Is graf a part of hip hop or not?

GrandFlashGrandmaster Flash has opened up the longstanding debate on the basic elements of hip hop culture. In a recent interview, he stated writing has nothing to do with hip hop, and should be considered a separate movement apart, and not an integral element. In fact, Flash blamed the media for incorporating writing into hip hop, and a lot of writers immediately agreed with his position.
I have to admit being a bit stung by some of his comments because I wrote the first major magazine article on the subculture and put the words “hip hop” into play in the national media, and included writing as a part of the culture.
Writing was a city-wide phenomenon that started in the late 1960s in upper Manhattan and spread to the South Bronx before going all city, all boroughs. It spread quickly wherever there were subway tracks and trains. When the original masters of the first generation emerged as gallery artists calling themselves United Graffiti Artists, almost all were from the South Bronx, and the list was headed by Phase 2 and Bama.
kool_herc_1Few realize today Kool Herc began as a writer, long before he got his first deejay system, and he ran with Phase 2 and Stay High 149, both of whom would go on to have epic status. Herc threw his first jam in 1973, and hip hop was his to incubate for the first three years. Coke La Rock was the first emcee during this period, inventing lines like “you rock and you don’t stop,” and putting “ski” on the end of everything. Coke was also the weed dealer, as well as emcee and deejay whenever Herc took a break. I’m pretty sure Herc considers graf a part of his culture, why else would he pose in front of it?

Afrika Bambaataa at Bronx River by Sylvia Plachy
Afrika Bambaataa at Bronx River by Sylvia Plachy

In 1977, Afrika Bambaataa began forming what soon became known as the Universal Zulu Nation, dedicated to peace, unity and having fun. Bambaataa declared that deejaying, emceeing, breaking and writing were the four elements of what he named “hip hop,” a phrase invented by Cowboy and made popular by Lovebug Starski. You simply can’t discard the fact the primary visionary behind this movement expressly included writing as a part of the culture from its inception. Bambaataa will tell you he had this vision of a new culture in 1974, shortly after he discovered Kool Herc, so he dates the birth of hip hop not with Herc’s first jam in 1973, but a year later.
There have always been hundreds of writers who say hip hop never influenced them, and they are correct. Most writers never attended a hip hop jam, and didn’t know much about the culture until the media began covering it around 1980, and even then, awareness moved very slow at first because there was so much resistance to recognizing the culture. But it is incorrect to say the media invented the “graf-rap” connection, because that honor goes to Bambaataa.
BreakbyFuturaIn 1981, I went to an exhibit titled “New York/New Wave” at PS 1 curated by Diego Cortez. Although panned in the Village Voice, that show changed my life. There was a huge room filled with photos of over a hundred subway cars, but one in particular drew my interest. I’d recently been given a copy of “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow, which had recently become the second 12-inch gold record in history, and the first rap song to go gold as well. The subway car that caught my eye was “Break” by Futura 2000. I contacted Diego, got Futura’s phone number, and ended up attending a Soul Artists meeting on the Upper West Side. Futura introduced me to Fred Brathwaite, who gave me Bambaataa’s phone number. And that’s how I ended up writing a story called “Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip Hop” for the Village Voice. So, I entered this universe through graffiti, and while I respect Flash and the many writers who reject any hip hop-graf connection, I know one actually does exist.

30th Anniversary of Beat Street

FixedBeatCoverThere’s another big celebration for Beat Street this week, and the organizer actually invited me and said they’d be honored to have my attendance. Sha Rock is giving the opening address for the festivities that include two screenings over the day. Beat Street was actually my original idea and something I’d been trying to sell to a variety of production companies. Unfortunately, my story (which was based on facts) got hacked to death and nothing but the characters’ names survived. They even took the small cameo I arranged for Phase 2 out of the final edit because someone decided Phase didn’t have anything to do with creating hip hop. I guess that was Harry’s call. It was strange to see what happened after hip hop became big money, sort of like what’s happening right now with cannabis.
I put the original script on Smashwords, and still hold out hope someone will come along one day and produce the real story with my original title and script. Just to give you an idea of how different it was to what came out in the film, here’s the opening scene. A fledgling rap group has shown up at their sponsor’s house, only to discover another crew is messing with their equipment. Check it out, and if you like it, you can pick up my original script on Amazon.


 

Buddy Esquire: King of Hip Hop Flyers

Here’s a shot of Easy AD of the Cold Crush with Buddy Esquire (wearing sunglasses).

Buddy started writing graffiti in 1972 and used a variety of tags until he settled on ESQ. Most people would consider 1972 to be pretty early in graffiti history, but to his credit, when Buddy was asked if he was one of the graffiti pioneers, he said, “no that was Phase 2,” who only started a year earlier.
One day some officers from the local precinct came by his house to tell his parents about his artistic vandalism, and Buddy got grounded for half the summer and lost his comic book collection as punishment. So Buddy got out of graffiti, even though neither the police nor his parents found his marker and spray-paint stash.

Buddy must have been pretty good at b-ball (as was Phase 2), as his partner in park basketball throughout the 1970s was a 6’9″ dude named Eddie Pinckney, who went on to win a championship with Villanova in 1985 before going pro.

In 1976 rap music began spreading in the Bronx. The new style had kicked off in 1973 with a Kool Herc party, but a year later Afrika Bambaataa merged the creative elements of ghetto culture and soon began calling it Hip Hop.

In 1977, Buddy was customizing jean jackets, and had mastered a professional style that looked nothing like his graffiti or the stencil letters others were applying to shirts and jackets. The Funky Four all got their jean jackets customized by Buddy. Later that year, he made his first hip hop flyer for a local block party. In November of 1978, Tony Tone asked him to do a flyer for a Breakout jam. The results were so good that when Tony, Charlie Chase and Grandmaster Caz put together the Cold Crush, they began using Buddy for almost all their flyers. Meanwhile, Phase 2 had already established himself as the main flyer maker for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious, as well as the creator of the “hood deco” style, which certainly helped goose vibrations and expectations. Before long, The Furious and Cold Crush would become the premier groups of hip hop, and Buddy and Phase would be known as the hip hop flyer kings.

I just saw on Facebook Buddy is no longer with us, and wonder what could have possibly happened. If anyone knows, please drop me a note or a comment and I’ll update this. And if anyone knows about any upcoming tributes, please spread the info.


http://www.amazon.com/Hip-Hop-Steven-Hager-ebook/dp/B00IOXGNHY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415014199&sr=8-1&keywords=hip+hop+by+steven+hager

The Legendary Phase 2

I ‘d completely forgotten about my first interview with graffiti legend Phase 2, always a mysterious and hard-to-find character—and even more today than when Sisco Kid helped me track him down in the early 1980s.

I remember Phase came all the way down to the offices of the East Village Eye with me while the art director was laying out the story so we could take a portrait of him for the article. While we were there, I convinced Phase to make an illustrated history of graffiti off the top of his head (a portion of which appears at left) and I sat there watching him on deadline telling him to hurry up. Meanwhile, Phase is trying to do his best to honor some of the greatest tags in history. It’s amazing how effortlessly he pulled that assignment off.

I’m pretty sure the art director at the time was Dave Allen, an English dude who’d just arrived in NYC via Los Angeles. It was Dave who told German photographer Andre Grossmann that he should start hanging around with me, as I was onto sometime really big, which I was. Andre took a portrait of Phase for the article and it was the beginning of our collaboration, which would intensify after I moved over to High Times.

Craig Castleman’s book on graffiti had just been published and praised in the New Yorker by one of my favorite writers, Calvin Tomkins, but I found the book riddled with disinfo. Instead of interviewing the top dudes, which is what I was trying to do, the book relied on comments by toys and lesser talents, some of whom (according to Phase) had a distorted view of graffiti history.

Soon, I would be talking with Harry Belafonte about producing my film script “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” which mixed up real stories about Futura 2000 and Phase 2 (two of my favorite writers, although from different generations). I also got a book deal with St. Martins’ Press, although they never knew what to do with the first history of hip hop and actually cataloged it as a “dance book” because it came out as break-dancing arrived. Castleman called me up in a frenzy when he read my book and accused me of ripping him off, even though his book never really delved into anything but graffiti and was nothing like mine at all. Even so, I’d done a better job with graffiti history than he did, and I guess he knew it. And it was up to me to lay out the history of the gangs, the environment that helped spawn the culture, and how gang style evolved into hip hop after people got tired of violence and wanted to just have fun again. There were a lot of people like Castleman hovering around graffiti at the time, but not noticing rap music, break dancing and a whole new style of talking and walking were exploding in the Bronx.

The funniest part was how the Belafonte production team got swarmed by black dudes from Brooklyn who insisted hip hop started in Brooklyn and that Phase 2 and the other dudes I was promoting were really complete nobodies. In fact, when Phase delivered his one line in the final movie, at the big free screening arranged for all Harry’s buddies, Phase was actually booed by many in the crowd? Holy cow, what were they thinking?

After the screening Alisha, Harry’s assistant pointed out those boos as if it was some sort of condemnation of my perspective, or maybe just her rationalization for jettisoning me. After all, they didn’t use my script and the result was a disaster. I only wish someday, someone would actually produce the original script I wrote, which anyone can read on smashwords. Read my story, then go watch the movie and tell me something terrible didn’t somehow go awry with Beat Street.

Anyway, the real reason I wrote this blog was to let people know that the original interview with the great Phase is included in my opus on the origins of hip hop.

The Stay High 149 Controversy

It’s the most famous tag in graffiti history and also one of the oldest. Yet it’s creator remained a mystery for decades. I searched for Stay High in the early 1980s when I was writing the first history of hip hop, but could never locate him. Later, after I became editor of High Times, Stay High actually reappeared for a brief time and I invited him to the office, where I did a video interview with him and discovered his real name was Wayne.

Several years later, however, I was contacted by a graffiti artist named Luis who told me that he was the original Stay High and that Wayne had actually bitten his tag. Apparently this all started down in Florida, where Luis had an exhibit and told a bunch of local writers he was Stay High 149. Soon, there was an outcry against him for trying to steal Wayne’s legacy.

Luis came to High Times and tried to explain the situation. He claimed that Phase 2 would back up his story that there were two Stay Highs around 1969, both writing the same tag? I asked Phase and he strongly denied that. But I have to admit, I was taken in by all the evidence Luis had marshaled to his cause. He had photos of himself standing in front of faded tags in the Bronx. He had a story about the Junior Latin Lords, who supposedly had a clubhouse on 149th Street.

Although a lot of old school writers were really pissed at Luis, I went ahead and posted my video interview with him, hoping that people would step forward to either confirm or deny what he was saying. I just couldn’t understand why Luis would make up this story as he seemed to be a serious artist. Meanwhile, while he was at the office, I asked him to write “Stay High 149” on my eraseboard. He did, but the signature was a bit clumsy, with none of the flow you’d expect. Luis said his cousin and others would come forward to support his story. But to tell the truth, no one has ever come forward to back up Luis and that video has been up for years now. You can watch him tag my eraseboard and make up your own mind just based on that.

I should have listened to Freedom when he first contacted me to say Luis’s story was absurd. According to Luis, he invented the tag in in 1966, which would have easily made him the most advanced graffiti writer in New York history?

A few days ago, I asked Luis to come in and take a lie detector test to see if he was actually telling the truth. This was his reply:

“Hey, Steve, when we first met you was convinced that I was the real deal, now you ask if I’m willing to take a test. I know I’ll pass with flying colors but what will that prove, there are people that would probably say it was rig. Take yourself for example, you have your doubts because of what you have heard. I believe that is the reason you changed your mind about me on the Cannabis event. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, haters will always be haters no matter what…Peace!”

It’s too late to apologize to Wayne, he’s gone, but I hope nobody else gets sucked into this and I’m sorry I ever took this guy seriously.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a new controversy as someone is claiming to have invented 420 and is saying the Waldo’s are liars. I’ll be posting on this very soon, but felt I needed to clear this up first.