Culture heads, social media influencers, teens, tweens and even Baby Boomers – a collective of diverse, music aficionados – continue to weigh in on and make plans for the concerts, conversations, conferences – even conclaves – that will collectively pay homage to the upcoming 50th anniversary of hip-hop.
In a masterful assortment of samples, shoutouts and intricately devised collaborations, DJ Kool Herc, while hosting a back-to-school party on August 11, 1973, for his sister Cindy at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, caused a paradigm shift in music while unknowingly laying the foundation of hip-hop. It has since evolved into a musical genre that has shocked the world with artists who, like master quilt makers, combined poetic genius, insightful political criticism and beats that just wouldn’t quit – all the while standing on the shoulders of classic riffs, rhythms, rhymes, and soundtracks from the past in creating new masterpieces.
And while I, too, will join in several celebratory salutes marking the birth of hip-hop, I must admit that my admiration and support of the genre only accounts for the formative years, the first 20 years of its growth.
As a point of reference, I need to state that in 1973, I was only 13 years old, a Black man-child living in Motown – a city whose music was dominated by boy and girl groups serenading the sisters and brothers in harmonic splendor with songs that provided encouragement for the lost, instructions for young lovers, provocations for new members of the Black Power movement, and soliloquies in honor of the dearly departed.
In August of 1973, topping the charts were songs whose lyrics and melodic refrains would be emblazed upon my soul.
Diana Ross said to her beloved, “Touch Me in the Morning,” Eddie Kendricks, formerly of the Temptations advised, “Keep on Truckin,’” the Four Tops asked, “Are You Man Enough,” The Spinners queried, “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love,” while Marvin Gaye stated simply, “Let’s Get it On.”
I was just becoming interested in girls, sprouting upwards like a mighty oak tree that enabled me to suddenly see above the crowd, learning how to use a razor for the first time as unruly hairs began to form above my lips and on my cheeks and chin while the resonance of my voice dropped several octaves – from alto to tenor – then from baritone to bass.
My first years of manhood and four years of college matriculation were sparked by a mysterious, unforeseen influence – hip-hop – my first recollection occurring in 1979 with the sounds of Sugarhill Gang whose opening lyrics, “I said a-hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip-hip-hop,” set to the bass line of Chic’s “Good Times,” shocked me to my core and kept me repeating words and phrases while simultaneously gyrating with my girl on the dance floor.
By the time I had earned my undergraduate degree in 1982, two wizards of social commentary, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, whose lyrics and party music took shape with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on “The Message,” had me hooked to this new form of music.
That was the beginning as others soon followed, from De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Naughty by Nature to N.W.A., the Notorious B.I.G. and my favorite, Tupac Shakur – a gifted young brother whose talents included philosophical and political insight far beyond his age and a unique delivery marked by the ebbs and flows of poetic mastery.
Back in the day, in 1968, Diana Ross & the Supremes prophesied with the song, “Love Child,” warning us of the myriad of problems that would inevitably arise if young, unwed lovers, ignoring the wisdom of their elders, refused to “wait” and brought a child into the world. But it would be a far different world, a far more treacherous, unforgiving society, when Tupac shared the tragic, not-so-uncommon tale of a teenaged, unwed mother who, after giving birth alone, felt she had no other option than to throw her newborn child into the garbage with “Brenda’s Got a Baby” on his debut album in 1991.
Last weekend, fans of Beyonce, the most determined and dedicated members of the clan more often referred to as the Beehive, recently took over the streets, watering holes and all the highways and by-ways in and around the District, for the megastar’s two-day Renaissance tour. Unfortunately, I was unable to snag a press ticket and certainly could not and would not pay the exorbitant price of a ticket – even the nosebleed seats were reportedly going at $300. Sometimes, it’s nice to shake your groove thang and party like it’s 1999 – even though it’s really 2023 – but I’m more inclined to follow the advice of Earth, Wind and Fire who said, “keep your head to the sky. ”Thanks, Beyonce, for “Single Ladies,” “Baby Boy,” “To the Left,” and “Love on Top,” but I have already decided that I’ll be satisfied watching your show via a bootleg video broadcast on someone’s Facebook page or YouTube video. Instead, I stayed home and listened to old school hip-hop music, counting down the days until its 50th anniversary on Saturday, August 11.
Sure, there will be a concert at Yankee Stadium later this month that promises to bring all the icons of hip-hop together under one roof. And there will be plenty of other smaller shows that will feature an assortment of both old school and newer voices in the genre. But the good news remains, at least from what I can gather, that I won’t have to delay paying my rent so I can buy a ticket to a show or two. Most of the shows and events, in fact, will be free.
The bottom line — I’m more interested in removing the clutter and freeing my mind, digging a position deeply and securely in the sand in preparation for tomorrow’s battles against black boys and men brothers who have lost all hope and live from day to day to meanspirited white supremacists — keeping my head up, as Tupac advised, in a world that still has no love for the Black man (or woman) whose ancestors once ruled the planet.