When Sha-Rock performed at the New York art space The Kitchen in 1980, she had just turned eighteen. In the recording of the show, Sha-Rock pours out a steady flow of rhymes with an expression of cool control, a poetry scored only by the shouts—Sha-Rock!—of her band, The Funky 4 + 1. Watching the performance, which is part of The Kitchen archive at the Getty Research Institute, you can feel the sense of exhilaration that was a cultural revolution in the making.
In 1976, Sha-Rock, whose full name is Sharon Green, got her start as a B-girl, traveling all over the city in search of beats to breakdance to. “I helped create the culture. I was that woman, and that little girl, that used to help hook up the speakers, the sound systems,” she said in a 2019 interview, “just being there assisting, carrying the crate records on the frontline.” After forming Funky 4 + 1—comprising a rotating cast that included Jazzy Jeff, DJ Breakout, Guy Williams, Keith Keith, K.K. Rockwell, Rodney Stone, and Rahiem—Sha-Rock became the first female MC in hip-hop history.
Part of its early beginnings, Sha-Rock helped shape the culture of hip-hop before it grew into a global phenomenon. Emerging in the South Bronx during the economic divestment of the ‘70s, the new art form combined rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. A wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants had recently brought the sound system culture of Jamaica to a Bronx already alive with the music and dance of Latin America and the African diaspora. At the same time, as fires burned in the South Bronx, school music programs and city services were cut, and the police no longer as often patrolled the streets, residents were left a decimated city whose voids were also creative opportunities. During the blackout in 1977, many of the borough’s electronic stores were looted, liberating the speakers and boomboxes that would help give the Bronx a radical new musical identity.
At the time, radio stations wouldn’t broadcast hip-hop. As people held jams in parks, rec centers, and abandoned buildings, news of this new type of music spread by word of mouth, flyers, and cassette tapes. Though Funky 4 + 1 felt lucky if they made twenty dollars at a show, which they would use to pay for bus fare or meals at White Castle, their popularity was big. “MC Sha-Rock and the Funky 4 were trending in the ‘70s,” she told one journalist.
When Sha-Rock took the stage at The Kitchen, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Chelsea art space was hosting a women’s festival called Dubbed in Glamour. South Bronx hip-hop was already converging with the ecosystem of punks, queer folks, nightclubbers, artists, and avant-garde weirdos of lower Manhattan. Funky 4 + 1 also performed at grubby punk venues like the Mudd Club, and their upbeat hit single, “That’s the Joint,” of that same year was later sampled by the Beastie Boys. Edit DeAk, the Hungarian-born critic who organized the all-female festival, was an art world fixture whose Soho loft was tagged by graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, and Futura 2000. Among those joining Funky 4 + 1 in the line-up were Blondie’s Debbie Harry, John Waters muse Cookie Mueller, and Angel Jack from San Francisco psych outfit the Cockettes.
“Here was a community of artists in SoHo, all pulling their hair out to outsmart each other and be the most innovative, to create new art, to create new styles, something completely new in history, and in comes this phenomenon of rap which experimented with language and performance and achieved that revolutionary new art, that wholly new form of expression without all the affect and pretense and self-consciousness that plagued the art world. This is what I think really captured the downtown scene’s attention,” said Sarah Cooper, who organizes performance at the Getty Center and studies experimental practices of the 1970s and ’80s.
Funky 4 + 1 had so impressed the downtown underground that, while on tour with the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the group got a call from Debbie Harry asking them to perform on the episode she was hosting of Saturday Night Live. They were the first hip-hop group ever to appear on national television. “We were giving the world the rawness of what was going on in The Bronx at that time,” said Sha-Rock.
While the dawn of hip-hop is commonly associated with male rappers like Grandmaster Flash, Sha-Rock’s legacy today is not as well-known as it should be. “Sha-Rock, as part of the Funky 4, had such poise in her style and command of the mic; she was truly a star of hip-hop pioneer culture,” said Charlie Ahearn, director of the film Wild Style, which documented the art form’s early days in the city. But as the forebear to contemporary artists like Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and Cardi B, MC Sha-Rock—Sha-Rock!—deserves an important place in music history.