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View from the USA: Hip hop, ya don't stop

If today's toothless hip hop could rediscover its bite, the soundtrack of New York could one day become the unifying sound of a nation

Published 25 May 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:14 BST
Aaron Millar.

Aaron Millar.

Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Every city has a sound. You can walk the streets and visit the sights, but until you listen you'll be seeing the world in black and white. Music is colour; music is spirit; it's the shape of a place's dreams. New Orleans is jazz, Nashville is country, but New York will forever be hip hop. 

In many ways, it's the soundtrack of modern America too. Hip hop was born from the civil rights movement. It was about social justice. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King echoed the 'We shall overcome' song the protestors were singing in his famous speech; in the '80s, NWA rapped "fuck tha police". Then rappers railed against the N-bomb; later the word was worn as a badge of pride. If hip hop is now all about doing the stanky leg and partying like it's your birthday, that's because it's become mainstream. It's the Fortune 500. It's pop tunes with swear words and gold chains. Now, as Black Lives Matter campaigners protest police brutality, and when an average of 44 people are murdered in the US every single day — most from the inner cities — hip hop raps about sex and money instead of hope and change. I decided to go back to its source, but I wasn't going back alone.

Grandmaster Caz, one of the pioneers of the genre in the 1970s and '80s, is to hip hop what James Bond is to the dry Martini: he helped make it cool. I meet him in Manhattan, baggy jeans and a beanie, name embroidered in golden thread on his chest, his blacked-out van bumping Empire State of Mind by the side of the road. We're heading into the Bronx, to the edge of the interstate and a red-brick high-rise that hosted a 1973 house party credited with the birth of the scene. But first we need context.

It's a whirlwind tour: in Harlem, we see the Graffiti Hall of Fame, the venue where Kool Moe D rapped against Busy Bee (the most famous freestyle battle in hip hop history) and the legendary Rucker Park basketball court — hemmed in by tenement housing on all sides — where NBA greats test their mettle against the best of the street. 

In the Bronx, I learn the sign for the borough — arms crossed like an X in front of your chest. We stop at Disco Fever, where Grandmaster Flash, the godfather of hip hop, built his legend; and 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where one out-of-control party changed the world's musical taste forever. The names of New York greats ring out like Marvel super-villains: The Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, the Funky 4+1. Then, to cap it off, we meet breakdancing whizz B-Boy Mighty Mouse, watch him spin on his head, learn about the air flare (the hardest move in breaking history, the dancing equivalent of being blasted by an anti-gravity gun), and are cajoled into joining an impromptu street performance. There's perhaps nothing more cringe-inducing than watching a middle-class white man trying to breakdance. Especially if it's you.

But it's the unspoken things that matter most. Leave the tourist bubble behind and the city changes instantly. "This is the real New York," Caz says. As we head north, shiny skyscrapers and Broadway shows become high-rise projects and barbed-wire playgrounds. We see Malcolm X's mosque, opposite the ruins of one of hip hop's golden gig venues: Harlem World; the Hotel Theresa, where Martin Luther King planned his march on Washington, round the corner from the Apollo Theater, where Lauryn Hill and other legends have played. "Hip hop rose from necessity," Caz tells us. "Our soul comes from that struggle." People come to New York to stand on top of the Empire State Building and watch chorus girls kick at Rockefeller. But if that's all they do, they miss the real spirit of the city. They miss its sound.

And America is missing it too. Music is the seed of revolution. One in every six people in the US is living in poverty — in the inner cities, that number is closer to one in three. Compared with white men, black men in America are 21 times more likely to be shot and five times more likely to end up in prison. Every city has a sound, but so does a country, and right now the US is deciding what its will be. We need a soundtrack to inspire that choice. Come on hip hop, come on New York, America needs you.

Follow @AaronMWriter

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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