Hip hop heads around the globe can thank early New York street gangs for the existence of their favorite genre. Let me explain before you log off…
In the 1950’s, New York gangs took over Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx, and wars were mostly found over territory and women. They were often divided by ethnic groups such as Blacks, Italians, Irish and Puerto Ricans who made up the estimated 6,000 gang members and the hundreds of gangs throughout the city. Fights were called rumbles and while fists were used, guns were the weapon of choice.
The gangs that rose up in the 50’s exploded in numbers in the 70’s – the most prominent being The Savage Skulls, The Savage Nomads, The Black Spades, and The Black Assassins. Drugs, guns, and violence of all kinds infiltrated the city, bringing fear and destruction to the communities at large. They became such a problem that new laws were passed for more consistent incarceration.
Before the boroughs transformed, gang members tagged (signed) their territories, often to provoke local rivals. Tags were taken up by hired writers and quickly transformed into graffiti and art. Graffiti artists made up their own names and tagged them throughout the city and on subway cars.
As hip hop grew in the 1970’s, prominent DJ’s claimed specific territories as their own with help from crew and gang members. Gang members or off-shoots often participated in dance, graffiti, DJing, and in their off time, violence. While this brought attention to the core elements of hip hop, gang activity did not slow down.
If not for Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and the originators of hip hop, these art forms would have gone to waste. The culture and community became too strong to overthrow, and music became the driving force of unity in the streets.
How did it all happen? Stay tuned for part 2!