When did you fall in love with hip hop?

Source: LSA Magazine

Professor Stephen Ward is leading an LSA celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip hop that’s as vibrant and multitudinous as the art form itself: in the classroom, online, in Detroit, on a mixtape, and in an art gallery.

Once upon a time—in the Bronx, August 11, 1973, to be precise—Cindy Campbell and her big brother threw a house party. Cindy was a teenager and needed back-to-school clothes. By charging a couple of bucks for entry to the party, Cindy knew she could make enough cash to start the school year in style. Her brother, a few years older, obliged her by serving as DJ. He went by Kool Herc, and that night, as the tale goes, he changed the world.

Whether it was spontaneous or an act of divine inspiration, no one is certain. What we do know is this: At the party that night, Kool Herc unveiled a technique he called “the merry-go-round,” and when Kool Herc’s new sound hit the floor, the world around him changed.

What was Kool Herc playing at the Back to School Jam? Likely James Brown. “It wasn’t a Kool Herc party without James Brown,” says one regular at the siblings’ parties, in a video in LSA Professor Stephen Ward’s online archive of hip hop history. “Clap your hands, stomp your feet,” the witness to the dawn of hip hop says in the video, smiling.

OK, back to the party. So Kool Herc put two turntables beside each other, and he played the break on one turntable, then played it again on the other turntable, using a mixer and his hands to loop the most danceable part of the song, seemingly stopping time, and sending those teenagers into ecstatic movement. Clap your hands, stomp your feet. Clap your hands, stomp your feet. Hip hop was born. Or so the story goes.

“My view is that the 50th anniversary of hip hop is a happy fiction,” Ward says, with a puckish grin. Ward—Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and an associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies and in the Residential College—explains that the birth of hip hop probably didn’t happen at that party, or on that very day. It’s likely, innovative as DJ Kool Herc was, that many hip hop artists were emerging at that time, influencing and inspiring each other.

“I’m not saying it’s so much a fiction as it is an amplification of revision. It’s accurate to say hip hop began at this period, but I think it’s just that this party flier happened to survive.”

A copy of the flier invitation to Cindy Campbell’s Back to School Jam, faded now, is part of Ward’s syllabus for his hip hop course. Though hip hop likely didn’t spring fully formed from Kool Herc’s merry-go-rounding hands that night, à la Athena born of Zeus’s forehead, the gesture toward the apocryphal tale conjures some of the magic of hip hop, and the reverence Ward has for it. The relic is part of the story of hip hop that’s bigger than one night.

Do You Still Love H.E.R.?

In the LSA Course Guide, Ward’s class is called “The History and Evolution of Hip Hop.” But everyone (this class fills up fast, and boasts 200 students and four graduate student instructors each term) refers to the class by its guiding question: When did you fall in love with hip hop?

In pursuit of that question, Ward guides students through the history, cultural moments, and political and social movements of the last 50 years—all of which affected and became the subject matter for hip hop artists. The question itself comes from a film Ward teaches as part of the class, 2002’s Brown Sugar, a hip hop classic that—like the story of hip hop itself—is a love story.

“That is the question we are going to ask, not just of ourselves, but of the country, and of the world: When did they fall in love with hip hop, and when did it become the global sensation that it is today?” Ward says.

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