Sing About Herc: Why Hip-Hop Pioneers Must Be Cherished By the New Generation

With the culture more visible than ever, we can't allow the disappearance and invisibility of those who laid the foundation almost 50 years ago.
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“Across time, people have had the desire to immortalize others for their contributions to society. And for hip-hop, that time has come,” said Seth Farbman, Spotify’s Chief Marketing Officer, after Metro Boomin, SZA, and 21 Savage were unveiled as RapCaviar’s Pantheon artists. In their honor, to signify successful 2017 breakouts, life-sized sculptures were built in the likeness how Romans once molded their Gods.

Tuma Basa, Spotify’s global head of hip-hop, eloquently added:

"We’re treatings our artists with the importance that Ancient Rome treated its gods. Metro, SZA and 21 all proved this year that they’re here to stay. Their music is forever so why not immortalize their likeness? Greco-Roman Respect Style!"  

Over the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about those statues, immortality, and how timelessness is often sought but rarely realized. I thought about hip-hop’s inescapable presence in pop culture, its contributions to society, and the importance of honoring artists to the point of transcendence. RapCaviar’s Pantheon puts emphasis on recognition, something hip-hop does well for the young and popular, but is the same privilege and commemoration afforded to its pioneers?

Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, is no God. But on August 11, 1973, he committed an act of godliness―creation. With two turntables and the inventive vision to see magic within the beat’s break, DJ Kool Herc transformed 1520 Sedgwick Avenue―a building in the Bronx―into hip-hop’s birthplace. Herc did what hadn't been done. He's an inventor of something wholly original. He provided a name to what is now engraved into the world’s consciousness. He is the almighty father of a 45-year-old musical and cultural revolution.

Where is his statue?

History will cite DJ Kool Herc in the beginning chapters of hip-hop’s origin story, but his name will appear less as the pages turn and the genre evolves. Platinum plaques and golden gramophones won’t be found in the home of Herc; neither riches nor accolades entered his life following the rise of hip-hop’s commercial transition. He wasn't a rapper, producer, or business mogul, he was only a DJ with a vision.

“More white kids in Europe know who I am than black kids in the states,” Herc told Michael A. Gonzales in 1998 for The Source's 100th issue.

Isn't that saying something? How can a man with such an inspiring story feel as if the kids from his neighborhood could care less about what he started? The entirety of that same Source issue pays homage to hip-hop history, complete with interviews with pioneers and legends, but none of them grace the cover alongside LL Cool J.

There’s no reward in creation without the foresight of capitalization, little recognition is given once your era expires, and yet you live to witness the changes. It says a lot about the idea of forever when the genre’s creator doesn’t have the luxuries afforded to those who blossomed thanks to his soil.

JAY-Z is quoted in Herc's '98 Source interview, a budding star in his own right at the time, then in his late 20s and basking in the glow of two albums. Presented in the magazine as "the latest king of rap's present jiggy school," Jay laughs off the reverence of his hip-hop pioneers.

"Yo, you ever see 'em Old School niggas at a party or on a panel? Word, playboy, all them cats is bitter. Always talking 'bout what they did for hip-hop, and never made any real money. But that was then and this is right now. What they want a nigga like me to do, I don't know, but they sure are angry."  

Jay is vocal about his irritation toward "old school niggas," a clear example of how one of hip-hop's modern elder statesmen was once young and resentful to those who came before him. Imagine the hell that would break loose if, 20 years later, Lil Pump uttered this same quote but in reference to Jay.

Grandmaster Caz, in the same Source issue, said it best: “Well, the kids are trained that way. I mean, that’s our mentality. Out with the old, in with the new.” How rappers talk about the previous generation isn’t new to the SoundCloud era, it's a recurring cycle that has continued to repeat itself. When you hear a Matt Ox proclaim a new wave and dismiss Eminem, he is just another addition to the long lineage of artists too self-indulgent to realize how this disrespect only furthers the rift between the two opposing sides of young and old.

What JAY-Z and every other rapper went on to accomplish is only possible by those men and women who didn’t make any real money building the culture from nothing. Hip-hop isn’t some startup created with intentions of attracting venture capitalists. Money and celebrity weren’t factors when the DJs were grandmasters, b-boys and b-girls reigned over dance floors, and MCs were the providers of vibes, nothing more. Their lack of financial gain shouldn’t be faulted, but it does serve as an example of why their cultural contributions should be heralded. Few artists will top Billboard charts and sell millions of albums, but there's a smaller number of inventors and originators who will rewrite what is thought to be possible.

“Let Kool Herc open for you. Let Melle Mel open for you. Take me on the goddamn road if hip-hop took you this far,” Kool Herc responded after being asked if old school rappers like Melle Mel had a beef with the newer generation who didn’t recognize their forefathers. It seems so simple, right? His response took me back to 2015 when Big Daddy Kane praised Macklemore for bringing out Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Caz to perform “Downtown” during the VMAs. While it wasn't widely praised among contemporary hip-hop circles, the gesture nevertheless showed the respect and admiration Macklemore has for hip-hop’s pioneers. Paying homage isn’t a feat that has to be on the biggest stage to have an impact. Most of the OGs don’t resent the young, they just want to be remembered, respected and allowed the chance to still interact with the culture.

Hip-hop should look to recognize it’s living legends and forefathers the way Marvel and Disney honor Stan Lee with every Marvel movie. For the man who co-created every hero and villain, his inevitable cameo appearance is an important gesture. For just a few seconds, his presence is a visible representation of how just a little spotlight can bring attention to a man who played a huge part in crafting the very universe that is now considered the mainstream blockbuster. Kool Herc shouldn’t have to be sick for his name to make headlines, and it shouldn't take death to deliver roses. Hip-hop, as the biggest music genre in the world, owes its pioneers and legends more public acknowledgment.

If they’re lucky, 21 Savage, Metro Boomin, and SZA will live forever as Spotify's Pantheon. With their current level of popularity, it’s not a fool's bet to believe their art and impact will transcend. But as JAY-Z has shown us, we all get old. It’s an inevitable, one of life's guarantees. We'll all be replaced by younger, more polarizing artists, and it will be their world, their industry. We will want them to remember us, to see our existence as their predecessors and not whiny elders who are green with envy. This only happens if we are an example and if we show them how homage is to be paid and why we must go the extra mile to show our respect. Look no further than DJ Wally Sparks' recent tribute to Mannie Fresh. Whether you agree or not, these odes are necessary for many whose salutes are overdue.

With the culture more visible than ever, we can't allow the disappearance and invisibility of those who laid the foundation almost 50 years ago. Documentaries and podcasts can only go so far. Rappers, blogs, streaming services, new platforms—every institution flourishing in this age should want to give back in some form or fashion. Build a statue, build a platform, build a way for people like Kool Herc to always have a presence in the present. So when the day comes that he does pass on, we won’t have regrets about what should’ve been done while he was still among us.

By Yoh, aka Grandmaster Yoh , aka @Yoh31

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