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Hip Hop’s 2nd Birthplace, Part 3: Webster Hall

Hip-Hop at 50
This is the third in a series of posts that celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip HopOur exploration takes us to the seminal places of Hip Hop’s early days in our neighborhoods and introduces some of the instrumental figures in the downtown world of Hip Hop.

The Ritz Party @ Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street

Built in 1886, Webster Hall (landmarked March 18, 2008, following a campaign led by Village Preservation) is notable not only for its handsome Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival architecture, but also its remarkable legacy as one of New York City’s most historically and culturally significant large nineteenth-century assembly halls. Webster Hall embodies much about the social, political, and cultural history of downtown and the East Village.

Webster Hall, Image via Wikipedia

From the late 19th century through World War II, Webster Hall was the scene of labor rallies, drag balls, costume bacchanals, and political protests. It then became an important performance venue for emerging Latin artists and folk musicians. It later transformed into a sought-after recording studio used by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Julie Andrews, among many others, and for the recording of soundtracks for Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof. Today we explore its role as a launching pad for hip hop in the early 1980s, which was then still in its early stages of development and not yet part of the cultural mainstream. Read about Webster Hall here on our East Village Building Blocks website.

Sugar Hill Review at The Ritz

After a long period of dormancy, Jerry Brandt re-opened Webster Hall as ‘The Ritz’ as a venue for live music. On March 11, 1980, Sylvia Robinson organized Sugar Hill Review at The Ritz. Sugar Hill Review was one of the first live shows that connected hip hop emcees & DJs from uptown to the downtown punk/new wave and no wave scenes.

The Sugar Hill Review Show featured Funky 4 + 1 and Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five.

The New York Times reported on the show on March 13, 1981: “Grand Master Flash and an assistant accompanied the Fabulous Five with a virtuoso performance on two turntables; Flash constructed bass and drum parts by repeatedly playing the first few bars of records by Queen & Chic; he created extravagant special effects by stopping records with his hand while they were playing, while they were spinning, a technique that resulted in a regular, percussive skidding sound.…..Rapping is probably familiar to most New Yorkers as an intrusive noise on the subway or in the park – the noise that comes out of blaring cassette players and portable radios. But as the Ritz show demonstrated, rapping has a much broader appeal than one might have anticipated. It’s an intriguing test of the performer’s verbal ingenuity and rhythmic exactitude, and its fine.”

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Image via Wikipedia

In a Vince Aletti Village View review of the concert, he described the fun he had at the concert and noted how it changed his view of rapping at that time. 

Bow Wow Wow Show at The Ritz  

Later that year, on August 29, 1981, Malcolm McLaren commissioned Michael Holman to organize a show featuring hip hop elements to open for his group Bow Wow Wow at the Ritz. McLaren was an early promoter of punk subculture as the promoter and manager of numerous punk and new wave bands such as the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow.

The Rock Steady Crew. Image via The Hip Hop Museum.

Holman is a New York-based artist, writer, filmmaker, and musician. He was an early 1980s creator of the hip hop music program Graffiti Rock, and was a founding member of the experimental band Gray along with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Holman hired The Rock Steady Crew, Fab Five Freddy, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Jazzy Jay to perform at the Ritz. While some audiences were put off by this new kind of sound, McLaren saw its commercial potential. “These guys started to spin on their heads and it was phenomenal. They already had the attributes that would become ubiquitous in hip-hop style: the caps, the baggy t-shirts. . . all of that was already assembled, but it hadn’t hit anybody downtown on a commercial, even independent level,” he said. He then tried persuading RCA to sign Bambaataa and his crew, but to no avail. 

In a 2019 interview, nightlife entrepreneur and producer Kool Lady Blue said: “The first time I experienced hip-hop was in 1979-80. I’d heard Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” and Blondie’s “Rapture.” Sounded different…not singing but spoken word? Debbie Harry was rapping about Fab Five Freddy and Flash and I was curious who all these characters were. The next time I would encounter this thing in person would be in New York City at a Bow Wow Wow gig Malcolm McLaren had booked at the Ritz in September 1981. He said he’d booked this very interesting opening act…which ended up being The Rock Steady Crew, Fab Five Freddy, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Jazzy Jay…I was gobsmacked! It was totally mind-boggling from the unbelievable dance gymnastics and head spinning by Rock Steady Crew to the insane choice of music the DJ was playing…WOW…what the hell was this? That was the moment the light bulb went on…. So thanks to Malcolm that’s how I met this dance and hip-hop (which wasn’t called hip-hop). Then, it didn’t have an identity and was still morphing into what would become hip-hop culture.

Read more about Webster Hall here. Read more about the Ritz here. Read our Hip Hop at 50 blog series here. And register for our September 2nd Birthplace Hip Hop at 50 Walking Tours of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo here and here.

This blog was partially adapted from the research done for our 2nd Birthplace Tour (Hip-Hop at 50). We would like to thank the following people and organizations for their invaluable input and support in developing 2nd Birthplace:

Amanda Adams-Louis36 Chambaz of Stylz, Big Tara, CricketDJ SpinnaElena Romero,  Eric “DEAL”FelisbretFlashTalksJames Top, Justine Leguizamo, Keistar ProductionsKyra Gaunt, Leeanne G-Bowley, Martha DiazMichael Holman, and Peaches Rodriguez.

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