Rap music is truly an American minority artist creation of which students need to be proud. Unfortunately, rap music is not perceived by many Americans as an art form, but as a fad which they hope will soon fade away. One of my intentions with my unit is to show that rap music is not a fad, but a musical art form that has been around for over 20 years in the United States. In fact, one can trace the history of rap back to the West African professional singers/storytellers known as Griots. However, it is not my intention to discuss in my unit the connection between the Griots and American rap music. Although, I will assign my students the task of doing a brief report on the African Griots prior to beginning my unit to help illustrate to my students that rapping has a long and illustrious history. I strongly suggest that anyone using my unit do the same.
My unit is intended for middle school or high school students who are studying American history. One can not study American rap music without studying what is known as the ‘Hip Hop' culture. Rap is an integral part of this subculture that did not evolve or exist in isolation from its other major components.
Thus, one of my unit objectives will be to not only discuss and study rap music but also the other major parts of this subculture. ‘Hip Hop' culture was also comprised of graffiti, break dancing, and the attitude and dress of the people who subscribed to the mores and traditions of this subculture. Another objective of my unit will be to examine the influence Jamaican music had on American rap music. Finally, I intend to examine some of the major American rap artists and their styles and the technology which played a major role in the evolution of rap music in the United States. According to my research all sources seem to point to the Bronx in New York City as the origin for the ‘Hip Hop' culture.
The first major component of this subculture I wish to explore is the graffiti aspect. Prior to discussing this aspect students need to know what conditions or events existed in the Bronx which fostered the development of the ‘Hip Hop' culture. Steven Haver in his book, "Hip Hop; the Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti," states that there were three major events which took place in the Bronx which led to the birth of this subculture. First, in 1959 Parks Commissioner Rober Moses began building an expressway through the heart of the Bronx. As a result, the middle class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish neighborhoods disappeared overnight. In addition, businesses and factories relocated and left this borough. (I intend on having a map of New York City available to show my students where the Bronx is located at this point in my unit.
I also plan on writing to the city of New York to inquire if a map exists which depicts the Bronx and the expressway construction back in 1959. I would advise anyone using my unit to do the same.) These exiting middle classes and businesses were replaced by poor black and Hispanic families. Accompanying these poor people were crime, drug addiction, and unemployment. The second major event which occurred once again under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses would siphon off a majority of what was left of the middle class in the Bronx. This event occurred in 1968 with the completion of a 15,382 unit co-op apartment complex on the northern edge of the Bronx near an expressway. This project fostered and accelerated the Bronx middle class exodus from comfortable and well-kept apartments.
As a result of the skyrocketing vacancy rates reputable landlords began selling out to professional slumlords. As a consequence of this action the Bronx deteriorated into a neighborhood with many unkept and vacant buildings. The Bronx in this deteriorating condition fell prey to the third major event which led to the direct development of the graffiti aspect of the ‘Hip Hop' culture. This event occurred in 1968 and coincided with Robert Moses' second major project in the Bronx, the Co-Op City.
It should be noted that these last two events were not related. This third event involved a group of seven teenage boys who began terrorizing the vicinity around the Bronxdale Project on Bruckner Boulevard in the southeast Bronx. This may not seem important, but this group of teenagers laid the groundwork for a surge of street gang activity that would overwhelm the Bronx for the next six years. This group at first called itself the Savage Seven, but as more members joined, the group changed its name to the Black Spades. Overnight street gangs appeared on every corner of the Bronx.
It should be noted that Afrika Bambaataa (who from time to time in my unit will be referred to as Bam), who had a tremendous effect on rap music and the ‘Hip Hop' culture and who will be discussed at length in another section of my unit, was a member and leader of the Black Spades at one time. I bring this point up to illustrate that many rappers in the ‘Hip Hop' subculture were gang members at some time in their life. Gangs in New York reached their peak in 1973, so states Steven Hager in his book. The Black Spades, one of the largest streetgangs in New York, started to decline after this period.
According to Bam, some gangs got into drugs, others got wiped out by rival gangs, while others became so large that members did not want to be involved anymore. Bambaataa went on to say that girls got tired of the gang life and wanted to start to raise children. Times were changing, with the advent of the seventies people were getting into music and dancing and going to clubs. One legacy of the gangs which affected the ‘Hip Hop' culture was gang graffiti. Nobody really knows how graffiti evolved, but we know that it has been around for a long time.
It goes as far back as during World War II when someone wrote "Kilroy was here" in a startling number of places in our country and abroad. During the fifties streetgangs used graffiti for self-promotion, marking territorial boundaries and intimidation. However, around 1969 something changed and graffiti became a way of life with its own code of behavior, secret gathering places, slang, and esthetic standards for hundreds of New York City youths according to Steven Hager in his book. No one knows who started graffiti during this era but we do know who made it famous. It was TAKI 183.
TAKI 183 was a teenager from Greece named Demetrius. Demetrius was first influenced when he saw "Julio 204" written on a street. Julio was a teenager who lived on 204th Street. Demetrius took his nickname which was Taki and placed it front of the street on which he lived, 183rd Street. Thus, the tag name TAKI 183 was created. Demetrius proceeded to write his tag name in as many places as he could find. Graffiti writing was mainly written with spray paint until the invention of the magic markers in the sixties.
The magic marker helped the spread of graffiti writing because it was easier to conceal and at the same time left an indelible mark on just about any surface as did the spray paint. At first graffiti writing was limited to just artists writing their tag names. Some examples of some famous tag names in NYC other than TAKI 183 were SLY II, LEE 163d, PHASE 2, and TRACY 168. There was a large group of graffiti writers who attended DeWitt Clinton High School which was located across the street from a Transit Authority storage yard.
The subway system was a main target of the early graffiti writers. A common meeting place was a coffee shop near DeWitt on W. Mosholu Parkway. Whenever a bus pulled up outside, dozens of writers would descend upon it and write their tags on it.
It is even evident today that some graffiti writers are still into writing their tag names by walking through any neighborhood in New York, or in fact by even walking through certain sections of New Haven. One activity I plan on having my students to do is to canvas the Fair Haven neighborhood looking for graffiti tag names written on buildings, sidewalks, etc. It might be difficult for students to find out who these graffiti artists are in their neighborhood because it is part of the graffiti writers' code not to reveal their real names except to other graffiti writers. Style is one of the most important aspects in graffiti writing. One could gain respect and recognition by getting one's name around in large quantities, but it was more prestigious to create an original lettering style. One graffiti writer who did this in 1972 was an artist known as Super Kool.
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