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Celebrating Harlem's Hip-Hop History

Grand Wizard Theodore demonstrates his scratching technique.

Harlem, a cultural beacon for black America, can be said to be the cradle of much of the world's most accessible aesthetics of the last 100 years. Hip-hop, which includes a number of artistic mediums, such as rap music, b-boy dancing and graffiti art, is the most recent musical genre with roots in Harlem to gain colossal popularity worldwide—generating more than $10 billion a year. But hip-hop, like Harlem, has undergone such change in the last 30 years that some believe the more visible portions of its contemporary themes no longer reflect the realities of urban African-American culture.

In the spirit of getting local youth in touch with the roots of hip-hop while depicting its ongoing relationship with Harlem, a local nonprofit group called the Global Artists Coalition (GAC) held a two-day symposium and interactive exhibition on campus, entitled, "A Celebration of Harlem: Hip-Hop History." GAC, founded in 2002 by Terry Nelson, works to reach and inspire young people and aspiring artists through hip-hop, while safeguarding its beginnings through education. The event was held in the Satow Room of Lerner Hall on May 19, and featured experts from several corners of the hip-hop world: critics, scholars, record producers and emcees.

"There is more to New York City hip-hop history than what is reported in the popular press and our mission is to let people experience and understand this history, art, music and culture first-hand," said Nelson.

Paul Winley displays his break record compilation.

Introducing the symposium Curtis Sherrod, GAC member and co-producer of the event, presented the idea that hip-hop, although often considered to have its origins in the South Bronx, was inherently linked with the identity and fate of Harlem.

A notable panelist in the group was Paul Winley, who, though not widely known, was a pioneering producer who not only recorded the genre's first female rappers (his daughters, Paulette and Tanya Winley), but invented what has come to be known as the break record. Speaking publicly for the first time, Winley brought a perspective little heralded in the hip-hop community: a seminal voice from the nascent interior of a movement that would grow on a global scale into a billion dollar industry.

Winley, who for the most part was bypassed by hip-hop's economic boom, independently produced R&B albums in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1970s, he found that the early hip-hop DJs, who pored over vinyl collections in search of break records—albums that contained certain funky rhythmic patterns that would function as the building blocks of new rap song structures—were being exploited by record store owners, who would intentionally overcharge for these newly popularized albums (to the tune of a 2,000 percent mark-up).

"My heart and my soul have always been in Harlem," Winley stated. "I spelled my record as Super Disco Brakes, because I was putting the brakes on those suckers who were trying to rob people." Staying true to his instincts to fight the economic systems vying to capitalize on the emerging genre, Winley would go on to produce the first record of the world-renowned electro-funk pioneer and rapper Afrika Bambaataa. "Rap was great for the kids, who could use it in school," said Winley, who jokingly explained that he recorded his daughters because they were driving him crazy with their incessant rapping and rhyming. But for Winley, rap was about the music, and about Harlem. "Rap, like love, is here to stay," he concluded.

Calling himself a baby in the rap game, emcee and social activist Mutulu Olugbala, a.k.a. M1, one half of the political rap group Dead Prez, focused on hip-hop's cultural and economic evolution, alongside that of Harlem's. "Most of what I learned from Harlem, I learned far from New York," he said, explaining that Harlem's style—very much influenced by hip-hop—was far ranging among the black community all over the United States.

"Even the word hip-hop itself is a code word for black culture, which has ... such a great history. And right now it's a thumbnail for black culture and deals with exploitation—there's no understanding of where we really are and what we're really going through, when you look at hip-hop today." M1 explained that not only is popular rap music not indicative of the average social condition of African-Americans, the black community no longer owns or controls the identity or the resources of the music. "We drive the sales but receive little of the economic development," he said. "They sell Colgate and tires with rap music and it happens off the backs of our community."

Such inequities born out of the hip-hop industry and the U.S. in general was the main catalyst for the creation of Dead Prez, he explained. Unlike many affluent beneficiaries of the rap game, M1 and his colleagues are using their wealth and celebrity to create larger institutional methods of dealing with social inequality, especially for independent and emerging artists. The New York-based Grassroots Artists MovEment (G.A.M.E.), of which M1 is a spokesman and member, is an organization providing cultural resources for the hip-hop community, including, among other things, a healthcare center for independent artists in the South Bronx.

Local school children and Columbia students were on hand the next day for interactive exhibits that included DJs providing instructional routines and historical context for the audience and a sneaker-painting contest, sponsored by Converse. D.J. Armstrong led the audience in a comparison of popular hip-hop hits with the original records sampled in the songs. Audience members heard how complex the layering techniques can become through sequencing polyrhythmic, multi-textured patterns while DJs and producers pile on new melodies and harmonies over alternating breaks. Grand Wizard Theodore, credited with inventing the scratch—a hip-hop technique where a DJ moves a record back and forth on a turntable for rhythmic and tonal emphasis, and which galvanized the hip-hop sound and influenced almost all musical genres that came after it—gave a demonstration of his skills at the event.

"This conference was a great opportunity to work with an organization that is reaching young people in the community around a subject that captures their attention," said Marcia Sells, assistant vice president of planning and program development, who helped organize the event.

"The celebration was a success," said Nelson. "[That] hip-hop is a unifying force for youth and adults, is evident in the turn out. Teachers brought their students and tested them on what they learned from the exhibition. And from this moment onward, we hope they continue to learn and question popular assumptions about hip-hop. The members of the first hip-hop generation are having children, and we want our children to know the true spirit and history that gave birth to the culture. We demonstrated hip-hop can be presented without always having to appeal to the lowest common denominator."

Published: Jun 23, 2005
Last modified: Jun 22, 2005

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