The origins of Hip-hop, as with the origins of any grassroots cultural effort among marginalized people, are murky. Plenty of people claiming to be The First of something, or The One Who Inspired ____. Plenty of space for legends and for confusion.
But there are a few certainties. One of them is that the people of the South Bronx were fed up with the gang violence of the early 1970s. Another is that the gangs (who were, after all, part of the people) were also fed up with the gang violence. It doesn't help a gang to lose its members left and right, after all. So they decided to do something unusual: instead of coming to blows over their differences, they would compete by performing. Dance and music, and the like.
It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, after all. Better to build something positive than to negate a negative.
The cultural space that the people of the South Bronx created was fertile ground for musical experimentation. As a result, the decade saw the rise of record-scratching, emcees, and sampling of breaks and beats to form prototypical hip-hop.
That's the history you can find in the latest books.
But I know something about Hip-hop in the South Bronx that they don't often talk about.
See, when Kool Moe Dee spat hot fire at Busy Bee in 1981, he basically invented the modern Rap Battle. Busy bee went in expecting the battle to be "let's see who can work the crowd better, who can get the most applause, who's the most fun and interesting." Kool Moe went in thinking "This guy is a lazy bum who makes people applaud by name-dropping Burger King and Wendy's, I oughta cuss him out right to his face." Which is what he did. In rhyme.
And the Hip-hop world took notice, because here was something new on the scene, dramatic and guaranteed to sell tickets.
And the Underworld took notice, because here was an opportunity to do something new on their scene.
I tried to find Kool Moe, but he's too big and famous now for little old me to talk to. So I spoke to a fellow named Ralph Isley, who claims to have been Kool Moe's friend in the eighties. And he said, "That was an interesting year for Kool Moe and the more...supernaturally oriented of the South Bronx. People like me. 'Cause the next time Kool Moe got on stage, they were about to start off and -- this is the competititon where the cameras shorted out, you know the one I'm talking about -- there was a big POOF of smoke on stage! And there was this monster between Kool Moe and King Krazy, all eyes and limbs and teeth! And we were all wondering what the damn thing was gonna do, and people were already starting for the exits, when it grabbed a microphone from Krazy and started rapping at him. It took me a while to realize that the monster was challenging Krazy. It must have taken Krazy a while longer, because he didn't have anything good ready. So the thing grabbed him and dragged him back to Hell.
"And then Kool Moe started rapping at the space where the thing had been, daring him to come back. Which he did. And then and there, the monster and Kool Moe had the first of the rap battles between the Underworld and the South Bronx.
"And we've been challenging them ever since. They seem to like it. You know how, if you try to summon a demon with a circle and candles and junk, and you get it all wrong, they get mad and make you explode? They don't do the same thing if you challenge them to a rap battle and lose. I think they enjoy being allowed to compete, you know, unbound, like equals, you know, instead of trapped by magic circles. You've got to be careful, of course. You've got to set up your parameters when you send your initial challenge. What you want, how you want it, where the demon can go, things like that. You've got to set out a wager. Maybe offer a nice bottle of Ripple for the small things, and your rent money for the big things. If you lose, that's the most they take. Unless you wagered something big that you can't actually pay, like your rent money. Then you get dragged off to hell. If you win...well, think of what Hell can do for you! A hell of a lot of stuff, right? Except fighting City Hall. They don't fight City Hall. Without a really big wager. And we of the South Bronx do not approve of human sacrifice, so you can put that idea right out of your head.
"And sometimes the demons show up and just want a chance for a rap battle, no stakes, just fun. It helps us keep our rhymes sharp.
"So we've got a better relationship with Hell than most communities. And I think that's a good realtionship to have...considering where most people go."
I suppose if I wanted a quick way to get to Hell, I could lose a rap battle. It's probably less painful than the normal route.