Uptown Top Ranking
A striking new photo book on hip hop’s birth reminds you that the culture used to be about street-level creativity and all-out fun.
Words Daddy Bones
In recent years, as hip hop has enjoyed several consecutive silver anniversaries for one seminal event or another, a good deal of important perspective and context has been added to the many written legends surrounding its infant years. Sadly, there has never been much in the way of visual records of the time in which hip hop rocked the uptown clubs of New York. Now, a stunning collection of previously unseen images has been brought to light, offering an absorbing new look at the essence and style of hip hop before it became a music industry phenomenon.
Joe Conzo’s stunning photographs, taken between 1977 and 1982, reinforce the fact that hip hop’s medium was – and still should be – live performance. For a couple of years following the famous New York blackout, jams and shows exploded in the Bronx and Harlem as fiercely hyped MC/DJ crews battled like prize fighters, cementing the foundations of a unique culture. Many of these parties, particularly those featuring scene legends such as Cold Crush or The Fantastic 5, have passed into lore, raw cassette recordings having previously been the only documents of events. Yet the young activist Conzo had been there all along, capturing the stars, the crowds, the vibrancy and excitement, and not just from famous venues such as Harlem World, but high schools and boys’ clubs – where an even greater sense of youth, fun, presence and urgency shines from the monochrome stills.
Perhaps more amazing than the discovery of Conzo’s pictures is the reams of rare photocopied event flyers in the book, most of which come from the collection of the ‘Flyer King’, Buddy Esquire, whose hand-lettered masterpieces went on to define the ghetto grandiosity of hip hop’s early street promotion. In fact, it is truly remarkable that any of this material exists at all. As the book’s editor Johann Kugelberg relates in his introduction, hip hop, like most black music culture, tended to focus on simply creating, enjoying and moving forward rather than putting any effort into self-documentation: quite opposite to the concurrent white movement of punk, whose communal sense of self-importance ensured that from the get-go, there was not just artfully packaged records, but fashions, fanzines and footage. Though both cultures made the most of the availability of the cheap new photocopying technology, practically all of the flyers for the now mythical hip hop shows were discarded. It’s incredible to see that someone actually saved a tiny, individually written handout for a 1973 Kool Herc party, acclaimed here as the ‘Dead Sea scroll of hip hop’.
There is much to enjoy perusing this paper ephemera now that there is a desire to look back, but at the time uptown kids wouldn’t have collected this stuff; hip hop was all about living for Saturday night, which is perhaps the reason that it took so long for anyone to consider committing its sound to vinyl. Rest assured that Kugelberg, epitomising the obsessive curator mentality, has also collated scans from a colourful array of the earliest rap recordings from across the globe, most of which were godawful novelty disco tunes aping the Sugarhill Gang’s tawdry ‘Rapper’s Delight’, certainly more interesting to see than listen to. The one vinyl artefact that genuinely represents the real spirit of hip hop is embossed on the book’s back cover and is not a rap record at all. It is a seven-inch single – a bootleg loop of James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ break, issued under a fake name, glued by DJ Charlie Chase onto a Curtis Mayfield album. To understand why is to know the relevance of this fantastic book.