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How The Block Party Invented Hip-Hop

July 2016Words by Mr Gary Warnett

Harlem, 1978. Photograph by Mr Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

The block party is a distinctly NYC strain of celebration, and one that has become a well-known trope in popular culture (to the extent that – plug alert – MR PORTER is even throwing one of its own today, on Crosby Street in New York’s Soho). But where did it all come from? While block parties might seem a particularly modern concept, some of the earliest examples of them – or at least, gatherings that called themselves “block parties” – date back to the early 20th century. In 1918, New Yorkers mounted block-based get-togethers to commemorate residents who’d gone to fight in WWI. On 7 May 1945, when rumours broke out that Germany had bowed out of WWII, New York Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia had to angrily demand that New Yorkers go home or back to work after a block party broke out on Times Square. By the 1960s, the migration of West Indian and Hispanic immigrants to New York had created communities whose block parties celebrated their own cultural identities – which, of course, led to the celebration of new music, and the creation of new sounds.

It’s in this way that New York’s block party culture gave birth to hip-hop, though there are disputes as to who the genre’s true originator might be. It’s most likely there were actually several key pioneers who may have had their feet in multiple boroughs, visiting relatives spread across the city. Some will argue that it was all down to forgotten innovators such as Brooklyn’s Grandmaster Flowers, who mixed funk and blues records together in sequence at parties back in the late 1960s. That said, the South Bronx is widely considered hip-hop’s birthplace.

South Bronx Park Jam, 1984. Photograph by Mr Henry Chalfant