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New Rhymes Over An Old Beat: A Review of Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr.’s Break Beats in the Bronx



Reviewed by Tyler Bunzey| @tbunz3| with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Tuesday, November 21, 2017.



Hip-hop heads know how the story goes—a young man named Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, agreed to DJ his sister’s party at the community center on 1520 Sedgwick Ave. on August 11, 1973, and when he began to play only the break beats of funk records to get people moving, unto us Hip-Hop was born. After this first party, DJs Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa riffed on Herc’s initial spinning of break beats, Flash with his Quick Mix Theory and dual turntables and Bambaataa with his eclectic pastiche of samples. This Hip-Hop Holy Trinity created the culture that was led by DJs, supported by emcees and b-boys and b-girls, and promulgated by graffiti artists. Hip-hop culture existed in this pure form, getting its energy and momentum from city lampposts and disillusioned youth alike, until it was crucified by the commodification of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, and the unadulterated urban youth culture began the process of becoming morphing into a industrial, emcee-centered, worldwide, popular machine.


But Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr. disagrees. His first book, Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years (University of North Carolina Press) seeks to reimagine this master narrative of early Hip-Hop history, a period in time that he sees as largely unexamined by scholarship on Hip-Hop. Ewoodzie does not seek to destabilize our understanding of the creation and formation of early Hip-Hop, but rather he looks to provide new and “fresh” evidence that can give us a clearer picture of how Hip-Hop really functioned in New York society in the 1970s (11). He (re)mixes interviews from the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) and from independent Hip-Hop historian and Harlem native Troy L. Smith with academic sociological theory in order not only to examine Hip-Hop’s creation and development as an aesthetic culture but also to explain the role that Hip-Hop played in the communities in which it was created.


Ewoodzie artfully balances revision with respect for Hip-Hop’s founders and the status that they have achieved. He does not seek to show that Herc, Flash, and Bambaataa are undeserving of the status that they have in Hip-Hop folklore, but rather Ewoodzie desires to “move from a heroic account toward a people’s history of Hip-Hop” (5). Ewoodzie, a professor of Sociology at Davidson College,  argues that Hip-Hop is not the product of some mystifying and obscure Black artistic genius, and instead it arose from “the lives—including the joys, pains, interests, inclinations, and dispositions—of a cohort of Black and Latino teens who came of age during the 1970s in the Bronx” (5).


He frames his work through the sociological theory of boundary making, treating the first practitioners of Hip-Hop—like Herc and Flash—as vanguards in the development of new cultural boundaries. He echoes other historical accounts of Hip-Hop and claims that early Hip-Hop was contextualized by the Bronx’s “poverty and chaos”—notably the construction of the invasive cross-Bronx expressway, the buildings set on fire almost daily by landlords trying to collect insurance money, and the devastating departure of factories during postwar deindustrialization (31).


Ewoodzie’s contribution to this received history is his explanation of how DJs specifically stepped into this sociological context and became lauded figures. He suggests that graffiti artists, although admired by many youth, were seen as “destructive” to the community both because of their anonymity and the nature of their practice (44). DJs, on the other hand, contributed to the community by keeping youth out of violent gangs while providing a relatively safe space, and they developed followings that the graffiti artists’ anonymity prevented them from gaining


Ewoodzie also addresses the reasons that Hip-Hop developed specifically in the Bronx and why other DJs, such as DJ Hollywood, did not have the same street following that Bronx DJs had. Ewoodzie suggests that there were “proto-boundaries” set up between both the styles and the spaces of the practices of DJing in different boroughs (73). Questions of access, dress codes, music styles, sexual politics, and dancing styles all prevented cultural crossover between Bronx and other DJs. Bronx DJs gave people a sense of symbolic belonging because of their neighborhood specific followings, whereas other DJs generally catered to an uptown audience that did not value space and place as identity markers to the same degree. In other words, Bronx DJs did not necessarily bring a superior quality of talent to the culture that made them the figureheads of early Hip-Hop. They were instead perfect for their context, and the community was ready for figures like them to create safe and productive cultural space. An illustration of this point comes in Ewoodzie’s reference to Herc’s deification as the founder of Hip-Hop, in which he suggests “He was perfect for the times, and the times were perfect for him” (50).


In conjunction to his framing of the proto-boundaries of early Hip-Hop, Ewoodzie progresses to the mid-1970s in which Hip-Hop is forming what he calls an “internal logic” (81). This internal logic is marked by the development of conventions, both intentionally and unintentionally, alongside influences from outside the culture. Ewoodzie charts new developments in the culture, and he interestingly deconstructs the widely accepted notion that Hip-Hop consisted of only four cultural actions—DJing, MCing, graffiti writing, and breaking. He introduces selling tapes (103), dressing fly (125), performing routines (125), and making flyers (134) as all coequal, if not more important, than MCing in the years of early Hip-Hop. To Ewoodzie, it is important to acknowledge that the boundaries of early Hip-Hop culture were porous, and economic, cultural, and aesthetic concerns shaped cultural practices As a result, these early practices were in constant flux, and the received master narrative of Hip-Hop history is not adequate to see how the culture truly formed in its early years.


Ewoodzie concludes his discussion with an account of the solidifying of early cultural practices of Hip-Hop in the context of Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight.”  He suggests that Hip-Hop’s cultural identity became Black and male because of its connection to cultural boundaries in the Bronx. Using firsthand accounts, Ewoodzie demonstrates that early Hip-Hop practices were “structured” to get the attention of women, and he claims, “Hip-Hop became a masculine space because it helped the male participants onstage to perform their masculinity, especially their heterosexual desires” (142).


Likewise, early Hip-Hop practices were structured to represent a distinctly Black cultural identity despite the cross-cultural influences, namely those of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. Ewoodzie suggests that despite the presence of prominent Puerto Rican MCs, DJs, b-boys, and graffiti artists in the culture, “boundaries did persist between the two groups, and each guarded its sense of racial and ethnic distinctness” (162).


Ewoodzie ends his work by describing how the rise of MCs with the production of “Rapper’s Delight” permanently changed the culture. Pre-“Rapper’s Delight,” Hip-Hop was an insular culture, governed by those who practiced it. But with the rise of MC performances, parties began to mirror concerts instead of spontaneous selections of music curated by a central figure (177). “Rapper’s Delight” figured Hip-Hop as a concert-based practice, since it eliminated the DJ altogether and figured the emcee’s work as a performance to watch, not one to dance to. Control shifted from interior Hip-Hop practitioners to exterior commodity markets, and Hip-Hop was indeed indelibly transformed, as received history suggests.


Taken as a whole, Ewoodzie’s work functions as more than simply a revision of Hip-Hop’s received history, although that is a major purpose of the work. He challenges his readership to use his methodology of combining sociological theories of boundaries and cultural formation with first-hand accounts of cultural developments and apply it beyond Hip-Hop in order transform perspectives about cultural boundaries, urban “decay,” and the rise of new cultural entities (190-91). He rightly sees his work as widely applicable beyond Hip-Hop scholarship, and the encouragement for replication of his methodology in his conclusion help to see how his work could be extended beyond his discussion therein.


His work merges sociology with history, combining knowledge-creating methods with new and fresh accounts that challenge accepted historical narratives. Perhaps we can read Ewoodzie’s work itself as a part of Hip-Hop cultural production. After all, he patches together theory and new historical accounts, and remixing that pastiche with received history of Hip-Hop, he creates a work that is funky, fresh, and resonates in the echoes of the sounds of the Bronx. Can I get a witness?



Tyler Bunzey is a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student  in Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.  Follow him on Twitter: @tbunz3


New Rhymes Over An Old Beat: A Review of Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr.’s Break Beats in the Bronx

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