Though it's often difficult to trace the exact starting point of a musical genre, Kool Herc's pioneering turntable techniques are generally credited as the foundation of rap music and hip-hop culture. Despite this landmark accomplishment, his contribution to the form seems almost accidental.
Born Clive Campbell on April 16, 1955, in Kingston, Jamaica, his family moved to New York City when he was 12 years old, seeking a better life and more work opportunities. While attending Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx, Campbell spent countless hours working out in the weight room. As the already tall Campbell bulked up his physique, his classmates began calling him Hercules. It didn't take long before he was known as "Kool Herc" to his friends.
Campbell had an affinity for music from a young age. He not only listened to Jamaican music, but also searched out American sounds like James Brown and the Ohio Players. "Hip-hop started when my father brought a PA system and didn't know how to hook it up," Herc told Davey D in a 1989 interview at the New Music Seminar. "I was messing around with the music and I started out by buying a few records to play at my house. When I was doing that I saw a lot of kids playing outside in the backyard. My sister asked me to give a party one day. Actually, she wanted me to play at a party and I went out and got around twenty records that I felt was good enough and we gave a party and charged about twenty-five cents to come in and made 300 dollars."
"He [Herc] was the perfect person to do it because he had all the DJ equipment and all the records," his sister and manager Cindy Campbell told John Soeder of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "That's what got him out of the house and into the streets."
The Campbell family's high rise on Sedgwick Avenue became known as party central for kids in the Bronx. Herc would play in the building's rec room, mixing soul and funk with elements of reggae to create a new form of musical collage. During mixes, he would often toast the crowd in the tradition of reggae emcees, calling out lyrics and names of people in the crowd.
Later, Herc as focused more on his deejaying, he would pass the microphone around to his friends so that they could spout their freestyle lyrics. This marked the beginning of the emcee phenomenon; Herc's friend, Coke la Rock, became known as the first hiphop emcee.
Herc also gave birth to the breakbeat by playing two copies of the same record on different turntables. He would find the most danceable section of the record and manipulate it between each turntable so that it appeared to repeat endlessly. "I called it the merry-go-round. I would watch everybody sitting around, just waiting for the funky part of the record," he told Soeder. (Later this effect would be produced digitally with electronic samplers and loopers.) Dancers in velour track-suits and Kangol hats would choreograph their steps and maneuvers to match the breaks. They called their style "break dancing" and became known as b-boys or break boys.
As disco swept New York City in the late 1970s, the hip-hop community bloomed. Other deejays such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa appeared on the scene. Around them, break dance and graffiti crews like Zulu Nation and the Casanovas formed, holding competitions that often revolved around which deejay had the loudest sound system.
Herc soon secured weekly gigs at clubs like the Hevalo and the Sparkle—a venue that would later become Disco Fever. During his tenure at these clubs, deejaying became so competitive that Herc soaked the labels off of his records to prevent spies from seeing which tracks he was playing.
Although hip-hop culture evolved as an alternative to gang activity, drugs, crime, and violence were still inextricably woven into New York City street life. In 1977, Herc was stabbed three times at one of his own events. He survived, but decided to withdraw from the club and party circuit for a while. He eventually came back to the scene that he helped build, but the rise of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and Bambaataa's numerous crews stole much of his stature as a deejay and he began to fall into obscurity.
Herc experienced a short-lived comeback in 1984 when he played himself in the film Beat Street, but the hard times returned as he struggled with a drug addiction that afflicted him throughout the rest of the 1980s. "I don't like to dwell on it," he told Soeder more than ten years later. "That's personal to me. It's not a glamorous thing. It's something I put behind me, but I keep it in front of me. I don't forget the past."
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Herc's career, though, is that throughout his 30-plus years in music, he never recorded a single album, although he made guest appearances on Terminator-X and the Godfathers of Threatt's Super Bad and the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole. Around 2000 Herc proposed a collaborative album with his younger brother (K One) and a number of well-known emcees, but nothing came of it. He views it as a lack of respect from the artists that benefited heavily from the foundation he laid.
For the Record . . .
Born Clive Campbell on April 16, 1955, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, 1967; became first hip-hop deejay, 1970; created the break-beat and started rap music by merging spoken lyrics while mixing records, 1970s; collaborated with various artists, 1980s-90s.
"I deserve credit for starting a culture that kids look up to … I was there when it started…. [But] I'm the Little Richard of hip-hop. I get no respect" from today's rappers, Herc told Soeder. "I call all of them…. They know who they are. I get the runaround. It's sad. When I want to do a project and I call these guys for help, I rarely get a response." Now working odd jobs between deejay gigs, Herc challenges the culture he helped found: "If you love me so much and I contributed so much to this business by starting it, if you respect me, put the money where your mouth is."
(With Terminator X and the Godfathers of Threatt) Super Bad, Rush Associated Labels, 1994.
(With Chemical Brothers) Dig Your Own Hole, Astralwerks, 1997.
Fricke, Jim, and Charlie Ahearn, Yes Yes Y'all: Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade, Da Capo, 2002.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), September 5, 1999, p. 11.
"Kool DJ Herc," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 20, 2003).
"Kool DJ Herc," DJs, Biographies, Old School Hip Hop, http://www.oldschoolhiphop.com/artists/deejays/kooldjherc.htm (September 21, 2003).
"Interview w/ DJ Kool Herc: 1989 New Music Seminar," Hip Hop History 101, Davey D's Hip Hop Corner, http://www.daveyd.com/interviewkoolherc89.html (September 20, 2003).
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