The Pied Piper of Hip Hop

I was a reporter for the New York Daily News and a contributing writer to Horizon magazine, when I attended Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Many in the press detested that ultra-hip show, but I was blown away. It celebrated the CBGB punk scene, East Village art, the re-emergence of image, and the recent flowering of graffiti that was taking place in New York. There were several huge rooms covered floor-to-ceiling with art and photography. It was the cutting edge of the underground, and the first time Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited. Basquiat was the sensation of the moment, his paintings already sold to the de Menil collection. But one room was devoted to photos of spray-painted subway trains, and one of those photos absolutely floored me. I’d only been in New York for a few years, and when I arrived, I assumed the city paid artists to paint those murals on trains because so many of them looked like they were part of a set out of Disneyland. One train in the exhibit especially stopped me in my tracks: it was called “Break” by Futura 2000.

Kurtis Blow had just achieved the first certified-gold rap record with a song called “The Breaks.” At first, I thought Futura’s train was an homage to Kurtis Blow. But then it occured to me there were subcultural undercurrents running through both rap music and graffiti, and that this probably represented an authentic cultural movement that had not been acknowledged in the mass media. (At this time, I knew nothing about break dancing, but that element would surface within days.)

I bought “Break” from Futura and he signed and autographed it to me (it still hangs prominently in my bedroom). Futura introduced me to Fab Five Freddy, who gave me Afrika Bambaataa’s number after I told him I wanted to research where this culture had actually started.

Over the next few weeks, I interviewed Bambaataa several times. He was extremely helpful, and even opened up his archives for me to peruse. Bam had written a book-length report on the history of the Black Spades while in high school, and he let me make a copy. Most important, Bam gave me the telephone number of Kool Herc, and indicated it all started with him. Back in the ’80s, every minor hip hopper in New York was spinning tales about “how it all began” and 90% of these stories were complete fabrications. But Bam only spoke the truth and he never exaggerated about anything. In fact, Bam seemed to be operating on a higher plane of existence, and was obviously a spiritually-charged being. Even better, he became famous and successful beyond imagination while I was working on the story, releasing a monster hit called “Planet Rock,” which created the electro-boogie sound and transformed hip hop and dance music in general.

I got fired by the Daily News, but that was okay, because now I was onto the biggest story of my life, and I knew it. I spent several weeks researching the story, which I eventually submitted to the Village Voice, and titled: “The Pied Piper of Hip Hop.” Keep in mind, at this point in time, the words “hip hop” had never appeared in print anywhere and were not even well-known to most people inside the culture. The story was mostly about Bambaataa, but it covered many of the major developments in the history of the hip hop, including who did what first.

The Village Voice sat on the manuscript for weeks, and I kept calling Robert Christgau, the music editor, leaving messages every other day. I just wanted him to accept it or reject it, so I could submit it to Rolling Stone, and I couldn’t get an answer. I was terrified another writer was going to break the story of hip hop before I did. Finally, Tulani Davis called and said she wanted to publish the article and would edit it.

I went out on a limb in the article and said hip hop was going to become the most significant cultural movement of the decade, and I can’t tell you how many people found that comment ridiculous in 1981. Even in the East Village, there was intense resistance to recognizing the value of rap music in some quarters. Rap was viewed as a ghetto fad that had no significance for the rest of the world.

Sadly, there was always something mysterious about Bam as he was typically surrounded by teenage boys, and there never seemed to be any women around. Decades later, several boys would come forward with accusations of sexual abuse and one of them ended up murdered as a result.

Rock’s First Diva

After I finished my book on hip hop (and been basically pushed out of the my own Beat Street film project), I turned my attention to finding out what happened to the biggest stars of early rock history in New York City. Rap music was starting to catch on around the country, and I was afraid the original creators of hip hop were going to be ripped-off by the many corporations that were moving in to cash-in on the new movement, just like their historical counterparts many years earlier.

My investigations led me to Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith. Frankie was long-dead, so I ended up meeting Jimmy Merchant, who’d co-written one of the biggest hits of the era, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and had been a founding member of The Teenagers with Frankie. I eventually discovered Arlene was living in the South Bronx, not far from some of the hip hoppers I’d spent the last three years hanging out with.

My sister had just moved to a cabin in Woody Creek, not far from Hunter S. Thompson, so when Christmas came, I flew out there to spend the holidays with her and visit the famed town of Aspen and its spectacular ski slopes. I’d never skied before, but I fell in love with the Highlands. I got an unexpected call from Harry Belafonte one night. I guess he was having problems with the director Orion had selected, Andy Davis, and Harry was wondering why I wasn’t hanging around the production office. When I found out I wasn’t going to be the scriptwriter, I basically walked away from the project, although David Picker made sure I got story credit (thanks again, David!). Harry wanted to see me as soon as I got back to New York.

The next night, I got a frantic call from Arlene Smith. Stupidly, I’d sent her a copy of my manuscript at the same time I’d delivered it to my editor at the Voice. Tulani Davis had already told me she loved the article, and I was confident I was about to get my third major feature (and possibly another cover story), following my articles on Bambaataa and the Fun House. But Arlene’s new manager didn’t like the article at all and wanted me to kill it. After I told Arlene I couldn’t do that, the manager called me. He was pretty rude and aggressive and indicated he knew Robert Christgau, head music critic at the Voice, and he was going to get the article killed, whether I liked it or not.

Imagine my surprise when Tulani told me several weeks later that the article was not going to run because Christgau had vetoed it, even though she loved it. I was so flabbergasted and upset ( I’d put a lot of gumshoe reporting into the piece) that I sent a copy to someone I trusted who knew a lot more about the music business than I did, David Bither (who now runs Nonesuch Records), and asked for his opinion before I went to war. David basically said there was some good stuff in the story, but my analysis of the business side of early rock history was a bit over-simplistic, so I dropped the whole thing. But I never wrote another story for the Village Voice, or even talked to Tulani again. I completely forgot about the whole episode until I started putting my greatest hits on my smashwords site and realized, this is one of them!

You can read the article the Voice rejected by clicking the link that says “click here for free eBooks” in the column on the top-right of this page.