Two days after Jam Master Jay was shot and killed in his Queens studio, I was on the L Train to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, heading to the release party for a book on the origins of hiphop, and wondering how the mood of the event would be altered in light of his murder. Jam Master Jay was the beloved DJ for Run-D.M.C., one of hiphop's greatest groups, and the first of its kind to crossover to a mainstream white audience. By all accounts, Jay was a peaceful man. He was married with three children. Furthermore, Run-D.M.C. wasn't about violence; in fact, throughout their career, they spoke out against it.
The death of someone who was so distanced from a thug lifestyle has prompted a lot of soul-searching in hiphop, and a reevaluation of its future. In Oakland MC Paris' open letter to Def Jam (posted on
www.daveyd.com), he notes, "The... passing of Jam Master Jay is causing [us] to reflect on exactly where we are going as a collective. In this age where life often imitates art, it is no longer acceptable for culture-defining entities like Def Jam to claim that the material it endorses"--artists such as Ja Rule, Ludacris, and WC--"simply 'reflects the tastes of the street.'"
But to divine the future, you have start with the genesis, and in relation to the figures that were part of hiphop's beginnings, Paris--and Jam Master Jay, for that matter--is still green. Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash--these are the people that forged one of the most important and far-reaching movements in American music. They're also the people whose voices are chronicled in the book Yes Yes Y'all, a project that blossomed after Experience Music Project curator Jim Fricke began videotaping interviews for the museum's "oral history" hiphop exhibit.*
"I was working on the hiphop exhibit and the punk exhibit simultaneously, so we started actively shooting interviews in old-school hiphop and West Coast punk in '97. While I really enjoyed the whole spectrum of the material we were covering, it felt like there was something magical about the hiphop stuff," explains Fricke. "Part of it was that most people we were interviewing were MCs, who talk for a living. Also, there wasn't a lot of info out there about the pre-recording era of hiphop, and we were doing [the interviews] at a time when Tupac and Biggie were being gunned down, so the optimism of the stories struck me as something that was really valuable."
After EMP's opening in 2000, Fricke continued filming interviews; the idea to translate them into a book developed after he met co-author Charlie Ahearn, director of Wild Style (the famous first movie about hiphop).
Fricke explains, "I worked really hard to get somebody to publish the book; it was especially difficult in that I kept hearing this fallacy that 'hiphop might be big business, but hiphop fans don't read.' Somewhere in there, I ran into Charlie Ahearn. I was trying to find photos of that era, and Martha Cooper kept saying Charlie had good photos that nobody had ever seen, so he brought a bunch of photos over and I was looking at them, going crazy, and I was like, 'Charlie, I wanna use your photos in this book.'" Eventually, DeCapo Press picked up the publishing rights, and around five years of interviews, photo gathering, and editing culminated into Yes Yes Y'all (referencing an early party call coined by Cowboy, one of the first MCs ever).
Aside from explanatory introductions to each chapter, the book is comprised entirely of quotes from the people who were there. From DJs like Charlie Chase and Grand Wizard Theodore (the inventor of scratching), to MCs like Busy Bee and Grandmaster Caz (aka Casanova Fly, who purportedly wrote "Rapper's Delight" and was ripped off by the Sugarhill Gang), to b-boys such as Frosty Freeze and Crazy Legs, to graffiti artists like BOM5 and LEE Quinones, Yes Yes Y'all chronicles the four elements at their inception in the Bronx in the early-to mid-'70s through the next ten years of its evolution.
Let's Get This Party Started
It's pretty astonishing when you think about where hiphop's roots lay, and how quickly such an organic art form evolved. All in the same decade, these things were happening:
· Graffiti evolved from gang-affiliated tags to the tags of non-gang writers, into a bona fide, full-train art form (YYY even traces the first guys to use bubble letters back to Comet, Jester, and Phase 2, according to graff writer Blade).
· B-boying began as a form of inter-gang battle, but by the mid-'70s, there was a tough crackdown on NYC gangs and the art form nearly died out. Puerto Rican kids in Manhattan and the Bronx caught on and kept it going, but it didn't explode until the Rock Steady Crew landed the cover of the Village Voice in 1981, which sparked a nationwide interest in b-boying. Then they made a bunch of movies about it.
· The all-ages set promoted house parties in lieu of over-21 clubs, where Kool Herc first started deejaying soul and funk records. Shortly thereafter, Afrika Bambaataa added a traditional African flavor to deejaying (and was the first DJ to mix Aerosmith's "Walk this Way," later to become the basis for a huge hit by Run-D.M.C.). Grandmaster Flash invented the cut, and Grand Wizard Theodore invented the scratch. Then the NYC Blackout of '77 occurred, everybody looted expensive equipment, and the DJ scene boomed.
· MCs like Coke La Rock, Cowboy, and Love Bug Starski began talking about their DJs, introducing them and announcing the next party, getting the crowd pumped; K.K. Rockwell and Busy Bee took it further by rhyming a little and telling stories; eventually, the Funky 4 became the first full-on MC crew (and the first to include a lady rapper, Sha-Rock), taking over the DJ's place as the most visible figure in hiphop.
By the way, as this was occurring, most of these people were still in junior high and high school.
How the Hell Did This Happen?
Jim Fricke's thoughts: "There was this whole myth with grunge, that one of the reasons it happened is we were in the Northwest all by ourselves, isolated and roasting in our creative juices. To a certain extent it was true, but you live here and you know we're not that cut off from the world. But that time in the Bronx... it kinda was its own world. I realized, in looking for photographs of the Bronx in the '70s in any normal photo archive, that the only photos you find are when a white politician visited there. Nobody was going to the Bronx in the '70s. I feel like it's easy, in retrospect, to overly romanticize the magic that happened [with hiphop's beginnings], but the reality of that time was really bleak. The arc of it was that, 'Wow, we've got nothing and nothing to do, so we're going to work out a way to entertain ourselves for ourselves,' and it develops into this optimistic thing that then gets ruined when money comes into the scene.
"That idea is in a lot of ways accurate, but you know it wasn't a pleasant thing for the people that were living it--that lack of money, and there was nothing better for some of these people than when they started getting paid. To me that was the most striking in the early interviews, 'cause I asked people, 'You were doing this for five years and then somebody thought to do a record and it was a smash.' Most people just never thought of doing records. Part of it was financial, but part of it was like, 'Well, we do parties! It's 45 minutes long--how can you put a party on a record?' I think there was magic in the purity of how this developed. And that pure, Bronx-based expression really did die with commercialism.
"Grandmaster Flash expresses it best in the book. He says, 'All of a sudden, it wasn't about who can rock a party; it's how can we make a record?' And you see that it's the same thing with every musical revolution; the pioneers got ripped off. With punk, hiphop, rock--anytime you focus on the pioneering era of a new type of music, the first generation never gets paid. It seems to be a constant in the music industry.
"It is a bittersweet thing for a lot of these guys, because it's such a personal, visceral triumph: 'We invented this thing and it changed the world.' What more could you ask for--except that you kinda get credit for it? That was the other aspect of doing the book that felt amazing and tragic. You have these people who are stars in their neighborhood in junior high and over the course of two or three years, their star continues to rise... but it's all still in their neighborhood. It's the Bronx; it's a really big neighborhood, so you can feel like, 'I am a celebrity.' Like the Funky 4 Plus One make a record, and it's big, and Sugar Hill Records signs them away from Enjoy and they're still not 18, and three years later, by like 1985, they're old and nobody remembers them. To think about when things REALLY took off in the late '80s, they were SO old that a whole generation of hiphop fans had never heard of them... and they weren't even 30 yet."
Ain't Nothin' Changed But the Waistlines
At the book release party/art show, attended by most of the key figures in Yes Yes Y'all--what Grandmaster Caz called "the Wild Style of hiphop books"--it felt like a gathering of old friends. While many calls for silence were devoted to Jam Master Jay, as Fricke noted, people just seemed elated that their stories were finally being told.
However, just 'cause many people have never heard of them, doesn't mean they can't still rock a party. Dota Rock, Rahiem, Tony Tone, Busy Bee, and in particular Grandmaster Caz, Whipper Whip, and Grand Wizard Theodore (whose beat-juggling skills are completely mind-blowing)--all perform with what is certainly the same charisma as when they were kids, back in the '70s in the Bronx. As Whipper Whip noted, "Ain't nothin' changed but the waistlines." And, while a certain modicum of violence is chronicled in Yes Yes Y'all (though rarely in conjunction with the actual players), it's clearer than ever that original hiphop was all about making people feel good, about taking pride in something, and turning the neighborhood and community into one big, sweaty party. You know, the important things.
In the middle of a rap, Busy Bee commented, "Hey, we still for hire." What about everyone else? Find out in the following pages of the Mercury's Music Quarterly, THE TRUE SCHOOL: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
*You can download some of these interviews online at www.EMPLive.com.
R.I.P. Jam Master Jay and Money Ray October 2002