Celebrating 45 Years of DJ Kool Herc's contribution

DJ Kool Herc in front of Danielle Mastrion's Mural at 5Pointz, Queens. Photograph by Raymond Hamlin.

Hip Hop, You Don't Stop

Celebrating 45 years of Jamaica-born DJ Kool Herc's contribution

August 11 is widely regarded as the anniversary of Hip Hop’s birth. On that day, 42 years ago, Jamaica-born Clive Campbell (aka DJ Kool Herc), along with his sister Cindy, held their first back-to-school jam inside the building complex at which their family lived on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York.

Beginning with a PA system that his father, Keith Campbell, purchased to use for a band, young Clive created the sound system known as The Herculords and gave rise to a genre and culture that has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on April 16, 1955, Clive – the eldest of six children – lived on Second Street in Trench Town, the home of Bob Marley and many other Reggae legends. As a child, he came to know the sounds of Prince Buster, U-Roy, Big Youth and The Skatalites. And like most Jamaicans at the time, he was a fan of Motown’s Smoky Robinson, as well as James Brown, who he played much music from as a DJ and, as a result, is the most sampled artiste in Hip Hop.

In 1967, the Campbells sought a better life and travelled to New York on a British Overseas Airways Corporation flight. On his school’s basketball team, he was called ‘Hercules’ because of his stature, but asked that they just call him ‘Herc’. Herc's sister, Cindy, wanted to make some money in the summer of 1973 so she invested in what would be Hip Hop’s first house party, which quickly exploded into block parties akin to the Jamaican street dance. Kool Herc became known for playing funk records, which the people loved at the time, particularly James Brown.

With James Brown’s ‘Give it Up or Turn it a Loose’ (1969) and the Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’ (1973), among other records, he developed a style he termed the ‘Merry Go Round’ in which he would isolate and loop an instrumental ‘break’ that made the dancers enjoy themselves. This looping of breaks was carried on by Hip Hop producers, using drum machines and digital samplers rather than turntables. Herc, and his partner, Coke La Rock, also talked over the breaks, rhymed words and gave the crowd instructions.

Sometimes documented as being Jamaican though he was not, Coke La Rock was the first rapper and was a part of The Herculords. These early Hip Hop sessions mirrored the Jamaican dancehall, with a disc jockey playing music and artistes being privileged to take the microphone.

The energy of Kool Herc’s events and sound system spread and influenced other DJs, including Afrika Bambataa who began his own block parties in 1977. Bambataa, born to Jamaican and Barbadian parents in the Bronx, is credited with cementing the term ‘Hip Hop’ – although he did not coin it (Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is said to have done so) – and identifying its four elements – DJ’ing, MC’ing (rapping), breakdancing and graffiti art.

Like Bambataa, other DJ’s in the Bronx had competing sound systems and events, but DJ Kool Herc was regarded as the first and became a legend in the streets. Unfortunately, in 1977, he was stabbed at the Electric Playhouse while intervening in an argument at one of his parties. He and Coke La Rock stepped away from the scene after. In an April interview on The Combat Jack Show podcast, he said he still sees his attacker and though he has forgiven him, the man still feels guilt for what he did decades ago.

By 1979, Hip Hop gained mass attention with the release of The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on Sylvia Robinson’s Sugarhill Records. Not only did the song become popular in America, but it also impacted the world, including Jamaica, as, that same year, Joe Gibbs Music released a cover version by Xanadu and Sweet Lady.

Today, Hip Hop, which was once thought to be a fad, is the global youth culture and has spread to every corner of the world. According to music streaming service Spotify, it is the most played music on the platform. While some modern listeners may not know DJ Kool Herc’s story, he is still revered by fans who know the history and philosophy of Hip Hop.

Kool Herc no longer stages block parties as he once did, but still makes appearances at relevant functions. He never released any music and is often asked how he feels about not being compensated for the success of the culture. In 2013, at an exclusive anniversary screening of ‘Beat Street’ (1984), the first Hollywood movie about Hip Hop which featured him as himself, he said: “When a person says, ‘Herc, I came to your party. I met my wife… I met my husband. This is the son. This is the grandson.’ You can’t pay for that.”

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 February 2020 02:12