On 11 August 1973, at a house party on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, hip hop was born. DJ Kool Herc threw a party for his sister, Cindy, in the rec room of their apartment block. It was the first time all the elements of hip hop culture came together: breakdancing, graffiti artists, DJs and an MC.
Grandmaster Caz, an old-school rap legend is leading me on a tour of New York’s hip-hop highlight. “The room couldn’t contain the energy,” he says with a smile. Neither could the Big Apple, or even the country. From this one red-brick high-rise overlooking the motorway, hip hop would take over the world.
During the tour, Caz shows me Harlem World, the legendary venue where Kool Moe D battled Busy B, in what would become the most famous freestyle session in history; the nightclub Disco Fever, where the godfather of hip hop, Grandmaster Flash, made his name; I learn the rap symbol for the Bronx (arms crossed like an ‘X’ in front of your chest) and watch B-Boy Mighty Mouse, part of the Dynamic Rockers breakdancing crew, defy gravity with air flares, jackhammers and spins.
But it’s not all about the music. Everywhere we go we pass barbed wire playgrounds, tenement housing, fences and walls — it’s like being in a cage. “This is the real New York,” Caz says. He’s right too. New York is one of the world’s greatest cities. You can listen to all kinds of music. But to feel that true New York state of mind you have to leave the shiny towers and Broadway shows of Manhattan and head north to Harlem, and to the four other boroughs — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — where the sounds and the streets intertwine: beats and rhymes, breaks and spins — a whole art form born from just two turntables and a microphone.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)