Grandmaster Flash has opened up the longstanding debate on the basic elements of hip hop culture. In a recent interview, he stated writing has nothing to do with hip hop, and should be considered a separate movement apart, and not an integral element. In fact, Flash blamed the media for incorporating writing into hip hop, and a lot of writers immediately agreed with his position.
I have to admit being a bit stung by some of his comments because I wrote the first major magazine article on the subculture and put the words “hip hop” into play in the national media, and included writing as a part of the culture.
Writing was a city-wide phenomenon that started in the late 1960s in upper Manhattan and spread to the South Bronx before going all city, all boroughs. It spread quickly wherever there were subway tracks and trains. When the original masters of the first generation emerged as gallery artists calling themselves United Graffiti Artists, almost all were from the South Bronx, and the list was headed by Phase 2 and Bama.
Few realize today Kool Herc began as a writer, long before he got his first deejay system, and he ran with Phase 2 and Stay High 149, both of whom would go on to have epic status. Herc threw his first jam in 1973, and hip hop was his to incubate for the first three years. Coke La Rock was the first emcee during this period, inventing lines like “you rock and you don’t stop,” and putting “ski” on the end of everything. Coke was also the weed dealer, as well as emcee and deejay whenever Herc took a break. I’m pretty sure Herc considers graf a part of his culture, why else would he pose in front of it?
In 1977, Afrika Bambaataa began forming what soon became known as the Universal Zulu Nation, dedicated to peace, unity and having fun. Bambaataa declared that deejaying, emceeing, breaking and writing were the four elements of what he named “hip hop,” a phrase invented by Cowboy and made popular by Lovebug Starski. You simply can’t discard the fact the primary visionary behind this movement expressly included writing as a part of the culture from its inception. Bambaataa will tell you he had this vision of a new culture in 1974, shortly after he discovered Kool Herc, so he dates the birth of hip hop not with Herc’s first jam in 1973, but a year later.
There have always been hundreds of writers who say hip hop never influenced them, and they are correct. Most writers never attended a hip hop jam, and didn’t know much about the culture until the media began covering it around 1980, and even then, awareness moved very slow at first because there was so much resistance to recognizing the culture. But it is incorrect to say the media invented the “graf-rap” connection, because that honor goes to Bambaataa.
In 1981, I went to an exhibit titled “New York/New Wave” at PS 1 curated by Diego Cortez. Although panned in the Village Voice, that show changed my life. There was a huge room filled with photos of over a hundred subway cars, but one in particular drew my interest. I’d recently been given a copy of “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow, which had recently become the second 12-inch gold record in history, and the first rap song to go gold as well. The subway car that caught my eye was “Break” by Futura 2000. I contacted Diego, got Futura’s phone number, and ended up attending a Soul Artists meeting on the Upper West Side. Futura introduced me to Fred Brathwaite, who gave me Bambaataa’s phone number. And that’s how I ended up writing a story called “Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip Hop” for the Village Voice. So, I entered this universe through graffiti, and while I respect Flash and the many writers who reject any hip hop-graf connection, I know one actually does exist.