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Music

The song that led to Debbie Harry's "hip hop epiphany"

@SamWKemp

The 1970s was a decade in which everything seemed to be happening at once. In New York City, during the latter half of the decade, a proliferation of innovative genres swept across the crumbling cityscape, long since abandoned by the middle classes in favour of the suburbs. For those who stayed, this increasingly neglected city became a blank canvas onto which they could paint anything they wanted.

While new wave groups like Blondie, Talking Heads, and Television dominated the downtown Manhattan scene, in Brooklyn and Harlem, something equally visceral and joyous was beginning to take shape: hip-hop. Here, we take a look at the record that introduced Blondie’s Debbie Harry to the genre when it was still being honed in school halls, cramped apartments, and abandoned warehouses.

In 2014, Harry sat down to discuss some of the records that have come to form the soundtrack of her life. It is an incredibly diverse selection, encompassing everything from classic jazz and blues to folk balladry and disco. There’s even some early rap on there, in the form of The Funky Four Plus One’s 1981 embryonic hip-hop hit, ‘That’s The Joint’.

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“In the late ’70s, when everything started happening with Blondie, hip-hop was a real eye-opener,” Harry began. “My biggest epiphany came when me and Chris [Stein, of Blondie, her then-boyfriend] went to an event in the South Bronx, and there were DJs scratching and people rapping live. Believe it or not, this was put on by the police department in a gymnasium! It was a very local, neighbourhoody kind of thing, and just fantastic”.

The event Debbie Harry attended would have been one of the earliest hip-hop battles in New York. The genre didn’t really exist beyond Brooklyn until the early ’80s, when artists like The Funky Four, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Sugarhill Gang began receiving substantial airtime, laying the foundation for groups like Public Enemy, Rakim, and LL Cool J. What’s fascinating is that, from Harry’s comments, it appears that hip-hop’s damaging public image wasn’t invented until much later. As she notes, some of these proto-rap battles were actively encouraged by the local police and acted as social centres for the surrounding community.

For, Harry, the charm of hip-hop lay in its ability to sound at once astoundingly new and strangely nostalgic: “I also remember meeting Nile Rodgers around then, before we made KooKoo [Harry’s 1981 solo album], and how his music with Chic was sampled so much through hip-hop,” Harry said. “I always thought there was something very jazz-like in Nile’s playing – those chord changes and the jittery rhythms. I like that idea that hip-hop partly came from jazz blues.”

Hip-hop obviously made a profound impact on Debbie Harry, just as it did countless other figures of the New York punk and new wave scenes, including Tom Tom Club, Madonna, and Talking Heads.

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