Posts Tagged ‘Afrika Bambaataa’
I didn’t realize there was a controversy about the origins of the term “hip hop” in the media until Michael Holman contacted me via facebook. Michael was part of the original downtown scene that included Jean Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy. He’d just started managing the New York City Breakers when I first met him. The picture of him and me with Phase 2 and Stephen Crichlow was taken around this time at my birthday party at Lucky Strike. I wanted to get his crew into my film Beat Street, so I introduced Michael to Harry Belafonte. At that first meeting, Michael made a pitch to be the director of Beat Street. Both Harry and I felt though, that he was too inexperienced for a multi-million dollar project, but Harry liked him and signed him on as an associate producer. Who knows what might have happened though because the arrival of Andrew Davis as director signaled the demise of my script, although my original story is available on smashwords.com so any interested parties can dream with me about what might have been. I wonder if Michael even ever read it? Maybe he’s just the guy to go to back to Hollywood and get it done finally in time for the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop.
More to the point of this blog: ever since my original Voice article on Afrika Bambaataa was reprinted in a best-of hip hop journalism compilation, I began getting credit for putting the words “hip hop” into print for the first time. Not so, as it turns out, since Michael Holman apparently did that in a interview in the East Village Eye in January 1982. The interview probably took place shortly after Fab Five Freddy lured Bambaataa downtown to the Mudd Club for the first time, although Bambaataa and Fred soon began spending a lot of time working on the soon-to-come downtown-uptown merger that helped birth an explosion of creativity out of both camps. Michael and Charlie Ahearn were the first independent filmmakers to arrive on that scene. Anyway, I hope this mea culpa clears up the whole controversy.
Meanwhile, I’m about to release the first three ebooks from my new High Times Greatest Hits venture on smashwords. But I also have turned my attention back to my original Hip Hop book, which, although available in beta form on smashwords, desperately needs a complete overhaul with images and new material, as well as corrections to numerous typos. Thanks to Michael, I’ve been inspired to dive back into that project and hope to have an amazing new edition out in a few weeks. Among the gems I’ve uncovered so far is a picture of Kool Herc in 1975 taken by Coke La Rock and a complete copy of Bambaataa’s English class paper on street gangs.
While I was researching my hip hop book and film project, I got inspired to get involved in music again. I’d left that scene behind in 1967 after being kicked out of my Illinois garage band for taking LSD. In all fairness, the Knight Riders did offer me to rejoin a few days later, but the chemistry was already ruined.
It wasn’t until I began interviewing all the kids in the South Bronx who created hip hop, that I got the urge to get back on stage. And at first, I edged into hip hop as a deejay, enlisting my two best friends, at the time, David Bither and Jeff Peisch, to join as my emcee group. Jeff rapped his own lyrics, while David blew wild sax solos, and I scratched up some break beat records Bambaataa had clued me onto. We held a performance at the cavernous apartment on the Upper West Side Jeff and I were living in. All three of us were rising freelance writers at the time, working for Horizon magazine, and other publications. Jeff and David got a cushy gig that summer with Lincoln Center. “High-level executive meeting” was Jeff’s code-phrase for smoking a joint during work. Our initial performance was attended by many critics and music-industry insiders, all of whom positively raved about how great we were. If nothing else, we certainly had attitude. Dave’s sax playing is what took it over the top since Jeff’s rapping style was more of a white-boy parody of real rap, talking about his Sony color TV set and Klipsch speakers, and other toys he coveted. We probably could have become something, but I had also been moving in circles around the East Village, writing for the Soho News and East Village Eye, and soon discovered garage bands were very much in fashion downtown. Laurie Lennard was going out with Jeff at the time, and was one of the top goddesses on our scene, a real go-getter who eventually landed a job booking talent for David Letterman. Laurie would later become famous for marrying Larry David and producing “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore. According to Jeff, her body was an exact replica of Marilyn Monroe’s. That’s her in the red sweater with her arm around me in the above photo. Jeff would soon become news director of the newly-created MTV, and then an award-winning producer for Time/Life, while David eventually landed his dream job co-running Nonesuch Records.
I’ve always been a rocker at heart. So I switched gears and told my friends to come to a rehearsal for a garage band I was going to start. I had two cardboard boxes set-up in my bedroom and a pair of drumsticks. That was going to be my instrument to get started. I tried to enlist Dave to play organ, as he knew music theory, could write songs, and sang like a bird. But Dave would only come to the rehearsal if he could play lead guitar. He’d already been in a few bands as a keyboardist and wanted to make the switch. Flick Ford, my favorite art director at the Eye, was a natural choice as a lead singer. He had a dynamic energy that could bowl you over when he was on. But I didn’t know if Flick could sing, so I also invited Rick Dehaan to show up because he had a great rock’n'roll look and had recently tried to commit suicide. I thought this project might pick up his spirits. Rick’s psychiatrist asked him what concrete steps he was taking to make improvements in his life, and Rick replied: “I’m playing the lottery.” “But that’s not very concrete, is it?” replied the psychiatrist. The next day Rick won a million dollars. At that point I was probably thinking we could use Rick to buy equipment. Brian Spaeth helped me conceive the whole project. Brian had been through a similar experience as me, having been unceremoniously booted out of the Fleshtones, the reigning gods of garage rock in New York. The only band that could touch the Fleshtones at the time was probably the Lyres out of Boston. I met Brian when I began working at High Times as Executive Editor. It was a relief to finally land a weekly paycheck after being a freelancer for months. Anyway, I told Dave I’d already promised lead guitar to Bob Brandel, one of the best guitar players from the garage scene in Illinois, who was now working for NBC news as an art director. So that became the core of the band, which I soon named “The Soul Assassins:” Brian on bass, me on cardboard boxes, Bob on guitar and Flick singing. We knew right away we were onto something. Brian didn’t like the idea of two lead singers at first, but I told him the lead singer’s ego was always the biggest issue in any band and that if we had two, it would help keep their egos in check. Rick never had an ego, but Flick soon developed a whopper. But then so did I, I suppose. (I guess the funniest confrontation was the night Flick got drunk and said, “I am the head dick in the band.” To which I replied: “That’s right, Flick.” We were both pissing on the roof at Dino’s on Sixth Street.) I soon pulled in Brian Morse, who had drummed briefly for the Finchley Boys back in Illinois, which allowed me to switch to rhythm guitar. Our first gig was a High Times Christmas party, and the film director John McNaughton (a grade-school friend of Bob’s) flew in for the party and played organ on a couple of songs. You can listen free to the band, and download songs for 99 cents by clicking the Soul Assassin link in the middle of the links at the top-right of this page.
Below from left to right: John, Bob, Flick, Me, Brian Moores, Rick, Brian Spaeth, moments before taking the stage for the first time.
I was a reporter for the New York Daily News and a contributing writer to Horizon magazine, when I attended Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Many in the press detested that ultra-hip show, but I was blown away. It celebrated the CBGB punk scene, East Village art, the re-emergence of image, and the recent flowering of graffiti that was taking place in New York. There were several huge rooms covered floor-to-ceiling with art and photography. It was the cutting edge of the underground, and the first time Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited. Basquiat was the sensation of the moment, his paintings already sold to the de Menil collection. But one room was devoted to photos of spray-painted subway trains, and one of those photos absolutely floored me. I’d only been in New York for a few years, and when I arrived, I assumed the city paid artists to paint those murals on trains because so many of them looked like they were part of a set out of Disneyland. One train in the exhibit especially stopped me in my tracks: it was called “Break” by Futura 2000.
Kurtis Blow had just achieved the first certified-gold rap record with a song called “The Breaks.” At first, I thought Futura’s train was an homage to Kurtis Blow. But then it occured to me there were subcultural undercurrents running through both rap music and graffiti, and that this probably represented an authentic cultural movement that had not been acknowledged in the mass media. (At this time, I knew nothing about break dancing, but that element would surface within days.)
I bought “Break” from Futura and he signed and autographed it to me (it still hangs prominently in my bedroom). Futura introduced me to Fab Five Freddy, who gave me Afrika Bambaataa’s number after I told him I wanted to research where this culture had actually started.
Over the next few weeks, I interviewed Bambaataa several times. He was extremely helpful, and even opened up his archives for me to peruse. Bam had written a book-length report on the history of the Black Spades while in high school, and he let me make a copy. Most important, Bam gave me the telephone number of Kool Herc, and indicated it all started with him. Back in the ’80s, every minor hip hopper in New York was spinning tales about “how it all began” and 90% of these stories were complete fabrications. But Bam only spoke the truth and he never exaggerated about anything. In fact, Bam seemed to be operating on a higher plane of existence, and was obviously a spiritually-charged being. Even better, he became famous and successful beyond imagination while I was working on the story, releasing a monster hit called “Planet Rock,” which created the electro-boogie sound and transformed hip hop and dance music in general.
I got fired by the Daily News, but that was okay, because now I was onto the biggest story of my life, and I knew it. I spent several weeks researching the story, which I eventually submitted to the Village Voice, and titled: “The Pied Piper of Hip Hop.” Keep in mind, at this point in time, the words “hip hop” had never appeared in print anywhere and were not even well-known to most people inside the culture. The story was mostly about Bambaataa, but it covered many of the major developments in the history of the hip hop, including who did what first.
The Village Voice sat on the manuscript for weeks, and I kept calling Robert Christgau, the music editor, leaving messages every other day. I just wanted him to accept it or reject it, so I could submit it to Rolling Stone, and I couldn’t get an answer. I was terrified another writer was going to break the story of hip hop before I did. Finally, Tulani Davis called and said she wanted to publish the article and would edit it.
I went out on a limb in the article and said hip hop was going to become the most significant cultural movement of the decade, and I can’t tell you how many people found that comment ridiculous in 1981. Even in the East Village, there was intense resistance to recognizing the value of rap music in some quarters. Rap was viewed as a ghetto fad that had no significance for the rest of the world.
Amazingly, that original article still holds up today; it’s an exciting adventure told mostly through Bambaataa’s point-of-view and I just posted it on my smashwords site. You can get there by clicking the link that says “click here for free eBooks” in the column at the top-right of this page.
Rock&Roll Confidential, #16/September 1984: HOME XEROXING PROSPECTS…Hip Hop by Steven Hager is an intelligent, vividly illustrated and extremely well-written account of the rise of hiphop culture. It begins at the beginning, that is to say, with James Brown and details the destructive policies of New York planner Robert Moses that created the South Bronx in the first place. By the end of the book you’ll feel close enough to many of the graffiti writers, breakers, djs and rappers that they’ll seem like old friends. —Dave Marsh
“…sets the record straight…sorted out fact from fiction…”
Paper Magazine: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop attempts to set the record straight on the endlessly argued questions of who did what first where. On the case for years, interviewing anyone and everyone, Hager (who also came up with the idea of Beat Street) has sorted out fact from fiction and written as “true” a story as we’re likely to get. — David Hershkovits
“…the best and most reliable history…”
Penthouse October 1984: Within a few months time the Hollywood films Breakin’ and Beat Street were huge summer hits. A half-dozen books on break dancing are on the market, not to mention more movies and instructional aids. In Hip Hop, the best and most reliable history of the break-rap-graffiti subculture, author Steven Hager reveals that break dancing actually started around 1973 amid the urban devastation of New York’s South Bronx and had all but disappeared by 1978, supplanted by newer dances like the “freak” (ritualized dry-humping) and robotic “electric boogie,” What saved breaking from disappearing into the limbo of great lost dances? Mostly the growing popularity of disk jockeys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, who encouraged competitive dancers at club and community-center functions.—Robert Palmer
“…thrilling intricate story…”
Artforum: Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky Four + 1s “That’s the joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence. The prehistory was really secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to out-fox the competition. Hager makes it all a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it has lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop: it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.—Greil Marcus
“…thorough job of research…”
Pulse: New York City always seems to be at the cutting edge of trends in pop culture. Recently, breakdancing, hip-hop and rap records, and, to a lesser degree graffiti art have broken out of their Gotham origins, gotten picked up by the media and—as a result—have become important movements in ’80s pop culture. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop is a fast reading history of how these movements started—and developed —that focuses on the many personalities that made it happen. Hugo Martinez and Keith Haring, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—from street-gang origins to recognition by serious art and music critics—they all come alive here in Hip Hop. This is a quick read—you can knock it off in an evening—but don’t get the idea that Hip Hop is one of those quickie exploitation jobs cranked out to cash in on current fads. Hager—whose original newspaper article inspired the film Beat Street—has done a thorough job of research, tracked down many obscure artists, breakers, and DJs for some cool interviews, and tied everything together in beautiful style.
“…Hager is an ace reporter…”
Village Voice January 14, 1986: Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti’s art world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop’s breakthroughs—the crassly out-of-context appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. —Robert Christgau
“…for those who wonder how it all started…”
The Palm Beach Post October 26, 1984: Most of us have probably seen enough break dancing to last us several lifetimes. For those who still wonder how it all started, a new book has come out called Hip Hop by Steven Hager, who tells us, among other things, that the graffiti sprouted on subways and walls were started by a young Greek named Taki, who put his first tag on an ice-cream truck in 1970.
“…formidable job of reporting…”
Knight-Ridder News Service March 30, 1985: Hip Hop takes its title from the street term for the entire urban subculture of rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. The book comes packaged as if it were a bit of fluff intended to capitalize on the break dancing craze. The text, however, is a formidable job of reporting. Hager, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tracked down many of rap’s most elusive figures, like the South Bronx disk jockeys who played the first rap records on turntables set up on street corners, and the earliest rappers, whose performances were given a parties and on inner-city playgrounds. The result is a description of a vibrant subculture.—Ken Tucker
“…fine investigative report…”
Voice of Youth Advocates: New York journalist Hager, who followed the hip hop scene for years before mass appeal set in, does a fine investigative report here. His sources: the horse’s mouth. The book is full of quotes of original New York hip hoppers he has interviewed: graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 who began “writing” on subway trains and now commands thousands of dollars in commissions, deejays such as Grandmixer DST who reveals here the secrets of his “scratchin’” technique, rappers who record their staccato rhymes now but whose tradition extends back to prisoners composing rhyming fables called toasts, and break dancers in hit films who began as street gang warriors. Their voices give Hager’s account authenticity.—Cathi Edgerton
“…explains how hip hop happened…”
The Boston Herald December 9, 1984: Hip Hop was written by Steven Hager, a longtime reporter on the musical and artistic subculture that’s rocked the world after busting out of New York’s slums. This serious but not heavy-handed guide explains how hip hop happened and what it’s all about.
New York Daily News: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop isn’t a definitive study but, considering how hard it is to get information on the street culture of the South Bronx (few written sources, many reluctant or self-serving informants), it’s impressive.—David Hinckley
“…hits home with little-known facts…”
Billboard Sept. 15, 1984: Hager hits home with some little-known facts: that blacks were performing a form of break dancing in the mid-70s and at some point abandoned it, to be revived by Latin males, that graffiti artists often collect in “gangs” to study each other’s technique and avoid police while utilizing their favorite canvasses, New York City subway cars, and that a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop music. —Nelson George
KLIAT January 1985: This fascinating book is not a how-to manual, but a discussion of the evolution of Hip Hop, that subculture of dance, art and music that started in the South Bronx. He doesn’t romanticize Hip Hop, but he doesn’t treat it condescendingly either. An excellent book Hip Hop is worth owning. —F.L.
“…the best read on the subject…”
East Village Eye: Steven Hager’s new book Hip Hop is certainly the best read to be found on the subject. Hager was the first major writer to pick up on the movement, and he remains the best. His book encompasses the entire spectrum. —James Marshall
“…messy, ego-obsessed scrawls…”
New Musical Express September 22, 1984: There seems to be an inability to ridicule the more ridiculous aspects (like the graffiti artist who arrived at a rival’s house with a shooter threatening to use it unless he changed his pen-name). He also shares the age-old white critic’s fallibility of reading more importance than is necessary into black man’s art—most of the illustrations herein show street graffiti to be messy ego-obsessed scrawls. —Gavin Martin
“…obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker….”
Heavy Metal Feb/March, 1985: The walk from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side is long, and Hip Hop is like the view from a Greyhound bus. Encompassing break dancing, rapping, scratching, and street fashion, spanning from the present day New York back into the beyond, Hip Hop is a lot to digest. Even worse, the bleached-out black-and-white pages lack the visual beauty of their subject. Writer Steven Hager has renovated his Soho News and Village Voice articles to dissertation length, and even tacked on a glossary and bibliography that will, if we know Hip Hop, be obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker. —SM
“…formidable job of reporting…”
To purchase a copy of Hip Hop click the link at the top-right of this page.
Beat Street has and will always be a major monument in Hip Hop. What was the inspiration behind Beat Street?
I went to an art show in Long Island City titled New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. “Break” a photo of a subway car painted by Futura 2000 was included (along with hundreds of other photos of graffiti art). “These Are They Breaks” by Kurtis Blow was just starting to climb the charts, one of the first rap songs to enter the mainstream. While staring at Futura’s painting, it occurred to me graffiti and rap music were deeply connected. I went on a search to find Futura so I could write about him (and buy a framed photo of “Break”), and in the process, made connections with Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa.
I must say this a thousand times a day, Hip Hop is a culture. I can clearly remember going to the movies when Beat Street was first released. Everything amazed me. I was intrigued by the graffiti (art), the New Yorker dialogue, breakers, and music. Every kid in the 80’s era wanted to move to New York and become a rapper after seeing Beat Street. It wasn’t until I did the research on Beat Street did I learn the writer, Steven Hager was white. Are many people surprised when they meet you?
Nobody today seems surprised by my whiteness. But I have to admit a few people did look at me funny when I was attending Bam’s shows at Bronx River Projects, where I’d often be the only white face in the crowd. After the shows were over, Bam always put a bodyguard on me to make sure I made it back to the subway.
In 1983, Charlie Alhearn released Wild Style. Wild Style was the first Hip Hop movie. Wild Style is actually the movie that introduced the art of free styling and party battles. In May of 1984, Charlie Parker and Allen DeBevoise released Breakin’. Sadly, I can’t say that it really fit into the hip hop culture. It definitely wasn’t a great movie to be released after Wild Style. On June 6, 1984, a beast was released. Beat Street the king of the beat. Did you ever expect for Beat Street to hit as big as it did? If not, why?
Actually, I was pretty disappointed with the final product. My script was closer to Boyz n the Hood. It was closer to reality. I didn’t recognize any of the interiors or characters in the final film. They all seemed way too middle class, and not street smart (except for the dancers and rappers who were just playing themselves.) What saves the movie are the battles with New York City Breakers and the Rocksteady Crew, and a few of the rap performances. One major problem is that I wanted the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three in the film, but the Furious were in the midst of a huge legal problem and Flash couldn’t even perform for several months or use his name. The Cold Crush Brothers would have been a viable substitution, and I encouraged Harry Belafonte to use them, but he demanded an audition, and the Cold Crush refused because they were the premier group at the time and felt an audition was an insult. Actually, that was a mistake on their part because they could have captured a huge audience by appearing in the film. At the time they were more interested in live performance than records or films. Grandmaster Caz should have become a major star, but never got over the hump.
What is your opinion of the transformation in Hip Hop from then to now?
Don’t really listen to much hip hop, especially the gangsta stuff, just don’t connect with the message. I did like Asher Roth’s “I Love College” even though it’s just a party song because I like Asher’s personality.
What would you like to see change in today’s Hip Hop?
It’s not for me to prescribe anything to today’s artists. But I’d like to see more respect for the First Generation. I’d like to see more remakes of the original songs, and more use of the First Generation on the CD’s being released today. The big hip hop stars of today should reach out to people like Grandmaster Caz, Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock and invite them to do duets with them.
Please note you can now download the original script at my smashwords site. Just follow the links at the top of this page.