“CORNBREAD LIVES”— One of the most famous tags in hip hop history, painted by the legendary Darryl McCray a.k.a “Cornbread”. McCray, a native of Philadelphia, is credited for being the first graffiti artist and one of the founders of hip hop culture. At age 10 McCray found himself in a juvenile detention hall where his reputation as a tagger first began. One of the things he missed most about home was his grandmother’s homemade cornbread, so every day he went into the kitchen at his juvenile detention center and asked the chef why he did not make cornbread. His annoyance of the chef then earned him the nickname Cornbread as he was ordered out of the kitchen. As this nickname stuck, McCray began writing “Cornbread” all over the juvenile walls – the bathroom, in books, and in various rooms. When he was released in 1967 he continued to tag on the streets, which started to earn him some attention from the media.
Because of him, people all over Philadelphia began to tag walls, then by 1972, this spread to New York City and Chicago as well. An interesting part of Cornbread’s career was when another tagger named Cornelius died. Word spread that “Corn” died, so the media released articles that the famous Cornbread died. Much to their surprise, about a week later Cornbread had tagged an elephant in the zoo, writing “CORNBREAD LIVES”. Along with this, he began to make even riskier tags, tagging police cars and skyscrapers. One of his most famous tags was on the wing of the Jackson 5’s private jet. As the band signed autographs at Philadelphia International Airport, Cornbread took note that all the attention was on the Jacksons. Without anyone noticing, he quickly climbed the stairs to the jet and climbed to the wing and painted “Cornbread”. No one noticed until the jet took off, then hours later it received national attention as the jet landed in Los Angeles.
Cornbread earned respect from gang members as graffiti and tagging spread throughout the United States and even into Europe. He was so well-known, especially in Philadelphia, that a film was a released call “Cornbread, Earl and Me” that many people went to view because they thought it was about the tagger “Cornbread”. As Cornbread gained even more fame, he joined a social club which were popular to join during the time. One club, called Delta Phi Soul, was made up of just taggers, which included other famous taggers like Cool Earl and Tity. Delta Phi Soul was popular for throwing parties all over Philadelphia and it eventually became popular to have Cornbread’s tag along with Delta Phi Soul tagged on the basement wall. Groups like these were a way for people to have a social life and entertainment without being part of gang activity. As tagging began with a way of expression through Cornbread, hip hop began to flourish in New York City and graffiti became a large part of it and became an international artistic movement.
Over the past couple decades, Cornbread has gained even more fame through various films. In 2007, Sean McKnight made a documentary film called Cry of the City Part 1: The Legend of Cornbread. This film tells Cornbread’s story, crediting him as the father of graffiti and hip hop. Another film about him is a documentary film, Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, which refers to his generation of taggers as “the unsung heroes of graffiti and street art”. In August of 2013, Cornbread was honored into the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem and today, works as a public speaker and motivational speaker, encouraging youths to stay away from run-ins with the law and drugs. Currently, he speaks against illegal graffiti but will still tag today when given permission. Today, graffiti and hip hop culture has grown greatly throughout the world, and much of this credit is due to Darryl “Cornbread” McCray.
Links to learn about Cornbread further:
(This article was written by Colton Dana as part of the Global Hip Hop Cultures class at Trinity College Fall 2016 semester.)