On Aug. 11, 1973, a young woman from the Bronx threw a back-to-school party at her apartment complex’s recreation center. To keep costs manageable, she had her 18-year-old brother, known for his serious sound system, be the DJ.
That woman was Cindy Campbell, and her brother was Clive — better known to hip-hop aficionados as DJ Kool Herc. It’s what Kool Herc did at that 1973 party that historians consider the invention of hip-hop. He played the break beats — the funkiest snippets of songs — in a continuous loop on two turntables, so the music, and therefore the dancing, never stopped (*).
It’s a legacy that paved the way for hip-hop over the next half-century.
“When we commemorate Aug. 11, 1973, what we’re saying is that the break is the most important or fundamental genius of hip-hop,” said hip hop historian and author of the 2010 book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” Dan Charnas. “Hip-hop arises out of that particular moment of inspiration.” (*)
From that point, the DJs became the stars of a party culture held mostly in New York City parks and nightclubs. It wasn’t until the early 1980s when the MCs on the microphone began to command most of the spotlight and the culture spread beyond New York. By the time Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” hit the radio airwaves, hip-hop was on its way.
Hip Hop has been celebrating its 50th Anniversary this month with worldwide celebrations, from concerts (like the one at Yankee Stadium on August 11th that featured Run-DMC, Slick Rick, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Lil’ Kim and Nas) to rap battles, B-Boy competitions, exhibitions, and block parties.
So last Thursday, August 17, I found myself on 135 Alexander Avenue in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx at Ted Smooth’s ’50 Years of Hip Hop Block Party’ presented by Beatstro (“The Hip Hop Restaurant”) and Sugar Hill Records.
As most of you already know, I was born and raised in the Bronx and witnessed my fair share of block parties (not to mention all out jams at Poe Park on the Grand Concourse) so having my daughter with me to witness a real Boogie Down block party was pretty special.
And I wasn’t alone; I had my sister (with her hubby) and lil brother with me – as well as a few legit hip hop pioneers. Namely (top L-R) VJ ralph McDaniels of Video Music Box fame, Rock Steady Crew’s Crazy Legs, “The Man Who Took Hip Hop’s Baby Pictures” photographer Joe Conzo, and Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, best known as the (uncredited) main writer of Big Bank Hank’s raps on the seminal 1979 hip hop single by The Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight”.
As for the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx that played host to the block party, it is historically referred to as Morrisania, named after the powerful Morris family who held possession of it for centuries. Richard and Lewis Morris, merchants from Barbados, purchased the land from Jonas Bronck in 1670. Alexander Avenue is reputed to have been named after Alexander Bathgate, the overseer of the Morris manor.
In 1828, Jordan L. Mott, an inventor and industrialist, purchased land from the Morris family to establish a foundry for his ironworks on the Harlem River at 134th Street. By the 1840s he’d purchased a second tract of land with the idea of building the village of Mott Haven. By 1850, Mott had drawn up plans for the lower part of the Mott Haven Canal, which, once completed, allowed canal boats to travel as far north as 138th Street.
Other manufacturers moved into the area including a remarkable number of piano manufacturers. In fact, by the early 20th century the Bronx had (by one count) 63 piano factories—43 of them in Mott Haven—producing more than 100,000 instruments a year(!)
By the 1930s, Irish and Irish-Americans became the dominant ethnic group and their restaurants, taverns and dance halls lined Willis Ave. and E. 138th St. The first Puerto Rican settlements came in the late 1940s along the length of Brook Avenue. African-Americans came into the area when the Patterson public housing projects were built.
In the 1940s, a group of social workers identified a pocket of poverty along East 134th Street and called it the South Bronx. This pocket of poverty would spread in part due to urban planner Robert Moses building several housing projects in the neighborhood. By the 1960s, white flight to more racially homogeneous suburban regions, landlord abandonment, economic changes, crime, and the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway led to an infamous period of decline in the region.
The phrase “The Bronx is burning,” is attributed to Howard Cosell during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series when a helicopter shot of the exterior of Yankee Stadium showed fires ravaging the South Bronx. Politicians (Jimmy Carter then Ronald Reagan) came to use the blocks of rubble and garbage as a backdrop to announce new urban policy.
But from this global site of decline and abandonment, local young people created artistic genres that transformed popular culture: hip-hop, graffiti, and breakdancing. And they were all on display this past week at the 50 Years of Hip Hop Block Party.
Today, gentrification has come to the South Bronx as New York developers lay the groundwork for a major housing push. The neighborhood is now home to a cluster of glistening high-rises on the waterfront by the Third Avenue Bridge. These new apartment buildings are from some of the most established developers in the city, namely RXR and Brookfield.
The Brookfield project in particular has long been viewed as a make-or-break moment in determining whether Mott Haven is ready to handle large market-rate developments, and the site’s history encapsulates many of the gentrification fears of longtime residents. Whatever the future holds (and we know that money usually wins), this historic neighborhood has played a major role in introducing hip-hop culture to the world – and nobody can ever take that away from it.