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The History of Rock

To parents, rock ’n’ roll was dangerous. To teenagers, it was the future of music. 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image

Star Power
Elvis Presley plays to screaming fans in his hometown in Mississippi.

    The year was 1955. Most adults had just discovered rock ’n’ roll. And they were horrified.

    A movie called Blackboard Jungle came out that March. In the movie, teenagers take over a city high school. Gang members fight with knives. Students throw baseballs at teachers.

    The teens’ music is the first thing the movie audience hears. It starts with a drum beat. Then comes the song “Rock Around the Clock.” There’s a screaming saxophone and a fast guitar solo. And it’s all played at top volume.

    Adults had never heard anything like rock ’n’ roll. And to many of them, it sounded like a bad influence. It turned kids into criminals, they said. And it was spreading like a sickness.

    But it didn’t matter what the adults thought. Before long, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay.

    The year was 1955. Most adults had just heard rock ’n’ roll. And they didn’t like it.

    A movie called Blackboard Jungle came out that year. In the movie, teens take over a high school. Gang members fight. Students throw baseballs at teachers.

    The teens’ music is the first thing the movie audience hears. It starts with a drum beat. Then comes the song “Rock Around the Clock.” There’s a loud saxophone. There’s a guitar solo. And it’s all played at top volume.

    Adults had never heard anything like rock ’n’ roll. Many thought it was a bad influence. It turned kids into criminals, they said. 

    But it didn’t matter what the adults thought. Rock ’n’ roll was here to stay.

    The year was 1955. Most adults had just discovered rock ’n’ roll—and they were horrified.

    A movie called Blackboard Jungle came out that March. In the movie, teenagers take over a city high school: Gang members fight with knives, and students throw baseballs at teachers.

    The teens’ music is the first thing the movie audience hears. It starts with a drum beat. Then comes the song “Rock Around the Clock.” There’s a screaming saxophone and a fast-paced guitar solo—and it’s all played at top volume.

    Adults had never heard anything like rock ’n’ roll, and many of them considered the music a bad influence. It transformed decent kids into criminals, they claimed—and it was spreading like a disease.

    But it made no difference what the adults thought: Before long, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay.

We’re Gonna Rock

    Rock ’n’ roll—or something like it—had actually been around for a while. It was called rhythm and blues, or R&B for short. And it was played by black musicians. R&B came from blues music and from the gospel music of Southern churches. 

    But this music was not for Sunday morning worship. R&B musicians played electric guitars—loudly. The drums carried a heavy beat. And the songs made you want to dance. 

    At first, record companies didn’t think white listeners were interested in R&B. At the time, many parts of the country were segregated. Black kids and white kids went to separate schools. They couldn’t go to the same concerts.

    But in the early 1950s, radio stations started playing more R&B. Most of the shows came on late at night. The disc jockeys sounded cool. They had nicknames like Hound Dog and Jumpin’ George. 

    Teens everywhere discovered the new sound. They stayed up late to listen to R&B artists like Fats Domino and Wynonie Harris. They used earphones so their parents couldn’t hear. 

    Soon, white kids were traveling to black neighborhoods to buy records. Then white musicians got involved. They recorded their own versions of R&B songs. Sometimes they added a country-western feel. And rock ’n’ roll was born.

    Rock ’n’ roll—or something like it—had actually been around for a while. It was called rhythm and blues, or R&B for short. It was played by black musicians. R&B came from blues music and from the gospel music of Southern churches.

    But this music was not for Sunday morning worship. R&B musicians played electric guitars. The music made you want to dance.

    Record companies didn’t think white teens liked R&B. At the time, many parts of the country were segregated. Black kids and white kids went to separate schools. They couldn’t go to the same concerts.

    But in the early 1950s, radio stations started playing more R&B. They played it at night. Teens liked the new sound. They stayed up late to listen to R&B artists like Fats Domino. They used earphones so their parents couldn’t hear.

    Soon, white kids were going to black neighborhoods to buy records. Then white musicians got involved. They recorded their own versions of R&B songs. Some added a country-western feel. And rock ’n’ roll was born.

    Rock ’n’ roll—or something similar—had actually existed for a while. It was called rhythm and blues, or R&B for short, and it was played by black musicians. R&B evolved from blues music and from the gospel music of Southern churches.

    But this music wasn’t intended for Sunday morning worship. R&B musicians played electric guitars—loudly. The drums carried a heavy beat, and the songs gave listeners the urge to dance.

    Initially, record companies didn’t think white listeners were interested in R&B. At the time, many regions of the country were segregated. Black kids and white kids attended separate schools and couldn’t go to the same concerts. Racism was a problem across the country.

    But in the early 1950s, radio stations started playing more R&B. Most of the shows came on late at night. The disc jockeys sounded cool and had nicknames like Hound Dog and Jumpin’ George.

    Teenagers everywhere discovered the new sound. They stayed up late to listen to R&B artists like Fats Domino and Wynonie Harris, using earphones so their parents couldn’t hear.

    Before long, white kids were traveling to black neighborhoods to buy records. Then white musicians got in on the act, recording their own versions of R&B songs. Sometimes they added a country-western feel. And rock ’n’ roll was born.

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images (Fats Domino); Courtesy Everett Collection (Blackboard Jungle)

Ready to Roll
Fats Domino (left) was one of the first rock ’n’ roll artists. The movie Blackboard Jungle helped make rock music popular across the country.

Rebel Music

    Many adults—white and black—didn’t understand the new music. And they even tried to stop it. Concerts were canceled in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The city of Atlanta banned dancing in public.

    The scariest performer of all seemed to be Elvis Presley. He was the biggest rock star of the time. On stage, he wore tight leather pants. He shook his hips when he danced. 

    In 1957, Elvis performed on a popular TV show. The TV station refused to show him from the waist down because of his dance moves.

    But no one could hide rock ’n’ roll from its fans. Teenagers had chosen their music. 

    It was made specifically for their generation. They knew their parents hated rock ’n’ roll— and that only made them like it more. 

    Many adults, white and black, did not like the new music. They tried to stop it. Concerts were canceled in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The city of Atlanta banned dancing in public.

    The biggest rock star of the time was Elvis Presley. He wore tight leather pants. He shook his hips when he danced.

    In 1957, Elvis performed on a popular TV show. The station would not show him from the waist down.

    But no one could hide rock music from its fans. Teens had chosen their music.

    It was made for their generation. Their parents hated rock ’n’ roll. And that made them like it even more. 

    Many adults—white and black—found the new music baffling. Some even made attempts to stop it. Concerts were canceled in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The city of Atlanta banned dancing in public.

    The most alarming performer of all seemed to be Elvis Presley. He was the biggest rock star of the time. He wore tight leather pants and shook his hips when he danced. 

    In 1957, Elvis performed on a popular TV show. The station refused to show him from the waist down because of his dance moves.

    But there was no hiding rock ’n’ roll from its fans. Teenagers had chosen their music.

    It was made specifically for their generation. They knew their parents hated rock ’n’ roll—and that only made them like it more.

The History of Rap

How hip-hop was invented by teens on the streets of New York 

Art by Jim Rugg

     It was a hot night in August 1973. Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx—a part of New York City—was rocking. 

    Clive Campbell had his father’s huge sound system set up. His sister Cindy needed new clothes for school. So they were throwing a party at their apartment building to make money. 

    Guys paid 50 cents to get in. Girls got in for 25 cents. Clive played funk music with a heavy beat. People packed the dance floor. 

    The party was a success. But no one guessed that it would start a musical revolution. Pretty soon everyone knew Clive by his nickname. He was DJ Kool Herc. And he had just thrown the first hip-hop party ever.

     It was August 1973. Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx—a part of New York City—was rocking.

    Clive Campbell had his dad’s sound system set up. His sister Cindy needed clothes for school. They were throwing a party at their apartment building to make money.

    Guys paid 50 cents to get in. Girls paid 25 cents. Clive played funk music. People danced.

    The party was a hit. And it was the start of something new. Soon everyone knew Clive by his nickname. He was DJ Kool Herc. And he had just thrown the first hip-hop party ever.

    It was a hot night in August 1973. Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx—a part of New York City—was rocking.

    Clive Campbell had his father’s huge sound system set up. His sister Cindy needed new clothes for school, so they were throwing a party at their apartment building to make money.

    Guys paid an admission fee of 50 cents, and girls got in for 25 cents. Clive played funk music with a heavy beat, and people packed the dance floor.

    The party was a success—but no one could have predicted that it would also spark a musical revolution. Pretty soon everyone knew Clive by his nickname: DJ Kool Herc. He had just thrown the first hip-hop party ever.

Dancing in the Streets

    In 1973, the Bronx was a tough place to live. Work was hard to find, especially in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Three out of five young people didn’t have jobs. According to police, more than 100 gangs ruled the streets.

    But young people still tried to have fun. Herc and other DJs threw more parties—and they moved them outdoors. At these parties, Herc found a new way to play records. He noticed that dancers loved the section of a song called the break. 

    During a break, all instruments stop playing except the drums. Herc found the break section on two records. Then he switched back and forth between them—and the dancers went wild.

    In 1973, the Bronx was a tough place to live. Work was hard to find. Police said that more than 100 gangs ruled the streets.

    Still, young people tried to have fun. Herc and other DJs threw parties outdoors. Herc found a new way to play records. He noticed that dancers loved the part of a song called the break.

    During a break, all instruments stop playing except the drums. Herc found the break section on two records. He switched back and forth between them. The dancers went wild.

    In 1973, the Bronx was a difficult and dangerous place to live. Work was scarce, especially in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Sixty percent of young people were unemployed. According to police, more than 100 gangs ruled the streets.

    Still, young people were determined to have fun. Herc and other DJs threw more parties—many outdoors—and Herc discovered a new way to play records. He noticed that dancers loved the section of a song called the break.

    During a break, all instruments stop playing except the drums. Herc located the break section on two records and switched back and forth between them—and the dancers went wild. Herc knew that he was onto something.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Sugar Hill Gang); Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images (Run-DMC)

Rap music spreads across the nation
In 1979, the Sugar Hill Gang (left) sold millions of copies of their song “Rapper’s Delight.” Soon, hip-hop was everywhere. Kids across the country started listening to rappers like Run-DMC (right). 

Hip-Hop Nation

    In the next few years, hip-hop culture took shape in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City. The dancers started competing with each other during the breaks. They became known as “b-boys,” short for break boys. Soon, “b-girls” joined in too. According to Herc, they were “the kings and queens of the party.”

    But the b-boys and b-girls soon made way for new kings and queens—the MCs, or masters of ceremony. MCs worked the microphone while their DJs played records. MCs rhymed to the beat. Their rhymes grew longer and more sophisticated. They were the first rappers.

    Finally, in 1979 a band called the Sugar Hill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight.” To kids in New York City, the song was nothing new. But the rest of America was hearing rap for the first time. The record sold millions of copies.

    Before long, hip-hop was everywhere. Kids across the country started listening to rappers like Run-DMC. And in the 1990s, rap became one of the most popular types of music in the U.S.

    Hip-hop started in a run-down section of New York City. Over the past 45 years, it has spread around the world. 

    According to DJ Kool Herc, rap music has a very special power. It has helped bring young people of all races and backgrounds together. “They all have something in common that they love,” he says. 

    In the next few years, hip-hop culture took shape in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City. The dancers competed during the breaks. They became known as “b-boys,” short for break boys. There were “b-girls” too. Herc says they were “the kings and queens of the party.”

    But soon the break dancers made way for new kings and queens: the MCs, or masters of ceremony. MCs worked the microphone while the DJs played records. MCs rhymed to the beat. Over time, their rhymes grew more sophisticated. They were the first rappers.

    In 1979, a band called the Sugar Hill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight.” To kids in New York City, the song was nothing new. But to the rest of the country, rap was new. The record sold millions of copies.

    Soon hip-hop was everywhere. Kids across the country were listening to rappers like Run-DMC. In the 1990s, rap became one of the most popular types of music in the U.S.

    Hip-hop started in a run-down part of New York City. Now it can be heard all over the world.

    Herc says rap music is special. It’s something that young people of all backgrounds can share. 

    “They all have something in common that they love,” he says.

    Over the next few years, hip-hop culture took shape in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City. The dancers started competing with each other during the breaks. They became known as “b-boys,” short for break boys. Soon, “b-girls” joined in too. Herc describes them as “the kings and queens of the party.”

    But the break dancers were soon replaced by new royalty: the MCs, or masters of ceremony. MCs worked the microphone while their DJs played records. MCs rhymed to the beat, and over time their rhymes became increasingly long and sophisticated. They were the first rappers.

    Finally, in 1979, a band called the Sugar Hill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight.” The song was nothing new to teens in New York City, but the rest of America was introduced to rap for the first time. The record sold millions of copies.

    Before long, hip-hop was everywhere. Kids across the country started listening to rappers like Run-DMC. And in the 1990s, rap became one of the most popular types of music in the U.S.

    Hip-hop started in a run-down section of New York City. Over the past 45 years, it has spread throughout the world.

    According to DJ Kool Herc, rap music has a remarkable power: It has helped unite young people of all races and backgrounds. “They all have something in common that they love,” he explains. 

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