Rhythm, rap, revolution: Celebrating 50 years of hip-hop
What does this breakbeat music, born in the Bronx, mean to the world, and the world of music? How does success soften its edges? Take a look.
It’s a hot August evening in 1973 and a crowd of teenagers from New York’s Bronx borough have gathered at a building on Sedgwick Avenue for a back-to-school party. These are dark years for South Bronx’s mostly black and Hispanic residents, left behind by white flight to the suburbs and largely abandoned by a city administration in the middle of a ballooning fiscal crisis. Unemployment is at 30%, drug use is booming, and crime is rampant. Across the borough lies the rubble of burned-down building blocks. Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, with its echoes of a racial crusade, is in full swing, and the South Bronx is one of its bloodiest battlefields.
Amid the blight, these kids have gathered to party. The host’s brother, a Jamaican-born New Yorker who goes by DJ Kool Herc, is spinning records behind the decks, pumping reggae, funk and soul out of a massive stack of speakers. He’s been perfecting a new technique over the past year, and this is his chance to show it off in front of a crowd. He knows that the crowd loves to dance to the drum breaks in funk and soul records, and he’s figured out a way to isolate and repeat them. This is the breakbeat, the foundational element of hip-hop and rap music. And this party will be remembered as the birthplace of the cultural revolution we know as hip-hop.
Half a century on, hip-hop has become the substrate of global pop culture, dominating charts from Jamaica to Jalandhar. Its breakbeats, fashion and tradition of competitive verbal poetry — or rap — can be seen and heard in the glitzy superclubs of Dubai, in the back-alleys of Johannesburg, and at protest sites from New Delhi to Paris. The plucky little counter-culture has become a hegemon. And while there are many factors that aided its rise (American cultural dominance, globalisation, the internet), a large part of the credit goes to the movement’s enduring central narrative: that of radical hope in the midst of despair.
Back in 1973, Herc’s heroics on the turntable — as well as his friend Coke La Rock’s Jamaican-inspired “toasting” over the records, which was an early precursor to rapping — had the crowd going wild. These new innovations spread like wildfire through the South Bronx’s block parties. Other crews popped up, led by DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, competing with each other in volume, party attendance and turntablist spectacle.
These early block parties were ways for the Bronx’s disenfranchised Latin and black youth to let off steam, but that era’s urban neglect meant that they became much more, the seeds of a socio-cultural and political renaissance.
The very existence of the parties was an act of rebellion. Permits were hard to get, so the DJs didn’t even bother. They didn’t have generators so they broke into lamp-posts and spliced into their wires to steal electricity. The police had largely abandoned the Bronx, but if they created trouble, there were gang members acting as security. It was an entire ecosystem created out of the gaps left by a system in retreat. When lightning strikes caused a city-wide blackout for over a day in 1977, sparking riots and vandalism, future hip-hop DJs were breaking into electronics stores and grabbing all the mixers and turntables they could.
By the time the Sugarhill Gang song Rapper’s Delight hit the Billboard charts in 1979, marking hip-hop’s entry into the commercial mainstream, those early rebellions and petty criminality were already evolving into a new socio-political consciousness. DJs who were former gang members, such as Bambaataa, organised youngsters into hip-hop crews such as Universal Zulu Nation, offering a creative alternative to the gang life. The community-organising dreams of Black Panther radicals, crushed brutally by the police, were seeping into the movement too.
As rappers came to the forefront, sharing the limelight with DJs, they started putting these emerging socio-political ideas into narrative form.
In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released The Message, the ur-text of socially conscious hip-hop music.
…all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper
Or dance to the beat, shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
Cause it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey
The song’s lyrics document the indignities and brutality of life in America’s decrepit inner-cities, ending with the protagonist’s pre-ordained execution. As witness and chronicle of American racism and poverty, the song inspired renegade street intellectuals such as KRS-One and Public Enemy to blend rap music with revolutionary rhetoric. One can also draw a straight line from the fatalist nihilism of its story, destined to end in certain death, to the violent social-realism of gangsta rap.
By the early 1990s, these two inter-related strains of hip-hop had attained massive commercial success, transforming street revolutionaries and lumpen-poets into global stars. The genre spread its wings across the American continent, with thriving rap scenes on both coasts and in the deep South. Artists such as Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG, Big L, De La Soul, Common, Wu-Tang Clan, and so many others shone a spotlight into the country’s darkest corners, and got rich doing it.
So we live like caged beasts
Waitin’ for the day to let the rage free
Still me ‘till they kill me
I love it when they fear me…
Holler if ya hear me
That’s Tupac in Holler If Ya Hear Me (1992).
While the records were selling fast, conservative lawmakers stoked moral panics about the lyrics. Police departments even formed special hip-hop squads to tackle the “rap menace”. The New York Police Department’s so-called rap unit, whose existence it only admitted to in 2004, kept tabs on rappers, nightclubs and organisers, sending agents to concerts on surveillance missions, and building dossiers on artists.
Some of this was motivated by racial disdain for rap’s black and brown voices, some by the fact that these artists — and the places they came from — represented the skeletons of American capitalism tumbling out of the closet, singing and dancing of the crimes visited upon them.
Commercial success would eventually blunt the edges of mainstream rap music, sanding off its rough radical edges and replacing them with ideas of excess and aspirational consumption (though artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Moor Mother and Little Simz continue to fly the conscious rap flag today). By the time the Recording Academy introduced a Grammy for best rap album in 1996, it had become an established part of the mainstream, with early winners Jay-Z, Puff Daddy and Eminem perfecting a more materialistic and accessible version of gangsta rap that was more palatable to the music industry’s gatekeepers.
But as globalisation spread American cultural influence to all corners of the globe, rap hopped along for the ride, and countries around the world began to spin hip-hop into their own social, cultural and political revolutions.
If, in 1989, Public Enemy’s Chuck D declared “rap music is the CNN of the ghetto”, in 2023, it has become the Twitter feed of the world’s ghettoised youth. From street protests in Delhi to election rallies in Nigeria and refugee camps in Syria, rap has become the soundtrack to protest, activism and revolution.
There’s plenty of theories for why rap and hip-hop found such wide-ranging acceptance around the world, in a way few artistic movements ever have. Emerging from one of the most diverse places in the world, hip-hop borrowed liberally from immigrant musical traditions, especially from the African and Latin diaspora, and found resonance with audiences from those regions in turn.
Sampling made it easy to replace some or all of these elements with local flavour, while allowing the music to remain identifiable as hip-hop. And rap, in particular, had an incredibly low barrier to entry. One didn’t need a band or expensive instruments, just a microphone, and a way with words.
But when I speak to the young boys and girls at hip-hop cyphers in Mumbai’s Dharavi or Kurla, they all return to the genre’s origin story, or its self-branding as the “voice of the voiceless.” They might have been drawn in by Eminem’s startling foul-mouthedness or Jay-Z’s millionaire swag, but they stay because of that underlying principle. Further evidence lies in the communities within which rap and hip-hop first took root in other countries: the immigrant banlieues of Paris, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the sprawling slum of Dharavi.
As artists adopted the sound and style, they also adopted the anti-authority stance and the focus on community and self-organising. They formed their own crews, took to heart KRS-One’s dictum to spread knowledge.
Since the late-Aughts, hip-hop artists have been arrested for their roles in the Arab Spring. In Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, rappers have joined protests, performed on the streets, helped mobilise crowds.
In Palestine and Kashmir, rappers such as MC Gaza, MC Kash and Ahmer rap about life in militarised zones. The Sri Lankan-British MIA sings of civil war, her rap name a reminder of a cousin who went missing in her country of origin. Gnawi in Morocco and Ugandan rapper-politician Bobi Wine speak of corruption. In Iran, Toomaj Salehi is facing the death penalty for songs against religious authoritarianism. Myanmar’s rapper-turned-politician Phyo Zeya Thaw was executed by the junta for his pro-democracy stand. Chennai’s Arivu has gone viral singing against caste.
Hip-hop today contains multitudes, and each of its thousands of strands has its own cherished history, narrative and future. But for me, and for millions of other fans around the world, it is this militant strand that resonates the most, that carries most of hip-hop’s yet-unfulfilled potential and promise.
Throughout this year, we will see many celebrations of hip-hop’s golden anniversary, from the extravaganza at this year’s Grammys to big-budget films and docuseries lined up by studios and streaming platforms. For me, the most touching tribute came from an unexpected source: a news clip about pro-democracy rebels in Myanmar.
In an unidentified rebel camp, hundreds of youngsters train to fight against the military junta. Amidst the interviews and footage of atrocities, a small segment showed them taking some time off to unwind. A loud Burmese rap song blared over the camp’s speakers, the artist spitting lyrics of dissent. I like to think that Herc and the teens at Sedgwick Avenue would recognise these also-reluctant freedom-fighters as new torchbearers of radical hope in the midst of despair. And that, more than anything, is the enduring legacy of hip-hop.
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