Clive Campbell (born April 16, 1955), also known as Kool Herc, DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Herc, is a Jamaican-born DJ who is credited with originating hip hop music, in the Bronx, New York City. His playing of hard funk records of the sort typified by James Brown was an alternative both to the violent gang culture of the Bronx and to the nascent popularity of disco in the 1970s. In response to the reactions of his dancers, Campbell began to isolate the instrumental portion of the record which emphasized the drum beat—the “break”—and switch from one break to another to yet another.
Using the two turntable set-up of the disco DJs, Campbell’s style led to the use of two copies of the same record to elongate the break. This breakbeat DJing, using hard funk, rock, and records with Latin percussion, formed the basis of hip hop music. Campbell’s announcements and exhortations to dancers helped lead to the syncopated, rhymed spoken accompaniment now known as rapping. He called his dancers “break-boys” and “break-girls”, or simply b-boys and b-girls. Campbell’s DJ style was quickly taken up by figures such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. Unlike them, he never made the move into commercially recorded hip hop in its earliest years.
520 Sedgwick Avenue
Clive Campbell was the first of six children born to Keith and Nettie Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica. While growing up, he saw and heard the sound systems of neighborhood parties called dancehalls, and the accompanying speech of their DJs, known as toasting. He moved to the Bronx, New York in November 1967. The creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway by Robert Moses (completed 1963, with further construction continuing through to 1972) had uprooted thousands in the Bronx, displaced communities, and led to “white flight” due to lowered property values in its wake. Many landlords resorted to arson in order to recoup money through insurance policies. A violent new street gang youth culture emerged there around 1968, and had spread with increasing lawlessness across large parts of the Bronx by 1973.
Campbell attended the Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx, where his height, frame, and demeanor on the basketball court prompted the other kids to nickname him “Hercules”. He began running with a graffiti crew called the Ex-Vandals, taking the name Kool Herc. Herc recalls persuading his father to buy him a copy of “Sex Machine” by James Brown, a record that not a lot of people had, and one which they would come to him to hear. He and his sister, Cindy, began hosting back-to-school parties in the recreation room of their building, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Herc’s first soundsystem consisted of two turntables and a guitar amplifier, on which he played records like James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose”, The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” and Booker T & the MG’s’ “Melting Pot”. With Bronx clubs afflicted with the menacing presence of street gangs, uptown DJs catering to an older disco crowd with different aspirations, and commercial radio also catering to a demographic distinct from kids in the Bronx, Herc’s parties had a ready-made audience.
At these parties in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue, DJ Kool Herc developed the style that was the blueprint for hip hop music. Herc used two copies of the same record to focus on a short, heavily percussive, part in it: the “break”. Since this part of the record was the one the dancers liked best, Herc isolated and prolonged it. As one record reached the end of the break, he cued the other record back to the beginning of the break, thereby extending a relatively small part of a record into a “five-minute loop of fury”. This innovation had its roots in what he called “The Merry-Go-Round”—a switching from break to break done at the height of the party. Herc told The New York Times he first introduced the Merry-Go-Round into his sets in 1972. The earliest known Merry-Go-Round involved playing James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose” (with its refrain, “Now clap your hands! Stomp your feet!”), then switching from its break into the break from “Bongo Rock” by The Incredible Bongo Band, and from “Bongo Rock”‘s break into that of “The Mexican” by the English rock band Babe Ruth. Kool Herc also contributed to developing the rhyming style of hip hop by punctua with slang phrases from the DJ’s microphone: “Rock on, my mellow!” “B-boys, b-girls, are you ready?” “This is the joint!” “To the beat, y’all!” “You don’t stop!” For his contributions Herc is called a “founding father of hip hop,” a “nascent cultural hero,” and an integral part of the beginnings of hip hop by Time.
On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc was a Disc Jockey and Emcee at a party in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue. It was not the actual “Birthplace of Hip Hop” – the genre developed slowly in several places in the 1970s – it was verified to be the place where one of the pivotal and formative events occurred. Specifically, DJ Kool Herc: extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing. … [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.
B-boys and b-girls
The “b-boys” and “b-girls” were the dancers to Herc’s breaks, who were described as “breaking”. The obvious connection is to the breakbeat, but Herc has noted that “breaking” was also street slang of the time meaning “getting excited”, “acting energetically” or “causing a disturbance”. Herc’s terms “b-boy”, “b-girl” and “breaking” became part of the lexicon of hip hop culture even before that culture itself had a name. Early Kool Herc b-boy and later DJ innovator Grandmixer D.ST describes the early evolution thus: ” … [E]verybody would form a circle and the B-boys would go into the center. At first the dance was simple: touch your toes, hop, kick out your leg. Then some guy went down, spun around on all fours. Everybody said wow and went home to try to come up with something better.” This was the form the media in the early eighties called “breakdance”; the same form the dance critic of the New York Times in 1991 declared “an art as demanding and inventive as mainstream dance forms like ballet and jazz.” Since the overall emerging culture was yet to be named, its followers were likely to identify as “b-boys” over and above the specific connection to dance, a usage that persisted in following years.
Move to the streets
With the mystique of his graffiti name, his physical stature, and the reputation of his small parties, Herc had become somewhat of a folk hero in the Bronx. Herc began to play at the nearby Twilight Zone club, the Havelo club, the Executive Playhouse club, the PAL on 183rd Street, and high schools such as Dodge High School and Taft High School. Rapping duties were delegated to Coke La Rock. Herc’s collective, known as The Herculords, was further augmented by Clark Kent and dancers The Nigger Twins. Herc also took his soundsystem—now upgraded to one of legendary volume—to the streets and parks of the Bronx. Nelson George recalls a schoolyard party: The sun hadn’t gone down yet, and kids were just hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Van pulls up, a bunch of guys come out with a table, crates of records. They unscrew the base of the light pole, take their equipment, attach it to that, get the electricity – Boom! We got a concert right here in the schoolyard and it’s this guy Kool Herc. And he’s just standing with the turntable, and the guys were studying his hands. There are people dancing, but there’s as many people standing, just watching what he’s doing. That was my first introduction to in-the-street, hip hop DJing.
Impact on artists
A young Grandmaster Flash, to whom Kool Herc was, in his words, “a hero”, began DJing in Herc’s style in 1975. By 1976, it was possible for Flash, and his MCs The Furious Five, to play to a packed Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. Venue owners were often nervous of unruly young crowds, however, and soon sent hip hop back to the clubs, community centers and high school gymnasiums of the Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa first heard Kool Herc in 1973. Bambaataa, at that time a general in the notorious Black Spades gang of the Bronx, obtained his own soundsystem in 1975 and began to DJ in Herc’s style, converting his followers to the non-violent Zulu Nation in the process. Kool Herc began using The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” as a break in 1975. It became a firm b-boy favorite—”the Bronx national anthem”—and is still in use in hip hop today. Steven Hager wrote of this period: For over five years the Bronx had lived in constant terror of street gangs. Suddenly, in 1975, they disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived. This happened because something better came along to replace the gangs. That something was eventually called hip-hop.
In 1979, record company executive Sylvia Robinson assembled a group she called The Sugarhill Gang and recorded “Rapper’s Delight”. The hit song ushered in the era of commercially released hip hop. By that year’s end, Grandmaster Flash was recording for Enjoy Records. In 1980, Afrika Bambaataa began recording for Winley. By this time, DJ Kool Herc’s star had faded. Grandmaster Flash suggests that Herc may not have kept pace with developments in techniques of cueing (lining up a record to play at a certain place on it). There were also developments in cutting (switching from one record to another) and scratching (moving the record by hand to and fro under the stylus for percussive effect) in the late seventies. Herc himself explains his retreat from the scene by referencing two events: an incident at the Executive Playhouse where he was stabbed while attempting to intercede in a fight, which took him out of action, and which he suggests made people wary of attending events hosted by him subsequent to it; and the burning down of one of the venues at which he used to DJ. In 1980, Herc had stopped DJing and was working in a record shop in South Bronx.
Kool Herc appeared in Hollywood’s motion picture take on hip hop, Beat Street (Orion, 1984), as himself. Some time in the mid-1980s, his father died, and he became addicted to crack cocaine. “I couldn’t cope, so I started medicating”, he says of this period. In 1994 he appeared on Terminator X & the Godfathers of Threatt’s album, Super Bad. In 2005, he wrote the foreword to Jeff Chang’s book on hip hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. In 2006, he became involved in getting Hip Hop commemorated at Smithsonian Institution museums.
Since 2007 he has become involved in a campaign to prevent 1520 Sedgwick Avenue being sold to developers and moved out of its Mitchell-Lama affordable housing scheme. In the Summer of 2007, New York state officials declared 1520 Sedgwick Avenue the “birthplace of hip-hop”, and made it eligible for national and state registers. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development ruled against the proposed sale in February 2008, on the grounds that “the proposed purchase price is inconsistent with the use of property as a Mitchell-Lama affordable housing development”. It is the first time they have so ruled in such a case.