While 1984 was the year Hip-Hop culture was embraced by both Hollywood & Madison Avenue while getting acknowledged by both mainstream media outlets and even Black music (albeit begrudgingly), it first broke nationally back in 1981.
1981 was year like none other as far as the nascent musical form of Rap was concerned. For one, since it first appeared on record in the Summer of 1979 then had its first Billboard hits in early 1980 it continued to grow in popularity all throughout the year. By January 1981, Blondie had released the 2nd single from their 1980 LP “Autoamerican”, “Rapture” which featured Debbie Harry namedropping a couple of Hip-Hop’s luminaries in a rhyme such as FAB 5 FREDDY and the even then legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash. “Rapture” was tucked away as the second song on Side B of “Autoamerican” and quite honestly there wasn’t much indication it was going to become a single. There especially was no indication it would eclipse the popularity of their Reggae/Ska tinged previous smash hit single “Tide Is High”.
The single “Rapture” was officially released on January 12th, 1981 but it really took off after the music video for it debuted on the television show “Solid Gold” on January 31st, 1981. The song steadily gained more & more traction on radio and the swiftly ascended the Billboard charts as the weeks passed. Blondie were invited to be the musical guests on the late night network sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in February so they consulted with their friends for a hot Rap act to bring to “Saturday Night Live”.
It was Valentine’s Day 1981 (February 14th) when Debbie Harry & Chris Stein of Blondie sprang a surprise on the studio audience by allowing Sugar Hill Records’ Funky 4 +1 to perform a set. Not only was this a huge opportunity for them but it was the first time a Rap group performed live on national television complete with an actual DJ as opposed to a live band. Once they rocked the house, things began to snowball from there for Rap on the national stage.
“Rapture” became a huge success. It was not only a radio smash and a club sensation but a go to jam and floor filler at the block party. It eventually reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and held it for two consecutive weeks (from March 28th to April 4th, 1981). It was the first time many music fans were introduced to Rap (it also reached Top 5 in the UK) and their curiosity ultimately led them to the many Rap records that were out at the time between Spring and Summer 1981. Labels like Sugar Hill, Enjoy, Winley, Spring, West End, Tay-Ster, Tommy Boy and Profile were putting out Rap singles at a furious rate so there was plenty of available music for curious listeners to sample from.
In the April 22nd, 1981 edition of “Village Voice” featured the Sally Banes x Martha Cooper article “Physical Graffiti: Breaking Is Hard To Do” which became the first published piece to center B-Boys and B-Boy culture. The article was more than a year in the making as Martha Cooper first encountered a group of young B-Boys when they were arrested by police but they maintained they were only “rocking” while on assignment with the New York Times back in January 1980. She convinced them to show her what they were doing and when the youth began to dance Martha Cooper instinctively began taking pictures.
Martha Cooper contacted her friend Sally Banes, attempted to track down those B-Boys later on only to discover they’d quit but eventually discovered a crew of active B-Boys through Henry Chalfant, a fellow photographer who also took pictures of subway graffiti. Cooper and Banes interviewed B-Boys and observed several practices and performances at Common Ground, a converted loft in SoHo which doubled as an exhibition space for art and photos as well as a practice space for B-Boys. The combination of Banes descriptive prose coupled with Martha Cooper’s amazing photos really captured the attention of readers.
In order to capitalize off of the momentum of the article, a public B-Boy exhibition was scheduled to take place on May 3rd, 1981 but it was canceled due to a violent clash with a rival crew called the Ballbusters. A follow up article in the May 15th, 1981 Friday edition of “The New York Times” announced a series of public B-Boy exhibitions would take place at New York University during The Bronx Folklore Conference on May 16th and 17th, 1981. It was here that many people outside of the culture got their first exposure to both B-Boying and the Rock Steady Crew.
Another oft overlooked incident that further helped to spread Rap to a mainstream audience came courtesy of a highly unlikely source, comedian Mel Brooks. On June 12th, 1981 his film “History Of The World, Part 1” featured a Rap he recorded to promote the film titled “It’s Good To Be The King” which while largely viewed as a novelty song still managed to become a minor hit. Sylvia Robinson, refusing to be outdone recorded her own version titled “It’s Good To Be The Queen”. Between the growing popularity of Rap and the groundswell of interest in B-Boying (or “breaking” as it was called) it was only a matter of time before a news feature was forthcoming.
On July 9th,1981, ABC aired a special report on “20/20” titled “Rappin’ To The Beat” by Steve Fox. Kurtis Blow, Funky 4+1, Sugar Hill Gang & The Furious 5 were featured alongside B-Boys Rock Steady Crew with commentary from Debbie Harry of Blondie, legendary radio personality Jocko Henderson and a clip of Punk band The Clash performing Rap inspired selections from their groundbreaking 1980 LP “Sandinista!”. This particular segment on “20/20” not only inspired several people at home to rap but legions of youth became B-Boys overnight.
On the graf front, 1981 was the year the medium which was once relegated to walls, bridges, trains & the outside and inside of subway cars entered art galleries via canvases. A decade earlier, back in July 1971 the first ever article about grafitti ran in “The New York Times” titled “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals”.
In October 1980, CRASH’s “GAS” show at Fashion Moda in SoHo led to an explosion of grafitti art shows in galleries beginning with the “New York/New Wave” exhibition in Queens’ PS 1 in February 1981. It became such a success it led to numerous other art events at galleries and venues all over New York such as Fun Gallery, Grafitti Above Ground, Mudd Club, 51X and even the Kenny Gallery in Manhattan’s Art & Design High School. 1981 is largely considered the year the entire East Village scene exploded and numerous grafitti writers made their first inroads into the burgeoning New York art scene (a snowball effect following the success of the “Beyond Words” art show at the Mudd Club in April 1981). At the same time, Hip Hop began its trek from the venues of the South Bronx and ventured Downtown.
The Rock Steady Crew had already made its way from SoHo’s Common Ground and The Kitchen to performing in clubs like The Ritz, Mudd Club and Negril. Michael Holman’s Negril first popped off in October 1981 around the same time Rock Steady performed their highly influential “Graffiti Rock” shows at The Kitchen with FAB 5 FREDDY hosting featuring art from LEE & DONDI. During this time Afrika Bambataa had begun spinning in Downtown clubs and Zulu Nation members, B-Boys and Hip Hop fans began to interact with Punk and New Wave crowds. It resulted in things like Malcolm McLaren working with The World Famous Supreme Team, overseas tours and Rap groups opening for The Clash in the near future.
By the close of 1981, Rock Steady Crew was drawing large audiences for exhibitions (such as the legendary Lincoln Center battle vs. Dynamic Rockers in August 1981), battling crews that took to B-Boying after reading about them in the “Village Voice” or saw them on “20/20”, caught them rock at a live demo around the city or battling another rival crew. Rap continued to gain traction to the point FAB 5 FREDDY had proposed the idea to filmmaker Charlie Ahearn they should make a film about the intersecting worlds of DJ’ing, graffiti, B-Boying and emceeing. The initial concept would eventually be fully fleshed out and become the feature film “Wild Style”.
All the while, the Downtown art scene was exploding thanks in part to the new blood infused by all the graffiti artists having shows in East Village galleries and rubbing shoulders with art world darlings like Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in Downtown venues. They swiftly went from outsiders to contemporaries and peers. Suddenly they all were getting coverage in publications such as Artforum, Art In America, Art Monthly (UK) and ARTnews. Artists like CRASH, FUTURA, DONDI, LEE, STASH, DAZE, ZEPHYR and far more became “legitimate” and earned money selling canvases and original pieces to collectors both stateside and overseas since graffiti had also become the new hot thing in the art world in Europe in 1981.
While Charlie Ahearn and FAB 5 FREDDY were planning to do their first round of shooting at the Dixie Club in The Bronx that October for their film “Wild Style” filming had already begun on Henry Chalfant’s Hip Hop documentary “Style Wars” in June 1981. The battle between Rock Steady Crew vs. Dynamic Rockers seen in the film took place at United Skates Of America in Queens. That same month Rock Steady Crew’s “20/20” segment was first shot and Rock Steady Crew ended up playing prominent roles in both films which were both shooting simultaneously.
Both “Wild Style” and “Style Wars” wouldn’t be completed until 1983. By comparison, Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien’s film that catalogued New York’s Downtown art scene starring Jean Michel Basquiat “Downtown ‘81” which was filmed in the East Village and Lower East Side between December 1980 and January 1981 didn’t see a proper release until the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Debbie Harry of Blondie, FAB 5 FREDDY and LEE all make cameo appearances in “Downtown ‘81” to further cement how their worlds all intertwined.
As any true Hip Hop historian knows, the first print article to mention Hip Hop culture by name was written by Michael Holman and published in the “East Village Eye” in January 1982 when he interviewed Afrika Bambaataa. That doesn’t change the fact Hip Hop’s individual elements all broke nationally and/or received their first mainstream exposure in 1981. Not only that, but the films that are widely credited with presenting all of the elements of Hip Hop culture under one umbrella both began filming in 1981 following the first ever national news segment that showcased the connection between Rap and B-Boying which aired in July 1981 on “20/20”.
By 1984, Hollywood had wholesaled robbed not only the premises and storylines of both “Wild Style” and “Style Wars” for the first wave of “Hip Hop” themed films but they even plundered Martha Cooper’s first encounter with B-Boys. They’d already totally removed Martha from the equation when it was recounted by a police officer for the 1981 “20/20” segment and it was further altered for when Beat Street and the Bronx Rockers are detained by police for battling in the film “Beat Street”. By the time “Breakin’” and “Beat Street” were in theaters most people had no access to either “Wild Style” or “Style Wars” and even fewer had the werewithal to document what was happening as just 5 years previous Rap was almost summarily dismissed as a fad across the board.
In 1981, I was only in the 1st grade but I was reading record labels from the collection of my upstairs neighbors’ sons who were both family friends and DJ’s. I remember being shocked seeing Benny Hill rapping on my television one night on PBS and I’ll never forget that “20/20” feature on ABC because I saw Rock Steady Crew and Kurtis Blow on my television at a time Rap didn’t appear in mainstream publications. The very next day there were kids trying their damndest to replicate what they saw in the play area of the Blackstone School in the South End/Lower Roxbury. Shortly afterwards we encountered the Floorlords, Boston’s longest running B-Boy crew who introduced us to the basics and fundamentals of B-Boying. Those early lessons stuck with me for life.
Hard to imagine that 35 years ago this month, Hip Hop culture was first being exposed to a wider audience through a novelty song, the filming of a national news story and the first scenes shot for a documentary which would spread the culture across the globe and has been watched by generation after generation since. In the immortal words of the late, great Christopher Wallace “I never thought Hip-Hop would take it this far”.