According to your new book, one of the first mentions of rap music in a national media outlet was on July 1, 1978, when Billboard ran a piece titled "B Beats Bombarding Bronx” by Robert Ford. When did you first realize that rap had broken through into mainstream consciousness, or even the first hint you got of that?
The first hint I got of the music itself was as a teenager in New York. I was like “What is this Muhammad Ali-type stuff on top of music?” The technology aspect of it bit me. That was in like ‘76-’77. I heard a DJ stringing together this Jackson 5 record. I was so amazed that this DJ kept it going and wouldn’t let the words of the record come in. I was like, “What is he doing?” He had a mixer and two identical records and was manipulating the two different records.
That was my introduction to hip-hop and turntablism. The rap aspect bit me when I heard “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the Fatback Band. I was amazed that they were finally able to put rap onto a recording, which I’d thought was impossible before that. That was in July, 1979.
Your book starts out with the widely cited ground-zero moment with DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. But then, the music jumps from 1973 to 1977. What was happening over those four years?
Well, it was percolating in all the boroughs, but I think the Bronx was foremost. That’s where things would happen in the parks and these offshoot clubs. The growth was happening all over the city, but the area where it seemed to be most explosive was the Bronx. It was the sophisticated New York transit system and the fact that kids in New York went to high schools in boroughs they didn’t live in that allowed the music to travel.
Back at that time, how long would it take for trends to travel that short distance between Queens and where you lived on Long Island?
We had relatives in the city, and tapes of events that would take place in more populated areas would trickle out. But the thing that really united the whole New York metropolitan area was the advent of rap on radio. Radio really glued all the outskirts together. The Sugar Hill Gang, for example, does “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 and those guys are from Jersey, right across the [George Washington] Bridge.
King Tim III gets down with the Fatback Band on [‘70s soul label] Spring Records. The Fatback Band was from Brooklyn, which was known for its giant sound systems and fast-paced disco. Radio started all of that.
In the introduction to the book, you say, “Hip-hop fans had a deep awareness of the music for about the first 15 years.” What did you learn about hip-hop from putting together this book?
That you’ve got to break it down and get it down to 300 to 400 pages. The book could have been 1,500 to 3,000 pages.
It could have been an encyclopedia.
Yeah, I mean it could have been a series. But the thing you learn when doing something like this is the gift of truncating and balance.
Reading this book, it’s very clear that you’ve made it your business to keep up with how hip-hop has continued to evolve.
You can’t have any biases, and you’ve got to be astute enough and have respect for all periods of the music in order to make great parables and comparisons to the classic stuff that’s already revered. There’s a lot of information from the last 10 years that takes up a good amount of space in the book because you’ve got to honor that.
Early on, how much did you ever envision the global reach that hip-hop would eventually have?
I always imagined it because I’d seen it happen with rock and other styles. I always imagined the same could happen with rap. I dreamed it -- and I also thought I could be a contributor to it from a graphic-artist standpoint. I always thought hip-hop was a great combination of words, music, artwork and dance.
You’ve talked about this before, how rock music is supported by a mechanism for myth construction --
And myth destruction, too. The people who discuss rock music come at it with actual facts. They don’t base everything on hype alone.
So you’re saying that even back in the ‘80s you wanted to create that same kind of historical infrastructure for hip-hop?
Yeah. I was a sports fan. I was also in my 20s at the height of commercial R&B. That was also the Reagan-Bush era. Those combinations made me look at the music a lot more seriously than as just an infantile artform, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t like people looking down it thinking it was a bunch of music for children.
My perception was that the first people who found rap music and hip-hop culture threatening were actually black parents and older black musicians.
I was a sophomore in college in ‘79, and when the music emerged, it had to take on a group of people who’d been bred on jazz, gospel, Motown and soul and were trying to elevate us from the streets. But those streets were where the kids were told to go play, and where a lot of those organic sounds would come from -- without instruments. So it was bound to be looked upon as racket when it was brought back into the house.
In your 1997 book Fight the Power, you described hip-hop as “a crumbling artform that had changed hands and got swallowed up by the corporate pimps of soul.” Where would you say things stand now?
It’s been culturally strip-mined to the point where the mountain of what the music is isn’t being rejuvenated. But it’s been dried up so much that there’s beauty the same way there’s a rose in the concrete. There’s so much beauty with many artists who are now not making records to cater to the demands of a president of a company. They realize that, today, instead of a download/acquisition business, it’s now a business of [garnering] attention.