Ain’t No Half-Steppin’: How Hip-Hop Transcended All The Haters & Came To Rule The World
ON THE COVER: LL Cool J is pictured performing circa 1980. Photo by David Corio / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

By Dave “Davey DCook

As hip-hop music and culture celebrates its 50th birthday in 2023, there are two landmark moments that stand out for the casual fan of this multi-billion-dollar-a-year music genre that resonate deeply with long-time fans, participants and aficionados.

The first was the elaborate halftime show for Super Bowl LVI at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The show featured top-tier artists like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Anderson .Paak, 50 Cent and the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige. Super-producer and west coast hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre reportedly spent $9 million of his own money to make sure this show had all the bells and whistles.

It was not lost on Jay-Z, who in his role as an executive producer for the halftime show, along with the aforementioned participants, that this was the first time the Super Bowl had a halftime show dedicated to hip-hop. With a global audience of more than a billion people watching, it was imperative that everyone brought their ‘A game’ to the table.

FROM THE BRONX TO THE WORLD: The Eastwood Rockers are pictured breakdancing in early-80s New York City, where hip-hop culture originated. Photo by Eddie Barford / Mirrorpix/Getty

This was a love letter to hip-hop which, in spite of its massive commercial appeal and economic success, has long been misunderstood and maligned by folks eager to highlight misdeeds and controversy. The irony here is that almost all the acts who graced the stage that afternoon, at one time or another and throughout their careers, had to deal with reluctant city officials and skittish insurance companies who made the dubious claim that hip-hop attracted the “wrong type” of audience (translation: Black/urban), which would lead to violence. This meant many venues succumbed to pressure from police departments to not allow an artist like Snoop, 50 Cent or Dr. Dre when he was with NWA to grace the stages they had jurisdiction over. It meant that insurance companies would charge substantially higher premiums for hip-hop acts than they did for rock and country acts and other forms of entertainment.

Doug. E. Fresh The Legend, ‘The Show’ & 5th Element Of Hip-Hop (Q&A)

It didn’t matter if there were brawls and unruly wanton acts of violence that occurred during other large gatherings like numerous football and other sporting events where rival fans have clashed and literally destroyed stadiums and caused massive damage in the surrounding areas. It didn’t matter if there were wanton acts of violence at concerts like Woodstock ‘99 or if stellar performers like Billy Joel, the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Morgan Wallen or Luke Bryan, to name a few, have had concerts where fans brawled. Disruptions and upheavals were dismissed, minimized and neatly explained away as youthful energy.

Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg perform at the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, the most watched NFL mid-game event in history on Feb. 13, 2022, at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium outside Los Angeles. Photo by Rob Carr / Getty Images

Rap acts are not shown that type of grace, even when artists have stepped up and attempted to address concerns head-on. For example, back in the late 80s, after a massive brawl during a Run-DMC show in Southern California, a number of artists led by KRS-One met and teamed up with the National Urban League to start the Stop The Violence movement. A year or so later, a number of hit-making West Coast artists teamed up with former gang leader Mike Concepcion to address violence in the community and celebrate a recently formed gang truce with a song called “We’re All in the Same Gang.”

In the ‘90s, after an irresponsible promoter failed to fully staff a rap concert in Berkeley, violence broke out and led to both the city of Berkeley and Oakland putting a moratorium on rap concerts. This led several groups, including Digital Underground, to go down to a Berkeley City Council meeting and adroitly point out the city’s harsh contradiction, which was silent on numerous disruptions, particularly in and around the UC Berkeley campus, but seemingly hell-bent on shutting down hip-hop.

One of the DU members, Sleuth Pro, reminded the council the group had a hit record out called “The Humpty Dance,” which sold more than a million copies and had folks all over the country doing the dance connected to the popular song. They proposed that perhaps the group should return to the studio and do a song about the city council’s misguided attitude about hip-hop and get folks to vote them out of office. This was met with loud cheers and chants from inside the packed council chambers demanding the moratorium be lifted.
Quashing The Beef: The late great Jam Master Jay (aka Jason Mizell) and DMC (aka Darryl McDaniels) of Run-DMC appear at a press conference in Sept. 1988 to defend rap music against criticism that it encourages violence. ‘’The problem of violence exists in society today, but when something happens at a rap concert, they knock rap music,’’ McDaniels said. Photo by Al Pereira / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

A few days later, many of the artists who attended that meeting teamed up with a group of Berkeley law students who formed an advocacy group called GRIP (Group for Rap Industry Protection). They developed a white paper on how to produce rap shows safely. It featured a comprehensive list of best practices and a number of recommendations based on artist and fan feedback for promoters to follow. After the white paper was released, the Berkeley City Council rescinded their ban and famed promoter Bill Graham adopted some of the recommendations. And to prove a point that rap shows could be done safely and that the negative stigma of rap shows and violence should sunset, he did a successful, packed show with Too $hort and Ice Cube as headliners at the Oakland Convention Center.
Fast forward a decade later, Snoop Dogg set up a meeting with West Coast artists in Los Angeles and got everyone to commit to opening lines of communication, to put away any sort of rivalry and for folks to come together and foster an atmosphere of peace. Snoop’s efforts were one of just many that could be cited to help push this vibrant genre called hip-hop several steps forward. Hence it was with beaming pride that those who knew and understood the long road hip-hop traveled watched it front and center at the Super Bowl halftime show. Hip-hop had come a long way.

For many of us, that proverbial “long way” harkens back to the 1970s in the Bronx, which was filled with burned-out buildings and was the poster child for urban decay, neglect and political abandonment. Sharp budget cuts made by a city on the verge of going bankrupt led to after-school programs and extracurricular activities like music and art classes being cut from schools.

It was during those arduous days where Black and Puerto Rican teenagers flocked by the thousands to block parties and park jams to embrace what appeared to be new expressions in music: MCing (rapping), DJing (cutting and scratching break beats) and dance (up-rocking, breakin’, etc.). It was hip-hop, but in the 1970s that name did not exist.
The park jams were where one went to make a name for themselves. It was where one went and was expected to put their best foot forward in an attempt to shine. As a DJ, your scratches and cuts had to be on time, the break beats you played, ideally, were original and moved the crowd into a frenzy.

In the early days of hip-hop, the DJ was the star and the main draw to those block parties. Showmanship was a must with pioneering figures like Grandmaster Flash, Africa Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, Disco King Mario, Charlie Chase, Disco Wiz, Jazzy Jay and so many others leading the way.

The Icons: Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D of Public Enemy attend Columbia University’s Rap Summit circa November 1993 in New York City. Photo by Kevin Mazur / WireImage

It wasn’t enough just to play records, one had to became bigger than life. Showmanship was a must. This included cutting records behind the back as we saw Grandmaster Flash do in that famous kitchen scene in the movie Wild Style. It might’ve been demonstrating hand speed as they went from record to record á la Grand Wizard Theodore or it may have been someone like Grandmaster Caz cutting records while rapping. Every DJ had an angle. Every DJ sought to put on a show.

Although the art form was new, the audience was discerning and unforgiving of missteps, hence many worked on the craft in the confines of their homes. Only when perfected did they show up for primetime at a packed block party. The reward for rocking the crowd was being known and respected in your neighborhood, housing project and eventually throughout the Bronx and the rest of New York’s five boroughs.

The MCs, who started out as sidekicks and space fillers for the DJs, took on more responsibility. Initially crowds came and stood behind the ropes watching the DJs, but soon those crowds started showing up to watch and listen intently to the MCs.

There were unwritten rules at the time. You couldn’t read your rhymes from a paper, they had to be memorized. You couldn’t be off-beat. You had to rhyme at the drop of a dime or at the cut of a DJ. The MC did not get to pick the break beat to rap over, they had to be skilled enough to go with whatever the DJ played. You couldn’t repeat rhymes and you couldn’t bite somebody else’s rhymes and you couldn’t use call-and-response and catchphrases like “Yes Yes Ya’ll,” “Rock On Y’all” as a crutch. You had to come prepared.

Mother of the Mic: Sha-Rock (aka Sharon Green), who grew up in the Bronx, was one of the first women MCs and part of the Funky 4 + 1 crew. See page 78 for a Q&A with Sha-Rock. Photo by Denise Truscello / WireImage

Reputations were on the line. If you were part of a crew, lack of skill, bringing a B-game instead of your A-game to the park jam was a demotion for everyone who you were down with, hence every MC worth their salt practiced and practiced and practiced and dared not step on the mic at a park jam unless they were prepared to deliver heat.

Stellar MCs at the time like the Cold Crush 4, Fantastic 5, The Furious 4 and later Furious 5, and Funky 4 + 1 to name a few, upped the ante by incorporating rhyme routines. Initially they started harmonizing over old TV show intros and commercials where they flipped the words. Later they added original melodies. The end game was still the same: bring your A-game to the table and elevate the craft. There could be no half-steppin’ in your performance.

People like myself, stood around arms folded, judging, watching and listening intently to what the early top-tier emcees had to say. We listened to the routines they fashioned. Many of us were MCs eager to get a shot on the mic. There were many a night we went home inspired and tried to recapture that magic in our own routines. I recall seeing Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers at the T-Connection off Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. He took over the DJ duties from Charlie Chase and Disco Wiz. He left us awestruck as he was cutting break beats on time, which back in the ‘70s was no easy task, while simultaneously rhyming and not missing a beat.

Later that evening we saw the entire Cold Crush repurpose a Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The group harmonized as if they were a new version of the Jackson 5 or the Temptations, with each member giving new lyrics that resonated with all of us Bronx kids. Seeing that routine opened us up and sent me and my crew TDK (Total Def Krew) home to fashion our own routines. It was a harmonizing exercise that repurposed the theme song from the theme to the TV show “Gilligan’s Island.”

When the song goes down and the day is over and the last of the light is gone./You hear three MCs in the street singing that happy song. Singing that happy song.
I recall seeing acts like the Funky 4 + 1. The plus one was the incredible MC Sha-Rock (see page 78). She was one of the first women MCs and one of the best, bar none. She was regal, fly and commanded respect. Her rhyme flow set the bar and would be one that many up-and-coming emcees would mimic for years to come.

Others like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 4 and later 5 were the best of the best. They came to jams rocking outfits that were colorful and outlandish like Parliament, Cameo, Rick James or the Village People. Their rhyme routines set the bar and sent many lesser-known crews back to the drawing board inspired to find similar angle to take when performing.

As hip-hop evolved, GMF would eventually share the stage with some of those whose outfits they emulated. Many will tell you that Flash and his crew, Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Keef Cowboy, Mr. Ness and Rahiem would leave the stage hot and uninhabitable for the funk and soul acts they opened for. Flash once told me in an interview that their goal was outshine each and every group that performed. He noted they would wear out the crowd doing routines they honed at those early park jams and when done they would playfully knock on the doors of the following funk acts and tell them, “Good luck.” They clearly understood you lived and died by your live performances. As noted earlier, for many who were hungry to be seen, heard and acknowledged, excelling at an early hip-hop Park Jams provided a path.

The Biggest Music Finally Arrives To Music’s Biggest Night: The 65th Annual Grammy Awards included a live 14-minute performance homage to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, which included Too $hort, Lil Uzi Vert, Salt-n-Pepa, Flava Flav, Melle Mel, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, GloRilla, Method Man, Scorpio and Nelly, pictured above, at Arena in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 2023. Photo by Valerie Macon / AFP

Fast forward, 40 or 50 years later, many of us got to witness a second breakthrough moment for hip-hop during the recent 65th Grammy Awards. Questlove of the Roots along with LL Cool J put their heads together and curated an incredible tribute to acknowledge hip-hop’s upcoming 50th birthday. It was a who’s who of hip-hop royalty hitting the stage. It featured pioneers and trailblazers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, Rakim, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Busta Rhymes, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Ice T, Too $hort, Run DMC and Public Enemy to name a few.

We also saw members of Wu-Tang, Outkast, the Geto Boys and De La Soul along with artists from the new school like Lil Baby, GloRilla and Lil Uzi Vert. It was an incredible tribute that was preceded by Kendrick Lamar winning Hip-Hop Album of the Year and the grand finale being an 8-minute song that featured DJ Khalid, Jay-Z and Rick Ross.

The hip-hop takeover of the Grammys was a reminder that hip-hop is deeply woven in the fabric of modern-day music and it is perched to reach even greater heights.
Dave “Davey D” Cook is a journalist, professor at San Francisco State, hip-hop historian, former MC, current DJ and co-author of the young adult edition of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.”

Guest Post by Dave “Davey D” Cook
Dave “Davey D” Cook is a journalist, professor at San Francisco State, hip-hop historian, former MC, current DJ and co-author of the young adult edition of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.”

For more hip-hop, stop by Pollstar Live! for the keynote panel “THROW YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR: 50 YEARS OF HIP-HOP,” which takes place on Wednesday, Feb. 22 from 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm at the Beverly Hilton. The panel features Lionel Bea (co-founder & Director of Operations of Bay Area Productions), Darryll Brooks (co-owner of C D Enterprises, and hip-hop legends Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane and DJ Quik. The discussion is moderated by Geoff Walker, who is the guest editor of Pollstar’s 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop special issue, the founder of Kickstand World, LLC and a consultant for the Warner Music Group.