Originally published in 2004, when 1979 was midway between Elvis and the present.
What is that?”
I kept wondering about the strange disco music with the guys talking over the beat that I’d been hearing all over Manhattan since stepping off a Greyhound bus a few hours earlier. I couldn’t go two blocks without hearing “a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hop, a you don’t stop” from cars, from radios, from apartment windows. “The rock it to the bang bang boogie, say up jumped the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie, to the beat.” That song was as omnipresent as the sound of honking taxis, as thick in the air as steam from subway grates. The roots of rap have been traced to World War II rhymes like “Jody the Grinder,” the Last Poets, Muhammad Ali and Jamaican toasting, but nothing heard previously could prepare one for the first exposure to recorded hip-hop music. In September 1979, the Big Apple sounded like outer space. I was at the intersection of 14th Street and Third Avenue, standing in line outside the Palladium, when I heard that song again. A trio of black kids passed by, one carrying what appeared to be a black suitcase with speakers, and as they strutted to the groove, I asked someone in line, “What is that?”
“It’s called rap music,” the guy said. Rap music? Better write that down. Just five days earlier, Sugarhill Records had released “Rapper’s Delight,” the Big Bang of hip-hop, and New York was under siege to the sound. But I had other things on my mind than a 14-minute novelty record enjoying what I presumed to be a brief time of notoriety. I had come to New York City from Albany, three hours upstate, to see the Clash, a British punk band on a political mission, who spiced their socialistic snarl with doses of rebel-rousing reggae. More musically proficient than the Ramones, deeper than the Sex Pistols, the Clash, dubbed “the only band that matters,” made the record industry take punk seriously.
When they emerged onstage at the Palladium that Friday night, the Clash didn’t look like revolutionaries, but rock stars, especially guitarist Mick Jones in his red shirt and black leather pants. They opened with a trio of trademark fast, angry numbers — “Safe European Home,” “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” and “Complete Control” — but then they went into a song that sounded unlike the others. “Here’s one from our next record,” singer Joe Strummer announced, as Jones played the now familiar fat guitar chords and sideman Mickey Gallagher laid heavy on the keyboards. “London calling to the faraway towns/ Now war is declared, a battle come down/ London calling to the underworld/ Come out of your cupboards you boys and girls,” Strummer sang in his cluttered voice. The typically jaded and sedate New York audience sat back down and stayed in their seats until the very end, when the band encored with the punk anthems “Career Opportunities” and “White Riot” and there were scattered pockets of ecstasy.
Frustrated with the crowd’s complacency, especially in response to such material as “Clampdown,” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” and “Guns Of Brixton,” which the band had spent the previous two months recording, bassist Paul Simonon smashed his guitar on the stage; a photo of the moment before impact provided the cover art of “London Calling,” which would come out like a big stylistic boundary eraser three months later.
I wish I could say I was aware that I had been standing at a major musical — and cultural — crossroads that day in New York when I first heard rap music and songs from “London Calling.” The truth is that I had no idea hip-hop would become much more than the year’s “Disco Duck” or that the Clash was about to give punk rock its “Exile On Main Street.” As I
spent the night at Danceteria (cheaper than a hotel room), I was thinking that if not for stellar opening sets by the Undertones (“the Irish Ramones”) and soul greats Sam & Dave, the Clash concert would’ve been disappointing. And when the Danceteria DJ played “Rapper’s Delight,” I was already sick of it. Who knew that 1979 would be a pivotal year, creating sparks that would engulf pop culture 25 years later? Who could foresee that the minority would so soon become the majority, that the menacing would one day be mainstream, that rap music would grow into a $10 billion a year industry, that punk bands would sell out stadiums? At the exact midpoint, 25 years on each side, between the Elvis explosion and today, 1979 was a wax paper year, separating two distinctly different cultural cuts of meat. On one side you had Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Gloria Gaynor, “Comes a Time.” On the other you had Prince, Madonna, “Rust Never Sleeps.” It was the start of a new edgy era of risk and adventure.
Any rattling off of the banner years of music includes 1954, the birth of rock; 1977, when punk broke; and 1991’s Nirvana arrival. You’ll rarely hear 1979 mentioned as a musical watershed moment because the year’s effect was not sudden, but rather at a time release pace. In 1979, rap and punk polarized fans, which was part of the appeal, just as preachers railing against “the devil’s music” in the 1950s helped build Graceland. Show me a style of music the majority of adults hate, and I’ll show you a line of kids around the block. You had to wonder, however, just how long talking records and angry guitars would keep attracting new rebels.
But the forms kept evolving, artistically, with hip-hop going from nonsensical boasts to message music that Public Enemy leader Chuck D likened to CNN for the black community. Just as the Clash added textures to their sound when they grew as musicians, former punk bands including Talking Heads, U2 and R.E.M. expanded on “three chords and the truth” with broader musical statements, attracting fans who, in previous generations, might’ve clung to safer choices.
The connection between rap and punk, two completely different-sounding forms of music, goes back to their beginnings in the broke-down neighborhoods of New York City in the summer of 1974. That’s when a Jamaican-born DJ nicknamed Kool Herc hired MCs to hype up the crowds at his block parties in the South Bronx. Using the same do-it-yourself mode, a quartet of leather-jacketed punks who called themselves the Ramones played their first gig at Bowery dive CBGB around the same time. The genres were both invented by poor people disenfranchised by the big musical trends of the day –disco and arena rock. Blacks and Puerto Ricans from the burned-out South Bronx weren’t welcome at Studio 54, so they made their own dance parties, hot-wiring street lamps to power massive sound systems in city parks. White city kids, meanwhile, couldn’t relate to the satin-covered bloat of mid-’70s rock bands, with their feathered hair and phony mystical lyrics, so they bought pawn shop guitars and learned just enough chords to set their everyday lives to music. In their earliest years, rap and punk were strictly underground, unlikely to break out of the basement or the block party.
Nobody made a rap record until 1979, because no one thought of committing those crowd-stroked party jams to vinyl. When “King Tim III,” the first rap recording, was released a couple weeks before “Rapper’s Delight,” it was relegated to the B-side of a Fatback record. New Jersey label owner Sylvia Robinson, who had a No. 3 single as an artist in 1973 with “Pillow Talk,” was the first to fully realize the recorded potential of this fresh new form. After hearing a DJ at her birthday party busting rhymes over the instrumental break of a disco hit, Robinson heard something special. She hired a band to copy the backing tracks of Chic’s hit “Good Times,” then assembled, boy-bandlike, a trio of cats who’d never met, to rap over the music. When “Rapper’s Delight” hit the streets like a ton of boomboxes, the tight rap community was confused. Nobody had ever heard of the Sugarhill Gang, and they were seen as phony interlopers. It didn’t matter; the trio of Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee put rap on the map.
During “Rapper’s Delight’s” peak of popularity, Sugarhill was getting orders for 60,000 12-inch singles a day. Suddenly, all the rappers on the scene were putting out records. Kurtis Blow, managed by Russell Simmons, became the first superstar of rap with “The Breaks.” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, Whodini, Funky 4 + 1, the Fat Boys and several more were pressing up vinyl as fast as they could.
Over in England, where rap was even more popular than in the States in the fall of ’79, the Clash had decided to change the name of their double disc from “The Last Testament” to “London Calling.” As revealed in the 30-minute “making of” DVD, which is included in the triple disc 25th anniversary of “London Calling,” the original title referred to the band’s intent to make the last true rock-‘n’-roll record. The cover lettering, in distinctive pink and green, was a take-off on Elvis Presley’s debut album. Where Elvis played the guitar on his cover, the Clash were smashing one on theirs.
Produced by madman genius Guy Stevens, who’s portrayed on the DVD as a chair-thumping, ladder-throwing, wine-spilling loon, “London Calling” turned out to not be the nail in the coffin, but a call to action for other punk bands whose creative aspirations had been found in violation of “the punk police,” who wanted every album to sound like the first one. The Clash dressed their host of musical ideas in horns, bouncing between roots (“Brand New Cadillac”), rock (“Lost in the Supermarket,” “Spanish Bombs”) and reggae (“Revo-lution Rock,” “Rudie Can’t Fail”). They made one more great album after “London Calling,” the triple disc “Sandinista!” in 1980, then the Clash cashed in their chips with 1982’s “Combat Rock.” They hit the Billboard Top 10 with “Rock the Casbah,” the video
for which was filmed in Austin, but by the end of 1983 the two frontmen — Strummer and Jones — had split, partly because of hip-hop. Jones had gone bonkers for rap and other new dance music and wanted the Clash to play more of it. Strummer was more in a Bo Diddley/Hank Williams mood, so Jones exited and formed techno/rap/rock outfit Big Audio Dynamite.
As 1979 became the ’80s, there was nothing more punk rock to do than listen to rap. Rappers, meanwhile, were often turning to rock records for fresh beats. There was a lot of cross-pollination between New York’s once-underground scenes, with CBGB grads Blondie taking rap to No. 1 with the lightweight “Rapture” and Afrika Bambaataa sampling Kraftwerk on “Planet Rock.” If you reveled in being an outcast, you couldn’t tick off middle-class white America more than blaring Grandmaster Flash’s cut and scratch epic “Adventures On the Wheels Of Steel” from your Pinto. Later came the spectacular rock/rap records of Run-DMC, which blasted hip-hop to suburbia. White kids have long embraced black culture — you can take it all the way back to Stephen Foster — and black acts have always tried to expand their white audience. But the cross-cultural exchange never flew so defiantly in the face of convention as during the advent of hip-hop. Save a few beloved corner diners and Dolly Parton’s hairstyle, almost nothing is the same as it was a quarter-century ago.
Rock changed itself, and rap changed everything.