Clive Campbell, AKA “Kool Herc”, is considered to be the Father of Hip Hop. Clive Campbell, was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955. In 1967, when Kool Herc was 12 years, he and his family emigrated to the Bronx, New York. While attending Alfred E. Smith High School, he spent a lot of time in the weight room. That fact, coupled with his height , coined him the nickname “Hercules” by his schoolmates.
Kool Herc’s first deejay job was his sister’s birthday. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. This was the address where he and his family lived, and the recreation room in the building was where he would throw many of his first parties as a DJ. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this would be the start of the hip hop music industry.
Throwing parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue lasted for a while until his parents started to come in early, and find a house full of kids, tearing up the new furniture that his mother had just put some money down on. The kids were still looking for a place to release this energy.’ Herc’s sister asked him to help out by playing music in the recreation room of his family’s housing block, 1520 Sedgewick Towers. ”OK, I throw my hand at it, and she rented the recreation room, I think for twenty-five dollars at the time. We could charge it at twenty-five cents for girls, fifty cents for fellas. It was like, “Kool Herc, man. He’s giving a party, westside man. Just be cool, that’s what I’m saying, come and have a good time. Just don’t ditch the programme.”
Becoming skilled at deejaying, Kool Herc became aware that although he knew which records would keep the crowd moving, he was more interested in the break section of the song. At this point in a song, the vocals would stop and the beat would just ride for a short period. His desire to capture this moment for a longer period of time would be a very important one for Hip Hop.
To extend the break section of a song, Herc would purchase two copies of the same record and play them on separate turntables next to each other. He would play the break beat on one record then throw it over to the other turntable and play the same part. Doing this over and over, he could rock any house in New York–not to mention it being an early form of looping that would later be made easier through electronic sampling. Herc would dig in crates and look everywhere to find the perfect break beat for his parties. He didn’t care what type of music it was because he only needed a small section of a song for his purposes.
By 1969, Herc was deejaying regularly at local clubs, but noticed that the crowds he joined frequently objected to New York’s cocky DJs. ‘I used to hear the gripes from the audience on the dancefloor. Even myself, ’cause I used to be a breaker (breakdancer). Why didn’t the guy let the record play out? Or why cut it off there? So with that, me gathering all this information around me, I say: “I think I could do that”. So I started playing from a dance floor perspective. I always kept up the attitude that I’m not playing it for myself, I’m playing for the people out there.’
DJs needed to establish an identity or niche in this highly competitive market. So Herc was determined to find records that no one else owned, to distinguish himself from the pack. For example, he talked his father into buying him James Brown’s Sex Machine LP in 1969. ‘A lot of people wanted that record and couldn’t really find it. So a lot of people used to come to the party to hear that.’ Herc did his research, checking out what was being played on local jukeboxes to test a song’s popularity and picking up rarities at Downstairs Records on 42nd Street and the Rhythm Den. ‘This is where your recognition, your rep comes from. You have a record nobody else got, or you’re the first one to have it. You’ve got to be the first, can’t be the second.’
While violence has become rap’s defining characteristic in the 90s, hip hop actually started out as a means of ending black-on-black crime two decades earlier. People living in the Bronx during the early 70s had much to live in fear of. ‘The gangs came and terrorized the whole neighborhood, the boroughs. Everybody just ran back into their house. There was no more clubs. If you did do a house party, it had to be: “I have to know you. Don’t bring nobody who I don’t know to my house.”
In the following video, Kool Herc describes how he invented the idea of playing two breakbeats together, what he calls the merry-go-round. The merry-go-round involved him mixing sections of James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Or Turn It Loose’ into Michael Viner’s ‘Bongo Rock’ and back out into Babe Ruth’s ‘The Mexican’. His audiences loved it.
The merry-go-round became the blueprint for hip hop… The first to react to the innovations, naturally enough, were Herc’s party-goers. Breakdancers, or B-Boys, began to interpret Herc’s idiosyncratic style with routines of their own. Some historians trace the development of Breakdancing to the African martial arts form, capoeta, brought to America by slaves a century before.
His first professional DJ job was at the Twilight Zone in 1973. He wanted to get into another place called the Hevalo, but wasn’t allowed to at the time. His fame grew. In addition to his break beats, Herc also became known as the man with the loudest system around. When he decided to hold a party in one of the parks, it was a crazy event. And a loud one. At this time Afrika Bambaataa and other competing DJ’s began trying to take Herc’s crown. Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation recalls one momentous meeting between Herc and Bam.
“Herc was late setting up and Bam continued to play longer than he should have. Once Herc was set up he got on the microphone and said “Bambaataa, could you please turn your system down?” Bam’s crew was pumped and told Bam not to do it. So Herc said louder, “Yo, Bambaataa, turn your system down-down-down.” Bam’s crew started cursing Herc until Herc put the full weight of his system up and said, “Bambaataa-baataa -baataa, TURN YOUR SYSTEM DOWN!” And you couldn’t even hear Bam’s set at all. The Zulu crew tried to turn up the juice but it was no use. Everybody just looked at them like, “You should’ve listened to Kool Herc.”
Finally his fame peaked and at last, in 1975, he began working at the Hevalo in the Bronx. He helped coin the phrase b-boy (break boy) and was recently quoted as saying he was “the oldest living b-boy.”
Eventually, spinning records became an an all-intensive thing and Herc
realized he didn’t have as much time to talk to the crowd and get them going. He needed someone else to help out and act as the Master of Ceremonies for him. And thus, for all practical purposes, Coke La Rock became the first hip hop MC ever.
Although he is not part of the hip hop vocabulary of most of those who listen to it today, Kool Herc is the father of this underground sound from New York that has found its way in becoming a worldwide phenomenon.