By Francesca D’Amico
Chicago’s Cominskey Park on July 12th, 1979 was a scene like no other. Disco Demolition Night was a promotional event meant to protest the shift in radio programming from rock to an all-disco format. In exchange for admission, fans were asked to bring an unwanted disco LP. Following the first of a double-header game, a large crate of the collected records was detonated in center field. Against chants of “disco sucks,” 59,000 fans swarmed and vandalized the field. As the scoreboard flashed, “please return to your seats,” police in riot gear cleared the field and eventually cancelled the second game. This was the night Disco died and made way for Hip Hop.
Hip Hop had been developing in the boroughs of New York City since 1973. Black and Puerto Rican youth who had long been denied access to Disco clubs created their own recreational spaces in response. Party organizers would steal city electricity from the street lamps to connect their equipment and perform in accessible venues such as community parks and apartment recreation rooms. Borrowing from the Jamaican traditions of the soundsystem and toasting, Deejays used turntables to create new sounds, while graffiti artists used subway trains as canvas and breakdancing battles evolved from gang confrontation.
The source of Hip Hop’s creativity was its social conditions. In the 1970s, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway had resulted in the forced relocation of 60,000 white working-class Bronx residents, the explosion of government housing, rapid economic deterioration and under-employment. In the face of increased race tensions, black and latino youth formed gangs, first for self-defense, and later to target shared enemies such as the police, heroin dealers and poor social provisions. Employing Hip Hop as a culture of resistance, this first generation created a socio-cultural movement intent on providing oppressed people with a powerful voice when many advocated for their silencing.
In 1994, rapper Common recounted Hip Hop’s history in his track “I Used to Love H.E.R.” The video is embedded below. Likening the genre to a woman, Common argued that Hip Hop had been born respectable, pro-black, message-oriented and un-interested in mainstream success. But once appropriated by ‘the man’ (a.k.a major labels), Hip Hop’s beauty had been stifled by commercialization, sexual exploitation and creative degradation. By the late 1990s, many fans found little to love in the figurative woman they used to know.
Two years short of its 40th birthday, Hip Hop has much to celebrate, interrogate and be ashamed of. When it began as a reactionary party culture, many could not foresee its lifespan, strength and prosperity. Today, while Hip Hop has global reach and credibility, it is also guilty of narrowly defined gender constructions, homophobia and misogyny. And when so many of its listeners refrain from questioning the disconcerting nature of its current adaptation, they too become part of the problem.
Despite this reality, many fans carry the genre’s history forward by using its ethos to build positive community initiatives. In Toronto, many such examples exist. For instance, Manifesto, a not-for profit urban arts initiative, runs the Camden File Project’s Poetry-Prose-Photography series intent on drawing attention to youth poverty. Lost Lyrics, an alternative educational project intent on creating a bridge between street-culture and the classroom, offers an after-school program exploring art as disruption, hood politics, and global activism. And finally, The Remix Project provides recording facilities for marginalized youth to refine their raw talents, level the playing field, and help them find and define success on their own terms.
While Hip Hop’s socio-political consciousness has faded, the above examples denote that it is not dead. However, even as some employ its ethos to confront material realities, others invest only it its promise of wealth, power and pleasure. Thus the reason why the time is ripe for this reminder: Hip Hop wields much power, but with that power comes responsibility. As we, the new Hip Hop generation, consume and invest in its potential, let us also use its cultural currency responsibly to question, confront and defy the sites of disempowerment and coercion in our lives.
Francesca D’Amico is a PhD candidate in American & Cultural history at York University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Fight the Power: The Socio-Political function of Black Urban Music, 1968-1996,” examines the genres of Soul, Funk and Hip Hop in the post-Civil Rights era and the role of Black Power rhetoric in the practice of cultural consciousness-raising.