This genre, founded on African-Americans in the Bronx, evolved into a worldwide sensation due to its distinctive rhythmic voice and recitation style.
The origins of rap
Rap music began to gain momentum in the early 1970s in New York City’s Bronx region. It began as a collaborative effort among Black, Latinx, and Caribbean American youth at block parties featuring DJs playing soul and funk music.
At these gatherings, DJs often included long percussion breaks into their sets so MCs could engage the crowd. Additionally, call-and-response chants between them and the crowd became popular, eventually developing into today’s style of rap music.
Rap music evolved over time into something more intricate and refined. Around this time, rappers demonstrated professionalism and nuance in their lyrics, ushering the genre of rap into mainstream culture for the first time ever.
Hip hop/rap is often referred to as the “golden age of rap”, when artists were consistently pushing boundaries of their craft. This enabled rap to spread throughout America and develop into what we now recognize as mainstream music.
Rap has its origins in West African and Caribbean cultures that told rhythmic stories with percussion instruments thousands of years ago. These communities had village storytellers known as “griots,” who used simple handmade instruments to share tales about family life and current events in their communities.
At these gatherings, DJs played the latest music. These parties often featured a blend of soul and funk songs that were spun on turntables by these professional DJs.
DJs would play these songs to captivate an audience. People would clap along and dance along to the rhythm.
In the Bronx, DJs began experimenting with various techniques during parties; including longer percussion breaks (known as “breakbeats”) and scratching with turntables. Once these techniques became mainstream, rappers began applying them to their own songs.
By the late 1970s, rap was becoming increasingly popular throughout North America and other parts of the world. It was part of hip hop culture and featured four main stylistic elements: MCing/rapping, DJing/scratching with turntables, break dancing, and graffiti writing.
Most genres of music have an elusive origin story, typically consisting of multiple incidents that come together to form an evolving narrative. But hip-hop can be traced back to one singular event: a party held in the Bronx in 1973 that forever altered the landscape of music.
Clive Campbell, better known by his stage name DJ Kool Herc, was a Jamaican-born music producer and deejay who immigrated to New York in the 1970s. Growing up with both American and Jamaican musical traditions in his home country, his fascination for both cultures eventually led him to create what would become known as Hip-Hop music – an amalgamation of both styles.
Herc is widely recognized as the founder of breakbeat DJing, the foundation of modern hip-hop music. He was the first to combine the percussion breaks from two similar records using what is now known as “cutting breaks.”
Herc was renowned for his DJing abilities and powerful sound system, which could literally fill the dance floor. His parties became legendary throughout New York City, drawing crowds from all corners to his home on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.
Herc was a key figure in the early 1970s of what would become known as Hip-Hop music. His parties helped birth an international youth culture grounded in African American experiences, mixing soul, rock, funk, reggae and dancehall elements.
Herc was a major influence on many DJs, such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. He helped shape hip-hop culture that would be emulated by countless others, earning him the title of “father” of the genre.
His impact on hip-hop was further reinforced when he introduced a series of slang phrases into his music that became synonymous with rap lyrics. Phrases like “rock on, my mellow,” “b-boys, b-girls” and “keep on rock steady” punctuated the music and made it more captivating for listeners.
Herc’s impact on hip-hop culture was further strengthened when he brought rap into the mainstream, inspiring artists from all genres to use it as a vehicle for social commentary. Additionally, Herc was instrumental in shaping the fashion associated with rap music, helping shape what would eventually become known as “hip hop”. Ultimately, Herc can be credited with helping create the modern day hip-hop industry.
In the 1970s, New York City resident Grandmaster Flash (Mamouou Athie) made headlines as one of the earliest pioneers of rap music. Utilizing his turntables to backspin, scratch and cut records in search of an ideal beat, Flash created an entirely new musical vocabulary that would eventually catalyze hip-hop into a global phenomenon with significant social impacts.
Flash’s innovative turntable techniques as a deejay have become iconic to hip-hop culture, earning him the respect and admiration of artists across the genre. A version of his work has been featured on Netflix’s original series The Get Down, and this fall he will be joining University at Buffalo Arts Collaboratory for their working artists lab event.
Before his meteoric rise to fame, Flash honed his craft as a DJ in the South Bronx. He spun records at free block parties and parks while illegally pilfering power for his sound system from interrupted power mains.
With his background in B-boying, he experimented with blending rhythms and sounds to create unique beats. This eventually led him to creating “breaks,” the foundation of any hip-hop song.
Flash began collaborating with friends, such as Kool Herc and his wife Sylvia Robinson. Her Sugarhill Records label purchased Flash’s Enjoy contract and he joined the group to release several singles under their label.
In 1980, Sugarhill Records’ single “Freedom” achieved gold status, selling over 500,000 copies and launching them onto a national tour that won over both fans and critics alike. They also released the groundbreaking track “Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” which marked the first serious use of sampling on a rap record.
Flash’s career as a member of the rap group was short lived, but he continued making music on his own. In 2002 he released Essential Mix, an album of his block party recordings that became an instant classic. A year later in 2004, The Official Adventures of Grandmaster Flash followed, featuring exclusive interview footage and rare recordings from that era.
Flash is still active as both a deejay and performer, performing at venues worldwide as well as hosting his own radio show. His work as an ambassador for hip-hop culture has earned him many honors, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Sugarhill Gang
The Sugar Hill Gang were pioneers of rap music. In 1979, they released their first single “Rapper’s Delight,” becoming the first group to chart at number 40 on Billboard charts. Through their success and influence on the genre, MCing and rapping went from being a sideshow act to an integral part of pop culture.
Sylvia Robinson founded the band in 1979 after observing the rise in hip-hop block parties throughout New York City during the late ’70s. To capture this energy, she recruited three young men from Englewood, New Jersey to record a track for her Sugar Hill Records label: Mike Wright (known as Wonder Mike); Guy O’Brien (better known as Master Gee); and Henry Jackson (aka Big Bank Hank).
Within weeks, The Sugar Hill Gang’s rap track “Good Times,” inspired by Chic’s disco classic, had become an international hit. Its infectious and catchy melody has been credited with popularizing rap as a genre of music.
However, this wasn’t the first rap song to reach the Top 40 on pop charts and it wouldn’t be their only big hit. They would go on to have two more top 20 R&B singles in the 1980s – “8th Wonder” and “Apache,” though neither single made it mainstream.
Although the Sugar Hill Gang were considered a one-hit wonder, their song “Rapper’s Delight” still had an immense impact on hip-hop music – making Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This iconic track marked an important turning point in rap history and provided inspiration to future aspiring rappers to craft their own styles of rap music.
The Sugar Hill Gang are iconic figures in hip-hop culture and they continue to tour worldwide today. Their influence over the genre of rap has been enormous – they have sold eight million records worldwide! Their iconic debut song “Rapper’s Delight” remains a major staple of modern day hip-hop events and concerts alike.