"The Message" by Napal
This text is a summary of the events that turned Hip Hop from an underground subculture of New York to a global phenomenon accessible to anyone. It goes without saying that the many stories and witnesses of its characters put together, create a collective memory that we can define as the history of Hip Hop.
When we talk about historicizing this movement, we need to remember that Hip Hop is a path and a way of expression that helps people find their individuality through the elements that make up Hip Hop. If we put to one side the historicizing attempts, Hip Hop is not something that you can study at home, behind a screen or through books: to fully assimilate the nature of this culture it needs to be actively lived, with each individual’s own presence and creativity actively contributing to it.
It is not just a question of correctly executing dance moves, creating some drawings with a spray can or to adhere to well-defined fashion aesthetics. There is a certain mentality behind all of this that needs to be understood and that can only be passed on through taking part in it.
The exchange of awareness and experience is the fundamental basis the movement is founded on.
Today we are in an era when Hip Hop is studied in universities, we have experts that churn out exact dates and events; but there will always be a difference between those that study this subject and those who live it.
Whether it is a breakdancer, a writer, a DJ or an MC, they all have one thing in common: a name. Choosing a name is that step that turns an observer into someone who decides to be part of the movement and throws their hat in the ring.
At that point an individual’s name becomes reality, their own reality, and they will be known by their name and they will relate through that name. For some people it will be an experience that lasts a few years, for others it will be a hobby, and for those who completely identify with the movement, it will be a lifestyle choice.
This book narrates the story of Massimo “Crash Kid” through the testimonies of his friends, crew members and family, all documented with images that largely come from his own photographic archive.
Crash Kid lived B-boying and Hip Hop with total commitment and made it a lifestyle choice, always ready to transmit his beliefs both in Italy and abroad. Today Hip Hop has become a global phenomenon, and it is time to pay homage to a figure like him.
This book wants to be a testament to his journey as an artist and at the same time it is a way to document and preserve his story,
“Historia magistra vitae” meaning history is life’s teacher.
It is quite a complicated achievement attempting to attribute to a particular event or link to a particular date the birth of Hip Hop. Its identity is continually in the making, a constant remix of pre-existing concepts, adapted and reinterpreted to create a new language. This new language is what we refer to today as Hip Hop and its disciplines.
What happens in New York at the end of the ‘60s and start of the ‘70s is a large exchange of inputs and contaminations that progressively give way to the development of this culture.
Firstly, it is important to understand the social background in which the phenomenon is born. At the start of the ‘70s New York is a city completely divided in two blocks: the Downtown neighbourhood and the rich areas like Manhattan. The frivolous Disco lifestyle was all the rage, with its selective, invite-only loft parties and its trend setting DJs like Dave Mancuso, Larry Levan or Frankie Knucles. The backdrop to this superficially golden reality are the ghettos of New York. Neighbourhoods like the Bronx experience total anarchy, social exclusion and gang wars to take control of the territory and drug trafficking. The nasty reality of those years is that New York is on the brink of a financial crisis with no precedence that risks sinking the city in total bankruptcy.
In contrast to the elitist world of Discos, a culture starts to develop organically in neighbourhoods like the Bronx, made up of “Block Parties” organised in the streets with the intention to create a new language, making use of just a few tools. Like many of the authors of this movement say: “Create something from nothing”. Looking at the four pillars of Hip Hop – MCing, DJing, Breaking and Writing, we can see how essential the contribution of a number of pioneers was to the movement. Starting from the musical element of Hip Hop, already from 1969 DJs such as Francis Frasso began to experiment in the clubs of Manhattan a technique called at the time “Beat Matching”, in which they attempt to extend a beat or a musical section, playing records with the same beat, to make the mix more suitable to dance on.
A few years later we get to the first Jams that take place thanks to DJs like Disco King Mario, Pete DJ Jones, Grandmaster Flowers from Brooklyn, DJ Hollywood, and finally DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell, originally from Jamaica) who on September 11th 1973 organise one of the first official meet ups: the “Back to school Jam” in 1520, Sedgwick Avenue, in South Bronx.
Kool Herc gets the first hunch. To extend the breakbeats of the songs to create his own groove, which breakers can dance to, a technique that he initially refers to as “Merry Go Round”. What distinguishes the parties of Kool Herc is first of all the choice of tunes: Herc refuses to play pop records, choosing to play less well known tracks and B sides of funk records, where instrumental beats are found and that he uses to create his famous “Cutting Breaks”. These parties sow the seeds of Hip Hop and will influence many other Bronx DJs, like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Mean Jean, Grand Wizard Theodore (the creator of scratch) and Afrika Bambaataa.
Two of the other fundamental elements of Hip Hop, still in their infancy, enter the scene: the figure of “Master of Ceremonies” (MC), terminology attributed to Grandmaster Melle Mel, and that of Break Boy (or B-Boy), referring to the person dancing on the musical breaks. We can trace the origin of MCing following the evolution of a singing style that had been part of Afro-American culture for some time: “Scat Singing”. It is possible to find examples of this style of singing words over melodies in artists as early as Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald, up to James Brown like in Brother Rapp.
We are talking about an oral tradition that has always been important in black culture. Perhaps the first example of “rapped” song can be found in the track by Pigmear Markham with the title Here comes the Judge, 1968. Taking inspiration from this song, many MCs will start thereafter their own re-interpretation of songs. At the first parties by Kool Herc, the main MC to perform and take on the microphone is Coke La Roc, thought by many to be a pioneer of this art: he creates improvisations on the breaks by Herc on the lines of what was then referred to as “Old School Pimp Talk” – a primordial style of rap, a descendent of all that comes under the cinema genre “Blaxploitation”.
There are many teenagers that went to these parties and who then became MCs, perfecting what Coke La Roc did routinely. So is born what is subsequently referred to as “freestyle rap” or even “party rap”, based on spontaneous improvisations on the music, executed mainly during these parties.
Masters such as Grandmaster Caz or Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins affirm themselves in this period. We can credit them with coining the name “Hip Hop” around 1978. It was a kind of onomatopoeic expression used to render the sound of the military step, to greet one of their friends who had just enrolled in the military. This expression was then taken up by Lovebug Starski, that regularly starts calling these Jam parties “Hippety Hop parties”, and since then the name “Hip Hop” stuck.
The evolution of Hip Hop in the ‘70s is mainly happening at an underground level, and as the number of MCs multiply so do the challenges to affirm themselves and to obtain more spaces. The duals between MCs begin in this manner with what is defined as the “Battle Rap”. In this period groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, The Cold Crush Brothers, Funky 4 plus 1, Treacherous Three, Fantastic Five, Sha Rock and The Crash Crew form.
The scene of the time suddenly goes under the radar of mainstream music on 25th March 1979, when the single from the Fatback Band with the Title King Tim III comes out. Riding the wave of its decent success, on 16th September of the same year the first rap single destined to become a hit is recorded: Rappers Delight by Sugar Hill Gang. The single is criticized by the Hip Hop scene of the time because the Sugarhill Gang is not from the Bronx and because they were not the MCs that contributed to its evolution (in fact some of their lyrics were stolen from other MCs such as Grandmaster Caz!). Notwithstanding the doubts behind the authenticity of the piece, Rappers Delights can be credited with taking rap beyond the boundaries of Bronx, contributing to it becoming a global phenomenon – an unimaginable prospect just a few months earlier.
These two singles make it clear to the labels of the time that rap could be commercialised in an album, since rap until then had been a phenomenon only confined to parties or within a live dimension.
During this musical evolution the figure of the Break Boy, referred to as B-Boy, simultaneously evolves. It should be taken into account the fact that many of the people that have been cited so far were dedicated to more than one of the disciplines of Hip Hop, so it was easy to find an MC that was not just rapping or DJing, but also breaking or writing. It suffices to think that in those days Grandmaster Flowers painted graffiti with a crew called “The Last Survivors” and that Kool Herc was part of a crew of writers called the “Ex Vandals”.
Like with Hip Hop, the origin of breaking is difficult to trace. The dance aspect definitely develops towards the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s in New York, but the sources from which the first B-boys take inspiration to create the first moves are multiple: elements of capoeira fight moves, steps from Mambo Latino, Lindy Hop, gymnastics, all the way to African tribal dances. In a 1959 documentary, recorded in Kaduna (Nigeria), tribes can be seen dancing rudimentary moves that look ostensibly like the first moves by the breakers of New York many years later. In the images we can easily recognise moves like the Knee Spin, the Turtle or a primordial way of head spinning. Like modern American blues has its origins in the music from Mali, it is possible that many of these moves were transmitted in an Afro-American context and that they were re-elaborated by the new generations to then create breaking.
In addition to these inputs, we need to remember the important influence from the mainstream culture of the time. People like James Brown and his dance moves, like Soul Swinging, the Mash Potatoes or the Camel Walk. And stars of the era like Michael Jackson, Charles “Robot” Washington and the crew of “The Lockers” lead by Don “Campbellock” Campbell that regularly appeared on television programs such as Soul Train.
Many moves and steps of the time are born as reworked versions of pre-existing moves. To confirm this theory we can cite just a few exemplar cases, such as that of Bill Bailey who does the first “Moonwalk” (a step that at the time he called the “Backslide”) documented in the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky, or Frankie Farro who perfectly executes a “HeadSpin” in the film Wild Boy on the Road already in 1933. Even though the first time a person spinning on their head to perform an embryonic “Head Spin” dates back to 1898, as documented in a clip by Thomas Edison, Kool Herc describes these kids that dance at his parties as “Break Boys”, short-named B-Boys, because it is the moment they come in on the dance floor and start to perform on his musical breakdowns.
The terminology is important because the original dance has exactly this name: B-Boying. Later, the same dance is described as “breakdance” by the media, a term that for many pioneers of this practice is considered to be derogatory (in the same way that for years “Graffiti” is used to wrongly describe a practice that is born under the name of “Writing”).
Under the melting pot that is the term “breakdance” are then found many moves such “popping”, “locking” and “Electric Boogaloo”, that in reality are styles that come from the funk scene of Los Angeles, the origins of which can be traced back to James Brown with his song and his moves called “Boogaloo”. Obviously the incredible influence of James Brown on the new generations that created Hip Hop is so big, that both with regards to the dance and the music, a whole book would be needed just for him. James Brown was Hip Hop even before the term Hip Hop existed, he remains the most sampled and imitated artists in the history of both DJs and B-boys of all generations.
What happens during these first parties in the Bronx? To “A1 B-Boy Sasa”, one of the first pioneers to perform at Kool Herc’s jams and considered by many to be one of the most innovative and strong B-Boys, is attributed the title of “A-1”, equivalent to today’s “King”. At the beginning of the ‘70s Sasa together with other B-Boys of the time such as The Nigga Twins, Trixie or Clark Kent, develop the basis for this type of dance on which the breakers then add new elements, primarily becoming a dance based on competition and challenge.
Later, the breakers start to move in a way that is more organised and form the first crews, a concept that basically comes from the gangs of those days. Amongst the historical crews we can find names such as The Mighty Zulu Kings, The Bronx Boys, The Salsoul Crew, The Crazy Commanders Crew, The Rock City Crew, The Young City Boys, The Rock Steady Crew, The Dynamic Rockers, The Magnificent Force and the New York City Breakers.
What these breakers perfected, is what is today known as B-Boying from New York, based on the moves such as the “Top Rocking” and made up of moves that are generally used before a breaking entry. A sort of introduction of the breaker’s own style and a way for the B-Boys to sync with the music using steps such as the “Indian Step”. This is followed by going down to the floor, where most of the breaking takes place. The “Down Rock” also known as “Floorwork” or “Footwork” is a move executed on the ground, mixing various moves such as the “6-Step” or the “3-Step”, or moves like “Sweeps” and “C-C’s”, which are also executed on the floor on hands and feet. The dance then moves on to more acrobatic moves called “Power Moves”. The latter can have many variations, those which are developed in those years are called “Foundation Moves”. In theory, the basic moves on which the different branches of what is today defined as breaking are built on, such as the “Windmill” (which is spinning on the floor on the upper side of the body) or the “Backspin” (executed spinning on the back), are thought to come from Kung Fu. They were perfected by B-Boys such as Jo Jo, Jimmy Lee and Crazy Legs, original members of the Rock Steady Crew. In addition, “Kid Freeze” of the “Dynamic Rockers” is credited the refinement of the “Head Spin”, one of the most iconic moves of breaking – which involves spinning on the head as the name suggests.
On top of the musical development “Breakbeat” it is important to highlight another defining aspect of the evolution of breaking as a dance, what is today known in Hip Hop slang as “Cypher”, intended as the “Circle”. The dynamics of the challenge and confrontation develop within the circle, which immediately creates a challenge between B-Boys and at the same creates a contact with the public. This aspect of interaction with the music and the public is a fundamental factor that a B-Boy must always keep in mind. The one who is considered the “King” or the winner of the challenge will not be just the best executor of their moves, but also the one who curates all aspects of their entrance and exit from the “Cypher”.
Whether it is a B-Boy, a DJ, an MC or a Writer, the style and the research for ones own perfectionism is what gives way to the emergence of an individual’s personality. At the same time, style is not only a way to measure up against other individuals, it is also a way through which Hip Hop becomes a personal research to find one’s own voice and way of doing things. Citing Kase 2, “You must have style if you are fighting for style, if you do not have style, why do you want to be part of a movement that is completely based on stye?”.
Referring to Kase 2, we get to what is defined as the fourth pillar of Hip Hop: “Writing”. Writing can be thought of as the anarchic friend of this culture, on which today there are still diverging opinions: does it really belong to Hip Hop? While DJing, MCing and Breaking developed hand in hand, writing is a phenomenon that belongs to the same world, comes from the same environment, and is the first artistic movement to be created by teenagers for teenagers, but many pioneers of writing do not belong to underground Hip Hop.
The first time writing appears is in areas that are not even in the Bronx. For example Cornbread, who was already an active writer in the mid ‘60s, comes from Philadelphia. If we take the “Cholo Writing” gangs of Los Angeles, examples of this type of art can be found as early as the ‘30s.
The first documented traces of writing in New York can be seen around 1969, in areas such as Washington Heights, in the Northern Manhattan district area – very far from the Bronx.
Many pioneers of writing do not recognise themselves in the Hip Hop movement, but at the same time many people that gravitate towards the B-Boy, DJ and MC environments practice writing and bring important advancements to this discipline. The legendary Phase 2 proves this point: he started as a Breaker to then become an undisputed writing master in the ‘70s.
What is clear is that once marriage between these disciplines’ is consolidated, they create an explosive mix. Amongst those who documented this underground phenomenon from New York, we find names such as Jon Naar and Norman Mailer (1974 The faith of Graffiti), Gordon Matta-Clark (Graffiti Photoglyph 1973), Fenton Lawless (The New York Graffiti Experience 1976), Michael Mcintyre and Julia Cave (1976 Watching my Name go by), Manfred Kirchheimer (1981 Stations of the Elevated), right up to people the likes of Tony Silver, director of the 1983 documentary Style Wars.
Up until then this underground movement was completely relegated to the Bronx and the outskirts of New York. Only a few isolated cases can be recalled, such as the 1979 exhibition at the gallery Medusa in Rome, and the songs “Magnificent Seven” by the Clash or the “Hardest Part” and “Rapture” by Blondie in 1980. These are some examples of how this phenomenon, taking small steps, broke out of its New York circuit.
The contamination between the punk circuit and the underground Hip Hop scene of the time is often overlooked by Hip Hop historians, but it was an extremely constructive encounter. It was in fact the punk clubs of Manhattan that allowed DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and introduced music to the downtown of New York, to a white public, with no filters, and to clubs like the Mudd Club, The Negill, and The Roxy where fusions of the different scenes of the time were being experimented. The ‘80s represent the golden era of the club scene. In an evening you could encounter from Jean Michel Basquiat improvising as a DJ, to Keith Haring, through to every genre of punk, B-Boy, Afrika Bambaataa, Lou Reed to Grace Jones.
The 1981 European tour of the Clash was also significant. They take Futura 2000, Dondi and Fab 5 Freddy with them, who do live graffiti on stage whilst the Clash are singing. During the breaks of the concerts Futura and Fab 5 also perform, dedicating themselves to the art that is rap.
A noteworthy article was written by Sally Banes on the Village Voice of April 1981, dedicated to the then ballooning Hip Hop movement and focussing on the four pillars of Hip Hop. This press service was also possible thanks to the collaboration between Fab 5 Freddy, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. This contributes to initiate a buzz around Hip Hop and to introduce this phenomenon to people who had never set foot in the Bronx. Of historical importance is also the battle held at the Lincoln Center of New York between the Rock Steady Crew and the Dynamic Rockers; an event organised by Henry Chalfant and that generated a great deal of media visibility.
What happened in 1982 can be defined as a progressive expansion and export of Hip Hop to a global level. Of these first waves, we note events such as global premier of the film Wild Style, presented in Japan in 1981 even before than it was in America. Wild Style can be credited with capturing in a plausible manner what was taking place in the Bronx in those days.
A similar event is the first world tour of Afrika Bambaataa during which he introduces his new single “Plant Rock”. In November 1982 the artist makes his first appearance in London, accompanied by figures like Gran Mixer D.S.T, The Rock Steady Crew, Futura 2000, Dondi, Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee.
Afrika Bambaataa can be considered as a true ambassador of Hip Hop and who thanks to his vision, lifted the movement to a real artistic and philosophical expression. With Bambaataa we see a consolidation of the four disciplines of Hip Hop that he then defines as “elements”, which are DJing, MCing, Breaking and Writing and the fifth element which is “Knowledge”: self-consciousness and awareness thus become part of a bigger movement, heading towards an almost spiritual research.
Afrika Bambaata, who takes his name after the Zulu leader “Bambatha Kamancinza”, is brought up in a family where his mother is an activist for Afro-American communities’ rights. Bambaata understands how the Hip Hop movement can be understood both as an artistic movement and as a constructive movement for the claim of rights and self-proclamation of its community. Today we are in an era that is almost post-ideological, and we often tend to underestimate many things or take them for granted. But we need to understand how at the beginning of the ‘80s, in an America full of Reganism, to talk about black ghettos, the Bronx, Hip Hop music or even of the rights of Afro-Americans, was often met with total detachment or even worse, was completely ignored by American media or the white public.
It needs to be highlighted how the famous TV station MTV, founded in 1981, transmitted the first rap video only in 1984, broadcasting the “Rock Box” by Run DMC, and in doing so it ignored for years the rising Hip Hop music scene.
Little by little, the mainstream and Hollywood understand that the Hip Hop phenomenon could be commercialised and that it could generate money. The first music video broadcasted by MTV with “breakdance” moves is the first pop video of 1981 by Rod Stewart “Young Turks”, in which we see “Cool Pockets” Guzman Sanchez. Following this, videos like “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren in 1982 and then “Hey You the Rock Steady Crew” in 1983 are produced. These videos can be credited with creating a mania for breakdancing, which then became a phenomenon that spreads into every genre of entertainment and every type of music video and that goes way beyond the rap music genre. Breaking can be seen in funk videos of those years like “Party Train” by Gap Band all the way to pop videos, such as “I’m in the mood” by Robert Plant. Riding on the back of this growing wave of popularity, videos like Flashdance, Beat Street and Breaking are produced. These films, even though they have a very simple storyline and definitely sugar-coat the reality of the ghettos in those years, have the merit to skyrocket Hip Hop to a world-wide phenomenon, and in doing so become cult films. Today, they are still considered as a reference point through which the rest of the world discovers Hip Hop. The difference is that while those who produced these films had the meagre objective of money-making on a trendy phenomenon, thousands of youngsters around the globe identified themselves in these films, highlighting that this movement was much more rooted than it had been represented so far. Hip Hop had no need for any type of hype; this is one of those rare occasions when what is being promoted is distinctly superior and light years ahead of any marketing strategy.
In these years there is still a scarce number of sources and materials that document or represent the Hip Hop world in a way which is more or less consistent with reality, but at the same time these projects avail themselves with the collaboration of artists that contributed to create this form of art in real life. Citing “Buffalo Gals”, the single that was put together by Malcom McLaren and Trevor Horn, we find in the video The Rock Steady Crew dancing and even Dondi White painting. Even in the case of Beat Street we find pivotal crews such as the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew, and the rapped parts were given to masters such as Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh and for the graffiti they take on board the artistic consultation of writers the likes of Lonny Wood, stage name Phase 2, and Bill Cordero aka “Blast”.
So we are talking of an era when those who get close to this world have few inputs on the media, but of very high quality.
Influenced by these films, Hip Hop scenes are soon created and consolidated in the UK, Germany, France, Holland and Australia and they develop they own style and approach. In Italy this process is a bit slower, perhaps due to the language barrier. At the start of the ‘80s a few such realities start to develop in Milan, Tourin, Florence, Bologna, Naples and Rome.
At the very beginning, the Italian scene grows thanks to the very important contribution of a handful of people, since the Italian media gave it very little air time. Visibility on national television was given by programs such as “Due di Tutto” on RaiDue, that broadcasts clips by Jeffrey Danile while he executes his iconic “Body Popping” together with Shalamar. And also in “Orecchiocchio” in 1983, the author of which Massimo Verni meets the crew of breakers “Magnificent Force” in a trip to New York and remains fascinated by their performance. He then decides to document their performances and to bring them on his show in Italy. Another important step in television is the period of the “Blitz”, showed live at the Theatre Tenda Mancini in Rome, in which a New York crew called Magnificent Force participates in with Mr Wiggles, Fabel, Cosmic Pop, Fast Break and Icey Ice, presented by the great Gianni Minà.
At the time most information was passed on by word of mouth between the few passionate people. The few lucky ones to own a video camera would exchange VHS tape copies on the rare breaking material they could get their hands on, tapes that had been copied so many times and with degrading quality at each copy. Even if they were of terrible quality, being able to see again and again these videos was crucial in learning how the steps were correctly executed.
The first jams organised in Italy in those days were fundamental, they were called “Zulu Party”, taking name from the philosophy of the “Zulu Nation” of Afrika Bambaataa. It was through letters and phone calls that the largest possible number of B-Boys, MCs, DJs and Writers were gathered in these jams… Of course we are talking of an era when the entire Italian scene could fit in a room. The historical Zulu Parties were the one of Turin in 1984, Parma in 1986, the first parties in Rome that took place in 1987 and the Hello Johnny party of 1989, Mantova in 1990 and the The Jam always in Rome in 1992, to mention a few.