(Special Guests: Coke La Rock, Cindy Campbell, Clark Kent & Timmy Tim.)
Obviously the birth of a culture is a process with many pioneers, not a single moment. However, if you had to point to a single mythical birthday for this music we call hip hop, this would probably have to be it. It all started back on August 11th, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx when a six foot five muscular sixteen year old named Clive Campbell had already become a DJ named Kool Herc. He had decided to help his kid sister Cindy Campbell throw a back to school party so that she could get some money for new school clothes from the boutiques down on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Little did anyone know the party that they threw would inadvertently spark a global culture and become the most pervasive and popular music the world has ever known. So let’s take it back. Way back, back into time.
As a boy just entering his teenage years, Clive Campbell moved from his home in Trenchtown, Jamaica, a mere street away from Bob Marley’s house, to the West Bronx of New York. In doing this he brought with him his love for cowboy boots, parties and the music heard from boomin’ sound systems, especially American music like James Brown, who had a hit song with I Got You (I Feel Good). Since he watched Dennis the Menace growing up, he had thought all of the people in America were like Mr. Wilson and had never even experienced snow before, having lived on the island his whole life up until that point. However, he did have a knowledge of the dub instrumental versions of popular records and Jamaican tradition of toasting, both of which would service him well in the years to come. Funnily enough, the original inspiration for toasting had largely come from black radio DJs on the East Coast of the United States.
That crucial move took place in November of ’67. The immersion into the American lifestyle already had him losing his accent before he even reached Alfred E. Smith High School, mostly due to him singing along with the music he heard played by Cousin Brucie or Wolfman Jack. By the summer of ’70 he was already writing graffiti with his friends Richard a.k.a. Uncle Rich, Jerome Wallace a.k.a. Yogi and a crew called The Ex-Vandals, which included such well known taggers as Phase 2 and Stay High 149.
Clive took the name Clyde as Kool. Clyde came from everyone thinking his name was Clyde anyway, like the then player for the Knicks, Walt “Clyde” Frazier. The Kool came from a cigarette commercial he witnessed back in Jamaica, of a James Bond-esque man telling a woman to get out of his car when she touched his cigarette, which had always stuck with Clive. He started lifting weights, running track and playing rough street basketball in the schoolyard, thanks to lessons from his friend Coke. This led to another kid calling him Hercules. Clive didn’t like the sound of that, asked what the short form of Hercules was, found out it was Herc and then combined that with his bombing title to form the name Kool Herc.
It wasn’t long after that when Herc knew he better steer clear from the graffiti scene because if he got caught, not only would he be arrested but he’d get an ass whoopin’ from his father on top of that. Herc was doin’ his freestyle dances on the dance floor back then, not behind the wheels and would hear complaints from those in the crowd, wondering why certain records were played but others were not, why some were cut off too early and also noticed that people were waiting for particular parts of songs to break out their best moves. It was then that he decided to try his hand at this whole DJ thing.
His friend Shaft was already a DJ and his father had two Shure columns that Herc wasn’t allowed to touch, having to borrow a neighbor’s equipment. Then one day when his father was gone, he rigged their system up so it played louder. Upon discovering this, his father was ecstatic and they started a part time father and son sound system business, though their schedules often conflicted. It was then that Herc started buying up 45s. He already liked James Brown, not only from his days as a youth in Trenchtown but also from John Brown breaking those records in New York. Timmy Tim brought him The Incredible Bongo Band’s first album. And that’s where it all really started.
(Cindy Campbell, outside of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the ’70s.)
Cindy wasn’t gettin’ enough cash from her job with the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which was forty five dollars every two weeks. This is how the Back to School Jam of August ’73 came about, which in some accounts doubled as a birthday party for Cindy as well. Three weeks prior to the event Clive and Cindy had used index cards taken from school to make invitations that had musical phrases such as Get on the Good Foot and Fencewalk written on them, to entice people. And due to his tags people were already curious as to who Kool Herc actually was.
Cindy and her brother rented out the recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the West Bronx of New York for twenty five dollars, even though their dad had to sign for it. They decided to charge fifty cents admission for the guys and twenty five cents for ladies, charging what Juicy Fruit was selling for in the corner stores, though some friends got in free. Their parents bought Colt 45 and Old English 800 to sell, in addition to providing soda. Their mother cooked up some hot dogs and chili dogs, as well as other snacks. They wound up making anywhere between three and five hundred dollars that night, but in retrospect that ended up being the least important part of the evening.
Between high schooler friends and family there were a hundred plus people at this party. People who were there on that fateful night, or at least claimed to be, were: Afrika Bambaataa, Busy Bee, Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Mean Gene, Red Alert and Sheri Sher. There was also Sau Sau, a double jointed dude, now widely credited as the first true b-boy who would really go off.
Herc brought about twenty albums that he had recently bought from the record shop Sounds & Things and had been practicing with that week using his father’s Shure speakers. Per his father’s advice, he had soaked the labels off his vinyl so that no one but him would know what these records were, starting the never ending trend of the crate digger’s competitive nature. Cindy also provided records she bought herself, for Herc to play during the slow jam session. He took the two Shure columns, two Bogart amps, two Girard turntables, a regular mic and one with an echo chamber, but no headphones and moved them from their first floor apartment down into the recreation room.
(Footage from The Hip Hop Years documentary in ’99.)
In this rec room there were two bathrooms, a coat checking booth, a kitchen and a large open area, to which Herc added steel milk crates with planks of wood balanced on top to serve as makeshift benches and then put in a fan for when it got too hot. Herc was in a room adjacent to the main one and had to peak out to even see the people dancing. They had no strobe, so they paid a guy that when Herc said Mike-with-the-Lights, would flick the light switch on and off. Herc started off playing some dancehall, which didn’t translate to the Bronx crowd. Then Herc broke out the funk and soul records. The first showcase of these get-downs arranged into a merry-go-round was the live Sex Machine album version of James Brown’s Give It Up or Turnit a Loose into The Incredible Bongo Band’s Bongo Rock ’73 into Babe Ruth’s The Mexican.
The get-downs were the instrumental parts of the groove that got people dancing and Herc’s merry-go-rounds were songs set up in a way where that’s all you would hear, rather than an entire track (as was the custom up until that point). This was due to Herc practicing and playing around with techniques in the months prior to this party. Not too much time passed after this first party before he would purchase two copies of Bongo Rock so he could keep these get-downs going longer. Later these get-downs would be known as breaks and merry-go-rounds became the looped breakbeat. It was then that the dancers (inspired by James Brown and Bruce Lee) who were still second only to the DJ in importance, got dubbed break boys and break girls, which quickly was shortened to b-boys and b-girls.
Besides artists like Roy Ayers and Rare Earth, additional songs Herc loved to play during that era included:
- Aretha Franklin’s Rock Steady
- Baby Huey’s Listen to Me
- Bobby Byrd’s Hot Pants – I’m Coming, Coming, I’m Coming
- Booker T & the MG’s’ Melting Pot
- Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band’s Scorpio
- The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache
- James Brown’s Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved
- The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s It’s Just Begun
- Johnny Pate’s Shaft in Africa
- Mandrill’s Fencewalk
(Coke La Rock & Kool Herc in the ’70s.)
Other than Herc himself, the other star of the show was Herc’s friend called Coco by the ladies and Coke by the fellas. His name would soon become A-1 Coke, Nasty Coke and finally Coke La Rock, later known as the world’s first hip hop MC. Inspired by The Last Poets and early Richard Pryor albums and films, Coke was a dancer first, burnin’ people up on the dance floor and then a DJ, who first started rhyming by callin’ out names and drugs at the drug spots in Harlem. Marvin Gaye’s T Plays It Cool functioned as his theme music. “Our friends Pretty Tony, Easy Al and Nookie Nook were all at the party. At first I would just call out their names. Then I pretended dudes had double-parked cars; that was to impress the girls. Truthfully, I wasn’t there to rap, I was just playing around.” They would add the suffix -ski to the end of people’s names during these shout outs and Coke would also say that certain friends had a million dollars when he knew they were flat broke. The braggadocio nature of the MC and his posse full of guys with nicknames who kept the joint rockin’ had begun. It wasn’t until anywhere between three and six parties later when the name Coke La Rock was actually picked, with Coke coming from cocoa, which his mother had to mix with milk when he was a premature baby in order for him to actually drink it and La Rock coming from a dream he had about Mexico.
In between records, during the get-down and rarely on beat or trying to be, Coke and Herc would toast and say little poems, some of the first ones were:
“You never heard it like this before, and you’re back for more and more and more of this here rock-ness. ‘cause you see we rock with the rockers we jam with the jammers, we party with the partiers, we boogie with the boogiers. Young lady don’t hurt nobody. It ain’t no fun ’til we all get some. Don’t hurt nobody young lady.”
“A one two y’all. There’s no story that can’t be told, not a man that can’t be thrown, not a horse that can’t be rode, no bull that can’t be stopped and ain’t a disco we can’t rock. Herc! Herc! Who’s the man with a master plan from the land of Gracie Grace? Herc! Herc! Yes yes y’all, Herc Herc y’all.”
“Ya rock and ya don’t stop. And this is the sounds of DJ Kool Herc and the sound system you’re listening to is what we call the Herculoids. When it come to push come to shove, the Herculoid won’t budge. The bass is so low you can’t get under it. The high is so high, you can’t get over it. So in other words, be with it.”
“In the house and I’ll turn it out without a doubt. I am a man of my own, I am not a stepping stone. Rock on my mellow. My mellow is in the house. On down to the last stop. More than what you paid at the door. Yes y’all, the sounds that you hear, def to your ear, ’cause you have no fear, ’cause Herc is here. We’re going to give you a little taste of the bass. We’re going to hit you with the highs. Are you ready? Keep on, rock steady. This is the joint, Herc beat on the point. To the beat, y’all. Now fellas, if you got more than five dollars in your pocket, say make money, money. Make money, money.”
“If a freak is unique, then that’s the freak you seek. Then I guess before you go, the freak will be on the bo. As long as the music is not stopping, the rocks are dropping, the champagne is flowing, the freaks will be going. Hotel, motel, you don’t tell, I won’t tell.”
That last bar ended up being canonized on Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in ’79 and the famous line “ya rock and ya don’t stop” stemmed from Coke watching the crowd bop side to side along with the beat.
(Coke La Rock: Hip Hop’s First MC.)
Coke La Rock was also selling pot, moving from buying five-on-its up to ounces, selling around forty nickel bags a night during parties. “I was never worried about Herc paying me for my services, because I was getting hustling money. Man, at a good party I could make $1,200 to $1,700.”
With his take no shit attitude, Herc made sure that anybody smokin’ weed, drinkin’ hard liquor or getting into fights would have to do so around the block, not hanging out in front of the building. This was a haven for kids to get away from the violence, drugs and gang activity, if only for a short while. And these were better than house parties, where parents would come home and tell you to leave or guests would steal your stuff. This was in a rec room and would go off without a hitch all through the night.
This was also the beginning of Kool Herc & The Herculords, which started out comprised of Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, Clark Kent, also known as Bo King or The Rock Machine, in addition to Herc himself, who was the people’s choice and would always wait until the party-goers would ask when the next jam was taking place before planning another one, always playing what he felt the radio should be but wasn’t. By the following summer the crowds were so large he was throwing free shows in Cedar Park. And by the end of ’76 and beginning of ’77, Herc was the man, now sporting fresh Adidas pants from A.J. Lester’s.
During all this, Pete DJ Jones played disco music for the black crowds in midtown Manhattan. He had better timing and precision than Herc but didn’t have the right records, nor the audience. DJ Kool Herc and Pete DJ Jones were to battle, Herc had battled others like Disco King Mario and The L Brothers, but this time surprise guest DJ Grandmaster Flash showed up and stole the show, combining the positive traits from both of these innovators to help move the culture forward. By the time DJ AJ had convinced Herc to do a back to school party indoors, at The Executive Playhouse club, Flash and Melle Mel were already there and thus Coke La Rock and Kool Herc’s time had passed.
One night that year at The Executive Playhouse, Mike-with-the-Lights was trying to deal with an altercation at the door when Herc intervened and ended up getting stabbed three times in the side and once in the palm of the hand when trying to protect his face. After this he largely retreated from the scene, as did Coke around the same time, when his son Dante was born.
That is the story of how DJ Kool Herc became the father of an entire genre of music and a legend without a record to his name. This was all before scratching was invented by Grand Wizard Theodore and before the term hip hop was coined by Cowboy, used to describe the music by Bambaataa and then further used to describe the culture as a whole by Lovebug Starski, which first appeared in print by ’81.
For practically an entire decade, Kool DJ Herc was the man who set the groundwork and laid the foundation for what was to come. He dabbled in every part of the culture from dancing and graffiti writing, to spinning records, crate digging and rhyming. Four decades after its inception, it’s amazing to think of how far we’ve come, having now gone around the world and back again countless times over.
(Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa & DJ Kool Herc.)
(Footage from the Beat This documentary in ’84.)
1985 The Power of Rap Article by Davey D
1989 Kool Herc Interview by Davey D
2002 Yes Yes Y’all Book by Jim Fricke & Charlie Ahearn
2005 Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Book by Jeff Chang
2005 NPR Interview by Terry Gross
2008 Coke La Rock Interview by Troy L. Smith
2008 NY Magazine Article by Michael A. Gonzales
2010 Cindy Campbell Interview by Davey D
2011 Coke La Rock Interview by Ben Filardi
2012 Kool Herc Interview by Davey D