DJ Kool Herc: The Back-to-School Party That Started A Revolution

Music Features DJ Kool Herc

Forty years ago, DJ Kool Herc spun records at his Bronx apartment building that led to the beginnings of hip-hop

At first glance, the 102-unit apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the New York City borough of the Bronx may not seem like anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the brick building in the vicinity of the Major Deegen and Cross Bronx expressways looks quite unremarkable, situated on the same side of street with a parking garage and a grocery store. On a recent hot July morning visit to this section of this Morris Heights neighborhood, it was relatively quiet outside the building. Posted near its entrance is a New York Police Department sign warning against trespassers.

Yet 1520 Sedgwick Avenue has definite importance as the acknowledged birthplace of hip hop. On Aug. 11, 1973, inside the building’s recreation room, Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, spun records at a back-to-school party that his sister Cindy threw so she could earn money to buy clothes for the fall. With his powerful sound system, he played funk and soul tracks that got the crowd going. As author Jeff Chang described that event in his 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation: “The party people were moving to the shouts of James Brown, turning the place into a sweatbox. They were busy shaking off history, having the best night of their generation’s lives.”

That event and similar future parties at the rec room were crucial not just because they gave kids an outlet to dance, but they launched the hip-hop movement and established Herc as the genre’s founder. To mark the 40th anniversary of the origins of hip hop, Herc will be the featured performer at a free SummerStage festival concert in New York’s Central Park on Aug. 10. It will be followed by another performance by Herc on August 11 at 5Pointz in Long Island City in the borough of Queens.

“Herc is the documented ‘father of hip hop,’” says Erika Elliott, the artistic director of SummerStage, which is part of the nonprofit City Parks Foundation. “There are many other people who have contributed and precursors to the art form, but no one would deny that he set up the platform for the culture from which the genre evolved. What’s more is that it [hip hop] is now a global phenomenon and having an impact worldwide, empowering young people to have a voice and effect politics in places where there is disenfranchisement and political upheaval.”

When asked recently about the four decades that had passed since the famous party, Herc tells Paste, “I’m not gonna look back. I got to look forward. It’s still blooming. Hip hop is still my baby. She’s getting a lot of controversy and a lot of misdirection and stuff, but I’m not giving up on her.”

Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Herc and his family arrived in New York in 1967 when he was 13 years old. He was already exposed to the Jamaican sound systems that, along with his father’s tastes in records, most likely shaped his eclectic musical sensibilities. “My father always lets me know what’s the good music, what’s the good bounce,” Herc says. “As a Jamaican, my father loved his music…His people were Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Esther Phillips, Conway Twitty, Louis Armstrong and also Jim Reeves. He was training my ears.”

Prior to making his mark as a DJ, Herc was a graffiti artist who ran with a gang called the Ex-Vandals. “At the same time time, it was causing a lot of concern about messing up people’s property,” says Herc. “My father was always going against that, but he didn’t know his son was one of the Vandals. So I stopped. When my sister threw the party, it was a good time because I didn’t need more heat coming through my door [saying] that ‘Your son is a graffiti artist.’ So there was that curiosity to find out who I am. But when they came to the party, they said, ‘Oh, so that’s who he is,’ and so therefore the mystery about Kool Herc being anonymous is no longer.”

According to Chang’s book, Herc’s equipment belonged to his dad, who funded a Shure P.A. system for an R&B group. With some clever rewiring, Herc turned it into a powerful sound system. “I put the speaker wires into the mic channels,” he explains, “so each turntable had a channel—channel 1 and channel 2—and that’s to fade one mic in and to fade the other one in. That’s how I got to get my power and more power. These guys were like, ‘Oh shit, how did you do that?’ That was the first system.”

Herc’s ability to gauge the type and part of the music the crowd was receptive to came from his own experiences on the dance floor. “I used to go to parties…and have a good time and stuff,” he says. “I’d always [be] griping, ‘Why the DJ don’t have that record?’ or ‘Why he took [the record] off right there?’ So I took that gripe behind the turntable from the dancer’s perspective and I always played my music like that.”

For the Aug. 11 party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where the Campbell siblings lived, Herc and Cindy sent out announcements on index cards. The admission charge was 25 cents for the girls and 50 cents for the guys. “The recreation room was convenient,” remembers Herc, “two bathrooms, a kitchen—it was a brand new building. If you were using it for parties, you would need to take it up with the building.”

That night, Herc played “soul and funk bombs”—as Chang described in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop—at the party. These were songs that were out of style at the time in contrast to then-popular elegant R&B and disco, according to Will Hermes in his book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. “The crowd, mostly high schoolers, went bonkers,” he writes. “It was Herc’s first party under his own direction, on his own turf. The next day, it was the talk of the neighborhood.”

“The party was important not so much because of its size or Herc’s playlist or any special dance that got introduced,” says Chang, “than the fact that it sparked a scene that transformed the youth culture in that devastated borough. Cindy and Herc’s party came right at the moment when gangs had begun to wane and young people were looking for ways to gather and express themselves.”

After that momentous event at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc threw more parties at the rec room periodically. The following summer he threw a block party and additional parties to Cedar Park. “And from there I started to play at the [club] Twilight Zone on Jerome Avenue,” he says. “I began the block party to promote the Twilight Zone; I used the club to promote my party.”

“Many of the [hip-hop] pioneers point to that moment as a turning point in their lives and their neighborhoods,” Chang says about Herc taking his act outside of the rec room. “It was as if, by throwing their parties, they had given permission to a lot of other young folks to do the same. And so it went viral.”

As Herc told author Frank Broughton in 1998 for the book The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, he spun several eclectic records at the time, including the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” and “Apache,” Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican,” James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” and the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun.” He perfected a technique called the “Merry-Go Round,” in which he used two copies of the same record to prolong the song’s break—the part that people wanted to particularly dance to.

“I’m like a shepherd,” Herc says. “I’m watching the people—who’s dancing, who’s ain’t dancing. I’m looking for hot spots. I’m checking it out. Some people were waiting still for particular parts of the record [to go off]. So one night out of frustration, I said, ‘Watch this, I’m going to do what they call the merry-go-round. I’m gonna get all of the records and go right to the yolk—to the breakdown.’ I went right to it and I called it the ‘Merry-Go Round.’ Lord have mercy after that.”

Herc not only played an important role in the development of hip-hop music behind the turntables, but he also sparked the genre’s sense of culture through his team of rappers that included his right-hand man Coke La Rock—and dancers he dubbed “b-boys,” whose moves preceded the breakdancing explosion in the ‘80s. ”[‘Break’’ and ‘go off’ were the words] I used for the dancers who go through the climax in their routine,” says Herc. “And when I say ‘go off,’ you better show me what you got! I would use phrases or slang to keep the party laughing and having a good time.”

“You gotta think of b-boying as one of those weird local dances that kids invent to the music that they love,” says Chang. Remember that this is an era in which there are all kinds of dances that are being devised all the time in all kinds of black and Latino neighborhoods around the country—really, it’s not too different from now. So around this party scene is a whole language, style, dance, visuality (art and fashion)—everything emanating from the fact that people are gathering and a DJ is creating a signature sound that allows everyone to express themselves.

By 1976, Herc was the most popular DJ in the Bronx, playing clubs such as Hevalo and the Executive Playhouse. Around the time, other DJs in the Bronx such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa sprouted up and started to make their own mark. “Herc played the music that kids wanted to hear,” says Chang, “that radio wouldn’t play, the music around which all these dances were being created. There was a different kind of power in that—the kind that comes less from the assembled might of a gang than the kind that comes from possessing signature individual style. So Herc’s cool came from giving other folks—followers like Bambaataa, Flash, [Grandwizard] Theodore—the ability to express themselves.”

However, in 1977 Herc got stabbed when he tried to intervene in a dispute at the Executive Playhouse. “I got hit three times and one in my hand,” he says. “That was it. I didn’t blame nobody…I didn’t die, and therefore I just kept on moving.” That incident made him retreat from the scene. Meanwhile, rap was starting to enter the mainstream: in 1979, the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” which became a huge hit; two years later, Blondie scored a No. 1 song with “Rapture” that featured singer Deborah Harry rapping. Even Herc’s Bronx rivals released songs that would be memorable in the history of hip hop: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”

But unlike those aforementioned acts, Herc didn’t reap the rewards from what he started into the ‘80s. Aside from an appearance in the 1984 rap movie Beat Street, he got caught up with drugs. “I was medicating back then,” he says. “I was a crackhead—the freebase came with the crack. When the plague came in, I was a part of that wave. I was under the influence. And I went away. It saved my life.”

Herc’s name has been in the news in recent years, as it was frequently mentioned in articles about the building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue concerning the uncertainty of its affordable housing status and a period of disrepair. (In 2007, the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation bestowed recognition on the building as the place where hip hop began). Two years ago, it was reported that Herc had health issues including kidney stones and did not have insurance—a fund was established for his medical expenses. “I’m good,” he says now about his health. “I’m on moderation now. I wasn’t a big drinker anyway. I’m looking what I’m not supposed to look. These young boys…they got nothing on me.”

Since that famous party 40 years ago in the Bronx, hip-hop music and style have dramatically evolved—current artists such Jay-Z and Kanye West have made hip-hop a global brand. “I love it,” Herc says of the state of the genre now. “I’m happy for them, whatever they’re doing, but as a part of a whole they’re not. They’re not part of a whole; they’re individuals.”

“I think hip hop as a culture does not do enough to recognize its origins and to honor its pioneers,” says Elliott. “Without Kool Herc, there couldn’t be Kanye or Jay-Z, so [this upcoming SummerStage event in Central Park] was our opportunity to celebrate a genre that has greatly impacted New York City and the world, and to bring attention and honor the groundbreakers that set the stage for all who came after them.”

These days, Herc considers hip hop to be a 24/7 job, and his enthusiasm is evident. “I got some new people around me, some new energy,” he says. “I got a new crew around and we’re going to do some things in the community and internationally. I’ve been around the world so I’m having a Kool Herc international chapter. Hip hop has left the U.S. and it’s in a good position overseas. They love it. Hip hop overseas is 15 years behind, and that’s beautiful because they know who’s who.”

“I don’t think all hip-hop heads know who DJ Kool Herc is,” says Chang, “and I wish everyone did, but I’m gratified that he is getting a lot of love during his lifetime beyond the people he directly influenced back in the day.”

Asked about why he thinks hip hop lasted this long, Herc answers quite bluntly: “Can you take away Santa Claus from kids? As long as there will be kids, there will be hip hop. It ain’t going nowhere; it ain’t going to fade away or die out. It was supposed to be a fad 40 years ago—hello? We ain’t going nowhere.”

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