It was the summer of ’79, I was a youngin, and spent a lot of time at my Grandma’s building. Located on the border of Harlem and Washington Heights, 1909 Amsterdam Avenue, a.k.a. “T…he 9,” is a 20 story red brick behemoth that is actually a stand-alone project of the New York City Housing Authority. Behind The 9 there is a back yard where we played Stick Ball, Skellies, Ringo Livio, and Hot Peas and Butter. We played all day, into the evening, until the lights came on and we were summoned upstairs.
One afternoon, while playing a game of Skellies, I noticed several of the older guys from the building lugging a bunch of equipment out of the back door. About six of them carefully toted a couple of turntables, some speakers, several crates of vinyl records, and a couple of other items that my pre-teen eyes had never seen before. As they started to set up the equipment, I turned away from the Skellies board and became fixated on their activity. They connected the two turntables to the strange devices. One of the objects had a bunch of switches and buttons; I would later discover that this peculiar item was called a “mixer.” The other object was an amplifier. After all of the equipment was connected, two of the guys went over to the lamp post that was just outside of the back park. They removed the front plate at its base, spliced the wires, and ran a couple of extension cords linked together from the street lamp, into the back yard, and to the gear. They used the pirated electricity to power the equipment.
At first, there was a buzz created by the plugging in of a microphone and then some feedback… “One, two, one two” echoed off the building and through the yard. Then one of the guys began to play a record on one of the turntables. I noticed that he had the same record spinning on the other turntable –the song was “The Champ” by the Mohawks. He only played the intro, the first 12 seconds of the record. A crazy raw organ sound accompanied by a high pitched shriek; a true breakbeat classic. He repeated that same part over and over again by using the mixer to switch back and forth between the two turntables. What emerged was a whole new song altogether. Finally, the guy holding the microphone began to recite rhymes over the music. “Yes yes yall, to beat yall, freak freak yall..!” I was astonished -mesmerized by the ingenuity, the sound, and the power. I had never heard or seen anything like it before; but, for some reason, I instantaneously identified with it. I sat there, watched, and listened for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until one of my elders emerged from the back door calling my name to come upstairs.
I was charged by what I had experienced that day, and that night I could not stop thinking about the beats, the rhymes, and that sound they created right in our own backyard. Unbeknownst to me at that time, I was witnessing the genesis of a cultural phenomenon. I was an observer to the emergence of an art form that was revolutionary, innovative, and embodied the essence of my inner-city existence. I did not realize that this new music would have such a profound impact on my life and millions of other lives around the world. The evolution of musical expression happened right before my very eyes, the day I fell in love with Hip Hop.