Cover image for The hip hop years : a history of rap
The hip hop years : a history of rap
Ogg, Alex.
Personal Author:
First Fromm International edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Fromm International, 2001.

Physical Description:
221 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Added Author:
Format :


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ML3531 .O54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML3531 .O54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
ML3531 .O54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
ML3531 .O54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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It began as a soundtrack of a mix of funk, soul, and rhythm and blues, invented by blacks and Latinos for ghetto block parties in the South Bronx in the 1970s, evolving into the rap and hip hop that became the hot center of youth culture during the last decade of the century. At first a music to party to, rap kept reinventing itself as a cry of pain and rebellion, eventually spreading across America and jumping all barriers of race to blossom into a critique of American life, race, and political hypocrisy, embraced by the young, regardless of color. From the turntable acrobatics of Grandmaster Flash to the electro-funk of Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu nation, from the provocative blend of black nationalism and rebellion of Public Enemy to the chart-topping albums of Eminem, hip hop's story of success is a journey of a subculture attacking the mainstream to become the mainstream itself. Now a multimillion dollar industry that dominates record sales worldwide, it influences international fashion, language, and youth culture. The Hip Hop Years traces the history of this vibrant culture through the firsthand accounts of many of the people who have played a pivotal role in that journey, including Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., Ice-T, Public Enemy, N.W.A., De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, and Eminem.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Where hip hop once attacked the mainstream, to all intents and purposes, it now is the mainstream.... It has been customised and redefined, not only in the ghettos, but throughout white suburbia and beyond, paying no heed to geographical or linguistic boundaries." Through interviews with more than a hundred MCs, rappers, producers and music writers some well-known, some obscure the authors capture the essence of a movement that has lasted for more than 25 years, even longer than the "punk" culture that most rock critics see as the dominant strain of post-Beatles music. Of the many books written about rap music and hip-hop culture, this is the best one-volume introduction to the range, depth and historical trajectory of the music and the artists, from the early days of Afrika Bambaataa's electro-funk Zulu Nation in the Bronx of the 1970s and the early turntable breakthroughs of Grandmaster Flash to the international acclaim given in the 1980s to Run-DMC and Public Enemy (and the derision heaped on popular white artists like Vanilla Ice) and the current obsession with violent gangster images. The latter began in the '80s with Ice-T and N.W.A., and dominated the '90s with high-profile battles between East Coast artists like "Puffy" Combs and Biggie Smalls and West Coast artists like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. While the authors (journalist Upshal and Ogg, author of Radiohead) tend toward hyperbole, by detailing rap's lasting contribution to global culture they offer a corrective to the way rap is so often covered by the press: as yet another ephemeral phenomenon, like Britney Spears, in an ever-changing music scene. For fans of hip-hop and anyone interested in popular culture, this book is essential. Color photos. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

For their history of rap music and hip hop culture, British journalists Ogg and Upshal have interviewed over 100 DJs, rappers, record label impresarios, critics, and insiders, whose recollections propel the account with minimal intrusion from the authors. The result reads like a disjointed series of depositions. At its best recounting rap's beginnings in the late 1970s at parties in the Bronx, NY, the book becomes increasingly uneven and superficial as the music spreads, focusing on the more commercially viable acts and seldom straying from the New York-Los Angeles axis. The sharp analysis of Nelson George's Hip Hop America (LJ 9/15/98) and the sweeping narrative of Alan Light's Vibe History of Hip Hop (Three Rivers, 1999) are sacrificed here for anecdotal recollections of events that are recent and already well documented. The nurturing role of underground radio, the growing contributions of Latino rappers, and the influence of Five Percent Nation ideology are among several themes that are largely ignored. Readers attracted by hip hop's recent commercial success will discover the book, first published in the U.K. in 1999, out of step with the ever-changing rap scene; longtime enthusiasts will be stunned to find a section devoted to the reviled Vanilla Ice while such seminal rappers as KRS-One and Rakim receive no mention at all. Perhaps they did not return Ogg and Upshal's calls. Not recommended. Richard Koss, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One dancing in the streets * Play That Beat, Mr DJ -- Enter Kool Herc Unsurprisingly, many have laid claim to roles as kings or kingmakers of the hip hop tradition. Most students, however, find one name cropping up time and again. To all intents and purposes, hip hop started the day Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, first set foot in New York in 1967.     `At the age of thirteen I migrated to the States, early '67, to the Bronx. It was winter. It was cold.'     By 1969, Herc was partying regularly at local clubs, but noticed that the crowds he joined would frequently object to the city's distant, cocksure DJs.      `I used to hear the gripes from the audience on the dancefloor. Even myself, 'cos I used to be a breaker [breakdancer]. Why didn't the guy let the record play out? Or why cut it off there? So with that, me gathering all this information around me, I say: "I think I could do that." So I started playing from a dancefloor perspective. I always kept up the attitude that I'm not playing it for myself, I'm playing for the people out there.'     DJs needed to establish an identity or niche in this highly competitive market. Herc was determined to find records that no one else owned, to distinguish himself from the pack. As an example, he pressed his father into buying James Brown's Sex Machine LP in 1969.     `A lot of people wanted that record and couldn't really find it. So a lot of people used to come to the party to hear that.'     Herc did his research, checking out what was being played on local jukeboxes to test a song's popularity and picking up rarities at Downstairs Records on 42nd Street and the Rhythm Den.     `This is where your recognition, your rep comes from. You have a record nobody else got, or you're the first one to have it. You've got to be the first, can't be the second.'     While violence has become rap's defining characteristic in the 90s, hip hop actually started out as a means of ending black-on-black fighting two decades earlier. The Bronx citizen of the early 70s had much to live in fear of.     `The gangs came and terrorised the whole neighbourhood, the boroughs. Everybody just ran back into their house. There was no more clubs, everybody ran back into their house. If you did do a house party, it had to be: "I have to know you. Don't bring nobody who I don't know to my house." It lasted for a while until the parents started to come in early, and find a house full of kids, tearing up the new furniture that she just put some money down on. [The kids] were still seeking for a place to release this energy.'     Herc's sister asked him to help out by playing music in the recreation room of his family's housing block, 1520 Sedgewick Towers.     `OK, I throw my hand at it, and she rented the recreation room, I think for twenty-five dollars at the time. We could charge it at twenty-five cents for girls, fifty cents for fellas. It was like, "Kool Herc, man. He's giving a party, westside man. Just be cool, that's what I'm saying, come and have a good time. Just don't ditch the programme.'"     Dodge High School, before it became co-educational, was an all girls establishment. Not least for that reason, it became, by reputation, the top venue for aspiring DJs, as Melle Mel recalls.     `If you got to do Dodge High School, you was the fuckin' man. And Herc used to do it every year.' * Give Me A Break -- The Origin Of The Breakbeat Searching for further innovations for his sets, Herc patented the breakbeat, the climatic instrumental section of a record, partly through his existing knowledge of the dub plates or `versions' prevalent in Jamaican reggae.     `I was using some of the breakdown parts. Every Jamaican record has a dub side to it. So I just tried to apply that. As the years went along I'm watching people, waiting for this particular break in it, the rhythm section. One night, I was waiting for the record to play out. Maybe they're [the dancers] waiting for this particular break. I could have a couple more records got the same break in it -- I wonder, how would it be if I put them all together and I told them: "I'm going to try something new tonight. I'm going to call it a merry-go-round." The B-boys, as I call it, the energetic person, they're waiting just to release this energy when this break comes in.'     Herc saw a ready-made audience for his `breakdowns'. The merry-go-round involved him mixing sections of James Brown's `Give It Up Or Turn It Loose' into Michael Viner's `Bongo Rock' and back out into Babe Ruth's `The Mexican'. His audiences loved it.     The merry-go-round became the blueprint for hip hop. * To The Beat Y'All -- Breakdancing USA The first to react to the innovations, naturally enough, were Herc's partygoers. Breakdancers, or B-boys, began to interpret Herc's idiosyncratic style with routines of their own. Some historians trace the development of breakdancing to the African martial arts form, capoeta , brought to America by slaves a century before. No one is entirely sure of the identity of the first New York breakdancer, but it was certainly popularised by members of the Zulu Nation. The discipline of breakdancing/B-boying was one of four separate styles that eventually converged through the late 70s. Up-rocking was a kind of non-contact mock martial art first seen in Brooklyn. Plus there were two imported West Coast styles -- pop-locking (a mixture of strutting, robotics and moonwalking) and body-popping (developed on the west coast by Boogaloo Sam).     Richie Colon took the name Crazy Legs after being given the nickname by a high school cheerleader. Subsequently the most famous breakdancer of them all, he joined the Rock Steady Crew, a predominantly Latin team, in 1979. He did so by impressing founder members Jo-Jo and Jimmy Dee with a new version of the backspin which made the breaker resemble a spinning ball. He attributes the origin of the term B-boy, almost inevitably, to Kool Herc, who would encourage dancing by shouting out to his `B-boys'. Breakdancers, according to Crazy Legs, were simply those partygoers who would wait on Herc's `breaks' before going into action.     `A B-boy is a break boy or a break girl. There are people who call themselves B-boys and don't even know where the term comes from. That really comes from people being outside of the "foundation" when it started. By the time it hit Queens or Brooklyn, or something like that, they may have heard the term B-boy, but didn't know that it meant a break boy.'     He chanced on hip hop in the mid-70s and became an immediate convert.     `Say about 1977, I experienced my first jam, but prior to that hip hop music was just a combination of funk, soul and R&B. It wasn't considered hip hop music, because the culture itself wasn't labelled hip hop culture. The first time I ever heard someone on a mic, rocking a mic, it had to be in '77. I went to a jam in the South Bronx and the Cold Crush Brothers were there, Charlie Chase. My cousin Lenny Len brought me to a jam.'     In order to join the Rock Steady Crew, who had built an impressive reputation throughout the Bronx, Crazy Legs had to audition, or more accurately, duel.     `It wasn't about winning or losing, it was about how you maintained yourself within a battle. We lost the battle, but we proved that we'd developed our skills and that we were hungry. In 1979, you got to understand that was the first time the dance was dying out. So when I got into Rock Steady, breaking was already dying out. Thank God I ran into the people that I ran into throughout the early 80s within the Bronx and Manhattan and started re-establishing Rock Steady Crew again. Eventually the original leaders of Rock Steady saw what I was doing and they decided to give me the Crew and then I became president of the Rock Steady Crew in 1981.'     Respect, identity and competition were important factors for breakdancers, Crazy Legs states, but then so too was impressing the opposite sex.     `The high point at the jam [was] where everyone just starts battling each other, trying to do the dopest moves and get the most props. So that by the time you've finished you're either one of the dopest B-boys or you've got some honeys checking you out, now you have some girlies. A lot of B-boys did it for the girls. The competitiveness was important, but girls were very important as well.'     Kid Freeze, aka Clemente Moreno, another of breakdancing's most renowned exponents, recalls his introduction to the craft in the late 70s.     `I was walking down my block. I see these two kids with a boom box, and they had Kangols on. They had the music going and I seen them, they were hitting the floor, they were doing fancy footwork and I just stopped, amazed at what they were doing: "Oh, that's kind of cool." Next thing you know, my luck, my father is walking down the block from work and sees me looking at these guys. Any time I'd be hanging out with guys that have maybe fancy hats or nice sneakers that were expensive, he thought that either they were drug dealers or something about them wasn't right.'     After Freeze's family relocated from the Bronx to Queens in 1976, he had the opportunity to pursue his interest.     `You choose your weapon -- either the microphone, the turntables, the spray can or the floor as a B-boy.'     He attained the name Kid Freeze during tryouts to join local crew the Dynamic Rockers at the Galaxy Disco in Queens. The dancing was as competitive as any gangland initiation ceremony.     `They had guys from Manhattan, they had guys from Brooklyn, guys from Queens, Staten Island. We were battling to get in the group. So I seen this kid who had on Kid Freeze [on his shirt] and I said: "Listen, do you want to battle for this name?" So he goes: "All right, if you win, I'll take off my shirt." And he was in the same group, Dynamic. So I battled him and second round I went down, I took him. He took off his shirt and said: "Here, you deserve it. You're really good and I can see you're really going far.'"     Brooklyn native Nelson George, author of The Death Of Rhythm and Blues and Hip Hop America , got his first taste of the emergent new music at one of Herc's shows at Taft High School in the Bronx.     `The sun hadn't gone down yet, and kids were just hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Van pulls up, a bunch of guys come out with a table, crates of records. They unscrew the base of the light pole, take their equipment, attach it to that, get the electricity -- Boom! We got a concert right here in the schoolyard and it's this guy Kool Herc. And he's just standing with the turntable, and guys were studying his hands. There are people dancing, but there's as many people standing, just watching what he's doing. That was my first introduction to in-the-street, hip hop DJing.'     Melle Mel remembers a physical frame which matched Herc's imposing audio set-up.     `This huge character, and he had a beard. He really was like fuckin' Hercules, he was built and shit. He was, just from my images of right now, just this really mythical character. Even before I was able to go to a Herc jam, I heard about him for about a year and a half.' * Junior Wants To Play -- From Disco To Hip Hop Frederick Braithwaite started out as a graffiti artist working along the Lexington Avenue line with the Fab Five crew -- hence his nom de plume Fab Five Freddy. Before working as a promoter, recording artist and later a TV presenter, he witnessed some of the earliest DJ parties.     `I was part of the disco era. This is disco before it became commercial disco, when it was underground. DJs giving parties in schools, at restaurants that they would take over at night and they would simulate "posh" clubs. That scene, those particular DJs that played what was then known as disco, those guys inspired the generation that became the pioneers of hip hop. So I was around as the transition took place in the mid-70s.'     That transition involved disenfranchised black youths reclaiming music from untouchable star musicians whom they could no longer readily identify with.     `Let's say a group like Earth Wind & Fire -- that particular time, they were wearing elaborate, gaudy costumes. It was something that seemed very far away from what a ghetto kid on the street could realistically hope to attain, or be part of.'     Disco had left many urban black kids behind. Its celebrity-strewn mecca, Studio 54, could just as well have been on another continent. Impresario Michael Holman saw this desire for ownership of an indigenous music and the frustration with vacuous records produce a climate similar to the one which engendered punk. However, he emphasises the fact that peer group acceptance took several years.     `The people in the neighbourhood were into the artists who were coming out of California and from other places. Local groups and local rap artists who were rapping over turntables in the park were not quite that popular, especially with the older people from, say, mid-twenties up.'     Where punk had been a year zero explosion, hip hop was built block by block over several years, devouring its immediate past rather than ridiculing it. Disco was its most recent antecedent and provided a fertile gene pool. However, many other early hip hop jams and record releases employed rock signatures and percussion effects rather than dance music, because it was too `soft' to freestyle over.     Before hip hop finalised its blueprint, disco kids in the Bronx were already hooked on the breakbeat sections the DJs would emphasise, as Fab Five Freddy recalls.     `When these particular records would come on, they would give a real interesting vibe to the party, The atmosphere, the energy would change. Kids that knew how to breakdance would start dropping to the floor doing these crazy moves. This is before things had names and titles so it wasn't breakdancing and it wasn't hip hop, it was just energy.'     Fab Five Freddy notes that the development of a cultural alternative to disco was at least partially inspired by working class blacks being excluded from the mainstream.     `When you would go to these disco parties, particularly when they were given in the cities, or at colleges. The crowd was primarily a college crowd. They would sometimes put on the flyers: "No sneakers". That would be a reference to what you could say was the hip hop kid, or the real urban foundation type of kid.' * My Adidas -- Hip Hop Fashion Statements The sneaker was becoming an item of almost mythical importance to breakdancers, according to Michael Holman. Woe betide anyone who stepped on the toes of the early B-boys.     `Back in the old days of hip hop, the sneaker of choice would be shoes that would be actually old school even then. They would have been ten-year-old styles, like the plastic shell toe, the shell-toed Adidas sneakers. These were kids who, what they owned was on their backs and on their feet. So when you talk about sneaker etiquette, or sneaker intrusion, you're talking about this idea of, God forbid, you were to step on someone's sneakers. I don't know how they did it, but you would keep your sneakers spotless. Absolutely clean. And you're going through the subway system, you are going through New York City -- it's not one of the cleanest cities in the world. How they would keep them clean I have no idea. Stepping on someone's sneakers could easily be a death sentence.'     Some of the more interesting fashion statements were made by combining sneakers with exotic sportswear -- sailing and skiing apparel -- sporting activities that were way beyond the wearer's economic compass.     `That has always been part of black fashion, mocking them [affluent whites], mimicking it, taking that fashion and turning it into their own.'     Despite the confluence of areas like breakdancing, graffiti and music, the embracing of hip hop as an umbrella term was still some way down the line, according to Fab Five Freddy.     `There really was no comparison, there was no analogy. There was no four elements of hip hop at this point in time. Basically, you had graffiti going full steam, completely independent of what was going on in hip hop for the most part.' * Watch The Closing Doors -- The Graf Squad Graffiti had decorated urban trains in New York since the early 70s. The origins of this DIY impressionism, or `guerrilla art', are variously credited to Greek teenager TAKI 183 and Jean-Michel Basquiat, aka Samo, though territorial wall markings were a fixture of New York's urban environment in the previous decade. In the 70s they simply grew in size and ambition, often bedecking whole tenement walls as well as subway trains. This threw the authorities and graffiti artists into a headlong confrontation that is still smouldering today on several continents. Fab Five Freddy was one of graffiti's earliest adherents and advocates. According to his observations, its growth sprang from a quest for identity and recognition common to all hip hop's constituent forms.     `Graffiti artists come up with another name, another persona, paint it all over the city on the trains and everything and -- "Hi! That's me! I'm just as big as an ad for Marlboro cigarettes or Coca-Cola or any other big product.'"     Michael Holman first came to New York in 1978 to work on Wall Street as a credit analyst. But he immediately became infatuated with the subway graffiti that decorated his route to work.     `I would get in the subway, about to get on a train, and these trains would go by with these amazing burners, graffiti burners, multi-coloured name tags. They would take up the whole train and I would watch them go by and just think, my God, this is amazing. Other people on the platform -- do you see this? And they were all sort of in their own world and not even noticing. I guess it was all old hat to them and just boring vandalism and I was just shocked. It was the first tug, the first pull into that subculture.'     Like Fab Five Freddy, Holman believes that the different strands of hip hop -- graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing -- were only considered as a collective entity some time after the event.     `It never really plays out the way you think it would in a neat package that historians would like to see it. There wasn't at that time anybody saying, "OK, this is like a hip hop happening." No one was saying that, because it wasn't that yet.'"     At this stage, the dominant persona in this new culture was the DJ.     `It really is important to note that the DJ was truly the important artist then. It wasn't the MC, it was the DJ who made the party happen. It was the DJ who was the producer, who was the one supplying the soundtrack for the breakdancers and for the B-boys.'     However, some loose movement was definitely stirring, signified as much as anything by a new dress code.     `It was slowly becoming apparent to everyone uptown and downtown that this was something like the rock 'n' roll of the 60s, which had its own look, style, fashion. This was a subculture that had its own fashion, dance, aesthetic, music, lexicon if you will.'     It wasn't subtle, but Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang credits Herc with creating a compelling distraction from the turmoil of inner-city life.     `You could hear his system, with no exaggeration, three blocks away. He had a countless number of speakers, bass bottoms, subs, mid-range, tweeters. And he'd hook up -- they'd plug into the street lamps. Lights would go dark from how much power was being drawn and the parties that he would throw. Oh, man, it was like something you'd see at the Superbowl. It was people losing their mind and no violence, and that was the key -- no violence. To have that many people together and nobody wanted to fight. Nobody wanted to shoot. Everybody going home safe.'     Afrika Bambaataa freely credits DJ Kool Herc with being the `father' of hip hop, its founder and guardian, and also his chief inspiration.     `By 1969 he had that feeling of playing this style of music with breakbeats, something like they were doing in Jamaica with the version type of music. They would take the instrumental style and a lot of the DJs would toast -- as what you call rapping today -- on the record.'     However, it is easy to overstate the importance of the Jamaican influence on New York hip hop. Herc, for example, was `Americanised' very swiftly once he arrived in the country, playing basketball and involving himself in local graffiti activities. Despite the precedents set by U-Roy, I-Roy and other toasters, reggae records proved generally unpopular when he played them. It is debatable whether parallel developments in Kingston reggae and Bronx hip hop are any more than coincidental. DJ battles in New York did mirror the soundclashes of Jamaica, but would almost certainly still have arisen without the historical precedent. The simple connection between the two was competition.     And the competition was about to liven up. Copyright (c) 1999 Alex Ogg. All rights reserved.