1979 – The Beginning of an Industry

The year was 1979. The place was New York. The event was the beginning of a multi-billion dollar industry that has spanned three decades and has spread throughout the world. What am I talking about? Hip Hop.

Hip Hop music has always been a passion of mine and I’ve been interested in the history just as much as I have the music. If you can also appreciate a piece of history, then I invite you to read the first in my series of posts about Hip Hop and how it became a world-wide industry.

Hip Hop music existed before 1979. There are debating theories on when the music and the culture first started. Recently, there has even been arguments on where it originated. 1. If New York wasn’t the birthplace of the music, it was definitely the foster home where it grew up. It started out as two turntables mixing records together with a Master of Ceremonies introducing each track. It evolved into a DJ show with disc jockeys scratching and mixing the records while the MC (now Mic Controller instead of Master of Ceremonies) spoke words over the instrumentals. Then, you finally had “rap,” where artists would speak in rhythm over the music.

These DJs and MCs would play on the streets and parks of their neighborhoods, such as the Bronx, Queensbridge, and other New York boroughs. They would eventually make it into local clubs, but many of the larger venues were hesitant to book hip hop acts because of the potential loss of revenue and because the rebellious nature of the music. Hip hop music was still not a form of music that would be considered as a money-producing genre by major record labels and music critics. They thought it was “too edgy and nothing more than a fad.” 2 The main reason was because hip hop lacked a song that could propel it to the mainstream.

Until 1979 the sole documentation of Bronx hip hop was cassette tapes either clandestine tapes made by would-be bootleggers at parties and clubs, or tapes made by groups themselves and given out to friends, to cab drivers or to kids with giant tapes boxes…3

The DJ was one of the most important characters in the hip hop arena in the 1980’s.  Innovators such as Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash turned the “wheels of steel” into a bona fide instrument.  Grandmaster Flash popularized the scratching that Grand Wizard Theodore invented.4  Flash was a showman who not only mixed the records, but enjoyed putting on a show for the audience.  He could spin with his back to the turntables, as well as using his feet to mix the records.  He also is credited for some major innovations with the turntable.  “Punch phrasing,” playing a quick burst from a record on one turntable while it continues on the other, and “break spinning,” alternately spinning both records backward to repeat the same phrase over and over, are credited to Flash.5 

Because of his showmanship, Flash played to sold out shows, at places like 116th Street’s Harlem World Disco, as his legend grew and people from all over came to see him.  Nelson George, writer of Hip Hop America, reminisces about one of the first times he was introduced to hip hop.  He remembers hearing a song on a passerby’s boombox.  “Yo, yo!” He asked, “Who’s that?”  “Hollywood” he said over his shoulder.  George started doing a little investigation after that and found that “homemade tapes like his were floating around the five boroughs, forming an underground musical economy way before the music found its way onto vinyl.6 While hip hop was popular in New York, it wasn’t mainstream. It was something the cool people listened to. It was a fad. At least that’s what the record labels thought. They didn’t think it would ever make money.

This all changed in 1979 when an unknown hip hop group called The Sugarhill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight” that was released on Sugar Hill Records, an independent, black-owned, label that was one of the first companies to make hip hop a product to buy.  The song became a huge success as a single and eventually sold over two millions copies, peaking at number four on the Billboard R&B charts and number thirty-six on the pop charts.7  This was really the first time hip hop left the New York area and hit the entire world.  None of the artists and DJ’s that were making the music ever thought about making a living because of it.  They did it because it was fun, they did it out of boredom, and they did it out as a form of expression. At the same time that “Rapper’s Delight” was blowing up the charts worldwide, someone who could become the most influential person in hip hop music was getting started.

Join me next time to find out who that person was.

  1. Scotsman
  2. Russell Simmons Unplugged
  3. Rap Attack African Jive to New York Hip Hop pg 78
  4. Hip Hop America pg 17
  5. Hip Hop America pg 19
  6. Hip Hop America pg 24
  7. The Vibe History of Hip Hop pg 13