by Amanda Boldt, Dramaturg
August, 1973. The Bronx. A neighborhood party that led to the birth of Hip-Hop. After his sister, Cindy Campbell, gathered the community for a Back to School Jam, DJ Kool Herc wowed the crowd with his version of record spinning and breakbeat DJ techniques. While they didn’t know it yet, this sparked a movement that has become a huge piece of modern music and culture. Artists and household names like Tupac, Notorious BIG, Wu-Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, Drake, Nikki Minaj, Jay-Z, and so many more that have dominated the hip-hop entertainment scene for decades can all trace their origins back to these early beginnings.
This August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the birth of a movement; however, in How We Got On, Hip-Hop music and our cast of characters are just about 15 years old. This play is the epitome of the “coming of age” story. As Selector narrates various tracks of their lives, we watch and hear Hank, Julian, and Luann find their voices and clamor to leave their tag on this emerging culture of self-expression, political awareness, and musical creativity.
Just as Hank, Julian, and Luann are coming of age, so is Hip-Hop. Set in Hip-Hop’s golden era, this show celebrates new technologies like the AKAI MPC drum machine to create more exciting beats, women like MC Lyte (the first female artist to release a solo hip-hop album) making their way onto the scene, and the beginnings of Gangsta Rap that spoke to political issues facing populations in urban areas. Yet, for a movement that many people may associate with inner-city grievances, what does it mean that our show is set out in the suburbs?
By 1988, a record number of Black Americans had moved to suburban areas. The rise of the Black middle class opened doors and opportunities, yet inner-city populations experienced poverty, drug abuse, and crime at heightened rates. Hip-Hop quickly became a way to air out these frustrations or find community through shared rhythm and honest messaging. The constant comparison of “The City” vs. “The Hill” offers nuanced insights into the experiences of young people of color trying to find themselves and their creativity while navigating their own cultural identity.*
As Selector reminds us, you “best believe Hip-Hop lived in the Hill.” No matter where you’re from, Hip-Hop acknowledges and welcomes that you have something to say. After all, sharing knowledge and social responsibility is, along with MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti, one of the pillars of Hip-Hop culture. Through creativity and passion, our characters find ways to share their experiences, insecurities, and convictions in their music.
DJ Kool Herc, the Father of Hip-Hop, was once quoted saying: “To me, hip-hop says, ‘Come as you are.’ It’s about you and me, connecting one-to-one. That’s why it has universal appeal. It has given young people a way to understand their world.” So for the next hour or so, you are invited to come as you are and to enjoy the connection. Experience the joy of early Hip-Hop and the special sensation of self-discovery. Let loose and nod along to the music with us as we try to answer the question that was asked in 1988 and that our director Summer continues to ask today: “What does it mean to truly come together and share the joy of a collective beat?”
*Some resources if you’d like to learn more: “A Brief History of African American Suburbanization” from BlackPask.org, “What Was Life Like For Black Americans in The 80s?” Video from Intellectual Media.