Thursday, January 24, 2008


Steven Hager is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of old school hip hop and I'll admit that I didn't even know who dude was until I read this interview with him on Jayquan's The Foundation website. Hager was the written equivalent to Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. In a perfect world, Hager's classic Village Voice article on the roots of hip hop would be revered by every wannabe MC and DJ just like every aspiring toy sleeps with copies of Subway Art and Spraycan Art under their pillows during their formative years. Another mind blowing read is Hager's essay here about how his movie script for a film entitled "The Perfect Beat" was scraped of all it's realistic griminess and polished up into the the squeaky clean flick we all know as "Beat Street".

Hager's book
Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Breakdancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (St. Martin's Press, 1984) is unfortunately out of print (WHY??), but you should definitely pick up his other book, Adventures in the Counterculture: From Hip Hop to High Times (High Times Books, 2002), which reprints the aforementioned early 80's Village Voice article where he was the first to use the phrase "hip hop" in print. Hager goes back, way back, back to the Bronx in 1955 and traces the formation of hip hop from it's earliest squeaks, scrawls and pops up until the release of "The Message". Although his hip hop piece only makes up 55 pages of 247 page book, this thing is a must own (shit, you can cop it used on Amazon for under $1!). Just ask Jeff Chang who refers to it as one of the two foundational texts on hip hop (along with Toop's Rap Attack). The rest of the book is filled with some other great essays - how an ex-junkie becomes one of the world's top marijuana seed dealers, the story of seriously mentally ill cop who shoots a man at point blank range for transporting a few plants, the conspiracies surrounding JFK's assassination and the ATF's failure at Waco, TX. and a lengthy history of CBGB's and the punk, no wave and art scenes surrounding it. Ill shit. My only complaint is that the original publication dates or sources of these articles are not listed anywhere.
When I was reading Hager's article the one thing that really struck me is how much emphasis he put on the gang lifestyle that predated hip hop. Other hip hop books tell you that Bam was in the Black Spades and eventually formed the Zulu Nation and act like that's all you need to know. Hager delves much deeper into the gang aspect and shows that long before the term "gangsta rap" even existed, gangsterism was the lost 5th element of hip hop. It reminded me of a book I read early last year by cult sci-fi author Harlan Ellison entitled Memos From Purgatory (1961, Jove/HBJ) which is based on Ellison's own experience joining a gang in Redhook, Brooklyn in 1954. Ellison assumed the name "Cheech" Beldone and infiltrated a gang called The Barons. While it really has no relation to hip hop at all, Ellison's book is a realistic portrayal of teenage gang initiation, recreation and warfare. Back then it was all about switchblades, razors and homemade zip guns. Though the Barons were a gang made up of mainly white kids, when reading Hager's article I couldn't help but draw parallels between the two based on what both groups of kids went through.

No music this time. Go read a fucking book!


Clell Millers CD-R Label said...

heavy knowledge indeed! The Ellison sounds ill.

Unknown said...

I own that book. boosted from the Aptos library in 1989 son!

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