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130 Years of Carhartt: How Hip Hop, Unions, and the American Dream Made Carhartt Clothing a Staple
In 2015, a sitting U.S. president appeared on the cover of one of the most popular magazines in the world. This alone is not earth-shattering, but the photograph says more than a thousand words, namely because of the Carhartt jacket worn by then-President Barack Obama.
Carhartt clothing has been an American staple for over 130 years. As a brand and as a company, Carhartt has been able to forge a connection with its customers for many generations. Like Nike, king of the shoe game , Carhartt clothing and workwear can be found in dressers and closets no matter a person’s age, gender, or race.
Like most success stories, Carhartt’s consistent and ubiquitous presence was not an accident. There are a few reasons why Carhartt work boots, for instance, are worn by construction workers and runway models alike. For Carhartt, it’s been a century and a half of innovation paired with tradition. For example, the first Carhartt jackets appeared in ads that date back to 1917, and that same chore coat is still made today.
The family-owned business has been a part of American history through thick and thin. It hasn’t been all Paris runways and presidential endorsements for the company, so we’re breaking down Carhartt’s success, starting from the beginning.
The First Carhartt Jackets: Detroit Beginnings and Family Values
Carhartt was founded in the year 1889 by Hamilton Carhartt in Detroit, Michigan. That’s only 90 years after the death of George Washington. And just twenty-three years after the first Juneteenth — the day enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were to be freed — Carhartt Clothing & Workwear was formed in an America on the verge of exponential change.
Industry, as a whole, was revolutionizing, and factory work was one of the most common occupations of that time. Whether the American Dream is a myth or a blueprint, Carhartt’s journey as a brand follows that narrative. Cars were just becoming a thing at the time. Cities and railroads were being built. Farmworkers, firefighters, and other blue-collar professionals needed something to wear while they built the country’s foundations and infrastructure. Enter two sewing machines in Detroit, Michigan, Carhartt’s hometown.
Hamilton started the Carhartt brand with just five employees. Early ads were stamped with a heart that said “union made,” as featured in the photo at the top of the page. That ad is from a 1904 edition of the Tacoma Times. In 1904, we didn’t even have a set “weekend” yet in terms of days off, so the support is pretty groundbreaking for Dickensian times. Could Carhartt’s early support of unions be a part of its enduring success?
In 1898, a pair of Carhartt overalls went for $3 . This might not seem like much by today’s standards, but an inflation calculator suggests that this would come out to about $90 or $100 today. This isn’t far off from what a pair of Carhartt overalls will cost you now. Consistency has been key in Carhartt’s longevity as a company and has helped make it a reliable brand. Obama’s Carhartt winter jacket that goes for $119, for example.
Then and now, a pair of Carhartt boots or any of their workwear remains worth the investment. When the first Carhartt jackets were sewn, clothes weren’t made like the “fast fashion” of today. What you wore was an investment and needed to count, especially for those with working-class careers. Fast fashion isn’t good for the planet, so maybe we can see a return to this mindset from newer companies that want to be around 130 years from now.
Carhartt the Riveter: A Century of Workwear
As Carhartt expanded to the point of having factories all over the United States, World Wars and the Great Depression hit. The Depression was a hard time for the company, but that did not stop it from serving a country whose entrepreneurial spirit, in turn, allowed it to grow.
Carhartt opened the doors to its factories to outfit troops during both World Wars. Not only that, but they also outfitted the women who worked the factory and farm jobs that the servicemen were leaving behind. Perhaps if Rosie the Riveter was around today, she would be wearing a Carhartt jacket. Sales of Carhartt would continue long after the war, but it’s safe to say that a lot of the brand’s visibility came through its military services.
When Hamilton Carhartt passed away in 1937, his son Wylie took over the company, and Carhartt remains a family business to this day. Wylie expanded the brand’s line to include more outdoor wear, like the Carhartt winter jacket that you’ll see anywhere and everywhere there’s a winter season.
In the 1950s, Carhartt started entering department stores like Sears and JCPenney. Who would have thought at the time that Carhartt would continue to grow as stores like that downsized and disappeared altogether? Keeping it in the family, ensuring a sustainable product model, and investing in their workers are all pillars that not only make Carhartt stand out, but also maintain its gold standard of workwear status.
Jump Up, Jump Down, Jump Around in Your Carhartts
The 1980s and ’90s saw a new, more inclusive layer to the brand. People who grew up wearing Carhartt because of their parents were now entering pop culture limelights. In 1989, House of Pain wore Carhartt in their music video for “Jump Around.” Rap and hip hop, newer to the popular space, had blue-collar roots.
The roots of Carhartt workwear in hip hop spaces has a backstory that you might not expect. According to Steven J. Rapiel, the New York City salesman for Carhartt, many early hip-hop artists saw men in their communities wearing Carhartt winter jackets, favoring function over fashion. Of course, it became about fashion too: people saw these men as community figureheads and emulated their style, bringing them onstage, to red carpets and music videos.
Record label, Tommy Boy Music, saw the value of having the Carhartt name be a part of their brand. The company bought a couple hundred Carhartt jackets and gave them to the makers and shakers in their industry. Because the brand was already standing the test of time, this became less of a fad and more of a staple in fashion. Now moguls like Kanye West are seen wearing Carhartt winter coats while out and about.
In a time where people weren’t really talking about diversity, Carhartt found a way to make their brand welcoming and useful for people of different backgrounds. Carhartt workwear was, in a way, like sports jerseys. But the clothing didn’t start appearing on MTV, in Barney’s stores and on runways because of its looks. The function of Carhartt clothing and the tradition embroidered into the brand were a part of the mystique.
From Hip Hop to Hipsters: Are Carhartt Hoodies For Everyone?
In the 21st century, Carhartt clothing has grown even more ubiquitous since it started WIP (Work in Progress), Carhartt’s streetwear label. WIP does collaborations with other brands , and “collabing” shows that the brand is more current than what you might expect from a company that’s older than telephones. But, even if Carhatt’s clothing hadn’t innovated itself with WIP, Carhartt’s cultural roots would still be up there as a top American brand.
The brand has come under fire for opening factories outside of the states. While there are still Carhartt production facilities across the U.S., most Carhartt clothing today is made in Mexico. There are also Carhartt production facilities in Jordan and Cambodia. Garment workers at some of Carhartt’s manufacturing facilities have gone on strike, and Carhartt has expressed commitment to do better in the future.
As Carhartt approaches a semi-centennial, it spent much of 2020 doing what former President Trump could not: making PPE for frontline workers. This is reminiscent of Carhartt’s assistance to America’s troops throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Perhaps this return to form may implore Carhartt to change the game when it comes to supporting their workers and enacting more environmentally sustainable production practices. While a lot of brands across many industries have taken serious hits, Carhartt may have a foundation that’s strong enough to carry on post-pandemic.
Some debates have been had as to whether or not wearing Carhartt while off the job or with no intention of doing blue-collar work is a form of cultural appropriation. Yet, Carhartt clothing and workwear have persisted throughout two centuries for the apparel’s function. Someone might purchase some Carhartt gear specifically for the irony of it all, but that person still benefits from its well-crafted workwear.
Carhartt jeans, jackets and work boots hang in both closets and thrift store racks, and it’s clear that people will continue to wear the gear for years and years to come. Carhartt’s quality is just that good.
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Analysis Of From Mambo To Hip Hop
From Mambo to Hip-Hop (Name) (University) The movie ‘From Mambo to Hip-Hop’ is a great documentary about a revolution in the entertainment industry. It talks of evolution on Salsa music and Hip-Hop culture in suburbs of New York. South Bronx is a ghetto neighbourhood. The people living in the area are challenged economically. There is a record of high cases of violence that exist in the streets due to high crime rate and drugs being traded as a means of survival (Gordon, 2005). Most of the people living in the area are descendants of African immigrants who could trace their origin in the Caribbean islands with a large number Latin American population too. South Bronx has got influence from the Caribbean culture in the beginning of twentieth century. (Gordon 2005) says immigrants greatly influenced the culture in areas they settled in America. Conga drums and …show more content…
The fact that Salsa was greatly taken by the white and Latin Americans, the black wanted something new for identification (Taylor 2005). That tussle among the Latin Americans and the blacks resulted to violence. The violence escalated to burnt property which saw many buildings go to flames. South Bronx was brought to its knees as most buildings were razed in huge fires. The creativity in the blacks was not shuttered by the razed down buildings (Gordon, 2005). The buildings gave them an opportunity to showcase how they were suffering as a result of using music as a powerful tool to spread social and political message. They used these burnt buildings to hold dance and spoken word competition. The gangs would meet to hold break dancing champions. As the dance competitions grew to a new level, the blacks the new to invent a new music genre. According to Taylor (2005), the new music genre born out was Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop was a music build around a sense of recognition and power
In this essay, the author
- Explains that the movie 'from mambo to hip-hop' is a great documentary about the evolution of salsa music and hip-hop culture in new york's south bronx.
- Explains that the south bronx has got influence from the caribbean culture in the beginning of twentieth century.
- Explains that taylor says the black people were facing discrimination by the white community. they had to look for a solution that would not result in violence confrontation. mambo music was developed after the second world war.
- Explains that latin americans wanted to influence the music development of jazz and mambo. diversity necessitated the growth of salsa.
- Analyzes how salsa's success led to a new trouble brewing among the black community. the violence escalated to burnt property which saw many buildings go to flames.
- Explains that the blacks' creativity was not shuttered by the burned down buildings. they used these burnt buildings to hold dance and spoken word competitions.
- Explains that hip-hop is spoken word accompanied by musical instrumentals to express the feelings of a certain group towards another. it was spontaneous in that the music was free style.
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The African American Post-Soul Generation
...nt to an African American child than Roosevelt or Kennedy. Hip-hop culture began to embrace other subversive forms of expression, such as graffiti, whose popularity soared in the mid 70s throughout the South Bronx . After a decade spent trying to gain favor with a supposedly “superior” white middle class, African Americans turned to hip-hop as a direct response to this apparent white incompatibility with black culture. No longer unequal, by the end o the 70s it had become clear that there was no reason to mold the black racial identity in an easily digestible package for America’s white middle class. This method of forgetting, which resulted in yet another decade of black marginalization, was thus largely rejected, as the America’s African American urban youth turned to hip-hop to remember, preserve, and create a new telling of the black historical identity.
Hip hop wars
Hip hop is a culture, it is a way many people use to connect to one another, it allowed many African Americans to express their own point of view in their story. But in the early 2000’s it became commercialized and went from storytelling from many perspectives like a party, politics, self-celebration, and gangstas to consisting of mainly of the lives of hustler, pimps, and hoes. Though it has become quite profitable and a successful form of music it cause arguments in American of whether it is more detrimental than beneficial to black community. Hip hop is in fact in a crisis and critics of hip hop believe it is just angry stories of black males and females but do not see it as proof that black behavior was created from the condition of living in a ghetto.
Essay On Hip Hop
Since hip-hop has expanded from the undergrounds in Bronx in the 70’s it has grew into a popular accepted music genre. Consequently, as it progressed from the golden age it gradually grew away from its original roots. If one were to evaluate the change of lyrics in hip-hop, they would see a difference between early hip-hop and today’s hip-hop. The current state of hip-hop is in a stage where things like hey young world are outdated. Instead of broadcasting out a positive message, hip-hop sends out a message of sex, drug, and violence. The early musicians who helped solidify hip-hop, by producing music that told stories on subjects of race, respect, or even music that had a positive message.
Hip Hop: History And Elements
Hip hop is both a culture and a lifestyle. As a musical genre it is characterized by its hard hitting beats and rhythms and expressive spoken word lyrics that address topics ranging from economic disparity and inequality, to gun violence and gang affiliated activity. Though the genre emerged with greater popularity in the 1970’s, the musical elements involved and utilized have been around for many years. In this paper, we will cover the history and
Hip-Hop: A Voice for the Chican@-Latin@ Community
In the words of rapper Busta Rhymes, “hip-hop reflects the truth, and the problem is that hip-hop exposes a lot of the negative truth that society tries to conceal. It’s a platform where we could offer information, but it’s also an escape” Hip-hop is a culture that emerged from the Bronx, New York, during the early 1970s. Hip-Hop was a result of African American and Latino youth redirecting their hardships brought by marginalization from society to creativity in the forms of MCing, DJing, aerosol art, and breakdancing. Hip-hop serves as a vehicle for empowerment while transcending borders, skin color, and age. However, the paper will focus on hip-hop from the Chican@-Latin@ population in the United States. In the face of oppression, the Chican@-Latin@ population utilized hip hop music as a means to voice the community’s various issues, desires, and in the process empower its people.
Keeping Their Own Identity in Black Nationalism
Hip-hop culture has been a global phenomenon for more than twenty years. When introduced into the American culture, the black culture felt that hip-hop had originated from the African American community. The black community was being denied their cultural rights by the supremacy of the white people, but hip-hop gave the community the encouragement to show their black pride and televise the struggles they were facing in the world. The failure and declining of the movements, the influential, rebellious, and powerful music is what reshaped Black Nationalism, unity and to signify the struggle. The African Americans who suffered from social and political problems found that they similar relations to the political movements, which allowed the blacks to be able to voice their opinions and to acknowledge their culture openly.
In order to understand the distinct contributions of Latinos in regards to Hip Hop and how they have been taken advantage of and such, one must be aware of the areas of Latino influence within the genre over the years. Many early Hip-hop jams, which began to emerge during the late sixties and seventies, were held in primarily Hispanic areas around New York City, such as Spanish Harlem and other neighborhoods (Barco 65). From early on, Latino participation, especially Puerto Rican, spanned various areas, including rap, graffiti, b-boying, breakdancing, as well as being the active listener and performer (Flores, Recapturing History, 63-65). Puerto Ricans in particular have always had a special connection with Hip-Hop in which they were “using rap as a vehicle for affirming their history, language, and culture”, thus making Hip-Hop history theirs as well (Flores, Puerto Rocks 90, 103). When it is said that Hip-Hop history is Puerto Rican history as well, it is suggest...
Effects of Hip-Hop Culture on the Youth
Since the beginning of hip hop culture, its music, its style of art, and style of dance has had a major effect on the world and it has increased. ...
Last Sunday I went to jazz bar in Manhattan and I listened “Latin Jazz?E Latin jazz is “a fusion of African and indigenous rhythms from the entire Latin American Diaspora with the language of jazz?E It was first known as coop, but you are now familiar with it as afro-Cuban. When talking about afro-Cuban jazz, it is difficult to not mention certain turning points in history that made this music possible. The roots of much, of the music might be traced back to African Cuban slaves. In Cuba itself, music and dance are so essential to national character that you can not disentangle them from the country’s history. “The story of Latin jazz music is thus one of religions and revolutions, power and liberation, the collision of civilization?E In the United States we can never completely understand our own music, without referencing it to Cuban music. There are various characteristics that can define Latin jazz ranging from the savant grade to more popular forms. Some forms of popular music that most people are familiar with would have to be the mambo, salsa, cha-cha, and afro-Cuban jazz. These types of music were originated from north America, but to elaborate further, Latin immigrants can to new York and brought with them distinctive rhythms that blended together. Theses types of music and other music are contagious and an evolutionary process. No one person can take the credit for Latin jazz of any form of music that comes into the united s...
The History of Hip Hop Music and Its Transition to Popular Music
Hip hop originated in the ghetto areas of New York during the 1970’s and is a mixture of DJ, MC, B boy and Beat boxing. In his studies of defining hip hop, Jeffries concluded that these mixtures of art forms do not define hip hop but rather that Hip hop itself is a culture of these elements. “Hip-hop is like a culture, it’s a voice for black people to be heard. Our own style, our own music” (Jeffries. 2011; 28). Jefferies identifies hip hop as a social movement, which stems from the concept of ‘collective identity’ (Jefferries.2011; 27). This can be defined as “an individual’s cognitive, moral and emotional connection with a broader community” (Polletta and Jasper. 2001; 84). Which relate to Smitherman’s views that hip hop is a celebration of black culture uniting these individual to form a collective community. (Smitherman. 1997; 20) .These Theorists generally accept that hip hop is culture and it’s the production of its creators and the individuals who consu...
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Music is an art form and source of power. Many forms of music reflect culture and society, as well as, containing political content and social message. Music as social change has been highlighted throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s the United States saw political and socially oriented folk music discussing the Vietnam War and other social issues. In Jamaica during the 1970s and 1980s reggae developed out of the Ghetto’s of Trench town and expressed the social unrest of the poor and the need to over-through the oppressors. The 1980’s brought the newest development in social and political music, the emergence of hip-hop and rap. This urban musical art form that was developed in New York City has now taken over the mainstream, but originated as an empowering art form for urban youth and emerging working class.
Analysis Of From Mambo To Hip-Hop
The movie ‘From Mambo to Hip-Hop’ is a great documentary about a revolution in the entertainment industry. It talks of evolution on Salsa music and Hip-Hop culture in suburbs of New York. South Bronx is a ghetto neighbourhood. The people living in the area are challenged economically. There is a record of high cases of violence that exist in the streets due to high crime rate and drugs being traded as a means of survival (Gordon, 2005). Most of the people living in the area are descendants of African immigrants who could trace their origin in the Caribbean islands with a large number Latin American population too.
African American Culture: Hip Hop And Black Culture
Black culture in our society has come to the point where it is allied with pop culture. The most popular music genres, slang terms, to dance forms it all comes from black culture. Hip hop emerged from black culture, becoming the soul of it that is seen in the media. Hip hop helped the black community by creating new ways of expressing themselves, from breakdance, graffiti, rap and other music, to slang. This culture was rooted in their tradition and created from something new. Hip hop created a new form of music that required the use of turn tables, ‘cuts’, loops, rhythm, rhyme, stories, and deep-rooted emotions, but also incorporated black oral forms of storytelling using communal authors.
Th Future of Hip Hop
In Total Chaos, Jeff Chang references Harry Allen, a hip hop critic and self-proclaimed hip hop activist. Harry Allen compares the hip hop movement to the Big Bang and poses this complex question: “whether hip-hop is, in fact a closed universe-bound to recollapse, ultimately, in a fireball akin to its birth-or an open one, destined to expand forever, until it is cold, dark, and dead” (9). An often heard phase, “hip hop is dead,” refers to the high occurrence of gangster rap in mainstream hip hop. Today’s hip hop regularly features black youths posturing as rich thugs and indulging in expensive merchandise. The “hip hop is dead” perspective is based on the belief that hip hop was destined to become the model of youth resistance and social change. However, its political ambitions have yet to emerge, thus giving rise to hip hops’ criticisms. This essay will examine the past and present of hip hop in o...
Hip-Hop as a Cultural Movement
Hip-Hop is a cultural movement that emerged from the dilapidated South Bronx, New York in the early 1970’s. The area’s mostly African American and Puerto Rican residents originated this uniquely American musical genre and culture that over the past four decades has developed into a global sensation impacting the formation of youth culture around the world. The South Bronx was a whirlpool of political, social, and economic upheaval in the years leading up to the inception of Hip-Hop. The early part of the 1970’s found many African American and Hispanic communities desperately seeking relief from the poverty, drug, and crime epidemics engulfing the gang dominated neighborhoods. Hip-Hop proved to be successful as both a creative outlet for expressing the struggles of life amidst the prevailing crime and violence as well as an enjoyable and cheap form of recreation.
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Mambo and Hip-Hop: Two Bronx Sounds, One Sense of Dignity
By Jon Pareles
- Sept. 14, 2006
Neighborhood pride ties together “From Mambo to Hip-Hop: A South Bronx Tale,” a documentary being shown tonight in New York at 9 on WNET as part of the “Voces” series on Latin Americans.
“From Mambo to Hip-Hop” dances through the history of a borough that nurtured two musical movements: the mambo that evolved into salsa, and the hip-hop that arose from the most desperate days of the South Bronx. Produced by Elena Martinez and Steve Zeitlin, who are principals in the New York folklore group City Lore, and directed by Henry Chalfant, a longtime chronicler of the South Bronx who collaborated on the early-1980’s documentary “Style Wars,” “From Mambo” rushes by, driven by rhythms that change through the decades.
Mambo and hip-hop are the kind of melting-pot phenomena that New York heats and stirs. Their roots are African, refracted through the Caribbean and the city. In their beginnings both styles also reflected, and defied, the ghetto status and economic deterioration of the South Bronx.
Mambo was visceral, sophisticated music that emerged after World War II as Cuban styles were picked up by Puerto Ricans who mingled with jazz musicians, and the Bronx became a night life mecca. The groundbreaking big band led by Machito was named the Afro-Cubans, flaunting the fact that its musicians were black, and it traded ideas with the era’s beboppers.
The documentary has exultant vintage segments from the 1950’s heyday of mambo with musicians and especially dancers who shook everything from head to toe while conga drums and timbales crackled with Cuban rhythms and New York aggression. A younger generation of musicians — now elders, like Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto (who died in February), who are interviewed — met playing stickball and grew up on mambo, going on to streamline and sharpen it into salsa.
“Salsa could have only happened in New York and in a place like the Bronx because of the diversity of the people that were playing it,” explains Willie Colón, the bandleader who has become a political figure in the Bronx. “It’s an inclusion and a reconciliation of all the things that we are here, and the Bronx, and the music that we made together. We not only wanted to make music; we had a goal. We wanted to convey a social and political message, and salsa was very important for that because it was our voice.”
But Latinos’ rising expectations met neglect and worse in the Bronx. The documentary shows burned-out buildings, gang fights and other factors — like the Cross Bronx Expressway, which razed and divided neighborhoods — that made the South Bronx a symbol of urban ruin in the 1970’s. But in the wreckage, hip-hop was being created. Public parks and abandoned buildings were turned into clubs as gangs sublimated rumbles into battles of words and break-dance competitions.
Hip-hop wasn’t invented by Latinos (and the documentary fails to note the strong Jamaican element in early hip-hop), but they were still in the neighborhoods, and they took to it quickly. Conga drumbeats sent break-dancers into motion, some of them reviving the most flamboyant moves of the old mambo dancers. Even when much of the South Bronx was rubble, Afro-Latin alliances were made and cultural memory held strong.
FROM MAMBO TO HIP-HOP
A South Bronx Tale
WNET, New York, tonight at 9. (Broadcast later on other PBS stations; check local listings.)
Directed by Henry Chalfant; Elena Martinez and Steve Zeitlin, producers. Produced by City Lore.
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From Mambo to Hip Hop
- Thread starter edsel
- Start date Dec 18, 2013
From Mambo to Hip Hop: A Bronx Tale presents a panoramic view of the music that blossomed in the latino community of the South Bronx from the late 1940’s, when mambo burst onto the New York cultural scene, through the birth of hip hop in the 1970s. The film chronicles two generations who grew up literally on the same streets, and both used rhythm as their form of rebellion. In the early seventies in the South Bronx, Black and Latino teenagers, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds where they gathered to rap, spin records and break. Young people of little means made do with whatever they could get their hands on. The Hip Hop kids plugged into the street lamps and utilized their parents’ old funk and salsa records as source material for new sounds. Hip hop is commonly thought to be an African-american cultural form. Part 1 Mambo to the Hip Hop can be watched on youtube More to come.. Edsel
out of the Mambo there came....the Hiphop... Click to expand...
Premier you are welcome... Soon more to come.... Edsel
edsel said: Today Part 2: Hip hoppers copied a lot of moves, spins, turns and foothwork of the Mambo and Mambonicks, look at the dance examples, but they also used mambo conga and bongo rhythms to be able to dance hiphop not to mention a lot of poetry which is the essence of Son..... Click to expand...
Yes, There is an interesting book on the creation of Hiphop out of Mambo/Rumba, this is where popping, breaking, breakdancing, electric boogie and the groundwork (of Hiphop) and so on is coming from. They used the turntables to recreate the conga and bongo rhythms (i.e. scratching). The book is called 'In Droppin' Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, ed. William Eric Perkins. Mambo, mambo, mambo Edsel
premier said: Looks like very bronx-centric view but interesting stuff. Thanks for the link Click to expand...
1derpalm said: I believe Fabel helped with it so it is gonna have a very specific view. Click to expand...
Richie Blondet said: I didn't care for the "Mambo" part of the documentary (I'm one of the contributors thanked when the credits roll at the end) because it implies the Bronx as being ground zero for Afro-Cuban dance culture. Among other tall tales that got spun by some personalities on there. But HipHop's origins being too "Bronx-centric" as Premier expressed is like saying a documentary on Cuban music in Cuba is too 'Havana-centric.' Where does he suppose a documentary with a sub-header that reads "A South Bronx Tale" should begin? BTW-Pop Master Fabel is a Manhattan guy. We lived/live in the same neighborhood. The documentary was directed by Henry Chalfant, who directed "Wild Style" in the '80s, but produced by Elena Martinez & Bobby Sanabria. Bronx residents and champions of Bronx-related culture. Pop Master Fabel provided context on the bBoy as well as the gang angle. He's working on or is in the midst of completing his own doc on HipHop history. Click to expand...
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From Mambo to Hip-Hop: A South Bronx Tale
There’s a certain sub-genre of films I love to prattle on about … let’s call it “Newyorksploitation”, for lack of a better term. These overheated thrillers painted a now-vanished New York, bracketed by the late ‘60s and Giuliani Time, as a grimy hellhole patrolled by flashy street thugs and littered with crumbling brick tenements.
More often than not, these urban dystopia flicks are set in the infamous South Bronx – think 1979’s The Warriors or the somewhat classier Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache: The Bronx – and they’ve sold the neighborhood to enquiring minds as a poster child for postwar metropolitan decay. Comedian Robert Klein even recorded a wickedly satirical tune, “The Bronx Is Beautiful This Time of Year”, an FM radio staple in the early ‘80s.
However exaggerated Hollywood’s portrayals were – and Chuck Bronson’s hysterical Road Warrior-esque Death Wish 3 is surely a nadir – the borough named for Dutch sea captain Jonas Bronck had definitely seen better days by the late ‘70s. Buildings stood empty and derelict, abandoned cars decorated the avenues, and those who could escape fled to greener pastures.
If “the Bronx” became shortand for urban devastation during the Me Decade, then what had it represented in earlier times? How did its denizens conduct their lives? What did they do for fun? These questions are answered in Henry Chalfant’s documentary From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale , revealing a vibrant inner-city culture more often satirized than examined.
From Mambo to Hip Hop aired first on PBS, in their “Independent Lens” series, and like much of their programs, illuminates the non-white ethnic experience in America. We’ve all taken bus tours to view attractions both cheesy and high-toned, but I don’t imagine too many of us have hopped a ride on the South Bronx Latin Music Tour, which opens the documentary.
It may be news to many that the South Bronx, from just after WW II through the ‘70s, was a fertile pot for Latin American rhythms serving up salsa, mambo, merengue, and anything else that got booties shaking. There was live music everywhere, as mambo fever during the Truman/Eisenhower years transformed Jewish catering halls and Irish vaudeville houses into raucous danceterias for the quickly-expanding Latino immigrant population.
Directly following the Second World War, Puerto Rican migrants flooded the Big Apple, taking advantage of the island nation’s Commonwealth status to flee poverty back home. These folks crowded into the Bronx and Manhattan’s famed Harlem district, carrying their foods, Spanish tongue, and musical traditions with them. They would be joined ten years later by a smattering of Cuban refugees who forsook balmy Miami for the job-producing dynamism of New York, as yet unaware that the industrial employment they sought would soon dwindle.
Aside from impromptu games of stickball – “the poor man’s baseball”, many took up music – or continued playing as they did back home. P.S. 52, a popular local high school, was a magnet for young musicians, with a solid arts program, something too many campuses today would envy.
As Chalfant makes clear, these so-called Nuyoricans and cubanos weren’t alone in that borough north of Manhattan. They were joined by African-Americans with Southern roots, seeking cheap – and non-discriminatory – housing, and possessed of the richest musical warehouse of perhaps any people in history. Mixing with an easy camaraderie that even today eludes black Americans and their Mexican-American neighbors in the Sun Belt, these seemingly disparate groups would together introduce salsa – believe it or not, originated in New York — and much later, the world-conquering genre of hip-hop, fomenting a musical revolution equaling that of rock’s early days.
Indeed, New York’s black and Latino communities liberally borrowed from each other, black hipster cool transforming Puerto Rican “hicks” into suave and streetwise “Nuyoricans”, like the slick but doomed Bernardo in West Side Story , or the brilliant, drug-addled playwright Miguel Pinero. Of course, many Puerto Ricans – and their Cuban ‘cousins’ – are partially or wholly of African descent, so maybe it’s no surprise that their music would share stylistic predecessors in Africa with that of American blacks.
Sadly, this vibrant scene would begin to evaporate as darker social forces tore away at the Bronx. Narcotics hit the streets in 1953, prompting the closure of numerous dance halls. Asphalt and concrete would divide the South Bronx in the form of the Cross Bronx Expressway, shoved through close-knit ‘hoods by the New York’s urban planning godfather Robert Moses. Abetted by the looming deindustrialization of the nation’s largest city and a corresponding ascension of gang culture, the Bronx, beloved by generations of recent arrivals, now teetered on a precipice.
The musical landscape of the borough, however, continued evolving in exciting ways. Salsa became an international sensation, inspiring the fabled Tito Puente to perform in the Bronx, and many Latin stars who cut their teeth in Bronx ballrooms would join the newly formed Fania Records, for a time the world’s premiere Latin label. These performers came to be known as the “Fania All-Stars”, appearing in a series of massive concerts, at Madison Square Garden, The Bronx’s own Yankee Stadium, and overseas.
During this period, in tandem with a general social and economic malaise in New York, the concept of the South Bronx among Americans as a hellish snakepit came into full flower. Street gangs slaughtered each other with depressing regularity, hard-up landlords torched their cruddy buildings for insurance loot, and woe to any white kids whose parents hadn’t decamped for the suburbs; they risked an ass-whupping on “Get Whitey Day”, which unfortunately was also inflicted on a few light-skinned Nuyoricans. One middle-aged interviewee discusses the need for having a “stone-cold killer” expression on one’s face in order to stave off thugs who might rob you, kick your ass, or both.
Things took a slightly positive turn in 1973, when a Gang Peace Meeting was called, but a far more epochal development occurred that same year. At 1528 Sedgewick Ave, in an unassuming high-rise apartment bloc, in the first-floor rec room, a party was held in the sweltering summertime. Attendees danced and rhymed to funky instrumental tracks, and records were occasionally spun by hand backwards or forwards, dragging the phonograph needle to create a dissonant scratching sound, and a revolution, devised by ghetto youngsters bereft of the cash to purchase new instruments or lessons, was hatched.
At least, that’s the legend. There’s no credible evidence that hip-hop music originated at this event, just as no one can pinpoint precisely where jazz bubbled up in turn-of-the last century New Orleans, but few would argue that the sound predated this affair.
It’s equally futile to pinpoint exactly when the terms “rap” or “hip-hop” were grafted on to this loquacious, bass-heavy music, but it spread like arson wildfire through the South Bronx. Abandoned buildings quickly became party zones to accommodate this makeshift scene and the younger set, provoking much parental consternation, rejected the brassy grooves of salsa and mambo for this aggressive new beat. Still, there was a definite connection between the frenetic mambo dance style and the rubber-limbed gyrations the kids concocted.
The first rap DJs and “crews” were indisputably African-American, but their Latin brethren came up fierce, bringing a bit of “Boricua flavor” to the mix. For a time, it even seemed that breakdancing “battles” – rigorous dance-a-thons which determined who had the slickest moves – became a substitute for pitched gang warfare, which had escalated to gunplay. Sometimes local fire alarms provided rhythmic accompaniment to these streetside dance contests.
Extras on this DVD are a series of interviews with various noted personalities from the era, including Eddie Palmieri, Joe Conzo, who played on the premiere disc from The Sugar Hill Gang, Ray Barretto, Mike Amadeo – owner of record shop Casa Amadeo, and Paula Grillo – daughter of the famed Machito, among others. These discussions provide valuable information – the documentary itself only runs a scant 56 minutes – but I wish there’d been more details about the streetscapes of the South Bronx, more historical facts, and perhaps a scholarly breakdown of the distinct musical styles.
If From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale isn’t exactly a comprehensive look at the Bronx music scenes through some crucial years in American history, it’s certainly an infectious introduction to South Bronx youth culture. This repository of rose-tinted memories is also a seminal document of cooperation between two marginalized groups in American society who cooked up some beautiful music…together.
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- From Bomba to Hip Hop
F rom Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity
Juan Flores (2000)
Columbia University Press
Written by Juan Flores, Professor of Black and Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College/Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, this 272 page book presents a number of essays on identity, sense of self, place and culture for those who might identify with, or refute, such labels as Puerto Rican, Latin/a/o, Hispanic etc. You can read about him in this article.
Why you might buy it:
Flores is one of the best known writers in relation to Puerto Rican culture and identity and his writing has a following, that, on reading this, you can understand the reason for. He is a very clever writer and can pitch his work equally well to a reader requiring an academic discourse as to the reader who perhaps wants to be informed without needing to know all the sources. In this book Flores manages to provide for both, though clearly leaning more towards the academic reader here, who is catered for extremely well by top quality writing. Of particular note are the engaging and thought provoking chapter “Salvacion Casita” and the informative and entertaining “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”.
Why you might leave it:
A number of the chapters have appeared, albeit sometimes in an altered version, as articles in other books or in journals – so if you are an avid reader you may well have read much of this before. After the prelude and introduction you quickly hit intellectual notions that are couched in thoroughly academic terms, perhaps too ‘heavy going’ for those who may have been drawn to the book by its title alone and expecting to read solely about the musical connections between bomba and hip-hop, or who may have read one of the more accessible pieces, “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”, in another form. This is at times a challenging read, but that of course may make it a good purchase for your needs.
Prelude: From Bomba to Hip-Hop Introduction 1. “pueblo pueblo”: Popular Culture in Time 2. The Lite Colonial: Diversions of Puerto Rican Discourse 3. Broken English Memories: Languages in the Trans-Colony 4. “Salvacion Casita”: Space, Performance, and Community 5. “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”: Songs and Stories of Latin Boogaloo 6. Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia 7. Pan-Latino/Trans-Latino: Puerto Ricans in the “New Nueva York” 8. Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions 9. The Latino Imaginary: Meanings of Community and Identity 10. Latino Studies: New Contexts, New Concepts Postscript 1998: “None of the Above”
Selected extracts (from):
1. “pueblo pueblo”: Popular Culture in Time
Midway through its two-hundred year life since the late eighteenth century, the idea of popular culture began a gradual shift of focus from this traditional, collective creativity, commonly called “folklore”, to the domain of the mass media, the “mass culture” of technical reproduction and industrial commercialization. This shift has intensified over the course of the twentieth century, as new means of reproduction and diffusion came into place in the cultural sphere, such that by the 1940s and 1950s, especially with the advent of television, the mediated culture for the people came to eclipse and replace, in most theoretical assessments, the expressive culture of the people which had been the object of knowledge of popular culture and folklore studies in earlier generations.
4. “Salvacion Casita”: Space, Performance, and Community
The worlds of the casita and the plena are thus symbolically related as forms of performative expression of working-class Puerto Ricans, especially those of Afro-Caribbean origins from the coastal areas of the Island. Both are rooted in the everyday life of the participants, and their improvisational quality make both optimally inclusive as to the terms of involvement. Just as anyone of good will is welcome as casita events, so taking part in plena jams is open to any newcomer who can keep a beat. One of Chema’s compositions says it clearly: “Oye todo el que llega / sin instrumento desea tocar / coge hasta una botella, un cuchillo de mesa / y pega a marcar” [“Anyone who shows up wanting to play / even without an instrument / pick up a bottle and a knife from the table / and keep the beat”].
It seems that this affinity between architectural and musical expression goes back a long way, to the origins of both practices at the beginning of the century. Old photos of Barrio San Anton in the southern coastal city of Ponce, considered the birthplace of plena, show unpaved streets lined with casitas. The structural concept is the same as that evident in New York today, most notably with the front porch facing out onto an open public space. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to place a group of pleneros behind the porch railing and people socializing and dancing in the front yard.
5. “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat”: Songs and Stories of Latin Boogaloo Though some changes were obviously required for the studio recording of the tune, “Bang Bang” remains very much a party. Like the other popular songs of boogaloo, such as Hector Rivera’s “At the Party,” Pete Rodríguez’s “I Like It Like That,” and Johnny Colón’s “Boogaloo Blues,” it reenacts a bawdy happening at the peak of its emotional and sexual energy, with instrumentals and vocals playing in full, wild association with the crowd. Joe Cuba recalls, thinking mainly of “Bang Bang,” that “when I recorded in those days I always left a big boom mike overhanging above all the musicians to put in a little live effect.” The musical texture of the song is a patchwork of noises, emotive outbursts, cries of glee, short musical phrases, and the recurring, abiding counterpoint of the crowd chorus and the leitmotiv piano lick. The lyrics, though of no consistent narrative or dramatic significance, nevertheless do have a meaning, which is the interplay of Black and Latin festivity and culture, the playful mingling of African-American phrases and cultural symbols with those from Puerto Rican daily life. Musically, this same message is carried across with the collage-like mixing of familiar trappings from mambo and r&b styles. The perspective is clearly that of the Latino, and Latin music is the main defining sound of the piece ; but the traditional features and structuring principles of the Afro-Cuban model are consistently overridden by their conjoining with qualities from the r&b and soul traditions. The overall effect of the recording is one of collective celebration, gleeful partying where boundaries are set not so much by national and ethnic affiliation, or even language or formalized dance movements, but by participation in that special moment of inclusive ceremony.
As “Bang Bang” illustrates, the defining theme and musical feature of boogaloo is precisely this intercultural togetherness, the solidarity engendered by living and loving in unison beyond obvious differences. Its emergence coincided with the historical moment of the Civil Rights movement and the coming-of-age of the first generation of Puerto Rican youth born and raised in New York City. Latin music expert and producer René López calls boogaloo “the first Nuyorican music,” and a consensus has gathered in concurrence with that description. It is the sound that accompanied the teenage years of the Young Lords and of the Nuyorican poets in the later 1960s ; Piri Thomas’s groundbreaking memoir Down These Mean Streets was published in 1967. Like those experiences, it attests to the guiding, exemplary role of African-American culture and politics for that generation of Puerto Ricans growing up in New York. “Bang Bang” is an explosion of excitement arising from that cultural conjunction, the linking of Puerto Rican backgrounds with the African American influences so prevalent in all aspects of social life, including of course their music and dance.
6. Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia
By the early 1990’s, hip-hop had finally broken the language barrier. Though young Puerto Ricans from the South Bronx and El Barrio have been involved in breakdancing, graffiti writing, and rap music since the beginnings of hip-hop back in the 1970’s, it is only belatedly that the Spanish language and Latin musical styles came into their own as integral features of the rap vocabulary. By the mid-nineties, acts like Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost, Gerardo, and El General became household words among pop music fans nationwide and internationally, as young audiences of all nationalities came to delight in the catchy Spanglish inflections and the guaguanco and merengue rhythms lacing the familiar rap formats. Melow Man Ace’s “Mentirosa” was the first Latino rap record to go gold in the summer of 1990; Kid Frost’s debut album Hispanic Causing Panic instantly became a rap anthem of La Raza in the same year; Gerardo as “Rico Suave” has his place in the inevitable Latin lover sex symbol; and El General has established the immense popularity of Spanish-language reggae-rap in the Caribbean and Latin America.
8. Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions
There are few Puerto Ricans in The Mambo Kings, and when they do appear it is usually as underworld mobsters, typically garbed in “tan suits”. Toward the end of the book, as a kind of afterthought in the endless love life of the protagonist Cesar Castillo, there is Lydia, a working-class Puerto Rican woman whose caring relation to the aging but ever libidinous musician is marred by an undertone of personal opportunism. Otherwise, though, the Latin New York of the first Hispanic Pulitzer is entirely Cuban, even though it is set at a time when Puerto Ricans far outnumbered other Latino groups and was written when the Cuban population in New York had declined to relative insignificance. Even the Latin music scene in New York, which in the 1950’s was already heavily populated by Puerto Rican musicians, is basically a Cuban affair in Hijuelo’s novel, renowned Puerto Ricans like Rafael Hernandez, Noro Morales, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez getting frequent mention and an occasional cameo appearance but no formative role in either the music or the narrative. It is worth recalling in this regard that Machito’s “Afro-Cubans,” the supreme orchestral achievement of the whole “mambo kings” era, were almost all New York Puerto Ricans.
[end of extracts]
New York Times by Suzy Hansen (2000) In his eloquent essay collection, ”From Bomba to Hip-Hop,” Juan Flores has compiled a decade of research and meditations on ”America’s fastest-growing minority,” Latinos. He details the struggle of Puerto Ricans in New York, from the mass migration of the 1950’s to the Puerto Rican flag-burning incident on the television program ”Seinfeld” in the 1990’s. Although they can be intimidating and dense with theory, most of the essays are colorful and engaging, like ”Cha-Cha With a Backbeat” and ”Puerto Rocks: Rap, Roots, and Amnesia,” which discuss the transformation of Latino music from Tito Puente to the hip-hop pioneer Charlie Chase. In a searing analysis of ”The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” the first novel by a Hispanic (the Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos) to win the Pulitzer Prize, Flores contends that the search for a ”Latino identity” exacerbates tensions among Latinos (for example, the very label ”Latino,” usually used by non-Latinos, because it ignores the diversity of its Spanish-speaking members). Flores, who teaches Puerto Rican and black studies at Hunter College and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, passionately advocates sensitivity to people with multiple identities, those American citizens who declare that ”If I’m Latino or Hispanic, then I am Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or Mexican-American first.”
From Library Journal by DGwen M. Gregory (2000) Flores (black and Puerto Rican studies, Hunter Coll.; sociology, CUNY Graduate Ctr.) has written widely on Latino and Puerto Rican culture. In this new book, he focuses on the progression of Puerto Rican culture in the United States over the past half-century. He analyzes developments in music, literature, and other elements of popular culture and compares Puerto Rican culture to that of other Latino groups in the United States. He follows some interesting trends, such as the building of casitas, shacks modeled after the traditional rural homes in Puerto Rico, as cultural centers in urban U.S. settings. Flores also discusses aspects of Puerto Rican musical influence, including the Latin Boogaloo craze of 1966-68. He celebrates Puerto Rican cultural accomplishments while encouraging further achievement. While academic in format and tone, Flores’s writing is accessible to the interested lay reader.
Amazon.com by Thomas Pena The title of Mr. Flores’ book might be a little deceiving for those who are not familiar with the subject matter. Mr. Flores uses music as a jumping off point for some very thought provoking themes that pertain (in my opinion) to all Latino’s. Juan Flores goes from scholarly themes like colonialism to thoughts on the funeral of Cortijo and the history of the Boogaloo phenomena in New York City. Mr. Flores makes you stop and think, then think again about issues you may have had preconceived notions about. I really enjoyed being challenged intellectually as I read this book. I recently attended a lecture/performance (at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City) of “From Bomba to Hip-Hop” conducted by Mr. Flores, music historian Rene Lopez and Mike Wallace (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Gotham.”) True to form, it was a very unique, educational and entertaining experience.
Amazon.com by Edrik Lopez As a beginning graduate student in Latina/o Studies, I have been asking myself a simple question over and over: “Where have I been?” I have gone through public education in the United States for 17 years of my life, and have only recently found that there have been people writing since the start of the 1900s about the issues, experiences, struggles, and passions that I have thought were uniquely mine. Piri Thomas published _Down These Mean Streets_ in 1967. I just read it this past summer, my mother–right after I gave it to her. And the thought that has wondered in is, “why wasn’t I told about his book earlier?” Is Piri Thomas’ experience, a bond with African American culture that Juan Flores addresses in his book, such a marginal experience in American life, that it took a suggestion by Amazon.com for a man with 4 years of university education to be aware of the book? As the population of Latino/as in the United States grows to the levels of being the largest minority group in the country, there will have to be a shifting of Latina/o literature, theory, and any cultural products from the margins of American life to the center contemporary discussion. It is these products that Juan Flores probes and analyses with keen insight that places the Puerto Rican aspect of the Latino experience into mainstream intellectual thought. From “the Madonna incident” in Puerto Rico, to the ties that Puerto Ricans have with Hip-Hop, and the current status of Puerto Rico that he sadly calls a “Lite Colony,” Flores’ book is one that should be read by anyone interested in the affairs of American culture.
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Case Study: South Bronx
Interpreting the Story: Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx
Place Matters’ Mambo to Hip Hop project is a good example of how interpreting the story can contribute to public knowledge while supporting historic preservation and cultural conservation. It also demonstrates how local cultural assets can be recovered and used as a resource for instilling pride of place and fostering renewal of the physical environment. While not all U.S. communities may claim the same degree of cultural influence as the South Bronx, most places offer rich stores of cultural assets that simply are waiting to be mined.
The project revolved around the partnership of Place Matters and a South-Bronx based nonprofit, THE POINT Community Development Corporation. The theme was popular music in the South Bronx. Our project evolved over a three year period to tell the story of how multiple generations of predominantly Puerto Rican New Yorkers created artistic expressions that were at once culturally specific yet universally appealing. Focusing on the mambo, salsa, and hip hop generations and the South Bronx neighborhood that has been both celebrated and demonized, the project revealed how creative expression helped foster and sustain community in the Bronx, and when the landscape looked bleakest, served as a resource for strength and community rebuilding. The story, as it was communicated in community conversations, musical events, and publications, captured the historic interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements from the late 1940s through the present in one of the world’s least likely places.
The two organizations came to the project via different routes. Pursuing their aims of community empowerment and economic development, THE POINT had begun to consciously revive the musical legacy of the area by holding tribute concerts at their facility to honor legendary local musicians. Place Matters learned about the creative history of the South Bronx from two separate responses to our ongoing cultural resource survey: the Census of Places that Matter. In particular, music historian David Carp led us to interviews and passed on written and visual records. What galvanized our interest in particular was the notable role of place in the story. It seemed to be the critical mass of clubs, dance halls, local bars, candy stores, playgrounds, rooftops, and home party-giving in the neighborhood that helped to stimulate critical bursts of creativity and create a community of supporting fans for the new musical styles. Looking further into the story, we learned about THE POINT and discovered our mutual interests. Place Matters’ goals–to promote and protect the places that connect us to the past and support vital communities–complemented those of THE POINT, and we decided to collaborate.
Place Matters staff conducted almost three-dozen oral history interviews with musicians, dancers, industry figures, and fans. We consulted with humanities scholars, read historical texts, and conducted building research to determine the history of relevant buildings. All this research formed the basis for a variety of projects that aimed to publicize this history and preserve this creative legacy in popular memory. The story emerged as follows.
From the late 1940s through the 1960s the Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point areas of the South Bronx were, according to its residents, a hotbed of Latin music. Hundreds of Latino musicians grew up in or moved to this area from East Harlem or directly from Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was a time popularly known as the mambo era. Percussionists, singers and dancers practiced and played in apartments and hometown social clubs, in dance halls and theaters, on rooftops and street corners. Scores of these musicians, including Marcelino Guerra, Vicentico Valdez, Tito Puente, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Barry Rogers, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto, were the creative bridge through which the prevalent Afro Cuban rhythms, music and dance styles such as son, son montuno, mambo and cha-cha-cha, were transformed into a distinct New York Latin music sound that was labeled salsa late in the 1960s. People came from neighborhoods throughout the city to listen and dance to some of the greatest names in Latin music at some of the city’s most elegant venues.
A Latino Bronx took shape after World War II. In the early years the new residents shared space with previously established Jewish, Italian, and Irish enclaves, but by the mid 1950s the area now called the South Bronx was the largest Puerto Rican settlement outside of the Island. The Latino South Bronx grew into a thriving community with social, political, cultural, and economic infrastructures. Existing entertainment venues were adapted by the Puerto Rican community to their own needs and expressive styles. These venues, and a concentrated population of creative people in a small geographic area fostered an explosion of musical creativity and activity that simultaneously nostalgized the past for the migrant generation and forged new directions that proclaimed Nuyoriqueñidad for those raised here and seeking their own cultural voice.
By the start of the 1970s, a deadly combination of factors precipitated the decline of the South Bronx community. The fires that tore through the southern part of the Bronx in the early 1970s ripped it apart. Nonetheless, its legacy remains a deeply rooted part of Latin music history and continues to live in the memory of musicians and audience alike for its unparalleled decades of intense creativity. Moreover, out of the fires emerged a hard-edged urban hip hop rooted in the streets, playgrounds, and burned-out lots of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and scratch records. They reclaimed their spaces and, as their parents and grandparents had done in the 1940s and ‘50s, made the spaces work for them.
Interviewing participants to document the past brought a host of benefits. It uncovered the universe of places that supported the local music scenes. It legitimated the life experiences and creative contributions of many former and current Bronx residents. And it helped us compile a wealth of rich memory material that could be shared with the larger public. In fact, we extended the interviewing process to larger neighborhood public settings to create opportunities for intergenerational panels and audiences. We knew our approach was working when a young, female break dancer, participating in a panel with older musicians, made an emotional statement to the audience about the new connections she was making between her own musical attitudes and aptitudes, and those of her parents’ generation.
In addition to a transcribed series of oral histories, the Mambo to Hip Hop project generated these events and products.
We held four local community conversations, in which panels of participants in the Bronx music scene shared memories, ideas, and concerns with other community members and the general public. We arranged similar events outside of the community on two other occasions—once at a New York City history conference and once at a prominent Latino cultural institution in Manhattan. Topics for all the programs focused on different aspects of the music history, and most of the events also featured mini-performances. Panel members included practitioners, music industry figures, professional scholars, and—to use a useful term from folklore—community scholars (local experts who have not had academic training). Place Matters recorded each of these events to collect information about the individual places and the ways in which they collectively contributed to the music’s development. - For the building housing Casa Amadeo, we wrote the nomination for a successful listing to the State and National Registers for Historic Places. Casa Amadeo is the oldest, continuously operating Latin music store in New York City. It opened in the early days of Puerto Rican settlement in the Bronx, survived through the borough’s most devastating years, and continues to serve as a treasure house of Latin music and musical expertise. The Register listing and related press attention has given the enterprise some added political clout, recently facilitating a downward negotiation of rent when a prohibitive increase threatened the store’s existence.
- Using the results from all of our research, we created and published a Mambo to Hip Hop map/brochure. This illustrated map is accompanied by an essay, profiles of places and people, and quotes from the oral histories. It’s the first publication to lay out a Latin music and hip hop heritage trail of key music sites in the South Bronx and East Harlem.
- Inviting the Bronx Tourism Council to join us, we used the research to develop a walking and bus tour of the heritage sites. We created tour scripts and trained local tour guides—one of whom has taken over the operation as a new entrepreneurial enterprise. Our start up efforts attracted the attention of a larger nonprofit that had organized to promote sustainable tourism, so we benefited too from their technical assistance and marketing.
- We presented a reunion concert of musicians who had graduated from the local elementary school PS 52. Not all elementary schools can boast graduates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and legendary musicians Ray Barretto and the Palmieri brothers! PS 52 had these and more; enough, in fact, to send over 25 musicians to the concert stage. The PS 52 All-Stars performed one summer night in the park across from the school. Ray Barretto and other legendary locals showed up. Both sites—the school and the park—were significant to the music history as well as being important community landmarks.
- When our research revealed that one of the music sites—an old theater turned church—was a central location for the development of Spanish-language vaudeville, we decided to recreate an evening at the theater. A Night at Teatro Puerto Rico played for a sell-out audience in the theater at THE POINT. (We unfortunately could not work with the original site.) In a curtain talk before the show, an historian placed theaters like Teatro Puerto Rico in the context of New York’s theatrical history. Then young performers from the neighborhood, along with older performers who actually had played the site, recreated a night of Mexican films, comedy, music, dance, and passionate poetry. Famous cuatro player Yomo Toro performed with his band. One of the most popular emcees at the real Teatro Puerto Rico emceed on our stage. It was a marvelous night. We suspect that nobody who attended will pass by the old theater without remembering its history and role in community life.
All of these efforts generated word of mouth, press attention, and funding. In the end, funding for the above projects came from the New York Foundation, E.H.A. Foundation, American Express Company, National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Tourism Initiative of the New York State Council on the Arts and the Arts and Business Council, and Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel.
To explain why so much of the Mambo to Hip Hop project focused on interpretation of the story, rather than on historic preservation or retaining long standing use, it is important to know that much of the 20th century physical infrastructure of the South Bronx was lost to the fires and political and property abandonment of the 1970s. Of the surviving structures that once hosted music and dance—playing a role in cultural movements of international stature—only Casa Amadeo continues the tradition. One would never wish for this kind of historical experience. But what the Mambo to Hip Hop project usefully demonstrates is that historical interpretation can contribute significantly to public knowledge, to the revival of pride of place, and to a community’s positive hold on the future.