look back at a movement born in the Bronx that conquered the world

A culture, a style, a movement: hip-hop, born 50 years ago in the Bronx of New York, offered young African-Americans an escape from poverty and discrimination, before conquering the United States and the world with billions of dollars in music, sport or fashion.

Now a master in its country, hip-hop has grown rapidly to the point of shaking nearly fifty years after a music industry that initially resisted it, while continuing to embody part of American youth. His date of birth is August 11, 1973.

That day, on the ground floor of a public housing building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, one of New York’s five boroughs, a DJ of Jamaican origin, Clive Campbell, alias DJ Kool Herc, innovates: by spinning the same disc on two turntables, he isolates the sequences of rhythms and percussion and makes them last in the speakers, prefiguring the “breakbeat”, an essential component of hip-hop music.

Hip-hop historian Ralph McDaniels, July 28, 2023. (MAGGY DONALDSON / AFP)

Celebrating 50 years is extraordinary. Because all of that had no value. When we started, nobody wanted to hire a DJ, an MC (Master of Ceremonies) or breakdancers“, recalls for AFP the historian of hip-hop Ralph McDaniels, one of the first to have filmed the rap scene of New York. August 11, 1973 “was just a birthday party, but this party started it all“, blows the sixty-year-old who has kept decades of archives, thousands of hours of images and sounds that he protects to transmit the memory of an era.

Many cultural events

In tribute to this August 11 50 years ago, DJ Kool Herc will share the poster for a mega-concert on Friday at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the legendary stadium of the eponymous baseball team: there are announced other rap veterans like Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, pioneer Roxanne Shanté, but also Lil Kim, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Run DMC. To commemorate this anniversary, New York is sprouting up a number of cultural initiatives all summer long: graffiti or breakdance sessions, “block parties”, concerts… Last Friday, one of the pioneers of rap, Grandmaster Flash, of his real name Joseph Saddler, gave himself at 65 on a stage in a park in the Bronx.

People dance at DJ Mister Cee's concert in New York on August 5, 2023. (KENA BETANCUR / AFP)

Grandmaster Flash played with two former Furious Five bandmates, Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Scorpio (Eddie Morris), to recreate the electric climate of the 1970s and 1980s. by poverty, drugs and crime, the first “block parties”, celebrations, were a breath of fresh air for teenagers and families who sought to escape from a difficult reality, and in particular social and racial discrimination, remembers Jerry Gibbs, who grew up in the Bronx. “I was a kid when it started but I saw how it united communities (…) how DJs made people dance (…) made them forget all their worries and get away for a night”tells AFP the 55-year-old rapper who calls himself DJ Cool Gee.

The painful experience of racism and inequality

“A lot of the biggest artists in hip-hop have had a hard time”adds Ralph McDaniels, citing Jay-Z, The Notorious BIG or Nas, who grew up in poor New York ghettos. “They knew and they understood the people, the families, the smells and everything that goes on in the elevators that smell of urine and everything that you go through there every day. And they took all that and put it in their records”relates the historian.

Jay-Z, child of Brooklyn, is a former drug dealer of his housing estate. Shawn Corey Carter, his real name, became in the 1990s and 2000s one of the greatest American rappers, then a billionaire businessman at the head of an entertainment empire, Roc Nation. The rapper, whose tracks are commercial triumphs in 2000s bling-bling style, has surrounded himself with producers like Kanye West. Other singers, like DMX, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Cardi B, Drake and Nicki Minaj have also become global stars.

But despite its dominance, hip-hop remains rooted in a counterculture in the United States and the painful experience of racism and inequality, experts say. The Grammy Awards, Oscars of the American music industry, are thus accused each year of discrimination against African-American artists. Still, in the age of streaming, the influence of hip-hop is global. It has become a social movement, more than just a style: from music to fashion, from texts to dance. “People didn’t really accept hip-hop, they thought it was going to fail”recalls Paula Farley, 59, who was a child of the first parties in the Bronx. “Fifty years later, we made them lie”she rejoices.

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