The First Hip Hop Journalist

Talk to me about being raised in Illinois and how you became a writer.
I started a fanzine in 7th Grade and by the 11th I was publishing my own underground newspaper called The Tin Whistle distributed to four high schools, and banned at all of them.

My hippie newspaper published six issues in 1968. The schools in Illinois were very racist and polarized at the time, but my newspaper led a movement for recognizing black student rights among other campaigns. We were able to elect the first black student council president in the history of Urbana High School, and he did a lot to heal the broken race relations. His name was James “Chef Ra” Wilson and he taught me a lot about ceremony. We both ended up going to the first Woodstock festival, then he went to Jamaica and became an early Bob Marley devotee. We worked on many projects for decades until one Christmas Day when his heart exploded while he was sleeping.

What was your entry into hip hop?
I moved to New York at the end of 1979. My roommate Jeff Peisch was into the music scene and working at Record World Magazine with Nelson George, and he gave me a promo copy of These are the Breaks by Kurtis Blow. Shortly after that, I went to the New York/New Wave art exhibition curated by Diego Cortez, and was astounded by a subway train titled Break by Futura 2000. The connection between the song and the mural made me realize something was going on and nobody was covering it. As a young reporter, it looked like an opening.

What was the first article on hip hop that you read that changed the game for you? Who wrote it? How did you hear about it?
For over a year I didn’t read anyone’s articles. There were none. I only wrote my own. There were a couple of photographers on the scene, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, but I was the only journalist. Most of the coverage aside from me was coming out of England. But they weren’t on the ground and going to any parties, just reviewing records and sometimes interviewing acts if anyone came to England, which was rare early on.

What was the first magazine/newspaper publication that you heard about just focused on hip hop? Did that inspire you to write for it?
There were no magazines until after Run DMC. I guess The Source was the first big one that went all hip hop, although Phase 2 had a fantastic fanzine he was self-publishing for years. I had long since stopped covering hip hop when The Source appeared.

Who were you looking up to as far as writing?
The journalists who most influenced me were Calvin Tompkins, George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.

Do you call yourself a hip hop journalist?
I sometimes call myself the first hip hop journalist, because in the early days I was the only professional reporter on the scene. But I have 30 books and only three are on hip hop, and all those concern only the first generation from 1974 to 1984.

How did you feel when your name was on the cover of The Village Voice for your cover with the words “hip hop” on it?
Bambaataa coined the term and focused the culture. I just told his story. It took the Voice half a year to print it, although it was “accepted” immediately. I was enraged they held it so long because I was afraid someone was going to break the story, but fortunately, after endless phone calls and threats to publish elsewhere, they finally put it on the schedule.

You were able to make a major impact in how we receive hip hop through your writing and Beat Street. Did you ever have any intention to impact the culture the way you did?
If only my script had been used, it was the real thing. The movie was a great disappointment. Only the dance crews and some of the rap performances saved it. The plot was completely whack. I didn’t recognize any South Bronx people I knew and wrote about.

Who was your favorite artist interview?
In the world of hip hop I am closest with Grandmaster Caz, Coke La Rock and Busy Bee. In fact, we are all members of a secret society called The Pot Illuminati and hold ceremonies upon occasion. Those are three of the greatest storytellers in hip hop, and also three of the most overlooked people in hip hop’s history.

Who was the 1st person that you heard of calling themselves a hip hop journalist? What opened up for you because of it?
By the time hip hop went global and hip hop journalism was born, I was long gone and had no interest in the gangsta rap that came up in a huge wave to displace the political fervor of Public Enemy. I only did research on the first generation, from Kool Herc to Funky Four to Furious Five to Treacherous Three to the Cold Crush Brothers. And I also covered graffiti and some of the original dance crews. I was in a rock band in the sixties, and after rap got commercialized, I formed a garage band and played three-chord-rock for a decade. Being around hip hop inspired me to get back to my own musical heritage. Although I did one hip hop performance early on as a deejay with Jeff Peisch rapping and David Bither (now of Nonesuch Records) on saxophone. Between the three of us we had enough talent to give the soon-to-emerge Beasties Boys a run, but it was just a one-off goof. But David blew the lid off that party as I recall, with me scratching up some hip hop anthem.

What was the first article you wrote about hip hop?
A biography on Futura 2000 for the New York Daily News. After that I had my Voice cover story, followed by one more Voice story. Then I wrote three articles for the Soho Weekly News. And then a couple stories for the East Village Eye. Then I sold Beat Street and published my book, Hip Hop. Then I stopped covering hip hop and not a single hip hop magazine ever asked me to write anything or even gave me props for blazing the trail, although everyone was reading my book to find out how it all started. Most of the people I was hanging with never got props either, like Coke La Rock. Virtually nobody knows him, yet he was right there with Herc when it all happened and playing a major role. My book went out of print really fast and copies started selling for $500 for years.

Whats your experience with publications?
I prefer to self-publish and maintain control over my work.

Who are some rappers you that you feel changed the game for hip hop?
Grandmaster Caz elevated rapping with his comedy and complex story lines and Melle Mel elevated lyrics to high art with those lines in Superappin’ that became the best part of The Message. In fact, my version of Beat Street (called Looking for the Perfect Beat) was built around the political awakening of a kid in the South Bronx who moves from partying to seeing-the-big-picture. When Run/DMC landed, they brought back the original first generation style of staying hard and giving no quarter, something the original scene had drifted away from.

How to occupy religion

When Tom Forcade made the bold move of relocating his commune from Arizona to New York City in a school bus filled with Mexican weed, he devised the perfect cover: a church group, with him as head pastor, which is why he wore a clerical collar—although he added a black slouch cowboy hat worthy of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western as his crown.

When I say magic and religion are the same thing, and run on the same rules, costumes are a great illustrator of the concept. By dressing as a Reverend, Forcade disarmed Christian opponents to hippies. It’s the same when someone puts on a Santa Claus outfit. Suddenly, they’re not a normal person, but something somehow connected to vibrations on the astral plane.

I’ve been studying the history of cannabis and religion for 30 years, and the creation of the Pot Illuminati is almost as complex and well-thought-out as the creation of Bitcoin. Constructing a corruption-free form of religion is no easy task. First, you have to strip away the useless dogma, which represents the encrusted mind control propaganda. You can download my free ebook The New Pot Enlightenment on numerous platforms for a complete picture of the religion. There’s only one rule: don’t hurt anyone.

And by the way, that includes feelings. Notice there are some who delight in wounding people with gossip, and when called out respond: ‘it was just a joke, dude.” What they are really doing is employing telepathic weapons, flying false flags. There are plenty of ways to do humor where all sides laugh heartily. But when one side weeps, that wasn’t humor at all, but a death bomb to the heart.

The Pot Illuminati, on the other hand, are experts at dropping love bombs. And a lot of our lingo and philosophy comes from Carl Von Clauswitz, the preeminent European philosopher of war, a man respected in the highest corridors of the Pentagon and CIA. That’s because if you study your opponent’s magic, you can steal his sigils and tap his telepathic energy. It’s not unlike hacking into an opponent’s website. I discovered this technique in the late 1980’s when I created the Freedom Fighters and formed a tribe wearing tricorner hats with psychedelic Colonial outfits. Within a few years we were on the Boston Common with 100,000 people cheering us, although the national news media never spoke a word.

The Pot Illuminati is not seeking donations nor converts. While I realize the Tree of Life, Burning Bush and Holy Grail all involve cannabis, I do not slavishly imitate religions of the past and also realize there is much more to life than getting stoned. Not to mention, the less you do, the higher you get. Spirituality flows through us naturally, and you only need to meditate to connect with signals. There are many flavors and vibrations to choose from but love with always be the most powerful and you should never hang endless on one vibe. My personal favorite is fun.

In Praise of Grandmaster Caz

1625731_10152220376783343_1986234147_nI was the first reporter to arrive on the scene of hip hop. The culture had already been fully created by middle school kids entering high school in the late 1970s. Hip hop peaked in the South Bronx before any realization reached the media in Manhattan.
There’s a lot of key figures that haven’t got their due, like Grandmaster Caz. I wrote the story of how he got ripped off by his former manager Hank back when I published the first history of hip hop in 1984, a book called Hip Hop, at a time that phrase wasn’t even in wide usage yet. I also had a movie deal with Orion that year, as I sold a script based on my three years of research, a script I titled “Looking for the Perfect Beat” in homage to Bambaataa, but it later became known as Beat Street. There’s actually another Beat Street tribute taking place downtown tonight, free to attend. Who knows, I might even make an appearance, although I prefer to remain more of a ghost on the scene.
Today Caz announced a law suit to finally get credit for much of the lyrics in “Rapper’s Delight.” When the song came out, half the Bronx assumed it was Caz rappin’, after all, the song used a lot of his signature raps and included his name at one point. Hank had done the usual sketchy move and pushed the real creative talent out of the way, playing like the material was really his? At the time Caz was really the poly-talent who could do it all: deejay, rap, b-boy, draw. But mostly, he invented the craziest and funniest rap lyrics you ever heard. And he had that golden voice of authority. He can easily stand up in a rap battle against anyone to this day.
I hope these real pioneers get their due some day, people like Caz, Phase 2, Coke La Rock, Sa-sa, and most especially Afrika Bambaataa, who really had the vision to unite all the elements as a cultural movement.
And here’s hoping Caz wins his lawsuit…..or at least gets the respect from the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame he deserves….

Return of Futura 2000

Futura-1

After my article on Futura 2000 came out in the New York Daily News, Futura quickly catapulted to international stardom, and among the first patrons to arrive on his doorstep were The Clash, who hired him to paint a canvas backdrop during their performances and gradually worked him into a feature performance slot on the tour. After The Clash asked Futura to write a rap song about himself, he sat down and composed 7-verses on a long piece of cardboard, filling both sides to the maximum in his immaculate style. Futura never mentioned his strained relationship with Ali or the incident in the tunnel, though, which is the part I found so fascinating, but did give Fab Five Freddy an entire verse. In my book, Hip Hop (which has just been re-released with color photos and illos), Freedom, otherwise known as Chris Pape, tells his version of the Futura-Ali saga, there are so many variations. The photo of Futura (above) was taken by Stephen Crichlow around 1982.

Futura

To give you an idea of how crazy things were at the time, immediately after publishing the first article on hip hop in the Voice, I’d written a story about Arlene Smith and the Chantels, which went into their relationship with Morris Levy, who would later become a thinly-veiled character in The Sopranos epic. Levy routinely took all publishing rights from his acts, something common at the time. Although their records were huge hits and Arlene was the first goddess of rock’n’roll and pioneered the girl group sound, she ended up feeling used and exploited and broke. Her story was a bit sad, but my editor at the Voice, Thulani Davis, who was black herself, loved it. It was a message I wanted to send to the Sugarhill acts, who were then about to be destroyed by Sylvia Robinson, who was busy creating her own phony hip hop acts like the Sugarhill Gang, who would have been laughed off the stage at a South Bronx jam, since their style was so soft and weak in comparison to the delivery of a Busy Bee or Melle Mel or Grandmaster Caz or Kool Mo Dee.

I stupidly sent a copy of the story to Arlene before it was published, however, and she showed it to her agent, who called me and told me to retract the story and he would help me write a better version. When I refused, he said he was personal friends with Voice music editor (Robert Christgau) and my story would never see the light of day in the Voice. And that’s exactly what happened. Christgau blocked publication of a story that had already been accepted by Thulani. (You can read that original story on Arlene on my smashwords site though.)

So I drifted over to the SoHo Weekly News, where a news editor named David Hershkovits expressed interest in publishing my ongoing hip hop research, the only such editor in America at that time. I first wrote a story on Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew and then David asked me to go interview Futura, who was just back from a European tour with The Clash. Futura graciously handed me the piece of cardboard (above) that he’d first written his rap song on, and he said I could keep it, which was nice because I’d already paid him $100 for a framed photo of his Break train, and this was a major trophy he threw into my lap.

The first history of Hip Hop

Long out-of-print and with copies selling for upwards of $500, the original hip hop history written by the first journalist to document the scene is now available. When the book first appeared in 1984, here’s what some of the press had to say:

“…extremely well-written…”

Rock&Roll Confidential, #16/September 1984: HOME XEROXING PROSPECTS…Hip Hop by Steven Hager is an intelligent, vividly illustrated and extremely well-written account of the rise of hiphop culture. It begins at the beginning, that is to say, with James Brown and details the destructive policies of New York planner Robert Moses that created the South Bronx in the first place. By the end of the book you’ll feel close enough to many of the graffiti writers, breakers, djs and rappers that they’ll seem like old friends. —Dave Marsh

“…sets the record straight…sorted out fact from fiction…”

Paper Magazine: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop attempts to set the record straight on the endlessly argued questions of who did what first where. On the case for years, interviewing anyone and everyone, Hager (who also came up with the idea of Beat Street) has sorted out fact from fiction and written as “true” a story as we’re likely to get. — David Hershkovits

“…the best and most reliable history…”

Penthouse October 1984: Within a few months time the Hollywood films Breakin’ and Beat Street were huge summer hits. A half-dozen books on break dancing are on the market, not to mention more movies and instructional aids. In Hip Hop,  the best and most reliable history of the break-rap-graffiti subculture, author Steven Hager reveals that break dancing actually started around 1973 amid the urban devastation of New York’s South Bronx and had all but disappeared by 1978, supplanted by newer dances like the “freak” (ritualized dry-humping) and robotic “electric boogie,” What saved breaking from disappearing into the limbo of great lost dances? Mostly the growing popularity of disk jockeys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, who encouraged competitive dancers at club and community-center functions.—Robert Palmer

“…thrilling intricate story…”

Artforum: Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky Four + 1s “That’s the joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence. The prehistory was really secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to out-fox the competition. Hager makes it all a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it has lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop: it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.—Greil Marcus

“…thorough job of research…”

Pulse: New York City always seems to be at the cutting edge of trends in pop culture. Recently, breakdancing, hip-hop and rap records, and, to a lesser degree graffiti art have broken out of their Gotham origins, gotten picked up by the media and—as a result—have become important movements in ’80s pop culture. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop is a fast reading history of how these movements started—and developed —that focuses on the many personalities that made it happen. Hugo Martinez and Keith Haring, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—from street-gang origins to recognition by serious art and music critics—they all come alive here in Hip Hop. This is a quick read—you can knock it off in an evening—but don’t get the idea that Hip Hop is one of those quickie exploitation jobs cranked out to cash in on current fads. Hager—whose original newspaper article inspired the film Beat Street—has done a thorough job of research, tracked down many obscure artists, breakers, and DJs for some cool interviews, and tied everything together in beautiful style.

“…Hager is an ace reporter…”

Village Voice  January 14, 1986: Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti’s art world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop’s breakthroughs—the crassly out-of-context  appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. —Robert Christgau

“…for those who wonder how it all started…”

The Palm Beach Post October 26, 1984: Most of us have probably seen enough break dancing to last us several lifetimes. For those who still wonder how it all started, a new book has come out called Hip Hop by Steven Hager, who tells us, among other things, that the graffiti sprouted on subways and walls were started by a young Greek named Taki, who put his first tag on an ice-cream truck in 1970.

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Knight-Ridder News Service March 30, 1985: Hip Hop takes its title from the street term for the entire urban subculture of rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. The book comes packaged as if it were a bit of fluff intended to capitalize on the break dancing craze. The text, however, is a formidable job of reporting. Hager, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tracked down many of rap’s most elusive figures, like the South Bronx disk jockeys who played the first rap records on turntables set up on street corners, and the earliest rappers, whose performances were given a parties and on inner-city playgrounds. The result is a description of a vibrant subculture.—Ken Tucker

“…fine investigative report…”

Voice of Youth Advocates: New York journalist Hager, who followed the hip hop scene for years before mass appeal set in, does a fine investigative report here. His sources: the horse’s mouth. The book is full of quotes of original New York hip hoppers he has interviewed: graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 who began “writing” on subway trains and now commands thousands of dollars in commissions, deejays such as Grandmixer DST who reveals here the secrets of his “scratchin'” technique, rappers who record their staccato rhymes now but whose tradition extends back to prisoners composing rhyming fables called toasts, and break dancers in hit films who began as street gang warriors. Their voices give Hager’s account authenticity.—Cathi Edgerton

“…explains how hip hop happened…”

The Boston Herald December 9, 1984: Hip Hop was written by Steven Hager, a longtime reporter on the musical and artistic subculture that’s rocked the world after busting out of New York’s slums. This serious but not heavy-handed guide explains how hip hop happened and what it’s all about.

“…it’s impressive…”

New York Daily News: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop isn’t a definitive study but, considering how hard it is to get information on the street culture of the South Bronx (few written sources, many reluctant or self-serving informants), it’s impressive.—David Hinckley

“…hits home with little-known facts…”

Billboard Sept. 15, 1984: Hager hits home with some little-known facts: that blacks were performing a form of break dancing in the mid-70s and at some point abandoned it, to be revived by Latin males, that graffiti artists often collect in “gangs” to study each other’s technique and avoid police while utilizing their favorite canvasses, New York City subway cars, and that a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop music. —Nelson George

“…excellent book…”

KLIAT January 1985: This fascinating book is not a how-to manual, but a discussion of the evolution of Hip Hop, that subculture of dance, art and music that started in the South Bronx. He doesn’t romanticize Hip Hop, but he doesn’t treat it condescendingly either. An excellent book Hip Hop is worth owning. —F.L.

“…the best read on the subject…”

East Village Eye: Steven Hager’s new book Hip Hop is certainly the best read to be found on the subject. Hager was the first major writer to pick up on the movement, and he remains the best. His book encompasses the entire spectrum. —James Marshall

“…messy, ego-obsessed scrawls…”

New Musical Express September 22, 1984: There seems to be an inability to ridicule the more ridiculous aspects (like the graffiti artist who arrived at a rival’s house with a shooter threatening to use it unless he changed his pen-name). He also shares the age-old white critic’s fallibility of reading more importance than is necessary into black man’s art—most of the illustrations herein show street graffiti to be messy ego-obsessed scrawls. —Gavin Martin

“…obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker….”

Heavy Metal Feb/March, 1985: The walk from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side is long, and Hip Hop is like the view from a Greyhound bus. Encompassing break dancing, rapping, scratching, and street fashion, spanning from the present day New York back into the beyond, Hip Hop is a lot to digest. Even worse, the bleached-out black-and-white pages lack the visual beauty of their subject. Writer Steven Hager has renovated his Soho News and Village Voice articles to dissertation length, and even tacked on a glossary and bibliography that will, if we know Hip Hop, be obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker. —SM

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Origins of Beat Street: Interview with Rasheema Kearney

Grandmaster Flash today

Beat Street has and will always be a major monument in Hip Hop. What was the inspiration behind Beat Street?

I went to an art show in Long Island City titled New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. “Break” a photo of a subway car painted by Futura 2000 was included (along with hundreds of other photos of graffiti art). “These Are They Breaks” by Kurtis Blow was just starting to climb the charts, one of the first rap songs to enter the mainstream. While staring at Futura’s painting, it occurred to me graffiti and rap music were deeply connected. I went on a search to find Futura so I could write about him (and buy a framed photo of “Break”), and in the process, made connections with Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa.

I must say this a thousand times a day, Hip Hop is a culture.  I can clearly remember going to the movies when Beat Street was first released.  Everything amazed me.  I was intrigued by the graffiti (art), the New Yorker dialogue, breakers, and music.  Every kid in the 80’s era wanted to move to New York and become a rapper after seeing Beat Street.   It wasn’t until I did the research on Beat Street did I learn the writer, Steven Hager was white.  Are many people surprised when they meet you?

Nobody today seems surprised by my whiteness. But I have to admit a few people did look at me funny when I was attending Bam’s shows at Bronx River Projects, where I’d often be the only white face in the crowd. After the shows were over, Bam always put a bodyguard on me to make sure I made it back to the subway.

In 1983, Charlie Alhearn released Wild Style.  Wild Style was the first Hip Hop movie.  Wild Style is actually the movie that introduced the art of free styling and party battles.  In May of 1984, Charlie Parker and Allen DeBevoise released Breakin’. Sadly, I can’t say that it really fit into the hip hop culture.  It definitely wasn’t a great movie to be released after Wild Style.  On June 6, 1984, a beast was released.  Beat Street the king of the beat.  Did you ever expect for Beat Street to hit as big as it did?  If not, why?

Actually, I was pretty disappointed with the final product. My script was closer to Boyz n the Hood. It was closer to reality. I didn’t recognize any of the interiors or characters in the final film. They all seemed way too middle class, and not street smart (except for the dancers and rappers who were just playing themselves.) What saves the movie are the battles with New York City Breakers and the Rocksteady Crew, and a few of the rap performances. One major problem is that I wanted the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three in the film, but the Furious were in the midst of a huge legal problem and Flash couldn’t even perform for several months or use his name. The Cold Crush Brothers would have been a viable substitution, and I encouraged Harry Belafonte to use them, but he demanded an audition, and the Cold Crush refused because they were the premier group at the time and felt an audition was an insult. Actually, that was a mistake on their part because they could have captured a huge audience by appearing in the film. At the time they were more interested in live performance than records or films. Grandmaster Caz should have become a major star, but never got over the hump.

What is your opinion of the transformation in Hip Hop from then to now?

Don’t really listen to much hip hop, especially the gangsta stuff, just don’t connect with the message. I did like Asher Roth’s “I Love College” even though it’s just a party song because I like Asher’s personality.

What would you like to see change in today’s Hip Hop?

It’s not for me to prescribe anything to today’s artists. But I’d like to see more respect for the First Generation. I’d like to see more remakes of the original songs, and more use of the First Generation on the CD’s being released today. The big hip hop stars of today should reach out to people like Grandmaster Caz, Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock and invite them to do duets with them.

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