Hip Hop at 50: A Love Letter
You remember where you were — don’t you? When you first heard it? That unmistakable sound. That boom-bap of the Roland TR-808. That syrupy bass. That MC with something to say, too urgent for song.
I do, anyway.
Picture it: PBS, 1986. Reading Rainbow. Run-DMC drops in on Levar Burton prior to a telling of Abiyoyo — a South African folktale recanted by American folk prophet Pete Seeger. They perform their Raising Hell megahit “My Adidas”.
I gaze in wonder. I listen. I forget about my Honey Nut Cheerios. What on Earth is this?
I was just a preschooler but already a bit of a nuisance with my rhythmic table-pounding and pot-and-pan banging. From that point forward I became a much greater nuisance. I had to keep hearing what discovered me. I became a convert, a beat vessel.
See — you never forget your first love. I found mine early, and never questioned it; while I’d open up my relationship to explore jazz, rock, bossa, reggae, French touch, and others, I stayed committed. Hip-hop was everything; beats and rhymes were life.
I was 4 when hip-hop found me, but hip-hop was already 14. While music chronology is far from an exact science, and rap and hip-hop loosely existed as concepts and in practice even further back, historians have coalesced around a symbolic birthdate and origin story for the art form: August 11, 1973, at DJ Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx. This year, Herc’s Jam turns 50.
University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson explains that Herc “invented ‘the break’ [the foundational hip-hop beat] by using two turntables and two copies of the same album to extend a song’s instrumental, typically highly percussive, portion.”
According to Carson, Herc would then grab the mic and start signifying in rhyming fashion, or…