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Once upon a time—in the Bronx, August 11, 1973, to be precise—Cindy Campbell and her big brother threw a house party. Cindy was a teenager and needed back-to-school clothes. By charging a couple of bucks for entry to the party, Cindy knew she could make enough cash to start the school year in style. Her brother, a few years older, obliged her by serving as DJ. He went by Kool Herc, and that night, as the tale goes, he changed the world. 

Whether it was spontaneous or an act of divine inspiration, no one is certain. What we do know is this: At the party that night, Kool Herc unveiled a technique he called “the merry-go-round,” and when Kool Herc’s new sound hit the floor, the world around him changed. 

What was Kool Herc playing at the Back to School Jam? Likely James Brown. “It wasn’t a Kool Herc party without James Brown,” says one regular at the siblings’ parties, in a video in LSA Professor Stephen Ward’s online archive of hip hop history. “Clap your hands, stomp your feet,” the witness to the dawn of hip hop says in the video, smiling.

OK, back to the party. So Kool Herc put two turntables beside each other, and he played the break on one turntable, then played it again on the other turntable, using a mixer and his hands to loop the most danceable part of the song, seemingly stopping time, and sending those teenagers into ecstatic movement. Clap your hands, stomp your feet. Clap your hands, stomp your feet. Hip hop was born. Or so the story goes. 



“My view is that the 50th anniversary of hip hop is a happy fiction,” Ward says, with a puckish grin. Ward—Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and an associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies and in the Residential College—explains that the birth of hip hop probably didn’t happen at that party, or on that very day. It’s likely, innovative as DJ Kool Herc was, that many hip hop artists were emerging at that time, influencing and inspiring each other.

“I’m not saying it’s so much a fiction as it is an amplification of revision. It’s accurate to say hip hop began at this period, but I think it’s just that this party flier happened to survive.” 

A copy of the flier invitation to Cindy Campbell’s Back to School Jam, faded now, is part of Ward’s syllabus for his hip hop course. Though hip hop likely didn’t spring fully formed from Kool Herc’s merry-go-rounding hands that night, à la Athena born of Zeus’s forehead, the gesture toward the apocryphal tale conjures some of the magic of hip hop, and the reverence Ward has for it. The relic is part of the story of hip hop that’s bigger than one night.

Do You Still Love H.E.R.?

In the LSA Course Guide, Ward’s class is called “The History and Evolution of Hip Hop.” But everyone (this class fills up fast, and boasts 200 students and four graduate student instructors each term) refers to the class by its guiding question: When did you fall in love with hip hop?

In pursuit of that question, Ward guides students through the history, cultural moments, and political and social movements of the last 50 years—all of which affected and became the subject matter for hip hop artists. The question itself comes from a film Ward teaches as part of the class, 2002’s Brown Sugar, a hip hop classic that—like the story of hip hop itself—is a love story.

“That is the question we are going to ask, not just of ourselves, but of the country, and of the world: When did they fall in love with hip hop, and when did it become the global sensation that it is today?” Ward says.



In addition to the class, Ward offers a course through the Semester in Detroit program called “DestiNations of Hip Hop: 50 Years of Hip Hop Through a Detroit Lens,” which was taught most recently by Detroit artists and cultural workers Khary Frazier and Sterling Toles. 

In his instruction, Ward guides his students through the timelines of hip hop history: how and when it began, and how it moved throughout the country, exploring a range of artists, subgenres, and controversies, from Tupac and Biggie’s notorious coastal beef, to female emcees and misogyny in hip hop. 

It would be difficult to choose just one song to soundtrack his exploration of hip hop history, but Ward returns to the 1994 Common song, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” It’s about an evolving movement, Ward explains, with “her” being hip hop itself.


The 50 Years of Hip Hop exhibit recently opened in GalleryDAAS. Photo by Aimee Andrion

With DAAS colleagues Elizabeth James and Dani Williams, Professor Stephen Ward has created an exhibit showcasing art and artifacts that celebrate the history and culture of hip hop over the last 50 years in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) gallery space, which is located in room G648, on the ground floor of Haven Hall. The team has curated a timeline, visual art, video, and still images to fill the space. 

They also are presenting the results of a survey. “We’ve been asking people to identify their top five artists, top five songs, top five albums, and top five moments or developments of hip hop,” Ward says. Those faves will stream for visitors’ ears in the gallery, in what’s sure to be a beautiful, historic mixtape. 

The exhibit is just one way that Ward has created learning opportunities for students and the community. He has connected LSA students with local hip hop experts through a public classroom program he runs. It is part of the Semester in Detroit program, which offers LSA students the opportunity to learn with and from people from the Detroit community. Fall 2023’s minicourses were co-taught by Ward and artists in the local hip hop scene on the history of the genre in Detroit. 

The DAAS gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during exhibitions. The hip hop exhibit is open now through September 2024, by appointment. Please contact or call 734-764-5517 for a visit.


Learn more about GalleryDAAS


Stephen Ward, Dani Williams, Deidre D.S.SENSE Smith, and Holden Hughes pose in the GalleryDAAS exhibit. Ward co-created the exhibit with Williams, a project coordinator at GalleryDAAS and alum of DAAS, the Department of Film, Television, and Media, and the Residential College (A.B. ’21); School of Music, Theatre, and Dance Lecturer Smith; LSA student Hughes; and DAAS Program Associate Elizabeth James (not pictured). Photo by DaJaniere Rice

Holden Hughes, a second-year undergraduate student in the Program in the Environment, took Professor Stephen Ward’s course during his first year and enjoyed it so much that he returned to volunteer his web building skills. The site Hughes is creating includes archival interviews (like the one featuring the Kool Herc party attendee) and breaks down the four elements of hip hop: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti-writing, and will eventually contain material on hip hop artists like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash.

Hughes also names artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Dr. Dre, Lil’ Kim, Detroit rapper Boldy James, UK rapper Little Simz, and JID as personal favorites he hopes to showcase on the website. All of these artists are consistent, enthusiastic about the craft, approach lyrical storytelling with interesting beats, and revere the roots of hip hop, Hughes says. 

And none of them “feel like clones of another,” Hughes says. “Authenticity is a main tenet of hip hop.”

This tenet is noteworthy especially because we live in a time in which artists are not always encouraged to be authentic, Hughes says, citing one of countless “bad robot situations”: Artificial Intelligence rapper gets signed to a label; AI rapper starts perpetuating racist stereotypes; the digital plug is pulled after a week of nonsense. This story is the inverse of DJ Kool Herc’s merry-go-round of innovation and joy in the Bronx, “happy fiction” or not.  

But Hughes is hopeful about the future of hip hop, despite algorithm echo chambers, the shuttering of music journals like Pitchfork, and those bad AI robots. And he believes it’s an interesting time to be a music fan. Genre fusions that incorporate R&B, house music, and neo-soul happen with ease online, he says. Hip hop fans and artists share what they love to wide audiences on social media, inviting listeners to clap their hands, stomp their feet, and come dance at the party.—GB


Learn about supporting the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies



Illustrations by DaJaniere Rice



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Release Date: 05/08/2024
Category: Research; Students
Tags: LSA; Afroamerican and African Studies; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Gina Balibrera; DaJaniere Rice