Break Beats in the Bronx

Photography by Henry Chalfant

My master’s thesis, which became my first book, Break Beats in the Bronx: Revisiting Hip Hop’s Early Years (2017, University of North Carolina Press), combines historical methods with sociological theorizing about symbolic boundaries to provide an account of the making of hip hop. With the help of previously unused archival material, I shed light on a crucial period (1975-1979) consistently ignored in the historical literature.

During that period, I demonstrate that actors developed the internal logic and conventions of hip hop, fashioning the basic contours of the phenomenon that persist to this day. Hence this work makes both theoretical and substantive contributions. It has relevance to students of hip hop—and of musical genres more generally. But it also speaks directly to sociological analysis of social and symbolic boundary formation. 

Kool DJ Herc and Tony Tone

The origin story of hip-hop—one that involves Kool Herc DJing a house party on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx—has become received wisdom. But Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr. argues that the full story remains to be told. In vibrant prose, he combines never-before-used archival material with searching questions about the symbolic boundaries that have divided our understanding of the music. In Break Beats in the Bronx, Ewoodzie portrays the creative process that brought about what we now know as hip-hop and shows that the art form was a result of serendipitous events, accidents, calculated successes, and failures that, almost magically, came together. In doing so, he questions the unexamined assumptions about hip-hop's beginnings, including why there are just four traditional elements—DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti writing—and not others, why the South Bronx and not any other borough or city is considered the cradle of the form, and which artists besides Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash founded the genre. Ewoodzie answers these and many other questions about hip-hop's beginnings. Unearthing new evidence, he shows what occurred during the crucial but surprisingly under-examined years between 1975 and 1979 and argues that it was during this period that the internal logic and conventions of the scene were formed. 


Ewoodzie uses new data, evidence, and collected interviews  in combination with a fresh pair of eyes to distill and analyze. He then blends it with forthright prose, clear explanations, and vivacious photographs to create a history that may present as academic, but doesn't read that way.
— IndiePicks Magazine

An excellent balancing act of writing an academic text and still making the book accessible to the lay hip hop fan as well. Anyone can read and enjoy and learn from this book.

— Scratched Vinyl

Break Beats in the Bronx promises to be an important contribution to the social and cultural history of hip-hop. With zeal, rigor, and no small amount of style, Joseph Ewoodzie illuminates the defining moments and key personalities of hip-hop's early years before they recede into shadow.

— Adam Bradley

Author of Book of Rhymes and coeditor of The Anthology of Rap