How the Blackout of 1977 Helped Hip Hop Blow Up
Photo: At dawn, the Manhattan skyline shows no lights due to a power blackout, New York, New York, July 14, 1977. The photo was taken from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images).
On the evening of July 13, 1977, DJ Disco Wiz and his partner Casanova Fly (later Grandmaster Caz) were in the park on Valentine and 183rd Street in the Bronx with their sound system set up for a battle with a local cat they had regularly been blowing off. But DJ Eddie wouldn’t take no for an answer, so they relented and gave him a chance to make a name for himself.
The city had been going through a ten-day heat wave with temperatures above 100. Wiz was concerned if their small portable fans would keep the amps cool, as they didn’t have internal cooling systems. Although it was hot and humid, people were having a good time. Around 9:30 p.m., Caz got on the turntables. Then the record slowly spun to a stop.
It wasn’t unusual for them to lose power in them middle of a park battle; they hooked their sound system up to the lamppost and had drained the electricity before. But this night, something was different as they watched the street lights go out in rapid succession. Then they realized all the lights in the buildings had gone dark. Suddenly, they heard a huge BANG. A bodega owner had just slammed the gate to his store shut.
As gates on the block began slamming down right and left, it dawned on everyone: Blackout! The crowd started yelling, “Hit the stores! Hit the stores!” Then they advanced on Wiz and Caz, thinking they could jack their sound system. But the DJs stayed strapped. Guns drawn, they pointed directly at the crowd, as Caz ordered, “Go that way, motherfuckers!”
Thinking quickly, Caz saw an opportunity and decided to score. He dipped over to a local spot to pick up a Clubman 2 Mixer while Wiz and his boys packed up the sound system and brought it back to his mother’s house in the dark, a few blocks away. Then Wiz went back out into the night. His target was Crazy Eddie’s, over on Fordham Road.
A major electronics store chain with 43 stories in four states, Crazy Eddie’s was a shady operation that was shut down by the U.S. government a decade later. On the night of the blackout, they understood what they were up against and posted eight men on the roof with guns, ready to shoot anyone who wanted to look. “It was like trying to rob a drug dealer,” Wiz remembers.
He kept it moving, hitting up a nearby sneaker shop where he filled garbage bags with Pumas and Pro-Keds that kept him fresh for years to come. “It was Christmas in July,” Wiz recalled. After that, he headed over to the home of his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant with their daughter at the time and retired for the night.
The blackout lasted a total of 25 hours, resulting in $300 million in damages from looting, rioting, and arson. “It was the perfect storm,” Wiz remembers. “New York had been decimated. People just rebelled. Class and race didn’t matter. That night, people acted out of necessity. It as anarchy and barbaric at a point.”
The city had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy as the Federal government abandoned it back in 1975 under a policy of “benign neglect,” by which basic municipal services were cut to the bone or completely denied.
Property owners had already long established a practice of arson, knowing they could get more from insurance than they could from rent or resale—and they would not be prosecuted for it. “Arson was a business in New York before the blackout,” Wiz states. In New York, there is no such thing as theft insurance so many used the blackout as an opportunity to burn down their stores. In total 1,037 fires were set that night, many of which burned into the morning.
At the same time the New York Police Department was woefully undermanned to handle the chaos as 500 officers had been laid off in the first six months of 1977, due to severe budget cuts. The cops on patrol did what they could, making the largest mass arrest in the city’s history with 3,776 people taken in and stuffed into overcrowded cells.
The next morning, Wiz remembers, “It looked like a war zone. The streets were decimated. Like a tornado or a tsunami had hit. An eerie clam settled over the neighborhood, while the fires still burned and the smoke still lingered. For weeks, things were sprawled out on the streets: furniture, clothing, shoes, broken pieces of stuff. It was sad.”
In total, 1,1616 stores were damaged that night. Wiz notes that a shameful irony of the blackout was a many of the stores that were hit were minority-owned. “I’ve felt remorse since then,” he reveals, “but at that moment, it didn’t resonate with me. Everyday, we were in survival mode. Just going to the grocery store, you put your life in your hands. There’s not much wiggle room for remorse. I was 16. Caz was 17. As you mature and root yourself out of that environment, start your own family and your own business, new levels of respect and appreciation come into play. But you don’t think that way as a kid in that environment.”
There is one bright light in the blackout that shines through: the number of new DJs that came up after getting their hands on electronics. Before the blackout there were just a handful of DJ crews in the Bronx.
“Sound equipment was expensive to buy and to maintain. What little money we might have made at clubs got reinvested back into the equipment,” Wiz remembers. Back then, they would hook up with someone who had an amp and let him rock the mic or spin a set. “A guy might say, ‘I got speakers—can I get down?’ It’s not like we had the money to put together a giant sound system.”
Wiz got into DJing when he was 13, when he saw Kool Herc spinning at the Webster P.A.L. in 1974. “The music I heard that day put me into a trance, and when Herc picked up the microphone to say a simple, ‘Check one and two’—that was it for me,” he writes in his 2009 memoir, It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse Books).
Although putting together a sound system was expensive, it was an achievable goal, one that brought likeminded folks together for the purpose of channeling their creativity into something fun and new.
Wiz remembers, “To have the audacity to bring a sound system to the park when people barely had a radio in their homes, just to be able to play music for the community… We used to wheel our stuff into the park while people were playing handball, basketball, hopscotch, and Double Dutch. No one would look at us. It was weird. We’d hotwire the street lamps and set up our milk crates and play records and people would come around. It wasn’t an anticipated—as it would be now. No one knew what we were doing. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence. I remember one kid saw me setting up with Caz and asked, ‘What are you—a band or something?”
Wiz laughs. “DJing wasn’t part of the dialogue. It wasn’t a common thing. It was weird for people to see kids wheeling an amp and speakers and crates of records into the park, but once the music came on, the adults came around. No one paid us. It wasn’t about money then. Hip Hop was an instinct. It wasn’t a feeling. There was no blueprint. We built it was we went along from our hearts, from our love to be creative, and to fed our communities.”
With virtually no money coming in and expensive systems to maintain, Hip Hop, which was purely a DJ phenomenon in 1977, could have easily disappeared if not for the blackout. Looking back on the 40th anniversary, Wiz understands, “It was a spark. It had to come from urban decay. Everyone who was into Hip Hop went the jams of the era and channeled that energy back to their crews. By the time of the blackout, Caz and I had already built a name for our selves. We had people looking up to us, just as I looked up to Herc. They wanted to be like us. The blackout provided them with the resources. It kind of financed the next generation of aspiring DJs. That’s the silver lining. Out of destruction came new life.”
All photographs and flyers: Courtesy of DJ Disco Wiz.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.