"If You Don't Know the History of the Author You Don't Know What You're Reading"
June 7, 2013
Click on the flyer for more info and tickets. Flyer used by permission of The Garage
I don't get that excited about gigs any more really - probably a consequence of middle age and so forth - but any chance to see the great KRS-ONE is something to savour (for my thoughts on previous gigs by him, please see here). And when a show by The Teacha is billed as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of hip hop, the lure is all that bit stronger. Coincidentally, I was recently going through some old interview tapes and found one with Kris from 2004, where I was speaking to him about the birth of hip hop and the culture's pre-record days. Some pieces from this conversation appeared in an oral-history feature I did for Mojo on the block-party era, but most of it hasn't been published before. Here's the complete transcript.
AB: What was your first exposure to hip hop culture as we now know it?
KRS-ONE: Well, it's funny, you just threw a little wrench in the question when you said "as we now know it".
Well, mainly the musical aspects. The DJ-ing and the emceeing.
Right. Well, my first experience was the block parties. Matter of fact, I'm gonna give you an answer that seems choppy, but it's the truth. Around 1972-ish, somewhere around there, I used to hear, not see – well, I used to see it too, but I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing – but I used to hear Kool DJ Herc's parties in the community centre of 1541 or 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. I used to hear those parties. I was about six or seven years old. That was my first... you know, tingling of a community that I wanted to be part of - a group of people that were having fun, and looked different from society, and looked as though they had authority. And for some reason they lived in the same place I did but their life didn't seem as hard.
How do you mean, they looked different?
They dressed different. They used to dress in full-length Lee suits. Lee, the jeans manufacturer, used to make these deep blue bell-bottomed pants and these deep blue denim jean jackets, and they used to wear those with graffiti art on the backs of the jackets or down the leg of the pants. They used to wear these outrageous glasses, sort of like what Bootsy Collins wears today, and other glasses like Gazelles, like what early DMC, from Run DMC, what he used to wear in the earlier days.
And it was white, Latino and black that originally used to go to these things. It wasn't just blacks like people tend to believe. It was majority black, but Puerto Ricans was deep in those parties too, influencing them, and so were whites. Whites were big into graffiti art in the '70s, that was like a young white rebellion thing, whereas breakin' was predominantly Latino and rapping and DJ-ing was predominantly black. But everybody participated in everything.
So that was my first experience, in the park. Cedar Park, right there on Sedgwick Avenue. After that, it would be the boom boxes. If there wasn't a block party going on you would go to the basketball court and you would hear somebody with a big boom box. Like Radio Raheem in [Spike Lee's film] Do the Right Thing, or the cover of LL [Cool J]'s first album. That was the original boom box, and that was how you heard hip hop before the radio. Which is something we really should pay more attention to: the political significance of blasting hip hop music out of your car or your radio. We should pay attention to the way we could get hip hop music played on the streets by sidestepping radio, through the original way in which hip hop was originally played, which was directly on the street. There was block parties, there was the boom box. The boom box used to play the tapes of either the block party, or tapes from somebody's basement. Somebody used to have a basement, a little place where they had their equipment, and they would tape it and play the tape on the boom box. And that's how you got known. People would play the tape, then other people would wanna buy it, so you'd sell copies of the tape for $10.
So it was either the block party or the boom box – there really wasn't no other place. And actually your question has inspired me to think of the political significance of boom boxes, and music out of cars: how important it is to blast your music out of a car, and get people to listen to other things, other than what's on the radio. It's not significant to blast music from the radio, it seems to be more significant to blast unheard-of stuff out of the car. How often is it that you blast your music out of your car? And in certain places there's sound ordinances where you can't do it. Which is reasonable, people have children, they're trying to sleep, they don't want that pounding. But when you're in areas where that helps the children who are in the house, or inspires them to want to be more than who they are, like in our neighbourhood, the political significance of blasting something from a boom box...? Maybe hip hoppers should do that. Go on a campaign to buy boom boxes and blast music that's alternative to the radio.
Was this all confined to a small geographical area?
Well, from 1972, say, when Herc remembers... I mean, I think he still sticks to the 1972 date. Yeah. He goes between '70 and '72.
Everybody's shaky on their dates...
Right. Well, it's 30 years ago! But no, it wasn't confined to a geographical area. In fact, I would say from about '72 to '78 hip hop was just... No, let me not say hip hop - DJ-ing and emceeing, and the block parties, were just up in the Bronx; in the west Bronx, by Cedar Park. then to the East Bronx, to Eastchester where Bambaataa was at. And then the South Bronx where Flash was at. And it sort of went in that direction. Then in '78 it boomed all over New York.
Now, the tapes that were coming out, it had always been a New York thing, but the block parties in particular really was happenin' in the Bronx between '72 and '78. Now after '78 people started doin' 'em all over New York. They got a taste of it and started doing 'em all over New York. It wasn't like a linear thing, like 'We saw Herc so now we're gonna do it'. It was something that was going on in neighbourhoods all over New York, but with different meanings. Sometimes there'd be a block party but it was just Spanish music. Everyone would enjoy it.
What Herc did was he would only play the breaks of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone and all that kind of stuff. And he had this guy named Coke La Rock on the mic, messing with the crowd. So whereas other people were doing the same thing, they didn't have anyone with a microphone directly engaging the crowd. It was sort of a Jamaican style, that was where they got it from. You play the music you love and you have a guy on the mic goin' 'Yeah! This is gonna be cool! Yeah! Wooo!' Nothing in particular, just describing the moment, describing the environment, describing the consciousness and the feeling that we are all feeling. And that kind of was all over New York, but Herc did it... Herc's uniqueness of that particular style then caught on in 1978 and branched out all over to Brooklyn.
I went to a few Brooklyn block parties, although by then they were called "jamz" - and you spell that 'j-a-m-zee'. You would go to these jamz. There would be a flyer, but you would never get the flyer. You'd hear the music pounding in the air, and you'd walk in the direction that the sound was coming from. And that was how you heard of what was going on. You usually knew it happened in a couple of spots, so you'd hear the music and think, 'What's over there? Oh, 123 Park - oh, alright. I'll go to 123 Park'. So you'd walk in the direction of the music itself. And again, that’s another freedom that we have and had back then and now. If we could get our music directly on the street itself, because even that was ill. Nobody needed to know where the party was, it was a loud noise happening in the community and you just gravitated towards it. But those experiences are over these days, they're done, they're ended, because of the city ordinances, and more people living amongst each other. Integration, I guess I would call it, has caused communities to give up certain aspects of themselves in order to join in a larger community where they are better able to survive. And that's one of the things we lost, was that call.
The Native Americans used to have that drum, and they used to just start that 'BOOM, boom-boom BOOM, boom-boom', and based on whatever was the call, you knew what was going on, and could attend it if you pleased. You knew when the ancestors were coming together, you knew when it was a war cry, you knew when it was just a party, you knew when somebody was being healed, getting married, when someone died or when someone was being born. All off of 'BOOM, boom-boom BOOM, boom-boom'. And we kind of got away from all of that. Africans, of course, with the calls and the 'Aiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiai!' We kind of got away from all that. Europeans used to get out on the top of a mountain and blow these big ridiculous horns and alert their whole community, and based on what horn was blown at that time you knew what was going on. And I guess all of that was sort of pushed to the side. The call of your community was lost as we went into the new millennium trying to get people to live together. We kill ourselves in our attempt to live together. We actually become more restricted in our freedom even as we attempt to experience another freedom. I guess that's the problem with democracy. I'm thinking - yeah, we did lose, man. But we gained something higher.
But, going back to your original question, block parties were never one geographical area. Block parties weren't. But jamz started, I would say, with Kool Herc, and people like him – because it wasn't just Herc, he was just the best at it. He had the biggest sound system, he had the most records, he was well respected in the community. He was a graffiti artist. He was part of that community that was freestyle-dancing to James Brown, doing capoeira martial arts and developing this thing called breaking. He was in the clique with Dennis Vasquez, the Rubber Band Man, the Nigger Twins, people who originated it. Jo-Jo from the Rock Steady Crew, the originals. Kuriaki and Take Four and Buck One and them cats. Herc was part of that whole click.
Block parties been going on since slavery days. Matter of fact, I can't even regulate that to just black people. You can take the issue of the block party just as far back as human beings getting together to have entertainment in a way where music is played, food is served and families come out. I don't even know to put an origin date on the block parties. OK, 'block party', so obviously it's inner city. So I would take it as far back as the black exodus from the south, to Harlem in the early 1900s. And moving into Jewish ghettos, and having a need to have entertainment for the kids, is where the block party must have begun. But jamz, some 70 years later, the jamz that developed as a specific kind off gathering where popular music is going to be played, and this specific click of breakdancers, b-boys, b-girls, poets, martial artists, would come together and dress for the occasion as well...
Which was the difference. Block parties you didn't need to dress for the occasion, but jamz you did. You put on your brand new Pumas, your brand new Adidas that you didn't wear all day every day. Today, if you buy a brand new pair of sneakers you're wearin' 'em. Back then, that was your pride possession. People used to get killed, believe it or not, for stepping on someone's suede Pumas. There must be a thousand deaths reported because you stepped on my suede Adidas, and because you didn't apologise, you didn't acknowledge the worth that was on my foot and you disrespected me. People have been stabbed, shot, arguments have been had, because of the significance of stepping on my foot, and scuffing my brand new green and white suede Pumas. People took that seriously! That was not like today. Back then it was a serious identity, a serious need for respect, a serious need to join in the language of a community alternative to the mainstream. That was serious, that was hip hop culture, that was the essence of what it was. People were living it. So when you went to a Kool Herc jam, or an Afrika Bambaataa jam, or a Grandmaster Flash jam - well, back then he was called DJ Flash and Cowboy, that's how Flash used to be advertised back then: Melle Mel and Raheim an' them were breakers.
OK, we've got Herc doing what Herc does, Bam and Flash and the other guys. Jamz as opposed to block parties. So, once this had established itself as a scene or a circuit, could you explain what it was like to attend a typical event? What would you see, hear; what were people doing, saying?
Well, first of all, it was a place of relaxation. It was relaxed. But it was the weird and strange combination of being relaxed in an unsafe place. Everybody has it. Your father may come in with a sawed off shotgun, he just came from hunting or something, and he's not trying to kill you. At that very moment you're in an unsafe place, but you also feel safe in the fact that dad got the gun. So in these jams you felt like a part of my community. This is a specific group of people that rely on a specific set of laws - laws like, don't cross me out if I write my name, you don't go over my name, that's reason to fight. And everybody understood that. Laws like, don’t wear your gold or your sheepskin at a party unless you really are the man. Because cats was runnin' up on cats. Don't step on my shoes.
This was the air of the place. Imagine everyone feeling like this. Like when you go to church, you feel 'I'm going to make a donation, I'm going to pray, I'm going to hear what the minister has to say, I'm going to reflect'. You know going to church: if someone says 'church', you know the people that attend that environment are there to pray and worship God. They're not there to eat, they're not there to play basketball, to get on the phone. Their whole mindset is prayer. So take that analogy, and place that over to the jam. Everybody's mindset in the jam was one of these rules that I'm outlining, and not just rules, but lifestyles. 'We're going to get together, and here's how it's going to go down. Everybody who got Pumas on, y'all fresh'. The word was 'Fresh'. And people who was fresh got certain respect in this community.
You got the fresh Pumas with the fat shoe laces, you hooked them up - the improvisation, the innovation you do to yourself, was hip hop's highest principle. How you innovated yourself; how you made you more than what you are, was the main issue. If you can just understand that spirit of it, just get into that consciousness of... First and foremost, I'm in a place that's not safe but I feel safe. Why? Because I'm here to show this community how I advanced and improvised myself. I didn't just buy the Pumas. Y'all know how the Pumas come in the box. I didn't just buy the Pumas, I put the sock in it, I put the fat shoe laces in it, I combed back the suede - you can see the brush marks in it! And I got the whole thing with my Gazelles and my Kangol hat with my gold watch. And I'm fresh! I can get girls in this community, dressed like this, in this costume. I could have male friends, my crew. I don't have to worry about being robbed because I'm at the level of freshness that tells this community I'm not to be fucked with. In this community, I can win.
Now, if I step out of this community dressed like this, not only will I be thrown up against the wall and asked what drugs I got, but I also can't get a job, I'm ridiculed in school. So this community, the block parties, was an escape. Dr Dre displayed this very accurately in one of his famous videos, where it looks like there's a million people in a small room, all with their hands up. I think it was Nothin' But A 'G' Thang. That was a real scene. Now, imagine: you look at it and say, 'I know there's drug dealers in here. I know there's guns in here. I know that at any minute the cops could run up in here. I know that. But I'm having so much fun, I feel so relaxed in this community. I'm chillin', we all havin' fun, ain't nobody fighting, and it's all good. And this was the general feeling and vibe: that we have escaped. We are who we really are when we are here at this jam. And the high priest of our gathering is the DJ. The DJ basically sets the tone and tells you how things are going to go down for the next six or seven hours. And that's what it was. It was really that kind of a feeling.
What was it about Herc's sets then? Everybody talks about how loud he was.
And obviously he'd worked out this formula for the breakdancers and break DJ-ing. But when you were actually there, why did that connect with the atmosphere and attitude you've described?
I think because it was illegal.
But if he'd been playing other records it would still have been illegal – there was nothing illegal about the music he was playing.
Yes there was! In our community. Let me separate 'illegal' from 'immoral'. The music Herc was playing was... Black families in the '60s did not listen to Sly & The Family Stone. The Supremes was the high group of the day. The Temptations, The Four Tops, James Brown - these was the high, high-selling, internationally known pop groups of the day. Sly & The Family Stone had popularity, but they were underground. Maybe not underground, but not exactly popular. These groups, like the Jackson 5, like Sly & The Family Stone, like... well, James Brown was king all the way around, but James too... and... I'm trying to remember what Herc was playing, because they were obscure records. Something like the Incredible Bongo Band even. They were obscure records that people didn't play, didn't get a chance to hear. You wondered where you were gonna get this from.
And you're talking about a time where, if you wanted something, you had to go and get it. The post office is all that existed. This is before messenger services even, let alone email, cellular phones, faxes. So you had to go to where you wanted your enjoyment, and Kool Herc was like a dial on a radio station. You had to go to hear the music, first of all to hear it loud like that. Today you have technology that basically gives you the loudness of Kool Herc's system in your room. You can actually hear how loud it was today on any little stereo system today, if you turn it up to an eight or a nine you'll hear how loud Herc could have been in your ratio of mathematics in your little room. But we didn't have that back then. People were still listening to music on AM radio. There was FM, but only for pop - it was still a new technology. So Kool Herc was like a station on the dial.
But let me get back to the immoral/illegal thing for a minute. On the anti-community, not accepted, rebellious, underground side, the music Herc played was that. [chants] 'Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!' James Brown's other songs may have been on the radio, but that song wasn't. That record was an underground... and I don't want to say 'underground', because even the intentions of underground today is different to the underground back then. But Say It Loud..., and all the protests in song against the Vietnam war, that was not on radio. That stuff came out later - after the Vietnam war was over, and Nixon got impeached, and the country changed during the Carter era, then all that music from the late '60s and early '70s became relevant in the late mid-to-late-'70s, going on to the '80s. People couldn't hear it, but Kool Herc was playing that music in the '70s in the park. That was the significance of the list of records he would play: they represented the rebellion of the community. [The Incredible Bongo Band's] Bongo Rock represented Latino frustration. That was a war call! Apache? [Also by the IBB] That's scalping music! That was war music! That excited the black and Latino communities especially to rebellion. And radio wasn't playing that, and neither was other DJs that were doing block parties. At some block parties you didn't even have a DJ in the same way we understand the concept - somebody was just playing records, you might let a whole album play. But Herc, he had sets of turntables, big speakers, and it was a show. It was like a spaceship landed in the ghetto and started teaching the people.
So, going back to the immoral part of it, that was Herc's brand of music that he was playing. Bambaataa's brand of music was funk. He's the one who really brought Parliament-Funkadelic and Knee Deep and all of that to the ghetto. Bam is the one who broke them records before radio was playin' em. Bam already had Flashlight and records by the whole funk movement. Grandmaster Flash was cutting rock records, in particular. Flash used [the Monkees'] Mary Mary, and this guy DJ Breakout used to use it with the Funky Four. But Flash's records... People always argue. Caz said that there was a difference between playing funk and disco, and Flash was more of a disco DJ, Bam was more of a funk DJ, and Herc...? I don't even know what kind of a category you can say Herc was, but Herc played that rebellious music that nobody else was playing, and he played it loud. People gathered who...
Using my mind's eye I'm seeing people there now who ain't even interested in the music. I'm seeing people talking. I see weed being lit up, people are drinking, people are playing hopscotch, skelly, double dutch – little kids and teenagers. People are riding bikes. And only a small section of this jam are focussed on what the DJ is doing. If there's a thousand people at this jam, only a hundred or 200 are gathered around the DJ set up. There's a rope around the DJ set-up, and only about 200 people are watching the DJ. And I think those 200 people are what would become rap music. Because, when I look at the whole thing, there's a lot going on. There's a guy selling ices. Is he part of hip hop culture? He was there! He participated, the people who were listening to the music went and bought his stuff to relive their thirst. He showed up knowing it was a jam!
You mean like one of those guys you see in the Caribbean who's got the big block of ice and he scrapes ice off the top and puts it in a little paper cup along with the flavour?
Exactly that guy! It was him! With a block of ice, and I forgot what they did - scoop you off the ice and put the syrup on top? Yeah! It was him! He was in the ghetto, he was at the jam! Now, is he not part of hip hop? That's why... I say this very respectfully, but it's come to this point: the Zulu Nation stick to the four core elements, which we even teach in our system at the Temple of Hip Hop. But when you look at hip hop, the culture, it goes beyond those four elements. It goes into the dress, it goes into the language, and it goes into that guy scraping the ice off this big block, with a nasty towel over the top. And all of that participated in the creation of, as your first question posed, what we know today as hip hop. All of that went into that.
So if you can immerse yourself in that scene, to feel the feeling... It was like a festival, like a carnival, but a ghetto carnival. Where it's not rides and bright lights, it's a DJ and an emcee and two or three breaking crews in different sections of the park, and there's a guy scraping ice off of a block and people are playing basketball. People are having full basketball games right now while Herc, or Bam, or Flash, or Hollywood, or DJ Eddie Cheeba, or Breakout, or any of these people are out there doing it.
Let me go here too: The concept of the DJ originally was to rock parties. And to advertise himself the DJ had to give his services away for free. And the DJ would go into the park and play. Today the Temple of Hip Hop puts a more cultural spin on it, but we don't negate the truth of why the DJ was out there. We only teach the beginner in hip hop that the reason the DJ was out there was to promote hip hop - to promote the feelings that he or she had at the time to express one's self. And that's what it was too, in a spiritual sense, in a teaching sense. But in the context of the conversation we're having now, to be even more accurate, the DJ was advertising his services to the community. Because, at the end of each and every jam, the DJ would get the numbers of two or three or four or five people who wanted him to do that same thing at their house. You know, black people's always partying! So the DJ had a network of parties to go to, to do that. And the way you got known was by going out in the parks and showing the community you could rock a party. And it gravitated later on into emcees making themselves known. But the original idea was so these DJs could come to your house and rock. And maybe that too was something we got away from.
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