The Rise of Hip Hop in New York – halenur komsul
Over the course of its existence, Hip Hop has transcended its initial role in the world as a music genre and is even regarded as a movement within pop culture as of today. In fact, Hip Hop has surpassed rock music in the charts, something that has never been done before. As someone who has grown up during this revolutionary time, I was able to witness the impact of the culture within my own neighborhoods in New Jersey: the shift in fashion choices from plaid, tight pants- reminiscent of the Rock period- to baggy jeans and gold chains like those worn by the iconic Sugar Hill Gang, as well as the linguistic shifts caused by the rise of Hip Hop’s popularity. Even at a young age, I was able to notice a distinct disconnect between the way my peers and I spoke as compared to how our parents expected us to speak; our language became riddled with slang and short cuts, like each sentence was a verse. Hip Hop has become more than a genre, as it challenged political and social standards while rising from the ground up- redefining modes of expression against oppression during the era of urbanization within the South Bronx.
Following the second World War, the United States had a very specific goal in mind- to catch up on lost time. The war boosted various industries including construction, and even more specifically, construction of homes, which positively affected the middle class. On the other hand, the deindustrialization that occurred after the war led to the lower class (blacks, Hispanics, and Indians) to move in as the middle class moved out. Urban decay was imminent as apartments and houses were abandoned and those which remained in use were neglected due to lack of funding for up-keeping. This left those in the lower class with deep rooted disdain for those who put them in their situation, and sparked the need for some kind of revolution. Yet, given the circumstances, this revolution had to be non-traditional. This is where DJ Kool Herc enters the story; performing as a DJ in the recreation room of an apartment building in August of 1973, he was the first to implement deejaying as an element of hip hop. Herc moved to the South Bronx as gang culture began to rise, leaving the already depleted area in an unstable, fearful state. It is important to note that the term South Bronx “was really just an invention, a shorthand way to describe physically decaying neighborhoods, rising crime and rising poverty” as stated by former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. With this being said, the South Bronx was the place no one wanted to be; public housing projects and gang culture made the pre-existing social, economic, and racial tensions fester. The already neglected people of the South Bronx found themselves becoming even more marginalized, the class level one fit into became their defining characteristic as the lines between each class became more evident.
During this time, the main recreational activity was going to disco clubs, yet the teens of this area struggled not only to find the money to enter clubs, but they lacked a deep connection with the scene to begin with. These individuals were too consumed by the systematic poverty and terrorism within their neighborhoods to bond with the carefree and lighthearted genre of Disco. DJ Kool Herc’s throwback was the revolution; it was cheap to get into and didn’t confine the teens to disco music. It allowed them to have their own style: Hip hop.
The term, “Hip hop” wasn’t coined until 1981 by Afrika Bambaataa, a former gang member who utilized the music as an alternative to violence. As the term gained popularity, it developed a definition: “a complex culture comprising four elements: deejaying…rapping, also known as “MCing” … graffiti painting… and “B-boying,” which encompasses hip-hop dance, style, and attitude”. Bambaataa’s story is crucial in understanding what Hip Hop means beyond the dictionary definition. It served as an outlet of expression against the oppression the people of these minorities, black in particular, felt from their government. It was an escape from the predetermined path members of this society were expected to take. Ironically enough, as graffiti became a symbol of the movement, laws began to restrict the ability for artists to use it as means to pay tribute to someone who passed away within the community, mark territory, or encourage others to “compete” in graffiti art. They were labeled “stains” on already stained communities. Similarly, breakdance was punishable by crime when it was a tool used by these communities to avoid criminal behavior (teens were choosing to battle in dance offs rather than through violent acts). Police brutality in these areas rose as authority figures worked to tame the rising passion for expression and the desire to have a voice. The attempts made by the people living in the South Bronx were shut down by the government, presumably to keep the social order as it was, and to prevent the unexpected empowerment of minorities. The reason for authorities to restrict and prohibit the extent of their expression was not limited to altering “the way things were”, but also worked in conjunction to not wanting the realities of police brutality and racism to spread. Growth of this genre threatened the comfort of the middle class as they would simultaneously face the “consequences” of the growth in power these groups would gain. The South Bronx was synonymous with poverty, suffering, and unhappiness- things that the middle class never wanted to admit they had inflicted upon others. Following the war, the individuals who felt the relief of no longer being targeted (middle class whites) were on a high, and they were determined to not allow the lower class to bring them down.
As a result of these restrictions, the South Bronx’s image deteriorated even further. Members of the community were criminalized for creating and supporting this new art form. The socio-economic problems of the time were not solved by the Hip Hop movement, and can even be interpreted to have hindered it in the moment. However, looking forward from the initial years of its existence and integration into society, Hip Hop has definitely changed how the Western world consumes the new culture and clearly shows a new appreciation for it. The South Bronx is to Hip Hop as Hip Hop is to pop culture. The DJ’s of the time inspired people, primarily the youth, to indulge in their anger, and channel it to get creative. DJ Kool Herc began deejaying with two record players to reinvent the break, inviting those who appreciated the movement to spend their time listening to the music, or joining him in pushing the limitations they came across. Hip Hop in the 70’s was not only an alternative to violence, but also a distraction.
Hip Hop is a key component to the history of the South Bronx, and to New York as it acted as the home for its introduction, development, and rise. New York, had it not been as diverse as it was at the time, would have never seen the migration of middle class out of the areas defined as the “South Bronx”, nor would it have served as the foundation for a new wave. In a way, Hip Hop was built on the faults and flaws of New York, redefining what it means to be confined to a location and proving that there are no true limitations of political, societal and economic boundaries- at least not in New York.