Steven Hager, ‘Hip Hop: The Illustrated History Of Break Dancing, Rap Music, And Graffiti’ (12/84)

Steven Hager, Hip Hop: The Illustrated History Of Break Dancing, Rap Music, And Graffiti (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 112 pp.

Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky 4 + l’s “That’s The Joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than on art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence.

The prehistory really was secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to outfox the competition. Hager makes it a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop; it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.


Artforum, December 1984


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