What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits.
Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, NY, and Silicon Valley, CA, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.
By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.
Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing. And what they did was they created something from nothing.” People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.
In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.
What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.
In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”
Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.
Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!
 Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.