Yo! The Early Years of Rap, 1982-84
We’re in the train yards, at the Fever, in Bronx River, in the Roxy. We’re tagging on the subway, looking through Bambaataa’s crates, backstage with Melle Mel. We’re in D.ST’s bedroom crammed with studio gear, at the Fun Gallery downtown. These unguarded moments tell you exactly where you are on the timeline: right at the start of things. This is hip hop when it was still fresh and fly. The first records are coming out, the breakers have just been on daytime TV, the writers watch their train-art loop the city daily. Hip hop energy is the biggest thing in New York. It’s a young scene, baby-faced and smiling, a little unsure of what’s next, but really excited to get there.
One photo shows kids queuing up to get into the Roxy. A black tape holds them in line. As the flash pops, a lad of 17 or so – his cap announces ‘Deeski’ – raises both hands in peace V’s for the camera, in front of a sea of faces. His smile tells us all we need to know about the excitement bottled up behind him. In a moment these kids will charge into the club for another weekly episode of the best night of their lives.
The stars are dressed in silver leather or leopard-print, with fur and tassels, studs, buckles, boots and head-dresses. They’re looking fine, but they haven’t got used to it yet. Few will ever be famous beyond the five boroughs. And the faces of future legends still look teenage. Jazzy Jay, Melle Mel, Scorpio, Afrika Islam, Cold Crush, Rock Steady, Red Alert, Fab 5 Freddy. There’s a photo of Bambaataa and Herc together, and even Kool Herc – the grandaddy of the scene – still hasn’t hit 30.
The DJs are grinning as they pass each other the next great breakbeat. There’s fun ready to burst. The breakers are still discovering all the ways their bodies can flex. The b-boys in a circle watch them battle. Sophie Bramly was clearly family. Her photos capture innocent moments that bring home how wild and new all this must have felt. She would go on to create Yo! MTV Raps for MTV Europe, copied a year later in the US.
As veteran hip hop publicist Bill Adler points out in his intro, from the birth of hip hop at Kool Herc’s back-to-school jam in 1973 up to the end of that decade there’s no photography beyond a few snaps. When the visual record begins, most is focused on graffiti or breakdancing. French Tunisian Bramley gave us the first body of work that takes in the whole joyous scene. This book drops you into those glorious years when hip hop emerged from the clubs and started making its way in the world. This is when it was all still just a party, and when the science of fun behind it: DJing, MCing, breaking and graffiti, was discovering new bombs every week. Amazing times. From the lovely people at Soul Jazz, this great book is an access-all-areas pass to see hip hop’s first steps. Frank Broughton
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton