Jeff Chang’s detailed chronicle Can’t Stop Won’t Stop served as the occasion for a gathering February 23 at the Bronx Museum of Art—not too far, appropriately, from where rap originated. But Chang stepped back and let those who lived it tell their tales to a local audience of mostly teens, who obviously weren’t around when “Rapper’s Delight” came out.
While some expected a musical throw-down, that only came with a back-in-the-day set from DJ Jazzy Jay featuring JB, P-Funk, “Soul Makossa,” and obscure r&b and funk titles, painting as intriguing a picture of the time as the panel that followed. Though moderator (and noted choreographer) Popmaster Fabel set up questions about race conflicts, sexism, and the roots of gang wars, what often stood out was DJ Kool Herc’s immodesty (“I am the blueprint”) and Jay’s crowd pumping (“Somebody, everybody screeeeeam!”). Still, Herc’s old saw about music bringing people together was put in context, as he related how turf battles coincided with Vietnam protests and the Attica rebellion. For these DJs, music as an alternative was pushed by anti-gang gangs like Zulu Nation (which includes Jay and Fabel), promoting self-awareness and culture, as well as strict fathers who threatened their kids with domestic violence if they joined in on street violence. Even police approved of the parties, finding it easier to monitor people gathered in one place.
Jay’s later complaints about today’s lyrics had mixed impact. Bling worship isn’t new, since rap bragged about fame and money even in the early days, when fame and money were only imagined. But gangsta worship was a fair target for people who lived through perils much greater than the new breed.
As rap was blooming, panelist Benjamin Melendez was leading a rock-funk band called the Ghetto Brothers, drawing influence from “Sly, Grand Funk, Chicago, and the Chipmunks.” He, too, related heartfelt tales of how he and other activists brokered peace treaties among gangs despite the pressure to draw blood for any beefs. Maybe Black History Month is as good an excuse as any to briefly recall these old-schoolers. For now, though, we’ll go back to making heroes and millionaires of their progeny.