How was the emergence of hip-hop culture in the South Bronx, New York in 1973 a response to the social situation at that time?
This research report aims to examine the social situation of the South Bronx up until the date presented, and how these social factors influenced the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural and artistic movement. Hip-hop refers to a subculture that is founded upon 9 “pillars”. The 4 main pillars of hip-hop include: DJing, or turntablism, where music is made using a turntable; MCing, or rapping, a rhythmic vocal rhyming style; B-Boying/B-Girling, or breakdancing, a form of movement or dance; and graffiti, a form of visual art.
The other 5 elements include: Street Knowledge or knowledge of the history and culture of hip-hop; Street Fashion, a form of fashion sense built heavily around street-orientated clothing; Street Language, a form of dialect based around street slang and phrases; Street Entrepreneurship, a form of being able to profit from one’s knowledge of the streets; and Beatboxing, a form of percussive vocal instrumentation. These 9 pillars form the basis for hip-hop culture.
The exact origins of hip-hop remain unknown and are highly speculated and debated to this day; however, the date and place I have chosen for this research paper are commonly accepted by majority of the hip-hop community as the date and birthplace of the hip-hop movement. Hip-hop is commonly accepted to have emerged in the South Bronx area of the Bronx borough of New York City on August 11th 1973. The time period I have set for the topic is between 1948 and 1973.
I have chosen this topic because I have a deep appreciation for knowing the history of something, and I also have a deep appreciation for the culture of hip-hop.
• To investigate the social factors that led to the emergence of hip-hop culture in the South Bronx, New York in 1973.
• To examine how the emergence of hip-hop culture was a response to these social factors during this time.
Review of Literature
The research question of this research task is “What social factors led to the emergence of hip-hop music/culture in the South Bronx, New York during 1973?” Therefore, the articles chosen must be related to: hip-hop culture, the social situation of the Bronx, and how these factors had an influence on hip-hop. These aspects will be discussed in relation to various sources from the past 44 years.
Article 1: A transcript of a television episode of “PBS History Detectives Special Investigations”, titled “Birthplace of Hip-Hop”, published on the 21st of May, 2011.
The article includes interview with people who were present during the time period when hip-hop emerged, and this gives it a sense of validity. The writer of the article is a historical investigator, and therefore is a reliable source as he has no bias in relation to the topic due to his objectiveness. The article contains sufficient detail about the social situation during this time, and includes figures for different aspects relating to the research, making it quite useful. However, many of those who were interviewed present their own personal opinions and biases, and the level of detail in the article leaves a bit to be desired.
Article 2: An article titled “‘Rubble Kings’ documentary examines how Bronx gangs made peace, began hip hop scene”, which was written by Robert Dominguez and published on New York Daily News on the 17th of June, 2015.
The article explores the impact of street gangs on hip-hop culture. It was published very recently, showing the relevance of the topic. It explores in great detail how the gangs of New York functioned during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. This level of detail could prove invaluable for the research that this paper intends to cover. However, the article was written by someone who was not present during the time period, which may present skewed biases; the article also does not explore the true connection between gangs and hip-hop; instead vaguely pointing out the two are connected without presenting reasons.
Article 3: An article written by Henry Matarozzi for Odyssey, published on March 8th, 2016. The article is titled “The Fifth Element: Hip-Hop as a Weapon of the Oppressed.”
The article goes in to immense detail about how the poor infrastructure and urban planning at the time impacted on the emergence of hip-hop. The source provides a substantial knowledge of the history of the South Bronx during this time period and shows a clear understanding of the topic. However, the writer does present their personal opinions and biases; but they are able to back these up with evidence relating to the source.
Article 4: An article published on the 9th of March 2017 by Dazed Digital. Written by Miss Rosen, it is titled “How hip hop rose from the ashes of the Bronx.”
This is the most recently published of the articles chosen, and this displays how relevant this topic still is. The person being interviewed in this article is someone who lived in the South Bronx during this time period, making his opinion reliable; although it may be biased. He also provides pictures he had taken during this time period which provide the reader with a visual understanding of the social situation at this time. The article explores the widespread arson during this time. This is the primary article used, as the person being interviewed comes from the time period set and the pictures included are also from this time period.
Article 5: An article titled “Disrupting the Cycle of Urban Violence with Arts and Culture”, written by Brentin Mock, was published on CityLab on the 23rd of October 2015.
This article presents extra information to further validate the points made in Article 2 about the links between gang culture and hip-hop culture. This article presents solid proof for an actual connection between the two subcultures; especially giving more details about the 1971 Hoe Ave. Peace Meeting, and how the gangs involved settled their differences. There are figures present that show how homicide rates in the South Bronx have decreased over time; however, they do not fit within the set time period, so they have not been used. The second half of the article concerns a different topic – Mardi gras in New Orleans – so only the first half of the article is used.
Article 6: Article 6 was actually written by a well-established rapper within the hip-hop community by the name of Talib Kweli. The article is titled “When ‘White Fragility’ Affects Rappers”, and it was published on CuePoint on May 31st 2016.
The article explores the effects of racism, specifically white-privilege and white supremacy, on hip-hop. The writer is someone who is well-known in the hip-hop community, and one who grew up with hip-hop and knows its history. This gives him a sense of reliability and validity. As a man of colour, he is slightly biased in terms of the race issues presented, but he remains as objective as possible. The information used, while only making up a small percentage of the larger article, is very useful; however, the rest of the article is unrelated to hip-hop’s early days.
Article 7: Article 7 is titled “Finding Humanity in a Burning South Bronx”. It was written by Tanvi Misra and published on CityLab on May 27th, 2016.
The article contains plenty of information regarding government neglect that troubled the South Bronx. The article goes in to great detail about the specifics of the neglect and how this affected the neighbourhoods. It included quotes from important people during the time period, and also includes pictures showing the state of the South Bronx due to the harsh neglect. It also gives facts and figures. The article does not specifically mention hip-hop and its connections, but it does connect to other articles and this provides the link to the emergence of hip-hop.
Article 8: The final article comes from a book: the previously mentioned ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation’ by Jeff Chang, published in 2005 by Picador.
The author is a writer who often writes about this topic, and once belonged to a hip-hop oriented record label; this gives him a sense of authenticity, and that he knows what he is talking about. The article is the oldest of all those I have chosen; this may be helpful, as it is the one published closest to the time period set. The book covers the history of hip-hop from 1963 to 2005, and a large number of different sources were used; this makes it more reliable, as it has many different viewpoints. I chose to focus on Chapter 2: Sipple out Deh, from pages 34 to 51. Chapter 2 focuses on the impact of Jamaican culture in the South Bronx on hip-hop. While providing a lot of information, the chapter is 17 pages long; meaning a large portion the information will not be used.
Processing of Findings
Analysis of the articles present shows many different viewpoints relating to the emergence of hip-hop culture, and how it was a response to the social situation at that time. This procession aims to identify which sources in the literature review are relevant, and to find evidence to support the research topic.
Article 3, written by Henry Matarozzi, explains how poor infrastructure and urban planning were influential in the decline of the social situation in the South Bronx and subsequently the emergence of hip-hop culture. The writer describes how Robert Moses, a city planner from New York, built highways in an attempt to slow down “white flight” from the area; during the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway from 1948 to 1972, numerous buildings were demolished, thousands of people were displaced and entire neighborhoods had to be relocated. Many black and Puerto Rican families that were dislocated were forced to move into the South Bronx area, which had many housing projects but few working opportunities. The borough decayed further, and the writer states it was ignored by the New York government in favour of “wealthier white communities.”
Continuing with this theme of neglect, Tanvi Misra writes in Article 7 how the New York City Officials had adopted a system of calculated “benign neglect” towards the Bronx. She says this began when Daniel Moynihan sent a memo to President Richard Nixon, wherein he points out that fire-alarms had tripled between the years 1956 and 1659, and that these alarms were primarily in black “slum” neighbourhoods. The memo was interpreted by Ta-Nehisi Coates as an “argument for leaving the black family to fend for itself.” Moynihan’s memo was manifested in the policy of planned shrinkage, the work of a New York commissioner named Robert Starr. The writer quotes Deborah and Rodrick Wallace, stating the policy “dictated the withdrawal of essential services from sick neighborhoods, which were seen as unable to survive or undeserving of survival”; these services included responses to fires and fire-safety inspections.
This neglect resulted in widespread arson, which reduced much of the Bronx to rubble. Miss Rosen describes in Article 4 how many landlords in the Bronx would burn down their own buildings to collect the insurance money, as they would get more money this way than from renting out the buildings. She shows how during the 1970’s, seven census tracts in the South Bronx lost more than 97% of their buildings. This led to the Bronx being transformed into blocks of rubble. She interviews Bronx native Ricky Flores, and he describes the fear at the time of not knowing if your home would be burned down as well. He also describes the difficulties that many people of colour faces when they attempted to seek help from social services. He ends his interview by describing how the people in the South Bronx “came together… when the city… turned their backs on our community.”
This “urban wasteland”, as it is labelled in Article 2, gave rise to gang-related crime. Many black and Latino gangs began gaining notoriety. In 1971, an all-out gang war was almost initiated after the murder of Black Benjy, a leader of the Ghetto Brothers gang. The war was avoided however, as the gangs held a summit that is now known as the Hoe Ave. Peace Meeting. This meeting was brokered Benjamin Mendelez, who at the time was the President of the Ghetto Brothers at the age of 19. Mendelez explained to Shan Nicholson, director of the “Rubble Kings” documentary – which was about the meeting and served as the main inspiration for this article – that he saw it as an opportunity to unite the gangs.
Article 5, written by Brentin Mock, continues this theme of gang culture. The writer describes how the gangs that took part in the Hoe Ave. Peace meeting found a new way to battle with each other than through violence. The members of the gangs would compete through things such as dancing, graffiti and fashion – these three things would later become staples of hip-hop culture. Both articles also explain that one of the members present at the meeting was a young teenager from the South Bronx named Kevin Donovan, who was a warlord in the Black Spades gang. Kevin would later go on to become pioneering hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa, and would found the Universal Zulu Nation: a still active organisation that promotes the preservation of hip-hop culture.
Article 8, taken from a book written by Jeff Chang, explores how Jamaican roots and culture had an impact on the formation of hip-hop. The author describes how hip-hop pioneer Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, grew up in Jamaica. He goes on to describe how in 1967, a man named Ruddy Redwood played an incorrect version of a song at a party; he was using a dubplate where the vocals had not been panned up. He mixed between the vocal and the dub, and sent the crowd “into a frenzy.” The vocal-less rhythm could be played by a DJ and an MC would be able to rhyme over it. The discovery of dub led to the creation of the break, which would be monumental in the founding of hip-hop.
Continuing with the influence of Jamaica in hip-hop, Article 1 addresses how the culture actually emerged as a result of all the factors mentioned so far. The article is taken from an episode of PBS History Detectives. In this episode, Tufuku Zuberi investigates how the culture was born. In his interview with Mark Naison, Naison explains how the immigration laws of 1965 caused a large influx of Jamaicans into the Bronx. He shows that the number of Jamaicans entering the Bronx had increased from around 2000 people in 1964 to 17,470 people in 1967; this is the year that DJ Kool Herc arrived in the Bronx. A few of the people he interviews believe that hip-hop started on the 11th of August 1973, at a party being thrown by DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the South Bronx. However, others doubt this, citing that there is no proof of it starting there, and that you cannot associate the beginning of an entire movement with one place.
At the end of the episode, Tufuku interviews Dr. Morgan from Harvard. She explains that it is impossible to state that hip-hop emerged at a specific place on a specific day at a specific time, as “birth is a process; it is not just one moment.” She gives him a flyer for a back to school party being thrown by DJ Kool Herc, which took place on the 11th of August 1973 in the rec room at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue. The party lasted from 9PM to 4AM; during the party, Herc extended the instrumental “break” of a song on his DJ equipment so people could dance longer, and then he would MC over the break. Tufuku concludes that while it is impossible to state that hip-hop was definitely birthed at this party, the building represents the birth of the culture partly because it is still standing, whereas most of what was around back then has been destroyed.
Article 6, written by well-known rapper Talib Kweli, offers insight into the racial politics that helped shape hip-hop. Kweli states that hip-hop began as a primarily black and Latino culture. He then explains that hip-hop has always been an inclusive culture and that when it emerged, there were many white people taking part as well, especially graffiti artists; although, he points out that it was more rare to see a white MC, DJ or B-Boy (break-dancer.) He says that while hip-hop evolved to have a primarily pro-black message, white people will always be the primary consumer of the culture, as they are likely the ones with the money to support the culture, a result of systematic oppression and white privilege.
This white privilege could be seen in earlier articles, where the New York government began to neglect the primarily black and Latino Bronx borough in favour of the wealthy white families living in the suburbs that also needed welfare. This decision can be seen in numerous memos written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, such as the previously mentioned memo he sent to President Nixon, wherein he concluded that the Bronx fires were being caused by slumlords and criminals, and that a period of “benign neglect” would benefit the issue of race; as well as a memo entitled “The Negro Family”, which many perceived to be an expose on the pathological and sociological failures of African-Americans. Both were seen as an argument to leave black families to support themselves.
Through my research, I have uncovered how the social situation in the South Bronx changed over the decades, and how the factors relating to this eventually culminated in the emergence of hip-hop culture. The research also indicates how this emergence was in response to the social situation.
After analyzing all the articles, I have come to the conclusion that the emergence of can be traced back to a single event: the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, starting in 1948. When the expressway was built, many homes and businesses were demolished, leaving many displaced black and Latino families to move in to the South Bronx, where there was little opportunity for work. The poor people now living here turned to crime as they had no other way to support themselves and their families. Many business owners and landlords in the area began burning down their own buildings in order to collect the insurance money, as they would receive more money through this than through regular business.
The rising levels of crime, along with the widespread arson that devastated the city, gave rise to gang culture. Street gangs appeared all throughout New York City, but especially in the South Bronx. These gangs elevated the crime rates even further; however, the city government did not do anything about the situation. They instead chose to ignore and neglect the primarily black and Latino communities in the Bronx to focus on the wealthier white families living in the suburbs; this neglect can be seen as a form of white privilege, as documented in memos written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The rising levels of gang-related violence came to a peak in 1971 with the murder of Black Benjy from the Ghetto Brothers. His murder led to what we now know as the Hoe Ave. Peace Meeting, where many gangs from the South Bronx and other parts of New York met to negotiate a peace between the gangs and avoid an all-out gang war. The gangs instead turned to a new form of competition: they would compete through dancing, graffiti art and fashion –things that would later become integral elements of hip-hop culture. Although the meeting did not stop the violence, it did precipitate a steady decrease in crime levels throughout the South Bronx over the next few decades.
Revisiting Article 5 by Henry Matarozzi, he quotes writer Jeff Chang who stated “Hip-Hop did not start as a political movement. The kids who started it were simply trying to find ways to pass the time.” This is true: the youths who had once taken part in gang activity now needed a new way to have fun and pass the time. However, the writer goes on to say “While it’s true that the youths of the South Bronx weren’t politically minded when they began forming Hip-Hop culture, they were fighting back (whether they knew it or not) against a system that didn’t care about them.” This is also true: these young children were a product of racially defined neglect, and hip-hop was their way of retaliating, as they now had a way to express themselves and find success in order to be able to move out of the ghettos they were living in.
The true birth of hip-hop will always remain a highly controversial topic: it is impossible to say whether it was definitively birthed at a party at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue on the 11th of August, 1973, by DJ Kool Herc. But that is the instance of hip-hop emerging that people identify the most, and it will continue to be remembered as “the birth of Hip-Hop.” However, Robert Moses is the true reason that hip-hop exists today. His building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway set in motion a chain of events that has culminated in the largest genre of music the world has ever seen, and a culture that will continue to evolve over time.