In 1982, hip-hop—no longer underground, but still considered a fad by many—was at a crossroads.
The decade had begun with rising inflation and declining standards of living, as high unemployment rates hit the lower class hard. Places like the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop, resembled bombed-out war zones. It needed to prove itself, and the means by which it did resulted in high-water marks for the genre that shaped the music of today.
At the top of the year, there were reasons for young people in the tri-state area to be happy. Foremost among them: a booming new hip-hop scene. Countless fans (some of them future rappers and DJs) were buying and trading bootleg tapes of one of the greatest old school battles ever recorded, Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee Starski at the Christmas Rappers Convention held at Harlem World in December, 1981.
By the summer, hip-hop was heading in a thought-provoking and unstoppable direction, thanks to the release of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s "The Message.” A bold and dramatic departure from the party-rockin’ style of rap that had come out of community centers and park jams, this hypnotic, visceral account of the plight of Black and Latino Americans living in urban poverty was a shock to the system. In fact, the group considered the material far too grim and too slow, production-wise, for the clubs. Only MC Melle Mel was convinced by Sugar Hill Records co-owner Sylvia Robinson to appear on the record, which was co-written, co-produced (along with Jiggs Chase), and co-performed by Duke Bootee, an in-house musician/producer for the label.
“The Message” was an immediate hit and demonstrated that non-party records could connect with a wide audience. More importantly, it was the launching pad for socially conscious rap for years to come, paving the way for everybody from Public Enemy to dead prez.
Released a few months earlier in April, "Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force was another instant smash that would send shockwaves not just through New York, but throughout the universe.
Produced by Arthur Baker, with contribution from keyboardist John Robie, “Planet Rock” is recognized for its recreated use of Kraftwerk’s “Trans–Europe Express” and “Numbers.” Yet, as much as it owes to the German electronic music band, the song is also a fluid stream of several other songs, influences, and innovations—from the inspired rhyme styles initiated by rapper G.L.O.B.E to the use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, the first hip–hop record to utilize the now-vital machine.
“Planet Rock” brought forth a glorious sound that reverberated from block to block. The track felt custom-made for b-boys and b-girls, yet the imaginative space-age sound invited anybody into its funky universe. Indeed, the song was purposefully designed to be played by DJs in clubs both uptown (for a mostly black audience) as well as downtown (for a mostly white audience). The record ended up being played all over the world.
Hip-hop would continue to spread across the globe in other ways in 1982. That November, Fab 5 Freddy and promoter Kool Lady Blue, in conjunction with radio station Europe 1, retail chain Fnac and French record labels Celluloid and Disc' AZ, organized the New York City Rap Tour as a way to introduce the art form to France. (There were also two shows in London.) On the bill were some of the best DJs, b-boys, and graffiti writers of the time: Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Mixer D.ST & The Infinity Rappers, Rock Steady Crew, FUTURA 2000, DONDI, PHASE 2, and Rammellzee, along with the Fantastic Four (a double dutch jump rope team) made the first charge for hip-hop and New York City across Europe.
To promote the tour, a few of the artists recorded songs—even if rapping wasn’t their specialty. “The Escapades of Futura 2000” was produced by the rock band the Clash, who the year prior had chosen Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five as the opening act while playing in NYC. (The rap group was booed by the predominantly punk rock crowd. In ’82, however, rapper Kurtis Blow opened for the band to a less hostile reaction.)
Fab’s “Change the Beat” made a lasting impression when the robotic-sounding “Ah, this stuff is really fresh” heard on the final five seconds of the B-side became a favorite phrase for DJs to cut and scratch and producers to sample.
What was also key about the New York City Rap Tour was the visual representation of the four elements of hip-hop—DJing, b-boying, rhyming and graffiti—on stage together all at once, reinforcing the foundational idea of a multi-dimensional art form and culture.
In the beginning, DJs were the foundation of hip-hop music. Legends like Kool Herc and their loud, massive sound systems were the nerve center of block parties in the early ‘70s. When Herc began isolating and bringing back the break—the part of the song that got the dancers most hyped—he created a cornerstone of hip-hop music. Those dancers were called “b-boys,” later commonly referred to as “breakers,” and then simply as “breakdancers” in the mainstream media.
The Bronx’s Rock Steady Crew, established in 1977, emerged as the most well-known of the b-boy crews. Early member Crazy Legs, who moved to Manhattan in 1979, helped revitalize b-boying in the early ‘80s when he formed the second generation of RSC that included Frosty Freeze, Mr. Freeze, Ken Swift and others. Their famous battle with the Dynamic Rockers at Lincoln Center in August, 1981 resulted in immense media exposure. The wheels were in motion.
In early 1982, RSC battled the Floor Masters in the East Village club Negril. Filmmaker Michael Holman promoted a hip-hop night there on Thursdays and was impressed with the Floor Masters’ performance. Holman and his friend PHASE 2 then transformed the crew into the prominent New York City Breakers. RSC and NYCB would face off two years later on the set of the motion picture, Beat Street.
The next place-to-be spot for hip-hop downtown was The Roxy. Under the watchful eye of Kool Lady Blue, who started her “Wheels of Steel” parties in June of 1982, The Roxy catered to an eclectic mix of the who’s who of hip-hop, punk, and new wave.
Unfortunately, MTV, which had launched the year before, wasn’t as receptive to such mixing, hampering hip-hop’s growth. The music video channel, for the most part, shunned Black artists. The only “rap” video you were likely to see at the time was Blondie’s “Rapture,” which at least shouted out Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, and featured a cameo by street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
By now, though, the excitement of rap was too hard to resist for those who saw the music’s unlimited potential. Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, hooked up with popular radio DJs The World Famous Supreme Team in ‘82 to make "Buffalo Gals.” But although McLaren was white like Blondie, MTV initially rejected the video, which also featured the spectacular moves of the Rock Steady Crew and DONDI doing graffiti. The song, which later lived on through tracks by the Jungle Brothers, Beatnuts, and Eminem, to name a few, only became a hit here in the States because the Supreme Team played it on their show.
During this period, one could argue that the most successful in hip-hop—both financially and artistically—were graffiti writers. For example, LEE, who played the main character in Wild Style (1983), already had done a gallery show in Italy in 1979. For the next few years, graffiti art shows became a regular thing in NYC, showcasing pieces by Zephyr, CRASH, DAZE, Lady Pink, and many others.
Downtown hipsters weren't the only ones who got swept up in a spray-painted frenzy. There was even a graffiti exhibition at UC Santa Cruz's Porter College in March, 1982. And in May, ABC aired the TV movie Dreams Don't Die, about a kid (Escape to Witch Mountain's Ike Eisenmann) bombing the subways of NYC.
Back in 1971, when the New York Times wrote about TAKI 183, a rebellious teenager tagging his nickname and the street he lived on on walls and subways in search of fame, some readers might have predicted that it would set off a wave of imitators. But few could have imagined where graffiti would end up just a decade later. Not bad for an outlaw practice.
Of course, it wouldn’t be long before rappers would become the dominant force in the culture—something that’s still true to this day. Radio, however, was slow to fully embrace the rising genre. But visionaries like Mr. Magic were ahead of the curve. Already a supporter since day one, his Rap Attack program that debuted on WBLS in May of ’82 was the first hip-hop show on commercial radio.
While hip-hop had still not fully taken over the airwaves like it would the next decade, there were new R&B and dance songs being spun in clubs, roller skating rinks and in people’s homes that would play a part in future rap records. Heavily sampled/interpolated songs like Evelyn Champagne King's “Love Come Down,” Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots," and Keni Burke’s “Risin' to the Top” were especially influential to East Coast producers in the ‘90s, while George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” (released in December, 1982), One Way’s “Cutie Pie,” and Ronnie Hudson & The Street People’s "West Coast Poplock" would rock the imagination of beatmakers from Los Angeles all the way up to the Bay.
Meanwhile, Stacy Lattisaw's "Attack of the Name Game" and Indeep's "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life" were two more dance songs clearly inspired by rap, more indication that hip-hop’s influence was on the rise.
The year 1983 was when hip-hop entered the mainstream for good. Breakdancing would become a pop culture phenomenon and the emergence of Run-D.M.C. would give birth to the new school.
Yet, it was Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s "The Message" that paved the way for Run-D.M.C.’s hard-hitting "It's Like That.” The beat for "The Message” is still, 35 years on, considered one of the best of all time. When it was used for Ice Cube’s "Check Yo Self" remix (featuring Das EFX) in 1993 it still fit in with the current rap sound, even though hip-hop production had dramatically changed in the decade since. The song also deserves its status of being the first hip-hop recording selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress.
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force’s futuristic “Planet Rock” gave birth to not only electro funk, but had a hand in the development of techno, Miami bass, and even Brazilian favela funk. The track also proved that, like a regenerating cyborg, hip-hop music could mutate and morph into anything it wanted, which is why the art form will never die—something we’ve known since back in 1982.