The Cold Crush Brothers at the Dixie Club during the filming of Wild Style, 1981. Photo: Joe Conzo
Hip-hop historians and fans have pinpointed the origin of hip-hop culture as August 11, 1973, the day Jamaican-born Clive Campbell—aka DJ Kool Herc—manned the turntables at a back-to-school party planned by his sister, Cindy. The festivities took place at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx's Morris Heights, establishing the borough as the birthplace of a movement. Using limited resources—in this case, two turntables, a microphone and a booming sound system—the predominantly Black and Latino youth of the inner city made their own music and culture.
The sounds of Bronx neighborhoods were distilled by the DJs who raided their parents record collections for the “breaks” they used to keep the kids dancing at parties—held at parks, community centers and schoolyards, all plentiful in the borough. The mix of cultures that fostered hip-hop's creation has endured and continues to build on what it started 50 years ago.
Read on for more on how hip-hop culture was birthed and where it shows up now in the Bronx.
Many of hip-hop’s earliest stars hailed from the borough. The DJs that moved the culture in its seminal years include Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, who each commanded crowds and followers for their parties and eclectic playlists. Taking R&B, soul, funk and salsa records, these OG tastemakers picked the perfect tunes for B-boys to breakdance and party to.
Soon enough the MCs came to the forefront, such as of the Cold Crush Brothers, Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions (BDP), who all came from the Bronx (KRS-One was born in Brooklyn and lived in Manhattan for a bit before landing in the Bronx in his teens). But while its native rappers battled for supremacy in parks, discos and on tape recordings, there was no way the borough could keep its stranglehold on rap stars. A Queens rapper named MC Shan drew the ire of KRS-One with “,” a song that purportedly misconstrued hip-hop’s origin, hinting that it started in Queensbridge. The beef, on wax, was on, and BDP’s “” responded with a lyrical chastisement and hip-hop origin tale. The follow- up, “,” sealed the win in the lyrical battle and ended any would-be dispute of where hip-hop started.
The Bronx’s stellar run has continued to the present day thanks to artists such as D-Nice, Fat Joe, Kid Capri and, more recently, stars like Cardi B, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie and Ice Spice. While the hip-hop world is now massive, the Bronx’s DNA has remained in its blood: Fat Joe ushered in the late great Big Pun, another a Bronx native, who in turn put on Remy Ma. This collective has produced decades of hits including “What’s Luv,” “Lean Back,” “All the Way Up” and “Conceited.” To paraphrase a line from “The Bridge Is Over,” the Bronx keeps creating it.
Roller skaters at a block party on Third Avenue, The Hub, South Bronx, 1981. Photo: Joe Conzo
The Bronx was literally burning when hip-hop was moving to the forefront. Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx in the fall of 1977 and noted the despair. But in that very neighborhood, hip-hop culture was flourishing, seen in the graffiti that covered its subway trains or heard in the music. Venues like the now defunct Disco Fever, a bar turned dance club that opened in 1976, showcased hip-hop acts when few other spots around the City did. Monumental moments took place: Grandmaster Flash headlined the first show there in 1977; six years later the club hosted Run-D.M.C.’s initial performance. Eventually the music industry caught on.
A couple of films—Wild Style and Style Wars, both of which focused on graffiti’s importance in the nascent culture—along with bootleg cassette tapes of parties, started putting the rest of the City, the nation and eventually the world onto what was going down. Bronx B-boy Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón and his Rock Steady Crew performed in a breakdance battle at Lincoln Center in 1981, getting attention from the New York Times and beyond, as he would take his backspins to Europe a couple of years later. But it would be the pioneering Bronx rap stars in the late ’80s, such as Slick Rick, T La Rock and Ultramagnetic MCs, that would really push the culture worldwide.
Into the ’90s, Bronx MCs tended to be some of the strictest adherents to what hip-hop should sound like, thanks to crews like DITC (Diggin’ in the Crates); members like Diamond D, Fat Joe, Showbiz & AG and Lord Finesse specialized in laying sharp wordplay over innovative sampling. Groups like Nice & Smooth were just as talented but focused more on keeping dance floors busy. As hip-hop’s reach, tastes and sounds expanded, the Bronx’s grip on the culture’s direction inevitably loosened, with cities like Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles establishing their own superstars artists in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But the Bronx’s DNA stayed in mainstream hip-hop thanks to artists such as Camp Lo, Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz and Desus & Mero.
The recent emergence of drill—which combines the menace of gangsta rap with the sounds of trap music, exemplified by local Bronx stars like rapper-producer Cash Cobain and rapper Kenzo B—has ensured that however universal hip-hop has become, the Bronx remains relevant.
Hustle dancers at a block party on Third Avenue, The Hub, South Bronx, 1981. Photo: Joe Conzo
There's not a corner of the Bronx where the energy of hip-hop culture isn't felt, but those seeking to experience hip-hop culture in the City's northernmost borough should head to the South Bronx, the catch-all term for a collection of neighborhoods where hip-hop was born. The expansive area includes Concourse, Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris. Tales of DJs hooking into the streetlights . Cedar Park on Sedgwick and Cedar is where Kool Herc held his famed block parties that would feature attendees from the Bronx and beyond.
Fordham Road has always been a shopping destination and hosts popular night markets from April to November. Take a walk in the borough (we suggest the longstanding retail corridors along Fordham Road and Third Avenue) to feel the spirit of hip-hop in the people hustling to their next destination, the music cascading out of cars and the countless graffiti-inspired murals and storefronts.
Bronx Beer Hall. Photo: Vincent Tullo
2344 Arthur Ave.
Located in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx’s historic Little Italy, the Bronx Beer Hall offers up refreshing craft beers from throughout the state as well as local eats. Brothers Anthony and Paul Ramirez , and have started a limited in its honor.
Running along the Grand Concourse, the Bronx Walk of Fame features top-tier hip-hop talent from the borough including Remy Ma (just inducted in 2022), Kid Capri, Slick Rick, Swizz Beatz and Funkmaster Flex.
Photo: David Dee Delgado
When you walk into Beatstro, you’ll feel transported back to an old-school record shop, but as soon you head past the curtain you’ll be greeted by food steeped in African American and Puerto Rican culture, and plenty of hip-hop photography and graffiti art on the walls.
There is no way rapper Fat Joe would open a sneaker and streetwear store and not have a destination in his native Boogie Down land. This is a must-stop, with everything from exclusive drops to classic pieces.
Bronx Native. Photo: Poupay Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet
Bronx Native is a concept store and brand that highlights, embraces and showcases everything the Bronx has to offer through art, media, apparel and events.
Graffiti Hall of Fame. Courtesy, Hush Tours Inc.
This tour company gives a thorough sightseeing history of the Bronx’s place in hip-hop for tourists and locals, often guided by hip-hop artists.
Courtesy, Bronx Terminal Market
The Hip Hop Museum, in collaboration with Microsoft and the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, presents the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, a temporary exhibit of hip-hop history, with a focus on the so-called golden era (1986–1990). In 2025, the museum will open its permanent location.
Here are a handful of songs that, from my perspective, best represent Bronx hip-hop.