Lights Out

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s New York City, 1882. At night the city is mostly dark, but it won’t be for long. Thomas Edison has already invented the phonograph, the automatic telegraph, and the first commercially viable light bulb. He really could have stopped right there, but he was still young, only 35 years old.

Phillip Schewe:
And then he had the brilliant idea of doing something even more ambitious. He wanted to design the electrical system that would supply electricity for those bulbs.

Roman Mars:
That’s Philip Schewe. He wrote ‘The Grid’.

Phillip Schewe:
It’s a history of how society uses and loses electricity.

Roman Mars:
The Edison Illuminating Company built a power station in Lower Manhattan, right in the shadow of the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge. The first grid was small, about one square mile, and it works so well that soon all across the country, these little self-contained electrical systems started popping up.

Phillip Schewe:
In the coming 10 and 20, 30 years, the grid got larger and larger.

Roman Mars:
As the grid grew, it made modern life possible. It powered electric lights, running water, sewage pumps, elevators, and air conditioning. But the bigger the grid got, the more complicated it got, and the more the possibility of failure crept in.

Phillip Schewe:
Whenever we talk about large, designed, human-made, complicated electrified things, it sometimes takes four or five things together going wrong. But if the system is complicated enough, then the chances of something bad happening go up.

Delaney Hall:
Which brings us to New York City’s Blackout of 1977. It wasn’t the first blackout or even the biggest, but it might’ve been the most infamous.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Delaney Hall. And oh, yeah, this story, it’s not about Thomas Edison, though it begins with the electrical grid he started building back in 1882, a grid that got so big it’s been called the most massive engineering project of the 20th century.

Delaney Hall:
This story is about what happens when you disconnect people from that grid for one hot night in New York City.

Grandmaster Caz:
It was just time.

Voiceover:
“What we’re going to do right here is go back.”

Grandmaster Caz:
It was time for a new-

Voiceover:
“Way back.”

Grandmaster Caz:
… interpretation.

Voiceover:
“Back into time.”

Delaney Hall:
That’s hip hop pioneer, Grandmaster Caz, and he says on that night when the lights went out, a movement was born.

Grandmaster Caz:
If I was a kid in the 50s, I’d have been Chuck Berry. You know what I’m saying? If I was in the 30s or 40s, I’d have been a jazz artist. It’s the same energy that every generation exercises and it just comes out in different forms.

Grandmaster Caz:
“This is Grandmaster Caz and, yes, I was there during the night of the 1977 New York City Blackout, and survived.”

News Report:
“Thunderstorms swept over the New York City area on a hot night in July.”

Phillip Schewe:
What happened in 1977, first of all, you have what – and this might even be the technical word for it – an act of God. A lightning bolt came down and struck a overhead transmission line.

Roman Mars:
When lightening adds a bunch of extra electricity to a transmission line, the line shuts itself off at the circuit breaker.

Delaney Hall:
When one mind shuts off, the electricity starts squeezing into smaller and smaller channels like how cars on the freeway crowd into a single lane when the other lanes are blocked. This is all fairly normal so far, but then…

Phillip Schewe:
Just 10 or 15 minutes later, another flash of lightning came, and this knocked out a couple of lines. Now you’ve got even more electricity with fewer lines to distribute it.

Roman Mars:
And it was hot outside, really hot, which meant that lots of New Yorkers were running lots of air conditioners, putting an extra burden on the system.

Phillip Schewe:
And now they started to have trouble. There wasn’t enough room for all the electricity to flow.

Delaney Hall:
And so Con Edison, that same power company that Thomas Edison started way back when he was laying the lines for the first electrical grid…

Phillip Schewe:
Started doing the very last thing they like to do, which is to turn off whole neighborhoods…

Roman Mars:
One by one by one.

Grandmaster Caz:
Okay, so the year of the blackout, hip hop was starting to spread, but it was still pretty much a Bronx kind of thing. It didn’t have a name, people referred to it… Oh, you all still doing that hippity hoppity stuff? Hip hop, hippity hop, hip to the hop, hip hop to hibby dibby hip hop. Okay. Hip hop. You know what I mean?

Joe Schloss:
I do remember what New York was like in that era and I remember how chaotic it was.

Delaney Hall:
That’s Joe Schloss.

Joe Schloss:
I’m a professor at City University of New York and I research and practice hip hop culture.

Roman Mars:
New York City had experienced a major blackout in 1965 in which the city had stayed mostly calm.

News Report:
During the Blackout of 1965, residents treated the situation with good humor and comradery.

Delaney Hall:
But things felt different in ’77.

Joe Schloss:
It was like a powder keg. Something like that was on the verge of happening all the time. All it took was something to push it over the edge.

Roman Mars:
A couple of years before in 1975, New York City was in such a dire financial situation that it had turned the federal government for a bailout. President Gerald Ford’s response was a resounding ‘no,’ prompting the New York Daily News to run a now-famous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

Delaney Hall:
In 1977, things were still bad for New York; and in the Bronx, they were even worse.

Lloyd Ultan:
You had neighborhoods that had lost something like 46% of the population. My name is Lloyd Ultan and I am the Bronx borough historian. And there were blocks after block after block of rubble, and beyond that, what was on the horizon were buildings that were empty and boarded up. Really it looked like Berlin right after the bombings in World War II.

Joe Schloss:
The municipal government had forgotten about the Bronx and then the youth in the Bronx had been forgotten about by the older people in the Bronx.

Grandmaster Caz:
We didn’t have those music programs, so all those were cut out. When we were kids, we had them. But those intermediate years, it’s like, we didn’t have none of that anymore.

Joe Schloss:
They were like a forgotten minority of a forgotten minority of a forgotten minority. I mean, you can really see how people could feel that they had been left behind.

Grandmaster Caz:
I mean, it’s hard to describe, but you know what I mean? Because now that we older I can look back and say, “Wow, we got through some pretty rough times.” But if you were born into rough times then it’s just times.

Voiceover:
“And once again, my friend, the funky beat has no end. We bought the ticket on down to the 8 AM for you and your friend. Because the sounds you hear, it’s kind of tough on your ear, coming at you so loud and clear so you have no fear.”

Delaney Hall:
On the evening of July 13, 1977, the same day as the Blackout, Grandmaster Caz and his partner Disco Wiz had been challenged to a DJ battle by another group of DJs.

Grandmaster Caz:
We decided to take our equipment out into the park we used to hang out and play basketball in every day, so that’s where the battle was going to take place.

Roman Mars:
They set up all their stuff side by side.

Grandmaster Caz:
I just remember them having a very, very good professional sound system and us having our thrown together, in pieces set.

Delaney Hall:
The two groups of DJs started to battle.

Grandmaster Caz:
I was doing this little combo that I used to do and one song was a song by D.C. LaRue and I would cut it up with this other breakbeat… And I was killing them. Now I remember that the hype of everybody being really excited and then the record just started slowing down. You know what I mean? Just you know how turntable cuts off and then it just… (imitates sound of music cutting out)… that kind of situation. Quite naturally, we thought it was us. We thought we had drained too much power and we shorted out the electricity. We’re frantic. We’re looking around. We’re checking buttons, we’re checking switches. We’re seeing what’s up because this is death in a battle if your system conks out on you. But after a while, everything around us started getting dark. I mean windows, the apartment buildings around us were all dark. It kind of came over everybody at the same time like, “Oh, blackout.”

Delaney Hall:
Generators all over the city had been turning themselves off one by one. And then the biggest generator in the city…

Phillip Schewe:
A machine called Big Alice. It turned itself off. And with that, just about everything left that was still lit up in New York, turned off.

Roman Mars:
All five boroughs of New York City went dark.

Phillip Schewe:
But if you turn all those fluorescent lights off, that glow, that diffused light goes away and you can look up, pow, there it is, the Milky Way.

Roman Mars:
If people took a minute to gaze up at that newly visible night’s sky, they didn’t stargaze for long.

Delaney Hall:
Because pretty soon things started to feel tense.

Grandmaster Caz:
The stores started to close. The local bodega’s on each corner, we would hear the gates slamming down… It’s like they knew what was happening, they knew what was going on. They’re like, “We closing up now.”

News Report:
“New Yorkers’ reactions were varied. Some threw parties, some went walking and many seemed bemused. Some stayed up in the bars and clubs, and someone out to help, but many took advantage of the sudden chaos.”

Grandmaster Caz:
The park was right around the corner from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, which is like a shopping area all the way up and down, stores, electronic stores, toys stores, furniture stores, pet stores, I mean everything

News Report:
“Here on the corner 135th street and Broadway, I’m amazed to find that right before my eyes a Singer sewing machine store is systematically being looted by a crowd of about 40 or 50 people.”

Grandmaster Caz:
I saw people taking stuff that people had stolen. And I mean, they couldn’t get in the store so they’d wait for people to come out the store, some of them just grab it from them. It was chaos that night, and it was exciting… afterwards. But while it was going on, it was scary.

News Report:
I”n the Bronx, looters smashed a steel door of an auto showroom and drove off with 50 new cars, valued at $250,000.”

News Report:
“Every other block has a High Five store, a liquor store, a sporting goods store that was broken into.”

Roman Mars:
Looting was rampant and people stole all kinds of stuff including…

Grandmaster Caz:
DJ equipment, turntables. They wanted to become DJs. They wanted to… You know what I mean? And equipment cost and so that’s why you could count the amount of DJs that there were. Even like I said, I even got a new mixer. I went right to the place where I bought my first set of DJ equipment. I spent money in here and I went by and I got me a mixer out of there.

Delaney Hall:
The blackout lasted 24 hours and some people, including Grandmaster Caz think it catalyzed the growing hip hop movement.

Grandmaster Caz:
After the blackout, all this new wealth that I like to call it, you know what I mean, was founded by people and opportunities sprang from that. And you can see the differences before the blackout and after.

Lloyd Ultan:
The question is, did they go and steal turntables and things like that so that they could actually become those disc jockeys?

Joe Schloss:
I think it’s true.

Lloyd Ultan:
I cannot rule out the possibility.

Joe Schloss:
But I think it’s also important too to keep in mind that basically hip hop history is an oral history at this point.

Lloyd Ultan:
But I cannot say definitively that that actually did happen.

Joe Schloss:
And that it’s all mythology in some sense. The true stories, as well as the false stories.

Grandmaster Caz:
We had to keep our music alive. We had to keep exercising this need, this inner need from our soul to experience music.

  1. Dan

    Arson as a cause of fires in the Bronx has been very overstated. Joe Flood’s book “The Fires” has a lot of detailed information on other, more major, causes of the burning of the Bronx. Might be worth doing a show on that.

  2. Chuck

    So hip hop is built on a foundation of theft and vandalism? Is that the message you were trying to send in this episode?

    1. Simon

      I don’t think that’s at all what they’re saying. Keep in mind the foundations had already been laid. The block parties, B-boys, etc. had already been evolving since the early 70’s. More than anything, this blackout could be argued to be (and they allude to it as) the catalyst that blasted hip-hop in to what it became in the 80’s and beyond.

  3. Ajoy

    I am a huge fan of 99pi, but like Chuck, this episode left me scratching my head. At least the tone – and tone matters – of the segment seemed to imply that the looting and vandalism allowed the artistry of hip hop artists and DJs to somehow spring forth. I don’t think that it’s cool to talk about these destructive CRIMINAL acts without at least acknowledging that they had devastating effects on communities at large, on the the livelihoods of individual merchants and their families, and in a time of crisis strained the scarce safety and medical resources. Maybe the next segment can be about be the artistry of a merchant praying that she has adequate casualty insurance?

  4. fbridges

    Long time listener, first time commenter. There’s something different in this week’s podcast and I don’t think it’s necessarily about content, but about production quality. If feels like this podcast’s line of thought is not complete. The ending is to open to interpretation and I’m looking around to find the plaque to explain what I’m processing, but there’s nothing there. Because if this show has taught me anything, it’s to always read the plaque.

  5. biting you in the eye

    The ´tone´seems fine to me Ajoy. Did Hip Hop get created out of this one incident…no. It was already underway and its a collection of people, incidents, happenings, and points in time that allow a movement to spring forth. Besides, Graffiti (which was attached to hip hop in later years, and is now seen as the aesthetic of Hip hop) IS vandalism!! it is a criminal act, that is an essence of the movement.
    When they set up in the park to play basketball and to rap battle they were tapping into a street lights power source illegally also.
    Have you listened to some of the lyrics of rap today? its just criminal activity and the mis-treatment of women. it would be surprising if hip hop DIDNT have some historical illegal connection to it. but thats fine, it is what it is! Lets stop with the political correctness hindsight huh?

  6. Trevor from Arizona

    I can’t believe this entire episode did not contain the phrase “cascading failure.” The NYC blackout is often cited as a textbook example of this concept.

  7. Jordan Henderson

    I’m with Trevor. This could have been a fascinating examination about the *design* of power networks. Remember design?

  8. Just No

    Yeah, sorry I can’t be sympathetic to looters and vandals. I don’t care how much money you spent in a store before looting it. You just robbed and destroyed the livelihood of a fellow community member.

  9. When you say thomas edison you do of course mean Nicola Tesla, for it was he not the charlatan edison that’invented’ the grid. edison had absolutely nothing to do with the grid. in fact he fought tooth and nail to not adopt the grid, as his inferior DC system did not scale. he wanted a patchwork of islands.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist