Easy Rider wasn’t the only film that inspired hip hop culture, but there is a clear connection between the mentality and fashion in the movie and the gang culture in the Bronx that evolved to become hip hop.
Did the Film Easy Rider Influence Hip-Hop Culture?
The 1969 film Easy Rider inspired the culture and fashion of the South Bronx gangs who went on to pioneer hip hop as an alternative to gang violence. Below we take a look at how the counterculture, rebellion, and alternate ways of achieving the American dream featured in Easy Rider inspired the culture and fashion that became hip-hop.Video featuring the “Savage Skulls” around 1972.
FACT: Before hip hop fashion featured baggy clothes (which are easier to break dance in) and designer labels (which are symbols of success only sold uptown), it features cut-off jean jackets with patches that symbolize status and give a disenfranchised youth a sense of purpose and belonging.
Easy Rider and the Roots of Hip Hop Fashion and Culture
Blues and Jazz musicians, church, beat poets, European gang culture (and it’s representation in Hollywood), James Brown, Muhammad Ali, and more all tell stories of the roots of hip hop. These factors aside, one major marking points of the birth of hip-hop culture and fashion revolves around the counterculture fashion and outlaw tribal mentality featured in the film Easy Rider. Specifically, the fashion popularized by Easy Rider was one of the biggest influences on the pre-hip hop style and culture of the South Bronx in 69′ – 70′.
How Reconstruction in the South Bronx Leads to Hip Hop
On the back of civil rights, immigration, and other changes the 1960’s saw many Bronx residents move to the southwestern neighborhoods of the boroughs. By 1969, the South Bronx was virtually abandoned by everyone but the poor due to reconstruction (notably the building of the Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway through the center of the South Bronx).A video showing just how bad the South Bronx was at the time.
The poor black and Latino youth left behind formed gangs centered around their home blocks. To signify what block a person was from they would wear cut off jean jackets with tribal markings like patches and pins. This style of dress was taken directly from the film Easy Rider (although it was influenced by other cultural things like looking good by wearing in “Sunday’s best” and biker gangs in general).Notice how the mentality and fashion featured in Easy Rider are strikingly similar to that of the South Bronx in the early 1970s.
Why Did the Youth of the South Bronx Mimic Easy Rider?
Easy Rider is a film about those rejected from society and who rejected society (hippies) banding together to achieve an alternate version of the American dream by questionable means. They spend the movie traveling through an America that is living a more “traditional” dream. This contrast is ultimately brought to a head when our hippy heroes are gunned down by a few good ol’ boys.
It’s easy to see how this movie could inspire a culture who themselves felt rejected and who wanted to rebel, but were also searching for a sense of community and self-respect. We don’t need to justify all the reasons the movie resonated with the youth of 69′, or how it translated a cool image that could be emulated in the South Bronx. We only need to look at videos of the time or talk to those who experienced it to confirm the influence of Easy Rider on pre-hip hop fashion and culture in the Bronx.This video shows the origin of hip hop. Notice cut off jean jackets, patches, headbands, and long hair. Look familiar?
From Media Influence to Influencing the Media
By 1971, the gang violence had gotten so out of control that the South Bronx became one of the most feared places in America. As the violence grew great enough, America started taking notice. One of the first things noticed is the fashion and the gang mentality. One of the most featured gangs of the time was the Ghetto Brothers.
FACT: The release of the Godfather in 1972 marks one of the first modern gangster films. This movie must have influenced gang culture at the time, and naturally influenced it for years to come.
The Ghetto Brothers were one of the more powerful gangs of the time, and luckily for the future of hip hop, their message shifted from one of violence to one of peace and music (the Ghetto Brothers were also a band). The fact that the Ghetto Brothers were featured heavily in the media helped them to grow their ranks and share their message of peace and music.
The shift from gang violence to hip hop is marked by the infamous murder of one of Ghetto Brothers member “Black Benji” who was trying to advocate peace. The heads of the gangs have a meeting to discuss the killing. Instead of seeking retribution, the Ghetto Brothers sought peace and the gangs all came together to form “block parties” (where all blocks can come together over the music and culture without fear of gang violence).
Out of these block parties (which also owe credit to the emerging Disco culture) came gangs focused on music, rather than violence. These groups kept the same sense of fashion and community but replaced the competitive nature of gang violence with new competitive sports like MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti.
TheHip hop starts by mimicking Easy Rider, then Hollywood mimics the culture of the South Bronx with the Warriors movie; then we get colors, and the story continues… Hip hop and Hollywood have influenced each other.
NOTE: In 1979 the movie the Warriors was released. I assumed it was pure fiction. However, according to former gang members of the time, the Warriors was more like a fictional recreation of the pre-hip hop era in the South Bronx. This is the first of many examples in which Hollywood and Hip Hop create a loop of influencing each other’s culture.
The Formation of Hip Hop
Hip-hop (the culture and fashion surrounding breakdancing, DJing, MCing, and graffiti) was formed out of the block parties culture in the early and mid-seventies in the Bronx. These block parties (which focused on collaboration, art, and music) were a rebellion to the gang violence that had dominated the streets of the Bronx at the turn of the 70s’.This video shows where the music roots of hip hop come from, this paired with other aspects of (like the fashion and culture discussed on this page) become hip hop.
Out of this came acts like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa (both of who were in Bronx gangs and innovated key elements of hip hop). From this point forward hip hop culture and Hollywood would continue to influence each other. This would go on to affect mainstream fashion, music, and politics (think the war on drugs that targets hippies and non-white youth) for years to come.
To this day, Hollywood and Hip Hop have been in an ongoing loop which mirrors both the coming together around peace and music, and the coming together around drugs and violence. All of this truth is arguably foreshadowed by one film’s vision of an alternate take at the American dream and one cities struggle with inequality.Action Bronson, taking it full circle.
FACT: Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider. He also directed Colors. These were, somewhat ironically, two of the most influential films in regards to gang culture in the United States.