By Delaney Hall
Luis Cedeno and Curtis Fisher, a couple of teenagers better known as DJ Disco Wiz and Grandmaster Casanova Fly, dragged their turntables, a mixer, an amp and two speakers to the intersection of 183rd Street and Valentine Avenue in the Bronx. They plugged the whole sound system into a lamp post, syphoning power from the city’s electric grid. It was July 13th, 1977, and hip-hop didn’t have a name yet, but it had a nascent form. Wiz and Casanova spun records and showed off their DJ skills for a growing crowd, isolating and looping breaks, turning soul, funk, and disco songs into long and percussive dance tracks.
It was hot that night, and the neighborhood had been unraveling for a couple of troubled decades, beleaguered by white flight, unemployment and violence. The rest of New York wasn’t doing much better. In 1975, President Gerald Ford denied federal funds to the bankrupt city and The Daily News headline the next day read: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Wiz and Casanova were mostly concerned with the next segue. Casanova threw on D.C. LaRue’s “Face of Love,” preparing to get the crowd going. But instead the record slowly spun to a stop: “Love, loooove, loooooooove.” It was 9:30 p.m.
“The light blew out,” Wiz recalled in the Experience Music Project’s oral history of the early years of hip-hop.
“And then the streetlights started going out one at a time, all the way up the block, like poof, poof, poof, poof, poof,” Casanova continued.
They thought they’d blown a fuse, but it turned out to be the New York City Blackout of 1977.
The blackout killed power in all five boroughs. The city flickered to a stop, and thousands had to be evacuated from the stifling subways. People lit candles and grilled hamburgers on their rooftops or played dominoes on their stoops, while others waited it out in stymied elevators. And across the city, but especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, people looted.
“Gates started coming down on the bodegas, the stores started closing up, but they couldn’t close fast enough,” Casanova remembered. “Those stores knew what was coming.”
People stole necessities and indulgences alike: diapers, food, sneakers, records, jewelry and furniture. Store owners stood in doorways with baseball bats, but people smashed the front windows and climbed in anyway.
What did the looting mean? It depends on whom you asked. It was the end times. The looters were animals. It was the economy. People couldn’t find jobs. It was hot. It was fun. For Wiz, Casanova and a number of aspiring DJs, it was an opportunity.
“I see this store called the Sound Room that was one of the first audio stores,” Casanova recalled. “People are crawling in there and running out with speakers and turntables. I was like, ‘Yo, people are breaking in there anyway — might as well run in and see!’”
“Before that blackout, you had maybe five legitimate crews of DJs,” Wiz said. “After the blackout, you had a DJ on every block. … [It] made a big spark in the hip-hop revolution.”
So did the 1977 blackout propel hip-hop culture, putting sonic tools in the hands of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford them? It’s hard to quantify a spark or a revolution, but Wiz and Casanova’s story leap-frogs the question of fact and heads straight to myth. As a gleefully insurgent street art coming out of a dispossessed neighborhood in a depressed city, as a musical form based on creative re-purposing and appropriation, hip-hop loves a Robin Hood narrative. It’s almost irresistible. In fact, maybe Afrika Bambaataa — now known as one of the grandfathers of the movement, but back then a 17-year-old just getting involved in the Bronx scene — produced some of his first singles on stolen equipment. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it could almost be true.