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The Roots of Hip-Hop, Volume 1: Where Did Hip-Hop Come From?

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(Note from Jake: This is the first post by James Henry in a series that he’s doing on the roots of hip-hop.  Hip-hop is a fascinating art form, and has an even more fascinating origin.  I for one am extremely excited to learn about it.)

 

WHERE DID HIP HOP COME FROM?

 

By James Henry Tschannen

 

 The roots of hip-hop are as deep as they are diverse. The oldest root is the ancient African tradition of “toasting” or colorful boasting and storytelling. The game of the dozens was created by African slaves, who would insult each other in an attempt to prove who was mentally tougher and immune to verbal abuse; an essential skill for a slave. More recent influences include radio DJs, blues singers, Jamaican dance hall culture, and Afro-Caribbean music and dance. However, the youth party culture that became the most vital and vibrant art form of the last decades of the 20th century could not have existed without the diversity and decay of New York City in the 1970s. Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and East New York. It was created by people utterly abandoned and written off by society. The story of the South Bronx in the 70s is one of spectacularly ambitious government programs that benefited some at the expense of others. It is the story of technocratic hubris and disastrous utopianism. It is the story of a city literally killing itself for the American Dream of a manicured lawn and a white picket fence. But most of all, it is the story of people who created something beautiful in some of the worst conditions imaginable.

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 The years after World War II were some of the most optimistic for Americans. Our industrial might and righteous valor had saved the Allies and the free world from annihilation by the forces of evil and we emerged as the most powerful nation in the world. We did not experience the horrors of bombing campaigns. Unlike Europe, Japan, and China, World War II built our industrial infrastructure rather than destroying it. The war and the massive amounts of government spending that went along with it brought us out of the Great Depression and into one of the greatest periods of economic growth and upward social mobility that this country has ever seen.

Ironically, the engine that drove this surge in high-paying manufacturing jobs and middle class growth in places like the Southeast and the Midwest also caused the greatest period of urban decay in recent memory. I am speaking, of course, about America’s love affair (perhaps fatal obsession is a better description) with the automobile. When conservatives and libertarians rail against the “government takeover” of the auto industry they are missing the larger point that the auto industry as we know it never could have existed without government assistance. For cars to be cost effective and desirable for a mass market, roads had to exist to make driving practical. The cost of these roads was not born by the drivers, or the auto manufacturers, it was born by everyone as the government, federal and local, built and maintained roads connecting nearly every city and town in the country. We tend to think of roads as something everyone uses, a public good that benefits all Americans equally. This, however, was not the case at all in the early days of automobiles and it still is not the case for some people today. Poor people, especially in urban areas, are less likely to own a car and therefore benefit less from road construction than they would from investment in public transit. This was even more true years ago, when many of our roads were being built and only the wealthy could afford to drive cars.

Postwar confidence, automobilism, and new ideas about urban planning formed a perfect storm in New York City. Robert Moses was the man behind most of the major public works projects undertaken by New York City in the middle of the 20th century. A bold visionary and skilled bureaucrat, Moses’s reshaped the city in dramatic ways. One of his most notorious projects, and the one most important for the development of hip-hop is the Cross-Bronx Expressway. This massive highway enabled people with cars to travel quickly between Manhattan and the suburbs, but it also cut a huge swath of destruction through what were mostly lower-middle class Irish and Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx. The construction itself displaced 60,000 people, and the disruption caused by dividing neighborhoods in two caused nearly anyone who could to flee the South Bronx, most of them following the expressway to suburbs, far from the city center. In effect, the city was destroying block after block of thriving neighborhoods just to make it easier for people to live outside of the city limits and avoid city taxes.

The next major step in creating the South Bronx of the 1970s was the creation of massive low-income housing projects. Using eminent domain, the city condemned many Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Manhattan as “slums” and sold the land to developers, which fueled a boom in commercial construction. As a replacement for neighborhoods that had contained stores, apartments, and factories the city created housing projects in the “tower in a park” model put forward by the modernist architect Le Corbusier. These massive buildings contained well over 1000 units and while the idea sounded good in theory, these structures were isolating to the residents. Coming from mixed-use neighborhoods where living spaces were often literally on top of workplaces, residents had trouble finding work, and these buildings soon became overrun with criminal activity.

 This brings us to the next major factor in the decline of the South Bronx; the loss of blue collar jobs in New York City. In the 1950s most of the shipping traffic into New York Harbor moved to ports in New Jersey taking with it thousands of blue collar jobs with it. As the US poured money into manufacturing plants in the South and West during WWII, New York’s days as a manufacturing powerhouse came to an end. Factories in the city couldn’t compete with other factories, and as transportation of goods over land became cheaper (due largely to the new federal interstate system) factories in what had once been only farmland gained the advantage. By the 70s the South Bronx alone lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs. The official youth unemployment rate rose to 60%. The average income in the South Bronx was only half of what it was elsewhere in the city. As the borough deteriorated, the area’s Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents fled to smaller towns and suburbs, but racist realtors and housing associations kept Blacks and Puerto Ricans out.

In 1970 Democratic New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a memo to Richard Nixon citing data by the Rand Corporation about fires in the South Bronx and complaining about the rise of political radicals like the Black Panthers. He wrote “The time may have come when the issue of race would benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” Nixon agreed, and “benign neglect” became a rallying cry for those wanting to reduce social services to poor inner cities. After 1968 the city removed seven fire companies from the Bronx even as fires increased.

 Compounding these problems was the destruction created by the South Bronx’s own property owners. With so many residents unemployed or low income landlords found that it was more profitable to have their buildings burnt down and collect the insurance payout than collecting rent. These property owners allowed their buildings to slip into disrepair, sometimes even cutting off power and water to force residents to move out before paying local thugs to start the fires. As the 70s progressed, building fires reached epidemic levels. Between 1973 and 1977 30,000 fires were set in the Bronx alone. An average of four square blocks were lost to fire every week. During the mid 70s, the height of the fires, New York City laid off thousands of firefighters and fire marshals because of the city’s budget crisis.

 The people living in these ghettos, though facing appalling living conditions and few opportunities, pulled together to create something unique and beautiful. In the face of burned buildings, piles of concrete rubble, and the impersonal grey of city housing projects and subways, young people created a very diverse, complex, and highly developed style of visual art. Graffiti, for many people, was a way to take control of their environment, and a way of making their voice heard by a society that had written them off. Through the party culture of rhyming, djing, and b-boying (or break dancing) individuals expressed their joy in life and their belief in their own worth and ability. All of this was in the face of a city and a society that considered them the least useful and least valued members of the population.

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Written by Jake Phillips

July 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm

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