 1999, I had the pleasure to spend an afternoon hanging out with Flash at his home in Long Island. At the time, he was the resident DJ on The Chris Rock Show, as well as playing gigs at chic New York clubs. I began telling him about a recent interview I’d done with Kool Herc, and how bitter he seemed at the entire billion-dollar-plus industry that spun out of his contributions. “I know many of these gentlemen I came up with over the years are angry,” he said. “But there was no way hip-hop was going stay the same. I’m sure the  Ford Model T was a great ride, but others built on that concept. And that’s what happened to hip-hop.”
For certain, the Universal Hip-Hop Museum would be a great contribution to the world as a place for folks to educate themselves on the history and culture of this music that still has so much influence worldwide. And when those doors swing open, I hope that Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are all in attendance.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.