Uncovering the Bronx Mix that Gave Birth to Hip-Hop

Professor Michael Partis gave a guest lecture about the Bronx’s contributions to the roots of rap and hip-hop. “Blackness is erased from the history of the Bronx,” he says. (Photo by Marisol Dí­az/The Riverdale Press)

Professor Michael Partis teaches ethnic studies at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and does graduate research for the Bronx African American History Project. On February 27, at the tail end of Black History Month, he stopped by the College of Mount Saint Vincent and gave a lecture complete with beats and songs on the contributions of Bronxites to the now global genres of rap and hip-hop, reports Sarina Trangle for The Riverdale Press.

Partis’ lecture stemmed from his research into the Bronx’s black roots, a past he believes many fail to acknowledge or emphasize.

He said people often discuss the Bronx as a prosperous borough that attracted Irish, Italian and Jewish residents during the early 1900s. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway from 1948 to 1963 cut through neighborhoods, displacing families and initiating a period of white flight. In the decades since, Mr. Partis said, the Bronx became known as a predominately Latino borough plagued by poverty.

This narrative skips over the 1940s, when the Bronx was home to the eighth largest black community in America, and the 50s and 60s, when an influx of Cuban, Puerto Rican and West Indian immigrants moved in.

In 2000, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture published a book on the history of black New Yorkers. Mr. Partis said three of the book’s nearly 500 pages focused on blacks in the Bronx.

“Blackness is erased from the history of the Bronx,” Mr. Partis said, noting that this oversight continues as scholars, “speak about it as if the Latino people don’t identify as black or as if they’re not people of African descent.”

The Bronx African American History Project staff has been working to supplement the limited information on black Bronxites by interviewing former and current black Bronxites, chronicling the research and publicly speaking about the work.

The lecture covered Morrisania, a Bronx neighborhood that runs from East 157th Street and Prospect Avenue up to East 170th Street, and described by Partis as the “hub” of black life and music. Black and West Indian immigrants started moving into the area in the 1940s. Later, with Latinos, West Indians and Africans descending on the neighborhood, music icons like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz appeared at local jazz clubs. The percussive sounds of reggae and salsa started influencing the smooth rhythms of Motown and R&B. Eventually, “break-beats” emerged, giving way to hip-hop.

Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, who moved to Morris Heights and adopted the stage name DJ Kool Herc, and Kevin Donovan, who grew up in Soundview and went by the name DJ Afrika Bambaataa, helped develop “break-beats” by isolating the rhythm sections of songs and looping beats together.

To demonstrate this, Partis played “Wheels of Steel” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, found in the video below.

It wasn’t just the mixing of musical genres that gave rise to hip-hop, but also the fusing of oral traditions of spoken word and music, and of different songs.

Musicians incorporated spoken word, a tradition of reciting poetry aloud, when rappers began rhyming over break-beats.

As an example of the fusion, Mr. Partis played “When the Revolution Comes,” by The Last Poets, who recite lines over the steady syncopation of drums.

The culmination of hip-hop emerged with sampling, when artists began mixing verses and melodies from one song into another.

Listen to The Last Poets’ “When the Revolution Comes”:

This idea of mixing and fusion, in hip-hop, and beyond, concluded the lecture. Professor Partis added at the end that the Bronx, as Trangle notes, “could serve as an example of how diversity fuels innovation.”

“What the story of the Bronx is is how those differences come together,” he said. “It created contemporarily one of the most popular kinds of music.”

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