Bronx: birthplace of hip-hop


It’s not often that a history lecture can get students snapping and swaying, but that’s exactly what happened on Feb. 27 at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. 

Students danced in their seats as Michael Partis, a Borough of Manhattan Community College ethnic studies professor, gave a lecture — and played music — to show how the Bronx’s black roots gave birth to rap and hip-hop.

Students Jasmine Philip and Alexi Benjamin said they didn’t know the borough was home to so many musical innovators.

“I was surprised, I just thought it was from Harlem, from Brooklyn,” said Ms. Philip.

Both freshmen attended the lecture alongside about 30 others because they said it was offered as extra credit for their history course, Witches, Slaves and Rebels: Inequity in Early America.

“It connects because slaves back then had culture and music which traveled with them,” said Ms. Benjamin. “That’s where rap comes from.”

The College of Mount Saint Vincent’s fine arts department, history department, honors program and office of student activities, leadership and commuter life co-sponsored the talk as a way to celebrate Black History Month. 

Mr. Partis, a graduate researcher for the Bronx African American History Project, said he  welcomes invitations to discuss his research because the Bronx’s black heritage is often overlooked. 

He said people often discuss the Bronx as a prosperous borough that attracted Irish, Italian and Jewish residents during the early 1900s. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway from 1948 to 1963 cut through neighborhoods, displacing families and initiating a period of white flight. In the decades since, Mr. Partis said, the Bronx became known as a predominately Latino borough plagued by poverty.

This narrative skips over the 1940s, when the Bronx was home to the eighth largest black community in America, and the 50s and 60s, when an influx of Cuban, Puerto Rican and West Indian immigrants moved in.

In 2000, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture published a book on the history of black New Yorkers. Mr. Partis said three of the book’s nearly 500 pages focused on blacks in the Bronx.

“Blackness is erased from the history of the Bronx,” Mr. Partis said, noting that this oversight continues as scholars, “speak about it as if the Latino people don’t identify as black or as if they’re not people of African descent.”

The Bronx African American History Project staff has been working to supplement the limited information on black Bronxites by interviewing former and current black Bronxites, chronicling the research and publicly speaking about the work. 

Mr. Partis described Morrisania, a neighborhood that stretches from East 157th Street and Prospect Avenue north to East 170th Street, as the hub of black life and music. He said black and West Indian immigrants flocked to the neighborhood in the 1940s, seeing it as a respectable, working class alternative to Harlem. 

As Latino, West Indian and African immigrants moved into the area, Mr. Partis said music legends including Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz intermingled at jazz clubs along Third and Prospect avenues.

The slow, lulling rhythm of Motown and R&B grew quicker and more elaborate, inspired by the percussion used in reggae, salsa and other Caribbean genres. 

Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, who moved to Morris Heights and adopted the stage name DJ Kool Herc, and Kevin Donovan, who grew up in Soundview and went by the name DJ Afrika Bambaataa, helped develop “break-beats” by isolating the rhythm sections of songs and looping beats together.

Mr. Partis played Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Furious Wheels of Steels” track to demonstrate the technique. 

“One for the trouble, two for the time, come on girls let’s rock that,” a man chants before a whistle blares over a drumbeat. The sound of a DJ scratching records cuts through the track, marking the transition from one rhythmic sequence to the next. 

Musicians incorporated spoken word, a tradition of reciting poetry aloud, when rappers began rhyming over break-beats.

As an example of the fusion, Mr. Partis played “When the Revolution Comes,” by The Last Poets, who recite lines over the steady syncopation of drums.

The culmination of hip-hop emerged with sampling, when artists began mixing verses and melodies from one song into another. 

Several students nodded their heads or tapped their feet when Mr. Partis played Kanye West’s and Jay Z’s “Otis,” which layers heavy bass and rap over parts of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.”

Joselyn Ramirez, a freshman, said she was familiar with rap’s roots in the Bronx, but “loved” the lecture nonetheless.

“They should offer this as a class,” she said. 

Mr. Partis concluded by noting that the Bronx could serve as an example of how diversity fuels innovation. 

By 2043, the U.S. Census Bureau anticipates that majority of Americans will be non-white. 

This shift has some concerned, but Mr. Partis said it shouldn’t. 

“What the story of the Bronx is is how those differences come together,” he said. “It created contemporarily one of the most popular kinds of music.”

CSAIR screens film 

The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale filmed intergenerational exchanges between six senior citizens and sixth-graders.

The two generations began gathering in the synagogue’s sanctuary to share stories this January. 

CSAIR invites the community to see what the seniors and sixth-graders have learned at a film screening in the synagogue, located at 475 W. 250th St., on Sunday, March 10, at 9:45 a.m. 

Rabbi Barry Dov Katz will introduce the movie and sixth-graders will be available to discuss it after the viewing.

For more information, call 718-543-8400.

RKA multicultural show

The David A. Stein Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, MS/HS 141, invites the community to its annual multicultural show on Saturday, March 9, at 2 p.m.

Singers and dancers will perform routines that highlight the diverse cultures of the school community. 

The multicultural show will be held in the auditorium of RKA, located at 660 W. 237th St. 

The suggested contribution for admission is $5.

For more information, call the school at 718-796-8516.