Oct. 2022

Propelled by youthful energy in a stratified society, Hip Hop was all about being seen, heard and considered. 1973, The Bronx, New York, was universally recognized as the birthplace of this now global culture. Look up “Hip Hop 1970’s” and you will see pictures of kids dancing on the pavement (PSA, it’s called Breaking/B-Boying/B-Girling not Breakdancing”), turntables, and rundown buildings. Let’s take a moment to address the latter.

In the 60’s and 70’s, the main cat in the New York planning office was a man by the name of Robert Moses, and he had a plan. Inspired by the theories of Swiss urbanist, Le Corbusier (né Jeanneret-Gris), he wanted to revamp New York by way of dense apartment buildings and highways (Sisson). In theory, this approach would solve housing issues in low-income areas and facilitate movement from the suburbs to the city. “Slums” needed to be eradicated, and this was the best way to do it, according to him. However, in cases where ideas are poorly copy-pasted without considering the context, people are forgotten. This is the ground on which Hip-Hop would bloom.

The South Bronx saw the loss of “600, 000 manufacturing jobs (while) the official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent” (Chang, p.13). This was due to the city’s disproportionate investment in its neighborhoods, preferring to develop Levittown suburbs for the white middle class that previously lived in South Bronx (ibid., p.12). Racial discrimination could be one of the factors influencing these political decisions, especially because this was around the time of the Civil Rights Movements and the Nixon administration. With degrading infrastructure and lack of regulation, this area became prone to youth gang activity and illegal means of subsistence, some landlords going as far as intentionally burning buildings in order to collect the insurance money (ibid., 13). The frustration of the constituents in this concrete jungle provided the energy needed to catalyze a new culture.

The young Clive Campbell a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, a native from Jamaica known for his special DJ’ing technique of the Merry-Go-Round that allowed dancers to ‘get down’ longer, organized a back to school party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue that combined all the elements of Hip-Hop: breaking, writing/graffiti, MC’ing and DJ’ing (ibid., pp.67-70, 79). Notably, it’s during one of his parties that he called the dancers ‘B-Boys’ or Break-Boys, many of which were Puerto Rican (Forman and Neal, p.45). From then on, gangs became crews of DJ’s and breakers, creating a creative and less violent culture of competition. Hip-Hop became a platform for the marginalized to express and communicate their thoughts on the state of society. A negative environment was reclaimed by the citizens and turned into a positive culture whose art is multidimensional.

Excerpt from my section of a 2017 undergrad group paper entitled “The Global Reach of Hip-Hop”

Planning decisions that impose spatial changes on a community cannot fix socio-political issues. “Slums” are not accidental, they are a result of disregarding a segment of society that does not fit the economic and cultural ideals of those wielding power. History shows, time and time again, that when push come to shove, the disenfranchised will find a way to breakthrough such barriers. Hip-Hop pioneers took up all spaces, challenging dominant cultural narratives, propelling them and the culture to global heights.

This energy of finding a way when none seems to be available is a common thread in many personal stories in the Hip-Hop community. Finding spaces to practice (shoutout to my TMU* people), create and connect with others on a similar path makes community necessary. This search is ongoing as we continually face push back from different agents of power (see security guards, censorship, literal bulldozers, etc.). Personally, I take inspiration from this legacy of taking up space. Struggle is inevitable but there are 6 million ways to flip the script, choose one.  

 References

Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.

Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal. That's the Joint!: The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Sisson, Patrick. The hip-hop architect on how music and the environment can influence one another. 11 August 2017. https://archive.curbed.com/2016/10/18/13310654/hip-hop-architecture-urban-planning .

*Toronto Metropolitan University f.k.a. Ryerson University after Egerton Ryerson, one of the architects of the residential school system. Read more about the name change here.

 Watch + Listen: The Message by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982)