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'It was an old man's sport' - Celebrating 50 years of hip-hop

Photos captured at the Chicago Heritage Hip Hop Museum
Yvonne Boose
Photos showcased at Sonny's Place in Rockford.

August this year marked the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. New York is credited as the birthplace of this cultural movement, but Illinois has roots of its own.

It was the summer of 1973. DJ Kool Herc was DJing at a Bronx “Back to School Jam.” The MC experimented with sound by taking the breakbeats of two songs and mixing them together. Breakbeats are drumbeats that are sampled from existing songs during the breaks from the lyrics.

This was the start of the hip-hop phenomenon and it quickly spread across the country.

King Tim III (Personality Jock) is noted as the first recorded rap song. It was released in March of 1979.

The Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper's Delight is said to be the first successful rap record, but some say rap was recorded way before that and even before that New York party.

Carrico “Kingdom Rock” Sanders is a cofounder and curator of the Chicago Hip Hop Heritage Museum located in the city’s Bronzeville area. Other cofounders include Darrell 'Artistic’ Roberts and Brian Gorman. Sanders pointed out that comedian and soul singer Pigmeat Markham recorded a song in 1960s called Here Comes the Judge.

‘I just wanted to remind people that Pigmeat Markham was 51 when he recorded that rap song," he said, "so it was an old man's sport when he did it."

The song was recorded at Chicago’s Chess Records. It is considered a comedy record, but it sounds very similar to what we call rap music.

Like many things, Sanders said, hip-hop was rebranded and renamed.

Sanders isn’t the only one to say rap music was around before the 70s.

Photos at the Chicago Heritage Hip Hop Museum
Yvonne Boose
Photos at the Chicago Heritage Hip Hop Museum

“Wait a minute, they’re saying 1973?” questioned Sonny Crudup, owner of the former Ubiquity Records in Rockford.

This longstanding store closed in 2009 but it was the place that most of the community relied on for their hip-hop tunes. Crudup remembers a New York group called the Last Poets.

He said that was the first time he experienced the artform. Although he credits New York for birthing the craft, he said Illinois played an important role and specifically Rockford.

“And I'm not bragging we in Illinois, you know, we're sitting right here in the middle of Rockford, we probably were the one that brought hip-hop out,” he said. “Because we had people coming from Beloit. We had them coming from Freeport, Elgin, Aurora, down in DeKalb, Dixon.”

He said Rockford was a testing ground because he said at the time Chicago was into house music.

Crudup walked around his daughter’s restaurant that has his name’s sake, Sonny’s Place, and pointed out photos of hip-hop artists who visited the store.

Sonny Crudup
Yvonne Boose
Sonny Crudup

Another component of hip-hop is dance. Sanders said a historic music program showcased the dance component before it had a name.

“Soul Train started here in Chicago in 1970," he said. "I learned how to pop [and] lock and do the robot and all those special dances from watching the Soul Train. I didn't know what hip-hop was when I was watching Soul Train.”

While people go back and forth about how and where the artform got started, they agree the culture changed the narrative for many inner-city youths.           

Sanders said it saved a lot of lives in Chicago and he said that’s the part that should be celebrated.

“Hip-hop was like the first organic violence prevention mechanism that was ever created,” he said. “Like, that's what I want y'all to remember. That's what I want the kids to remember.”

Victor Rivera is a DJ and hip-hop dancer in the Rockford area. He is much younger than Crudup and Sanders, but he remembers how hip-hop influenced him. He said he was exposed to hip-hop in middle school and the overall hip-hop culture helped him gain confidence and helped with his patience.

“People thought we were just like, ghetto hood kids,” he explained. “We would get kicked out of things all the time, like rec centers and stuff, because they thought we were bad, but we were trying to avoid that lifestyle.”

He said he’s excited to see the culture evolve and grow and get the respect it deserves.

“There's a lot of artistic outlets that can come from it,” Rivera said, “but there's also revenue for people who DJ and want to rap and just trying to make it.”

Rivera said hip-hop is a bridge that brings young and old people together. He said the artform is alive and well, especially in Rockford, and he doesn’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.

Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.