31 Jan 2011

Can one man invent hip-hop?

Now is not perhaps the best time for a critical reappraisal of Kool Herc, one of the founding fathers of modern hip-hop music. Herc (born Clive Campbell) is currently suffering from unspecified medical problems requiring hospitalisation, and DJ Premier (amongst others) is imploring fans of hip-hop to ‘pay-back’ to Herc and help cover his hospital bills. Some have claimed that without Herc, and here I paraphrase, ‘none of us would be here’.

I didn’t witness the birth of hip-hop, being as I was born in 1979 in London's Lewisham – far away from the extreme urban decay of the Bronx in the early 1970’s. By the time I was born, Herc’s influence was fading as commercialism began to sink its ugly claws into the emerging breakbeat culture. 1979 was the year that Rapper’s Delight was released – a track illegitimately appropriated from its original composers by the Sugarhill Gang label – a precursor to the sometimes shady practices of Diddy’s Bad Boy label.

Still, even those born thousands of miles away will not be ignorant to stories of hip-hop’s evolution. Most, if not all, of these stories place Herc as the main or even sole originator of breakbeat culture. I find problematic these ‘origins of the genre’ stories which focus on one or two protagonists. Can an entire musical genre be spawned by one person? Although in theory the answer is yes, in practice the emergence of strikingly new forms of music rarely if ever have their roots in the work of one or two musicians. Certainly this is the case with hip-hop – a mish-mash of various cultural tropes which included 70’s funk drum-beat work-outs (aka ‘breaks’), call and response lyrics, spoken word and street art; amongst other influences.

It would be foolish to claim that hip-hop couldn’t have formed without Herc. With all due respect, here is a man who was in the right place at the right time. The hunger for heavy percussion-based work-outs, the prevailing street culture, the dispossessed youth of a poverty-stricken Bronx searching for a creative outlet – these are the factors that helped to form hip-hop music.

Herc’s innovation was solely to extend the playing of the percussion-based ‘breaks’ on records by looping them up – two copies of the same record utilised strictly for their breaks, and played one after another in a loop. While this was a hugely important innovation, was it not inevitable? DJs (not just Herc) were learning that the crowds at block parties were particularly fond of percussive breaks – was extending these breaks not just a matter of time? And let us not forget that this is what Herc did – these loops weren’t even seamlessly fitted together: he’d literally play the break from one record, stop the record, shout a bit, then play the (same) break from a second copy of the record. How do I know this? I’ve seen him DJ. Never have I been so underwhelmed.

Other pioneers such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Bambaataa would capitalise on these innovations to help invent scratching and other creative methods central to the development of hip-hop music. Where Herc fell down was in his failure to capitalise on these emerging techniques – by the mid-1980’s he was a crackhead – while other early artists released recordings and thereby monetized their involvement.

Still, my intention is not to dismiss Herc’s involvement in hip-hop: the main clearly helped develop a movement which has become much more important than simply another genre – for many it’s a way of life. And it’s sad that an innovator now struggles for money to pay for basic health care. But to argue that somehow fans and artists of hip-hop have a moral right to donate to his healthcare, because without him they somehow wouldn’t have a creative career, is bogus.

No man is an island: art movements arise from a multitude of cultural factors which conspire to create fertile ground for innovation.

No comments:

Post a Comment