There is an interview with Method Man in which the journalist wants to get serious, so he asks the leading man and emcee of the almighty Wu-Tang Clan, “If it wasn’t for hip-hop, what would you be doing right now?” Without missing a beat, Meth quickly responds, “I’d be in your living room stealing your television.”
In doing some research a couple of months ago, I rewatched some scenes from the 1980 film Times Square, which was shot on location on 42nd Street during one of the most crime-ridden periods in New York City’s history. While the film’s soundtrack focused more on post-punk sounds of the time, the actual streets in the film were those of Times Square—graphic, dangerous, and just edgy enough for the emergence of “breakdancing” on almost every corner. It was around this time either my mother or aunt pointed out my first sighting of a DONDI graffiti tag on the subway platform.
Just to be clear this film was shot and released years before Flashdance (which had breakdancing segments in the film), Breakin’ and Beat Street. A clear decade before House Party. The latter three were feature films where the new dance circumstance along with other aspects of hip-hop culture was baked into the storyline.
The City of New York allowed 42nd Street to deteriorate so that Manhattan could be monetized later in the decade, but that is where the unexpected flourished. City residents walked down the street with boomboxes hoisted over one shoulder, as if they were messenger bags, tuned to WBLS (the biggest black-owned radio station in the country at that time, with Frankie Crocker as the program director stealing/borrowing the playlist from Larry Levan’s set at Paradise Garage the previous night to use on the radio the next day) or KISS FM. Kids were pop-locking, top-rocking, doing freezes and suicides, and getting in that footwork on the cardboard and linoleum. These are the streets early versions of Madonna walked about, Basquiat got inspiration from, and Blondie turned into a Gold hit.
People forget that hip-hop, now a multi-billion-dollar Super Bowl Halftime Show entertainment entity, came from these dirty corners, around the way from grindhouses. Culture from the feet up, born of the streets.
As much as it is important to celebrate the landmark artists and groups in hip-hop’s 50th Anniversary, it is also important to note that hip-hop filled many lanes, not just the performance one. Media platforms such as Rap Pages, The Source, Vibe, and The Village Voice (shout out to Nelson George, probably the first hip-hop music writer) were all vital print periodicals that covered the art form early on, before Rolling Stone and Spin deemed it to have widespread, aka white readership appeal. Video Music Box, run by Brooklyn native Ralph McDaniels, was one of the first shows to showcase hip-hop music videos, display the culture in clubs around the NYC era, and build the template that shows on MTV, such as TRL and Yo! MTV Raps, would later borrow quite heavily from. Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City on BET were nationwide shows that featured artists on the rise, provided space for them to freestyle, and placed regional talent on a national platform. These were all jobs created due to hip-hop.
Sometimes, in our rush to praise the billion-dollar empires of Jay-Z, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and Dr. Dre, we overlook the wave of hip-hop stars that didn’t necessarily become Fortune 500 cover pieces. Instead, they stepped into the role of culture ambassadors—a role that the US government used to give to artists such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Chuck D, MC Lyte, Common, Questlove, and Black Thought still work multiple jobs and get paid for all of them, but they accept these roles knowing that when they were coming up, platforms for people who looked like them and came from the hip-hop community didn’t really exist. They understand that hip-hop, like jazz and the integration of baseball, changed this country and the world by providing a candid look into the lives of black and brown people in America for all the world to see. And once the world got a taste, they kept on drinking.
At its peak, jazz created a fashion style, but hip-hop has produced designers, writers, film directors, TV shows, comedians, and musicians who learned to play instruments due to their love for hip-hop. The genre redirected the world’s attention back to jazz several times over the past few decades and has made hockey, baseball, football, and golf clothing popular with youth culture multiple times. It made SoundCloud popular, created TikTok dance trends, and ingrained itself as a late-night talk show band. It even brought Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart together as friends.
In the 2000s, Gibson significantly cut back on guitar production due to the popularity of DJ equipment among younger music makers. While electronic music played a role, turntablism, which involved DJs cutting up old rock records, also contributed to this trend.
Around 2000, I saw Mix Master Mike of the world-famous Invisibl Skratch Piklz play a gig in San Francisco after touring with the Beastie Boys. The sold-out venue went wild when Mike rhythmically dissected “Tom Sawyer” by the iconic Canadian band Rush. Such a moment when you consider this would become the dominant delivery system for rock music in a quasi-post-rock world.
Hip-hop did that.
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John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to Treble since 2018. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in The Wire, 48 Hills, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK and Drowned In Sound.