Hip-hop: the story so far
The story of hip-hop’s official “birth” has become the stuff of legends: On Aug. 11, 1973, the Bronx’s Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, hosted a back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgewick Ave. Serving snacks and drinks catered by his parents, Herc spun funk and soul jams in a darkened rec room basement. What transpired that night has been widely cited as a pinnacle moment in the history of hip-hop.
There, Kool Herc, along with a number of hip-hop’s very first emcees, introduced some of the earliest styles of breakbeat DJing, record-scratching, and rhythmic rhyming that would come to characterize hip-hop music for years to come. Less than a decade later, “Rapper’s Delight” by New Jersey rap trio the Sugarhill Gang reached the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40, sending shockwaves through the music industry and beginning the slow but steady rise of hip-hop’s prominence in the wider—and whiter—American consciousness.
The ’80s would prove hip-hop’s mettle in cultural crossover appeal, notably through punk rock band Blondie’s “Rapture” and the barrier-breaking collaboration between Run-DMC and Aerosmith in “Walk This Way.” The ’90s ushered in the golden age of hip-hop, birthing legends such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Lauryn Hill, and Outkast onto the American music scene and showcasing the variety, ingenuity, and persistence of a genre and a people with something to say for themselves.
By the 2000s, hip-hop’s dominance as an art form was undeniable. The decade saw an even wider array of mainstream rappers and the beginnings of today’s most well-recognized artists, from Lil Wayne to Drake to Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar. The 2010s would see even more innovation and mainstream acceptance, culminating in Lamar’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking album “DAMN.”
All of this success stemmed from the musical innovations of New York City’s Black youth and a small back-to-school party in a Bronx housing project—only a train and a bus ride away from Columbia’s campus.
The growth of hip-hop, from underground party music to a bona fide art form, speaks largely to the persistence and the ingenuity of Black youth from the Bronx. The genre’s climb into the mainstream was a slow and punishing one. Its emergence was marred by relatively little media coverage, a racialized disregard for the music coming out of the ghettos at the height of the crack epidemic, and even attempts at censorship by the U.S. government.
However, while hip-hop was comparatively left out of mainstream music outlets like KISS-FM, it was consistently buoyed by the American youth; Black youth across the country continued to innovate the sound despite setback after setback. Meanwhile, young people of all backgrounds drove the demand that would eventually translate into label creations, record deals, and increased media coverage for hip-hop artists.
Columbia University, with its historical ties to the larger hip-hop community in New York City, witnessed this phenomenon . Even as both hip-hop and the campus’ music culture evolved, the university would serve as an example of the tenuous relationship between the hip-hop community and American culture. From underground outliers to dominating force to studied art form, this is hip-hop’s story at Columbia.
The 1980s to the 1990s: WKCR, CTV, and the embrace of underground hip-hop
Though student-led underground music organizations like Hi-Fi Snock Uptown, Rare Candy, and the Bacchanal committee have steadily raised their profiles, their success in opening student ears to different sounds is relatively recent. Since the 1980s, the Columbia community’s musical sensibilities have steered away from the progressive and toward the comfortable.
Alumni like Jonathan Gill, CC ’86, and Ovid Santoro, GS ’86, noted that while the rest of the city was delving into new and unexplored sounds in its underground clubs, the music scene on campus was decidedly restrained.
“It was basically a lot of white kids who liked things the way they’d always had them … and didn’t really have the inclination to go search for new stuff,” Santoro said.
“They were [into] the stuff that was on the radio,” Gill added.
Hip-hop was the newest thing to hit the wider New York music scene since punk rock developed around Lower Manhattan. Before hip-hop pioneers got their music onto Columbia’s campus, they had explored the five boroughs, stopping to spin records at small venues like the Police Athletic League and bigger nightclubs like Disco Fever, the Latin Quarter, and Twilight Zone.
Though these DJs entered New York’s wider music scene relatively early and introduced the NY club scene to the burgeoning music of the Bronx, getting radio play and TV screen time was challenging. Radio hosts either did not appreciate the potential of hip-hop or disregarded it, and the first music television channel, MTV, didn’t launch until 1981. It wasn’t until 1985 that Run-DMC would get the first hip hop music video aired. However, early hip-hop artists were resourceful—they were some of the same people who rerouted electricity from street lights to power their DJ equipment for block parties.
Meanwhile, the reach of college radio was sitting, relatively untapped, on Columbia’s campus. Two broadcasting clubs—WKCR and Columbia Television—pushed for a greater presence of hip-hop on campus; it was these organizations that hungered for music outside of the radio mainstream.
Santoro was one of the first Columbia students to develop relationships through WKCR with the early rappers of the 1980s. Immediately upon arriving in the city, Santoro was enamored with New York’s underground music scene; he enrolled at Columbia in the summer of 1983 and by September he was interning under WKCR’s new music director Brooke Wentz, BC ’82, Business ’88. Santoro quickly assumed the role of publicity director while hosting his own show during the station’s “Transfigured Night” time slot. The two of them, along with the 1984 station manager Julie Grau, BC ’85; her successor, Gill; and Columbia concert organizer and WKCR DJ Jim Lynch, CC ’85, were among those helping to promote hip-hop and other “outlier” music genres during the ’80s.
“Then, as now, we [at WKCR] were interested in playing things that weren’t going to get airplay. And hip-hop music had no place on the radio [back then],” Gill explained. “Columbia ended up funding the hip-hop revolution, basically not really knowing what was going on.”
Santoro hosted “Transfigured Night,” on Thursdays from 1 to 4 a.m. Between these hours, he and his friends at the station, including Gill, felt free to play what they wanted. Using a technique called “simultaneous broadcasting,” in which a DJ could play multiple records at a time and splice them together, they would mash up different types of music, including hip-hop records.
Particularly between 1983 and 1985, Santoro and Gill began to spin hip-hop records with more frequency. Santoro would get breakbeat records from small music shops in Harlem; some of his favorite artists included the Treacherous Three and the Fearless Four.
“I loved those records, because they had such beautiful beats,” Santoro recalled. “Then I’d play other shit over it like William Burroughs… Very few people were playing that on the radio.”
Around the same time, Santoro, Gill, and Lynch were active in Columbia’s student-run TV station. On the third floor of Lerner Hall and above WKCR, Columbia Television (CTV) began its operation in 1983, at a time when cable television was still in its relative infancy.
At the time, video content was sparse for small cable companies like Warner Cable (now Time Warner Cable), which turned to community-created shows to support their business. The environment was ripe for enterprising students to develop Columbia-related content. Using equipment donated by alumni from the Journalism School—many of whom worked for ABC, NBC, and CBS—students like Santoro, Gill, and Lynch were able to develop their own programming and air it locally.
“We had a Thursday night [slot] from 9 to 10 p.m. on Manhattan Cable TV [called ‘Alternate Currents’],” Santoro recalled. “I had to go up… by Baker Field to their head [office] and deliver my tapes every week. And I’d bring up the master tape and they’d play it and then they’d replay it because they just didn’t have enough programming.”
Between “Transfigured Night” and “Alternate Currents,” Santoro, Gill, and Lynch had hours of potential broadcast time at their disposal. Fortunately, Santoro was not just spinning hip-hop records—he was also meeting hip-hop artists. Santoro traversed New York City’s nightlife, cycling between uptown’s Disco Fever and downtown’s Roxy and Danceteria. It was through these explorations of the city that he met some of the original pioneers of hip-hop: Grandmaster Caz and Jerry D. Lewis of the Cold Crush Brothers. Even before Santoro met Caz, Caz was familiar with Columbia’s campus; his father worked for the University from 1970 to 1972 at the Poinciana, an apartment building on 120th and Amsterdam.
“[Columbia’s campus] was like my playground when I was young,” Grandmaster Caz recalled.
Santoro’s other collaborators included Lyor Cohen, then an artist manager at Rush Productions whom Santoro had met at the University of Miami in 1978, and Run-DMC, whom Cohen managed during the mid 1980s. Santoro and Lynch would bring them, along with the Cold Crush Brothers, to the studio to hang out, spin records, and rehearse. These groups were aired on “Alternate Currents” alongside the Fearless Four, Treacherous Three, and the Beastie Boys. Santoro and Lynch would plan shows with the rappers as well—Lynch organized the musical entertainment for the anti-apartheid protest of 1985, featuring the Cold Crush Brothers and Run-DMC.
“I think it brought up a little awareness [to] hip hop and a little bit of awareness of us … to a different audience,” Grandmaster Caz said of the concert.
By 1985, hip-hop started to gain a real foothold not just on Columbia’s campus, but across the city. Rap songs started showing up more frequently on mainstream radio stations, and Run-DMC dropped two albums, “King of Rock” and “Raising Hell,” which would become the first hip-hop records to receive platinum certification.
After their time in the WKCR and CTV studios, many of Santoro’s collaborators remained in the world of music. Grau went on to co-found her own publishing company, Spiegel & Grau, under Penguin Random House, which has published numerous hip-hop-related books including Jay-Z’s “Decoded.” Wentz now operates her own music licensing company, Seven Seas Music, while Cohen works as YouTube’s global head of music. Though they have all made their mark on the music industry in various ways, they view their role in hip-hop’s early rise more as supporters than as trendsetters.
“[Santoro] had a passion for music; I had a passion for exploration,” Cohen said. “I’m not convinced we did anything in particular,”
In the decade that followed, hip-hop would build on the momentum of the early-to mid-80s. The late ’80s into the ’90s has been referred to by hip-hop fans and scholars alike as the golden age. In this period, the sound diversified significantly, with East and West Coast rappers finding their own lanes in the rapidly evolving industry. Hip-hop’s commercial appeal was gaining traction as well, with Def Jam Recordings gaining massive popularity and a slew of hip-hop artists joining new and established record labels.
The ’90s also saw the beginning of hip-hop culture’s access to other mediums, with rap stars such as Will Smith, also known as the Fresh Prince, slowly becoming fixtures inAmerican television programming. However, radio was still the primary agent through which hip-hop artists could connect with their growing market, and WKCR was still there to lend a hand.
In 1986 WKCR introduced a dedicated hip-hop show titled “We Could Do This Show,” hosted by renowned hip-hop DJs Clark Kent and Richie Rich. Their show ran until 1988, and though it was relatively unknown at the time, it was soon followed by one of the most revered underground hip-hop radio shows of the time.
Hosted by Adrian “Stretch Armstrong” Bartos, CC ’94, and Roberto “Bobbito” Garcia, “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” ran from 1990 to 1998 during the “Transfigured Night” time slot. It heavily featured many of the ‘90s’ legendary artists before they were signed to major labels. From Jean Grae and Big L to Nas and Jay-Z, many of hip-hop’s most culturally significant figures came to the studio to grace the mic with unreleased verses and off-the-dome freestyles.
Though Stretch and Bobbito were relatively unconcerned with Columbia’s musical culture, they made their mark on the city at large. The show became a proving ground for local hip-hop artists, and record labels were taking notice—Wu Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard was signed to Elektra Records by an A&R agent who heard him on the show. Others, like the Fugees, used the show to gain increased credibility among their fanbase. Their 2015 documentary, “Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives,” further explores their individual stories and their impact on hip-hop music and culture.
As for its impact at Columbia, WKCR now has two dedicated hip-hop shows: “Notes from the Underground,” hosted by Angelo Hernandez-Sias, CC ’20, and “Offbeat,” hosted by Damon Clark, CC ‘19, and Kiki Feliz, TC ‘19. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Offbeat is not currently on the air.
Between Santoro’s “Transfigured Night” show and “Alternate Currents” in the ’80s, and “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” in the ’90s, early hip-hop artists and Columbia students were able to create a centralized hub of activity for hip-hop culture and broadcast it to a large audience. This was crucial at a time when media exposure for emerging Black music was comparatively sparse.
However, as hip-hop music and culture grew in popularity, so too did its ambitions. No longer complacent with being resigned to the underground, hip-hop music would soon begin to assert itself in the mainstream culture.
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that the Wu Tang Clan was signed to a record label as a result of their appearance on the Stretch and Bobbito show. In actuality, it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a member of the Wu Tang Clan, who was signed. Spectator regrets the error.