Kool Herc: A Biographical Essay
Author’s note: the following essay was originally published in a reference volume, Icons of Hip Hop. Citations should provide the following bibliographical info:
Marshall, Wayne. “Kool Herc.” In Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, ed. Mickey Hess, 1-26. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007).
Few individuals can claim a life story that so closely parallels hip-hop’s narrative arc as Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc. Often considered the movement’s founding father, an early participant in and innovator of the musical and cultural practices that have since swept the world, Kool Herc embodies hip-hop’s roots and routes, its booms and busts, its struggles and triumphs. From his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica to his coming-of-age in the Bronx, from his rise as a streetwise, peerless DJ to his decline in the wake of hip-hop’s new forms and commercial success, from his drug addiction in the 80s to his recent return as standard-bearer and spokesman, Herc’s tale can be read as a thread running through hip-hop history. Although his story has been told and retold and sold many times over, often making it difficult to extract the truth from the myths, the representations, and the press releases, Herc has been generous in granting interviews over the years, and his myriad recollections, as well as those of his peers, provide a strong outline for understanding his role as an architect and inventor, as one who forged so many of the forms we recognize today as hip-hop.
Trenchtown Rock: Clive Campbell’s Knotty Reggae Roots
Clive Campbell was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica, the first of six children of Keith and Nettie Campbell. He spent his early childhood living in an area of the city known as Trenchtown, the same storied public housing scheme and “concrete jungle” that produced such reggae luminaries as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Alton Ellis. Clive’s father worked as a foreman at Kingston Wharf garage — a respectable, working-class job that eventually allowed the Campbells to move to Franklyn Town, a lower-middle class neighborhood where the family had their own house and yard. It was while living in the government yard of Trenchtown, though, that Herc got his first taste of the powerful sound systems he would later emulate as a Bronx-based DJ.
Although Herc has at times denied the influence of Jamaican-style DJing on his own performance practice, arguing that the Bronx audiences he played for demanded a more local style, he has also acknowledged how being a witness to Kingston sound system dances deeply informed his sense of the power of music and of the DJ in particular — not to mention his sense of what was cool (e.g., suavely-dressed, well-respected gangsters and rebellious, ratchet-knife-wielding rude boys), as much as that may have had to be recalibrated upon moving to the Bronx. When asked about his musical influences by a reporter for the Jamaica Observer (Jackson 2004), Herc broke from his typical list of American performers and disc jockeys and instead named such Jamaican greats as Prince Buster, Don Drummond, the Skatalites, Big Youth, U-Roy, and sound system pioneer, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd.
It was at these dances — or just outside of them (since, due to his age, he often had to settle for spying through holes in the zinc fences that enclosed the dancehalls) — where young Clive got his first glimpses of sound system culture. He would watch the sound systems’ crews wheel in speakers and amplifiers on hand carts, the vendors set up their wares and stew up some curry goat, the gangsters and rude boys and dancehall queens strut their stuff before passing through the gate. But then, seeing was often less important than hearing the sound systems at work — and one need not have gotten too close to hear the selectors and DJs do their thing. Whether Clive was sitting just over the fence or in his family’s home down the road, there was no avoiding the engulfing sonic presence of the neighborhood dance. His body vibrating along with the heavy bass and his ears tickled by the well-designed systems’ crisp highs and clear mid-range frequencies, he developed a taste for the power and clarity of sound produced by the systems’ custom-crafted components. Later, seeking to reproduce this aesthetic with his own system in the Bronx, Herc would distinguish himself from his contemporaries and vanquish his rivals.
Beyond hearing the sound of the systems, of course, Clive also heard the music they played, as well as their style of playing it. It is worth noting that Clive left Jamaica before the term “reggae” gained currency and before the style that it describes emerged from rocksteady, the soul-infused, balladeer tradition that followed ska’s lead out of American influences and into a distinctive Jamaican synthesis of foreign and familiar styles. So the music that Clive would have heard emanating from the dancehalls in his youth comprised a mix of exciting, new local forms — often infused with the ebullience of independence, granted in 1962 — and imported favorites, especially soul and R&B sides. Although Jamaican popular music increasingly expressed a localized aesthetic over the course of the 1960s, cover versions of American pop songs remained staples of the local recording industry, stylistic nods to rock, soul, and R&B abounded, and the sounds of black America never totally fell out of favor in the dancehalls, though foreign-produced records no longer constituted the bulk of the sound system repertory as they had in the 1950s. Indeed, sound system performance practice, for all its uniqueness, can itself be traced to so-called foreign sources — in particular to African-American singers and disc jockeys. (Though one might ask, given the prevailing cultural politics of the day, what would be considered “foreign” from a Pan-Africanist or Black Power perspective?)
By the mid-60s, Kingston’s mobile sound systems had already eclipsed a longstanding tradition of live band performance in Jamaica. Although the island’s talented musicians continued to contribute crucially to the creation of Jamaican music, after the rise of the sound systems many musicians found themselves working in recording studios to produce the very recordings that would be played at local dances. The success of the sound systems was due in part to the entrepreneurial acumen of early soundmen such as Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, both of whom parlayed their success throwing dances and parties into their own music industry mini-empires, building recording studios, pressing records (at first for dances and later for sale to the public), and establishing labels with international audiences and musical legacies that continue well into today’s digital dancehall world. When Dodd first began playing the latest, hottest R&B records for patrons of his parents’ liquor store, soon expanding the operation to a makeshift dancehall, what he was doing looked a lot like what Herc would do in the Bronx years later. And when Dodd hired King Stitt to talk over the records, shouting out friends and associates, bigging up the sound system itself, and exhorting the audience to dance and buy food and drinks, Stitt sounded a lot like Herc and his partner (and fellow Jamaican immigrant) Coke La Rock would later sound.
Of course, King Stitt’s performances were steeped in the same Jamaican slang and patois poetics that Kool Herc and Coke La Rock would largely have to shed in order to reach their Bronx peers. And Stitt was called a DJ, not an MC — despite the fact that he rarely, if ever, operated the turntable. (In Jamaican parlance, the person who actually plays the records, cueing them up and pulling them up, is called the selector.) Stitt’s designation as a DJ, though — and the continued use of the term DJ to describe a non-singing vocalist in Jamaica — makes an important connection between Jamaican sound system practice, early hip-hop performance, and the main influence that both forms share: African-American radio disc jockeys and their jive-talking, rhyme-slinging, rhythm-rolling style. Having for years tuned into American radio broadcasts (which could reach Jamaica from as far north as Memphis or Cincinnati), the earliest Jamaican DJs borrowed liberally from the smooth signatures, scat singing, and catchy cadences of radio legends such as New Orleans-based Vernon “Dr. Daddy-O” Winslow and his many followers (and namesakes) across the South, not to mention such influential figures as Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls and Douglas “Jocko” Henderson. In something of an ironic twist, Herc and Coke La Rock would later synthesize what they had absorbed from these Jamaican versions of African-American disc jockey performance with the New York-based descendants of the same models, including such white disc jocks as Wolfman Jack and Cousin Brucie, both of whom Herc cites as early influences on both his talkover style and his American accent. Rather than riding the beat with a constant flow of syncopated syllables as rappers have since the late 70s, Jamaica’s DJs of the 60s and early 70s and hip-hop’s earliest DJs/MCs would pepper songs with short phrases, often in the form of rhyming couplets, employing the latest slang (including scat-filled routines), and often in a relatively free manner — i.e., without relating too directly to the rhythm of the track playing on the turntable (but frequently connecting to the track’s theme or to specific lyrics or connotations the song may have).
Thus Herc’s exposure to American music far preceded his actual move to the U.S. at age twelve. In addition to hearing popular R&B and soul songs on the radio and at sound system events (never mind Jamaican versions of these songs and styles), he also heard such music at home, for his father’s collection included records by Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, and country singer Jim Reeves, while his mother had been sending the family the latest James Brown and Motown records, among other soul and pop fare, since she moved to New York in the mid-60s. Like many a Jamaican migrant, Nettie Campbell was also sending money to her family, working as a dental technician while attending nursing school. She would soon send for her eldest son, who would eventually be followed by his siblings and father. When Clive arrived in New York on a cold winter night in 1967, he may not have realized how useful his practice sessions with his parents’ records would turn out to be.
The Boogie-Down Bronx and Clive’s Kool New Accent
Although the number of West Indian residents grew steadily in New York during the late 60s and throughout the 70s, due in part to British anti-immigration acts passed in the 1960s and the U.S. 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished national origins as the basis for immigration legislation, Clive Campbell’s experience shows that a critical mass had not yet crystallized so that borough culture could reflect such “foreign” infusions as Jamaicanness or so that notions of blackness could include Anglo-Caribbean or Latin-Caribbean versions. Far from the aura of quasi-exotic cool that it carries today, being Jamaican in the Bronx during the 1970s carried such a stigma that some young immigrants found it better to conceal their backgrounds. Not only would Clive have to lose his accent to fit in among his new peers, he would have to lose his “hick” clothing as well, including the boots, or “roach killers,” for which he was ridiculed at school. Although Clive denies that he ever hid his Jamaicanness, he puts the situation in perspective by recalling a particularly telling example of how this harassment would play out in his new neighborhood: “At that time [the early 1970s], being Jamaican wasn’t fashionable. Bob Marley didn’t come through yet to make it more fashionable, to even give a chance for people to listen to our music. . . . I remember one time a guy said, ‘Clive, man, don’t walk down that way cause they throwing Jamaicans in garbage cans’ ” (Chang 72). Of course, for a young man in a working-class family, adopting a new accent was, in a certain sense, a lot easier than finding a new wardrobe.
Having honed something of an American accent by singing along to his parents’ records, Clive continued to mold his voice upon moving to the Bronx, tuning to the distinctively American enunciations of Cousin Brucie and Wolfman Jack as well as their African-American contemporaries, including Chuck Leonard and Frankie Crocker, on such stations as WWRL, New York’s most popular “black music” station at that time. Adjusting his accent so as to be intelligible to classmates, by the time he began attending classes and playing sports at Alfred E. Smith High School, few of his peers would have identified Clive as a Jamaican — or even thought about throwing him in a garbage can. Indeed, a prodigious weight-lifter, a track medalist, and a fierce basketball player who could dunk the ball with ease, Clive Campbell, standing over six feet tall at this point, would soon be crowned with the first part of his new name: “Herc,” short for Hercules.
The “Kool” part of Clive’s new name arose from his early adventures as a graffiti writer. Running with a crew called the Ex-Vandals, alongside such soon-to-be legends as Phase 2, Super Kool, and El Marko, Clive originally adopted the tag “Clyde As Kool” since “Clive” — not an uncommon name in Jamaica — continued to serve as yet another marker of his foreignness. Because so many of his peers would call him by the more familiar “Clyde,” he eventually embraced it himself. And as seen in fellow crewmember’s name, Super Kool, the term “Kool” (with a ‘k’) had already attained no small currency among Herc’s peers. Clive himself identifies the special spelling with the cigarette brand that bears the same name and specifically with a television commercial for the brand that so exuded cool (with a ‘c’) that Clive was inspired to adopt the appellation. So “Clyde As Kool” morphed into “Kool Herc.” It was a name both chosen by Clive and suggested by his peers, a name that seemed to symbolize Clive’s new Bronx self, and a name — especially given its recognition value as a local graffiti tag — that would soon serve him well as a self-promoting DJ. (He would bill himself, and be billed, alternately as “Kool DJ Herc,” which — as evidenced by predecessors such as Pete DJ Jones — was a common way to designate oneself a DJ at the time, and as “DJ Kool Herc,” which is now the more conventional form. Similar to naming practices among reggae artists, one hears echoes of Herc in the names of subsequent DJs such as Kool DJ AJ and Kool DJ Red Alert.)
For all its modesty, Kool Herc’s first party has become an event of mythic proportions. A back-to-school fundraiser for his sister Cindy, it was held in August 1973 in the community center, or “rec room,” of the building where the Campbells lived: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx. Knowing that her brother had DJ ambitions and, moreover, that he knew how to get the most out of their father’s powerful PA system, Cindy asked Herc to DJ the party. In preparation, Herc bought about twenty new records to add to his small but growing collection. An astute observer of local party dynamics since his mother began taking him to events around New York in the late 60s, Herc had developed a fine sense of what a young Bronx crowd would want to hear. This did not stop him, however, from attempting to represent his roots by dropping some of the “big tunes” that would have sent a dance in Kingston into a frenzy. But at that time in New York, a time when West Indian immigrants could be singled out for cruel harassment, Jamaican music was still shunned as too “country” or degraded as “jungle music” by many African-Americans, a good number of whom, as first- or second-generation rural migrants from the South, still sought to distance themselves from a “hick” past. When Herc’s reggae selections were received coolly, the savvy young DJ played the sort of soul and funk hits, full of Latin-tinged percussion breaks, that he knew would go over well among his West Bronx peers. Thus the same chameleonic process that Herc embraced to change his accent, his name, and his sense of self now extended to his performance practice as he adapted Jamaican sound system techniques for his funk-oriented audience, shouting out and bigging up the crowd in local slang over the records people wanted to hear. The strategy worked: the room filled with young dancers and a feeling of exuberance, Cindy made enough money to buy herself a new set of clothes, and a buzz went out across the West Bronx about DJ Kool Herc, his serious sound system, and his funky record collection.
As word spread, soon the Campbells were filling the rec room on a regular basis, and new possibilities opened up for the young entrepreneurs. The parties’ attendees were — especially at first — relatively young, many of them high school students. As a new generation of kids who had largely managed to escape the height of gang violence in the Bronx but who inhabited a decaying, dangerous environment all the same, they were eager to find a relatively safe place for the sort of recreation Herc was offering. As less violent, though often no less competitive, “style wars”increasingly supplanted gang wars among Bronx youth, Herc’s parties seemed to herald a cultural sea change for the borough. By the summer of 1974, Herc was throwing block parties on Sedgwick Avenue, attracting a sizeable, multi-generational following and often playing until daybreak. When the crowds grew too large for the block, Herc moved the party up to Cedar Park at 179th Street and Sedgwick, tapping into the city’s power supply, and thus began the storied parties-in-the-park that have been commemorated in hip-hop lyrics ever since. By 1975, after a number of successful all-ages dances at the Webster P.A.L. (Police Athletic League), Herc was playing regularly in clubs, beginning with a gig at the Twilight Zone so impressive in its draw that he was offered a weekly residency at the Hevalo, a venue which not long before had shooed Herc away for passing out fliers. As demand for Herc grew, he would go on to play at many of hip-hop’s early hot spots: the T-Connection, the Sparkle (formerly the Executive Playhouse), the Audubon, the Monterey Center, the Godfather’s Club, the Galaxy 2000. Notably, despite most of the clubs having their own sound, Herc would always bring in his own indomitable system, which, in a nod to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, he had dubbed “the Herculoids.”
Along with the Herculoids, Kool Herc was also usually accompanied by the Herculords, a group of supporters and performers who assisted him in various ways. Among the Herculords were such DJs and DJs/MCs (since they often handled both turntable and microphone duties) as Coke La Rock, Clark Kent, Timmy Tim, LeBrew, and the Imperial JC. Herc also had a number of women in the crew, among them some of the first female MCs: Pebblee-Poo, Sweet and Sour, and Smiley. Many of the Herculords — male and female — also doubled as dancers, providing an instant critical mass when it was time to get things going. This was the dawn of what became known in the 80s as breakdancing, though the local term was b-boying, named after the b-boys (alternately defined as “break boys,” “beat boys,” “Bronx boys,” “Boogie Boys,” etc.) whom Herc would specifically encourage to dance when he played the popular, percussive breaks from the day’s funk hits. Ever the embodiment of hip-hop, Herc himself had background as a dancer, having gotten down in his younger days at such spots as the Puzzle, an experience which no doubt informed his selections as a DJ. (Once he assumed the role of soundman, however, he tended to stay behind the boards — except on occasions when he would watch the door to make sure the money was flowing as it should.) In addition to these multifaceted performers, the Herculords also included a number of devoted dancers, among them some of the earliest and most accomplished b-boys: Sau Sau, Tricksy, and the Nigger Twins (a/k/a, Keith and Kevin, later known simply as the Twins).
By 1976, Kool Herc and the Herculords/Herculoids were the toast of the Bronx. He had developed an iconic style to match his status, having graduated from wearing “roach killers” to sporting dress shoes and sharp slacks, leather jackets and fur coats, and, when he wasn’t rocking a medium-sized afro, a signature cowboy hat and big, round, dark sunglasses. On Herc’s hulking frame, hip-hop’s larger-than-life fashion-sense seemed to find the perfect model. Herc and his crew attracted audiences from across the borough and beyond, including some curious, young upstarts (such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash) who would eventually challenge Herc’s dominance. They would only do so, though, by beating Herc at his own game, for, by this point, he had set the template for what was beginning to be called hip-hop.
How Herc Became a Hip-hop Hero: Sound, Selection, and Style
The three main qualities that came to define Herc’s style — and, later, that of hip-hop DJs more generally — were already present when he threw his first party: 1) his sound, i.e., the system through which he played his records; 2) his selection, i.e., the repertory of records he played; and 3) his style, i.e., the way he played the records.
Herc’s sound system was simply incontestable. Of course, he had the good fortune of having a father who decided to sponsor a local R&B group and so purchased a Shure PA system and a mighty Macintosh amplifier to power it. When Herc figured out how to wire the system properly and really make it pump, his father was so grateful that rather than punishing him for playing with the prohibited equipment, he proposed a father-and-son business, allowing Herc to use the system for his parties while enlisting him to play between breaks at the R&B group’s shows. With incomparably heavy bass, sparkling highs, and clear mids (i.e., middle-range frequencies), Herc would taunt any fellow DJs who dared show up at his parties, sometimes emphasizing the separate frequency bands while discussing his system’s strengths. In terms of sheer sonic presence, none of Herc’s colleagues could compete. He famously drowned out Afrika Bambaataa at an early battle, embarrassing and upstaging the East Bronx challenger. And although Disco King Mario was known for a similarly superb system, he traveled in different circles than Herc and his presence was rarely felt in the hip-hop scene — with the notable exception of the time Mario loaned Bambaataa an amp for a battle with an easily vanquished DJ Breakout. Having such a system also meant that Herc was not a DJ for hire: he was a soundman with his own system and he needed neither promoters nor club owners to help him do his thing, throw his parties, run his business.
Like many of his enterprising peers, Herc also invested a good deal of his early earnings back into his system, maintaining a state-of-the-art edge over his competitors. Although hip-hop’s myth of origins often emphasizes the crushing poverty of the Bronx and the resourcefulness of young people who, abandoned by the state and the system, made due with what was available, such a story also tends to downplay the degree to which hip-hop’s pioneers borrowed and hustled and saved in order to attain what they needed to make their art and their living. Often, what they needed, such as turntables and sound systems, was not easily available and did not come cheap. It was largely through hard work, family assistance, and entrepreneurial acumen that such trailblazers as Kool Herc built a system, a culture, and, if so fortunate, a stream of steady revenue.
If anything could rival Herc’s sound system, it was his impeccable record selection. Herc quickly earned a reputation as a DJ with singular taste. Rather than the commercial confections that found favor on the radio and in the clubs throughout the 70s, Herc played more obscure records: good, hard, funky music that, for him and his neighbors, seemed to tap more directly into the zeitgeist. It was no coincidence that the music Herc and his peers wanted to hear was the music of Black Power, of militant pride, and of continued calls for social and economic justice in the post-Civil Rights era. Notably, these were not the songs one typically heard at that time on the radio, even on “black radio,” which increasingly devoted its programming to disco and other styles associated with the upwardly-mobile black middle-class. As “Black and Proud” artists and bandleaders such as James Brown refined soul and R&B into a sparer, harder style that came to be called funk, tightening up the rhythms and focusing on riffs and repetition, one common feature of such songs that caught the imagination of the listening (and dancing) public == especially the b-boys of the Bronx — was the use of bare-bones, percussion-heavy, “in-the-pocket” drum breaks (i.e., solo passages during which the drummer would accentuate and play with but not diverge too far from the basic beat). Such breaks often took the place of the instrumental solo in rock or pop or jazz, occurring after the second chorus or the bridge, though sometimes they constituted a much larger portion of a track. Rather than a melody-based solo, as was conventional in previous pop genres, funk breaks were rhythm-centric passages, performed on drum kits and hand drums — typically, the bongos and congas that had been absorbed into American music via Latin Caribbean traditions — and occasionally featuring a bass line and/or regular riffs or hits from other instruments in the ensemble. These breaks — soon to be known around the Bronx as breakbeats — emerged as a staple of the genre, and b-boys would save their most impressive, acrobatic, and competitive routines for these explosive moments.
Always a keen observer of dance-party dynamics, Herc noticed the excitement such breaks could generate. It was an insight that would lead to Herc’s major aesthetic innovation: the isolation and repetition of the breaks. He began to seek out records simply for their breakbeats, regardless of whether the rest of the song was something one would want to hear. Like his Jamaican sound system predecessors, Herc attracted an audience that came specifically to hear his special selection of records. Similarly, one might compare Herc’s battery of breakbeats to Coxsone Dodd’s catalog of riddims, the instrumental tracks recorded at Dodd’s Studio One in the late 60s that have served as the basis for an enormous number of reggae recordings. Herc’s “breaks records” not only came to constitute what is essentially a b-boy canon, they also established the foundational repertory of the hip-hop DJ. Because so many subsequent DJs sought out the same records they heard played by Herc, a great number of these tracks — many of them relatively obscure, though many of them hits — now stand as touchstones of early hip-hop. Moreover, these same breaks became favorites of sample-based hip-hop producers in the 80s and 90s, further affirming their status and engraining their familiar rhythms and timbres in the hip-hop imagination. Though it may take a hip-hop or funk aficionado to recognize many of the names on these records, they have so deeply permeated the sound of modern hip-hop, pop, and electronic music that few would find their strains unfamiliar. Some of Herc’s favorites included the following: James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” (and other cuts from Sex Machine ); Booker T and the MGs’ “Melting Pot” (1971); Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” and “Apache” (1973); Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” (1972); Baby Huey’s “Listen to Me” (1971); Dennis Coffee’s “Scorpio” (1971); Mandrill’s “Fencewalk” (1973); Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun” (1972); Bob James’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (1975); Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” (1972); Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” (1969).
Although Herc was known for letting records play before and beyond their breaks (sometimes, to the consternation of some observers, including the “wack” or undesirable parts, or all the way to the end of a track), perhaps his most lasting legacy is the practice of isolating and extending these breakbeats, transforming the fleeting, funky moments into loops that could last for many minutes. Eventually, by employing two turntables and two copies of a record, Herc developed what he called the “Merry-Go-Round” technique. Dropping the needle back to the beginning of the break on one record just as the other was about to end, and repeating the process ad infinitum, Herc could keep a break — and a crowd of b-boys — breaking for as long as that particular section would work. Though the hip-hop story has enshrined Herc as the first to isolate and repeat breakbeats in this way, it should be noted that Herc’s technical proficiency was never exactly heralded, and so his focus on and liberation of the break should perhaps be understood more as an aesthetic than a technical achievement. Later DJs, such as Grandmaster Flash, influenced by Herc’s model but more virtuosic in their control over the turntables and mixer, would improve on the formula, moving beyond drop-the-needle imprecision by backspinning, scratching, and cutting the records while cueing them via monitoring headphones, thus allowing one to mix breaks more seamlessly into one another and to isolate shorter and shorter sections for repetition.
As an element of style, Herc’s less-than-seamless, stop-and-start approach to selection draws yet another connection to reggae performance practice. Whereas hip-hop DJing — partly related to its roots in disco and the club scene — has since developed in a manner that privileges smooth, beat-matched transitions between tracks, reggae selecting has remained a style more defined by stark cuts and mixes. This is often the case even when a selector is “juggling,” or mixing sequentially, several songs on the same underlying riddim: when a popular song receives requests for a “pull up,” the selector rewinds it, usually suddenly and audibly, and lets it play again. Reggae-style selecting arises partly out of the constraints of using a single turntable, which is another reason that talkover-style DJs played an important role, filling in between songs and keeping the audience’s attention rapt. Such an approach, like Herc’s own orientation, prizes the effect that a popular song or “big tune” will have, seeking to repeat this effect again and again, rather than the effect that a series of smoothly mixed songs would achieve over the course of an evening. Further, one might hear Herc’s emphasis on drum and bass, the isolated elements in so many breaks, as another connection to the reggae tradition, which has long cherished the power of sparse, heavy grooves. And, of course, the storied technique of soaking records in the bathtub to remove their labels in order to thwart competitors from “stealing” one’s signature songs is another practice that hip-hop’s pioneers borrowed from their Jamaican precursors. Indeed, it was Herc’s father, well familiar with sound system lore, who advised him to protect the identity of his records in this manner and thus protect his cache with a clientele who came explicitly to hear Herc’s special selections. Finally, Herc’s use of effects, especially the echo and reverb he famously, and generously, applied to his and his fellow DJs’/MCs’ vocals, also appears to have been inspired by sound system style and dub reggae aesthetics.
Despite paying respects to Jamaican originators and considering hip-hop and reggae to be “cousins,” Herc himself has denied that reggae-style DJing informed his own approach. When asked whether Jamaican “toasting,” a term often used to describe early reggae DJ/talkover style, had any influence on his performance practice, Herc typically disavows any such thing, noting that he could not play reggae in the Bronx and instead crediting African-American vocalists such as James Brown or Jalal Nuriddin of the Last Poets, the proto-rapper on Hustler’s Convention (1973), with providing the inspiration for rap’s vocal styles. Even so, descriptions of Herc’s and his Herculord comrades’ vocalizations often paint them more akin to such reggae DJs as U-Roy than to the rhythm-riding MCs of the late 70s, such as Cowboy and Melle Mel, Busy Bee and Grandmaster Caz, who are generally acknowledged as among the first rappers. In contrast to these early MCs’ beat-centric approach, strewing syllables on strong beats and syncopated accents alike and often rhyming on the final beat of each measure, Kool Herc and Coke La Rock were known for declaiming more freely over the beat. Employing short stock phrases, often in the form of rhymed couplets, and with improvised references to the situation at hand, Herc and the Herculords would shout out their own names and those of their friends, urge b-boys to dance, and project their larger-than-life, cooler-than-cool personas through the latest local slang and catch phrases: “Rock on, my mellow!” . . . “To the beat, y’all!” . . . “You don’t stop!”
Although it seems likely that many of Herc’s techniques were inspired by his acquaintance with Jamaican sound system style, similarities between his approach to DJing/MCing and reggae selector/DJ methods might, in the end, be better understood as a product of the common roots of the two — e.g., African-American disc jockey practice — than any sort of intentional synthesis. It is possible both to underestimate and overstate the degree to which Jamaican practices informed hip-hop, and so Herc’s reluctance to embrace a reggae-centric myth of origins is instructive. Indeed, a number of hip-hop historians have distorted the picture at times, falsely asserting the Jamaicanness of Grandmaster Flash (whose parents are Bajan) and Afrika Bambaataa (of mixed Bajan and Jamaican parentage) and even the Incredible Bongo Band (which featured Nassau-born bongo player King Errisson among the studio musicians assembled by bandleader Michael Viner, but no Jamaicans; interestingly, their “Apache” was re-issued by a Jamaican record label, perhaps sowing the confusion). Herc has not let his interviewers forget how difficult it was for a boy in the Bronx to be Jamaican in the early 70s. He has repeatedly underscored the American-ness and African-American-ness of hip-hop. Given his commitment to teasing out the truth amid such complex cultural circumstances, Herc’s testimony offers the readers and writers of hip-hop’s narrative a number of insights into how hip-hop’s cultural politics and modes of expression differed from those of reggae, funk, rock, and disco, among other contemporary formations.
From Old School to New Guard: The Challenges of Commercialization
In the early- and mid-1970s, Kool Herc’s style — from his mobile sound system to his break-laden selections to his slang-steeped talkover — distinguished him from local competitors as well as from the rapping-and-mixing disco DJs of the club scene, but as a new generation of DJs and MCs borrowed (and in some cases, improved upon) Herc’s techniques and as hip-hop proved to be a commercially-viable music genre in its own right, Herc found himself increasingly out of the limelight and unable to adapt to or capitalize on what amounted to a serious shift for hip-hop.
Perceptions of an underground/commercial divide in hip-hop long predate the advent of recorded rap as popularized by the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Whereas disco DJ luminaries, such as Pete DJ Jones and DJ Hollywood, catered to an older audience in the clubs of the Bronx and other boroughs, Herc and his ilk were seen as representing the street, playing to young, high school age audiences in parks, community centers, and small, rough-and-tumble clubs in the Bronx. Not only did these two camps of DJs play to different clienteles in different venues, they also, by and large, played different records in a different manner while employing divergent styles of vocal engagement with the music and the audience. Although there was some overlap in terms of repertory, the shiny, schmaltzy disco selections popular on the radio and in clubs were, in the early hip-hop imagination, generally opposed to funk’s syncopated, percussion-heavy breakbeats. In contrast to Herc’s pull-ups and needle-drops, disco DJs favored smooth segues from track to track. They also tended to rap in a more mellifluous style, relating directly, if casually, to the steady beats of the music they were playing, and stringing together long, verse-like presentations of their own sets of stock phrases rather than the freer, more fragmentary interjections of the Herculords and their street-wise colleagues. The next generation of hip-hop DJs and MCs, led by Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and their respective crews, would synthesize these distinct stylistic strands, refining (if not outright commercializing) “street” style while bringing a harder edge to the smooth surfaces of club rap and disco DJing. The combination would prove a winning one, in the mass market and the street alike, leaving behind originators such as Herc while moving hip-hop into unforeseen territory.
Hip-hop’s second generation took the template that Herc had so solidly set and ran with it. Afrika Bambaataa followed in Herc’s footsteps by amassing a record collection unparalleled in terms of eclectic, electric breakbeats, while Grandmaster Flash elevated the art of DJing far beyond “Merry-Go-Round” needle-dropping, building on the innovations of Grandwizard Theodore — generally credited with having discovered and refined the practice of scratching — in order to scratch, cut, and mix his selections with punch and precision, sometimes while spinning around or using body parts other than his hands. As other DJs and crews such as the L Brothers (featuring Grandwizard Theodore), DJ Breakout and Baron (of Funky 4 fame), and Kool DJ AJ made the field an increasingly competitive one, showmanship and technical skill grew in importance as ways to distinguish one’s act from the pack. MCs as well as DJs had to sharpen their skills and refine their acts to make a name for themselves, especially as the men and women on the microphones, rather than the turntables, became the new focal point for hip-hop performance. As big name DJs such as Flash literally placed their MCs into the foreground at parties and shows, moving them from behind the DJ table to the front of the stage, MCs began to develop more elaborate routines. Relieved of any DJ duties, MCs developed their storehouses of shout-outs and rhymes into longer verses (both composed and improvised) and sometimes into full songs and group routines, enhanced with choreography, matching uniforms, and props of various kinds.
MCs became the focus of attention and the primary draw for audiences, outshining the DJs who, nonetheless, often retained the top name on marquees and fliers. Drawing on the smooth and steady rap style of disco DJs, the proto-rap “spiel” of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, various other American and African-American oral traditions (including, as mentioned above, radio disc jockey practice), and refining and further stylizing the “street” style of the Herculords, MCs such as Cowboy and Melle Mel, who worked with Flash and later comprised half of the Furious 4, advanced the art of MCing in their performances, riding the beat more explicitly and developing increasingly sophisticated rhyme schemes and group routines. These more intricate, showy performances were often saved for later in the evening, with the early hours of the party still focusing on the DJ and his selections and featuring short, often improvised exhortations from the MCs.
Before long the number of MCs and crews of rappers exploded. Kid Creole and Scorpio rounded out the Furious 4 before being joined by Raheim (who defected from the Funky 4 after losing a battle to Flash’s crew) to become the Furious 5. K.K. Rockwell, Keith Keith, Jazzy Jeff, Rodney Cee, and Busy Bee made up the rotating cast known as the Funky 4 (or the Funky 4+1 when pioneering female MC Sha Rock joined them). Grandmaster Caz, formerly known as DJ Casanova Fly, commanded the microphone and turntables alongside DJ Disco Wiz before forming a group called Mighty Force with Whipper Whip and Dot-A-Rock (both of whom would later help comprise the Cold Crush Brothers and then the Fantastic 5). Caz developed a strong set of rhymes and routines during this period, a number of which found their way into Sugar Hill Gang’s breakthrough single (including the line “I’m the C-A-S-AN the O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y,” spelling Caz’s former tag). As the story goes, Big Bank Hank, despite not being an MC himself, was approached by Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records to record some of the rhymes she heard him reciting at a pizzeria where he was working. Because Hank was serving as a manager and promoter for Caz and Mighty Force, he already knew many of Caz’s rhymes — as did many hip-hop devotees at that time — and he had privileged access to Caz. Not realizing the record would be an enormous hit, Caz allegedly gave Hank free reign to pick through his rhyme book, and with their smash single the Sugar Hill Gang soon outstripped all other MC crews in terms of notoriety. Some twenty years later Caz would record “MC’s Delight,” an attempt to set the historical record straight.
Caz’s influence as an MC did not stop with Sugar Hill Gang’s appropriation of his well-known rhymes, for his work with the Cold Crush Brothers served to push the art of MCing toward greater heights of wordplay and into flashy, well-rehearsed routines. Invited by DJ Charlie Chase to help with auditions for Cold Crush, Caz was convinced to join the group himself. Alongside Charlie Chase, DJ Tony Tone, Easy AD, Almighty Kay Gee, and Jerry Dee Lewis (JDL), Caz helped forge a distinctive group style for Cold Crush, involving intricate, back-and-forth interplay between the MCs and melodic, sing-along passages that often found the members harmonizing together. The high theater of the Cold Crush Brothers’ performances presented a formidable challenge to rival crews such as the Fantastic 5, and their rapid-fire, interlaced rhymes carried forward into the dynamic routines of such acts as Run DMC — as well as more recent groups, such as Jurassic 5, who essentially serve as a living tribute to Cold Crush style.
The late 70s also saw the rise of a number of strong female MCs. Joining the eminent Sha Rock on the scene were Lisa Lee (who played with Bambaataa and who, along with Debbie D and Sha Rock would later form the trio, Us Girls), Little Lee (who worked with DJ AJ), and Herc’s mainstays Pebblee-Poo, Sweet and Sour, and Smiley. A few women got into the DJ business as well, among them DJ Wanda D (an early member of Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation) and Pambaataa (who was ushered into the scene by Grandmaster Caz). Like many a minority member of the early hip-hop scene (see also, Latinos and West Indians), female performers were sometimes subject to harassment or ridicule, but generally they were respected, protected, and promoted.
Even as Herc’s prominence was waning with the ascension of new DJs and MCs, new styles and forms, he continued to enjoy success as a dominant force on the scene. Thoughout the mid- to late-70s, while new doors were opening for hip-hop’s next generation, Herc was still regularly rocking parties with the Herculords and Herculoids. Indeed, even as some of hip-hop’s first recording stars were emerging, Herc was still earning more money by throwing parties than a gold-record holding MC. There was little incentive, then, for Herc to get into the record business. Moreover, before hip-hop recordings had proven successful as a commodity in themselves, it made little sense to someone like Herc or Flash to take the aesthetic leap of making a record out of other records. For originators such as Herc, hip-hop was not something you could put on a record; hip-hop was a party in the park, a social event, a practice rather than a product. Few thought the experience could translate to record at all, never mind into a commercially lucrative form. Thus, not only did upstarts such as Flash and Bambaataa present figurative and literal battles for Herc — who won a number of such battles before finally being outshined — but the advent of rap recordings sounded a death knell for the hip-hop DJ more generally. Most early rap recordings saw away with the DJ entirely, employing instead — as was traditionally the case in studios — a house band to replicate the breakbeat-derived accompaniments for MCs’ routines. The recession of the very role of the DJ spelled serious trouble for Herc, and as hip-hop moved further into the club scene, with some DJs booking themselves at multiple venues in a single evening, the days of the self-sufficient hip-hop sound system seemed numbered.
The year 1977 stands as a watershed both for hip-hop and for Herc. For one, it was the year of the great summer blackout in New York. By many accounts, the looting of stores specializing in electronics and audio equipment resulted in yet another explosion of competing crews, each with their own state-of-the-art systems. It was also the year that Herc was stabbed while coming to the aid of a friend at one of his own parties at the Sparkle. Sustaining several wounds to his side and his palm, Herc was hospitalized for weeks and admits to withdrawing from the scene for some time thereafter. He returned still serious about his business and about maintaining the vibe he had cultivated for so long, but by the early 80s things were changing in the world of hip-hop. With a few rap hits on the charts and a humming media buzz around breakdancing and graffiti, mainstream arrival — in both economic and cultural terms — seemed like a real possibility for hip-hop, and the music and film industries displayed no little interest in exploiting the scene’s vibrancy for commercial gain. Although he continued to sharpen his skills, collect the hottest breaks, and bring new talent into his crew, Herc never got involved with commercial recording. It is unclear, at any rate, whether he had the desire or the ability to do so: for Herc, hip-hop was always about making a party move, not about showboating or vocalizing with a band of studio musicians. He was getting older, as was his audience, and the movement which he had helped to shape and form was now growing at a startling rate and going in unexpected directions.
Herc’s Decline and Fall, Climb and Return
In something of a symbolic turn, Kool Herc appeared as himself, complete with cowboy hat, tasseled jacket, and round, dark sunglasses, in the film Beat Street (1984) — the second attempt to market a movie about hip-hop to mainstream America. Arriving in theaters shortly after Breakin’ (1984), Beat Street was set in New York and clearly drew on the documentary-style realism of Wild Style (1982) and Style Wars (1983) even as it indulged in Hollywood cliches. Tellingly, Herc does not play an active DJ in the film so much as a broker of sorts, a manager of his own club, which is given a reggae-tinged title, “The Burning Spear,” and dressed up Tiki-room style with graffiti-inspired placards interspersed among the South Pacific kitsch. Herc stands as a towering figure in the film, and he invests the role with proper authority. Upon being told that the aspiring DJ (and lead actor) deserves a shot at playing at the Burning Spear since he’s “the best DJ in the Bronx” — an irony that would not have been lost on the man who previously claimed that title — Herc replies, curtly and pointedly, “Better be.” Indeed, if no longer the “best DJ in the Bronx,” Herc is portrayed in the film as a major tastemaker, and his name carries enough weight that when “dropped” to the manager of the Roxy, for whom the lead actor would also like to audition, it’s enough to convince him to go see the young DJ play at the Burning Spear. Even so, it’s clear that Herc’s function in the film is to pass the torch to a new generation, endorsing the young, up-and-coming DJ rather than reigning as king of the scene. Perhaps his marginalization in the film’s portrayal, despite Herc allegedly requesting — and receiving — a more prominent role, was appropriate: 1984 was the same year that the Stardust Ballroom played host to what many considered Herc’s “last jam.” Hip-hop had set sail, and Kool Herc, formerly the ship’s captain, had missed the boat.
Herc’s story takes a dark detour in the mid- to late-80s. He began selling and smoking crack cocaine, developed an addiction to the powerful drug, and found himself living in a building known as the “Hallways of Horror.” In 1987, he was arrested for selling to an undercover agent and spent some time in jail. “My father had died, my music was declining and things were changing,” Herc recounts, “I couldn’t cope, so I started medicating. I thought I could handle it, but it was bigger than I was” (Gonzales 150). Some of the same rap recordings that would document a bleak, crack-ravaged New York — e.g., Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded (1987) — would also represent hip-hop’s strongest embrace of reggae style to date. A lot had changed since the early 70s, including the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans in New York, among them the notorious drug-running posses whose cool-and-deadly pose would provide new images of and ideas about Jamaicanness. By the late 80s, it seemed quite possible, if not persuasive, to represent the Bronx in a patois tongue. Ironically, Herc embraced crack right alongside his hip-hop brethren but missed out on the open celebration of the very heritage he had decided to downplay years before.
Eventually, Herc pulled himself out of his slump and began seeking the statesman status he deserved. He literally cleaned himself up, appearing clean-shaven with short hair (but still those dark glasses), and gradually began growing some small dreads. As the wider world came to recognize hip-hop as a vibrant, brilliant, poignant set of cultural forms, Herc once again found himself credited as a founding father — though, in the early days of such recognition, such praise was more commonly lavished from Europe or Japan than in the U.S. Herc’s status climbed steadily over the course of the 90s, and he found himself the subject of numerous interviews, a prominent guest at conferences, and, in something of a twist, a coveted collaborator on some commercial recordings. Billed as the “Master of Ceremonies,” Herc appeared on several cuts, including the intro and outro (called “Herc’s Message”), on Super Bad (1994), an album by Public Enemy’s Terminator X. Significantly, the liner notes refer to Herc as “The Godfather and Founder of Hip-hop,” signaling a grander acknowledgment of the role Herc played. A few years later, the hip-hop-influenced “big beat” duo, the Chemical Brothers, invited Herc to open one of their concerts in London. Herc’s voice, seemingly sampled from his live set, figures prominently on a track called “Elektrobank” from the group’s massively popular second album, Dig Your Own Hole (1997). And although Herc’s role on the track is to introduce the Chemical Brothers in classic MC style, the recording surely served to introduce Herc to a new generation of listeners around the globe.
Herc may still be better known abroad, but his stateside profile has been rising with the spate of hip-hop retrospectives now regularly appearing on television, radio, and in book form. With his hair grown to shoulder length and his physique as Herculean as ever, he still casts a long shadow. Occasionally wearing a Jamaican-style tam to contain his dreads, Herc’s intermittent slippage into a West Indian lilt seems a lot less out-of-place than it once might have. Like his old school comrades, Flash and Bambaataa, Kool Herc occasionally plays shows as a DJ, appearing as a guest of honor at various events and concerts in major cities around the U.S. and the world. In 1999, for instance, Herc performed at a CMJ (College Music Journal) convention party at CBGB’s in New York, apparently playing — among other selections — a fair amount of classic 80s house records, showing that he’s still got open ears, unconventional tastes, and deep crates. Despite being so sought after, however, Herc has continued to live humbly since his fall from the top of the Bronx party scene. Upon hearing in 2004 that Herc was working at Federal Express to earn a living, the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson proposed a foundation, established by successful hip-hop artists, to offer substantial awards to hip-hop’s undercompensated pioneers.
If proper credit (especially in monetary terms) has been a long time coming, Herc is at least now widely recognized as the trailblazer he is, and he has increasingly found himself serving as a spokesman for the old school and for hip-hop more generally. Among other public acknowledgments, Herc was the first to be recognized at VH1′s “Hip-Hop Honors” ceremony in 2004. He wrote the introduction to Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (2005) and appeared at several tour stops to talk about the book, his past, and hip-hop’s present. He appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in the spring of 2005, discussing his role as “father of the breakbeat” with Terry Gross, and he had a cameo in the video for Jin’s “Top 5 (Dead or Alive)” (2005), a song which pays homage to hip-hop’s greats and begins with the line: “It started out with the legendary Kool Herc.” Back in Jamaica, Herc has also been acclaimed for his accomplishments, serving as yet another proud symbol of the small island’s big influence. In addition, at a time when, due to its cultural prominence, hip-hop-related gear can generate as much revenue as record sales, Herc has endorsed and promoted since 2005, alongside fellow pioneers Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, Busy Bee and Sha-Rock, an old-school-oriented clothing line, Sedgwick and Cedar, named after the intersection where he threw many of his most storied parties. In early 2006, Herc was among the hip-hop luminaries donating records, turntables, and other objects of significance to an exhibit to be housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The consensus around Kool Herc’s position as hip-hop’s most eminent architect is, ultimately, perhaps the greatest tribute he could hope to receive for so strongly shaping one of the most powerful and popular cultural movements of the modern era. Clive Campbell’s life story provides a parallel parable to hip-hop’s own. His name lives on — and not just in song. The historical record will remember Herc not only as hip-hop’s founding father but as one of its shining sons.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. 7-85.
Davey D. “1989 Interview with DJ Kool Herc.” Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner. 19 May 2003.
Fricke, Jim and Charlie Ahearn. Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.
Gonzales, Michael A. “The Labors of Hercules.” The Source 100 (January 1998): 144-150.
Hebdige, Dick. Cut ‘N’ Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music. London: Comedia, 1987.
Jackson, Kevin. “DJ Kool Herc: Hip-hop Pioneer.” Jamaica Observer. 8 October 2004.
Katz, David. Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
McCord, Mark. “Kool DJ Herc vs. Pete DJ Jones: One Night at the Executive Playhouse.” Wax Poetics 17 (June/July 2006): 84-94.
Stolzoff, Norman. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000.
Waters, Mary. Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Books, 2001.