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The Birth of Hip-Hop: Innovation against the Odds
by A manda M urray, Lemelson Center Project A ssistant
Som etim es a culture of innovation blossom s as a prod uct of its
environm ent, nurtured by the physical and id eological elem ents of a
place … and som etim es innovation flourishes in spite of its
surround ings. The hip -hop m ovem ent tells the latter story.

Technics turntable
used by Grandmaster
Flash and a
phonograph record of
“Bustin’ Loose Part 1”
by Chuck Brown and
the Soul Searchers.
The arrow on the
record label is an
example of Flash’s
“clock theory.”
N ational M useum of
A merican History,
Smithsonian
Institution.

Parts of N ew York City in the 1970s w ere blighted places in
beleaguered tim es. Docum entarian Bill Ad ler called the Bronx of that
era ―the Am erican poster child for urban d ecay.‖ [1] Arsonists
red uced block after block of buildings to rubble, and the poverty,
corruption, and violence that pervad ed the city w ere am plified in the
Bronx.
Against this grim backd rop, inspiring proponents of problem -solving,
risk-taking, and creativity appeared . H ip -hop artists and their fans
pursued joy and self-expression d espite the d ire realities of their
surround ings. Painful tim es for a city and a nation becam e tim es of
d iscovery and experim entation for disenfranchised you th in the
Bronx.
Four elem ents of the hip -hop m ovem ent—graffiti art, break d ancing,
DJing, and MCing (rapping)—em erged together, but the earliest hip hop parties centered on the d isc jockey. DJs Kool H erc and
Grand m aster Flash w ere not the only pioneers, but they exem plify the
d rive, skill, and resourcefulness that created hip -hop.

Grand m aster Flash (Joseph Sad d ler) w as born in 1958 in Barbad os
and grew up in the Bronx. From an early age, he loved m usic and electronics. H e rem em bers
―hopelessly taking th ings apart to try to figure out how they w orked . I‘d go m ess around w ith
burned -out cars, w ith my m om ‘s stereo.‖ [2] At Sam uel Gom pers H igh School (now the Sam uel
Gom pers Career and Technical Ed ucation H igh School), Flash says he learned ―the nam es of
these pretty little red , purple, blue things on this brow n board . I d iscovered w hat a capacitor
w as, a resistor, a d iod e, a transform er.‖ [3] Flash thought of him self as a scientist first, tinkering
and problem -solving in his bed room or a friend ‘s basem ent, an d he applied that inventive
approach to his m usical career.
When Flash started going to local street parties, he ―found him self im m ersed in a culture that
w as bubbling over w ith a creative energy that no sociological theory could ever explain or
pred ict.‖ [4] H e stud ied the techniques of laud ed local Kool DJ H erc, w ho used tw o turntables
and a primitive mixer to sam ple and repeat the funkiest, m ost crow d -pleasing elem ents of a
song—then called the ―get-d ow n part,‖ and now know n as ―the break.‖ DJ Baron (Baron

PROTOTY PE

OCTOBER 2010

Chappell) rem em bers going to parties in the m id -1970s w hen, he says, ―H erc started w ith PA
colum ns [public-ad d ress system speakers] and guitar am ps. All DJs in the Bronx started like
that. There w as no mixer, no pow er am ps—it w as a guitar am p and speakers. H e used to sw itch
from turntable to turntable on a guitar am p, from channel one to channel tw o.‖ [5]
Kool H erc (Clive Cam pbell) and his fam ily m oved to N ew York from
Jam aica in 1967. H erc‘s sister launched his Bronx DJ career w ith the
now -legend ary back-to-school party she hosted on August 11, 1973, in
a com m unity room at 1520 Sed gw ick Avenue. [6] DJ Disco Wiz (Luis
Ced eño) recalls that H erc‘s parties offered positive alternatives for
m any inner-city youth. Ced eño says, ―We w eren‘t socially accepted at
d isco joints; w e w ere pretty m uch segregated . I w as looking for an
outlet to express m yself. I w as young, thuggish, and just looking for
som ething to d o besid es getting into trouble, so w e used to throw
house parties: one turntable, three-room apartm ent full of people….
When Kool H erc finally hit the scene, w e started getting the buzz that
som ething w as d ifferent.‖ [7] H erc becam e know n not only for having
the biggest sound system and the hottest records, but also for creating a
safe zone off the streets. At H erc‘s parties, rival gang m em bers called a
truce. H ip-hop prom oted a sense of com m unity and its ―crew s‖ of fans,
artists, m usicians, and dancers provid ed non -violent protection.

A recent photo of 1520
Sedgwick A venue in
the W est Bronx,
where Kool DJ Herc
threw his first hip-hop
parties. Photo by
Bigtimepeace.

Grand m aster Flash resolved to d o H erc‘s act better. With no source of
sophisticated turntables, need les, and mixers, Flash cobbled together
com ponents from abandoned cars and d iscard ed stereos. H e says, ―I
w ent to junkyard s, aband oned car lots. I asked superm arkets for the big jugs they put pig guts
in, to m ake cabinets for m y bass speakers.‖ At block parties, Flash and other DJs hacked w ires
at the base of city streetlights for a pow er source. Even the slipm at (the rem ovable turntable
covering that enables DJs to stop or turn a record w hile it is playing) that tod ay‘s DJs t ake for
granted d id not yet exist. Flash says, ―I need ed a w ay to have the platter continuously spinning
w hile I‘m m oving the record back and forth…. I w ent to a fabric store. When I touched this
hairy stuff—felt—I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sid es and ironed it until it becam e a
stiff w afer.‖ [8]

B-Girl Laneski break
dancing in N ew Y ork
City, 1985. N ational
M useum of A merican
History, Smithsonian
Institution.

Smithsonian Lemelson Center

Flash refined Kool H erc‘s m ethod of isolating and repeating the break
using d uplicate copies of a record , m ixing and extend ing the break beats m ore seamlessly, to elim inate w hat Flash called ―d isarra y and
unison.‖ ―I noticed that if the crow d w ere into a record they w ould
have to w ait until [Kool H erc] m ixed it, because it w as never on tim e,‖
he recalls. ―I could see the aud ience in unison, then in d isarray, then in
unison, then in disarray. I said : I like w hat he‘s playing but he‘s not
playing it right. So I says: I w ant to d o som ething about that. The
thought w as to have as little d isarray as possible. Did n‘t know how I
w as gonna d o it.‖ [9]
To solve this and other problem s, Flash applied his scien tific approach
and created new techniques that he called ―theories.‖ H is ―quick m ix
theory‖ w as a m ethod of repeating a m usical phrase sequentially,

2

invention.smithsonian.org

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OCTOBER 2010

back-and-forth across tw o record s, as m any tim es as he w anted . ―Clock theory‖ let him locate a
break quickly, w ithout head phones and w ithout lifting the phonograph need le, through m arks
on the record label or paper affixed to the record . H e d esigned a ―peek -a-boo system ‖ that let
him cue and preview m usic on one turntable w hile the aud ience heard only w hat w as playing
on the other. [10] With these new m ethod s, Flash essentially reinvented songs on vinyl by
m aking them longer, funkier, and better for d ancing.
H ip -hop‘s pioneers—the DJs, MCs, d ancers, artists, and their supporters—―im posed their
creative w ill‖ on a m arginalized land scape w ith m inimal resources. [11] Before anyone
consid ered making and selling a rap record , the early hip -hop m ovem ent appealed to youth
w ho w anted to express their ind ivid uality and transcend a hopeless situation. The birth of hip hop relied on shared , local experiences of a place and tim e that form ed a surprising incubator
for innovation.
N otes:
[1] Bill Ad ler, A nd You Don’t Stop: 30 Y ears of Hip-Hop (Bring the N oise LLC, Perry Film s, and
Reality Creations, 2004), television mini-series.
[2] ―‗I Don‘t Want to Be Folklore!‘: Grand master Flash Is Back!‖ Pop M atters, 16 June 2002.
Accessed 21 October 2010: http:/ / w w w .popm atters.com / m usic/ interview s/ grand m asterflash-020616.shtml
[3] ―Interview w ith Grand m aster Flash,‖ DJ Times, March 2003. Accessed 21 October 2010:
http:/ / w w w .djtimes.com / issues/ 2003/ 03/ _features_03_2003.htm
[4] S. Craig Watkins, Hip-Hop M atters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a
M ovement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), p. 26.
[5] Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Yes Y es Y ’all: The Experience M usic Project’s Oral History of
Hip-Hop’s First Decade (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), p. 28.
[6] ―The H oly H ouse of H ip -H op,‖ N ew Y ork M agazine, 28 September 2008. Accessed 21 October
2010: http:/ / nym ag.com/ anniversary/ 40th/ 50665/ . ―Davey D Interview s Cind y Cam pbell,‖
Grand Good .com vid eo, posted 11 March 2010. Accessed 21 October 2010:
http:/ / grand good .com / 2010/ 03/ 11/ d avey-d -interview s-cind y-cam pbell-kool-hercs-sistervid eo/
[7] Y es Y es Y’all, p. 26.
[8] ―All H and s on Deck,‖ The Guardian, 27 February 2009, and ―H ip -H op: A Bronx Trail,‖ The
Guardian, 17 June 2010. Accessed 21 October 2010:
http:/ / w w w .guard ian.co.uk/ travel/ 2010/ jun/ 17/ hip -hop -tour-new york-usa
[9] Frank Broughton and Bill Brew ster, ―Grand m aster Flash: True Life Adventu res,‖ 2002.
Originally published as sleevenotes to The True Life A dventures of Flash; sections also appear in
Frank Broughton and Bill Brew ster, Last N ight a DJ Saved M y Life: The History of the Disc Jockey

Smithsonian Lemelson Center

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invention.smithsonian.org

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OCTOBER 2010

(N ew York: Grove Press, 1999). Accessed 21 October 2010:
http:/ / w w w .djhistory.com / features/ grand m aster -flash-true-life-ad ventures
[10] Ibid .
[11] Hip-Hop M atters, p. 28.

N otes from the D irector:
Caofeidian—China’s City of the Future or Urban Laboratory?
by A rt M olella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

A rt M olella.
Photo by
Peter Badge.

Last year in this new sletter, I w rote about the d evelopm ent of Dongtan, China‘s
planned eco-city near Shanghai. Once billed as the w orld ‘s first fully realized
eco-city—energy-efficient, sustainable, and aim ing for a zero-carbon
footprint—it w as slated to open this year. But the project has run into
d ifficulties and is now reported ly on ind efinite hold . China continues to charge
ahead on other eco-fronts, how ever. With m ore than 15 m illion people a year
relocating from the countrysid e to the city, China is urbanizing faster than any
other nation and is exp erim enting w ith urban solutions.

Last w eek, I attend ed the China Binhai-Tianjin—International Eco-City Forum , w here the
Chinese governm ent officially d eclared the eco-city as the country‘s new urban/ ind ustrial
strategy. Dongtan‘s failure notw ithstanding, the strategy is rapid ly becoming a reality. Besid es a
trip to the d eveloping eco-city in Tianjin, one of our m ost eye-opening site-visits w as to
Caofeid ian International Eco-City, about 50 m iles south of the port city of Tangshan and
som ew hat farther from Beijing. N am ed after an im perial concubine called Cao, Caofeidian is
being planned and d eveloped by the Sw ed ish firm SWECO. Construction only began in 2009,
but is m oving forw ard at a furious pace tow ard a 2020 com pletion date.

W ind farm at Caofeidian. Courtesy of SW ECO.
The invented ecological city is rising out of seaw ater and m ud being d redged from Tangshan
Bay and hauled by endless lines of trucks to create the new land on w hich the city w ill rest.
Caofeid ian w ill eventually occupy a 45-square-m ile coastal portion of a huge new ind ustrial
zone. Steel, m ining, and oil ind ustries are being relocated from Beijing and other ind ustrial
centers. Planners project that the eco-city itself w ill becom e hom e to m ore than one million
resid ents w ho w ill m anage and m an the ind ustrial sites.

Smithsonian Lemelson Center

4

invention.smithsonian.org


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