|To know where someone came from and how something began are fundamental elements of appreciating and understanding.
Hip Hop is no different. On March 14th 2018 at SXSW, the journey of the genre and culture was brought to light during “From Bronx to Billions: A Hip Hop History Lesson,” a panel moderated by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Senior Editor, Forbes Media & Entertainment and author of 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise.
Zack led a candid and thorough conversation with Chief Rocker Busy Bee, MC and one of Hip Hop’s founding fathers, Grandwizzard Theodore, the pioneering DJ credited as the creator of scratching, a crucial technique in Hip Hop’s early days, and Rocky Bucano, entertainment manager, Universal Hip Hop Museum Co-Founder and Board member. What follows are highlights of the recorded panel, which you can hear in its entirety (including the audience Q&A) here.
In the 1970s, life in the South Bronx happened in and around abandoned buildings and gang activity and was accompanied by breakdancing, deejaying, beatboxing, and graffiti art. All of these were cornerstone. This NYC borough neighborhood is where Hip Hop’s elements – the aforementioned DJing (or turntabling), MC’ing (which is also called rapping or rhyming), B-boying(applying attitude and style to dancing and breakdancing), and graffiti (aka “graf” or “aerosol writing”) – were born. As Chief Rocker Busy Bee stated, “Rap is something we do, Hip Hop is something we live.” While today Hip Hop is the world’s most listened to genre (which we talked about last month), the seeds were planted in the South Bronx 40+ years ago.
Grandwizzard Theodore shared his immersion, his growing up in Hip Hop: “Hip Hop was always here. We did not invent it; we reinvented it.” He was surrounded by graffiti on the walls, people duwop-ing and freestyling on the corner, Bboys in the park and Grandmaster Flash and Brother Mean Gene on turntables. Hip Hop was always around him, and he “didn’t realize what it was until [he] started to mature.”
Popular music, including Hip Hop, is an amalgamation of the sounds and compositions that preceded it. Rocky shared how “Hip Hop had a lot of early influences, [including the] things we heard in our parents’ house.” People were inspired by James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Donna Summer, disco, and dancing. Bboys would be inspired by that and they’d make new those tunes, rhythms, and vibes.
Rocky added a fifth element to Hip Hop: “overstanding.” The dictionary definition of this word is to keep on a navigational course beyond something. And within Hip Hop (and life!), to overstand is to understand completely or at deeper levels. This was necessary as the business of Hip Hop grew as it pioneers grew. Rocky remembered how they had to fight for everything: mainstream radio DJs didn’t want to play Hip hop, they sold record from the trunks of their cars. Businesses are created to address desires and to fulfill needs. The business of Hip Hop began in the most organic ways: “We were in the business of entertaining people,” declared Rocky, “not making money. We saw how people reacted and it became a business after that.”
How something started is part of the story: who started something is its own chapter. Zack asked the panel who they thought deserved credit for launching Hip Hop. While Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash are historically credited with it, the panel felt that there were, and are, a lot of players involved. Grandwizzard Theodore discussed how Kool Herc, coming from Jamaica, held block parties and oversaw their development, Grandmaster Flash got his name from being a messenger, and Africa Bambaataa started the Zulu Nation as a response to seeing so many of his brothers being killed by gangs. Grandwizzard Theodore avowed, “Hip Hop was formed from nothing into something.”
The nothing into something was, Theodore went on to say, demonstrated by young people writing down words to get negative thoughts out about single parent households and welfare out of their minds, graffiti artists painting red, white, green, and yellow and B-boys dancing to get the bad energy out of them: “This is what we were feeling.” Something was literally made from nothing when Theodore created the scratch. You’ll want to hear him tell the story. By making a cassette tape, turntables, and microphones Flintstone-style, lowering the volume at the direction of his mom, and hearing the result of his in-the-moment action, Theodore put the needle on the record.
The last discussion, before Q&A, was about helping the current generation acknowledge the originators. Zach shared what it meant to him when Grandmaster Caz expressed his appreciation of Macklemore for including him, Melle Mel, and Kool Moe Dee on “Downtown.” This song charted, and it had been decades since Caz’s tracks did. Rocky proclaimed that “Universal Hip Hop Museum is going to be the arbiter of the past, the present, and the future. We want to be the cultural institution that helps to guide the future of hip-hop so that people will have a deep understanding of Hip Hop’s cultural roots. Because you have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.”
Listen to the audio and hear the discussions about Hip Hop becoming a billion dollar business, organic marketing, authenticity, brand promotion, the relationship between Hip Hop and brands, recognition of the originators, and questions and answers from the audience. Be inspired by the stories, the actions, and the people. As Zack said, “One of the beautiful things about Hip Hop: when the door is locked, you build your own door.” What doors are you going to build?
Article and partial transcription by Kate Harvie, Universal Hip Hop Museum Digital Newsletter Editor
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