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History

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This is absolutely fascinating.

Tests found that the DNA of some villagers in Liqian, on the fringes of the Gobi Desert in north-western China, was 56 per cent Caucasian in origin.

Many of the villagers have blue or green eyes, long noses and even fair hair, prompting speculation that they have European blood…

The genetic tests have leant weight to the theory that Roman legionaries settled in the area in the first century BC after fleeing a disastrous battle.

The clash took place in 53BC between an army led by Marcus Crassus, a Roman general, and a larger force of Parthians, from what is now Iran, bringing to an abrupt halt the Roman Empire’s eastwards expansion.

Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and Crassus himself was beheaded, but some legionaries were said to have escaped the fighting and marched east to elude the enemy.

They supposedly fought as mercenaries in a war between the Huns and the Chinese in 36BC – Chinese chroniclers refer to the capture of a “fish-scale formation” of troops, a possible reference to the “tortoise” phalanx formation perfected by legionnaries. The wandering Roman soldiers are thought to have been released and to have settled on the steppes of western China.

The theory was first put forward in the 1950s by Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese history at Oxford University.

Even if not true, it is a great story.

I’ve talked a bit about the history of hip hop music and how it quickly evolved into a profitable form of music, but no other company was able to capitalize on hip hop like Def Jam Records, and no other person could have done it like Russell Simmons.

In 1984, Simmons candidly told Gary Harris, a former Def Jam executive, “I’m sick of making people rich. I want to own my own shit, my own record label, my own movie company.” 1 It was this mentality that drove Simmons to find Rick Rubin. When Simmons found Rubin, he was surprised to find a white kid, but then “realized that Rick Rubin and I had a lot in common.” 2 Simmons decided to ask Rubin to co-produce an album by RUN-D.M.C., a group that Simmons was working with that also included his brother, Joseph Simmons. RUN-D.M.C. were probably the most popular and successful hip hop act of the time, but that did not mean they garnered much chart success. It wasn’t until Rick Rubin convinced the boys of RUN-D.M.C. to collaborate on a song with Aerosmith. The result was “Walk this Way,” which became the first rap record to appear in heavy rotation on MTV. By this time, Simmons knew he did the right thing in pairing up with Rubin, even though Simmons had been working with the group prior to meeting Rubin, and the group was never signed to Def Jam. His mind was made up, and with visions of success in his eyes, he went to create Def Jam Records with Rubin, using the signature name and logo that Rubin had come up with for the T. La Rock & Jazzy J record.

  1. The Men Behind Def Jam
  2. Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God

In my last post you learned a little about the beginnings of hip hop music as a business. While the song Rapper’s Delight might have sold two million copies world wide, the industry still saw hip hop as a fad that wouldn’t last. Rapper’s Delight could not be replicated. Many people felt differently. One of them became one of the most successful people in hip hop. That man was Russell Simmons.

Russell Simmons was brought up in Hollis, Queens. His father, Daniel, was supervisor of attendance in Queens School District 29. Russell Simmons studied sociology at the Harlem branch of City College. It was there that he teamed up with fellow student Curtis Walker to throw parties in Harlem and Queens at which the first generation of rappers competed. He went on to manage Walker, who as Kurtis Blow became the first big solo rap star in 1979. Simmons worked with Blow in the completion of “Christmas Rappin.’” He also managed other successful acts such as Run-D.M.C., Will Smith, as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, as well as legendaries DJ Hollywood and DJ Kool Herc.

“Christmas Rappin’” was Simmons’ first time of his illustrious career, that he entered the studio. When the song was completed, Simmons began shopping it around to various labels for release. As Simmons said in Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God, “There was interest, but no one was biting. The industry’s attitude was that “Rapper’s Delight,” despite its US sales and international appeal, was an unrepeatable fluke. 1

While it was a fluke for the artists that recorded the song, the genre was by no means a fluke. “Christmas Rappin’” gained moderate success on radio. In places around the South, the single was still being played in late July. Simmons, who needed distribution for the record, approached PolyGram to distribute it. PolyGram wasn’t interested in investing in a hip hop record, but Simmons decided to show them the power of hip hop. He decided to go around to the various stores that expressed interest in the record and told them to order the record from PolyGram. When PolyGram started receiving orders from stores, they saw this as an immediate opportunity to cash in on hip hop. Kurtis Blow signed a record deal with Mercury Records, a label under the PolyGram umbrella. This marked the first time a hip hop act was signed to a major label. 2

Sugar Hill Records did find some more success on their roster. The legendary Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five signed to Sugar Hill Records and made its mark in hip hop in 1980. The group released the record “Freedom” which hit the top 20 on the R&B charts. 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was the first record to feature complex cuts and scratches, and introduced the name Grandmaster Flash as their originator. But it was 1982’s “The Message” which became the first hip-hop social commentary on ghetto life, and which became a critical crossover hit for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 3 Meanwhile, Simmons was out on tour with Blow promoting the “Christmas Rappin’” single. Though Blow had two Gold singles (sales of five-hundred thousand each), hip hop was still far from the minds of the major labels in the industry. They still didn’t see it as a marketable form of music. Simmons thought differently and would soon form a partnership that would change the fate of the entire music industry.

In 1984 two very different people with very different backgrounds met and would come to create one of the most successful musical ventures in the industry’s history. Not only was it that successful, but it was successful with a music the major labels didn’t see as becoming successful. The first guy was Rick Rubin, a former punk musician who loved the rebelliousness of this new form of music. The other was Russell Simmons, the concert promoter in New York who was booking the hottest MCs and DJs of the time at small venues, parties, and other small gatherings. These two met when Simmons saw a little logo on an album by T. La Rock & Jazzy J. This logo read “Def Jam.” The record was nothing like Simmons had ever heard. He immediately began searching for the producer of this record. He tracked Rubin down and found out he attended New York University. It was in a NYU dorm room that he met Rick Rubin and formed a partnership that would change music history.

Stay tuned for the next segment in my series on hip hop history, Building the Empire.

  1. The Men Behind Def Jam p 53
  2. Ibid
  3. Grandmaster Flash: Biography

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


Something amazing happened in St. Louis today. Barack Obama came to St. Louis to campaign and was met with a crowd of 100,000 people. According to The Wall Street Journal, it was the biggest event ever in the U.S. I’m so happy to see so much support for Obama in Missouri and I hope he wins the state in the upcoming election.

When looking at the above image there are many things that awe me. The size of the crowd is the most obvious. I’ve never seen that many people gather in St. Louis. The thing that awes me the most, that I feel a deep down sense of pride and amazement, is the building in the background. That white building with the greenish dome is The Old Court House. It was in that building that over 150 years ago a black man named Dred Scott fought for his right to be a free man. He won his initial freedom, but that was later overturned. Now, 150 years later, the U.S. is seeing its first African-American major party candidate for president. Hopefully this is just the beginning and we will see President Barack Obama. Today was truly a historic day.