“When you watch The Get Down, picture me as one of those kids in the crew,” hip-hop historian Joe Nipper says.
The Get Down, a Netflix series that premiered in August 2016, tells the story a group of young people chasing their musical dreams in the Bronx in 1977. Nipper, who was born in Harlem in 1964, came of age with the rise of hip-hop. Like the youth in The Get Down, he danced at discos, emceed and saw pioneering DJs like Grandmaster Flash perform.
Now living in Aurora, with children and grandchildren of his own, Nipper turned 54 on January 6. He celebrated with the release of a new album, Beautiful Rap, and while he plans to continue making music that retains a hip-hop sound, he says this album is his last effort as a rapper.
Nipper — known professionally as Nipplife — has had a knack for music and performing since he was little. An older cousin, a singer himself, noticed him at age three dancing around the house to James Brown records. The cousin incorporated Nipper in a dance number for a talent show in Boston, and from that performance on, the boy was hooked.
“The crowd and the way they clapped — from that moment on, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Nipper recalls. “I knew I had something different as an entertainer.”
He practiced, anytime and anywhere. He remembers banging on pots and pans at home, annoying his parents with all the noise he’d make. They’d set him up in front of the record player, where he would listen intently — mostly because his sister had convinced him that singers lived inside the radio, and he was patiently waiting for a miniature James Brown to make an appearance.
His parents took him to the Apollo Theater on the weekends, where he saw his heroes, like the Jackson 5, live. Thanks to a cousin’s connections, at age five Nipper even got a chance to dance with James Brown himself at the famed theater.
“One day I brought my little sticks to the Apollo Theater and was banging along with the band,” Nipper says. “Someone turned around and said to my dad, ‘Hey, he’s got it.’ My dad still really didn’t grasp what he was talking about, but I knew I had it…. [My fourth-grade teacher] took a liking to me and started noticing my dancing talents. She said, ‘Something is really extraordinary about you.’”
Because of that teacher and her encouragement, Nipper was selected for a dance mentorship program by talent scouts from Juilliard. His parents were unsure about his pursuit of dance and told him he couldn’t go. Around the same time, his peers began bullying him because of the attention he was receiving for dancing and because he was a small, skinny kid. Nipper suppressed his talents in an attempt to fit in and began hanging out with older guys.
In 1974, when he was ten, his older friends approached him, put something in his backpack and told him to take a cab from one part of Harlem to another. “They just told me, ‘Don’t look.’ I knew it was drugs of some type, and now I know it was heroin, but I didn’t know that then,” Nipper says. He delivered the drugs and received $100.
He used the money to buy toys that he took to school. His teacher noticed the toys and alerted his parents, who connected the dots. Within a month, his family left the projects in Harlem and moved to the Bronx, hoping for a better environment. “If we had stayed, who knows what road I would’ve gone down?” Nipper muses.
He remembers the heavy Jamaican influence on music and culture in the Bronx: “They brought a lot of record stores and their speakers.” He also remembers the first time he heard hip-hop, around 1976. At the time, he notes, the saying was, “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, Bronx keeps on creating it and Queens keeps on faking it.”
That year, he attended his first hip-hop jam, where he saw DJ Breakout and the Funky 4 +1 perform. After watching the MCs rhyming back and forth and hearing James Brown sampled by the DJ, Nipper knew this was what he wanted to do. He mustered the courage to join his first crew, Sonic Sound. Although he was only with the group for two months, he learned how to make his words flow with a beat. Later he joined the Fearsome Crew, and his interest in hip-hop grew.
“We were doing parties, shows, and everything was going great,” Nipper says. “‘I’m an MC now; this is hip-hop.’ We [bought] equipment and [built] our own speakers. We went to parents’ houses to get every vinyl record we could get. It was like a treasure hunt, going to your friends’ houses and seeing what vinyl they had. It was an amazing time. So innocent, and everyone was doing it.”
The older members of the Fearsome Crew eventually tired of the jam scene, seeing it is a passing fad, and moved on to college. In 1978, Nipper reconnected with a childhood friend, DJ Greg Ski, and the two continued performing. Ski, a well-connected DJ, gave Nipper the chance to share the stage with DJs like Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore.
Nipper recalls the stifling impact of crack on the hip-hop scene. “Before crack, it was cocaine, and it was an exclusive thing,” he explains. “You were looked up at, like you’re a great person because you can afford to sniff cocaine. You were elite…that was always accepted. When [crack emerged] and they saw how it was done and how it started affecting people, that was looked upon as not good…. That’s when you started seeing rappers and people you know just done…. You had some mainstream guys that made it, but my era, you knew that was it, that their career was mostly done. Now it’s more sad than when we were in it. It really caused a lot of havoc, I think.”
To escape the drug-incited chaos in his home town, Nipper left New York in 1988 at age 28 and traveled the country by Greyhound bus. A fellow passenger encouraged him to make a stop in Colorado, and he decided to stay. In 1993, he returned to New York for about a year and half. During that time, he saw his friends performing and working as sound engineers. Seeing them reignited his desire to produce his own music. In 1994, he returned to Colorado with a newborn son and raised his family in Fort Collins. He bought his own music production equipment and dove in.
His newest album, Beautiful Rap, reflects on his life. A lot of songs on the album aim to combat bullying, a topic he is still passionate about.
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To this day, Nipper has only written one rhyme. Instead, he freestyles.
“That’s my whole thing: King of the One Take,” Nipper says. “I make the beat, put on the headphones and get on the mic. What you hear is from right then and there. I don’t go back and edit it. I just put it on, and boom.”
He hopes that as the genre continues to evolve, hip-hop artists will acknowledge the power of their platform and offer positive messages with their music. Nipper remembers rap’s content becoming increasingly negative and violent when gangsta rap first appeared in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He sees traces of that negativity in rap today, and hopes the culture will move in a more positive, uplifting direction.
“When [hip-hop] started, we weren’t talking about killing people,” Nipper explains. “It was basically just bragging like, ‘I’ve got two Cadillacs.’ Even if you battled somebody, it was never about killing…. Then it started getting worse and worse, to where it is today. I mean, I listen to all kinds. I’m not trying to point anyone out, but it’s not the most positive thing now telling kids to take pills and drink cough syrup.”