Forty years ago yesterday, New York City, which supposedly never sleeps, went dark. And then, went mad. From Time:
The blackout that hit New York on… July 13, in 1977 was to many a metaphor for the gloom that had already settled on the city. An economic decline, coupled with rising crime rates and the panic-provoking (and paranoia-inducing) Son of Sam murders, had combined to make the late 1970s New York’s Dark Ages.
Then lightning struck, and the city went dark for real. By the time the power came back, 25 hours later, arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and looters had ransacked 1,600 stores, per the New York Times.
Opportunistic thieves grabbed whatever they could get their hands on, from luxury cars to sink stoppers and clothespins, according to the New York Post. The sweltering streets became a battleground, where, per the Post, “even the looters were being mugged.”
The mayhem of 1977 came as a night-and-day contrast with New York’s previous citywide blackout, in 1965. The earlier outage affected far more people (25 million, spanning New York and seven other states, plus two Canadian provinces, compared to the 9 million people in New York and its northern suburbs who lost power in ’77, per TIME). Yet the effects were dramatically, devastatingly different. As TIME put it, the 1977 blackout left the city powerless in terms of electricity and also powerless to stop the people who seized the opportunity to riot. “They set hundreds of fires and looted thousands of stores,” the magazine noted, “illuminating in a perverse way twelve years of change in the character of the city, and perhaps of the country.”
The blackout ultimately shone a spotlight on some of the city’s long-overlooked shortcomings, from glaring flaws in the power network to the much deeper-rooted issues of racial inequality and the suffering of the “American underclass,” as TIME dubbed it. Some saw the worsening circumstances — and institutional neglect — of this group of people as the key to the differences between the two New York blackouts. The ’77 blackout presented a rare opportunity for the powerless minority to suddenly seize power, TIME concluded, quoting the head of the National Urban League as saying, “[The underclass] in a crisis feels no compulsion to abide by the rules of the game because they find that the normal rules do not apply to them.”
From AM NewYork, the link between the Blackout and the newly formed musical genre known as Hip Hop:
Grandmaster Caz thought he had fried the Bronx’s grid.
He was all set up, along with his crewmate Disco Wiz, for a DJ battle against the Master Plan Bunch at the Slattery Playground Basketball Courts in the Bronx. But when he put on his second record, 40 years ago Thursday, something went wrong.
“The turntable stopped spinning, the amps went off, the equipment went off,” he says. “We thought we blew out the power! And it didn’t just get dark, it was like poof! Poof! Poof! Poof! One light after another, down the street, until the whole street was dark.”
What he didn’t know was that, at that exact moment, lights were going “poof” all across New York City. It was the beginning of what is now known as the 1977 blackout and a moment that helped evolve an art movement in the Bronx: hip-hop.
In assessing the effect that the city’s blackout had on the culture, it’s important to understand just how small hip-hop was in 1977. It’s said that one could possibly count the number of crews, usually made up of DJs alone, on two hands.
“I pretty much was familiar with everybody who had a name,” Caz says. “There’s levels to everything … but as far as everybody who was established, doing it, taking equipment out, playing in parks, it was a pretty small community and everybody knew who everybody was.”
By about 9:30, the majority of NYC went dark and parts turned chaotic. Around 16,000 stores were looted, and more than 1,000 fires were set, according to contemporaneous reports. The total cost of the damage was estimated to be more than $300 million.
Caz himself got in on the action, stealing a mixer. And, Caz recalls, he wasn’t alone.
“There was a large amount of DJs after that because equipment became more accessible,” he says. “That’s not to say that they went on to become superstars or anything like that. A lot of that equipment got sold or stolen. But it did increase the number of people who had access to DJ equipment.”
An altruistic “sharing economy” also existed at the time, author and hip-hop scholar Joe Schloss says, that got turntables, mixers and speakers into the hands of those who would use them.
And with DJs working in crews, very often they’d be able to cobble together a full sound system among themselves.
“People already had this kind of infrastructure in place to maximize the resources,” he says. “Even if not that many people got equipment from the blackout, whatever they did get could have been that much more of a tipping point than it might seem.”
It is, of course, impossible to quantify the exact effect of the blackout on hip-hop music. While legends like Caz and Clark Kent (who said in a podcast interview with Juan Epstein that he stole his first turntable during the looting) may have gotten in on the action, most DJs who got their start thanks to events of that night have been lost to time.
“It’s just such an amazing, fertile spark of a moment for so many different movements in a way,” says T Cooper who, along with his wife Allison Glock-Cooper, wrote the episode of Netflix’s “The Get Down” that dealt with the blackout. “I love the idea of a lightning bolt creating too much energy, and then out of it, all these people tap a little bit into that energy.”
Want to know more about the 1977 Blackout? Check out this NY Post story: “The mystery behind the only murder during the 1977 NYC blackout”.
Or watch the excellent American Experience documentary, “Blackout”, below.