The dawn of hip-hop turns the DJ into a performer and curation into an artform, one break at a time.
BEFORE EVERYTHING ELSE—the sampler, the remix, the entire concept of hip-hop—there was the DJ. Here you have a figure who stands overlooking a dancefloor with a few crates full of records, watching people react and move to whatever gets put on the turntable. And that turntable can manipulate people. Find a hot song, and you can pack the floor. Isolate the best part of that song, and you can build a peak. Make a thing out of finding that best part—manipulate it, reshape it, distort it, rewind it, extend it beyond any preconceived notion of just how long that groove was able to go—and the head-to-feet connection gets all wrapped up in a feedback loop that makes moving to a beat feel like an epiphany.
The idea of the disc jockey as an in-house attraction dates back to the discotheques of Europe, though it’s more accurate to say that the records the DJ played were the actual draw. In postwar France, the novelty of bars that featured jukeboxes in the early ’50s soon evolved into trendy hangouts for European jet-setters, hitting a fever pitch in the early ’60s when the Twist craze spiked demand for dancefloor space. But New York is where it really became an art form. While the transatlantic high society celebrities and beautiful people that populated early European-style mid-’60s discotheques in NYC were getting down to Motown hits in pop art palaces like Arthur and the Electric Circus, the club scene’s tendency to lean on shutting up and playing the hits had shifted by the turn of the ’70s to something a bit more personality-driven and idiosyncratic.
Francis Grasso, a resident DJ at the Hell’s Kitchen gay nightclub the Sanctuary, pulled off an important twofer. First, he played and subsequently popularized imports and obscurities, giving the people not just what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted even more. Then he mixed it all together in a sort of musical narrative journey that incorporated one of the earliest known forms of beatmatching. His selections didn’t merely segue from one outro to the next intro—they were layered and juxtaposed in a more streamlined fashion. In some cases, Grasso would spin two copies of the same record, holding one at a specific cue and waiting for just the right moment to let it spin back up again, all to make the grooves of his favorite hard-hitting funk and rock jams last as long as he felt was necessary to keep people dancing.
If Grasso’s technique was the prototype for what New York nightclubs eventually turned into disco, it was also widely shared as a common ancestry with the DJs that hip-hop founding fathers would take their cues from a few years down the line. One pre-hip-hop favorite was Cameron Flowers, better known as Grandmaster Flowers, a DJ who opened for James Brown at Yankee Stadium in 1969 and spent much of the ’70s throwing mobile DJ parties in the outer boroughs. As under-credited as he is today, Flowers was one of New York’s most widely traveled DJs, renowned for his top-notch mixing skills and his ability to cater to both “bourgie” Manhattan disco audiences and inner-city crowds that gathered in public recreation-field “park jams.” Not many recordings exist of his sets, and the ones that do come from the late ’70s when he was competing against the newer generation of hip-hop DJs, but you can hear why old heads swear up and down by his mixes.
DJ Hollywood, another disco-crossover DJ who flourished beginning in the early ’70s, spun at some of Harlem’s biggest clubs, where he earned such a rep that he could make 8-track tapes of one-off mixes and sell them for $12 apiece (more than $70 in current money). And his place in history was assured when he became recognized as the first DJ to incorporate the same poetic “rhythm talk” stage patter that black radio DJs like WWRL’s “Soul Server” Hank Spann and WBLS’s Frankie Crocker used, focusing on riding the beat with a more continuous flow of rhymes and leading call-and-response segments with the crowd. There are still debates as to who the first actual rapper was, but it’s safe to say Hollywood helped plant the roots for a form of rapping that audiences would come to know by the end of the ’70s. And it’s still worth noting that DJing and MCing weren’t always mutually exclusive parts of a performance.
Yet something separated the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens DJs from the ones who would eventually turn the Bronx into hip-hop’s most formative battleground. After the Cross-Bronx Expressway severed the middle-class lifelines that kept the borough together, decades’ worth of underfunded public housing, neglectful landlords, and street gang violence had come to define the Bronx as a no-man’s land. If an emerging subculture was going to flourish in the Bronx, it would carry a similar air of youthful restlessness in the face of this decaying but loyalty-demanding homestead—somewhere between an escape, a rebellion, and a celebration.
The uptown clubs where DJs like Hollywood spun catered to a more adult clientele, one with money and tastes that ran toward the opulent orchestral soul of Isaac Hayes, Barry White, and the groups of Philadelphia International Records like the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. But Bronx audiences skewed younger, tougher, and more intensely competitive: they didn’t just dance to be seen or pick up partners, but also danced to battle, whether they represented a gang like the Savage Skulls or just a tight-knit crew of locals into the graffiti scene. And the cuts they demanded were heavier, nastier, and rocked harder than the rest: fuzzed-out, Latin percussion–laced anthems by cult funk artists like the Jimmy Castor Bunch (“It’s Just Begun”), Mandrill (“Fencewalk”), and Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”). All it took was one DJ to capitalize on this demand—and an almost complete unknown did just that, combining right-place-right-time luck with a powerful command of the crowd and a monster sound system.
• • •
Clive Campbell was part of the wave of Caribbean immigrants who arrived in New York between the mid-’50s and late ’60s, a Kingston-born kid who landed in the Bronx at twelve years old and aimed to follow in the footsteps of his father’s own soundman business. By high school, he’d fashioned himself a memorable alias, combining the name he used tagging graffiti (“Kool,” from the cigarette brand a suave James Bond–style spot advertised on TV) and a nickname earned on the basketball court (“Herc,” from his formidable height and Herculean prowess in the paint). And though his predecessors and rivals outside the Bronx will enthusiastically contest this, DJ Kool Herc offered one of the rare occasions where the birth of a subculture can be directly traced to a single specific date, place, and time: 9:00 p.m., August 11, 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, right off the expressway that tore the Bronx apart.
Herc charged admission for a rec room party held in conjunction with his sister Cindy, a special “Back to School Jam” (“25 cents for ladies, 50 cents for fellas”) organized to raise funds so Cindy could buy some fly new clothes for the upcoming semester. The eighteen-year-old Herc had worked hard to downplay his roots due to local mockery; before the outlaw cachet of Bob Marley and The Harder They Come made being a rasta cool, local gang members were said to be throwing Jamaican kids into trash cans. But he still felt echoes of the massive sound systems he heard from blocks away as a kid back in Kingston, and started his set off with a few reggae tracks. The mostly high-school-aged crowd remained unmoved, so Herc had to switch his style up quick.
Fortunately for his young DJ career, Herc had learned from studying dancefloor showdowns elsewhere that the kids wanted breaks. The “break” is what people now call the part of a record where the music gets heaviest on percussion, unaccompanied or otherwise, and acts almost like a signal to throw down and show your best moves. Unlike the grown-up crowds that the no-sneakers-allowed clubs catered to, the younger dancers lived and died by the break, using it as a key moment to show off the most elaborate maneuvers they could muster: upright dance moves wildly transitioning into body-upending, floor-hitting horizontal contortions that took style to new acrobatic lengths. So Herc gave them breaks: stretching seconds into minutes, a handful of bars into a whole breakdown, a mix into a stream of consciousness. He used the same technique that most DJs from Grasso onward did—cueing up a second copy of the same record to keep the break going in a loop once the first record reached the end of the breakdown—and added his own DJ patter over the mix through an echo chamber, giving the party the feel of a cavernous outdoor sound system transplanted from a Kingston yard into a Bronx rec room.
Some cuts could do the job on their own: Booker T. & the M.G.’s 1971 instrumental “Melting Pot,” a popular choice held down by a ruthless here-comes-the-cavalry Al Jackson Jr. drumbeat, was pretty much nothing but eight-plus minutes’ worth of break. But Herc’s big innovation was to string together a series of different songs’ breaks into what he called the “Merry-Go-Round,” a combination of technique and selection that proved to be the foundation of hip-hop beats. The running order of the Merry-Go-Round and what tracks it used could vary depending on whether the crowd was feeling it, but it usually had some common threads. For James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” from 1970’s Sex Machine, Herc focused square on a break about two-thirds of the way through that was almost entirely clapping, Johnny Griggs’s conga drums, and James shouting (“Clap your hands / stomp your feet / in the jungle, brother”) before the rolling-thunder drums of Clyde Stubblefield burst in. There was “The Mexican,” an up-tempo prog rock–goes–funky number with Ennio Morricone spaghetti western flourishes, by English obscurities and Pink Floyd labelmates Babe Ruth; the drums were powerful but it had a monster of a bassline during the break, too.
Herc also swore by a couple cuts by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, an MGM studio group first formed to soundtrack the preposterous 1972 race-relations sci-fi flick The Thing with Two Heads. (Tagline: “They transplanted a WHITE BIGOT’S HEAD onto a SOUL BROTHER’S BODY!”) “Bongo Rock ’73,” more popularly known as just “Bongo Rock,” was a key selection, with blistering Latin rhythms turning the titular drum into the sounds of a dance-provoking avalanche of percussion. But often Herc would mix it or just swap it out entirely for another track from the same 1973 album Bongo Rock, a version of the Shadows’ rock instrumental “Apache” that had even heavier, more frantic beats—the atom bomb in Herc’s arsenal that every other DJ had to stock up on in their own arms race in order to keep pace. “Apache” would eventually become one of the most recognizable beats to ever emerge out of hip-hop’s new canon of dance music, going on to be sampled or otherwise interpolated in well over five hundred acknowledged songs. As revolutions went, Herc’s Merry-Go-Round was pretty seat-of-the-pants, but it proved to be a powerful blueprint to follow.
Following, however, proved easier than copying. As far as his selections went, Herc made a point of removing the labels from his records—soaking them off with hot water usually did the trick—and keeping them in nondescript sleeves so nobody else could capitalize on his discoveries. And even if word got out, who could compete with his sound system? What money Herc made typically went toward his tools of the trade—new records, bigger speakers, more top-of-the-line turntables—until he manned a mobile unit that outdid any sound system in New York City and most of them in Jamaica for good measure. In ’74, he’d moved from the rec room to block parties and park jams, and from there to a steady gig doing sets at clubs like the Twilight Zone, the Hevalo, and the Executive Playhouse until he ruled the Bronx nightlife in ’76 with early-adopter MC Coke La Rock bigging him up on the mic.
Herc called his crew of assorted MCs and b-boys the Herculords, and his system the Herculoids: the speakers were colossal Shure columns taller than most of the people in the crowd, while the amplifiers were a pair of Macintosh MC-2300 solid state amps (the same kind the Grateful Dead used in 1974 for their gargantuan “Wall of Sound” PA system). And most crucially, the turntables were state-of-the-art Thorens, $1,000 apiece and shrouded in exotic German-import mystery—a brand nobody else had, with one fateful advantage. Whereas most turntables of the day spun with a belt-driven mechanism that made cutting and cueing a bit stiff, the direct-drive Thorens were easy to spin up or spin back manually, were far more vibration- and skip-resistant, and could stop and start on a dime. This gave Herc a head start on other DJs who had to wait until the more affordable and available Technics 1200 caught on in the wider market, at which point it was still nearly impossible to match his system in power.
One of Herc’s peers, said to be an attendee at the famous 1520 Sedgwick party, was a fellow child of West Indian immigrants who went by the name Afrika Bambaataa—a legendary DJ in his own right. Bambaataa’s crew-turned-movement, the Zulu Nation, transformed the reformed gang the Black Spades into a battalion of hip-hop activists that organized parties and cultural events throughout the Bronx, then all of New York, until their Afrocentric perspective permeated global hip-hop thoroughly by the end of the ’80s. Whereas Herc set himself apart as the DJ with the best sound system, the up-and-coming Bambaataa, who played his first gig at the Bronx River Community Center in November of ’76, made his name through his eclecticism. Bam didn’t just unearth breaks from funk and R&B, he subscribed to disco pools and caught on to what was going on in the more esoteric corners of clubland, while simultaneously raiding the annals of classic rock and new wave for breaks—Kraftwerk rubbing elbows with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles with the B-52s.
DJ sets were one thing, but the competitive post-gang nature of the Bronx demanded DJ battles, and a battle at the Webster Avenue Police Athletic League best personified Herc and Bam’s different approaches in one outlandish showdown circa 1977. As Zulu Nation member and DJ Jazzy Jay recalled it, Herc took so long to set up his massive system that Bambaataa’s crew used it as an excuse to keep their set going into overtime, playing well past the slot they’d been allotted and showing off all the rare and obscure breaks in Bam’s crates. Herc was clearly annoyed, but he couldn’t say he didn’t warn them: he turned his Echoplex up and began to intone, over and over: “Bambaataa, could you please turn your system down?” And with every time the request was ignored, Herc just cranked it louder, made the echo boom deeper, sent the reverb shaking further, repeating “Bambaataa, turn your system down” with the voice of a soundclash god, one man’s booming system versus another’s bottomless crates. The Zulu Nation did their best to hold their ground, but as Jay put it, “We started reaching for knobs, turning shit up, speakers started coughing. And then [Herc] comes on with ‘The Mexican’ . . . By about sixteen bars into the song, we just gave up, turned off all the fucking amps. Turned everything off. And the drums didn’t even come in yet. When the drums came in, all the walls . . . just like VROOM. That was it.” The Herculoids had spoken. And their heirs were listening.
• • •
Joseph Saddler was born in Barbados on New Year’s Day 1958, a party rocker’s equivalent to entering the world on Christmas. As a toddler, he’d peek in on the New Year’s house parties his parents would throw at their recently settled Bronx home and learn to associate his birthday with the sounds of their revelry—which meant the sounds of James Brown, of Chuck Berry, of Miles Davis. Like most of his pioneer-generation hip-hop peers, his education came through his parents’ records, usually listened to during family get-togethers, but sometimes surreptitiously when his father wasn’t home. As a kid, Joseph wasn’t just fascinated by the music itself: it was the how of it all, the strange mystery of what happened when you dropped a skinny little needle on the grooves set in a round platter and made the speakers bump. The sounds were endlessly compelling, not just as works of music, but elements of technology, a feat of engineering that fatefully stuck with Joseph throughout his life.
Joseph was a gearhead, a compulsive experimenter who was relentlessly eager to find out how everything worked—which usually involved taking apart some appliance or another and examining it in an attempt to figure out what each inscrutable piece of electronics was responsible for doing. By his mid-teens, Joseph had enrolled in Samuel Gompers High School, a vocational technical school intended to educate and prepare students for a future in skilled trades. To his teachers, Joseph came across as an inquisitive enthusiast, likely bound for a career as an electrical engineer. But the knowledge that Joseph took to heart went toward a different goal—to construct his own sound system from scratch.
The South Bronx would provide. The battered, abandoned cars that littered the streets may have had their radios jimmied out long before Joseph got to them, but a surprising number still had intact speakers and yards of audio cable left attached. Broken electronics were dumped in abandoned lots by garbagemen or other people uninterested in disposing of them properly, and Joseph pulled it all apart to salvage any working components he could. He even picked up a janky belt-driven Thorens turntable for nothing when a local connect ditched it in the trash after failing to sell it on the street. Not every DIY project was a resounding success: one day Joseph brought home some plastic meat-shipping containers that he planned on converting into speaker cabinets, but put off washing out the remnants of bacon residue and stunk up the whole house. But by the time he relocated his gear to the basement of a brownstone owned by a friend’s father, he had built a remarkable Frankenstein’s monster of a system—an array of speakers hung from the ceiling off wires like flies in a spiderweb—that was suitable enough to impress his friends.
It wasn’t as though it was easy for Joseph to impress people otherwise. His efforts to get down like the b-boys that were creating the new style of dance in the Bronx resulted in pratfall-style injury, and his short-lived tagalong experience with graffiti left him with almost nothing—save, at least for the first time in broad daylight, an alias: FLASH 163. (A friend from the same street, fatefully named Gordon, picked up on the shared reference of the Flash Gordon science fiction character and figured Joseph ran fast enough to make the aka doubly fitting.) But the atmosphere was perfectly charged for a Bronx teenager to find one foot or another in the hip-hop world, and those who went looking would find both feet in Kool Herc’s territory soon enough.
A prime opportunity came in the spring of ’74 at a free park jam at the Cedar Park Rec Center—Herc’s main venue once he’d found his parties too big for 1520 Sedgwick. It was an hour-plus walk from where Joseph lived on East 163rd Street, but it didn’t take him the entirety of his westward journey to hear it: two blocks away, he recognized the break from “The Mexican,” booming through the loudest, most authoritatively deep speakers he or anyone else in the Bronx had ever heard. By the time he arrived at the park proper, he saw Herc surrounded by his Herculords, a titan among selecters, layering break over break, bellowing his name through the Echoplex, driving all the b-boys into a frenzy. The songs Herc played that Joseph knew became revelatory in their stacked-speaker stature, and the ones he didn’t know hinted at the possibilities of a far bigger world than the one he’d found in his father’s formative record collection. Joseph didn’t dance. But he witnessed.
Soon he’d have a new sound system: a group of local toughs called the Casanovas, impressed with his record selection during an impromptu park jam of his own, gifted him a top-notch setup that they had mysteriously come across shortly after it had been stolen from the renowned Bronx club Hunts Point Palace. And to find the choicest material to play on that system, Joseph would make treks to Manhattan in search of obscure breaks, whether they came from under-the-radar funk acts that other DJs hadn’t caught onto yet or rock bands they hadn’t even thought to look for. Searching not just for songs but for breaks, for pieces to make into a new whole, would be a mode of record collecting and curation that would soon become one of hip-hop’s greatest contributions to music: sticking to genre conventions or known quantities would get you left in the dust. Real DJs ignored the big names on the front of the record for the small ones on the back. Certain previously semi-anonymous session players became must-haves. Did Bernard Purdie play drums? Was Chuck Rainey on bass? Cop that shit.
By 1975, the newly self-christened DJ Flash had the kind of gear and record crates that would make him a contender—but in the Bronx, contending wasn’t the same as reigning. His system was professional grade, but Herc’s was a world-beater. His selections were choice, but Bam’s record pool connections would soon prove tastemaking. And so, if Flash couldn’t dominate through his speakers or his wax, he’d have to find a third way: to floor people with pure technique. Herc had his own, to be sure, but as Flash studied his inspiration, he began to notice not just what Herc did well—creating a flow from one record to the next that set actual moods or told musical stories—but what he did that Flash could do better.
Herc could segue from one record to the next all right, but his mixing wasn’t as concerned with matching up beats per minute or making things sound seamless. Flash felt his sense of timing could tighten up. And so the kid who spent most of his life studying the effects of rotation on recorded music came of age analyzing just how he could manipulate this rotation to warp time and space: turn a few bars’ worth of music into a whole breakdown, seconds into minutes, a fleeting thought into an entire thesis. Every hip-hop DJ strove to do this. Flash just needed to figure out how to do it tight.
It seems obvious in retrospect: all Flash really had to do was let one copy of the record play out, cue up the other copy right to the point the break would come in, and spin that record there with his hand until he cued up the right spot, at which point he let go right on the beat, repeating with the other copy back and forth between the two turntables. He needed direct-drive turntables and a quick-switching crossfader between them to work, as well as immaculate timing, manual dexterity, and ability to visually isolate where on the record the break was. Flash’s preferred method, to denote in grease pencil where the breaks began using the positions of a clock face, proved to be the most useful.
It allowed for more precision than merely picking up and dropping the needle back on the wax. But it also needed to break an unwritten rule for DJs to never touch the actual grooved surface of the record. And in breaking that rule, Flash’s “Quik Mix Theory” opened the door for another innovation that became the hip-hop DJ’s most uniquely characteristic maneuver. Flash claims he stumbled across it in ’75 during a practice session when he played a mix of “It’s Just Begun” and the Commodores’ “Assembly Line” for two of his b-boy friends, missed a cue by a fraction of a second, and manually pushed the record back into place in time with the beat: a zuka-zuka sound that became its own additional form of percussion. For Flash, it was initially just a one-beat sort of flourish, a showoff way to keep the timing while winding back to the cue point.
Theodore Livingston, aka Grand Wizzard Theodore, was a friend and apprentice of Flash a few years his junior, whose own claim to discovery was a different stroke of accidental luck that same year: when his mom burst in his bedroom to complain about his loud stereo, Theodore put his hand on the record to stop it, but idly moved the record back and forth as she spoke to him; fascinated by the sound that resulted, he eventually found a way to use this technique in his own DJ sets, but in a more elaborate, drawn-out way that was a miniature showcase in itself. Flash picked up on Theodore’s innovation and took it up himself, a trick in his repertoire that would soon come to eclipse every other ace up his sleeve.
But Flash discovered that his way of DJing wouldn’t make for an instant phenomenon. After the friends who witnessed that primordial scratch talked him up all around the neighborhood, he debuted his Quik Mix Theory technique at what is now known as Behagen Playground to a crowd of hundreds. And nobody danced. Flash was devastated. For the next month, he considered his DJ career all but dead, especially as word spread that his whole style of scratching would destroy records and made him out to be an incompetent amateur.
Eventually Flash’s absence at the park jams was enough to spur the neighborhood’s resident community lookout, a mother/mentor figure to the kids known as Miss Rose, to get in touch with a man she figured could help break Flash out of his malaise. This man was a DJ, but unlike Herc, he prioritized Flash’s idea of smooth-flowing beatmatching over the power of a massive sound system. And Flash caught on, even before he spoke to the DJ, that his whole style was on point and more than compatible with Flash’s own vision for what he wanted to achieve on the turntables. This man’s name was Pete DJ Jones. And he played disco.
• • •
Hip-hop and disco have often seemed at odds—the street-tough Bronx versus bourgie Manhattan, Adidas versus Gucci, James Brown versus KC and the Sunshine Band—but even at their most strained relationship, they’re still brothers from another mother. While Herc and Flash were extending breaks on wax for b-boys in the park, Tom Moulton was editing up tapes for the crowds at Fire Island’s Sandpiper club, seamlessly stringing together danceable up-tempo soul cuts and using his lingering name recognition from his old record industry gig to ask record labels for instrumentals he could futz with. Moulton liked the tracks, he just wanted them to be a bit longer; after some experimenting, he found out that the only way he could really pull that off was to lengthen the instrumental break. By 1975, the same year Flash met Jones, Moulton was engineering his way to a new musical rearrangement mode eventually called the “remix,” turning singles into such marathon expeditions of extended dance grooves that the DJ’s industry standard format had to inevitably gravitate to the album-sized 12-inch single.
And so Flash’s disco-world apprenticeship to Pete DJ Jones was, if a bit fish-out-of-water at first, still a schooling in a parallel world whose rules could largely apply to his own. Many of the ideas Flash had either come to independently or did for the first time in a hip-hop context were disco simpatico: the idea of matching beats per minute, his “peekaboo” method of previewing the cue point of the record he had lined up next through a pair of headphones, and his crates. They were closer to the glamorous Manhattan crowd’s preferences, but still part of what would become the lineage of hip-hop’s own sound.
Funky disco purveyors like Hamilton Bohannon and Brooklyn’s own B. T. Express were big, but the Philadelphia sound was huge, and even a couple years after it dropped, MFSB’s string-driven, intensely grooving “Love Is the Message”—a Tom Moulton favorite—was the sound of every dancefloor ninety-something miles east of Philly, whether it lit up or not. And “The Mexican” worked with the Manhattan disco scene, too, just like it did in the Bronx, echoing the self-expressive eclecticism that Francis Grasso and the Loft’s David Mancuso had liberated at the beginning of the decade.
Soon, Flash earned the title of “Grandmaster”—inspired by a hood named Joe Kidd who compared Flash’s mixing ability to a form of chess genius—and an army of fans so eager to hype up his skills on the mic that he wound up with five of them sharing his stage. As a crew, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—Melle Mel, Cowboy, Kid Creole, Scorpio, and Raheim—had hit on something distinct. From DJ Hollywood onward to Herc and younger up-and-comers like Lovebug Starski, DJs were often expected to provide their own crowd-participation stage banter, such as the classic “Throw your hands in the air / And wave ’em like you just don’t care” and “When I say ho, you say ho!” call-and-response lines. Starski in particular coined the phrase “hip-hop” itself in a back-and-forth military march cadence with the Furious Five’s Cowboy, though it took a while to catch on as a descriptor of an entire subculture.
But having an ensemble cast of MCs who each brought something different to the table was key, and crowds grew accordingly. In September of ’76, their ability to rock discos, park jams, and crew battles against the likes of the Treacherous Three and Cold Crush Brothers earned them a surprising opportunity from promoter Ray Chandler: a gig at the Audubon Ballroom, the nearly three-thousand-seat venue where Malcolm X had been shot and killed in 1965. Flash figured it was a risk, but the fact that they packed the house with lines down the block was all the proof they needed that this whole thing was going somewhere. By 1977, Flash had earned himself a host of new gigs—including a weekly DJ set in a South Bronx club called, of all things, Disco Fever.
1977 was New York’s annus horribilis and a turning point all in one. While the wider world was riveted by the chaos that the increasingly embattled city was going through that year—the contentious shit talking from newly signed Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson, the unknowable horror of fame-seeking serial killer Son of Sam, the music press’s growing fascination with the iconoclastic punk sounds emerging from CBGB in the Bowery—the hip-hop world was undergoing a moment of flux. That summer, looting broke out during a citywide blackout, which had a profound effect on the DJ scene in the Bronx: countless purloined stereo systems and turntables found their way into the hands of aspiring pretenders to Herc’s throne everywhere. That same summer, during a gig at the Executive Playhouse, Herc found himself in the middle of a wrong-place-wrong-time situation when three teenagers causing what Herc called “a discrepancy” wound up stabbing the DJ three times—twice in the side, once across the hands. Herc survived, but the incident gave him enough pause that he felt compelled to go on hiatus.
1977 was also the year the New York–rooted disco scene went international, from the opening of the infamous celebrity magnet Studio 54 to the box office and Billboard chart phenomenon that was the Brooklyn-set (and largely whitewashed) Saturday Night Fever. And if one group out of New York could be considered the catalyst for disco’s late-decade emergence, it was Chic. A group of conceptual-minded jazz-funk session musicians led by master songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards—formerly known as the Big Apple Band until Walter Murphy notched smash hit “A Fifth of Beethoven” with a backup band of the same name—Chic aimed to capture the soul-jazz sound of Donald Byrd, the stylish Euro-fashion allure of Roxy Music, and the disguised-in-plain-sight alter-ego vibe of Kiss. And in a disco world where who your band members were was less important than how the music they made sounded on the dancefloor, Rodgers and Edwards took their session-chops anonymity to the ideal destination: their picture wasn’t even on the front or back of their ’77 debut LP.
As New York’s long hot summer entered its final weeks, the band’s debut single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” ran wild in discos across the country. Its follow-up, “Everybody Dance,” was a hit, too, but the band’s anonymity had its drawbacks: Rodgers and Edwards weren’t considered famous enough to make it past Studio 54’s infamously elitist doormen, even though they’d been invited there by Grace Jones and their records were constant fixtures on the set list. They were so irritated by this development that they went home and vented their way through a spur-of-the-moment protest song. The refrain—“Ahhhh, fuck off!”—stuck with them, and not wanting to waste a catchy hook on a surefire FCC ban, they reworked it as “Freak out!” The ensuing song, “Le Freak,” became the biggest-selling single in Atlantic Records history.
Chic’s music was tailor-made for DJs, but music by DJs was still an unknown quantity, especially for a genre as young and in flux as hip-hop. At one point in late ’78, a downtown art-scene figure and hip-hop enthusiast named Fred Brathwaite—aka Fab 5 Freddy—suggested to Melle Mel that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five should cut a record, and Mel was thoroughly confused by the idea. A record of a record? Flash turned down similar overtures, too: “I was asked before anybody. And I was like, ‘Who would want to hear a record which I was spinning rerecorded with MCing over it?’”
There had been albums of disco mixes before. 1974’s Disco Par-r-r-ty, released on NYC-based Polydor imprint Spring Records, was the first, and contained two sides’ worth of continuous-mix music featuring many of the same tracks (James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” Mandrill’s “Fence Walk,” Lyn Collins’s “Think [About It]”) that formed the bedrock of Bronx hip-hop DJing. And some DJs followed in DJ Hollywood’s footsteps by selling their own mixtapes.
But hip-hop was still a largely regional phenomenon best experienced live, and for DJs the live money was far more reliable. Who’d want to hear a recording of a DJ? What was the point of an MC if there wasn’t a crowd to hype up, but rather just some kid listening in their bedroom or on a transistor radio? Clubs could make money off DJs and MCs because they tended to run cheaper than hosting traditional bands, but how could a record label translate that success, even as a growing phenomenon, into actual sales?
This, fatefully, is where Chic and hip-hop intersected for the first (and by no means last) time. Their 1979 single “Good Times” was released right as June turned to July, and hit #1 on both the pop and R&B charts in August. But it was their last big hit in the United States, where a burgeoning cultural fatigue with disco spurred a popular backlash. At least a few Chic LPs and singles were doubtlessly blown up as part of the conflagration that was Disco Demolition Night, the notorious record-destroying stunt at Chicago’s Comiskey Park that has been called the day disco died. (Irony of ironies, it happened between games of a Major League Baseball doubleheader featuring teams from the two cities, Detroit and Chicago, which would come to redefine post-disco dance music in the 1980s.) When “Good Times” was knocked off the top of the pop charts by the Knack’s new wave / power pop horndog rock anthem “My Sharona,” the sly implications of doom in the second verse of Chic’s waning hit—“A rumor has it that it’s getting late / Time marches on, just can’t wait / The clock keeps turning, why hesitate? / You silly fool, you can’t change your fate”—came across in instant hindsight as disco’s reckoning with its own cultural expiration date. Anything that wasn’t palatable to the straight white males in the eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic had its radio days numbered.
And yet that Bernard Edwards bassline was a killer—one that held down a groove so undeniable that it would find itself quickly capitalized on for a historic first. In August 1979, producer, songwriter, and record label founder Sylvia Robinson took out some studio time to cut the first single for her brand-new hip-hop label, Sugar Hill. Robinson was one of the label owners who’d approached Flash earlier and asked him if he was interested in putting out a record, but when Flash and a host of others skeptically declined the offer she assembled a group of ringers from Englewood, New Jersey, and had them cut a single.
Before 1979, there were more than a few albums that people now point to as precursors of rap as we know it, from Pigmeat Markham’s comedic 1968 single “Here Comes the Judge” to the poetry-and-percussion works of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. The 1973 proto-rap album Hustlers Convention, recorded by Last Poets founding member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin under the alias “Lightnin’ Rod” even included a track where he delivered a verse over the Chuck Rainey Coalition doing an instrumental cover of Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes”—a hip-hop prototype if there ever was one. And even Fatback Band, a New York funk group that had already built up a string of modestly successful dance hits starting with 1972’s “Street Dance,” dropped a single in March ’79 titled “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” that’s considered the first legit commercially released rap record.
But “Rapper’s Delight,” as credited to the Sugar Hill Gang, was the catalyst for rap as an emerging genre of recorded music, whether or not it was considered legit. The lyrics were largely aggregated or otherwise lifted from routines that Robinson and the MCs—Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee—had heard elsewhere. (One infamous instance involved Cold Crush Brothers member Grandmaster Caz offering to lend Hank any of his lines from a rhyme book, and Hank using one that actually wound up referring to himself by Caz’s alias “Casanova Fly.”) Nobody in any of the five boroughs had ever heard of the Sugar Hill Gang, and yet there they were in September with a single that would become the first Top 40 rap hit in history. And they weren’t even using a DJ—the “break” was replayed live by a bunch of session musicians. The artists that had spent the last six years building the very structure of hip-hop music were confused at best, pissed at worst.
Chic were pissed, too. “Good Times” was at or near #1 when “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded, had slipped out of the Top 10 when it was released, and was out of the charts entirely along with Chic’s underperforming follow-up singles when “Rapper’s Delight” peaked at #36 in January of 1980. That wasn’t the best year for Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Their album Real People stiffed in a discophobic market. Their mix of Diana Ross’s album Diana was rejected by Motown for being too uncharacteristic for the singer and was replaced by a watered-down (if commercially successful) version. And Queen—one of the rock bands so beloved by the disco-sucks demographic—notched a #1 of their own with “Another One Bites the Dust,” a significant lift of Chic’s signature heavy bottom-end bassline and chicken-scratch guitar sounds, which Chic were no longer entrusted with by the labels that once swore by them.
And now here was this weird novelty song that just flat-out copied them? Subsequently, the first commercially released single to position itself as a re-creation of hip-hop, flawed as it was, also became the first hip-hop single to result in a lawsuit for uncleared appropriation of a preexisting piece of music. Rodgers and Edwards eventually earned their publishing, but not before being intimidated by a mysterious foursome of goons at their Power Station studio who hinted that it would be “in their best interest” to leave Sugar Hill Records alone.
“Rapper’s Delight” might have been the first spark, but it took a bit longer for something a bit more true to the origins of hip-hop to make it to mass market. Eventually Sugar Hill signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five shortly after they cut a debut single, “Superrappin’,” for rival Enjoy Records shortly after “Rapper’s Delight” beat them to the punch. And after a couple early successes for the group based around their MC routines—“Freedom” and “The Birthday Party” both hit the R&B Top 10 in 1980—Flash finally got his spotlight. Released in 1981, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was a showcase of Flash displaying the turntable technique that, descending from the lessons of Kool Herc, became the first commercially released recording of hip-hop as it originally existed, a DJ-rooted form of music. Flash needed three turntables and a pair of mixers for the three-hour session, which required somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen takes; every time he missed a cue or was otherwise unsatisfied, he started over from the beginning just to make sure the whole thing was an unedited performance.
Blondie’s song “Rapture,” the NYC punk icons’ effort to meet rap on its own turf and a #1 hit in March of ’81, included superstar singer Deborah Harry actually name-checking Flash—“Flash is fast / Flash is cool”—which Flash naturally cut into a sharp back-and-forth as if to say that’s me she’s talking about on a chart topper. Then he drops in “Good Times,” old news by ’81 but a savvy way to start his own Merry-Go-Round: this is how that break from “Rapper’s Delight” was supposed to sound. He scratches through it, drops in a few bars from the unmistakable break to “Apache” for some of that ’73 flavor, extends that break for a second go-round, then immaculately feints the drums-and-bass groove to “Another One Bites the Dust” before letting the break play out.
And then he scratches alongside it to the beat of the bassline, the scratch revealed not just as a showy maneuver but a piece of percussion in itself, recorded music remolded in real time. Then back to “Good Times”—ay Queen, you know where your shit came from—while he cuts in his own crew, from the previous Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five single “Freedom” shouting “Grandmaster! Cut faster!” The parade-of-hits itinerary plays out medley-style through a couple other Sugar Hill cuts—their own “The Birthday Party” and Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder”—but “Good Times” is the glue that holds it all together, reemerging as the refrain that Flash uses to build increasingly elaborate segues and scratches.
“The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” wasn’t a hit outside the clubs, but it was something more important: a piece of history that doubled as a brilliant metacommentary on how hip-hop could alter the actual meanings of musical works. It was the kind of music criticism, sonic manipulation, and flat-out dance groove that only a DJ could make, and only a hip-hop DJ could conceive of. It didn’t just open doors, it tore the roof off—and the future of music was wide open to anybody brave enough to reach out for it.