If you’ve been anywhere near the news, the Internet, or the radio this summer, then you heard about “a party in the Bronx in August 1973”. That summer bash is touted as where hip-hop was born, with a couple of caveats: it took years before American radio caught on to what the streets already knew was about to explode, and those who were there (like legendary DJ Hollywood) are quick to point out that summer night was really the culmination of a whole cultural movement that had been bubbling up in urban neighborhoods, particularly in the Big Apple, for years before.
As The Herbaliser samples in 1999’s “Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks,” hip-hop (also called “disco rap” at its beginning) was about more than just rap music. There was the visual form of graffiti art, and the physical language of break dancing. All of that was growing and expanding throughout the 1970s until in 1979 the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke through and captivated radio audiences from coast to coast – suburban listeners and all.
Hits like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” the following year built on the momentum; in 1981 Blondie took it a step further with “Rapture,” the video for which featured Fab Five Freddy and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Seeing and hearing Debbie Harry “rap” only further cemented the genre’s place as a vibrant, unstoppable cultural force. The crossover continued when Run-DMC invited Aerosmith back into the spotlight for the 1986 remake of “Walk This Way.” Run-DMC, in fact, would also star that year on an episode of Lavarr Burton’s beloved public television series “Reading Rainbow” – teaching a younger audience what the movement was all about.
There’s no way to do justice in just one column to hip-hop’s wildly broad reach over the last 50 years. Apple Music and Spotify have a wonderful compilation from DJ Clark Kent called hip-hop DNA that somehow manages to compress it into a powerful 84-minute taste. And here are a few selections I’d recommend adding to your library if you want to continue exploring all that came out of that 1973 Bronx party.
Miles Davis, “On the Corner,” 1972. One of Davis’s worst-selling albums when it dropped, this one has gotten exponentially better with age. He stepped away from the trumpet more than usual for “Corner,” sharing keyboard duties with Herbie Hancock and letting Michael Henderson’s basslines take centerstage. In retrospect, “Corner’s” rhythms and experimental percussion breaks have led many to credit it with helping form the foundation of several genres – not the least of which is hip-hop.
Digable Planets, “Reachin’ (New Refutation of Time and Space),” 1992. Fast-forward 20 years through the golden age of Grandmaster Flash, Slick Rick, MC Lyte, L.L. Cool J, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa and so many others, and you might land on this gem from the early 1990s. Propelled by the popularity of “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”, highlights include “Pacifics” (with a hook built around Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Devika”), and “Jimmi Digging Cats,” one of many, many songs that sample Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” Among the many socially conscientious tracks that have made hip-hop about so much more than just the music is “La Femme Fatale,” which tackles the sensitive issue of abortion head-on.
The Roots, “Things Fall Apart,” 1999. Considered the Roots’ breakthrough and one of alternative rap’s most essential recordings, this is a fascinating bridge between hip-hop’s origins and where it was headed. Even the original cover – police chasing Bed-Stuy teenagers during the 1960s civil rights movement – spoke to the vitally important themes the Roots were addressing in their music.