Koch presided over New York City from 1977 to 1989, almost exactly the years during which hip-hop went from a small scene of Bronx block parties to a global cultural phenomenon. During those years, the history of hip-hop is the history of Ed Koch’s New York: Until the last couple years of his reign, nearly every major hip-hop artist rose out of one of the five boroughs or Long Island, from Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Flash to Run DMC and Chuck D. While Koch saved the city from sliding towards bankruptcy—cops, teachers, and firefighters had just been laid off, and crime and fires were on the rise in the South Bronx—his relationship to these communities would ultimately be mixed at best, culminating in his defeat by New York City’s first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins.
Tensions began with his crackdown on graffiti, one of the so-called four elements of hip-hop. Koch wasn’t the first New York City mayor to wage battle against street art: Mayor John Lindsay declared the first “War on Graffiti” in 1971, and in 1976 Mayor Abraham Beame spent $20 million to buff all the trains. But Koch’s war on graffiti was particularly fraught. One of Koch’s first actions was to put dogs and razor-wire around the subway yards to discourage the young artists who tagged the trains. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t put in dogs, but wolves,” Koch said, at least partly joking, explaining that artists would be “scared as hell.” In the acclaimed 1983 documentary Style Wars, Koch defends his attacks on graffiti, saying that such vandalism “destroyed our lifestyle.”
Koch appointed Benjamin Ward, New York’s first black police commissioner, that same year, but incidents of police brutality by a largely white police force continued. The following years would also see a number of highly inflammatory incidents of racially motivated violence inflicted by citizens. In 1986 three men had their car break down near Howard Beach, Queens. After they hiked into town and grabbed a few slices at a local pizzeria, they were attacked and badly beaten by a gang of white teens. When one of the men, Michael Griffith, tried to escape, he was struck by a car on the highway and killed. Koch called it “the most horrendous incident” of his term, comparing it to an old-fashioned lynching.