An essay about giving thanks to those MCs who saw our struggle and provided us a moment of bliss, which so happened to lend to the voice of rebellious wordsmiths from the Bronx.
I would not consider myself a melophile, an obscure one-word term to define those who consider themselves enthusiasts or fanatics for the art of music. This can diversify by genre, of course, as few are probably just general aficionados of craft. More probably identify with specific genres, able to rattle off the chords of rock n’ rolls more irreverent characters or the rhythms of pop’s arcane originators. I do not belong in either group.
My love for music is human and intrinsically environmental like most; almost all of the songs and artists I love derive from someone else’s playlist or the push of the mainstream’s taste. Rarely do I actually seek out a new voice out of a yearning for originality, so it’s wise to suggest my musical expertise does not dive deep.
That said, one musical genre I developed a love for as a kid that I remember discovering via the early days of Youtube was hip-hop. At first, it was just the mid-aughts’ popular names: 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Lil John, Chris Brown, Nelly, Rick Ross, and Eminem. As I got older, the deeper down the rabbit hole, I fell and was introduced to older MCs like Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Lauryn Hill, DMX, NWA, De la Soul, and Wu-Tang Clan. Part of the reason for this musical introduction was the magic of the internet, hitting me at an impressionable moment; another was an act of rebellion to my family’s mason-dixie bigotry.
More ironic is the subsequent fact the discovering one form of Black music led to me stumbling upon hip-hop’s forefathers: R&B and soul music. Then I would be exposed to the legends of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, and other pillars of Black music.
And that is worth mentioning, Hip-Hop, the same as soul, R&B (Rhythm & Blues), and pop to a large degree are cultural products of Black America. Soul originates from the church pews of black gospel with the hymns and calls for freedom from the bondage of American systemic injustice, and R&B spawned from the segregated dance halls of the ’40s and ’30s where Black musicians who had no chance of engaging their music with the masses were creatively combining the swings of jazz with the poetry of blues. The same strain of bigoted history led to the rebellious freestyle verbiage of hip-hop in the late ’70s, but not without the help of another genre intrinsically tied to the LGBTQ community: Disco.
Disco stems from a series of epiphanies and communities, none of which can claim a singular authority on its creation. New York nightspots played for all kinds of backgrounds and races of people and music lovers, but after the 1969 Stonewall riots, disco began to take on a subsequent meaning beneath its grooves and slides.
For the first time, the dancefloor was becoming a potent platform of self-expression and sexual identity. Rather than radio, clubs were breaking records, all of which was enabling female, gay, black, and Latinx artists to define themselves with fluidity instead of singularity. It quickly became a rebellious genre of music with calls for men to take back their power. Writer Arwa Haider picks apart this history in a 2018 article she wrote for BBC, titled Why disco should be taken seriously. For the LGTBQ community, it is intrinsic to our expression.
Before the early 1980s, it was illegal to be gay in public in New York City. Even where it was legal, it was socially illegal. If you and your partner expressed your relationship on the public stage, you could expect to be verbally berated and more likely assaulted by your surrounding citizens. Similar to living in today’s modern lens, to be queer in public was to let everyone judge you for being lesser than your heterosexual counterparts, primarily through the lens of American masculinity.
However, in the 1970s, these nightspots would play host to various LGBTQ ancestors expressing themselves authentically on the dance floor. American bigotry seemed to be replaced by musical articulation’s of euphoria — men danced with men, and women danced with women. And soon, DJ’s got wise to this, introducing the ingenuity of hooking up a crossfader to some turntables and freestyling the music to never end, which would afford their queer patrons to be publicly infused with their partner of choice for the splendid few minutes of queer freedom.
Faders were not a tool acquired by amateur artists though. Radiostations and nightclubs were the only ones regularly expected to have them, but on July 13, 1977, lightning would strike an electricity transmission line in New York City, causing the line’s automatic circuit breaker to kick in. Usually, the electricity would simply be diverted to another line, no harm, no foul — then the second bolt of lightning struck. Electric lines started turning themselves off, then more lines failed, then the whole system faltered, and New York City would be blacked-out for nearly eight hours.
At the time, New York City was undergoing a financial crisis in which they had already requested a federal bailout from then-President Gerald Ford, who denied their request. The ever-changing social landscape of gay and women’s rights intertwined with Black and Latinx voices demands for equity was met with tension and backlash. So when the city went dark, chaos erupted with widespread looting.
Amongst the shopping list were two very particular items of choice: turntables and mixers.
After liberating these tools for the creation of Boogie Down Bronx, these proto-wizards began to reap the rewards of their efforts by breakdancing on every street corner. They soon discovered that amidst the instrumental break where the drummer got wicked and most would dance before the lyrics returned, they could extend the break. But they needed a way to fill the time as they awaited their turn on the proverbial cardboard stage. To do so, some enterprising wordsmith or two would plug in a mic and start telling stories to the beat of the music. It was slam poetry with music, but told through the lens of those oppressed and assaulted by the system around them.
Joe Schloss, the hip-hop researcher from City University, when asked about the ’77 blackout’s effect as a catalyst for hip-hop answered,
“I think it’s true, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind that basically, hip-hop history is an oral history at this point and that it’s all mythology in some sense — the true stories as well as the false stories.”
Ironically, that verbiage of rebellion against systemic oppression arose from the instruments that provided a fleeting moment of freedom for those fighting the same fight in a different way. If not for the cocktail of gay love, the failures of an energy company, and some thievery in the shadow of a blacked-out city, one of the most dominant pop cultural forces would never have been born.
Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls, a black scholar from New York City, has written about Black popular culture for more than ten years now, and her writings for Oxford University titled Queer Hip Hop: A Brief Historiography, goes into further detail about the integration and tethering relationship between hip-hop and queerness. This is not to suggest, as she highlights, that hip-hop is intrinsically queer, which is a claim that would certainly irritate or even enrage some artists and fans as the masculinity of hip-hop has been a featurette inherent to its freestyling origins.
But one does not exist without the other, as it was the hidden fortress of the disco dance floor that provided asylum for queer refugees from the hostile bigotry of America that led to musical technology innovation by empathizing MCs. That act of kindness acted as the hidden entryway for the poets of the Bronx, and soon the wordsmiths of the west coast, and later the lyricists of the inner-city youth. All of whom would step out on a global stage and raise a middle finger to a world of oppression and say their name loud and proud.
In that time, hip-hop has evolved and introduced subgenres beneath its umbrella and introduced us to the voices of some of the greatest artists in the history of music, but all of it originated from one DJ who saw the struggle endured by queer folk and provided an extra beat as a chance for us to dance with those we love for just a few more minutes. Even before it began, hip-hop was the voice of revolutions.