NYC celebrates 50 years of hip-hop, a Bronx-born phenomenon that took over the world

Grandmaster Flash, Ice-T, Salt-N-Pepa and Joey Bada$$ look back on five decades of the world-dominating genre.

50 years of hip-hop featured image with ice-t, grandmaster flash, joey bada$$ and salt-n-pepa
Photograph: Time Out / Alamy

Hip-hop was supposed to be a fad. The influential genre that would eventually swallow the world and spit out the truth was supposed to die in the Bronx streets it grew up in. It was meant to bump in block parties, not sending anything more than a ripple outside of the United States. After all, hip-hop was started by a bunch of kids messing around in New York City.

At least that’s what the media in the 1970s and ’80s thought about the new music and dance craze.

RECOMMENDED: Spinning Back to the Beginning of Hip-Hop with Grandmaster Flash 

Grandmaster Flash, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop and the creator of the Quick Mix Theory, remembers the annoyance he felt being told the genre he was helping to foster wouldn’t live beyond being a trend.

“You know, it’s really, really annoying to hear that, especially being one of the inventors of it. To look at a magazine in that time frame between the late ‘70s and ‘80s saying, ‘Oh, it’s great right now, but it’s not going to be here so long.’ That was so annoying,” the DJ and producer admits to Time Out New York. 

“And here we are.”

Hip-hop is a music genre and cultural movement that originated through African Americans in the South Bronx, New York City, in the 1970s. The phenomenon has moved unapologetically to its own beat since. From genre manipulation to genre integration, the artists have followed suit for five decades.

As hip-hop turns 50 on August 11—the official anniversary characterized by a house party that took place in the Bronx in 1973—we celebrate the integration of the culture into American history. The two constantly feed off one another. The world-dominating culture has ignited movements and solidarity as individuals come together to attack an unfair system instead of each other. 

By celebrating hip-hop’s evolution, we are doing what the culture knows best: turning off the background noise by having a block party meant to get the bodies moving, the hearts drumming and the mouths rolling.

The Birth of Hip-Hop

Music can boil up out of the cracks of the most unsuspected areas in the country and the world, creating a cultural community in the process.

Hip-hop took direction from African American culture, mixed with Caribbean immigrant households in New York City. The diverse place of origin the Bronx fostered allowed hip-hop to be influenced by a multitude of cultures. The new culture gave a voice to marginalized groups in the low-income area, allowing people to freely express how they felt about social, economic and political dealings. One of the best places to share this expression was at block parties—which quickly became a staple in 1970s New York City.  

While many people have influenced the music and culture of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are recognized as the Holy Trinity of hip-hop.

Grandmaster Flash
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion

DJ Kool Herc is credited by some for originating the musical side of the culture at a party, called “Back to School Jam,” he hosted with his sister 50 years ago. It was there that the Father of Hip-Hop introduced his technique of spinning the same record on twin turntables — “The Merry-Go-Round.” He isolated and extended the breaks to elongate the most danceable section of the record. 

Flash invented the Quick Mix Theory, a DJ technique where drum solos are manipulated by fingertips to add length to a break. This allowed space for break dancers to showcase the moves they had been practicing all week and for rappers to freely spout what was on their chest. Flash used innovation to fill a void he saw the record industry overlooking. 

“In my anger is when I started figuring out if I take two copies of the same record and I just repeat that one particular section… without realizing it, I was weaving a bed of music of just that one particular area of an existing composition,” Flash remembers.

The DJ, rapper and producer Afrika Bambaataa made hip-hop electric by releasing tracks with electro beats in the 1980s. The Godfather also wanted to encourage the youth to trade gang life, drugs and violence for peace and unity through the hip-hop culture, leading him to form Universal Zulu Nation. From there, Bambaataa deemed the four elements he was using in the group as the elements of hip-hop.

There are four primary elements to hip-hop: MCing/rapping (overlaying spoken word onto a beat), DJing (manipulating the sound and length of beats through scratching), break dancing (a form of street dancing) and graffiti (writings typically sprayed on public surfaces to create art).

…without realizing it, I was weaving a bed of music of just that one particular area of an existing composition.

Although the culture was ignited by the DJs mixing popular music at block parties, rap has taken center stage for expression because of its marketability to a wider audience.

“I knew SnP had something different and would be successful but I really never gave much thought to how long hip-hop would last,” says Salt of Salt-N-Pepa. “But I’m not surprised because of the origin and the way it affected a generation and gave us a voice, something special that was all ours from the dancing to the DJs the vernacular and the style of dressing it makes sense that it became a culture and is still relevant in so many ways. Authenticity leads to longevity SnP brought fun fashion and femininity to hip-hop and we always stayed true to who we are. The audience can smell a fake.”

Ralph McDaniels, a music video director, DJ and VJ, holds the title of co-creator and co-host of the music video program “Video Music Box” with Lionel C. Martin. The revolutionary early ’80s show gave a visual platform for underground hip-hop artists in New York that could only be heard on tape or through word of mouth.

McDaniels started out as a DJ at a very young age. It was 1975 and hip-hop was still in its infancy. So much so that there wasn’t a certificate name to explain what these kids were doing, according to McDaniels. He recalls how important these beat and music connoisseurs were in getting the parties started, especially for break dancers. 

“Hip-hop in the early days was definitely about dancing. You had the b-boys and b-girls. You had other dances that were popular at the time, and you play the music,” McDaniels says. “People came around and gathered and it was unique, in a sense, because it wasn’t music that you’d heard on the radio necessarily. Some of it was but most of it wasn’t. And so that’s where the whole idea of hip hop came about.” 

Hip-Hop’s Evolution

Hip-hop continues to be a platform for marginalized communities to express their experiences and struggles. Over 50 years, it has held onto this truth while also surpassing the minimal platform it was created on through subgenres.

Old-school hip-hop, the first mainstream music wave of the genre, is marked as having disco influence and block-party significance. As the culture made its way out of the Bronx, different styles found their way onto the scene and around the world. For example, while Bambaataa pulled for the youth to channel peace with the culture, the popular subgenre gangsta rap showcased the violent lifestyles and impoverished conditions inner-city African American youth were forced to survive in.

Other subgenres include crunk, R&B and trap.

Joey Bada$$
Photograph: Mamadi Doumbouya

Rapper Joey Bada$$ believes that the worldliness of hip-hop is “a super beautiful thing” that deserves to be celebrated more than it has been. 

“I think 50 years later, we’ve seen hip-hop become the biggest genre in the world. And it’s been that way for years. It’s been that way for quite some time,” Joey tells Time Out New York. “I think that moving forward, hip-hop needs to finally get the respect and the credit it deserves for birthing many subgenres. I think that’s a thing to be celebrated because there’s always a new era of hip hop and innovation is always happening.” 

Hip-hop needs to finally get the respect and the credit it deserves for birthing many subgenres.

When Salt-N-Pepa stepped behind their mics in 1985, they had to navigate the male-dominated industry as an all-girl hip-hop group. They were seen as a fad much like the culture they were born from. A lack of airplay was no match for how much the world was craving the new rap icons.

“They were like, ‘Oh my God, these girls are kind of, like, here to stay,’ and with the determination that we had to prove our worth and make a mark in this industry, it was good. We did it and we didn’t shy away from it. And we knew we had something,” Pepa says.

“We knew that because we were women that we had to go harder on stage, in the studio, like really breaking down those doors for people to take us seriously, so we worked really hard to be Salt-N-Pepa,” Salt adds.

The hypnotic music of hip-hop doesn’t only pump through the veins of Black households and block parties in impoverished metropolitan pockets in the United States.

Rappers are in commercials promoting classic brands, and in turn themselves. In 2022, a shattering takeover was put on by some of the biggest personalities in hip-hop at the Super Bowl Halftime Show in Inglewood, California. European artists have crafted their own version to get people dancing in clubs thousands of miles away from the Bronx. Graffiti cascades up the walls of buildings that were itching to be redecorated. Urban African American and inner-city youth street style has become an enticing fashion movement. Break dancers play along with the interludes DJs spin through their fingertips. We sink our teeth into the words of rappers.

“When you see hip-hop at the Super Bowl, the world has changed tremendously,” rap icon Ice-T says. “I’ve been around the world about six times, in foreign countries—hip-hop has gotten into the fabric of the Earth.”

McDaniels agrees. “Hip-hop has changed everybody. It’s not just Black people. It changed the way white people listen to music. Asians, Latinos, you name it. They all listen to hip-hop.

“You know, I’m sitting in my car at the light, and there’s some boom boom boom boom here next to me, and I look next to myself. It’s not a Black kid. It’s an Asian kid or Latino kid, and they [know] every word,” he says. “And so, it’s everywhere and that’s because there’s something relatable about the voice, or the beat, or the energy. There’s something that people can relate to. And that’s awesome that everybody’s getting it. And I tell people, that it brought people together, it always did.” 

Photograph: Krista Schlueter

50 Years Young

It’s hard to know where hip-hop is going to end up, especially considering all the different subgenres it has produced thus far and with no end in sight. People will continue to express their truth through daring melodies. Female artists are answering back on the radio to the men and the society that has silenced them. As the world changes, so does the subject matter in hip-hop.

Joey keeps in mind President Abraham Lincoln’s quote, Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition, to remind himself of his purpose in his own hip-hop journey.

“I feel like what that always meant to me is … focus on the craft and focus on bettering yourself and always looking for the answers within and without putting the blame on anything else. And tunnel vision focused on getting yourself better and make sure that it’s coming from the heart, because once you start getting too involved in the mind and you start overthinking it, people mess themselves up like that all the time,” Joey explains.

Hip-hop’s 50-year evolution has come a long way. It spans age, sex, race, language and country. The culture has always been a safe space to be yourself, question the system and provide your own answers.

The resiliency of the inner-city African American youth in the South Bronx is why hip-hop as a genre and culture has been able to stamp its mark on the world. To those that believed in it in New York City in the 1970s, it never was a fad but rather something to be explored and celebrated. And for another 50 years, hip-hop will continue to build on the foundation that great music can come from anywhere, Ice-T says.

“Hip-Hop might save the world because it really got all of us together under one umbrella.”

How to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop in NYC

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