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The Case For Protecting Hip-Hop's Founders

Led by figures like LL COOL J and Swizz Beatz, there is a small movement happening to ensure hip-hop's founders aren't just getting their dues but getting paid for their contributions.

This article has been handpicked from the Okayplayer editorial archives and included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative. The article has been edited for context to ensure its accuracy and relevance.

Sha-Rock, the "first female MC" and a self-proclaimed "founding member of hip-hop culture," should be basking in her legacy. To a degree, she is: the woman who made history as a part of the pivotal hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1 — the first hip-hop group to appear on a national TV show thanks to their 1981 performance on Saturday Night Live — and whose rapping style influenced everyone from MC Lyte to Run-DMC's D.M.C., sits on the board for the Hip Hop Library Collection at Cornell University and serves as the Chairperson of the Women of Hip-Hop Advisory Committee for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx.

But a class-action lawsuit she's currently in with Sugar Hill — the record label that Funky 4 + 1 and a handful of other foundational hip-hop groups were a part of during the late '70s and early '80s — for "30 and 40 years" of unpaid royalties has stopped her from fully enjoying it. Although she won some of the litigation a couple years ago, she's still trying to retain Funky 4 + 1's masters and publishing.

"We were the poster children for what you should not do," she said. "We didn't get paid — I'm still in court fighting for half of the people that was on the label."

Sha-Rock is but one instance of how many of hip-hop's founding figures from the late '70s haven't only been wronged but unable to benefit from the multi-billion dollar industry — and the most popular music genre in the world — they provided the foundation for. For some, they were never properly compensated despite being a part of hip-hop's commercialization. In 2020, fellow Funky 4 +1 member Lil' Rodney Cee spoke with Pitchfork about how Sugar Hill only paid him about $500 for the group's 1980 hip-hop classic "That's the Joint," while Furious Five member Melle Mel said, "For the most part, none of the artists really never got paid," while also noting that the label was inconsistent with giving out royalty payments. For others, they never got the opportunity to participate in that commercialization at all, with figures like Kool Herc unable to monetize his DJing in the way successors like Grandmaster Flash did as a member of the Furious Five.

As a result, there have been moments where these figures have had to rely on fundraisers to literally stay alive, as was the case in 2011 when it was revealed that Herc was suffering from kidney stone-related health problems and needed surgery. In the process, he had accrued over $10,000 in medical bills, a cost that he couldn't afford. When the news surfaced, fans called for wealthy rap figures like Diddy and JAY-Z to help foot Herc's bills.

Now, more than 10 years later, there are people who've become millionaires off hip-hop who want to help those founders and have made it their goal to ensure they're not just getting their dues but getting paid for their contributions, too — even though they each have a different approach in doing so.

Evblgi xeaiyqkt Funky 4 +1 member Lil' Rodney Cee said Sugar Hill only paid him about $500 for the group's 1980 hip-hop classic "That's the Joint."Photo Credit: Sugar Hill Records

Starting a hip-hop fund

In May of 2020, Swizz Beatz spoke with Joe Budden on Instagram Live about wanting to pay taxes to the figures that started hip-hop, referring to people like Kool Herc, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, and The Sugarhill Gang.

"The fact that we’re not paying taxes on who started hip-hop shows we don’t fucking really love hip-hop," Swizz said during the Instagram Live. "The fact we don’t pay taxes, as artists, to those icons that paved the way... we need to be paying taxes to the creatives of hip-hop that gave us freedom of speech to move forward."

Beatz then declared that they should receive "a minimum [of] a million a piece." Agreeing with him, Budden offered an idea of his own — that for every new deal signed, one percent or half a percent should go toward what he called "rapper reparations."

"The same way they made the 360 deal standard, we can make that standard," Budden added.

Later that month, Beatz spoke further about his plan with LL COOL J, referring to it as the "hip-hop founders fund."

"The founders of hip-hop shouldn't need medical. They should be in a great situation because if you look at other cultures and other pioneers that started things, they're living well," Beatz said. "...Most of these guys are still living and I could tell you, factual, they not living how they supposed to be living."

Beatz clarified that his plan wasn't putting the responsibility on younger rappers, but rather, on anyone who wanted to contribute, adding that he hopes to raise $100 million. Still, there were questions left unanswered: When will this fund be announced? Will the fund be available publicly so everyone can contribute? Will it be private for only other industry figures to donate to? (Beatz's publicist did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Wendy Day, the founder of the not-for-profit Rap Coalition, spoke to those questions. As someone who has long fought for rappers against exploitative and unfair business practices in the music industry — she played a part in the historical $30 million Cash Money deal with Universal Records, that allowed Cash Money to keep 80 percent of the income and own their masters — Day, like other fans, are also concerned about the hip-hop's founders.

"I think part of the problem today is those who do want to contribute don't know how to do it, or where to do it or where their dollar would be best spent or donated," she said. "It's sort of like when there's a catastrophe — we all know that if we give money or blood to the Red Cross that it's gonna go to the right place. We trust that. But we don't have a Hip-Hop Red Cross or a Hip-Hop United Way, and I think... if that existed, we'd be a lot further along than we are."

Hip-Hop's Founders Sha-Rock, the "first female MC" maintains there's a difference between being a founder and pioneer of hip-hop. Photo Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Hip-hop's founders and pioneers

These questions are furthered complicated when considering the figures Beatz wants to help and, in the case of LL, have already helped. During his conversation with Beatz, LL pledged that he would include some of hip-hop's founders into his Rock The Bells brand and "make sure they get a piece." The following month, he followed through on that pledge. In announcing Rock The Bells' expansion into a website focused on editorial content, merchandise, and more geared toward classic hip-hop. He shared that Herc, Big Daddy Kane, Run-DMC, Eric B, Salt N Pepa, and Roxanne Shante were now stakeholders in the brand. He also included non-artist figures as stakeholders too: B-boy Crazy Legs, graffiti artist Risk, filmmaker Fab 5 Freddy, film director and photographer Jonathan Mannion, and photographer Ernie Pannicoli.

Herc is unanimously viewed as a hip-hop founder who also happens to be a pioneer, considering his innovative approach to DJing. The others named as stakeholders aren't people most would name as hip-hop's founders of the genre and its culture, but would likely agree that they're early pioneering figures. Both Beatz and LL show how subjective an endeavor to help the hip-hop figures that came before them can be but also how tricky it is when terminology like founders and pioneers is conflated or overlapped.

"Some of this terminology — there's no disputing who some of [hip-hop's] founders are — the architects, pioneers, all of those things," Murray Forman, an academic and author who co-edited That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, said. "A pioneer is always a veteran but a veteran isn't always a pioneer. OG and veteran are really similar but not all OGs are pioneers or founders, and Swizz is actually real specific about it. He says, 'I'm talking about the '70s, I'm talking about the founders.'"

"And I think it's more than just semantics," he added. "If we're talking about a culture then we're talking about group consensus at some point. When do we agree that somebody is a pioneer who brought something so unquestionably new to the culture that we say, 'OK, that's a pioneering introduction, something that was pioneered?' I don't think that's what Swizz and LL have in mind, but it complicates the discussion when we're not clear on what we're talking about."

That complication is even apparent among hip-hop figures such as Sha-Rock, who said there's a difference between being a founder and pioneer of hip-hop.

"I was there from day one to set everything forward... I was on that frontline to set it off for anybody that came later," she said, acknowledging how it wasn't only her contributions as a member of Funky 4 + 1 throughout the late '70s but her beginnings as a b-girl in 1976 that she attributes to her being a founder of hip-hop.

"You can't have somebody that came out in the '80s and say, 'Well, I'm a founding member,' because that's when you would have people like myself saying, 'Stop it,'" she added. "But you can have a person saying, 'I'm a pioneer of the '80s, I'm a pioneer of the '90s, I'm a pioneer of the 2000s, because they don't know anything different."

For LL, the decision to also acknowledge non-rapper pioneers serves as a homage to hip-hop's four elements — DJ'ing, rapping, B-boying and graffiti writing — while also acknowledging those that have helped document hip-hop's heyday.

"I felt like hip-hop has been good to a lot of people but it hasn't necessarily been as good to some of the pioneers and founders," LL said. "How can I start a classic hip-hop company and not give Kool Herc — the founder of hip-hop — a piece of it?... They're getting a piece of the company because I feel like they earned it, and a lot of people have ignored that." When asked about the possibility of putting other pioneers from different regions in ownership positions with the brand LL didn't dismiss it, saying: "There's a lot of people that I think should be a part of this and I'm gonna look to expand it as we go along for sure."

For LL, giving ownership of Rock The Bells to some of hip-hop's pioneers isn't solely for financial benefit, but for relevance and sustainability, too, especially in the social media age. Roxanne Shante, for example, isn't just an owner but a part of the brand's radio programming, having her own show — "Have a Nice Day" — that airs Monday through Friday each week.

"A big part of it is making sure that their names and their brands are bigged up and they have the level of prestige where they can command some dollars," LL said. "This isn't like a pension or a retirement fund... It's me letting the pioneers and founders participate in this thing because I want to see them benefit."

ll cool j Hip-Hop's Founders LL COOL J included some of hip-hop's founders into his Rock The Bells brand. He also made sure they got equity in the company. Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer via Getty

Building something for the future

Ultimately, all of this plays into LL's long-term goal: wanting classic hip-hop to be seen with the same prestige and adoration as classic rock bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

"Part of protecting them is celebrating them and giving them the prestige and lifting them up," he said. "It's not only about charity it's about... putting them in a position to succeed."

For the plans presented by Swizz and LL, Day spoke to the necessity of both, saying that whether hip-hop's founders wanted to still contribute to the artform or not, there should be a place they can turn to for assistance. And although she's undecided on tax-leaning plans like Budden's "rapper reparations," she said that corporations, record labels, and people who've made millions of dollars on the back of hip-hop "should, at the very least, be peer-pressured into contributing."

She also spoke to other solutions that could provide assistance for these figures, suggesting the creation of a foundation — "an actual 501 (c)(3) charity" — that could be made up of two parts: one lane for emergency help (akin to the Grammy's MusiCares Foundation) and the other for offering equity for an investment a founder is interested in pursuing, like wanting to build a studio or an incubator to train aspiring rappers on their craft. She also stressed the importance of the person building and overseeing this organization being "beyond reproach," and having to "answer to a very rigorous authority because in hip-hop we tend to look the other way at the people that take advantage of others."

With recent incidents like Lil' Rodney Cee being hospitalized with COVID-19 or Kurtis Blow having heart transplant surgery, it'd be reassuring to know that a foundation is in place to, at the very least, handle the health costs of hip-hop's founders and older pioneers if they aren't able to handle it themselves.

From an academic standpoint, author Mark Anthony Neal — who co-edited That's the Joint! alongside Forman — suggested founders be given visiting artist or professorship roles at universities, akin to how 9th Wonder taught hip-hop history at North Carolina Central University. He also suggested that a model similar to the NFL's pension deal — where current players are required to contribute to the retirement plans of retired players — could be implemented for hip-hop's founders, which sounds like a version of Budden's "rapper reparations."

"What would it be to take a Kool Herc and give them some sort of visiting artist professorship at a university, and also to be able to collect their papers, and have their papers get donated whether it's a hip-hop archive at Cornell or the one at Harvard, and allow them to monetize those archives so they can derive money from their history?" Neal said. "Those are the different kinds of models and I think all of them should really be at play in protecting the pioneers."

Sha-Rock is an example of this. As a part of her role with Cornell University and the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx, she's able to preserve not just her history but the history of other founding figures whose stories once went untold, but are now archived and upheld in academic spaces.

The case to protect hip-hop's founders is in its early stages but, as other models have shown, it's not impossible to build something that insures they're taken care of, and can either bask in their foundational contributions or continue to contribute to its evolution as it nears middle age.

"I love that there are people who want to give back and want to help them, and I feel like we should," Day said. "Hip-hop is based on the creators, and the early creators never got their just due."


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