After Armageddon came hip hop

Netflix series The Get Down takes a fictional look at the 1970s Bronx scene that gave the world hip hop. Photo / David Lee, Netflix
Netflix series The Get Down takes a fictional look at the 1970s Bronx scene that gave the world hip hop. Photo / David Lee, Netflix

On July 13, 1977, a lightning storm struck the Consolidated Edison grid providing electricity to New York City. Within an hour, the most densely populated urban centre in North America was in complete blackout. Under cover of darkness, there was a moment of collective insanity. Huge crowds tore through the streets, breaking into stores, taking everything they could get their hands on. It was the biggest looting spree in history.

Many of the looters, taking advantage of disillusioned and underfunded emergency services, were stocking up on food and domestic appliances, but some were evidently on the hunt for more specialist equipment, as every audio electronics store across the city's five boroughs was cleaned out of turntables and mixing equipment. "Before that blackout, we had four or five legitimate DJ crews," said DJ Disco Wiz, the founder of a 70s street party scene. "The very next day, there sprung this whole revolution of DJs." That was the night hip hop broke out of the Bronx.

Baz Luhrmann, the acclaimed director of Moulin Rouge! and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, has created a fictional account of the circumstances that spawned hip hop in The Get Down, a new series for online streaming service Netflix.

Bubbling up out of the fetid cauldron of New York in 1977 came several music scenes: hip hop, which spawned bands like Run DMC and Public Enemy, disco and punk.

Disco was the most visible. Merging the club sounds of Europe with the funk and soul of America, its spiritual home became Studio 54, the New York disco that opened its doors in April 1977. It was here that Bianca Jagger celebrated her 32nd birthday by riding a white horse around the dance floor. The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Grace Jones all performed at the club. Nile Rodgers formed Chic and wrote Le Freak after being turned away from Studio 54 by the notoriously fickle doorman. His autobiography reveals that he later set up his office in the ladies' toilets, where he would dish out cocaine in return for sexual favours. Regulars at the club included Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Mercury and John Travolta, whose starring role in Saturday Night Fever made disco dancing popular all over the world. With its emphasis on celebratory grooves, disco evoked notions of hedonism, a decadent response to the troubled times outside the discotheque doors.

In Manhattan's East Village, at a small club called CBGB, a very different response to New York's troubles was fermenting. The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads all emerged on the punk scene from CBGB. "Decadence seemed so lame, because decay suggests that there's still some time, and there wasn't any more time," wrote punk journalist Legs McNeil in his oral history of the scene, Please Kill Me. "Things had collapsed. So punk wasn't about decay, punk was about the apocalypse. Punk was about annihilation. Nothing worked, so let's get right to Armageddon."

Meanwhile, Seymour Stein of Sire Records (who signed most of the bands) coined the phrase "new wave" to differentiate the spiky, arty New York scene from the much more politically angry London punks. And just as disco remains in the DNA of house music, techno and mainstream synthetic pop, new wave has underpinned every development in rock, from goth to grunge, Britpop and indie. However, both punk and disco have been dwarfed by the inexorable rise of hip hop.

Today, the genre boasts some of the richest artists in the world, including Pharrell Williams, Jay Z and the Canadian rapper Drake, who spent 15 weeks at the top of the UK charts this year with his single One Dance.

But, in 1977, hip hop, which sprang out of the breakdancing and block parties of black communities in the Bronx, was in its infancy. Turntablists mixed records together, making long sections out of breakbeats while MCs rhymed over the top. A young, white, Bronx-based club owner, Sal Abbatiello, was impressed enough to invite the best of them, Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash, to DJ for a Tuesday night residency at his struggling venue, Disco Fever. Flash turned up with three MCs. It was a dollar a ticket.

On Tuesday, August 15, 1977, 600 local teenagers crammed into the 350-capacity club and a street-and-park-jam scene got its first foothold in the music business.

Early rap stars Kurtis Blow, Heavy D and Run DMC all went on to their first club shows at Disco Fever. In The Big Payback, a fascinating history of the business of hip hop, Dan Charnas notes that "there were only two reasons that people risked their lives to go to the Bronx: Yankee Stadium or Disco Fever".

After a controversial and hard-fought election, a new mayor, Ed Koch, was elected in November, beginning three terms that put the city back on sound financial footing, and did much to reduce crime and corruption. It had been one of the hardest years in New York's history but it ended on an upbeat note. "New York in adversity towers above any other city in the world," claimed Koch.

The first six episodes of The Get Down are available on Netflix; netflix.com.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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