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Kool Herc and the History (and Mystery) of Hip-Hop’s First Day

HIP-HOP WAS BORN IN THE BRONX IN the summer of 1973. To celebrate the music’s 50th anniversary, “Rolling Stone” will be publishing a series of features, historical pieces, op-eds, and lists throughout this year.

Fifty years on, the details of that historic night in the Bronx — the night everyone now says gave birth to hip-hop — still elude DJ Kool Herc, the man at its center that evening. “I remember the equipment, the turntables,” he says in an accent that still retains traces of his upbringing in Jamaica. “We weren’t a band. But we’re DJs. We’re rock stars now.” 

Aug. 11, 1973, was a typically nutso (and 90-degree) day in New York City in the Seventies. Two suspicious fires broke out in the Bronx, and city workers were still pulling bodies and rubble from the Aug. 3 collapse of a Greenwich Village hotel, which also housed a performance space (the Mercer Arts Center) that launched the New York Dolls. For anyone who still wanted to see live music that night, the options included R&B legend Jerry Butler at Philharmonic Hall, Johnny Nash (of “I Can See Clearly Now” fame) at the Bitter End, and Joe Walsh’s post-James Gang band, Barnstorm, in Central Park.

But at an apartment complex at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, Herc — also known at the time by his birth name, Clive Campbell — the sonic and vocal roots of rap started to coalesce. In a community rec room, Herc spun hard funk records on two turntables; echoing his love of reggae and toasting, he (and his friend and fellow DJ Coke La Rock) gave shout-outs to friends in the house.

Kool Herc and Grandmixer DXT in front of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue

Enid Alvarez/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

That day is now the basis for the music’s 50th-anniversary celebrations and marketing campaign. Last month, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer shepherded the Schumer-Cassidy resolution, which designated “Aug. 11 as ‘Hip Hop Celebration Day.’” Schumer himself (or a speechwriter) made reference to “the rec room where hip-hop was first created by DJ Kool Herc.” Today, the actual anniversary, a replica of the front of the Sedgwick Avenue building will be erected at Yankee Stadium, which will also present an all-star show.

“It’s like a volcano, right?” Herc says. “It bubbled up and broke grounds. And it progressed into a phenomenon. It’s official.”

Herc’s skills and parties are widely acknowledged and respected in hip-hop, especially the way he would pioneer the art of separating and replaying the drum breaks on early funk and dance records to create a continuous party track for a crowd. “Herc was a selector,” says Paradise Gray, the former X Clan member who is now chief curator at the Universal Hip Hop Museum in New York. “He knew which breakbeat to play that the b-boys wanted to dance to. He brought more awareness and more raw drum tracks to hip-hop rather than just playing popular music.”

But echoing the dissection of that day and its place in history, Gray adds, “There’s more of the story to be told.”

AS HERC’S SISTER Cindy Campbell tells the story, it was all about style. In need of cash to buy new clothes for the approaching school year, she decided to throw a back-to-school “jam” at 1520 Sedgwick, where she and family were living after they had moved from Jamaica in the Sixties. Her brother would provide the music.

Growing up in the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, young Clive was immersed in U-Roy, the Skatalites, and other local acts, and saw and heard his first systems. After he arrived in New York in 1967, Campbell danced at clubs and did some graffiti art, eventually earning the nickname Kool Herc: a combination of the then-ubiquitous commercials for Kool cigarette and his track-and-field skills (he was nicknamed “Hercules”). His own DJ skills started at home. His father, a mechanic, already had a sound system; Herc himself would sometimes pull speakers out of abandoned cars. “My father brought a PA system and didn’t know how to hook it up,” he said in a 1989 interview. “I was messing around with the music and I started out by buying a few records to play at my house.”

The white-walled rec room at 1520 Sedgwick, a complex of 102 units, was usually home to birthday parties and tenant meetings, and Cindy rented it for $25. Writing out invites on index cards, she charged 25 cents for girls, double that for the boys. “We came up with that idea, and it usually went according to the soda that was selling or how much a package of Wrigley’s gum was,” she says. “We were kids, and we just had change.” 

A disco ball dangled from the ceiling, and Herc hauled the sound system from the family’s second-floor apartment to the party room. As Herc told RS last year, it included two six-foot-tall speakers, all of it moved into an adjoining room. “You didn’t see the equipment,” Cindy Campbell says. “You just heard the music, and you never saw them. They had a little secret way of entering that room. Nobody was able to come in there. The DJ booth was separate.”

Herc and his father got soda and beer from a nearby grocery, and, over the course of a few hours, several hundred kids came in and out of the room. It was, they now say, a safe space, especially during that rattling time in the city and the Bronx. “There were no gangs there,” Herc says. “It was a party, and let’s have some fun.” Adds Cindy, “All of these guys were looking for something. They didn’t want to join a gang. So when we came out with these parties, you could go someplace and hear music and dress differently and hear toasting on the mic. It just evolved.”

The music played and created that night is a bit more difficult to pin down. No recordings or film footage of the event appear to exist, and Herc himself can’t recall exactly which records he spun that night. He may have started playing some reggae or dancehall LPs, but since those genres were still largely unknown to American listeners, he switched to R&B: “In Rome, you do what the Romans do,” he says. He may well have played some of the funk records released that year, including the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” and LPs in his collection by James Brown (with “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”) and Rare Earth. 

Whatever the records, Herc focused on those with the best ”breaks” — the parts where the drums and percussion were all you heard. By looking closely at the different shadings on the vinyl grooves, he could play those parts of a record, then drop the needle back down and extend them. Eventually he developed a two-turnable style he called the “Merry-Go-Round,” using two turntables and a mixer that allowed him to switch back and forth between breaks without interruption. “One night I was watching the crowd, and thought I could extend the party,” he told RS last year. “I went right to the breaks and that was it: ‘Oh, I like that!’” He and Coke La Rock would also get on the mic, giving shout-outs to friends and laying one of the foundations for MC’ing. “I noticed that if you called people’s names,” Herc says, “they get a bounce.” 

Herc DJ’ing in Blackpool, in the U.K., in 2000.

Henry Iddon/PYMCA/Avalon/Getty Images

When it was over, Cindy (who is also said to have turned her brother on to some of the records he played) had raised a few hundred dollars to buy new duds. The parties continued in the rec room for a bit, but they soon outgrew the space and reemerged in nearby parks; among those who saw Herc in action was future DJ legend Grandmaster Flash, who also developed the two-turnable technique. As for Herc, he found a calling. “I was like a shepherd,” he says. “I was watching the flock.”

ALTHOUGH NO INDEX-CARD invites exist for that August night, it still became legendary. Starting in the Nineties, Herc began talking up that party and date, and it was further cemented in history thanks to stories in The Source magazine and journalist Jeff Chang’s vital hip-hop history, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. “It’s the breaks,” say Dan Charnas, author of two essential hip-hop histories, The Big Payback and Dilla Time. “Herc found these particular records and played a crucial role in the creation of the breakbeat canon.”

At the same time, the focus on one specific day has led some in the hip-hop community to wonder: Is it possible to narrow down the birth of the music to a single moment? Was that day the genesis or one of rap’s many important evolutionary steps along the way? “It’s an arbitrary designation that I accept out of respect for Herc’s contribution and the contributions of all pioneers,” says Gray. “It is very good that we have this anniversary because it gives us a point in time to analyze. We know that the culture of hip-hop was affected by the sociopolitical and economic realities of the Bronx. But who was that first person who picked up that first guitar and did that first rock lick? When was gospel created? We don’t know any of these things!”

As Gray and others have pointed out, Herc wasn’t the only DJ prepping the world for a new genre. In Harlem, DJ Hollywood was talking over records around the same time; another Bronx native, Disco King Mario, was also pumping the music. For Gray, who grew up in the Bronx, another icon was DJ Smokey, a now obscure but influential DJ whom Gray would see engage in turntable battles with Herc. “If Smokey had won some of those battles, we’d be celebrating Smokey,” he says. “But Herc had something that Smokey didn’t have — power. Herc could set up right across from Smokey and turn on his equipment and you couldn’t hear Smokey anymore. Herc used his sound system well. Everyone he battled, he blew them out.” 

Given the important records that were released in 1973, maybe that year, as much as Herc’s DJ work, should be seen as a pivotal moment in rap, as Charnas argues. “It was a landmark year for hip-hop because it was the moment that DJs started thinking about emphasizing the breaks in a crucial way,” he says. “And when they did, they picked records of the day like ‘Apache.’ If Aug. 11 is the first of anything, it’s not the birth of the hip-hop genre or hip-hop culture per se. It’s the birth of the hip-hop religion — the sainthood, the anointments, the sacraments, and the debates.”

Others point to the many antecedents of hip-hop, from Muhammed Ali’s freestyle rhymes to the Last Poets, the late-Sixties collective of poets and musicians who also helped pioneer what could be called rapping. Then there’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the 1979 hit by the Sugarhill Gang (based on Chic’s “Good Times”) that was the first rap hit. Gray says this complicated backstory will be laid in a future exhibit at the Universal Hip Hop Museum, opening next year.

HERC, NOW 68, and based on Long Island, scoffs at the thought of alternative birthdays, especially when “Rapper’s Delight” is brought up. “Listen, listen,” he says. “They [dissenters] weren’t there. We did something that everybody jump on. Rappers now, what do they know? They have to go back to us, and it blew up. That’s it.”

Like a turntable, Herc’s life has sped up and slowed down in the decades since. Because he never made any records, other DJs, like Flash or Jam Master Jay, attained more prominence. Prior to the current 50th-anniversary celebrations, the music business devoted far more energy to documenting rock’s history than rap’s, and Herc’s reputation suffered as a result. He was stabbed in a club and later battled drug addiction. Cindy Campbell, as important to the saga as her brother, went on to work in the fashion and real-estate businesses and with a nonprofit dedicated to preserving hip-hop culture.

Herc admits he doesn’t keep up with modern hip-hop but has kept an ear open to pop of the last two decades — with, shall we say, sobering results. “I listen to the radio,” he says. “That’s how I found Amy Winehouse. Guess what? I went to rehab and she died. That’s the difference. It was tough times. Don’t do that no more. I won. It worked. Guess what? I’m still here, man.” 

Last year, at least, Herc finally got paid, quite literally. Realizing the time had come to part with all their souvenirs and memorabilia from the old-school days, he and Cindy teamed up with Christie’s to auction off more than 200 items from their archives, including turntables, Polaroids, fliers, turntables, and clothing. The two speakers from the 1973 parties were nabbed for $107,000, one of Cindy’s later index-card invites went for $27,720, and a box of the LPs Herc would play on his turntables sold for $20,160. Not including Christie’s cut, the auction brought in $851,143. 


All Herc will say about that auction is that it was “successful.” Was it difficult parting with anything with particular? “Everything, man,” he says. “It had to go. It’s gone.”

Further vindication for Herc arrives this November, when he’ll be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with a Musical Influence Award. Despite health issues that can make it difficult for him to walk, he’s planning on attending the ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. As for those long-ago days on Sedgwick Avenue — a building that fell into disrepair but was salvaged and is still an affordable-housing complex — Herc himself remains the opposite of nostalgic. He says he hasn’t returned there in years. “Why go back?” he says. “I have nothing there. For what? It’s over, man. We had the party, and we don’t go back.”

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