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A Deeper Dive Into the History of Hip Hop with 'Hip Hop Uncovered'
February 12, 2021  | By David Hinckley

The roots of hip-hop have been explored at some length in the years since it improbably became the dominant sound of mainstream American popular music.

Hip Hop Uncovered, a six-part series that premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on FX, enriches the music's backstory because it spotlights different people and places than many other histories.

The standard take on hip hop's origins focuses on the Bronx in the early 1970s, with deejays like Kool Herc, and that's the right thing to do. The Bronx is the birthplace and the incubator.

But as the '70s wore on and other artists, deejays, and producers moved into the scene, the Bronx wasn't the only place where this new sound was percolating.

Hip Hop Uncovered gives us Eugene "Big U" Henley from Los Angeles and Trick Trick from Detroit, as well as Deb and her brother Bimmy from New York. It also visits Haitian Jack, a player in U.S. hip hop until he got deported. He reminisces from his current home in the Dominican Republic.

In the wider picture, Hip Hop Uncovered focuses less on hip hop music itself than on the cultural and social context behind its development and emergence.

Oversimplified only a little, the music arose from the 1970s implosion of urban America, which left millions of people with almost no apparent path to a comfortable life.

With urban education tenuous and few opportunities beyond, many "urban youth" – a disproportionately Black demographic – turned to enterprises that did have job openings, like street-corner drug-dealing.

Along with dealing came gangs, and these extralegal societies began to develop their own culture, including a new sound that was ignored by the mainstream world.

Hip hop wasn't the only outlier music that developed in the 1970s. It just proved to be the most enduring, with its beats eventually assimilated into a huge chunk of the music on mainstream pop radio.

But it started as the sound of the streets where the drugs were peddled, and the gangs marked turf. Deejays would set up in the parks or on street corners, and their success was measured by macho standards quite similar to those of gangs and dealers.

If you could hear the music ten blocks away, one veteran says here, that meant the deejay had succeeded.

Hip Hop Uncovered makes its case with commentary from dozens of early artists, deejays, and producers, including the likes of Ice-T.

They have individual stories – Trick Trick's is particularly powerful – but the broader thread of the story is that hip hop was not a game for the faint of heart. If you were going to succeed, you would have to deal with hard and shady characters.

Deb talks about how even being a woman in that world meant she had to fight for respect, which she adds that she didn't mind doing.

The first episode of Hip Hop Uncovered takes things from the early 1970s up to Grandmaster Flash's breakthrough 1982 hit "The Message," which Ice-T says took hip hop from party music to reporting what was happening on the streets.

That part of the story has been told before. It's worth telling and hearing again, and it sets the stage for the rough-edged stories to come. Before hip hop became a multibillion-dollar industry, it had to stake out its turf in a world possibly even more treacherous than the music business.

Hip Hop Uncovered revisits the raw edges, and if some of the subjects are using it to frame their own stories, it's hard to take your eye off the picture.

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