When old-school hip-hop began, Billboard wasn’t late to class. With the July 1, 1978, article “B-Beats Bombarding Bronx,” former Billboard staffer Robert “Rocky” Ford Jr. — who died May 19, 2020 at age 70 — became the first journalist to write about the genre for a mainstream publication. “He’d heard there was something going on in the Bronx and wanted to learn more about it,” recalls his widow, Linda Medley. “He appreciated what this music meant to the Black community, and he could see it growing in popularity.”
Although Ford soon left Billboard to become a music producer, reporting on music was “his dream job in a lot of ways,” she says, noting he could write with authority and passion on everything from jazz to disco to Latin to country. And he was fully aware of the historic role he played in rap (and Billboard) history. “It seemed either fated or luck,” she says. “He was proud to put that on his resume.”
Hit the Breaks
Ford’s landmark July 1978 piece introduced readers to pioneer DJ Kool Herc and other “young Black disco DJs from the Bronx who are buying the records just to play the 30 seconds or so of rhythm breaks that each disk contains.” Herc told Ford that his style “grew from his fascination” with the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock.”
By the following year, Ford had met a teenage Joey Simmons — who would later put the Run in Run-D.M.C. — while Simmons was slapping party stickers on a Queens bus. “He stopped him and asked who the promoter was,” Medley shares. “‘Oh, that’s my brother Russell,’ Joey said. Robert gave his card to Joey and later Robert and Russell met and talked about the rap scene and the music industry.”
In the May 5, 1979, Billboard, Ford reported that MCs were taking their place alongside DJs “in Black discos where a jivey rap commands as much attention as the hottest new disk.” One of the rising stars he name-checked was Kurtis Blow, “the most popular rapping DJ in Queens.” Within the year, Ford and his Billboard colleague J.B. Moore would leave the magazine to produce Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’,” and then “The Breaks” — historic gold records from the first rapper with a major-label deal. “I think Robert knew rap and hip-hop would continue to be popular,” Medley says. “That’s part of why he eventually left Billboard.”
In Da Club
In the May 25, 1979, issue, Ford covered a panel at the New York industry conference Disco Forum V, “Can Disco DJs Become the Record Producers of Tomorrow?” At the time, it was a bold question. “The answer from the panelists was a definite yes,” reported Ford — which pointed to the future of hip-hop, and a world where the line separating DJs from producers was starting to disappear.