When Cindy and Clive Campbell threw that back-to-school party on Aug. 11, 1973, in the rec room of their apartment building in the Bronx, they had no way of knowing they were about to change music and pop culture forever.
Clive, known as Kool Herc, emceed and DJed that night, mixing elements of Jamaica’s dance-hall traditions with house party basics. It was a novel mashup that stayed largely underground until the 1979 landmark hit “Rapper’s Delight” introduced the world to rhyming stories over a groove or beat and to the phrase “hip-hop.” Fifty years later, rap has supplanted rock as the music of global youth culture, and many hitmakers of the ’80s and ’90s, such as LL Cool J, Will Smith, Jay-Z, Diddy, and Pharrell Williams, now control entertainment, technology, and luxury fashion empires.
Emmett G. Price III, dean of Africana Studies at Berklee College of Music and 2022-2023 visiting professor of music at Harvard University, has written extensively about hip-hop culture and the history of Black music. Price spoke with The Gazette about the genre’s enduring influence. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Emmett G. Price III
GAZETTE: Many elements of Jamaica’s modern musical customs — mobile sound system parties, emceeing over records, mic battles — were present at those first parties. And the genre’s emphasis on narrative and lyric poetry, on truth-telling and embellishment, comes out of African oral tradition. Where does hip-hop fit in the continuum of Black music history?
PRICE: You’re absolutely right in terms of hip-hop being a diasporic cultural expression within the trajectory of the Africanist expressive culture that comes through the Caribbean and South and Central America into the United States. Not only toasting and DJing, but also dance rhythms and dance moves that come from the African continent we see manifested in breakdancing, and then, the role of the griot — the storyteller, the praise singer, the one who narrates and chronicles the daily activities of what it means to be in the life of. That’s what we get in the emcee. Perhaps Aug. 11, 1973, is not the magical date, but that may have been the moment that those young people recognized that they had something significant and special.