"The joint was jumping on the corner, the corner of Honky Tonk Street.
All of a sudden up pulled a Cadillac, and out jumped a cat named Pete.
A diamond on every finger, he wore a tailormade suit,
he smoked a black cigar, he wore a Stetson hat, and he wore a pair of cowboy boots.
Shuffling on in through the doorway, just as bad as he could be,
he pulled out his pistol and turned around and said, 'My name is Big Boy Pete!'"
—The Olympics, "Big Boy Pete"
Q. Just what made the "Roaring Twenties" roar? A. The same things that fuel today's madness: drugs, crime, gangs, and music.
Following the horrors of WWI, American culture descended into the "almost anything goes" attitude of liberal Europe. Scantily clad "Flappers" and dapper gangsters got high on drugs and booze and danced the Charleston to brazen jazz bands. This American Jazz had evolved from West African rhythms and the folk music of former slaves.
Attempts to curb this wild permissiveness led to the great American experiment of prohibition. A huge underground industry sprang up when alcoholic beverages became contraband and criminal gangs and their organizations developed to exploit the situation.
Alto saxophonists like Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie pioneered a Jazz form that was not intended as dance music. This Jazz style was heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban and other Latin music, which became known as Bebop. Other Jazz styles native to cities like New Orleans, Kansas City, and New York, evolved into Jump, Jive, and Swing. From 1935 to 1945 swing was king.
Associated with the evolution of this music from Jazz to Swing was a new swing-inspired language called "Hep Talk" or "Jive." People who were into swing music dressed in a colorful and outlandish style of dress, which is best represented by the Zoot Suit. The cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, contributed to this new Jive Language by adding playful local Spanish and American slang terms, and some Spanish Gypsy dialect words dating back to the 15th Century. The nickname for a native of El Paso is "Chuco" and the culture that developed between these two international cities became known as "Pachuco" culture. The new Latinized jive talk was called "Calo." Mexican and American smugglers, pimps, and gamblers embraced this Pachuco lifestyle and the Calo language. Local gang members also adapted this style. The El Paso Tip (EPT) was one of these early gangs.
This style was international and neither purely American nor Mexican. Singers such as Frank Sinatra and Cab Calloway dressed in Zoot suits and spoke Calo. The Mexican actor and Comedian German Valdez, (known around the world as "Tin Tan"), who dressed like this, was warned by Mexican authorities to stop dressing and speaking like an "American Gangster."
Pachuco gangsters were also known as "Marijuanos," from their use of weed, and "Greasers," from the custom of greasing their hair back. They were not all Hispanic, and could be found among all races and in every urban area across the United States. Although Los Angeles became infamous for the 1942 Zoot Suit riots, similar riots occurred in many other American cities. Ever watch a Mighty Mouse cartoon? This cultural clash is depicted in Mighty Mouse's battles against Zoot-suited rival "Oil Can Harry" (greaser) and his knife- and gun-wielding low rider gang.
Doo Wop and Reggae
In October of 1954 in South Central Los Angeles, a group of young African Americans recorded a song in the garage of Ted Brinson. The late great Johnny Otis featured them at his "Barrel House" night club and the song was soon played on radios across America. This "Ballad with a Beat" was recognized as the first recorded "Doo Wop" song, "Earth Angel" by the Penguins. This style would dominate American Pop Music until the Rock and Roll era of the 1960s.
Pachuco gangs had evolved also. They now sported satin or leather jackets with gang logos and they wore white T-shirts and blue denim pants with cuffed legs. Gang members depicted in movies like "Blackboard Jungle" and "West Side Story," and represented by the "Fonz" on TV's "Happy Days" typify gangs of this "Doo Wop" era.
In Los Angeles these gangsters often adapted to the uniform that they were more accustomed to in the 1960s. Oversized county Levis, khaki pants, Towncraft T-shirts, wool Pendleton jackets, cloth military belts, state issue shoes, red or blue bandanas, and wool watch caps were what they wore in "juvie," the jail, and the joint. So this became the common gang uniform of the street also. The Pachucos had evolved into "Cholos" in L.A., but they never stopped listening to "Old School Doo Wop" and "Oldies but Goodies." Almost every gang had its own signature song.
In the late 1960s Caribbean groups mixed American rhythm and blues with traditional African and Jamaican ska and dancehall music to produce a new style called Reggae. The beat and rhyme were contagious and spread quickly to England with Jamaican immigrants. Alternative Skinhead and Punk bands followed Bob Marley and this new style. Soon ska and reggae infected America.
In the 1970s urban African American and Latino youths introduced a new "anti-gang" style of music to the U.S. Born in the streets of New York City, when the emcees (MCs) began speaking between songs played by the DJ in a stylized pattern called rapping, it was called Hip Hop. These MCs excited the audience to dance, sent out greetings or "shout outs" to the audience, and also told jokes or challenged other MCs or DJs. Disputes were handled in a non-violent break dance competition.
The main pillars of Hip Hop are urban; dance, art, and poetry or rhyme. Unfortunately, each pillar evolved from a gang alternative, into a new gang lifestyle. From the dance pillar evolved "dance crews" which eventually led to incorporate gang-like dress, rival crew fighting, and banging like traditional gangs. The Tough Artist Group (TAG) graffiti artist of Hip Hop evolved into "tagger crews," and finally "tag bangers." The urban poets became "gangsta rappers," living and dying by the gun. The struggle to express the culture of urban American youth in a non-gang, non-violent way faded in the flash of the modern gangster's gun.
And now comes Reggaetone. Popularized by Spanish-speaking Caribbean youth primarily from Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, it is distinguished by the Dem Bow beat originated in a song by Shabba Ranks in the mid 1990s. Regueton (in Spanish) is dance music derived from Trinidadian soca and Jamaican dancehall rhythms and influenced by both Hip Hop and techno. The "Perreo," a highly suggestive and explicit sexual dance, is often the accompanying dance. The act of the DJ changing a disc from Hip Hop to Reggaetone often leads to fighting and sometimes murder in Los Angeles.
Find out what music kids in your area are listening to. Find out what your kids are listening to. You may not like their style of music, but it will tell you much about them and what they believe. Use the music to learn their language and slang. Watch their music videos to see what kind of clothing they might wear, what kind of cars they drive, and who their enemies are.