The South Bronx Sound, from Mambo to Hip-Hop

The South Bronx has transformed musically over the past 60 years. Once, it was once a hot bed of Latin jazz. Decades later, it became the birthplace of the "scratch" and home to hip-hop's pioneers. Now a few local entrepreneurs are running a tour of the neighborhood's historical spots and taking other steps to promote local pride in the borough's unique place in music.

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And now to sightseeing. If you go to New York City, there are the usual tourist spots: Times Square, Central Park and the Empire State Building, but if you want something a little different, head north to the South Bronx. It was home to some of the country's best Latin jazz musicians in the 1940s and 50s and later gave birth to hip-hop. Nancy Solomon reports on how tourists are learning about this lost musical history.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

Angel Rodriguez is a musician, community activist and one-man tour operator whose long grey ponytail betrays his affection for the 1960s. He calls his tours From Mambo to Hip-Hop and will take anyone who asks around his neighborhood.

Mr. ANGEL RODRIGUEZ (Musician, Community Activist, Tour Operator): Yeah, come on in.

SOLOMON: On this day, he's guiding a group of teenagers from Philadelphia around the South Bronx. They've arrived at Casa Amedeo the oldest Puerto Rican record shop in New York.

RODRIGUEZ: This gentlemen here, this is Micah(ph) Amedeo, and he's one of the most famous composers of Puerto Rico.

SOLOMON: It's a tiny shop, lined with photos of Latin stars past and present. The business is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's the last remaining legacy of what once was a vibrant center of Latin music.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: All those theaters and clubs are gone. There was 60 venues that you can go dancing to in the Bronx, and now there's only, like, two or three of them.

SOLOMON: In the late 1940s, 13 and 14 year old Puerto Rican kids were forming bands at school. When band leader Orlando Marin told his group they had their first gig, they almost couldn't go because the piano player couldn't get permission from his mother.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: So he went back to Orlando and went, man, my mother won't let me go. I don't know what to do. He said, fellow, you're the leader of the band. He went back and told her he was the leader and she said, oh, really?

Unidentified Male #1: The leader of the band. He went back until he was a leader, and she said, oh, really. So she let him go. His name was Eddie Palmieri, a five-time Grammy Award winner now.

Unidentified Male #2: The music was all around us, and that's all he wanted to do was to play.

SOLOMON: Eddie Palmieri and his brother Charlie were just getting started when in the early 1950s, Cubans arrived in the largely Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhood. They brought with them a new beat and a dance to go with it.

(Soundbite of music)

SOLOMON: It became so popular, the brother's enterprising father opened a luncheonette called the Mambo.

Unidentified Male #2: I was in charge of the jukebox. We had the hippest jukebox in the Bronx.

SOLOMON: Dozens of neighborhood kids went on to successful music careers. But by the early 1960s, the South Bronx began to fall apart. City services were slashed, property values plummeted, and the South Bronx nearly burned to the ground. The mix of cultures that gave ride to Mambo and then Boogaloo broke down and gangs formed. But in 1971 a peace deal was reached between Puerto Rican and African-American gangs. Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop, the History of the Hip-Hop Generation.

Mr. JEFF CHANG (Author): And you have an urgency literally for folks on the street to work things out and to bring people together, and so music becomes that glue.

SOLOMON: An immigrant named DJ Kool Hurk introduced the Jamaican dance-hall style of shouting out to the crowd and created something new by incorporating American music.

Mr. CHANG: You know, he brings into it, you know, the idea of rapping over the music, and he brings that to funk. Where you have basic sort of African-American four/four backbeat that's being syncopated by all of these Latin rhythms over the top of it. And, you know, it's a very, very unique kind of blend.

SOLOMON: DJs began competing to mix the best dance beats and MCs tried to outrhyme each other. The DJ Grand Wizard Theodore took me for a drive through the neighborhood while he described the mid 1970's world of hip-hop. One afternoon when he was only twelve his mother came barreling into his room to get him to turn down the music.

DJ GRAND WIZARD THEODORE (Hip-hop): While she was in the doorway screaming at me I was, you know, rubbing the record back-and-forth and forth-and-back and I finally realized what I was doing. I was like, wait a minute. You know, I had no idea that I was, you know, that I was doing what I was doing and it became a scratch.

(Soundbite of music)

SOLOMON: Back on the Mambo to hip-hop tour, Rodriguez revels in teaching kids about the history of the music they love and instilling a sense of pride.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, the Bronx was burning down, but all we had was what; our creativity, our music, and our culture, and it was a voice that they couldn't take away, you know. So it was happening on rooftops, school yards, front of the buildings, on the corners, and this is the way our people always been.

SOLOMON: Despite the lack of landmarks, interest in Bronx folklore is growing. There's a new documentary film, Web sites devoted to the roots of hip-hop, and there's even a map of key spots in the neighborhood's musical past.

(Soundbite of music)

SOLOMON: For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in New York.

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