Hip Hop: A brief history how it went from Bronx streets to global phenomenon

A “popper” dances at the Roseland Ballroom in 1982. ©Joe Conzo Archives

Hip hop, a vibrant cultural and artistic movement that began in the streets of New York City in The Bronx in the 1970s, has become one of the most influential and globally recognized genres of music today. Its roots are multifaceted, drawing from African, Caribbean, and Latino influences, and it has since grown to encompass various sub-genres, styles, and cultural phenomena.

It’s almost hard to believe that what started in The Bronx 50 years ago today, August 11, 1973, would eventually span into a global movement that has generated hundreds of billions of dollars (if not more) during the half a century it has existed.

Bronx Beginnings

In the early 1970s, a remarkable cultural movement was taking shape in the South Bronx, a neighborhood known for its diversity and the rich heritage of its residents, many of whom hailed from Caribbean and African roots. It was a time of great economic decline and urban decay, a period when the city itself seemed to be crumbling under the weight of neglect and social struggle. Yet, amidst this challenging environment, something incredible was happening: the birth of hip hop.

Hip hop, as we know it today, is a global phenomenon that has influenced countless artists, musicians, and creatives around the world. But its humble beginnings can be traced back to the streets of the South Bronx. It was here that the pioneers of the genre, such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, first experimented with a new form of music and expression that would go on to reshape popular culture.

Kool Herc, widely regarded as the “Father of Hip Hop,” began hosting block parties in the Bronx, where he would showcase his unique DJing style. He would isolate and extend the breakbeats of funk records, creating a rhythmic foundation that captivated audiences. This new approach to DJing, now known as “breakbeat DJing,” became a defining element of hip hop.

But hip hop was not just about the music. It was a multidisciplinary movement that encompassed various art forms and self-expression.

The Four Pillars

Hip hop culture is traditionally recognized as having four main elements:

  1. Rap (MCing) – vocalists, or MCs (Master of Ceremonies), began by introducing DJs and hyping up the crowd. Over time, this evolved into the rhythmic spoken delivery we associate with rap today.
  2. DJing – manipulating and mixing records to produce new sounds and beats, creating the musical backdrop for rappers.
  3. Breakdancing – a style of dance that emerged in tandem with hip hop music, characterized by acrobatic and rhythmic movements.
  4. Graffiti – visual art, often in the form of spray-painted murals or tags on urban surfaces, that served as a medium for self-expression and commentary.

While many are familiar with Rap and DJing, Breakdancing and Graffiti had meanings beyond what most would think.

Breakdancing emerged from the creative energy of the South Bronx. It became a physical form of storytelling, combining acrobatics, athleticism, and rhythm. Breakdancers would gather in parks and on street corners, showcasing their skills and engaging in friendly battles that pushed the boundaries of what was possible.

Summer jam festivals at The Hub in 1982©Joe Conzo Archives

Growing up in the South Bronx in the 70s and 80s, you couldn’t go a block without seeing someone with a boombox and someone or a crew Breaking on the streets.

Graffiti art, which was much derided and considered vandalism, was much more than that. It’s only been considered art in more recent decades. This pillar also played a crucial role in the early days of hip hop. Amidst the crumbling infrastructure of their neighborhoods, young artists saw an opportunity to transform their environment through vibrant artwork. Graffiti became a medium of expression and a way to claim a sense of ownership over the neglected spaces. These bold and colorful murals, often adorned with intricate lettering and symbolic imagery, became a visual representation of the determination and resilience that defined the South Bronx and its hip hop culture.

The Puerto Rican and Latino Influence

Oftentimes and almost always overlooked in the discussion of the birth of Hip Hop is the impact that the Latino community, particularly the Puerto Rican community had on the development of the genre.

The fact of that by the 1970s, the South Bronx was the largest Puerto Rican community outside of Puerto Rico. The mixing of cultures in the South Bronx and genres of music is what gave life to hip hop, and it is well chronicled in the documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop which was produced by Elena Martinez (who is currently the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center), and Steve Zeitlen.

Carlos Mendes who is Puerto Rican, is best known as DJ Charlie Chase was the DJ for the Cold Crush Crew, pioneers of hip hop and the first rap group to be signed by CBS Records.

DJ Charlie Chase and Grandmaster Caz at Norman Thomas High School in 1981/©Joe Conzo Archives

You have major graffiti artists and crews like Crash that has been active since the nascent days of hip hop and Tats Cru, who’s founding, original members like Nicer, Bio, and BG183 who were active during that time (and continue to this day).

Then of course in later years you have icons like Fat Joe and Big Pun who have helped further shape the genre.

And of course, where would we be as viewers of the past if it weren’t for Joe Conzo Jr, a Puerto Rican photographer from the South Bronx who was there to document hip hop when it was still in its infancy? Joe Conzo Jr, the one called, “The man who took Hip-Hop’s baby pictures” in a New York Times article?

Over 10,000 of his images and prints now reside at The Cornell Hip Hop Collection as part of the university’s archive preserving over a quarter of a million items that document the genre.

Mainstream Success and Evolution

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the success of tracks like “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang signaled hip hop’s crossover into mainstream music. The 1980s also saw the emergence of socially conscious rap with artists like Public Enemy and N.W.A addressing societal issues and injustices in their lyrics.

By the 1990s, hip hop had further diversified with the emergence of gangsta rap, East Coast vs. West Coast rivalries, and a global expansion. Artists like Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., and Dr. Dre became household names.

In the 2000s, hip hop continued to evolve with the rise of Southern hip hop, the blend of R&B and hip hop, and the commercial success of artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Eminem.

Global Expansion

From its birthplace in the Bronx, hip hop has become a global phenomenon. Countries from Japan to South Africa, from France to Australia, have embraced and localized the genre. Today, non-English hip hop, such as K-hip hop in South Korea or Spanish rap in Latin America, has made significant inroads into the global music industry.

The Legacy and Future

Hip hop has not just been a genre of music; it’s a reflection of societal issues, aspirations, struggles, and victories. Its influence can be seen in fashion, language, and even academia, with courses on hip hop history and culture offered at many universities.

Today, as technology democratizes music production and distribution, the barriers to entry are lower than ever with Hip Hop music creators and performers needing only access to apps like Instagram and TikTok to get their name out there. The genre continues to evolve with the rise of drill, trap, and countless other sub-genres, ensuring that hip hop remains at the forefront of cultural conversations for years to come.

Hip hop’s story is one of resilience, innovation, and transformation. From the streets of the Bronx to global arenas, its journey is a testament to the power of creativity and the enduring human spirit. It is, without a doubt, the story of The Bronx.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.