A 'Magical Art Form' Turns 50

On Aug. 11, 1973, 18-year-old DJ Kool Herc put hip-hop music on the map
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 11, 2023 9:16 AM CDT
A 'Magical Art Form' Turns 50
Luther Campbell, right, leader of hip-hop group of 2 Live Crew, is seen outside of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on June 6, 1990. The sexually explicit content from 2 Live Crew made their 1989 album "As Nasty as They Want to Be" the subject of a legal battle over obscenity and...   (AP Photo/Bill Cooke, file)

It was born in the break, all those decades ago—that moment when a song's vocals dropped, instruments quieted down, and the beat took the stage. It was then that hip-hop came into the world, taking the moment and reinventing it. The music was something new, coming out of something familiar. At the hands of the DJs playing the albums, that break moment became something more: a composition in itself, repeated in an endless loop, back and forth between the turntables. The MCs got in on it, speaking their own clever rhymes and wordplay over it. So did the dancers, the b-boys and b-girls who hit the floor to break-dance. It took on its own visual style, with graffiti artists bringing it to the streets and subways of New York City. It didn't stay there, of course. A musical form, a culture, with reinvention as its very DNA would never, could never.

Hip-hop spread, from the parties to the parks, through New York City's boroughs and then the region, around the country and the world. And at each step: change and adaptation, as new, different voices came in and made it their own—in sound, in lyric, in purpose, in style. Its foundations steeped in the Black communities where it first made itself known, and also spread out and expanded, like ripples in water, until there was no corner of the world that hadn't been touched by it. Those looking for a hip-hop starting point have since landed on one, turning this year into a 50th-birthday celebration, per the AP. The news agency notes that Aug. 11, 1973, was the date a young Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc around his Bronx stomping grounds, deejayed a back-to-school party for his younger sister in the community room of an apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue.

Campbell, who was born and spent his early years in Jamaica before his family moved to the Bronx, was still a teen himself at that time, just 18, when he began extending the musical breaks of the records he was playing to create a different kind of dancing opportunity. He'd started speaking over the beat, reminiscent of the "toasting" style heard in Jamaica. It wasn't long before the style could be heard all over the city—and began to spread around the New York City metro region and beyond. Mainstream America hasn't always been ready for hip-hop. The sexually explicit content from Miami's 2 Live Crew made their 1989 album As Nasty as They Want to Be the subject of a legal battle over obscenity and freedom of expression; a later album, Banned in the USA, became the first to get an official record industry label about explicit content.

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Coming from America's Black communities, however, has also meant hip-hop has been used as a tool to speak out against injustice—like in 1982, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five told the world in "The Message" that the stresses of poverty in their city neighborhoods made it feel "like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under." Hip-hop is, simply, "a magical art form," says musician and record producer Nile Rodgers. It was his song "Good Times," with the band Chic, that was re-created to form the basis for "Rapper's Delight," released in 1979. "The impact that it's had on the world, it really can't be quantified," Rodgers says. "You can find someone in a ... country that you've never been to, and all of a sudden you hear its own local hip-hop. And you don't even know who these people are, but they've adopted it and have made it their own." Much more on hip-hop's milestone here.

(More hip-hop stories.)

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