you ask most kids today about hip-hop, theyll spit
out the names of recording artists they see on TV: Eminem,
P. Diddy, J. L o, Beyonce. Theyll tell you about the
songs they like and the clothes they want to buy. Theyll
tell you about the indisputable zones of hip-hop like EO
(East Orange, New Jersey), the ATL (Atlanta,
Georgia), and the West Side (Los Angeles, California),
neighborhoods they feel they know because theyve seen
them in all the glossiest, flossiest music videos.
Hip-hop is natural to these kids, like air or water, just
there, a part of the digital landscape that streams through
watch this cultural sea change with fascination. It astounds
me that hip-hop has grown into a global industry, a force
that dominates youth culture from Paris to Prague, Tokyo
to Timbuktu. I cant believe that in small, all-white
towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, high school boys wear their
clothes in the latest steelo: pants sagging
off their waists, sports jerseys hanging to their knees,
baseball hats cocked to one side. Even in the pueblos of
Mexico, where mariachi bands and old school crooners still
rule, it is hip-hop that sells cars, sodas, and childrens
toys on TV.
vast empire of hip-hop amazes me because I knew hip-hop
before it was hip-hop. I was there when it all began.
back then, in what todays ninth graders might call
the ancient eighties, there was no MTV or VH-1. We found
out about music by listening to the radio, flipping through
the stacks at the record store, or buying mix tapes
from local deejays at two dollars apiece. Back then, we
carried combs in our back pockets and clipped long strands
of feathers to the belt loops of our designer jeans. We
wore our names in cursive gold letters around our necks
or in big brass letters on our belt buckles. We picked up
words and inverted them, calling something that we thought
was really cool, hot, and something that had
a whole lot of life, def.
didnt know a whole new language was rolling off our
tongues as we flipped English upside down and pulled some
Spanish and even a few words from Africa into our parlance.
We didnt know that young people for years to come
would recycle our fashions and sample the bass lines from
our favorite tracks. We thought we were just being kids
and expressing ourselves, showing the grown-ups we were
different from them in a way that was safe and fun. In fact
we were at the epicenter of one of Americas most significant
cultural revolutions, making it happen. Who knew?
I moved from Washington DC to the Bronx the summer before
seventh grade, I had one box of records, mostly albums I
had ordered from the Columbia Record Club. In 1982, if you
promised to buy a record a month for one whole year, the
Club sent you eight records for a penny. I had Bruce Springsteens
The River, REO Speedwagons The Letter,
Belladonna by Stevie Nicks. I had Stairway
to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin and the soundtrack from
the movie Saturday Night Fever, which I played so many times
I thought my mother would go crazy from listening to me
belt out the lyrics with those lanky, swanky Bee Gees.
with my albums I had loads of 45s, what today we would call
singles, little records with just two songs on them, that
I bought at the record store near my school for just a dollar
a piece. I had Chaka Khans Im Every Woman,
and Luther Vandross Never Too Much, and
Chuck Brown and Soul Searchers big hit, Bustin
Loose. I had Michael Jacksons Rock with
You and even Aretha Franklins cover of You
Make me Feel Like a Natural Woman which I sang along
to in the mornings as I styled my hair.
you had asked me then about rap music I would have shrugged
my shoulders and looked at you like you were crazy. Rap
music? Whats that?
then I started seventh grade and my whole world turned upside
down. At Public School 141, I went to classes with kids
from all over the Bronx. There were kids whose families
came from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and kids
whose families came from Russian and China. There were kids
who were African-American and kids who were Irish-American,
kids who were Italian-American and kids who were Greek-American.
There were kids whose families were poor, kids whose families
were well off, and kids whose families were somewhere in
between. Some were Jewish, and others devout Catholics.
Some were Muslim. Some of the Asian kids were even Buddhist.
charge created by so many different elements coming together
was palpable. The school crackled with energy, and as you
can imagine, things werent always smooth. There were
some pretty entrenched cliques, and a few vicious fights
on the schoolyard. But there was also so much flavor.
You could hear Spanish spoken with a thick Nuyorican
accent to a kid wearing a yamulke. A seemingly
reserved Asian-American girl would get out of her parents
car, wait for them to drive off, and then unzip her coat
to reveal a fire engine red Adidas sweatsuit. A guy in a
preppy, button down shirt would sport gold chains
with pendants of every denomination: the Jewish Star of
David, the Arabic lettering for Allah, and a shiny gold
cross. He was everything, that was his steelo,
and everyone gave him props for it.
I got to 141, I felt like a blank canvas. Nothing had prepared
me for the dynamism, the screaming self-_expression of the
place and its students. For the first few weeks I secretly
studied the habits of the seventh, eighth and ninth graders
with whom I walked the halls and shared the cafeteria. I
was transfixed by the way they infused their words with
attitude and drama, moving their hands and heads as they
spoke. I was captivated by the way many of them walked and
ran and joked with each other with confidence and bravado.
I noted what they wore and how they wore it: the razor sharp
creases of their Jordache jeans, the spotless sneakers with
the laces left loose and untied.
I began to add some of what I saw into my look.
I convinced my grandmother to buy me a name chain to wear
around my neck, and my stepmother to buy me dark dyed designer
jeans. I bought my first pair of Nike sneakers, red, white
and blue Air Cortezs, with money I saved from my allowance.
by one, I started to make friends --Diane, Loida, James,
Jesus, Maya. When James and Jesus werent making fun
of me for being so square, they took me to parties
on the Grand Concourse, the big boulevard lined with old
apartment buildings and department stores that ran through
the Bronx. The parties were incredible, filled with young
people who didnt drink, smoke or fight, but who just
wanted to dance and laugh and ooh and ahhh over the scratching
sounds and funky beats the DJs coaxed out of their
lot of the kids at the parties were breakers
or poppers and lockers, which meant they could
breakdance, a style of movement that blends the Brazilian
martial art of Capoeira with a dance called the Robot, and
incorporates classical dance moves as well. The breakers
moved in crews that competed against each other.
Standing in a circle we watched as members of the different
groups moonwalked into the center, and then
hurled themselves to the floor, spinning on their heads,
kicking their legs into the air, and making elaborate hand
gestures, each more intricate and acrobatic than the last.
Everyone at the party who wasnt breaking
was a judge by default, and we registered our scores by
clapping and yelling.
Loida and Diane werent capping on or making
fun of my clothes, they were hipping me to Kiss
98.7 and WBLS, the radio stations that had started to slip
some of the songs we liked into their rotation. Songs like
Planet Rock by Soul Sonic Force and Take Me Home by Lisa
Lisa and the Cult Jam. After school and on the weekends,
they took me to the street vendors that sold the accessories
we all coveted: the big knockoff Porsche sunglasses everybody
wanted but not everybody could afford, and the heavy gold
chains people collected around their necks like so many
pieces of string. Loida and Diane also took me around the
city on the bus, familiarizing me with the routes of the
M1 and M3 and M7, showing me all the different neighborhoods
like Little Italy and Chinatown, Bed-Stuy and Harlem.
remember looking out the big sliding glass windows of the
bus at the lines drawn in concrete and glass and thinking
that while the world outside seemed so divided, inside,
in my circle, amongst my friends, those lines didnt
seem to exist. Loida was Dominican and Diane was Puerto
Rican. Our friend Mary was Irish-American, and Lisa was
Italian-American. Mayas family was from Haiti. Julius
was Russian-American. We were different ages, with different
likes and dislikes, but we were united in our love of hip-hop.
We loved the dope beats, the ever changing and
ever expanding lexicon, the outrageous dance moves, the
cocky swagger, the feeling that we were part of something
dynamic and fresh that was bigger than any one
of us. That world, that other realm that we created on the
streets and in our minds, that streamed from the radio in
the privacy of our bedrooms and coursed between us as we
talked on the phone, that was where we lived.
was where we felt free.
back on it now, I can see that hip-hop was born of the diversity
I found at 141. Unlike the hip-hop of today, it didnt
come pre-packaged from a marketing department with millions
of dollars to spend. Our hip-hop was the product of a bunch
of kids from a bunch of different places trying to talk
to each other, trying to create a common language that could
cut through the many languages people spoke at home. Intuitively,
kids were making a community where there was none; we were
affirming our sameness in a world that seemed to only emphasize
our difference. That desire to come together irrespective
of superficial differences and sometimes in celebration
of them, was what gave hip-hop authenticity, that was what
kept it honest and as crucial to our well being as food.
Its what kept it real.
cant say much about hip-hop today, but I can say that
old hip-hop, original hip-hop, changed my life forever.
I only lived in the Boogie Down Bronx for a
year, but those twelve months gave me so much. I learned
that art could bring people together and make them forget
their differences. I learned how good it could feel to move
with a posse, a group of friends who had my
back no matter what. I learned that I could express myself
and communicate with others through what I wore and how
I walked and what music I liked. I learned that it doesnt
take money or a special degree to transform the grit and
drive and hardness of the city into something beautiful.
Community. Self-confidence. Creativity. Hip-hop taught me
more about real life than anything I learned that year in
hope when young people today look at shiny videos by their
favorite hip-hop artists, they will see through the expensive
cars and exotic locations, the women in skimpy outfits and
the men trying to approximate a gangsta lean.
I hope they will remember that hip-hop was born without
a formula and without a lot of expensive props or violent
undertones. I hope they will marvel at the fact that in
the early days of hip-hop, young people were making it up
as they went along, following their hearts, following what
felt good. I hope they will think about what it takes to
create culture that is unique and transcendent and honest,
and I hope they will begin to dream about creating a new
world for themselves.
hope hip-hop inspires you to make your own revolution.