Joe Conzo gets misty eyed when he recalls his teenage years in the South Bronx.
In those days, taking pictures was his hobby — one which led to him photographing black and Latino youths dancing to a new type of music, with its own distinctive forms of dance and art. The scene would later be christened hip-hop.
More than 30 years on, this New York fire service paramedic is a celebrated photographer best known for his book Born in the Bronx.
Conzo, who the New York Times dubbed “the man who took hip-hop’s baby pictures”, recalls MCs, DJs, graffiti artists and breakdancers forming a “collective body of different elements that created the culture” of youth in the Bronx in the late 1970s.
“The energy during those park jams was unreal. I was dumfounded by the breakbeats — the collective sampling of different kinds of music,” he says.
He was “kidnapped” by the nascent culture that germinated at sun-kissed parties in 1977 and 78, he explains.
This youthful exuberance was a form of release — a reaction to the depressed nature of the Bronx at that time.
“We were just tired of the nonsense — the drugs and the gangs, the burning buildings.
“It was just our way of screaming out. This was just our way to say we’re going to do what we want to do. We took our parents’ influences of different types of music and made it our own.”
This organic process, he says, was the opposite of how the Sugarhill Gang’s song Rapper’s Delight became the first mainstream hip-hop song to hit the US Billboard R&B and Disco charts on October 13 1979.
“The Sugarhill Gang had no respect in the streets because they were a nobody group put together by Sugarhill Records,” Conzo says, adding that people were, however, surprised that money could be made from their party music.
New Haven, Connecticut, is a two-hour train ride from New York. It’s the home of Yale, one of America’s most revered seats of learning. Many of its inhabitants occupy an entirely different world from the Bronx.
Inside an oak-panelled room, about 15 Ivy-League students sit around a large table debating the merits of Nas and Jay-Z.
The students are participating in an elective course titled Hip-Hop Music and Culture.
During the semester, they will discuss a range of subjects from the socio-economic reasons behind the genre’s conception to the validity of graffiti as an art form and the nature of DJing. The students become animated when they explain what they are learning and why they believe hip-hop is worth studying.
“It’s a history class — that’s the angle I’m coming at it from,” says Ben Alter, 20, a history major from New York.
“I’m interested in African-American history and I don’t think I got enough about the post-civil rights era in my American history class. The first week we talked about the policy of abandonment in the 1970s and 1980s, which gave birth to this whole culture.”
Lecturer Nicholas Conway says his students “learn to think critically about hip-hop culture by analysing the historical and political context in which it took shape and continues to evolve”.
If the study of hip-hop at Yale points to the culture’s broadening influence in mainstream America, so does the success of Hush Tours.
Each week the company takes minibuses full of people on tours of the Bronx and Queens to gain an insight into a world immortalised on records. Tourists visit the housing “projects” where famous rappers grew up, take pictures of graffiti and see hangouts where early parties were held. Now that tourists visit inner city ghettos and Ivy-league students study street culture, what does Joe Conzo think of hip-hop’s evolution?
“There are lots of parts of the culture I don’t agree with,” he says, citing lyrics and videos that promote violence and degrade women.
But he is quick to point out that this image is put forward by certain artists and is not a fair reflection on the modern state of the culture.
“Hip-hop connects with people all over the world because it’s about people.
“I’m 46 years old and I still consider myself to be hip-hop. I may not walk around with the baggy jeans, but I’m still hip-hop.” — BBCOnline.