August 11, 2023, will mark the 50th anniversary of the house party largely credited with the creation of hip-hop. Although the various elements of what we’ve come to know as the world’s most popular and influential cultures were already taking root in the streets of New York City, the birthday party that Cindy and Clive Campbell (aka DJ Kool Herc) threw in the rec room of their apartment building became the widely accepted inception point of hip-hop in the history books.
Now, 50 years later, the musical innovations that grew out of that soiree and the block parties that followed it have become the foundation of a global phenomenon with branches on nearly every continent. Hip-hop, once thought to be a trend that would go the way of disco, has instead flourished, changing the way the world acts, dresses, and talks through multiple generations of musical evolution.
But it all started with the DJ, the one who played the breaks back-to-back to form the beats that all rap music, from early electro to G-Funk to trap and cloud rap, is built upon. So, who better to talk about the history of rap than one of its most prolific DJs (and producers), Just Blaze, whose experiences span nearly the breadth of hip-hop’s history? His memory for all things hip-hop is darn near photographic – or should I say “phonographic” (sorry) – and he’s got an ear for details that makes picking his brain a treasure hunt that always bears fruit.
“This is an art form that is truly organic, truly natural,” he says via Zoom. “It came from a place of struggle, as do many things in our community. And for something that we created from a place of struggle and not having, for it to be as lucrative… The money aspect is great, but to be as lucrative, but also just as influential, as it has become worldwide, it’s truly an astonishing thing to see.”
Just’s earliest memories of hip-hop stem all the way back to the early ‘80s when the first rap records were first finding their way to radio stations throughout the Tri-State area. The New Jersey-bred producer fell in love at first listen. “I remember my younger days when I was a literal kid, like six, seven years old, and discovering this music, only to be told by my elders, ‘Well, when we were kids, we thought Motown was going to last forever. And trust me, in 10 years it’ll be something else.” And that was 40 years ago, and we’re still here and stronger than ever and more powerful than ever.
But obviously, hip-hop has changed a lot in the decades since. Where once, all you needed was a four-track drum machine and a microphone, there’s a lot more technology involved in crafting a hit. While Sylvia Robinson brought in a session band to replay the riff from Chic’s “Good Times” on “Rapper’s Delight,” today’s producers have a wide array of samples to choose from, pulling liberally from any genre that strikes their fancy. Whether breakbeats or 808s, jazz samples, or pre-produced loops, there is any number of permutations the music can take.
Likewise, rappers themselves look vastly different from their forebears. Adidas tracksuits are a thing of the past; now, you might see a rapper from Atlanta decked out like a rock star, or one from Compton dressed like a vision of the far future. “Everything that’s old will be new again, everything that’s new will eventually get old,” Just says of the rapid evolution. “The first round of records were kind of emulations or recreations of what was happening in the parks. But then you enter that second generation of it being put on record, starting with ‘The Message’ or whatever. And then you fast-forward only three years later, two, three years later, and it’s Run DMC. All black. It looked like dudes from the streets as opposed to the previous generation that looked like dudes dressing like P-Funk.”
When he looks at where hip-hop is now, he very much recognizes tinges of records that he had a hand in himself. “Over the past two years, I’ve cleared so many samples of my records from the early 2000s,” he beams. “There’s kids rhyming over flips of Fabolous’ ‘Can’t Let You Go.’ There’s kids rhyming off of [Cam’ron’s] “Oh Boy.” I shouldn’t call them kids respectfully, but younger people rhyming off of records that I created in the early 2000s. You got R&B records that are flipping all the R&B records from the late ‘90s and early 2000s as well. So it’s all a cycle, right?”
And despite the new technologies that bring the music to the audience, he still sees a place for the original purveyors of the sound, the DJs. While Spotify rolls out algorithmic playlists and TikTok presages the breakaway hits of the future, Just Blaze knows that there’s just no replacing the living, breathing, person behind the turntables. Sometimes, someone just has to be able to feel the vibe.
“It started out where the DJ was at the forefront,” he recalls. “The emcees were kind of just the backup. They kept the party going. And those routines evolved to eventually provide the early building blocks for songs. Over time, that focus changed in certain genres. So obviously in hip hop, the focus remained on or started to shift towards the emcee for various reasons that are too long to get into here.”
“I look at other genres that have spawned out of similar traditions that hip-hop did, like house music today, which kind of traveled a similar parallel to hip-hop in terms of where it came from. It came from a place of struggle and not having much. A lot of times in that world, the DJ’s still the star of the show. You can have a number one record in the world, nobody knows who the singer is. They know who the producer/DJ was.”
But, he says, “You can never completely take the DJ out of the equation because hip-hop is still very much a street-level culture in many ways. Even though radio plays a different role than it did before the advent of streaming, many records were broken on the radio by DJs. A lot of records still break in the club. Who was running the club? DJs. Remove the DJ from the equation, a lot of these records don’t get the legs that they end up with to allow them to enjoy success…. You could never fully remove the DJ from the equation because like I said, it starts with the DJ.”
So, where does hip-hop go in the next 50 years? It’s proven its staying power. It’s driven ad campaigns, and fashion trends, and even formed the innovative backbone of many industries like tech – just look at AI, NFTs, streaming, and virtual rappers. Just, despite being a fountain of insight, doesn’t want to hazard a guess and end up looking like the elders who told him that hip-hop was just a fad.
“I’m not going to purport to know where hip hop goes in 50 years,” he demurs. “What I will say is, what I hope to see is a return to a bit more of balance. I have nothing against the music that the younger generation is making because I’m cognizant that I’m not the target audience. And one thing that I strongly dislike is when folks from previous generations, whether they be consumers or creators, try to downplay the music that the younger generations are making. It’s like, this music isn’t for you.”
Like a health-conscious person eating more nutritious food, getting more rest, and still occasionally indulging in a sweet treat, the folks who make up this culture are going to need to be more intentional about their choices. “I would like to see a return to balance when you could hear in one day, or in a two-hour span whether it was on TV or on the radio, you might catch Public Enemy, X-Clan, MC Hammer, De La Soul, Pharcyde, some local groups that were making noise,” Just advocates. “You would catch all that and then still hear the super popular… You might still catch Vanilla Ice on the radio too, for better or worse.”
This, he posits, is the key to ensuring that hip-hop sees its 100 birthday, which isn’t as far away as it might seem. After all, 1979 turned out to not be all that long ago. Time flies when you’re having fun – and at its core, that’s what hip-hop is all about. Happy birthday to the culture – and many more.
If you are heading to Austin for SXSW, @uproxx is throwing a cool event! pic.twitter.com/eQWJPYxzEn
— Philip Cosores (@Philip_Cosores) March 14, 2023