Bronx Block Party: Visiting the Birthplace of Hip-Hop on Its 50th Anniversary
People raise peace signs in the air at the request of Flavor Flav at the 50th anniversary of hip-hop block party near 1520 Sedgwick Ave., The Bronx, Aug. 12, 2023. Insets, left to right: Flavor Flav of Public Enemy performing at the Bronx bloc party; Snoop Dogg onstage at the 50th anniversary concert at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 11, 2023. All Photos: Courtesy of Getty Images
Residents were just going about their business last Friday morning at 1520 Sedgwick Ave., a brown brick residential building in The Bronx. An elderly woman pushed a cart full of clothes through the lobby to the laundry room. Another asked the superintendent for assistance as he headed to the utility room. A young maintenance staffer took out the trash.
It was all very chill among these mostly Black and Hispanic residents when I visited. You wouldn’t think that, in just a few moments, legendary Bronx MC KRS-One of BDP (Boogie Down Productions) fame and a bunch of graffiti artists would descend on the humble building overlooking the Harlem River. They set up artwork commemorating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, as well as a stage for a free family-friendly block party the following day, where the host would be joined on stage by fellow Bronx DJs and rappers Grandmaster Flash, Kid Capri and Slick Rick to thank this community for giving birth to hip-hop.
1520 Sedgwick is where, on Aug. 11, 1973, a young woman named Cindy Campbell held a small back-to-school party for about 40 friends in the rec room. Her brother, DJ Kool Herc, was spinning funk and soul records, inventing the technique that would become known as the merry-go-round, where he would isolate the breakbeat for long enough to create a whole new sound. That music would give break dancers their rhythm while paving the way for hip-hop icons like Grandmaster Flash, Run D MC, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, BDP, Ice Cube, Lil’ Kim and Lauryn Hill.
I made this pilgrimage to the hip-hop mecca on the morning of the golden anniversary, before attending a monumental Hip-Hop 50 concert featuring all of the above artists and more just down the river at Yankee Stadium. I returned to Sedgwick the following day for a joyous and wholesome block party where generations of fans weaned on hip-hop enjoyed free piraguas (Puerto Rican shaved ice desserts), shooting hoops, checking out 58-year-old Slick Rick’s booth — which gave away 50th anniversary T-shirts if you could recite his lyrics on the fly — and watching legends like him and KRS-One, 57, rock the mic on a tiny stage erected below Washington Bridge.
The whole experience gave me a fresh perspective — or rather a tiny peek inside — this music I’ve grown up loving. I was the teen trading Wu-Tang discs with classmates. My own favourite rapper, Nas — 49 and one of the organizers behind the Hip-Hop 50 concert — would use his scrappy voice and elevated word play on songs like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “If I Ruled the World” to vividly map out street scenes. I knew these places in my imagination, and from glimpses in videos, but this is the first time I got familiar with the geography and spent time inside the corridors alongside the community where the music came from.
While hip-hop has grown to conquer the world, 1520 Sedgwick has remained static, the crumbling concrete stairs and brown brick still housing a vibrant community. That itself is a victory.
There have been corporate landlords along the way who have tried to jack the rents, threatening the ability for the people from 1520 Sedgwick to afford their space. It took community activism and mobilization to keep them in their homes. The activism succeeded when 1520 Sedgwick was declared a heritage site, its ownership passing to a group that protected the occupants.
At the Hip-Hop 50 concert, Herc, 68, and Campbell took the stage alongside Senator Chuck Schumer, 72, who helped with the efforts to protect 1520 Sedgwick. Campbell thanked him for his allyship and, in that moment, described hip-hop as the story of immigrants and affordable housing. I’ve never heard it summed up in that way, but those words felt exactly right. That’s the connective tissue between the resilient and aspirational music and the communities with which it has connected on an elemental level, from the Bronx to Long Beach (the California neighbourhood where enduring rap star Snoop Dogg hails from) to Toronto’s Regent Park. Every place has a 1520 Sedgwick.
Snoop Dogg, 51, was also among the performers at the historic concert. He took puffs from his blunt — as you’d expect from the world’s most famous cannabis ambassador — while delivering a set that spanned generations and hit an unexpected emotional high. First, he performed alongside Wiz Khalifa, 35, who would been a toddler when Snoop dropped his 1993 debut disc Doggystyle. Then, while performing his cover of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” from that same album, Snoop sprung a surprise on the audience, making room for the two local hip-hop pioneers to join him onstage and bring that track home. The power of seeing Snoop, an elder statesman of hip-hop, pass the mic to the guys from the Bronx he sees as elder statesman is what this night was all about.
As a musical genre, hip-hop has been sensationalized as divisive, with the feuds between East Coast and West Coast rappers (Biggie vs. 2Pac, for example) grabbing the most ink. But on this night, it never felt more unified, where the pioneers shared the stage with the people they inspired and artists from coast-to-coast found community in music that has evolved into so many different styles.
Artists from Compton (Ice Cube, 54), Atlanta (T.I., 42), Chicago (Common, 51) and the rest of New York’s five boroughs (Lil’ Kim, 49, Nas, Wu-Tang, etc.) represented hip-hop at the concert while showing love specifically for the people and the place that gave them this platform.
No one did it better, however, than the Bronx’s own Fat Joe. The 52 year old’s energetic set included hits like “Lean Back” before he too stepped back to make way for his local peers and elders, including Peter Gunz, 54, one half of the duo behind New York anthem “Déjà Vu.”
Together, Fat Joe and Gunz delivered a line from “Déjà Vu” that summed up the night: “If it wasn’t for the Bronx, this rap shit probably never would be going on.”