Dear hip hop,
Looking at the flier for what’s considered your first party is a trip.
Across the top of what essentially looks like a weathered index card reads, “A DJ Kool Herc Party” written in block-lettered wild-style graffiti. Just below it, “Back To School Jam” penned in black Sharpie, bookended by three stars on each side as if calling out to all the local celebrities.
Herc’s definitive tag, complete with pupils inside the O’s and a smiley face underneath, reinforces who’s throwing the end-of-summer celebration.
Admission was 25 cents for ladies and 50 cents for the fellas. Yes, even in 1973, the homies paid double.
The place and date are also scrawled in black Sharpie: 1520 Sedgwick Ave. “Rec Room” on Aug. 11, 1973. A place and date now forever etched into the talisman of American history.
At that time, it was little more than a party flier. Fifty years later, it resonates most deeply as a birth certificate.
As you’ve reached your semicentennial, as Chuck D powerfully vocalized on “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” you, dear hip hop, have improbably reached a tier where no tear should ever fall.
Your rise is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Really think about this: A ragtag group of rebellious inner city youths infatuated with MCing, DJing, graffiti and breaking sparked a fuse that ignited the world bringing hope, opportunity, and inspiration to the far reaches of the globe.
In those early years, you only existed in parks and parties and could be seen bombed on subway trains winding through urban infrastructure. You weren’t on the radio. You certainly weren’t on television. You weren’t yet mainstream. You were the alternative.
To put it in perspective, Chuck D gave a great anecdote about how unimaginable hip hop’s commercial rise felt in 1979, the same year “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang first cracked major rotation. Speaking with The Associated Press, Chuck described the shock he felt hearing a rap record. “I was like, ‘Oh, they finally did it,’” he said.
“They were talking all summer long that rap records were gonna happen. I was like, ‘It’s inconceivable.’ How could a rap be a record? Because it was a three or four-hour party thing. It was a thing where there were raps. There were breaks. There were dances. It was all kinds of s**t. How could you make a rap record? I couldn’t see it. Nobody could see it. And when it happened, boom!”
The idea that a “rap record” was a foreign concept that your earliest stakeholders couldn’t see bubbling on the horizon sounds as crazy as thinking about streaming revenue in the early 2000s. And from that unassuming beginning, you’ve grown into much more than just a genre of music, or a style of dance, or art or rhyming. You’re a full-fledged culture, a manifestation of human intellectual achievement celebrated collectively that’s become an avenue away from poverty and political futility for millions worldwide.
Forty-one years ago, for example, Melle Mel rapped, “Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care” on “The Message”— widely considered the most important song in hip hop history. The gravity of those bars perfectly encapsulated the traumatizing circumstances so many endured as they did their best to better themselves and their families, resonating with everyone who’s ever felt discarded by the system. “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how we keep from going under” is possibly the most visceral hook to ever saunter out of the culture.
Twenty-two days ago, Senator Chuck Schumer delivered remarks on the Senate floor officially announcing that Aug. 11 will forever be known as Hip Hop Celebration Day. During his remarks, Senator Schumer stated:
“And over the decades, hip hop has transcended language, race, age, both geographic and socioeconomic barriers. Many people can attest to the fact that hip hop actually changed their lives for the better, gave them purpose and meaning. I know many of them myself, many of whom are New York City and Bronx residents. So, hip hop is great. It’s a uniquely American art form that quickly blossomed into a global movement and we are proud, proud, proud, proud today that this resolution, honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop, has passed.”
From makeshift fliers to pissy stairwells, to the Senate Chamber and everywhere in between, you’ve changed lives for the better, hip hop. You’re a unifying force sitting triumphantly on a tier where no tears should ever fall.
Critics considered this culture a fad, one that would fade away with disco. But you beat the odds then, just like you did in the mid-2000s when the phrase “Hip hop is dead” crept into the ethos. For the first half of 2023, cultural critics looked at the dearth of rap tracks cracking the top spot on the Billboard charts as a sign that hip hop is dying again. But you’ve grown so much now that chart-topping mavens from other nations carry your flag everywhere they roam. From Burna Boy to Bad Bunny, just like Bad Boy, hip hop can’t be stopped.
Hip hop moves with the people. Where the people go, the culture follows. And some seedier sides of humanity — violence, crime, sexism, exploitation — inevitably find their way into other aspects of culture. Where in the 1990s the loss of icons like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Big L, and Eazy-E felt like hip hop’s darkest days, this generation has weathered the loss of icons like Nipsey Hussle, XXXTentacion, Pop Smoke, Young Dolph, Juice WRLD, and Mac Miller. Whether from gun violence, drug abuse, or an unhealthy lifestyle, some unfortunate patterns still follow us like a plague.
Where hip hop has inspired since its inception, commercialization has always left many feeling that their art was stolen or exploited. Many fingered the record label as the Big Bad of the 1980s and 1990s. Many finger streaming platforms as the Big Bad of the present day. Where some felt women fully exercising their agency was a sign of the downfall of society in the 1990s and 2000s, many feel similarly with the rise of a new crop of empowered women seizing the microphone, fully exercising their agency. But you’ve never been above criticism, hip hop, because you’ve always understood that caring enough to critique is the foundation for a vibrant community. The haters gonna hate, anyway. You’ve always understood that the promise of a better tomorrow lies through education, knowledge of self, and, like sampling, building off of the brilliance of yesteryear.
So happy 50th anniversary, hip hop. You’re on a tier where no tears should ever fall. My hope is that the millions of us forever enriched by your glory of the past 50 years continue to endure and inspire in your name over the next 50.
And as a member of the hip hop community, I hope we learn to treat each other better.
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