This Thing We Created: Latinos in Early Hip Hop

Richard "Crazy Legs" Colón of the legendary Rock Steady Crew (bobbi vie/Flickr)

Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón of the legendary Rock Steady Crew (bobbi vie/Flickr)

“We were poor. We had very little to look forward to in life. It is what gave us life.
It’s what gave us the opportunity to have social gatherings
and build bridges between different cultures, different communities.”
— Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, BBoys: The History of Breaking (ARTE Creative)

There was a belief in New York during the mid-1970s that there wasn’t a lot that existed there if you were born poor. You were simply left within its crumbling, crime-ravaged boroughs to get on with life. Life for many was dire, there were few jobs, a lack of opportunity for those who were reaching maturity, and young kids often fell prey to the gangs who were holding the city hostage. The cultural diversity that made boroughs like the Bronx thrive during previous decades disappeared, in large part as a result of the building of an expressway through the heart of the Bronx in 1959. Many of the middle-class Italian, German, Irish and Jewish neighborhoods virtually vanished overnight. African-American and Latino families moved in, and many businesses relocated. This was cemented in 1968, when the majority of what was left of the middle class in the Bronx left comfortable apartments as a result of the building of a massive co-op apartment complex on the northern edge of the borough. Many middle-class Bronx residents moved into the complex. Vacant buildings were sold to slumlords, and the Bronx deteriorated into a neighbourhood populated with vacant, unkempt buildings.

The sense of hopelessness that pervaded the young during that time led many to join gangs as a means of making sense of their existence. Many knew nothing other than what presented itself — desolation, crime, and a crumbing education system. The opportunities that were available only a stone’s throw away in upscale Manhattan were completely out of reach for those locked in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Lower East Side. What New York City created at that time within its ravaged boroughs was a yearning for something more, a desire to somehow rise above the circumstances many had been dealt. There was a stirring within the city, its discarded youth searching for a way to validate their lives and somehow make them count. For young Puerto Ricans like Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, George Lee Quiñones, Luis “DJ Disco Wiz” Cedeño and Carlos “DJ Charlie Chase” Mandes, it was immense levels of creativity that drove them to express themselves within a movement that saw young African Americans and Latinos come together to unlock gifts many had no idea existed.

In 1973 the hip-hop movement didn’t have a name, but young people had already developed one aspect of it. Graffiti was born in Philadelphia in 1965 but found its way to New York by 1968. This was the first element of hip hop to emerge in New York City. At about this time Afrika Bambaataa turned his street gang, the Black Spades, into the Bronx River Organization, a group that encouraged young people to value themselves, the lives of others, and provided a platform for young people to perform. Young people throughout the city were looking for ways to turn their lives around.

DJ Disco Wiz

DJ Disco Wiz, known as the first Latino DJ in hip hop

DJ Disco Wiz, a half-Puerto Rican, half-Cuban DJ from the Bronx, became hip hop’s first Latino DJ to leave a permanent mark on the culture. In 1974 he teamed up with DJ Grandmaster Caz and formed the Mighty Force and began playing at the Police Athletic League in the Bronx, which became a hip-hop venue when DJ Kool Herc began throwing events there. DJ Disco Wiz was known on the streets of the South Bronx for his legendary DJ battles. The Mighty Force crew was also responsible for presenting the first Latino rapper, to the world: Prince Whipper Whip. Disco Wiz is credited for being the first DJ to create a “mixed plate” in 1977, hip hop’s first mixed dub recording. For Wiz, life had not presented much until he found Grandmaster Caz, music and DJing. He had joined a local gang and was into petty crime by the time he reached his early teens. Music moved him away from the streets and friends who were a part of that lifestyle. He was able to channel the anger he had locked inside into music. Being part of a single-parent home on welfare made life hell, and many looked down on him. Wiz felt many people could never understand why he was involved in hip hop, which was perceived as a black movement. Many thought he was a Latino guy trying to be black and downplay his Latino-ness.

DJ Charlie Chase

DJ Charlie Chase, the first widely popular Latino DJ in hip hop

DJ Charlie Chase, co-founder of hip-hop group the Cold Crush Brothers, was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, but moved to the Bronx at age 12. By 1975 Chase became a hip-hop pioneer and was the first Latino DJ to establish Latinos as a force in hip hop to the masses. Charlie Chase became a renowned DJ playing with the likes of Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and other big names, but he used his platform as a way to indulge his love of Latin music and his roots. He would play tracks laced with Latin rhythms, often unbeknownst to those listening and dancing. Many of the tracks that DJs played were influenced by the sounds of the Caribbean. Latin soul and Latin funk tracks were often used by DJs, and “break beats” had a lot to do with these sounds. Tracks like the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” the Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache (Jump On It)” and 8th Wonder” are all popular Latin-infused, early hip-hop tracks.

During the early days of hip hop, back in the mid-seventies, many young Latinos sought creative release through the often dangerous pursuit of “tagging,” or graffiti writing. Writers like Lee Quiñones and Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara were prolific within their field and soon came to the attention of wealthy Uptown gallery owners who wanted to turn their creative expression into cold, hard cash. By 1975 Lee, who was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1961, was covering complete train carriages and covered a whole train with other artists, a feat never achieved before. His determination to continue to think outside of the box led him to get a part in the 1983 hip-hop classic film Wild Style, alongside fellow graffiti artist Lady Pink. Lady Pink, who hails from Ambato, Ecuador but was raised in Queens, began graffiti writing in 1979 at the age of 15 and was one of a few women who actively pursued graffiti during the late seventies and early eighties. For her, graffiti was a way of dealing with heartache after losing her boyfriend, who was being sent back to Puerto Rico. Graffiti art was expression, a way of conveying pent up frustration and the hurt that many had within.

Lady Pink

Lady Pink, the “first lady of graffiti”

B-boying played an essential part in the formative years of hip hop. It was a dance style developed on the streets of the Bronx in which crews used moves to humiliate their opponents. It was about gaining “props,” or proper respect, and a chance to impress the opposite sex. B-boys and b-girls were able to find purpose through dance and were no longer drawn to the streets. Jeffrey “Doze” Green, formally of the Rock Steady Crew, said in an recent interview that second-generation b-boys would practice in hallways and basements of the projects. He saw b-boying as something that “calmed the static that existed on the street at the time.”

The Rock Steady Crew formed in the mid-seventies, and by 1979 Crazy Legs had joined the crew along with his cousin Lenny Len, who had turned Crazy Legs on to graffiti and b-boying. The Rock Steady Crew was a mixed dance crew but was predominantly made up of Latinos and has its origins in the Bronx. For Crazy Legs, The Rock Steady Crew and b-boying gave him something he didn’t know he needed. B-boying was about originality, and he would practice endlessly in between battles, incorporating moves influenced by salsa, mambo and his favorite kung-fu films. At the time, no one had a name for the thing they were creating, but the “jams” Crazy Legs and others went to were the environment that fostered hip hop.

B-boys were brothers, and they united through repression. Few opportunities existed for African Americans and Latinos. New York City was a playground in which many discovered talent that would elevate them and bring them joy. Crazy Legs, Marc “Mr. Freeze” Lemberger and Doze Green pioneered break moves that would enable them and the Rock Steady Crew to achieve success around the world. By the 1980s, members of the Rock Steady Crew, under the leadership of Crazy Legs, were touring and producing hit records, as well as acquiring small parts in movies. These unknown Puerto Rican kids were hitting the big time and revolutionizing dance. “We lived to battle, create and get some props,” Crazy Legs recently explained. “That’s what we lived for.”

It’s important to understand the genesis of any movement. If its beginnings are ambiguous and certain parts omitted, it’s difficult to appreciate its essence. Formidable talents and pioneers like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa raised the profile of hip hop, gave it its direction and name, but there were others who also took different elements of the art form to extraordinary heights. In its early years, hip hop was never just about the music or rapping, but many would never know that today. People were “bombing” trains with graffiti before Kool Herc was DJing at jams, so the movement emerged in different stages. When French Impressionism came to prominence in 19th-century Paris, it was never just about one or two painters, but a group who created an aesthetic. The artists themselves were different, but their work complemented each other’s. It was about a collective. No one could ever dispute the importance and influence of African-American DJs and MCs in particular, in terms of elevating certain aspects of early hip-hop culture on the world stage. But Latinos played a major part, which is now often forgotten. A movement is made up of many different components, each as vital as the other. This is its beauty.

Hip hop was always about more than just money, fame and individual status. It was about disparate lives that desperately needed something, coming together and creating. It was an artistic movement born out of social exclusion and poverty and it was steeped in community. Afrika Bambaataa used the Universal Zulu Nation, formed in 1974, as a platform for Bronx youth to express themselves and to find a way to love themselves. Hip hop was about unity and a space for all involved to elevate themselves. Afrika Bambaataa, Flash and different crews from the Bronx united into one family, and that family became hip hop.

Many of the b-boys from the seventies and eighties are still teaching the moves that made them famous today. “Break Easy” begun teaching break moves to young kids in the nineties and sees it as an opportunity to give back. Crazy Legs has a new-generation Rock Steady Crew, which still performs and competes.

Hip hop is about kids from New York City who united through struggle and immense talent. It is about that group of young people who crossed cultural lines to produce a formidable movement that has grown and now influences people in almost every part of the planet. It is DJing, b-boying, graffiti writing and MCing. It is this thing the kids of New York City created.

Last year, NPR’s Latino USA explored the early days oh hip-hop and the influence Latinos had on the genre.

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Wendy Hackshaw is a writer from London who is currently researching late-1970s New York City and the cultural and social movements that came out of that period. Her work focuses on revolutionary aspects of style, music and culture. You can follow her @deeshimmer.

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