Because They Made It That Way (Hip-Hop At 40 Years Old)
If you go by the books, Hip-Hop (I’ll spell it with capital letters since KRS-One told us to do so) turns 40 years old this month. Six summers before Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee drove a Lincoln Continental and great big Cadillac up the charts to a Top 40 hit, the culture we collectively love was existing in the parks and rec centers, powered by the search for the perfect beat, the spirit of competition—and of course, stolen electricity.
Today (August 10), the CityParks Foundation is hosting an event headlined by the Godfather himself, DJ Kool Herc, behind two wheels of steel, transmitting records live for party-going pleasure. Also on hand will be Herc’s longtime MC counterpart Coke La Rock. Together, these two “Rock’d a party” literally, with the world famous Herculoid sound-system known throughout the five boroughs, and famously featured on the back of Herc’s cocaine-white ’67 Pontiac convertible in the 1984 BBC relic Beat This. Also in attendance will be scratch-pioneer Grand Wizard Theodore, and three of the most integral gap-bridging Hip-Hop artists of all-time: Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and DJ Premier—along with radio icons Kool DJ Red Alert, Marley Marl, among many others.
It amazes me that the CityParks Foundation continues to support and embrace (and commission) Hip-Hop so beautifully each summer. While so many things about the city (and the music) have changed since the burning buildings days of the 1970s that make The Warriors seem like only a mild exaggeration, several authorities within the city know how meaningful this music, and this experience is. If Chuck Berry did free concerts in a Chicago park, people would start waiting in tents right now. If Kraftwerk were to do a special free show in Germany, trip itineraries would be booked. However, with Hip-Hop, just a train-ride away, many seem to sometimes overlook the living artifacts still showing us the way.
Afrika Bambattaa recently donated his record collection to Cornell. Rhyme-books and eye-patches, mixers and clock-necklaces are displayed under glass in museums across the globe. However, one of the most interesting things about Hip-Hop is its youth, and its rich tradition. Forty years old feels a lot longer, but Clive Campbell is still able to be a sound-selector in the parks, prolonging the breakbeats that he deems fitting for the crowd, and go on and live his nondescript life until the next opportunity.
From year to year, the sound, the slang and the style changes, but the essence is still there. Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash are still playing parties, still cutting into Jimmy Castor Bunch and James Brown rarities, and still quietly competing with one another. Chief Rocka Busy Bee, Grandmaster Caz and Spoonie Gee are not far from the microphones, looking on, and taking notice.
Sadly, the one thing we can still learn from our founding fathers is to keep the elements together. As one of those other founding fathers once famously declared, “unite or die.”
As any low-grade music class will tell you, Hip-Hop is compromised of four elements: rapping, deejaying, breakdancing and graffiti. With the last believed to be the chronological first, it’s amazing how the pockets of participants have grown segregated from each other. Few Rap crews still employ DJs in their group (and few DJs actually DJ). Turntablism has advanced so fully thanks to cliques like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-Ecutionerz that scratching has become its own language, no longer requiring a rapper to punctuate the percussion. If you see breakin’ crews, they often struggle to choreograph routines to today’s mid-tempo malaise, calling back to the same grooves heard under Herc’s stylus today (as years ago). Challenged by Hip-Hop dance classes, true b-boys and b-girls are expected to get more Julia Stiles than Wild Style if they want work. And the graf writer may have the saddest fate of all—rarely honored in the mainstream, except when artists interior design their videos for some form of grit and authenticity.
However, today, at events like these, thanks to our elder creators, those elements unify. Rapping, deejaying, breaking, and much to the chagrin of the New York Police Department, graffiti—be it marker throw-ups, or USPS shipping labels with artwork.
Hip-Hop is 40 years old, but still has its youth. It has the chance to learn from the living, breathing, and sharing pioneers. Like families rediscovering their bond at holiday dinner tables, anniversaries and special events should remind us of our connection, our purpose, and our own journey through the culture that’s so much more than a dwindling aisle of CDs at Best Buy. We still are one nation under a groove.