Beats Through History

It is hard to definitively say who was the first DJ or who was the first to invent Hip Hop music. As with so much about street and urban culture it is hard to separate myth from fact.

It appears that a number of artists started rapping at the same time. Keith Cowboy, the rapper with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is usually credited with being the first rapper. There were also other artists around at the time like Afrika Bambaataa and Lovebug Starski who were doing similar things.

Nothing is born out of a vacuum. Hip hop music has its roots in African-American culture. The griots of Western Africa were bands of travelling poets and singers who used similar cadences and rhythms to those found in Hip Hop music. As with so much in modern music such as Jazz and the Blues much of it can be traced back to Africa. Music is born out of a cultural exchange and musicians are in some ways conduits for musical fusions that represent a wider cultural movement.

Another example of this is the first DJ. In the 1970s block parties in poor African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York were popular. The early DJs had the most basic turntables and mixers. They played soul and funk which was popular at the time ? James Brown, Motown etc. It was DJ Kool Herc who was the first to really notice the importance of the percussion sections in the records that he played. He had the idea to extend the percussion sections by buying two identical vinyls and prolonging the beat by mixing one percussion interlude into another. The people at the parties loved it and so a legend was born.

DJ Kool Herc however was from Jamaica and he in turn was just emulating what was already being done with dub reggae in Jamaica – namely extending the breakbeat. They were called breakbeats because it was the part of the record when all the musicians took a break except for the drummer and percussionists. It is interesting to note that the breakbeats by such people as James Brown and the Winstons ‘Amen Brother’ are still being fruitfully re-worked by DJs and producers today.

From the humble beginnings of DJ music things progressed quickly. Hits such as ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill gang bought the new music to the mainstream.

In the 1980s there was a Renaissance of dance music. Disco music became formulaic and in reaction to this a new electronic beat sound was pioneered with Chicago House. Unlike Hip Hop music that used an African 3/4 beat, house music used a 4/4 beat. However, this soon developed into breakbeat dance music and then jungle and then drum and bass. At this point the two genres of house and hip hop were fused into a new and recognizable genre.

Now genres of dance music, breakbeat and hip hop are proliferating. It seems dance music, hip hop and breakbeats are morphing. The speed at which this is happening is no doubt a reflection of the speed in which computer technology is advancing. Through it all what cannot be emphasized too much is the importance of tradition and especially the tradition of African music. Africa is in many ways the soul of popular music in America.

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