by Monica Duboski August 31, 2020 0 Comments
Ask any friend or stranger where graffiti and hip hop culture began and you will most likely receive a confident and knowing answer—"New York, of course!” However, Darryl “Cornbread” McCray wants you to know, “It started somewhere. It didn’t start in New York, that’s for sure.” Now in his late sixties, McCray conveys an urgency in his tone and message. He tells me, “I want the world to know that I gave birth to both hip hop and graffiti.” Bold and daring claims no doubt, but for McCray, it is vitally important that his story is told so that “this generation and that generations to come know the origins of how hip hop culture took shape.” He says plainly, “It started somewhere. It started in reform school,” in Philadelphia, 1965.
While researching this piece and speaking with contemporary artists and graffiti writers about McCray, many I spoke with were shocked when I shared that a writer named Cornbread, who hails from North Philadelphia, is indeed considered the first modern day graffiti writer. Is it important to note that the modern graffiti writer does not write to represent a gang (a practice that can traced back to the 1920's in Los Angeles), but merely for the name and fame, and contradictorily, the anonymity. Their surprise stems from the fact that for decades, the graffiti writer named Taki 183 has been credited with being the first person in New York to prolifically take up writing and for inspiring a huge cohort of his contemporaries to do that same. While it is true that Taki 183 was among the first graffiti writers in New York, and certainly one of the most famous, it is incorrect to give him the honor as “the first.” There are many scholarly works, both vintage and contemporary, that provide ample evidence to support the argument that Philadelphia is the true home of the modern graffiti movement and Cornbread its founding father.
So how did this particular version of the graffiti origin story come to be? Seeking answers to the same question, Tyson Mitman, professor and author of The Art of Defiance: Graffiti, Politics, and the Reimagined City of Philadelphia, notes that almost all the information disseminated about the history of graffiti is filtered through a seemingly ‘New York state of mind.’ He writes, “While [New York] is an essential part of the historical narrative of graffiti, I would find that it is a privileged narrative granted because of the size and importance of New York City’s pillar in the graffiti pantheon. The New York City-centric history overshadows other city’s influence on the development of graffiti.” The “other city” referred to is, as described by his title, none other than Cornbread’s Philadelphia.
Indeed, the most prevalent source cited as evidence that Taki 183 is the first modern graffiti writer is an article published in the New York Times on July 21, 1971 titled “‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals.” Even Tricia Rose, premier scholar and author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, which is considered one of the foundational scholarly texts on hip hop culture, credits Taki with inspiring the movement, pointing to the same New York Times article. In it, Taki is quoted as saying, “I don’t feel like a celebrity normally…But the guys make me feel like one when they introduce me to someone. ‘This is him,’ they say. The guys know who the first one was.” However, Taki seems to contradict himself in his next breath when he says, “I took the form from JULIO 204, but he was doing it for a couple of years then and he got busted and stopped.”
Openly admitting that he “took the form” from fellow writer, JULIO 204, one might interpret Taki’s previous statement as the innocent boastings of a young man (and not inconsistent with hip hop culture itself), but it is a statement not without long lasting consequences and unintended erasures of history. Importantly, graffiti historians such as Jack Stewart, Steve Powers, and Jeff Chung agree that the modern graffiti movement can be geographically traced to Philadelphia. Moreover, Mitman offers evidence to conclude that when Cornbread’s contemporary, Top Cat 162, moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1968-69, he brought with him the Philly graffiti style, introducing it to JULIO 204. And as we heard from Taki 183 himself, he took the very same form from JULIO. The comings and goings of people from one metropolis to another are numerous and there could have been any number of travelers to observe and adopt the practice. While we cannot say this is exactly how it happened, what we do know for sure is that it happened.
Setting the World on Fire
While it is something to say that the academy largely acknowledges Philadelphia as the genesis of graffiti, it is not to say that this acknowledgment has not been glossed over or that Cornbread and his contributions have not been wrongly reduced in significance. The New York narrative has little need to dig any deeper. Some accounts even suggest that Cornbread’s only motivation to write was simply to impress a girl. Even Mitman, who lovingly explores the history and politics of graffiti in Philadelphia, diminishes Cornbread’s account by reducing it to the level of urban folklore. But can one think it lore when the primary source, the man himself, is still living and able to tell his story? And so, I sat down to speak with Cornbread for over an hour to talk about the important episodes of his life—some of them familiar to readers, some of them completely new. He painted a picture of a childhood in crisis, defined by defiance, violence, incarceration, and loss. He tells me that while he was always at the top of the class in school, his mischief always outweighed his intelligence. He remembers, “I was a delinquent. No father figure, no guidance, no discipline. I got in a lot of trouble.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t always like that for young Cornbread. While he says that as child, "I pretty much marched to the beat of my own drum,” Cornbread, by all accounts, had a loving mother and loving grandmother. He recalls that out of the seven days of the week, they were at church at least five. He states, “I think going to church laid an early foundation of what’s right and what’s wrong.” He remembers of his grandmother, she “expected me to do everything for her because I always did everything well. She was very special to me.” And as for his mother, well, she was going to make sure that young Cornbread did not fall behind in school. “I remember my mother used to make me do my homework three times.” When he pressed his mother as to why, she told him he was going to be the first to have the answers because he had spent the time to learn everything there was to know about the topic. Importantly, he recalls, “Everything I did, I always had to do it over and over and over again,” a lesson that would stick with him for the rest of his life, if only in a slightly different context.
In a matter of years however, things changed drastically for Cornbread. Philadelphia was suffering an economic depression brought on by years of deindustrialization, competition from over-seas production, the collapse of its shipping sector, and new technologies in the steel industry, which left young people with few opportunities or means to escape the growing poverty. In 1980, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in the last ten years, Philadelphia lost 140,000 jobs and that the manufacturing workforce declined by more than ten percent. However, this was a rapid deceleration that started as early as 1945, at the end of WWII. For Cornbread, that meant living in a North Philly neighborhood controlled by gangs where many of the members were initiated as children themselves. Gang culture in Philadelphia was so prevalent in the late 1960's, that Temple University Professor, Harold Haskins, was motivated to produce a now famous 1967 documentary, The Jungle, that demonstrated the severity and direness of the situation. His aim, ultimately, was to persuade young men from joining gangs and focus on their education. In the documentary, one young man was recorded saying, “One reason I gang war? I just wanted to be like my brother…he used to fight and everything, he had a lot of respect…so I started gang war and I got a lot of respect…if I was to walk somewhere and tell them I’m not gang war now, they would move on me anyways, so I stay with the fellas.”
Indeed, Cornbread tells me that in his youth, the gangs completely controlled his neighborhood and that killing a rival gang member was the quickest way to elevate your social status. He tells me, “That’s how the culture was in the street, that gang culture. If you killed somebody else, you was famous, you made a name for yourself…you was respected. I wanted a reputation too, but I didn’t want to kill nobody for it. A lot of these guys became killers.” He states that the only way to make a name for yourself was either “drugs, gangs, entertainment, or sports.” But his grandparents were highly religious and he states, “I knew better than to run with the gangs.” Although Cornbread thought it was “absolutely inconceivable to ever harm anybody” over territory, he too was searching for a way to set himself apart. He recalls that he was never the kind of kid to stay at home, or at school for that matter, which inevitably got him into a lot of trouble. He says he was drawn to the “negative crowd” and at the age of twelve, was given an indefinite sentence at the local Youth Detention Center (YDC). Cornbread shares that of all the minors in YDC, he was one of only two boys who received an indefinite sentence. He had no idea when he would see home again and equated it to juvenile life-in-prison.
While in YDC, Cornbread, who never intended to join a gang, found a way to make himself indispensable to gang members nonetheless. Cornbread had a knack for writing and was quickly employed to write love letters and correspondences to many of their sweethearts. He says he quite enjoyed the opportunity and took pride in knowing that “when they responded, they were responding to me. I had a personal relationship with all of their girlfriends,” even if they never knew it. He tells me that during his time in YDC, “the gangs would write their names on the walls, and I would write [Cornbread] next to theirs really, really big.” But he didn’t just write next to the gang tags, he wrote everywhere he possibly could. Not only did his peers notice, but so did the administration. He recognized even then that he did it for attention and eventually the habit became a compulsion. The more attention he received, the more inspired he was to write. “I really bombed that place out,” he says, and “I got a lot of respect.” Even after a week’s punishment of solitary confinement, Cornbread continued to write his name over and over and over again. Concluding that Cornbread had a “mental deficit,” his supervisors scheduled him to see a psychologist. Once in session, he was asked why he felt the need to pen his name over every surface of the detention center. If they thought that was something extraordinary, he thought, “you ain’t seen nothing yet. I’m going to set this world on fire,” Cornbread exclaimed
The Prophetic Imagination
“Hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect.” –Tricia Rose
In 1967, Cornbread was released from the Youth Detention Center. He was 14 years old. That very year, his mother died. Two years later his grandmother passed away. In the midst of his personal tragedies, the one constant in his life was writing “Cornbread” anywhere and everywhere he could. He tells me,
"I didn’t have a mother, I didn’t have a grandmother, I didn’t have love, I didn’t have a home and I had to fend for myself. The only thing I had was “Cornbread.” The only the time I didn’t feel the loss of my grandmother and my mother was when I was on the mission doing Cornbread. And I stayed on the mission ninety percent of the time. I didn’t want to deal with the pain and suffering. Nobody else could compete with that. With all the writing I was doing, I really bombed the city of Philadelphia out. There were no other artists writing on walls. Teenagers didn’t really catch on to what I was doing until I started getting in the newspapers."
And catch on they did. The whole city would soon notice Cornbread’s writing, as well as the writings of thousands of teenagers that would eventually adopt the art. Cornbread walked wherever he went and looked for any opportunity to write. He wrote on walls, subways, busses, trains, cop cars, skyscrapers, and even a jet. He demanded to be noticed—a directive that was willingly acquiesced by the local press. Cornbread tells me, “I had a physiological effect on the minds of Philadelphians,” remembering that “the more they wrote about me, the more I wrote.” In 1971, the Philadelphia Inquirer mistakenly reported that the graffiti writer Cornbread had been killed. In order to set the record straight, Cornbread dedicated himself to a striking and elaborate stunt to announce his miraculous revival. In the middle of the night, Cornbread broke into the Philadelphia Zoo, snuck into the elephant cage and wrote “CORNBREAD LIVES” on the animal’s side (and incredible 35 years before Banksy executed his very own elephant exhibition). However, he was not lucky enough to leave as quietly as he entered and the police were waiting to arrest him. As Cornbread recalls, at the hearing, the judge, seemingly a fan, sent a foreman to collect Cornbread’s autograph for himself. Mitman writes, “The fact that a graffiti writer’s supposed death and reports that he was still alive were newsworthy events is evidence that graffiti writers were some kind of local celebrities.” But if Cornbread’s new artform was enough to earn attention and fame, he would not be a lone writer for long. “Everybody wanted to receive the same recognition from the media as I got,” says Cornbread, and soon a revolution began.
For Cornbread and an entire generation of teenagers, graffiti was more than hobby or an escape, it was a lifestyle that emerged out of necessity. The city was desolate and there were few pathways that offered deliverance from a lack of opportunity. For Cornbread, there was no other option; it was write or die. Overseas, the United States was still fighting in the Vietnam War and in 1965, a quarter of all combat units were African American even though they counted for only twelve percent of all military troops. These figures demonstrate the systematic discrimination that black soldiers faced as they ultimately suffered a disgracefully higher proportion of combat casualties than any other ethnicity during the war. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally assassinated and United States experienced its highest number of total casualties in a single year since the war began. Furthermore, black men were five times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Amidst this social and political backdrop, Cornbread states that a hundred and fifty thousand teenagers in Philadelphia would ultimately participate in what he calls a “social uprising” by a community of young people that graffiti writers willed into existence. “It was the first wave of the hip hop revolution” says Cornbread, “and I was at the forefront.”
No Hip Hop Without Graffiti
To argue that Philadelphia is the home of modern graffiti is not to diminish New York’s importance in the growth and development of graffiti and hip hop culture in Cornbread’s mind. New York took graffiti to new heights in both fame and style and continues to produce some of the most talented graffiti writers of all time. Cornbread insist, “I’ve got to give New York credit, I love New York.” However, he takes issue with those who insist that hip hop began in the Bronx. If, based on the evidence presented, one can concede that graffiti was the first established pillar of hip hop (due to its timeline development in relation to the rest of the fundamental elements; turntablism, rapping, and break dancing), and if graffiti started in Philadelphia, then how can one claim hip hop started in New York, he asks. He argues that New York was too preoccupied with the heroine epidemic brought on by the influx of drugs coming into the country from Vietnam during the war. He states, “I remember being abused by the drug addicts who walked the streets like zombies, thousands of them…New York was strung out.” He claims, “Those people were just trying to save their lives and we had a hundred and fifty thousand teenagers involved in a social uprising in Philly.” Cornbread states that from 1967-1969, graffiti clubs from all corners of Philadelphia would assemble in Atlantic City, New Jersey for an event called “Omega by the Sea.” This was an annual event where writers would congregate en mass in empty hotels to compete for bragging rights, all the while enjoying a shared community. As Cornbread recalls, the crews would write, spit rhymes, make music, dance; “we were preparing ourselves to do battle” he says.
Cornbread tells me, “There is no hip hop artist before me…New York put a title on it and called it hip hop, but the foundations were already established.” One can argue that not only did Philly graffiti artists develop the form, but they fundamentally contributed to hip hop culture when they established the first graffiti crews or “clubs.” The clubs’ primary functions were not exclusively for writing (though one had to be a talented writer for sure), but they were also social and political in nature. Mitman writes, “What is important for the evolution of graffiti is that these social club’s primary function was to throw parties and to get people mingling.” But for Cornbread and his fellow writers, it was more than socializing; it was a rejection of circumstances that had been handed to them. In Can't Stop, Won't Stop, Jeff Chang writes that “The young graffiti writers were the advance guard of a new culture; they literally blazed trails out of the gang generation.” As graffiti artists they were invisible, voiceless, and solitary no longer.
The same cultural forces that scholars use to illustrate how and why hip hop culture developed in New York were just as present in Philadelphia in the late 1960's as they were in New York in 1973. Tricia Rose writes that the emergence of hip hop is directly linked “to the process of urban deindustrialization” and that it “is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community.” This is not to deny that advancements in music form and music technology in New York in the 1970's were not unequivocally essential to the evolution of hip hop, but to highlight that the social, political, and economic circumstances at that time were very similar to Philadelphia in the late 60's and that it is not inconceivable to consider that it is where the foundations of hip hop sprouted. In his own words, Cornbread tells us, “I am the connection— the bridge—the old school to the new school.” He tells me, “I think the truth needs to be told…I don’t want to wait till I’m gone” for people to know.
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