Duke Bootee’s Hip Hop History Lesson 1 – Original School “Dema dance to the riddim of the suffera.”
Genres of music are not delivered whole cloth made and tailored to the times. As with any art form they are hybrids of the past, present and future. Rap music was the voice of a new democratization in popular culture, Its cohorts in graffiti and fashion breathed life into a decadent dying vampire that still feeds on the new and in this case the young.
Music is just one slice of the popular pie that America feeds the rest of the world. Disco had set the stage for a more vibrant uncontrollable sound. The druge of the quarter note marching band bass foot of disco had brought on the more diverse insistent rhythms of rap.
What punk taught us was that you didn’t have to be a musician to make music. Technology also provided a cheap way to record the sounds of the times. The notion that with a drum machine, a turntable, some records and a mike you could produce hits was nothing less than a revolution in thought and deed.
Never have so many made so much out of so little. Timing, technology and creativity can sometimes combine to create fertile soil for the birth of something new. As a traveler I was in Jamaica when the sound system trucks rolled into town and set up, the speakers straining to stay on top of the English lories. People waited for the DJ to spin the records of the capitol and the music of the distant shores of the United States and London. Anyone familiar with Jamaican radio knows these records can be accompanied by long preambles by the local DJ, sometimes about the sponsor of the party, local haunts, and sometimes about the DJ himself; this came to be known as toasting. I came to know personally some of the great early sound system people and toasters.
Cool Herc was one of the first sound system people that delighted New Yorkers with his Jamaican root party in the park ethos. Standing next to the DJ, often to introduce him, was a sidekick or hype man who would pump the crowd up. From these humble beginnings has sprouted the most powerful contribution to popular music in the last thirty-six odd years.
One must also consider certain business considerations had to come together with the production and distribution of the art form be it music in the form of records and tapes or tee shirts that portray the local art or whatever else could be bought or sold.
Democracy is also rooted in the belief in the importance of the individual. When the means of production included prohibitive cost and limited access, the product was by its nature more elitist. Like disco before it, du-whop before it, rock-n-roll before that and bebop before that… music spoke for its generation. Speaking heretofore had been left to the select few who could sing, play, or write songs, elitist as well. As the means of recording became cheaper and more accessible, the access to instruments in public schools got more limited.
Conceptually rappers in the beginning considered the audience their instrument, thus call and response removed the wall between performer and audience. The Ramones, who I later worked with on the Sun City project, explored the realm of three chords and a lot of attitude. Grandmaster Flash may not have been the first DJ but he was the first great one to get worldwide acclaim and be in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. I personally take a bit of credit for that accomplishment, but believe me, the role Flash played in the evolution of popular music can never be overstated. He was the first to prove that you didn’t need a band to fill a ten thousand-seat arena. All you needed was he and five brothers talking shit, it helps to have the greatest rapper of all times in your company; Melle Mel, but Rahiem, Creole, Scorpio (who was then “Mr. Ness”) and Cowboy (who is credited as far as I know with coming up with the term hip-ho)p as in “then you hip and you hop - take a look at your arm and check your clock” which appears accapella at the end of “Freedom”, the first rap song I played on. That is why the role of the “Original School” should never be allowed to be forgotten. These greats: Flash and them, The Funky Four Plus One, the Treacherous Three, even the Sugarhill Gang whose transitional role was well crucial and paved the way for what was to come.
Thematic content was little more than boasting, self-empowerment, materialism and masageny. I changed things considerably with “The Message” opening the floodgates of a more complete form of self-expression. I have never been political in that I am not so presumptuous as to tell people what to do, but I do feel it is the job of any artist to hold a mirror up to the society he or she lives in.
The need for self-expression is certainly not new. Each generation has something to say about the conditions in which they find themselves. How and what they say is largely determined by the times in which they happened to be born into. Technology, be it Tessla’s current which brought us electricity or Bill Gates’ computers that have taken away much of the human feel in music these days, is simply a tool. Rap’s human DNA is largely black and ghetto born.
It’s hard to live lifestyles of the “Poor and Unknown” when you have been fed lifestyles if the “Rich and Famous”. The need to make one’s mark could be seen on the graffiti covered trains that ran all over the city, and on the murals that acknowledged the need for some long gone resident to rest in peace.
Just as technology provided spray paint in a can it also delivered drum machines, microphones, records and turntables. The means of production, distribution, radio and television enabled rap to travel the globe. I must also, in the spirit of getting it right, mention that Sugarhill Records was not the first rap label, Enjoy Records owned by Bobby Robinson (no relation to Joe and Sylvia Robinson) put out a few records before Sugarhill by Spoonie G (Bobby’s nephew) and even Flash and the Five had something (Super Rhyming I think) on the label but they never garnered radio play or national or international distribution. Sugarhill was the first label to be able to get the airplay and the distribution necessary to create a hit.
What all these “Original School” rappers had in common was an overwhelming love and respect for music and musicians. Rap had yet to become the masturbatory cannibal it is today. The “Original School” had grown up idolizing musicians and pop stars. The ability to turn wishes and dreams into reality was what made rap remarkable. Most of these rappers, or MC’s as they then called themselves, couldn’t play anything but the radio or the TV. There is a Zen that happens between a man and his axe. The time you spend alone practicing and perfecting your craft juxtaposed to the time you spend with band-mates putting what you have learned and practiced together is crucial in developing the kind of spirit and temperament that makes musicians special. Most rappers don’t know about that. Music is not made standing on the corner doing whatever it may be you do. I believe great art at it’s heart, how ever ugly it may come out, is beauty in creation once you have mastered your axe enough to express whatever it is you may be trying to say.
Given the times, the ability of most of those involved, we “Original School” rappers have nothing to be ashamed of. As I am fond of saying “never have so many done so much with so little.” I believe that we made the most of what we had and left a legacy that is here to be studied, understood and admired. We laid the tracs like slaves, Chinamen and Indians for the gravy train that was about to be fueled and driven by the “Old School” that was to come. Rap is firmly middle-aged and well fed today, but as long as it can keep its edge and angst, as long as it is troublesome and dangerous, it will be the raw voice of the young and voiceless.