Hip-hop was born 50 years ago. Nelson George discusses its evolution and legacy
Amna Nawaz: For our arts and culture series, Canvas, today, we celebrate 50 years of hip-hop, a genre that’s influenced every aspect of pop culture, fashion and music across the U.S. and the world.
It all started with a back-to-school party thrown by a young woman named Cindy Campbell on August 11 of 1973 in an apartment rec center in the Bronx and New York. To keep costs low, Cindy asked her brother, 18-year-old Clive Campbell, better known as D.J. Kool Herc, to play music, improvising and playing break beats on two turntables in a continuous loop. And hip-hop was born.
To help us appreciate the contributions of hip-hop, I spoke recently with Nelson George, author and filmmaker. He served as co-executive producer of VH1’s “Hip Hop Honors” television show and also wrote the book “Hip Hop America.”
I began by asking him about hip-hop’s birth in the Bronx.
Nelson George, Author and Filmmaker: This was the ’70s, where people say the famous headline Daily News: Ford to City, Drop Dead.
There was a huge outflux, white flight out of the Bronx, Brooklyn, particularly in Manhattan. New York became one of the epicenters of the sale of heroin. You had a lot of economic downturn. You had a lot of social ills. You had a lack of city services, right?
You had a kind of city where what that meant that there was a lot of freedom. So you had the parties in a park, where kids learn to break-dance. They practiced emceeing. They played records. And you had graffiti, which was widespread throughout the city.
So the things that made people say, New York, drop dead, some of those same things gave a freedom to the city that allowed a lot of these street or, almost, you might say folk expressions to happen.
Amna Nawaz: So the music eventually evolves, right, to include lyrics.
And I know a lot of folks will think of songs like The Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight.” But you have not just talking deejays now, but rapping emcees. And you think specifically of songs like Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” They’re talking about really serious stuff. They’re talking about unemployment. They’re talking about financial troubles. They’re talking about what it’s like to not be heard and seen by society.
Nelson George: Right.
Amna Nawaz: How did those kinds of lyrics change the cultural place of hip-hop at that moment?
Nelson George: Well, hip-hop started as party music.
But as it evolved, the idea that you could write about your personal condition outside the party, you could write about the world that was happening outside in the streets of New York and in your house, and then you had a movement that really happened mid to late ’80s in New York, what a lot of people call the golden age, which is people like Chuck D and Public Enemy KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, these were emcees who took the language, the language of speaking in rhyme over a beat, and added a level of poetry, added a little politics, added a level sophistication and artistic ambition that was different from the previous generation.
So that’s when you really had this really drilling down into the sociology of America.
Amna Nawaz: You know, there are those in American music circles who were convinced that, in this country, rock ‘n’ roll would always reign supreme.
But it’s fair to say, by the ’80s and into the ’90s, you have these megastars, some of whom you listed there. You have others like Tupac and Biggie and Dr. Dre, and hip-hop is firmly in the mainstream, not just in this country, but really globally.
Why do you think that happened commercially the way that it did and when it did?
Nelson George: Well, I think the big turning point is the ’90s, because the late ’80s was always about, can I — there was always the first. And the first rapper on American Bandstand. We have the first hip-hop show on MTV.
Then, by then, there was a — by the ’90s, there was a critical mass. And there was a number of artists you named — and can’t leave Diddy out of this conversation. All of these artists were able to — and had the support — I think the key point, I would say, is, they had the support of the record labels to go farther.
In the case of Dr. Dre, Tupac, you had Interscope Records distributed Death Row. In the case of Diddy and Biggie and a lot of their artists, they had Arista under the — under the control of Clive Davis.
They saw that hip-hop was not just a music that could sell a million units or two million units. It could be something bigger. I think the other thing to be mentioned that everyone kind of leaves out of the conversation is M.C. Hammer. M.C. Hammer is kind of the bridge artists, because he’s not a great emcee, but he’s a great video artist.
He’s a great entertainer, performer. He sells a ton of records, and I think almost like 10 or 11 million, his first album. I think Hammer’s phenomenon was very important in the dissemination of hip-hop as a pop expression.
Amna Nawaz: Nelson, what about the role of women? I mean, it’s worth pointing out that it took until the late 1980s until the first solo female rapper got — released her full album.
That was M.C. Lyte back in 1988. How do you see the role of women in what was largely a — and is still largely a male-dominated field?
Nelson George: Well, the women are doing very well right now.
I just think it wasn’t — it wasn’t it was hip-hop was very much a boys club. And we used to say in the ’80s that hip-hop made girls and the boys, in the sense that you saw the baggy clothes. It wasn’t — there wasn’t, into my way of thinking — maybe I’m old guy — it wasn’t very feminine.
It seems like women were forced to conform to what was the standard of how people dress. As time went on, more and more women began to express their sexuality, express their individual vision. I think, obviously, Queen Latifah was a huge part of that.
Lauryn Hill’s impact, when we — you ask about female emcees, I think she’s probably the greatest female emcee, to my — because — both because of the — her actual artistry as a emcee, her actual rhyme skills, and the range of topics in her writing, from the work she did with the Fugees in “The Score” through her own album.
And I think, in many ways, her album “The Miseducation” is a landmark of the era. And it speaks to the — it sort of sets a template in terms of actual sales success that so many other female artists, singers and rap and emcees have followed in.
I think that Lauryn is a towering figure, both because of the — her skills as an artist and the fact that she has such a wide range of emotional and political observations.
Amna Nawaz: So here we are marking 50 years of hip-hop. What do you think the next 50 years bring?
Nelson George: I think probably other waves of music. Nothing is — nothing is dominant forever, not — and particularly in pop culture.
There will be new expressions, stuff coming out of Africa. Afrobeats is really a very powerful for us. So it will evolve. I mean, for me, as a guy, I — like, I go back to, like, ’78 with seeing Herc in the park. The hip-hop that I love and that my generation came up on is nothing like what’s on the radio now.
So, whatever we call hip-hop depends on where you enter into the journey of hip-hop.
Amna Nawaz: Nelson George, this conversation was a real treat. You reminded me some of my favorite albums over the years.
Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
Nelson George: Be well.
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