The music of the late 1970’s in New York City, a time that marked the official end of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, was disco—a rejection of rock, and a celebration of luxury, sex, dance, freedom, and self-expression. While disco films such as Saturday Night Fever, including music by the Bee Gees, were popular downtown, post-war America wasn’t as kind to the minorities of the outer four boroughs of New York City. For black communities uptown, President Reagan in the early 80’s would describe their neighborhoods as a “disgrace,” looking like an atomic bomb had hit it. After all, the South Bronx was burning, but it was here that hip-hop was born.
In the recreation room of his apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Ave., South Bronx, NY, a Jamaican-born DJ under the name of Kool Herc threw the first ever official hip-hop party. Spinning records by James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, and Chic, funk was the predominate choice for parties up in the Bronx, opposed to disco downtown. DJ Kool Herc realized that the dancer’s favorite parts of his parties were when the vocals in the songs dropped out and only the drum beat played.
Herc figured out a way to loop these moments, known as the “breaks,” by changing between two record players. As one record reached the end of a break in the song, he’d cue the second record player loaded with the break from another song. Thus, Herc could play break after break with this two-turntable technique he called the “Merry-Go-Round.” The three songs most famously used at these parties were James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,“ “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine“ and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock.“
DJ Kool Herc wasn’t alone however, he also had an MC known as Coke la Rock. As the MC, standing for master of ceremonies, la Rock joined Kool Herc onstage at Herc’s sister Cindy’s birthday party for “toasting,” monotone rhythmic singing from Jamaican tradition that includes stories, commentary on the audience, and boastful comedy.
For Coke la Rock, he was originally just trying to get him and his friend’s laid. He’d get on the mic, talk about people in the audience, and joke about their car’s being double-parked (even though no one owned a car), so that the women at the party would think they were impressive for actually owning a car. It wasn’t for some time that Coke la Rock would turn his crowd shout-out’s into improvisational poetry, with classic phrases like “you rock and you don’t stop” entering the party MC lexicon.
Soon after, people visiting DJ Kool Herc’s parties tried it out for themselves. New DJ’s began to emerge in the Bronx, most-notably, a young and impressionable teenager named Kevin Donovan, who would one day be known as Afrika Bambaataa. For the South Bronx, gang life in these burnt down and crime-ridden neighborhoods took over as the law, with Donovan as its warlord. Building up the ranks and expanding the turf, the Black Spades quickly grew to become the largest gang in the city.
After winning a trip to Africa through an essay contest he entered in high school, Donovan’s worldview shifted. Changing his name to Afrika Bambaataa, named after a South African Zulu chief by the name of Bhambatha, famously known to have led an armed rebellion in 1906, Bambaataa began hosting hip-hop parties and creating a community to draw kids out of gangs that he called the Universal Zulu Nation, inspired by the movie Zulu, his trip to Africa, the Black Panther movement, and the spread of Islam. During this time, the hip-hop community formed a culture around the music, affiliated with break dancing, graffiti, and new technology.
One of the original masters of this new technology was Joseph Saddler, a.k.a. the legendary Grandmaster Flash. By marking where the breaks started on the record with a crayon, matched with a duplicate record on the other turntable, Flash could keep the break playing on a continual loop and switch between songs almost seamlessly. He didn’t just play the music, he played the technology. Flash was also backed by his Furious Five: Cowboy, Melle Mel, Kid Creole, Rahiem, Scorpio, and his apprentice, Grand Wizard Theodore, who is widely acknowledged as the inventor of scratching.
Bringing hip-hop downtown to a new audience, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five often competed with Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zula Nation (DJ Jazzy Jay, Kool DJ Red Alert, and DJ Grand Mixer DXT). It was at these shows in Manhattan that most people who hadn’t been introduced to hip-hop at the parties in the South Bronx first experienced hip-hop. They had seen people “rapping” over disco music, as DJ Hollywood was famously known for in the clubs, but it was nothing more than to get people engaged and dancing, something like what Coke la Rock did for DJ Kool Herc’s parties.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five took it a step further than simple MC’s. Inspired by The Jacksons and Rick James, artists that would eventually co-headline shows with them, hip-hop was elevated to the platform of a staged show, with pre-written rap lyrics and choreographed routines. Cowboy, a member of the Furious Five, is also widely acknowledged for coining the term “hip-hop,” though Coke la Rock and DJ Hollywood had reportedly used the term while they were scatting over music then known only as “disco-rap.”
When a blackout hits New York City lasting two whole days, the ensuing riots lead way to looting, with audio equipment like turntables and amplifiers taking up the majority of equipment stolen. Thereafter, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa start seeing some competition as two major hip-hop groups became dozens seemingly overnight.
One of the new groups, known as the Cold Crush Brothers, go through tons of names and line-up changes, at one time including the first female emcee Sha-Rock and Rahiem of the Furious Five, but in ’79 the group included DJ Tony Tone, Easy A.D., Kay Gee, and most importantly Grandmaster Caz, once known as Cassanova Fly. He would later be featured in the movie Wild Style alongside Grandmaster Flash, as well as have bootlegged audio tapes from rap battles circulate all over the city, but his greatest claim to fame was when a new hip-hop group by the name of the Sugarhill Gang joined the scene and did something no other rap group had done before.
When Sylvia Robinson of Sugarhill Records was looking for the next big sound, she heard Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood’s apprentice, and saw value in hip-hop. She found her talent in Big Bank Hank, a former manager of Grandmaster Caz, after she heard him rapping along to one of Caz’s verses from a bootleg Cold Crush Brothers tape at a pizza shop. She asked him if he’d like to join the Sugarhill Gang, a rap group she was going to put together. The song to be recorded was called “Rapper’s Delight” and while it would also feature two other MC’s and go on to be one of the most influential songs in all of hip-hop, it was also one of the most controversial.
For starters, recording hip-hop onto vinyl records was something that was unheard of in the rap community. For most, it was a street and party art culture, and turning it into something profitable was either looked down upon or rejected as an inaccurate representation of the hip-hop community. For the mainstream audience however, it was the first time they had heard hip-hop on a widely successful vinyl recording.
There was also some dispute that the real first hip-hop song ever recorded was “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by the Fatback Band, but the overwhelming success of “Rapper’s Delight” over-shadowed the song due to its place at #4 on the U.S. Hot Soul Singles chart by the end of 1979. While the rap world was dealing with “Rapper’s Delight” and the Sugarhill Gang labeled as innovators of music, since most people had never heard hip-hop before its release, another issue arose: the fact that the lyrics were stolen.
The story goes, that after Big Bank Hank was asked to be part of the Sugarhill Gang, he went to ask Grandmaster Caz for some rhymes for the recording. Caz handed him his notebook of rhymes with the supposed understanding that he would be compensated and credited at a later time, which never happened. Upon hearing his own words dropped on the recording, Caz and the rest of the hip-hop world were stunned.
Hank’s verse begins with him letter-for-letter spelling out Caz’s original name, Casanova Fly: “check it out, I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y.” In an interview with the New York Post in 2014, Grandmaster Caz said that he never did anything because he “didn’t know about suing people, or lawyers or publishing or royalties” since he “was doing hip-hop before hip-hop was the music business,” but the rest of the rap world knew that Hank’s lines came from Caz. Thus, our first Rapper of the Year is none other than Grandmaster Caz.
1979 Rapper of the Year: Grandmaster Caz
While DJ Kool Herc, Coke la Rock, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash birthed and created great stage shows to popularize and expand the movement of hip-hop and rap music, it was Grandmaster Caz on the Cold Crush Brothers bootleg tapes that everyone was listening to in 1979. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa wouldn’t reach their career peaks until their records debuted later in 1982.
The tape of Grandmaster Caz rapping as Casanova Fly and DJ’ing at the same time, which he was also heralded for, is what Big Bank Hank was listening to when he was asked to be part of the Sugarhill Gang (a group that would record the first major charting hip-hop hit “Rapper’s Delight,” which incorporated stolen lyrics written by Grandmaster Caz). Caz would go on to star and battle Flash in the film Wild Style, and forever be remembered as hip-hop’s first major lyricist.
1979 – Hip-Hop Family Tree
Records Released in 1979:
Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight“
Next –> 1980 – Rap’s First Gold Record