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The sazón in hip-hop

A slow disco melody spins on the turntable, interrupted by the metallic sound of symbols. Right after that, the running sounds of bongo beats — that Latin spice, or sazón, if you will — become the undergoing rhythm to the introduction of the Cold Crush Brothers as they take on the Fantastic Five at Harlem World, the music venue that housed the earliest MC battles on the corner of 116th and Lennox Ave.

"Clap your hands everybody, everybody clap your hands… Is it us? You know it's us. The Cold Crush. You know it's us."

The four Cold Crush MCs rap in harmony, hyping the crowd. Meanwhile, their DJs support them with the next set of fused sounds, preparing them to break off and spotlight their intricate play on words meant to out-rhyme and out-wit the opponent. If you were a hip-hop head in the 1970s and '80s and couldn' make it to the MC battle that week, you could get a tape recording that caught all the beats made by bodies on the dance floor, MCs on the mic, and DJs on the turntables.

In the new exhibition Places of Invention, the "boogie-down Bronx" is featured as the birthplace of hip-hop. Home to African Americans and Caribbean immigrants, from places such as Puerto Rico and Jamaica, it is undeniable that Latinos were at the very root of hip-hop before it spread beyond the cracked asphalt roads and abandoned buildings of the 1970s Bronx. Through a series of interracial friendships and connections between African Americans, Caribbeans and Latinos, hip-hop was born.The vibrant, innovative music flourished and brightened the lives of those in the borough.

Two men rap into microphones while others watch or wait their turn. Graffiti art on wall in background. Parts of a crowd visible. Black and white photo.

In a borough burning with the sounds of salsa, disco, funk, and rock, what blended them all was the percussion. Pioneering DJs were searching for the "break," which refers to the portion in a record that strips the song down to heavy syncopation or percussion. The break is what got people dancing. The most popular mixes were the breaks with a Latin flare. Musicologist Mark Katz says that salsa is a lot like the music early hip-hop DJs played because it too had an extended percussion break. The salsa percussion heard blaring throughout the Bronx were subconsciously, and consciously, fused with other genres to create hip-hop music because those were the sounds available and known to the forerunners of hip-hop.

Turn table

The self-proclaimed first Latino DJ, DJ Disco Wiz, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, started DJing in 1974 alongside his best friend Grandmaster Caz, a legendary MC member of the Cold Crush Brothers. Disco Wiz admits that his exposure to salsa at home is what attracted him to the breaks that make hip-hop unique. However, you could not play a blatant salsa record while DJing for a hip-hop audience, says DJ Charlie Chase, who is of Puerto Rican descent and a co-founder of the influential Cold Crush Brothers, or else the party would leave the dance floor. DJ Charlie Chase would discreetly mix in salsa beats and the party would enjoy it, without recognizing that it was salsa they were dancing to.

Black and white photo of young man wearing headphones standing, wearing suit pants and long sleeved white dress shirt, rolled up at sleeves. Leaning over turn tables with records on them. Crowd slightly visible in background.

At times, DJ Disco Wiz and DJ Charlie Chase's activity in hip-hop would be criticized by their Latino and African American counterparts as trying to adopt the latter's music. But, why? This was a new identity being expressed by second generation Latinos different from their parents. The Latino sound is embedded into hip-hop, though it is not explicit, because hip-hop pioneers drew influence from what was around them. The pioneer hip-hop DJs of the Bronx, such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, and Disco Wiz, used their diverse backgrounds to create a new sound from a shared experience.

The creation of hip-hop symbolizes the new identity formed by multi-ethnic and multi-racial relationships within the oppressed community of a United States inner city. African Americans, Latinos, and other Caribbean cultures, collaboratively planted the seeds of the now global hip-hop culture.

Wanda Hernández is an intern with Programs in Latino History and Culture.