Poverty and violence juxtaposed with wealth and exuberance created a cultural tension that could not be contained. Sowed by the seeds of enduring racial inequality in Miami, hip hop emerged from extremes.
“You have people living in Overtown, watching skyscrapers go up and Porsches driving by, and they’re over here riding a bike,” said Donald Jones, University of Miami law professor and author of Fear of a Hip-Hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma. “You have [a generation] that is on the outside and looking in… Those are the conditions that produce hip hop.”
Birthed in the Bronx
Let’s take a trip to the birthplace of American hip hop — the Bronx circa 1940. For 20 years, black and Latino artists, teachers, and musicians lived in the New York borough, making up the most integrated community in the United States, according to PBS’ History Detectives.
Then, in the 1960s, superhighways were built. Construction of the expressways literally demolished buildings, razing community and culture along with it. The following years would lead to segregation, marginalization, and utter deterioration of long-standing neighborhoods. A drop in property values led to white flight, and as jobs moved out, poor immigrants moved in.
A few years later, the Bronx saw a massive influx of Jamaican immigrants. One in particular may be the father of hip hop as we know it. His name was Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc. Legend has it, Herc would host block parties, blasting music through giant walls of speakers, amassing the entire neighborhood to sing and dance.
On August 11, 1973 at his sister’s birthday block party, Kool Herc used two turntables to create a beat that the people had never heard before. Then, in between the breaks, he would get on the microphone to get the crowd moving. That was the birth of the MC, perhaps one of the most famous elements of hip hop.
But to say hip hop started on one particular day exactly 30 years ago would be a gross oversimplification. Hip hop is much more than just one style of music. Hip hop is a culture, composed of “break dancing, beat box, MC/rapping, and graffiti writing,” according to Rudi Goblen, a member of Miami’s B-boy group Flipside Kings.
The culture would take its own shape throughout the 70s and 80s, captivating young, rebellious minds all over the country, and the world. The loud beats, the bold murals, the engrossing b-boys — it was a beast that could not be contained. By the 80s, New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta grew elemental fame as hip hop hubs, in areas also wildly overrun by gang violence and drugs.
Developing that Miami sound
“Hip hop will always tell the truth,” Jones said. “Hip hop is a news report. People are reflecting the transformations of the communities they grow up in and they’re writing what they see. We should understand it and listen to it as a news report, because it reflects what’s happening in these cities.”
And Miami’s truth, especially in Overtown and Liberty City, is eerily similar to that of the Bronx.
“While Miami is not a typical city, it does follow a pattern that is familiar … in terms of urbanization if one went back 30 years ago,” Jones said. “There used to be a cohesive community of blacks in which there were hotels, cultural institutions, and history. What created hip hop, in part, was the dislocation or the breakup of communities as a result of urban renewal.”
When I-95 was built through Overtown in the 1960s, it demolished a thriving community once considered the Harlem of the South, creating isolated and fragmented black communities throughout the city, Jones explained, adding, “The cohesiveness of communities receded and you had a migration into urban enclaves.”
As blacks dispersed throughout the city, hip hop culture in the form of music, dance, and art, strove to fuse a community that was once aggressively ripped apart. And as the Miami sound took form, it also stitched together sounds from around the country. “Miami took elements of the West Coast and the East Coast, and added all the Carribean and their own flavor on it. Miami had it’s own musical energy,” Goblen said.
In the 1980’s Miami’s hip hop scene was defined by the big booty bass produced by artists like DJ Luke and 2 Live crew. DJ’s ”would just bring out massive amounts of speakers, walls of them, like 30-50 speakers [stacked] super-duper high. When you’d stand in front of them the bass was so loud that your whole body would shake,” Miami hip hop legend Mother Superia recalled in an interview with Crazy Hood magazine.
Venues like Pac-Jam and Bass Station blasted big booty bass, bringing out out breakdancers known as b-boys and b-girls, graffiti writers, and MCs in droves. Though the venues closed in the late 80’s, Miami’s hip hop lived on. “Hip hop of the early 80s was a different animal. It was more about having fun. Whereas hip hop of later decades is harder, infused with violence and grittiness of the post-industrial era,” according to Jones.
Enter the 1990s, what b-boy Rudi Goblen considers the “golden era” of hip hop music in Miami. “My first taste of hip hop in Miami was at house parties I would go to in Sweetwater, where I lived,” he recalled. “While the East Coast was sticking to one sound, and the West Coast was sticking to a something else … Miami had freestyle, NY hip hop, then West Coast gangster rap, then booty music, bass music. It was a mixture of all of these things, which was great.”
He remembers going to Hot Wheels in Kendall on Friday and Saturday nights, where the Miami hip hop heads came alive. “B-boys, MCs, graffiti artists, everyone would come together at this place, it was where everyone went to hang out and dance and write in each other’s books and sketches of what they were going to paint,” he said.
In 1994, Miami’s iconic DJ Raw hosted the first Hoodstock, a festival and celebration of local hip hop culture at Wynwood’s Roberto Clemente Park. The annual celebration would continue off-and-on well into the early 2000’s. Later, DJ Raw launched DJ Raw Studios and DJ Raw Records and Tapes on NW Seventh Avenue and 49th Street, carrying anything and everything hip-hop. A few years prior, b-boy pioneer “Speedy Legs” hosted an Element’s Jam b-boy competition, DJ and rap battles, and a graffiti exhibition, which in 1996 would develop into the iconic Masters Pro-Am, with help from the famous Zulu Gremlin of the international hip hop group Zulu Nation. Around this time, DJ EFN, who molded the growing Miami hip hop scene with his mixtapes, launched Crazy Hood Productions in Downtown Miami, an agency that continues to foster local hip hop groups through music and film productions. The company currently manages local hip hop legends ¡MAYDAY! and Wrekonize.
With the onset of the 2000s came yet another era in Miami’s hip hop history, characterized by artists from Slip-n-Slide records such as Trina and Trick Daddy, and Poe Boy Music Group artists like Rick Ross and Flo Rida. In 2001, DJ Luke would also go on to sign PitBull, aka Mr. Worldwide, to Luke records, launching the rapper’s international career. During this time, local rapper AO Logics from ArtOfficial remembers he used to “have battles in the parking lot at Crazy Hood. There were no legit venues — MC battles would happen in, like, barber shops or local stores.”
He also remembers visiting the Polish American Club in Little Havana, a frequent site of rap battles and b-boy competitions. “It was one of those random things, but they had big wooden floors and they would rent out their space and it was really nice to dance on,” he laughed. “There were no legit venues, it was all events. Later on, a couple of places popped up — there used to be a place called Slack Lounge which is now where Electric Pickle is.”
AO Logics also remembers playing at Transit Lounge in Brickell and PS14 in Omni, both of which have been closed down or renamed in the past decade.
“With swag and with panache”
Much like the community it came out of, hip hop culture is fragmenting. What was once an umbrella term, describing a culture of four elements has fractioned off into four distinct art forms.
“Today it’s different, it’s all separated — the b-boys are doing their own thing, they have their own battles, the same thing with graffiti, a lot of it has migrated to Wynwood. And with the music, everyone went their own direction so that’s kinda where we’re at now in regards to the core elements of hip hop that used to be practiced together,” Logic explains. That separation, is not necessarily a bad thing, he adds. “The art became more complex and so it started expanding, but the foundation is still hip hop.”
While Miami doesn’t really have any more strictly hip hop venues, places like Catalyst Hip Hop in Miami Springs and 004 Connec in Wynwood continue to be cultural hubs. And there’s an increased push for using hip hop as an avenue for cultivating positive culture. Child of this Culture, for example, partners with local community organizations to foster a positive image of hip hop culture, with free or low cost literacy, dance, art and music classes.
Even though the scene is healthy and growing, “all of these artists from Miami’s new music scene sound really different. You have Yung Simmie and Denzel Curry doing more funkadelic stuff, then you have lyricists like Zoey Dollas, Bizzy Crook, and me,” said local artist Kurtiz the Kid. “And then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rob Bank$, who is Shaggy’s son, doing something totally different.”
And without dedicated hip hop venues, what are their favorite places to perform? “Grand Central, Hangar, Revolution Live, and clubs on South Beach are always fun,” up-and-coming Miami artist Yung Simmie wrote in an e-mail. In an effort to once again bring together all of the elements of Miami’s hip hop culture, a monthly series called The Void was launched last year, featuring music, b-boys, and art, added Kurtiz the Kid.
“In many ways hip hop is a product. Hip hop is street corner entrepreneurship. It’s an effort to use culture as a springboard to say, even if [I might] not have a job or a degree, I have creativity and my lived experience of growing up in the hood,” Jones noted. “Even though society has looked over and ignored this group of people, they can [sell their experiences], and do it with swag and with panache.”