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They May Not Get a Lot of Shine, But these Latinos Helped Spark the Birth of Hip Hop

Most people know groundbreaking Latino rap acts like Cypress Hill and Big Pun, but Latinos have been part of hip hop waaaaaay longer – pretty much since the beginning. NPR’s Latino USA recently released a two-part series about the Latino history of hip hop and highlighted some of the Latinos that were putting it down since DAY ONE. Here’s what we learned:

Latinos Were Present at the Very Beginning of Hip Hop

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Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, were some of hip hop’s pioneers: DJ Charlie Chase was a founding member of the Cold Crush Brothers (that’s him at the bottom left of the photo). Devastating Tito was a member of the Fearless Four. Prince Markie D Morales of Fat Boys. Prince Whipper Whip and Ruby Dee of Fantastic Five.

Hip Hop Was Born During an Economic Depression in NYC

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In the late ’70s, the Bronx was a mess: white flight was rampant and landlords were so desperate for money that they would torch their buildings to collect insurance money. Graffiti artist Lee Quiñones: “I remember a dim, distinct glow or hue of orange fire at night.”

There Was Tension Between Latinos and Blacks Over Hip Hop

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DJ Charlie Chase: “I was basically getting a lot of heat from the blacks and the Latinos for doing what I was doing.”

According to Raquel Rivera, the older generation of Latinos whose children were DJing and rapping were being asked: “What are you doing with that music that doesn’t belong to us?” Rivera added that the black hip hop community felt “Wait, this is ours.”

READ: Rap In the Land of Reggaetón: Álvaro Díaz

Before Stuff Like Planet Rock Was Released, Breakdancers Listened to Funk

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Stuff like “I Get Lifted” by George McCrae.

DJs Loved Using Funk Tracks With Heavy Latin Elements

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“It’s Just Begun” by Jimmy Castor Bunch was a crowd favorite. Other acts like Ray Barreto and Joe Bataan were also popular.

DJ Charlie Chase: “The funkiest stuff always has these Latin influences to it.”

Raquel Rivera: “Those breakbeats… they have a lot to do with what was called Latin soul, Latin funk… [they feature] timbales, congas, so there was that caribbean Latino influence.”

Lots of Guys Learned to Breakdance to Get Girls

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Breakdancer Richard “Breakeasy” Santiago says the best dancers got the most attention: “If you were able to get a phone number and talk to a girl, you were right on the money.”

READ: This Kid from Compton Sings Corridos Like a Mexican

There Was a Latino in the First Rap Group Signed to a Major Label

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The Fearless Four, who released the hit track “Rockin’ It” were signed to Elektra Records. One of the founding members, Devastating Tito, was Puerto Rican. Oh, and if the song sounds familiar, Jay-Z used the same sample in the song “Sunshine.”

In the Early Days, Graffiti Was Just as Big as the Music

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Photo Credit: klg19 / Creative Commons

Most people were exposed to graffiti through subway trains, which were bombed by graffiti artists. Once an artist became well-known, people would look for more of their work. Graffiti legend Lee Quiñones: “Back then, kids would hang out and watch trains for hours… hoping to find new murals.”

Quiñones, who had fans such as Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, had his first showing at a gallery in Rome, Italy. He was only 19.

Look out for A Latino History of Hip Hop, Part 2 on Latino USA.

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