Hip Hop emerged directly out of the living conditions in America’s inner cities in the 1970s, particularly the South Bronx region of New York City. As a largely white, middle-class population left urban areas for the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s—a phenomenon known as “white flight”—the demographics of communities such as the Bronx shifted rapidly. The Bronx, one of New York City’s five “boroughs,” became populated mainly by Blacks and Hispanics, including large immigrant populations from Caribbean nations including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and others.
Simultaneous with the “white flight,” social and economic disruptions abounded. Construction on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which began in the postwar period and continued into the early 1970s, decimated several of the minority neighborhoods in its path; city infrastructure was allowed to crumble in the wake of budget cuts, hitting the less privileged parts of the city most directly; and strikes organized by disaffected blue-collar workers crippled the entire metropolitan area.
Amidst the higher crime and rising poverty rates that came with urban decay, young people in the South Bronx made use of limited resources to create cultural expressions that encompassed not only music, but also dance, visual art, and fashion. In music, Latin and Caribbean traditions met and mingled with the sounds of sixties and seventies Soul, Disco, and Funk. The venues for the emerging art of Hip Hop were public parks and community recreation centers, sheets of cardboard laid out on city sidewalks became dance floors, and brick walls were transformed into artists’ canvases. Turntables became laboratories for musical experimentation as old sounds were remixed in new ways. The spirit of invention was particularly vibrant against a backdrop of empty lots, boarded-up windows, and burned-out buildings.
In a borough where poverty and an eroded infrastructure meant very limited access to instruments and music education, young music makers created with what they could find. DJs assembled their own sound systems and built extensive record collections by searching secondhand stores for old Soul, Funk, and Rock and Roll albums; they used their collections to provide entertainment within their communities. Sounds taken from these records—from James Brown’s drum breaks to Parliament Funkadelic’s funky bass lines—provided the raw materials for creative work: beats to be mixed and modified. On top of that, MCs (short for Master of Ceremonies) rapped.
While early Hip Hop was often dance music, the genre also picked up where certain 70’s Soul left off, serving as a vehicle for social commentary. Stylistically, MCs drew on a number of influences, including Jamaican “toasting,” a style of lyrical chanting over a beat that was brought to New York by the burgeoning Caribbean immigrant community. The role of the MC expanded over time while the raps themselves blended influences from a variety of marginalized populations, reflecting the circumstances of an evolving urban America.
In this lesson, students will examine raw documentary footage, demographic charts, television news stories, and song lyrics to connect the sounds of early Hip Hop to the substandard living conditions in American inner cities in the late 1970s, particularly the Bronx in New York City. Students will compose their own verses to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” to be followed up with a research-driven writing assignment to further explore the urban environment depicted in the landmark song.