Growing up in New York City during the early ’70s was an adventure in sound and vision. As a boy, I can recall seeing the graffiti that covered the subway as it pulled into the station at 145th Street and Broadway. Eyes wide, I marveled at the colorful names of the “writers” and crews spray painted across the metal train cars.
Watching this early incarnation of what would later be called hip hop was the equivalent of observing Pablo Picasso drawing stick figures in grade school.
A few years later, in 1977, I witnessed my first rapper/DJ crew when Lovebug Starski and DJ Hollywood played a block party in my neighborhood. Awestruck by the cutting, scratching and rapping, I stared at the performers as well as their turntables, speakers, wires and crates of records stacked in the middle of the street. Rocking to the sonic-shock beats erupting from the massive speakers, Hollywood talked much jive over the soulful music while kick-ass drum beats, beefy basslines and fierce funk served as his soundtrack. Meanwhile, Lovebug Starski, the lanky dude behind the turntables, manipulated the rhythmic tracks as the young crowd danced.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, watching this early incarnation of what would later be called hip hop was the equivalent of watching James Baldwin getting his first library card or observing Pablo Picasso drawing stick figures in grade school. When the dance component of b-boying – breakdancing – was added a few years later, the four elements of hip hop culture were in place and soon began to inspire people across the globe.
As cinematic classics like The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Shaft have shown, in the ’70s the so-called Big Apple was rotting away. “The whole city was in disarray,” recalls pioneering DJ and rapper Grandmaster Caz, a former member of The Cold Crush Brothers. “Back then, everything was corrupt and bankrupt. The Bronx was filled with burned-out 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 signs of artistic life bubbling beneath the gritty asphalt. Uptown in the Bronx, and later in Harlem, many of those same kids Caz saw playing on those broke-down blocks began funneling their energies into becoming virtuoso DJs, MCs, dancers and artists. Hailing from the ghettos of every borough, they soon made themselves known, if only in their own scarred neighborhoods.
In the beginning, the visual virus of graffiti began as marker scribbles on the subway-train walls before transforming into a full-scale artistic attack on the entire system. Using imaginative monikers, “tags,” that became their new names, writers Fuzz One, Dondi, Lee and hundreds of others were becoming citywide legends. Soon the scrawling horde became spray-painting wild boys whose stunning images were instant masterpieces.
“In 1973, the most exciting things in art were happening on the trains,” says soft-spoken photographer Henry Chalfant. Intrigued by “the rebellious underground aspect” of what he was seeing on the streets, Chalfant began taking photographs of both the trains and the artists themselves.
During that era, Chalfant snapped a picture of every piece that he saw. Inevitably, Chalfant, along with his friend and fellow photographer Martha Cooper, became the primary documentarians of the graffiti scene.
“I was a quiet guy but when the music started playing, it brought out another person. The talking just came out of me.”
That same summer, Clive Campbell, a hulking 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant who called himself Kool Herc, dragged his father’s turntables and Shure speakers to the recreation room in his Bronx housing project basement and began to spin records in a completely new way. The night of Herc’s first party, his best friend Coke La Rock picked up a microphone that the DJ left next to the turntables; Coke started talking trash into the mic. A new form of urban poetics – one filled with black jive, witty one-upmanship and plenty of humor – was born.
“Man, when I first started, I didn’t know anything about rapping,” Coke explains. “I just got on the mic, playing around. I was a quiet guy but when the music started playing, it brought out another person. The talking just came out of me.”
Meanwhile, as the Bronx boogie began to spread, kids started adding dance steps to the music. They called themselves b-boys, short for breaking boys. Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, Spinner and others began developing the dance aspect of the still-unnamed art form. As though hearing music through their feet, these kids were loose, limber and had no problem spinning on their heads. They gathered in subway stations, seedy parks and the Times Square streets after dark; The Rock Steady Crew, Young City Boys and other crews battled one another just to get a rep.
The combination of these four elements – breakdancing, graffiti writing, DJing and MCing – became the foundation of a new artistic revolution. Unaware that their actions would be seen as rebellion, these youngsters formed the first crews that future pop culturists would call the Hip Hop Generation.
“For a culture to be a complete form, it has to have art, music and dance,” says artist and filmmaker Fab 5 Freddy. A native of Brooklyn, Freddy began crossing the river into Manhattan when he was a teenager, hanging out at clubs and art galleries in Soho and the Lower East Side.
In 1979, the same year that the first hip hop record, “Rapper’s Delight,” was released on Sugar Hill Records, Fab 5 Freddy and his friend Lee Quiñones, one of graffiti’s true visionaries, became the first hip hop artists to put their work on canvas, exhibiting at the Galleria Medusa in Rome. “Me and Fab would walk through the streets [of Rome] at night carrying a giant beatbox,” Quiñones says. “We would be blasting rap tapes real loud and people didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
The early ’80s became the golden years of hip hop culture, both in the States and abroad. “‘Rapper’s Delight’ charted in a dozen other countries,” hip hop historian Bill Adler says. “It was a new genre on an independent label, but still it was a smash all over the world.”
“The people in the audience might not have understood English, but... whatever we did, we just made sure that we looked cool.”
In 1981, filmmaker and musician Michael Holman was instrumental in expanding the movement’s audience by bringing some of the Bronx DJs (including Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Rock Steady Crew) to the downtown nightclub Negril, where punk rockers and European tourists first caught a peek of the burgeoning genre and started to spread the word in their respective countries. “We did our party every Thursday night and European journalists and filmmakers were always there,” Holman says. In 1981 Holman was also managing breakdancers The Rock Steady Crew and The Floor Masters, who later became The New York City Breakers. By the following year, he became the first journalist to use the phrase “hip hop” in print, when writing about Bambaataa for alternative newspaper The East Village Eye.
Further sowing the seeds of hip hop globalization, in 1982 Fab 5 Freddy had a hand in putting together the influential New York City Rap Tour, which played ten cities in France and two shows in London. Freddy had already created the single “Change the Beat” for the small French label Celluloid, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger when he arrived.
The hip hop artists on the tour included Grand Mixer DST (later known as DXT), The Infinity Rappers, The Rock Steady Crew, Kool Lady Blue, Futura 2000, Dondi, Phase Two, Rammellzee, a double dutch jump rope team, Lee Quiñones and Afrika Bambaataa. “There was nothing structured about those performances,” Fab 5 Freddy remembers. “It was just a free-for-all jam, with all of us performing for hours. Guys would be on stage rapping all day. It was like some kind of theater. The people in the audience might not have understood English, but we knew they were feeling what we were doing. Whatever we did, we just made sure that we looked cool.”
“Punk was on the wane and here was this exciting new music and culture we were being exposed to.”
Years later, French rapper MC Solaar recounted his memories of the show to an American reporter: “Bambaataa told us to rap in our native tongue and to reflect local reality. And he said the same thing in Italy and Japan.” British writer Vivien Goldman, one of the first pop journalists to cover rap music in the UK, says, “The French were the first country in Europe to really get into hip hop. They’ve always been very enthusiastic when it came to discovering new styles and subcultures, and they were the ones who began spreading the word. When hip hop got to England, punk was just ending and people were looking for something new. Most of the kids had grown up on reggae, so they were used to seeing DJs.”
When the New York City Rap Tour played in London in November 1982, photographer Janette Beckman asked her editor at the weekly pop paper Melody Maker for a chance to take pictures. “I actually begged them to let me do it,” she laughs. An art-school-trained photographer, Beckman spent the period between 1977 and 1983 shooting punk bands. Yet “punk was on the wane and here was this exciting new music and culture we were being exposed to,” Beckman says. “It was all very new. Before meeting Dondi, Lee and Futura, I had never seen anyone tagging. I got shots of Bambaataa and DST spinning as well as pictures of b-boys posing. The first time I ever saw a breakdancer, it was a part of that show. It was wonderful. I had a feeling that this was going to be the next big thing.”
Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie, was another ambassador who helped spread the word about hip hop culture. While many early fans liked to think of Blondie as punk – they got their start playing gigs at CBGB alongside The Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Television – in reality they were musical chameleons whose colors were often changing.
Contrary to what New York-based proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron once proclaimed, that Saturday night the revolution was televised.
When their breakout single “Heart of Glass” became a disco hit, the punks felt betrayed. But Harry and conceptualist/guitarist/boyfriend Chris Stein understood the diverse rhythm of the city; they gave national exposure to the Funky 4 + 1 when they selected the group as a musical guest on the episode of Saturday Night Live that Harry hosted in February 1981. (Contrary to what New York-based proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron once proclaimed, that Saturday night the revolution was televised.) “That was one of the best things that could’ve happened to us,” Funky 4 + 1 group member Jazzy Jeff told me in 1999. “For many people across the world, that was their introduction to hip hop.”
Blondie’s popular 1981 single “Rapture” name-dropped their buddies (“Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly, DJs spinnin’ are savin’ my mind / Flash is fast, Flash is cool...”) and was instrumental in sending out the hip hop message to the rest of the world.
In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force released the first electro hip hop single, “Planet Rock.” Mating samples from the German electronic group Kraftwerk, Roland 808 beats and an Afro-futurist sensibility. With it, Bambaataa created what filmmaker Charlie Ahearn calls “the theme song for taking the entire movement worldwide.”
Ahearn decided to create his own insider look into the crews that represented the four elements. The end result was Wild Style, which featured Grandmaster Caz and The Cold Crush Brothers, among many others. Collaborating with Freddy, who did a little bit of everything on the film, including producing and acting, and Lee Quiñones, who starred as the protagonist Zoro, Ahern’s movie was shown the following year in Germany. “We had gotten funding from a German television station, so they aired it first,” Freddy says. “We had also sold the foreign rights to Channel Four in England, so there were later a lot of pirate VHS tapes floating around the UK which eventually found themselves all over Europe.”
In 1983 in Bristol, England, a crew of multiracial teenagers that included artist Banksy, future members of Portishead (Geoff Barrow), Massive Attack (Daddy G, Mushroom and 3D), DJ Milo, Tricky and Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper saw Wild Style at a local theater and lost their collective minds. A few of them united under the name The Wild Bunch, a band of renegades that set their sights on the sounds and culture of the underground.
With dub beats, sampled sounds and surreal lyrics, Massive Attack’s brilliant debut Blue Lines became the blueprint of a new generation. The dreamy, sample-heavy music they made was called trip hop. As 3D said in 1998, “We were blown away by the entire New York scene. At that time my entire life was writing graffiti and hanging at The Dug Out.” (The Dug Out was Bristol’s equivalent to Wild Style’s Dixie Club.)
“It wasn’t until I hung out in Bristol that I saw Brits that were so devoted to hip hop.”
Future turntablist and mixmaster Matt Black, who began his career as one-half of famed duo Coldcut, whose “Paid in Full” remix changed the British hip hop game in 1987, remembers meeting The Wild Bunch posse when he was in Bristol in 1984, shortly after graduating from Oxford. “My first exposure to rap music was listening to ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,’” Black says. “But it wasn’t until I hung out in Bristol that I saw Brits that were so devoted to hip hop.”
Having grown up listening to progressive rock like Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Black found the new grooves from The Wild Bunch crew mind-blowing. “Those guys in Bristol were so much more advanced than what we were doing in London,” he says. “When we met The Wild Bunch, Nellee challenged me to a DJ battle. I remember he was cutting up ‘It’s Yours’ by T-La Rock. I was just having a laugh, but Nellee was so intense. Of course, he won – but when I got back to London I bought my first Technics turntables and became as serious as he was.”
After the initial success of Coldcut in the ’80s, Black cofounded Ninja Tune, which has been in business for 23 years. Since its inception, the label has served as a home for many international hip hop and breakbeat artists. “Once the English groups realized they didn’t have to pretend to be American to be hip hop, that was when they finally got it right,” says Brooklyn native and DJ Andrea Rose Clarke, who moved to London during the rise of British hip hop.
When Grandmaster Flash didn’t show up to Blondie’s “Rapture” video shoot, Basquiat manned the turntables.
Another landmark event in bringing hip hop to London was when Basquiat exhibited at the ICA in 1984. New York City artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was a genius and a junkie, but was also part of the hip hop generation. He got labeled a graffiti artist because he tagged as SAMO and wrote bizarre sayings on walls, but he wasn’t really. Basquiat dug what Al Diaz, Keith Haring, Lee, Futura and Dondi were doing in the tunnels and on the sides of subways cars, but his stuff was different.
Equally inspired by William Burroughs, Charlie Parker and Grandmaster Flash, Basquiat’s layered paintings were filled with bizarre images: dollar signs, crashed cars, burning buildings, skeletons. He was friends with Fab 5 Freddy, had a band (Gray) with Michael Holman and collaborated with fellow b-boy visionary Rammellzee. When Grandmaster Flash didn’t show up to Blondie’s “Rapture” video shoot, which would be the first hip hop clip played by MTV, Basquiat manned the turntables. “The first time I saw a Basquiat, I was in a gallery in Japan and his work became such a big influence on me,” Massive Attack’s 3D says.
3D was also a major fan of the photographs Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper published in their graffiti-themed 1984 book, Subway Art, which featured the vibrant work of Dondi, Blade, Seen and other legendary artists.
Subway Art has been an inspiration from the Bronx to Bangkok and has never been out of print. Over the years, diverse posses of pop-culture outlaws have praised the book as having an effect on their creative lives. Since most subway cars were cleaned within days of being “bombed,” Chalfant and Cooper’s photos are the only remaining evidence of those long-gone days.
During this same period, Chalfant’s images and interviews were also the basis for the game-changing PBS documentary Style Wars. Produced by Chalfant (his friend Tony Silver directed), both Subway Art and 1983’s Style Wars have been seminal in the development of a new, truly global hip hop generation.
“Across the world, [Subway Art and Style Wars] really shined a light on the possibilities,” Chalfant says. “When they saw people who were basically like themselves making music and creating art. This was a big revelation for so many people. Filmmakers, writers, and other artists have told me what kicked it off for them was the book and the film. That means a lot to me.”
More than 30 years after hip hop’s introduction overseas, the planet is still rocking.
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.