THE SPIN INTERVIEW: DJ Kool Herc - DJ Kool Herc invented hip-hop. It’s time he got his props

Set the scene: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, August 11, 1973, a summer party in an apartment building’s rec room. Twenty-five cents admission for girls, 50 cents for boys.

Olde English 800 or Colt 45 for a buck. Could be just another sweaty night in the city, except that the DJ is up to something different. Instead of playing the hits of the moment, he plays some slow jams — yes — and lots of hard, drum-heavy funk: James Brown’s “Give it Up or Turnit a Loose,” Baby Huey’s “Listen to Me,” the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun.”

He’s a Jamaican-born 18-year-old named Clive Campbell, or DJ Kool Herc, and he’s noticed that some kids only dance to the parts of the songs when everything drops out except the drums, and then they break wild. So that’s what he gives them: playing the break on one of his Garrard turntables, then repeating it on the other, back and forth, back and forth. On the microphone, he and his friend Coke La Rock call out the names of people in the room, giving them status.

That night 50 years ago, hip-hop came into being.

Everybody knows that story, or at least parts of it. It is hip-hop legend and creation myth, mostly true. The first wave of hip hop stars — Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, MC Sha-Rock, the whole nine — took their cues from Herc and his crew: Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, Clark Kent, and the rest. How burnished is the legend? Last year a collection of Herc’s gear and memorabilia sold at Christie’s auction house for more than $850,000. An index card bearing an invitation to a party at 1520 Sedgwick fetched $27,720.

What’s less well-known, or less celebrated, is the contribution of the other central figure in that scene: Cindy Campbell, Herc’s younger sister. The party on that August night was hers, to raise money to buy some back-to-school clothes, and she was her brother’s true ride-or-die through all his moves. Many of the records he played — soaking off the labels to conceal them from other DJ’s — were her discoveries. And when rap recordings came, and the next generation moved on without Herc, she helped him manage that transition too. The cultural big bang that is hip-hop would not have been the same without her.

For Herc, as for many of the first generation, the limelight did not last. After being stabbed at one of his parties in 1977, he largely withdrew from the scene, and when his father died in 1984, he fell into a depression and substance abuse disorder, for which he underwent rehab at Daytop Village. By 2011, as the music he created blanketed the world, the founding father had no insurance and had to raise money online for surgery for kidney stones. This year, finally, he will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — the equivalent of Chuck Berry or Little Richard having to wait a half-century for recognition.

I caught up with Herc and Cindy Campbell at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island, where she is the multi-cultural arts coordinator. At 68, Herc walks with a cane and has some lacunae in his memory. “I can’t go back that far,” he said. “I don’t fight it. Old age is catching up with me.” He carried a shopping bag full of sunglasses, some in disrepair, from which he tried on half a dozen before settling on one for the interview.

“Glory days,” he said, beaming. “Glory days.”

SPIN: Everybody thinks they know where hip-hop came from, how it began. What don’t they know?

DJ KOOL HERC: Some of them wasn’t born. They go by what their mother told them, or their grandfather told them. I’m the beginning. I’m still young, but still old. The worms didn’t get me. It’s all good.

I can think of one thing people don’t know. People think hip-hop started in the South Bronx, but really it started with you in the West Bronx.

HERC: I went to the west because the South Bronx was burning. Everything was burning. But “South South Bronx” [the iconic chant from Boogie Down Productions’ 1987 song “South Bronx”] sounds strong. “West West Bronx”? Nah.

Cindy, You’re the missing piece of the history.

CINDY: People know it, but they don’t want to write about it or acknowledge it. That’s why there’s some questions that you ask him that he can’t answer. I was there with him, and I know the playlist because I was the one monitoring it and directing it to see where we was going to go. We worked together.

It really began as a family affair.

CINDY: My father was a very musically inclined person. So we always had records playing: Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, the Big Bopper, any kind of music. My father bought him turntables, and he had everything hooked up in his room. That’s how he learned his skills, how to play the records at home in his room. When I organized the party, he had all that equipment there. So I’m like, I don’t have to pay anybody for music. We have the music already. I told him, this is how it’s going to be. And he moved down from his room to downstairs in the recreation room.

Can we talk about Jamaica? What part of this music comes from Jamaica?

HERC: I would say my start came from Jamaica, and my father was a mechanic at Kingston Wharf. I’ll never forget “White Christmas.” I played that. All that stuff. His favorite person was Ella Fitzgerald. So I know my records. But in Jamaica there were other groups called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. Then come the Skatalites, and then the Paragons and U-Roy and Big Youth. I learned from that.

Was there something about that music you heard in Jamaica and the way that you heard it that you brought with you, and went into your style of DJing?

HERC: Yeah. Because I knew my records. Even [country star] Jimmy Reeves. I knew that. There’s no racism in my music. Martin Luther King was coming with “I have a dream.” Yeah, yeah. And then he said, if a little white boy and a brother dance together — good. Then I heard Baby Huey say, There’s three kinds of people. There’s white people and there’s Black people and there’s my people. That’s good.

When you moved to the Bronx, what was going on?

HERC: I was learning. My mother said, Don’t let nobody stick needles in my arms. And sniffing glue and all that stuff. I was learning. The first time I saw snow I was like Dennis the Menace.

Someone called me Hercules. I didn’t want to be Hercules. Everybody going to challenge you. I said, Just call me Herc. I dropped the name Clive.

I did graffiti, I took the name Clyde As Kool. Taki 183 was the king. I was following him. I did markers, a little spray. But it smelled, and my father would bust my ass. We called ourselves Ex-Vandals. I would tag “Clyde As Kool.” Those were the days.

When did you start looking for break records?

HERC: I’m always looking for breaks.

But guys before you were playing whole records, and you got the idea to just play the breaks. Where did that come from?

HERC: I was watching a crowd, and everybody was waiting for the breaks to come in. I said, I’m going to do something tonight. I’m going to call it the Merry-Go-Round. I’ll put on two copies of a record, James Brown, “Give it Up or Turnit a Loose,” and just play the break.

How did you find it? ’Cause you didn’t have headphones to listen for it.

HERC: You could see it. If there’s a dark spot, that’s the break. You don’t have to listen. I’m like a shepherd looking over the flock. I watch and watch, and then I noticed that people were waiting for certain parts to come in. Okay. So what happens if I put together all the breaks I got — I wonder how it will do. So I put it on.

How many times would you play a break?

HERC: I wouldn’t go too far. Two times. I’ll just extend it two times. And James Brown says “Clyde” [for drummer Clyde Stubblefield] — that’s my name. So James Brown shouted me out. Oooh. Then the break comes in. I used that to start me off, and then go into the Isley Brothers and [Babe Ruth’s] “The Mexican.” Oooh, I like this. And then Jimmy Castor Bunch. Them were the records, man. I lay claim to it: That’s a Herc record. I’d say, “You never heard it like this before, and you’re back for more.” That’s it.

I wasn’t doing no scratching shit. No. That’s tricks. Tricks are for kids. I played music. It was grown folks’ groove. They can’t dance to no scratching.

CINDY: It’s amazing how certain songs, you know it’s a Herc song, ’cause he found those songs and introduced them to the world. And it gave life to these artists — and residuals, too. So many of them have been sampled so many times.

HERC: And my sister, she knows her music. “Trans-Europe Express” [by Kraftwerk]? I got that from her. She put me onto that. And Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” That was her. Her name was PEP 1.

CINDY: When hip-hop was evolving, we didn’t know what it was. You became a graffiti artist. You started tagging your name. If you were brave enough to go out there with a marker and spray paint, that’s what you would do.

I did PEP I, with a roman numeral one, so if anybody came after me, they might want to say they were PEP 2. We became graffiti artists. And the next thing, when the music started going, you became a break dancer. Some people took it to the next level, where it became them. But our thing was giving the parties. We were producers. We gave the party, promoted it, found the venue, did all of that. And everybody came and became a part of it.

Did you disguise your records?

HERC: Yes, I had to cover it up. My father told me, scratch it up. So everybody don’t have it.



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THE SPIN INTERVIEW: DJ Kool Herc - DJ Kool Herc invented hip-hop. It’s time he got his props