Niklas Pivic's Reviews > That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader

That's the Joint! by Murray Forman
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's review
Jul 27, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: hip-hop, culture, usa, music, anthology, journalism, criticism, rap, sociology, anthropology
Read from July 27 to September 09, 2011

All of the review is found here:

"The thing about hip hop that people keep forgetting, is that it’s not just one definite thing."

A third into this book, I noted:

"The bad thing about this anthology is the amount of repetition: no more about Herc, Flash and Bam, please!"

Apart from the incessant repetition - not only related to The Big Three - this anthology is really worthwhile. It's big. It's intimidating, but there are such nuggets here that the academic vocabulary - which sometimes really got on my nerves; should I hear the word "diaspora" soon again I'll scream - can be overcome.

The edition of the book I read is dated but there is actually a new version printed and sold starting in August 2011! I still really recommend David Toop's brilliant, brilliant book on hip-hop, called "Rap Attack!".

This massively big anthology, however, starts from the start of hip-hop, and delves deeper back in time than that. The elements of hip-hop are of course much more complex than just the verbal, for example the graffiti:

By summer 1971 the appearance of the mysterious message “Taki 183” had sufficiently aroused the curiosity of New Yorkers to lead the New York Times to send one of its reporters to determine its meaning. The results of his search, published on July 21, 1971, revealed that Taki was an unemployed seventeen year old with nothing better to do than pass the summer AU. [...] He explained, “I just did it everywhere I went. I still do, though not as much. You don’t do it for girls; they don’t seem to care. You do it for yourself. You don’t go after it to be elected president.” The reporter interviewed other appropriate neighborhood youths, including Julio 204 and Ray A.O. (for “all over”), who were following in the footsteps of Taki, to whom they referred as the king, and he spoke with an official of the MTA who stated that more than $300,000 was being spent annually to erase graffiti. Patrolman Floyd Holoway, a vice-president of the Transit Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association questioned by the reporter as to the legal machinery relating to graffiti writing, explained that graffiti was barred only by MTA rules, not by law. Thus writers under the age of sixteen could only be given a lecture, not a summons, even if they were caught in the act of writing on the walls. Adult writers could be charged with malicious mischief and sentenced to up to a year’s imprisonment. Taki confessed that as he grew older, he worried more about facing adult penalties for writing graffiti but admitted, “I could never doesn’t harm anybody. I work. I pay taxes too. Why do they go after the little guy? Why not the campaign organizations that put stickers all over the subways at election time?"

And if you think the Wu-Tang Clan were the first Asiatic influence in hip-hop, you're off:

Crazy Legs is considered by many to be the main focal point of the transition from old school to new school. Having invented many of the new breakdance moves like backspins and windmills, Crazy Legs is the one to whom many of the new school breakers of today are indebted. But other breakers along the way had their influences on the new school of breaking. Not only breakdancers, but media stars like Bruce Lee and other Kung Fu film stars and martial artists had a major influence on breakdancing culture. As said before, the popularity of Kung Fu films during the mid- and late 70s around the world, and especially in New York City, has had a great impact on breakdancing style. Many of the breakdancers were avid fans of martial artists like Bruce Lee. A large number of martial arts moves were incorporated into breakdancing through the influence of the films and the interest in martial arts vis-à-vis Bruce Lee. The Chinese, like many other folk around the world, mainly the Russian peasants and African slaves in early America, had a dance or style of movement that was influenced heavily by the animals on which they depended for survival. Instead of manifesting itself in dance like in Africa, or through sports like the gymnastics of the Eurasians and eastern Europeans, the Chinese animal emulation was expressed through martial arts. Styles like the white crane, tiger style, five star praying mantis, eagle, and monkey style were means of expressing body movement and fighting techniques through the imitation of animal movement. By imitating animal movement a human was able to do moves and body movements that served as a martial art. Kung Fu, with its imitation of animal movements, is a stylized form of human expression. Its heavy emphasis on style and rhythm was a natural influence and inspiration to breakdancing. The films featuring Bruce Lee and other great Kung Fu martial artists appealed to the working class aesthetics of the Bronx and the rest of New York street kids. Since most Kung Fu movements hug close to the ground and use the whole body, both the hands and feet, it was a natural influence on breaking moves. Windmills, which are gyroscopic body movements, are very similar to certain Kung Fu moves.

And then, the music hits. Hard. From a period piece in a national paper, pre-1980s:

NEW YORK. A funny thing has been happening at Downstairs Records here. The store, which is the city’s leading disco product retailer, has been getting calls for obscure r&b cutouts such as Dennis Coffy’s “Son of Scorpio,” on Sussex, Jeannie Reynolds’ ”Fruit Song” on Casablanca, and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” on Pride. The requests, for the most part, come from young black disco DJs from the Bronx who are buying the records just to play the 30 seconds or so of rhythm breaks that each disk contains. The demand for these records, which the kids call B-beats, has gotten so great that Downstairs has had to hire a young Bronxite, Elroy Meighan, to handle it. According to Meighan the man responsible for this strange phenomenon is a 26-year old mobile DJ who is known in the Bronx as Cool Herc. It seems Herc rose to popularity by playing long sets of assorted rhythm breaks strung together. Other Bronx DJs have picked up the practice and now B-beats are the rage all over the borough, and the practice is spreading rapidly.

David Toop has done some extraordinary detective work on where New York rap came from: Rap’s forebears stretch back through disco, street funk, radio djs, Bo Diddley, the be-bop singers, Cab Calloway, Pigmeat Markham, the tap dancers and comics, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Muhammad Ali, a cappella and doo-wop groups, ring games, skip rope rhymes, prison and army songs, toasts, signifying and the dozens, all the way back to the griots of Nigeria and Gambia.11 The mix is very rich. The radio DJs Toop refers to were the jive-talkers of the be-bop era like Daddy O Daylie, Dr. Hep Cat and Douglas Jocko Henderson (the “Ace from Space”).

As Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash basically created the scene by DJing, introducing MCs and building the scratching techniques that are used to this day. In an interview with Source Magazine, all three are into it:

THE SOURCE: Who was the first person to take the record in the bathtub and wipe the labels off?

FLASH: That was me. People were getting too close, you know. I will give all due respect to my boys right here, but you know, other people.

HERC: He put us on a wild goose chase [everyone laughs].

BAM: I had a way of telling things from the color of the album. I could know if it was Mercury or Polygram. Then I would try to see who it sounded like.

FLASH: Hey Bam, I followed you on a Saturday with glasses on. I seen one bin you went to, pulled the same shit you pulled, took that shit home—and the break wasn’t on the muthafucka [everyone is hysterical].

BAM: I used to tell people, “Do not follow me and buy what I buy,” and I went into a record store and everyone was waitin’ around to see what I pulled. So I pulled some Hare Krishna records [everyone laughs]. It had beats but . . .

FLASH: You couldn’t play that bullshit. I got a crate full of bullshit.

After graduating in electronics, Flash began combining his two main interests: sound technology and hard funk. He made his own system and would play at night in local parks. To get the power he needed to operate the system he would run a cable from the decks and amplifier to the nearest street light. Flash became an expert at punch phasing. This is when the DJ hits a particular break on one deck while the record on the other turntable is still playing. The punch works in hip hop like a punctuation mark in a sentence. It helps to give shape to the flow of sounds on the record in the same way that a comma or a full stop helps to shape the flow of written language. And just as punctuation brings time to the pages of this book by telling the reader when to pause, so the punch in hip hop can be used to accentuate the beat and the rhythm for the dancing crowd. Flash was also one of the first hip hop DJs to work with a beat box: a machine that produces an electronic drum beat. Together with his MC crew—headed in those days by Melle Mel—Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five produced a hard rapping style that became their trademark. As Flash leapt from deck to deck using multiple turntables Mel would rap in an aggressive, staccato style to the raw, stripped down electronic beat.

This makes me want to go back in time:

Afrika Bambaataa likes mixing things up, too. He has been known to cut from salsa to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to Yellow Magic Orchestra to calypso through Kraftwerk via video game sound effects and the Munsters television series’ theme tune back to his base in James Brown. And in 1982 he made a record with the Soul Sonic Force called Planet Rock that was a big hit. In its own way, Planet Rock is as bizarre as Adventures on the Wheels of Steel. But the Soul Sonic Force didn’t use the edgy staccato rapping style of the Furious Five. Instead their voices weave in and out of the pulsing party beat with lines like “More bounce to the ounce” and “Planet Rock. It just don’t stop it’s gonna drive you nuts!” Meanwhile Bambaataa mixes in snatches of song and sound effects round the steady electronic beat. The rhythm of a rap record by Captain Sky called Super Sporm is crossed with the computer-generated rhythms and melodies of records like Trans-Europe Express and Numbers by the German electro group, Kraftwerk. This is then mixed up with the theme from the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western For a Few Dollars More. (The Eastwood themes composed by Ennio Morricone had also made a powerful impact on dub producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry in Jamaica in the 1970s.)

A large part of the disc jockeys’ mystique and power is their resourcefulness in finding unknown or obscure records that can move a crowd. These can be rarities, white-label pre-releases, acetates, unreleased tapes or simply good songs that slipped through the net at the time they were released. Given the obvious difficulty of identifying tunes in the non-stop collages of the b-boy style, the most creative DJs in the Bronx were able to build up strong local reputations as “masters of records”—the librarians of arcane and unpredictable sounds that few could match. In time-honoured fashion their secrecy extended to soaking records in the bath to peel off the center labels or giving records new names. Previously jealously guarded lists, emerging gradually at the beginning of 1984, make bizarre reading. Bambaataa was one of the most outrageous: The Bronx wasn’t really into radio music no more. It was an anti-disco movement. Like you had a lot of new wavers and other people coming out and saying, “Disco sucks.” Well, the same thing with hip hop, ’cos they was against the disco that was being played on the radio. Everybody wanted the funky style that Kool Herc was playing. Myself, I was always a record collector and when I heard this DJ, I said, “Oh, I got records like that.” I started digging in my collection. When I came on the scene after him I built in other types of records and I started getting a name for master of records. I started playing all forms of music. Myself, I used to play the weirdest stuff at a party. Everybody just thought I was crazy. When everybody was going crazy I would throw a commercial on to cool them out —I’d throw on The Pink Panther theme for everybody who thought they was cool like the Pink Panther, and then I would play “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones and just keep that beat going. I’d play something from metal rock records like Grand Funk Railroad. “Inside Looking Out” is just the bass and drumming . . . rrrrrmmmmmmm . . . and everybody starts freaking out. I used to like to catch the people who’d say, “I don’t like rock. I don’t like Latin.” I’d throw on Mick Jagger—you’d see the blacks and the Spanish just throwing down, dancing crazy. I’d say, “I thought you said you didn’t like rock.” They’d say, “Get out of here.” I’d say, “Well, you just danced to The Rolling Stones.” “You’re kidding!” I’d throw on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”—just that drum part. One, two, three, BAM—and they’d be screaming and partying. I’d throw on The Monkees, “Mary Mary”—just the beat part where they’d go “Mary, Mary, where are you going?”—and they’d start going crazy. I’d say, “You just danced to The Monkees.” They’d say, “You liar. I didn’t dance to no Monkees.” I’d like to catch people who categorize records.

The daring of Bambaataa’s mixes and the black political input that he has made into hip hop have inspired other artists. Air Force One built a hip hop record round Ronald Reagan’s famous gaffe when he made a “joke” at a TV station. Reagan had claimed in jest that he had the solution to the Russian “problem.” “Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Americans,” he says, barely able to restrain the laughter, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” President Reagan was unaware that he was being recorded at the time. See the Light, Feel the Heat begins with Reagan’s “announcement.” The phrase “We begin bombing” is picked out and repeated several times as the funk rhythm breaks and crashes in a series of explosions round Reagan’s voice.

At the same time, it's interesting and a bit sad to see how people were really naïve and green in the start of the recorded rap-game, as when most artists start out, I guess:

But while he shares these high hopes, a seasoned veteran of “the business” like Charlie Chase remains acutely aware of the pitfalls and distortions involved. After all, he had witnessed firsthand what was probably the first and biggest scam in rap history, when Big Bad Hank and Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records used a rhyme by his close friend and fellow Cold Crush brother Grandmaster Cas on “Rapper’s Delight” and never gave him credit. The story has been told elsewhere, as by Steven Hager in his book, but Charlie’s is a lively version. This is how it happened. Hank was working in a pizzeria in New Jersey, flipping pizza. And he’s playing Cas’ tape, right? Sylvia Robinson walks in, the president of Sugar Hill. She’s listening to this, it’s all new to her. Mind you, there were never any rap records. She says, “Hey, man, who’s this?” He says, “I manage this guy. He’s a rapper.” She says, “Can you do this? Would you do this on a record for me?” And he said, “Yeah, sure. No problem.” And she says, “Okay, fine.” So he calls Cas up and says, “Cas, can I use your rhymes on a record? Some lady wants to make a record.” You see what happened? Cas didn’t have foresight. He couldn’t see down the road. He never imagined in a million years what was going to come out of that. He didn’t know, so he said, “Sure, fine, go ahead.” With no papers, no nothing. And it went double platinum! Double platinum! “Rapper’s Delight.” A single. A double platinum single, which is a hard thing to do.

The playfulness of early hip-hop and how it can be at its best in an instrumental sense...

Although much is made of rap as a kind of urban streetgeist, early rap had a more basic function: dance music. Bill Stephney, considered by many to be the smartest man in the rap business, recalls the first time he heard hip-hop: The point wasn’t rapping, it was rhythm, DJs cutting records left and right, taking the big drum break from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” mixing it together with “Ring My Bell,” then with a Bob James Mardi Gras jazz record and some James Brown. You’d have 2,000 kids in any community center in New York, moving back and forth, back and forth, like some kind of tribal war dance, you might say. It was the rapper’s role to match this intensity rhythmically. No one knew what he was saying. He was just rocking the mike.

And no, people didn't really like "The Message" that much!

Like disco music and jumpsuits, the social commentaries of early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel were for the most part transparent attempts to sell records to whites by any means necessary. Songs like “White Lines” (with its anti-drug theme) and “The Message” (about ghetto life) had the desired effect, drawing fulsome praise from white rock critics, raised on the protest ballads of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. The reaction on the street was somewhat less favorable. “The Message” is a case in point. “People hated that record,” recalls Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam Records. “I remember the Junebug, a famous DJ of the time, was playing it up at the Fever, and Ronnie DJ put a pistol to his head and said, ‘Take that record off and break it or I’ll blow your fucking head off.’ The whole club stopped until he broke that record and put it in the garbage.”

Funny bit about Sylvia Vanderpool:

And rap and reggae have a common root in a record called Love Is Strange by Mickey and Sylvia. This record was released in 1956 at the time when ska and soul and rock ’n’ roll were just beginning. On this record, guitarist Mickey Baker and vocalist Sylvia Vanderpool sing a bantering duet over a lilting Caribbean-flavored shuffle rhythm. In the middle there is a sort of mini-rap between the two. Mickey asks Sylvia how she calls her lover boy. As Mickey keeps asking the question: “And if he still doesn’t answer?,” Sylvia calls back to him in a voice that gets sexier and sexier. The record made the top twenty in the States. It was a hit in Jamaica too. It is sometimes classified as a “rhythm and blues calypso hit.” And almost a quarter of a century later, it was Sylvia Vanderpool who set up Sugarhill Records with her husband. This was the company that released the first Bronx-style rap by the Sugarhill Gang before going on to record Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

It's interesting to see how hip-hop at times could be parasitic onto "itself", e.g. "black culture", while being a magnificent political tool:

Although rap would later enhance its technical virtuosity through instrumentation, drum machines, and “sampling” existing records — thus making it creatively symbiotic — the first stage was benignly parasitic upon existing black music.

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Reading Progress

11.0% "Reading about Flash, Bam and Herc in interview is brilliant."
16.0% "Liked the part about Puerto Rican influence in hip-hop."
30.0% "The bad thing about this anthology is the amount of repetition: no more about Herc, Flash and Bam, please!"
40.0% "The bit on gender and double dutch was at times genius."
56.0% "I really enjoyed a couple of dissections of Public Enemy. Too little cutting into their nationalistic and racistic ideas, though."
95.0% "The last parts, the CAW interview on the rap record biz and the dissection of Ice-T's "New Jack Hustler", are truly brilliant."
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