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How Hip Hop Lost Its Accent

The history of hip hop as told in ‘The Get Down’ only hints at its immigrant heritage.

Kevin Mazur / Getty

When twelve-year-old Clive Campbell arrived in the Bronx from Kingston, Jamaica in 1967, he found it hard to adjust to teenage life. He dressed like a Jamaican country boy with his corduroy coat and cowboy boots, his rasta twang ‘Yeh Man!’ was out of place, and he was advised to change his odd way of walking because “local gangs were throwing Jamaicans in garbage cans.” In the late 60s, Bob Marley and the Wailers were only just starting to draw an audience outside of the Caribbean—their album Wailing Wailers, with the number one hit in Jamaica “Simmer Down,” peaked in last place on the Billboard Top 200. Being Jamaican hadn’t become cool yet.

“I was tired of hearing them say ‘What did you say?’” recalled Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang’s 2005 history of hip hop. In the Bronx, he actively worked to lose his accent, but it only happened gradually, with lessons in front of a turntable rather than a chalkboard, listening to venerable tutors like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and “the sweet siren sounds of the Supremes sighing that ‘Baby Love’ to me.” By the time Kool Herc started spinning—at first in basement parties and later outside in park jams when the crowds became too big—all that was left of his Jamaican childhood were his imitations of “toasting” selectors by Trenchtown DJs who would give shout-outs over songs and drop in rhymes over the beat. These elements would come together monumentally on August 11, 1973 in the rec room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Hoping to raise money for his sister to buy new school clothes, Kool Herc played dancehall tunes like those found at any other Jamaican party in the Bronx. The crowd would not budge. But when Kool Herc transitioned to his merry-go-round technique—playing two records at the same time to extend the break—the crowd started to groove.

In episode five of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s six hour series which premiered on Netflix in early August, we meet a 22-year-old Kool Herc on a fictional version of that legendary night on Sedgwick Ave; he’s now a fly American young man with a full beard and fro, decked out in 70s grandpa glasses, tan suit, and a gold medallion around his neck. The party is a family affair: Kool Herc’s mother and father are supplying food and supervising the kids, while friends from the neighborhood vibe to the music. When a chase from outside spills into the middle of the basement party, Kool Herc, with his father chiming in, calls for peace, explaining the parties are a safe space from the gang run-ins we see almost everywhere else in The Get Down. The parties were started, he explains, to “stay out of all that static happening out there on the street… We made a spot for the young sprouts to come and see if they could bust it out. If you can rock, b-boy or be an MC Kool Herc party is the place to be.”

The Kool Herc we meet in The Get Down is already a Bronx superstar; a sharp contrast both to the ethos of a rec room family party and his unassuming Jamaican parents, who spend the evening behind a table with hot dogs and condiments to serve the hungry kids. Here, Kool Herc’s voice here has no trace of an accent, in contrast to his mother’s pronunciations of teen as teeen and child as chiile. But the actual DJ Kool Herc never completely erased his Jamaican lilt: You can just catch it in the 1984 BBC documentary Beat This as he drives around the Bronx in a top-down convertible, pointing out the locations of his legendary parties.

The passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler immigration bill transformed the face of immigration to America. The disproportionate allocation of quotas to the U.K., Ireland, and Germany was removed, beckoning immigrants from everywhere else to America’s coasts. The number of Caribbean-born foreign immigrants doubled over the next ten years. Among these were Grandmaster Flash (born in Bridgetown, Barbados) and the family of Afrika Bambaataa (born to parents of Jamaican and Bajan descent) who along with DJ Kool Herc would form the three wise men who heralded the birth of hip hop. The descendants of this wave of immigration from the West Indies would include hip-hop luminaries like Busta Rhymes, who has made songs in patois, Phife Dawg, whose rhymes are littered with nods to his Caribbean roots, and Biggie Smalls—all of whom would occasionally put on their parents’ accents into their songs.

To be sure, The Get Down does a good job of hinting at hip hop’s mixed heritage: Most of the kids can understand the Spanish of their parents, and the main character, Zeke, is of Black and Puerto Rican heritage. But their first generation Puerto Rican parents speak English with no noticeable accents, and none of the gang members, many of whom were youths from Puerto Rican households, betray anything but a New York accent. A show which can count veteran hip-hop journalist Nelson George, Grandmaster Flash, and Nas among its production team could take a cue from the early days of hip hop, spinning multiple threads of the narrative to highlight the rich stories that haven’t been told. Over the past forty years, hip-hop has become a kind of multicultural ambassador, responsible for the popularity of Ludacris in nearly every barbershop all over Africa, a break dancing scene that has traveled as far as Chile and South Korea, and a recent viral clip of a Suboi, the young Vietnamese “Queen of Rap,” performing for President Barack Obama at a town hall in Ho Chi Minh City shows the global cultural currency of the art form.

While The Get Down never promised to be a fact-checkable historical documentary—it has not been spared criticism for its chronological inconsistencies—the series passes up an opportunity to demonstrate the integration of immigrants as a process of acculturation rather than assimilation. Telling the story of hip hop’s accent also captures a slice of the immigrant story in America. While DJ Kool Herc stripped away his accent in order to fit in, he retained the Jamaican mannerisms all other DJs to come would build upon. The transformation of the turntable from a prized possession, played in one’s home, into an instrument to wow crowds in parks, also has roots in the sound clashes which would happen in Kingston yards. So hip hop itself, born from the stripping down rare records of what had been soul, funk, disco, reggae and any good music to the breaks—what the audience rocked to—is emblematic of a transformation that comes from combining the best elements one can find, without the individual components losing their unique attributes: Hip hop is more salad bowl than melting pot.