What does graffiti have to do with hip-hop?
Published in Madrid on 8 November 2010
About ten years after its inception around 1970, graffiti culture started to be linked with hip-hop, a concept coined by the media to facilitate the commercialisation of graffiti and other contemporary cultures. This artificial link is still seen in the media, and therefore also in the mainstream view of graffiti.
In 1980, media began to link graffiti with other emerging urban cultures – those of breakdance and rap music – also produced by youths from the most neglected areas of New York, creating a concept called hip hop. The new cultural object took form in press articles, performance shows and, in particular, in movies, some of which had wide international distribution. Because of this, the public began to believe, as it still does so today, that graffiti in the New York tradition is, from its very inception and by its own nature, a part of hip hop. This conception is so widespread that the term “hip-hop graffiti” is often used to differentiate this type of graffiti from others.
However, this link is in fact a myth. As we have already studied here, the phenomenon of New York graffiti appeared in 1968 and was mature by 1973, years before Richard Goldstein would link it with rap for the first time in a 1980 article in the Village Voice.1 An influential journalist and cultural critic, Goldstein had published, seven years earlier, the first mainstream article to speak favourably of graffiti. The cultural and musical backgrounds of the graffiti writers of the seventies were as diverse as those of the local youths and spanned from psychedelic rock to music with ethnic roots. In the words of Coco144, one of the first writers: “I was listening to jazz, Latin jazz, and rock. This was before hip-hop was created. Anybody that does their homework would know graffiti came first.”3
The movies «Wild style» and «Beat street» were the main factors responsible for the conception of hip hop.
The culture of rap and the DJ, which would eventually become the musical component of hip-hop, had also existed as an independent phenomenon – a party scene – for some years before the link was created. Phase II, the most influential pioneer of graffiti, observes: “Just like aerosol culture was there before anyone even concieved of a thing called hip-hop, the party scene that existed before hip-hop basically got flipped into hip-hop.”4 Hip-hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite, known as Fab 5 Freddy, corroborates: “no one really called it hip-hop either. It was just a party, or a jam.”5
Aside from Goldstein’s article, shows of diverse types also contributed to the creation of the link. In 1981, Henry Chalfant, who had been photographing the graffiti on the subway cars for some years already – images he would publish shortly afterwards in Subway Art, the bible of the culture – organised a performance that showcased graffiti, rap and breakdance, the last one something new for him.
The piece was called Graffiti Rock in which I brought together graffiti slides; breakdancers in the form of Rock Steady Crew and Fab Five Freddy and Rammellzee as the rappers. […] So, I’d heard about it because Marty [Martha Cooper] had stumbled upon breaking in her search for interesting stories. […] So, I asked one of the writers I knew, Take 1, and he said ‘oh yeah’ he knew the best crew in the city.6
Another important event was the New York City rap tour, which in 1982, brought to London and Paris some of the most prominent rap musicians, breakdancers and graffiti writers together in a show that was for many Europeans the first contact with these cultures. According to Phase II, one of the participants: “We went to France and London. That influenced people in a major way, because it was the first time that all the so-called elements of hip hop were seen under one umbrella.”7 Additionally, many of the music videos that exported rap music included scenes of graffiti. The most significant of these was Buffalo Gals, produced by Malcolm McLaren in 1983, which gave the world the chance to see for the first time the live creation of a graffiti piece, by legendary writer Dondi.
Fab 5 Freddy was a main instigator of the media-based link between the so-called “elements of hip hop.” Raised in Brooklyn by culturally aware black parents, Freddy was both a participant in the subcultures and fluent in the codes and contexts of the dominant culture. This enabled him to act as a bridge between the ghetto and the media that was creating the link. Fab 5 Freddy has referred to the bringing together of the different cultures into the single concept of hip hop as a personal vision: “I developed these theories that all these elements of our urban culture were beginning to seem like one big thing. This is in 1978.”8 In a different interview, he says: “I helped explain to people that graffiti was part of hip hop. It was always something I saw as one cultural movement.”9
Fab 5 Freddy: «Nobody then was seeing it as all being connected. I thought if this was all put in a movie, we can connect it all together.»
He was, not coincidentally, among the creators of the independent movie Wild Style, directed by East Village filmmaker Charlie Ahearn in 1983. The film starred some of the most important artists of each of the three cultures in an awkward drama about cultural life in the ghetto. Fab 5 Freddy recollects how he explained the idea of the movie to Ahearn.
Basically I was telling him about rap music, DJs, graffiti, and break dancing. That they were like all one thing in a way coming from the same place, the same vibe but nobody then was seeing it as all being connected. […] I thought if this was all put in a movie, we can connect it all together with a story to basically show people that it is one thing.10
Less credible but much more widely distributed, Beat Street (1984) was a cheap Hollywood product designed to exploit the commercial appeal of the new phenomena. Wild Style and Beat Street were, on the one hand, the main factors responsible for the conception of hip hop, and, on the other, the primary vehicles for hip hop’s international dissemination. Additionally, Chalfant’s 1983 documentary Style Wars, which was focused on graffiti and served as graffiti’s main exporting channel, included several minutes of breakdance and a score featuring several rap tracks.
Notwithstanding this and in spite of the artificiality of a link that was driven by money and unrelated to the participant cultures, graffiti and the other components of hip-hop were close in space and time, were products of the same cultural context, and shared some important concepts. In his 1980 article that first linked graffiti and rap, Richard Goldstein supported this idea holding that both phenomena had originated in the same cultural conditions.11
Graffiti, rap and breakdance were indeed products of the same reality: that of the pre-teens, teenagers, and young people of the deprived areas of New York, a city undergoing the most difficult years of its recent history. Critic Glenn O’Brien puts it this way: “It’s like, what’s the connection between jazz and Abstract Expressionism? They weren’t the same people doing hip hop and graffiti, but there was a cultural, mental, and spiritual connection.”12 It’s not true, however, that no one participated in more than one of the cultures: even influential writers such as Phase II or Futura 2000 recorded rap albums, and played a role in the evolution of that music genre.13
But there were more significant aspects shared by the three cultures. The most prominent of them would beyond question be internal competition – the core mechanism and engine of all of them. This competition through artistic skills, athletic feats, and displays of tenacity functioned as a symbolic confrontation that sublimated the real violence of street gangs, pervasive in the city up to the mid-seventies. Through this process of sublimation, the emergence of the cultures that would be grouped under the hip hop label was one of the main factors in the decline of street gangs.
The tendency to self-glorify and to assume fantastic identities by adopting spectacular aliases is common to them all as well. Fab 5 Freddy offers the following description of this idea: “Like ‘let’s reinvent our selves in these fantasie’s super hero pop culture images. Let’s make our selves these characters we dream about.’ Like ‘hey I’m Flash, I’m the fastest’ you know? ‘I’m Super so and so, I’m cool this; I’m hot that.’”14 Moreover, the three cultures appropriated public space for artistic expression: breakdance originated in the streets and parks, the same setting in which the block parties took place, parties that would eventually give way to DJ and rap culture.
Finally, it must be noted that the international circulation of the aforementioned media products firmly established the link between graffiti and hip hop in the consciousness of teenagers worldwide. Many of the first generation writers of Europe, Australia or the United States consider this link to be a pivotal element in their experience of graffiti. This is because it was through said products that these writers had their initial contact with graffiti, therefore they conceived it from the start as an inextricable part of hip hop. Furthermore, the link has been persistently repeated by the media for almost 30 years and as such, has deeply permeated the image that society has of graffiti. In spite of the historical truth and despite that a significantly substantial number of the practitioners of graffiti in the New York tradition, both in New York and beyond, have never identified with hip hop, the perceived link persists.
1. Henry A. Rhodes: “The Evolution of Rap Music in the United States”. The Minority Artist in America Volume IV, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1993.
2. Dimitri Ehrlich and Gregor Ehrlich: “Graffiti in Its Own Words”. New York Magazine, 25 June 2006.
3. Paul Edwards: “The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music”, p. 16.
4. Adam Mansbach: “Poetic Injustice: Hip Hop Pioneer Phase 2”. Wax Poetics, New York, spring 2005.
5. Troy L. Smith: “Fab 5 Freddy”. Tha Foundation, winter 2005.
6. Blake Reznik: “The Henry Chalfant Interview part 1”. T.R.O.Y, 27 October 2008.
7. Adam Mansbach: op. cit.
8. Troy L. Smith: op. cit.
9. Dimitri Ehrlich and Gregor Ehrlich: op. cit.
10. Troy L. Smith: op. cit.
11. Henry A. Rhodes: op. cit.
12. Dimitri Ehrlich and Gregor Ehrlich: op. cit.
13. Henry A. Rhodes: op. cit.
14. Troy L. Smith: op. cit.