50 years of hip-hop: A genre born from a backyard party


Hip-hop has a big birthday next week. Nearly 50 years ago, on August 11, 1973, some teenagers threw a back-to-school party in the rec room of their apartment building in the Bronx. And presiding over it all was deejay Kool Herc. Since then, hip-hop has evolved and it has exploded. It is impossible now to imagine the world today without this music and its culture. So next week, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is exploring five key moments that helped define hip hop starting with that party that many call the birth of hip-hop.


SUGARHILL GANG: I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip, hip-hop and you don’t stop.

DETROW: My co-host Juana Summers joins me now. Hey, Juana.


DETROW: So what made you want to make hip-hop’s 50th birthday?

SUMMERS: Well, I mean, first of all, can you believe it has only been 50 years since the date that we credit for the birth of hip-hop? I mean, hip-hop is everywhere right now. It impacts every element of our culture from sports to fashion, everything we do, really. It’s a huge business. So, first of all, I just thought marking that was significant. And we also just wanted to look back and talk to some of the people who were influential in its rise who maybe don’t always get their say and others who have built their careers on documenting it.

DETROW: I feel like 50 years is one of those milestones that feels like a very long time, but when you stop and think about it, it’s actually not that long.


DETROW: And you have talked to a lot of the key people who were there in that moment. You’ve visited many of the key places like this apartment building that’s still there that you can still go into. Let’s talk about that party for a minute. What made what Kool Herc was doing so different, and why does that moment get credit for the birth of it all?

SUMMERS: Well, I mean, like any deejay, DJ Kool Herc prided himself on the tunes he selected and the size and the power of his sound system, which, back in his day, he was often setting up outdoors, literally plugging into city lights to get power to power up a sound system. But Kool Herc also noticed that dancers who were at these parties that he was deejaying, they loved the parts of the records where the vocals dropped out and you just had the percussive breakdowns or the breaks.


SUMMERS: So he developed this technique where he’d play the break from one record, then play just the break from another record on his other turntable. And then he’d queue up another break on his first turntable. I mean, you get the point. This goes on and on and on. And he was really known as something of an innovator. He also figured out how to use his two turntables simultaneously to loop a single break with two copies of the same record.


SUMMERS: And, I mean, Scott, you can almost think of this as like a predecessor to sampling, though, back in Kool Herc’s day, it let the dancers just get crazy for a long time. And he and his friends could get on the mic over these beats and make announcements like stage banter or these funny little rhymes and link them up. I mean, you can kind of imagine what this might sound like.


SUMMERS: I actually got a chance to talk with DJ Kool Herc over the phone earlier this year. He was 18 the day of that infamous party, but he’s 68 years old now, and he called that technique the merry go round.

DJ KOOL HERC: The best part of the records, I went to it. I go right to the yolk.


DETROW: As you reported this, as you reported the other stories in this series, what surprised you?

SUMMERS: I mean, this is a project we’ve worked on for the last five months. And I think the thing that stuck with me the most is that some of the early voices and names that were involved in the earliest days of hip-hop story, they didn’t profit in the same ways that today the megawatt artists who are all household names in hip-hop did. I mean, we met someone named MC Debbie D. She went out on her own as a solo female rapper in the ’80s. And she told us, at the time, nobody was thinking about this music they were creating as lucrative. People didn’t see it as a viable career. Now, we should say that has obviously changed, but it’s left some of these original pioneers with some bittersweet feelings about it all.

MC DEBBIE D: I think it’s great. I mean, people have to get a living any way that they can get a living. The only issue that I have with it is that everybody is profiting off of hip-hop but the pioneers, those of us that really laid the foundation to it.

SUMMERS: So, I mean, one thing that I’ve really kept in mind is the fact that this whole genre, this whole culture, really, it was born out of kids who were teenagers, like Debbie D, living in New York City, often in poor neighborhoods who were going out to these block parties where somebody was deejaying, often outdoors for not a lot of money. That initial party, I think, was $0.25 for girls and $0.50 for boys that Kool Herc was the deejay at. And hip-hop was really born out of the spirit of resourcefulness and youth who were really playing the hands that they were dealt and ended up making a beautiful music and culture out of it that still reverberates through our culture today.

DETROW: All right. Juana Summers, thank you so much.

SUMMERS: Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: And you can hear Juana’s reporting on hip-hop’s big anniversary all of next week. You can also check your local member station for Hip-Hop 50 on NPR’s special. To find your member station, go to npr.org/stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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