Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years

Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years

Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years

Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years

Synopsis

The origin story of hip-hop--one that involves Kool Herc DJing a house party on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx--has become received wisdom. But Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr. argues that the full story remains to be told. In vibrant prose, he combines never-before-used archival material with searching questions about the symbolic boundaries that have divided our understanding of the music. In Break Beats in the Bronx, Ewoodzie portrays the creative process that brought about what we now know as hip-hop and shows that the art form was a result of serendipitous events, accidents, calculated successes, and failures that, almost magically, came together. In doing so, he questions the unexamined assumptions about hip-hop's beginnings, including why there are just four traditional elements--DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti writing--and not others, why the South Bronx and not any other borough or city is considered the cradle of the form, and which artists besides Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash founded the genre. Ewoodzie answers these and many other questions about hip-hop's beginnings. Unearthing new evidence, he shows what occurred during the crucial but surprisingly underexamined years between 1975 and 1979 and argues that it was during this period that the internal logic and conventions of the scene were formed.

Excerpt

“So, when did you fall in love with hip-hop?”

My father, my brother, and I were on our way to my aunt’s house in the South Bronx, on Fox Street and Westchester Avenue. It was 1999. I knew very little about the Bronx. Since emigrating to the United States from Ghana only a few years earlier, all I had heard about the Bronx was that it was mean and dangerous. According to my friends in Canton, Illinois, the small, Midwestern town in which I had been living, it was “the ghetto.” My father drove us down Westchester Avenue in our sky-blue Ford Windstar; we rode slowly in the narrow lane between the rusty steel pillars holding up the tracks of the 2 Train above us. Sitting in the back, I took in the bustle and commotion on the street. Teenagers wearing headphones, old men walking with canes, and young women pushing strollers made their way through the heavy traffic, unafraid of the vehicles that passed so closely by them. Horns honked from cars and buses and music blared from speakers on the sidewalks, as folks who were not selling or buying something hurried to where they were going.

The radio in our van was tuned to Hot 97, New York City’s premier hip-hop station during the late 90s. We were not listening because we were fans of the music but because my father was trying to immerse us in the sounds of our new urban surroundings. Mesmerized by all that was happening outside our van, I was only half paying attention when, after a commercial break, the show’s host Angie Martinez, introduced the next song. She must have mentioned the title, the artists, and maybe even the producer of the song, but I missed all that. All I heard were whirring sounds of helicopter blades. I turned to look up, but the only thing above us was the racing train. and then I heard what sounded like a man talking on a phone. I started to pay closer attention and realized the sounds were coming from the radio. the next few seconds were sounds of aggressive, guitar-like synthesizer. Then, just as the man on the phone hung up, pulsating drum kicks and snares dropped in. Simultaneously, another man’s voice shouted, “WHAT what what what what,”

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