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1973: The Birth of a Phenomenon

As immigrants settle in New York, a new era of Black music begins.

by Brittany Bailer
NY subway

In the 1970s, the South Bronx was one of the most neglected areas of the United States. My mother, who grew up in nearby Brooklyn, would talk about how parts of the city resembled a warzone: there was rampant heroin addiction, landlords burning down apartment buildings for insurance money, trash littering the streets. “[The Bronx] was the poorest congressional district in the country and instead of taking accountability and correcting what was happening, the government… ignored it,” she says.

This was the backdrop for the birth of hip-hop. While the marquee element of today’s hip-hop is rap music, the culture originated with four elements: deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. The focus of the 1970s were the deejays and break dancers (“b-boys” or “b-girls”).

On August 11, 1973, recent Jamaican immigrant Cindy Campbell hired her brother, Clive Campbell, also known as Kool Herc, to deejay her back-to-school party to raise money for new school clothes and supplies. At 1520 Sedgewick Avenue, the siblings introduced elements of Jamaican culture to the New York City party scene, notably the sound system culture. The sound system was a collection of deejays, sound engineers, emcees, and stacks of massive speakers.

Each sound employed a selector, who selected the records, and an emcee who shouted and rhymed over a record’s instrumental, a practice known as “toasting.” Coke La Rock was Cindy’s party emcee. While similar practices had existed for decades in America, the Campbell siblings combined all the elements, creating the foundation of hip-hop. Herc pioneered a method of deejaying he coined the “merry-go-round.” Noticing the b-boys would wait for the instrumental portions in songs, Herc would play two copies of the same record in succession to extend the break and give dancers an opportunity to show-off and battle. Other deejays soon expanded on the technique.

There’s nothing I can think of that happened since then that engaged the youth and changed the world so quickly.”

Grandmaster Flash (née Joseph Saddler), who immigrated from Barbados, built his own turntables and invented the Quik Mix Theory, which built upon Herc’s merry-go-round technique and  using cutting and scratching. In doing this, Flash discovered a mathematical way to cut and extend even the smallest section of a song. At his family’s house parties, Flash noticed that the crowd would get excited when there was a drum break in the songs and created a way to make a 10-second break last 10 minutes. He manipulated records and turntables to do so. He told the Washington Post, “I had to find the proper needle that would stay inside the groove when it’s under pressure of the vinyl being moved counterclockwise. The second step was figuring out what to do with the rubber matting that comes with the turntable.”

Afrika Bambaataa, née Lance Taylor, brought all the elements together. The former street gang warlord was inspired on a trip to Africa (the prize for an essay contest he won) to create the Universal Zulu Nation. He came home and used his influence to direct angry kids off the streets and toward more positive, creative endeavors*. Members of the Universal Zulu Nation introduced a disco-inspired, electric sound to the culture with its debut album, “Planet Rock.”

In 1979, hip-hop entered the world of mainstream music. “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang debuted on WBLS-FM in New York City. The 15-minute song sent a shockwave through the city. “When I first heard it, I immediately picked up my phone and called my friends, who were also losing their minds. It was like someone put a party tape on the radio,” my mother recalls. “Every single kid came into school the next day having sat up all night writing every single word. There’s nothing I can think of that happened since then that engaged the youth and changed the world so quickly.”

*Editor's note: Allegations later arose that Afrika Bambaataa was sexually abusing some of the children.

Black Music Hits FM Broadcasting

Howard had the appropriate entities in place as hip-hop blossomed nationally in the ’80s, but it starts in 1971, when WHUR became one of the nation’s first Black-specific stations on the FM dial under founding general manager Phil Watson. Watson named Jim Watkins III as his successor before officially leaving in 1973.

Michael “Duhon” Nixon (BBA ’72, MA ’74), a Harlem native, worked with the WHUR’s student radio station WHBC in the ’70s, helping WHUR’s Cathy Hughes in the sales department as an account executive. WHBC began as a learning lab for students to gain broadcast and production skills at a functioning radio station. (Nixon later created the Gavin Rap Chart in 1990 and was inducted into the National Museum of African American Music in 2020.)

Nixon calls Watson the brainchild of Howard’s historic radio contributions. He believes he witnessed the University’s hand in helping hip-hop take its rightful place, a process which he calls “brewing the perfect storm.”

“[Watson] met with his contacts at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and secured the licensing for WHUR to become the first Black FM radio station,” Nixon says. “On December 3, 1971, when Jim Watkins pulled the switch, that was the official entrance of Black music onto the FM dial.” –Amber D. Dodd

This story appears in the Fall 2023 issue.
Article ID: 1646

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