1520 Sedgwick Avenue is an address that towers over the world. The housing projects, nestled in the densely populated borough of The Bronx, New York City, should just be another nameless apartment building among many in the city that never sleeps. But, 50 years ago, its fate was changed and with it, popular culture was forever altered.
Because when DJ Kool Herc set up his turntables on 11 August 1973 to perform at his sister Cindy’s ‘Back To School Jam’ party outside of their Sedgwick home, no one foresaw the birth of a musical genre and a cultural movement worth billions of dollars in the present day. The culture we now know as hip-hop.
It started with Kool Herc because his supreme DJing skills brought forth the innovate ‘Merry-Go-Round’ technique in which he isolated the percussive breaks of a record and kept them on loop, prolonging the breaks and keeping the crowd jumping, especially the dancers among them, known as b-boys and b-girls.
The birth of hip-hop
Thus, hip-hop was born, empowering DJs, dancers, emcees and graffiti artists to join the party and become pillars of this new culture, making it an undeniable presence among Black and Latin youngsters in 1970s New York. Whether you were any of the above, hip-hop powered communities to find their identity as performers and launched careers for the underserved in American society, the have-nots who were told they’d be dead or in jail by the age of 21.
Hip-hop music would soon infiltrate the mainstream cultural zeitgeist, helped by one of the earliest rap songs, Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979 and its iconic opening line “Hip-hop, hippie to the hippie, to the hip-hip-hop and you don't stop.”
As the 1980s arrived, innovation would follow. From Grandmaster Flash’s The Message to Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks, hip-hop music was growing in stature producing what we now consider classics in the canon. Legendary artists such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A. and Ice T would make their mark evolving the lyrical confines of rap from party starting to explicit political and social commentary, harnessing the genre’s power as an overarching comment on what it is to be Black in America. Comments on poverty, racism and police brutality that continue to persist in 2023.
From the margins to the mainstream
This new generation were helped by shifts in production techniques, from the reliance on old Disco breaks in the 1970s to sophisticated, drum-machine and sample-led instrumentals thanks to the likes of Marley Marl, The Bomb Squad and Prince Paul to name a few.
This laid the foundation for a mainstream invasion in the 1990s, with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer, Coolio, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. reaching incredible commercial heights and transcending the genre itself. Meanwhile, the likes of Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, OutKast and the Fugees were taking the art form to new creative heights with pivotal albums such as Illmatic, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The Low End Theory.
The evolution of UK hip-hop
At the same time, a storm was brewing in the UK, where hip-hop was at a nascent but pivotal stage. Here, where it was very common to hear rappers rap in American accents in the early 1980s, MCs such as London Posse and Demon Boyz broke rank, using their natural accent to inject their own authenticity to proceedings. Following them were the likes of Roots Manuva, Blak Twang, Ty, Skinnyman, The Streets and The Mitchell Brothers who, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, presented music moulded by the nuances of growing up in the UK. By 2002, Grime took hold.
Pioneered by Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Skepta, Kano and D Double E among countless others, the new sound represented the new generation of brash emcees making statements with intense flows, vivid storytelling and supreme lyrical skill.
Today, splinters of UK hip-hop such as Drill, Afroswing and UK Rap have produced stars such as Stormzy, Dave, J Hus, Central Cee and Headie One, each playing their role in making UK hip-hop the premier genre on British shores.
Why women are the unsung heroes of hip-hop
While hip-hop’s narrative has been dominated by men, it's indebted to the unsung heroes at all stages of development: women. From artists to managers to authorities behind the scenes, women have been consequential to the culture’s visibility, from Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records releasing Rapper’s Delight and The Message to Hattie Collins and Chantelle Fiddy capturing the essence of grime as journalists in the 2000s.
Arusa Qureshi, a Scottish music journalist and author of Flip The Script: How Women Came To Rule Hip-Hop, doubles down on this fact. “There have been and are women who are incredible DJs, journalists, radio presenters, club promoters and so much more who have contributed to making the genre what it is today and crucially, sharing it around the world,” she tells me.
“I'm always shocked by how few women are included in any historical analysis of hip-hop and how many men appear on ‘best of all-time’ lists compared to women when women have been in attendance since day one. Kool Herc is always credited as the instigator of the movement, but it was actually his sister, Cindy Campbell, who was the real organiser and promoter of the party. I doubt we would be where we are now without her skills and the support she gave to her brother.
“Then there's the obvious names like Queen Latifah and Roxanne Shante, but women in the UK deserve so much credit for what they've done over here too. I'd point to names like Cookie Crew, Ms. Dynamite, Speech Debelle, Little Simz, Lady Leshurr, Juice Menace, Shay D, Empress and Ivorian Doll to start!”
How hip-hop evolved into a global genre
In 2023, hip-hop’s scope is global. From the favelas of Brazil where grime is a prominent sound to the sunny shores of Puerto Rico where Latin trap rapper Bad Bunny has become one of the biggest artists on the planet, the genre and culture is indelibly knitted to the fabric of the world.
In 2018, Nielsen reported that hip-hop had officially surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the USA, an achievement long in the making thanks to the efforts of heroes such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Nicki Minaj, Migos, J. Cole and others.
Meanwhile, pop superstars such as Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and the late Michael Jackson have utilised hip-hop in their music, a true coronation of the culture’s rise from the margins to the mainstream. Sanjeev Mann, a Scottish musician and producer who performs under the name Supermann On Da Beat, is revelling in hip-hop’s present day power.
“It’s really cool to see hip-hop being such a huge influence on other genres from around the world, even country,” he says. “I think it will definitely remain an influence in pop culture for a long time, but more in terms of culture, rather than a particular sound.”
A wealth of opportunities: how hip-hop resonates personally and politically
Its current guise as the world’s most popular culture is proof of one thing: hip-hop is all things to all people. It uplifts. It mobilises. It inspires. It endures. It turns individuals with little prospects into bonafide stars, opening up infinite opportunities for a plethora of would-be artists and creative minds. It speaks to society’s disenfranchised and turns their anguish into anthems.
Songs such as Public Enemy’s Fight The Power, Kendrick Lamar’s Alright and Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind, indomitable odes to the socio-economic and political matters of the day. “Hip-hop's power lies in the way that it can resonate with people on a deeply personal level, while still also addressing broader social and cultural issues,” Qureshi explains.
“From the very beginning, hip-hop has spoken about the realities of life, social injustice, poverty, racism and so much more with a kind of authenticity that is powerful. On a musical level, it continues to evolve and adapt as people incorporate new styles, technologies and sounds and this has a further impact on other elements of popular culture.”
Giving a voice to voiceless
Thus, hip-hop is consequential to how the world moves, grooves and communicates with each other. Hip-hop transcends the everyday and reaches all corners of society, impacting us all for the better.
50 years on from the scenes at Sedgwick, the music and culture of hip-hop is interminable and unbreakable. “I think music would be in a very different place without the impact of hip-hop,” Mann says. “It’s definitely brought an element of truth and authenticity. It’s given a voice to the voiceless, so it’s definitely had an impact on the way people see the world. It was built on community and protesting for equality, so I think the world wouldn’t be as accepting without hip-hop. I don’t think I could imagine a world without it.”