Every street has a sound, and 163rd in the Bronx is no exception. Gyrating amps were hooked around streetlights. No-name DJs let their hands speak as they scratched funk and jazz vinyls. The Ghetto Brothers, a Puerto Rican gang that prioritized music and social change over violence, were responsible for cultivating this block party atmosphere. This ghetto grove was the nursery for Hip Hop. The unnamed genre was finding its legs in the streets of the Bronx. Christ figures, like Afrika Bambaataa, spread the beatitudes of hip hop’s budding culture.
See, there are very few set aspects in Hip Hop; most areas of the genre are open to the artist’s interpretation, which makes the foundation integral, possibly more so than in other types of music. Bambaataa started the musical/cultural collective known as The Zulu Nation, and from that moment MCs and DJs spread through NYC like a wild vine. Soon artists like KRS One, D-Nice, and DJ Scott La Rock (as Boogie Down Productions) were placing classics upon the cornerstones erected by Bambaataa.
Skip across the Atlantic and hold your ear up to the London streets of the sixties. An influx of West Indian immigrants pushes cultural floods against UK levees. David Hinds, who would front reggae group Steel Pulse, is one of a few black children in his Birmingham class. He totes along reggae records from his father, and shares them with children who are devout disciples of punk. There is this constant push and pull aesthetic as Reggae tries to land its feet in the British Isles. Even when a single like “It Mek” snakes its way onto the mainstream airwaves, it faces backlash from radio personalities like Tony Blackburn, who referred to Reggae as “rubbish”. If that wasn’t enough, Reggae artists didn’t just have to put their dukes up against suspicious onlookers because the genre was undergoing an internal sexual revolution.
Hip Hop was given a minute to breathe when it broke the surface, before it had to deal with internal evolution. Reggae, on the other hand, was forced to juggle fighting for validity with trying to bring women into a genre that wasn’t exactly the most inclusive. This didn’t just influence the culture of UK Reggae, but it changed the sound. Dennis Bovell, a Reggae guitarist at the time, mentioned Reggae was, “pretty macho…Girls were mostly singing back-up to guys who didn’t even sing that well. So we thought, ‘Let’s get these girls to the front.” Artists like Bovell began to layer in beautiful vocals from the likes of Janet Kay over familiar rhythmic guitars. The island sound Reggae comfortably embraced became sweeter and tinged with soul. With that sugary sound, Reggae finally began to slip in to Londoners’ ears.
Both genres found themselves growing in environments that were culturally opposites of where they originated from. Artists had to dig their roots around rocky soil to build an artform, that for the most part, was unwelcome. The sounds of Hip Hop and Reggae were practically dissonant to the public. So the question remains: why? Why champion a culture that people are adverse to? The answer must be that these young artists had some internal desire to attach themselves to these cultures. With that in mind, one might think Hip Hop and Reggae would’ve found their footing in very similar ways but it seems that is farther from the truth than I expected.
Hip Hop does not have direct roots in African culture. What I mean by this is the first MCs and DJs were not brought together because of their cultural commonalities rather the shared marginalization all minorities faced in the South Bronx. People brought along their own cultural influences like they were toting records to parties. The genre was born out of poverty. Its lack of instrumentation and accessibility may have seemed like a disadvantage to some but, the way MCs view a mic and turntable is similar to martial artists who look at an empty hand and see a powerful tool. Hip Hop came with this idea of ‘making something out of nothing’, and since South Bronx residents weren’t exactly seeing waves of cash, it was the perfect foundation for the genre.
In the 1970s and 80s, the South Bronx became home to residents who became all too familiar with drug abuse, violence, and police brutality. If we consider Robert Darnton’s analysis of poetry in his book Poetry and the Police, and its significance in commentary on authority, then it is almost not a surprise that hip hop became a genre known as ‘poetry in motion’, a modern equivalent to the Darnton’s analysis of poetry in Revolutionary France. The point of hip hop wasn’t to take an existing culture and adapt it to new surroundings. It was a voice for people who had been systematically gagged. Darnton stated that poetry was extremely important because it was a down to earth way for the public to spread ideas amongst themselves. These ideas would include thoughts on politics which means that through poetry the public would become more informed and formulate their own opinions. The same is true for Hip Hop. The genre began as an attempt to open these channels of information between residents in the South Bronx. MCs and DJs would late bring in influences from African musicians and culture, sampling Fela Kuti and Sun Ra, but it’s important to understand Hip Hop’s immediate roots are dug into the alleyways and low income housing that cover the Bronx. At it’s core Hip Hop is about representing people, no matter what their cultural background is. Mos Def states this more eloquently on the intro to Black on Both Sides,
“People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin’ in the hillside / Comin’ down to visit the townspeople, we are Hip-Hop / Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop / So Hip-Hop is goin’, where we goin’ / So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin’ / Ask yourself, where am I goin’? How am I doin’?”
It was common for early MCs to push this attitude of unity. Which was integral to Hip Hop’s success, because when the genre was trying to find it’s legs partakers weren’t able to find that much common ground in cultural and ethnic background. The South Bronx was a melting pot of African Americans, Hispanics, as well as some European immigrants: some were first generation, others second and so on. Despite the stark diversity they all shared the feeling of being discriminated. Which means that if MCs focused on ethnicity and one race of MCs began to feud with another race then the genre would only devolve. Unity was crucial to getting their voices heard so MCs paid attention to what they had in common. That was being marginalized. It’s the reason why KRS One would spit lines like, “Before your race or religion you’re a ‘human being'”. It’s true that different groups of people felt different levels of of discrimination in different ways and different reasons. However MCs like KRS wanted to elevate residents in the South Bronx by bringing them together and having them identify as people living in the ‘boogie down’ as he would say.
UK Reggae’s story is one more of a culture migrating and adapting to its new surroundings. Reggae’s roots were in the West Indies, and through immigration, stretched its limbs to the UK. It wasn’t really welcome there until Bob Marley rose to fame that Londoners began to really lend an ear to the genre. Reggae was trying to squeeze in between the various subgenres of Rock. This is different from Hip Hop, whose birth was like. Reggae in the UK can’t even really be seen as the appropriated culture because those that led the genre into the mainstream were either immigrants from or had their roots in the West Indies. White Londoners didn’t make their own Reggae; It was hard enough for Reggae artists to make fans out of the general public. Those that were fans became known as Rudeboys, who much like MCs, were just people who wanted to push the boundaries of music. One drew its inspiration from systematic oppression and the other from wanting to preserve the culture of their motherland. They weren’t reactionary or inflammatory, yet both groups felt push back. Hip Hop had to claw its way to radio-play, and while Reggae had solid radio presence; hosts and critics refused to acknowledge the genre. MCs and RudeBoys weren’t sparking an uprising, they just wanted to come together and make art that accurately reflected their lives which the world seemed to lack.
The impetus for both genres remains the same: a voice for the voiceless. What MCs and Rudeboys lacked in artistic respect they made up for in noise. I don’t cast noise in a negative connotation. Often times cultural planes are in need of chaos; that is what both hip hop and reggae offered. Like water they carved out their way in rock rather than fitting in existing molds. It’s their rebellious nature that made them such unique and robust genres.