“Kool Herc is not a a stepping stone… He’s a horse that can’t be rode and a bull that can’t be stopped, and ain’t a disco I can’t rock!”
Real Name: Clive Campbell D.O.B.: April 16, 1955 Kingston, Jamaica Before there was hip-hop, there was Herc. As far as deejaying is concerned Herc invented the wheel. The most influential founder of a cultural movement transcended into a hip-hop phenomenon. The sole heartbeat of contemporaneous youth within the jungle of West Bronx, mechanically Kool Herc was the very first to develop the definitive break-beat Deejaying, utilizing the percussion section of a funk song, isolating it and repeating it to develop a new dance beat. He would play Reggae/Funk and soul records for parties, although he was more interested in playing the samples of the instrumental section of a record. When the vocals would stop he wanted to capture the beat by playing two copies of the one record on each turntable and repeat that section(which was later a tool called looping made easier on electronic sampling). This was later refined by Grandmaster Flash. With this Herc single-handedly put his finger on the energy of a new brand of music. His name became synonymous with the pulse of the nightlife and every other name in the early movement learnt from Kool Herc.
Young Clive grew up in Kingston, Jamaica witnessing local sound systems operating in his town called Somerset Lane held by the local hero, King George. Here he peeked from the sidelines as a child as famous faces, gangsters, rudeboys and socialites gathered to experience the house party. It was obvious this was the place to be by those who were anybody and Herc wanted to draw this pulse with his own jams. Setting up these events in the daylight Herc would see guys carrying in crates of records and setting up speaker sound systems. These impressionable times served Clive with the experience to qualify him as the man he stands as today. His father, Keith Campbell was heavily involved in the lifestyle, a record collector of not only reggae but American jazz, gospel and country. Clive would grow up well-versed in sounds eclectically ranged from Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong to country’s Jim Reeves. Here Clive would sing aloud and emulate them to the fullest teaching him the American accent over his rasta twang. By the age of twelve, the Campbells’ in West Bronx his mother Nettie would take Clive to house parties similar to that of the sound systems he grew up with. He was introduced to new American sound of Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and most definitive, James Brown. Here he saw the atmosphere further developed with guys dancing, rapping into girls’ ears in sweet whispers as the DJ would constantly interrupt the groove by upsetting the tempo with mismanaged record changing, Clive picked up on this and questioned their selections. He began to collect 45s and built up the ambition to someday do it better. Clive Campbell was the oldest of six children by Keith and Nettie Campbell, Nettie from the north coast of Port Maria and Keith a city man with status as the Kingston wharf garage foreman. He was a somewhat community leader with political influence. When Clive was eleven, the civil war broke out between two parties, JLP and PNP scrapping for the top position unleashing the West Kingston war which turned friends and neighbourhoods against each other. Keith moved the family from Trenchtown (a city made famous later by the legendary Bob Marley) to a quieter urban area in a house at Franklyn Town near the beach. Sundays became a traditional day of church and beach for the Campbells. Nettie moved to Manhattan, New York to work as a dental technician to supplement income for her family and study for a nursing degree. Eventually Keith and the children made the move over to New York to reside along with hordes of other Jamaicans escaping the shaky grounds of their hometowns. First to join Nettie was the eldest, Clive.
On a cold night in November 1967 Clive travelled from Kennedy airport to her apartment on 611 East 178th Avenue between Little Italy and Crotona Park. A change from the tropical climate and beach of Franklyn to the concrete tenement buildings grounded in snow. Clive’s transition wasn’t easy, he wore the wrong clothes, ill snow-caps and cowboy boots with a harsh rasta-twanged accent he was teased in school and found it hard to fit in. Street gangs were targeting dull Jamaican immigrants before Jamaica was made cool by Bob Marley. He found his way in by hanging with the Tremont gang, Cofon-Cats and the young Five-Percenters. Come junior high at 118, Clive undertook an athletic interest in cross-country and track winning medals for his efforts. By this stage he matured physically over most Americans and gained their respect only to realise the gangs he used to follow were not his future. He befriended a Jamaican-American, Jerome Wallace who had previously made the transition from old country to new. Clive pursued his musical interest by attending ‘First Fridays’ local youth dances at the Catholic school and the Murphy projects, listening religiously to Cousin Brucie and Wolfman Jack disc jockeys. At house parties with his mother, Clive picked up on the vibe of James Brown and saw the impact his records had on crowds. Here began the love affair James Brown records had with the early hip-hop movement. At Alfred E. Smith High School in 1970 Clive had almost completely swallowed his Jamaican accent to the point where most peers never recognised an immigrant tone. He was in a period of re-inventing himself through his passion for music and the scene it breathed. Like most youths across the metropolis, Clive’s reinvention came by way of scrawled identity on walls. Graffiti was later defined as the first burgeoning sign of a new movement, the first of the four elements to hip-hop as a culture. Across the city TAKI 183 sprayed his presence unintentionally recruiting youth to do the same with their own monikers. Clive, Jerome and the Bronx took up aerosol cans and graffiti ran the streets early. Clive marked himself as CLYDE AS KOOL. People had a hard time picking up his name Clive, the closest they came was Clyde like the New York Knicks’ basketball star ‘Clyde’ Frazier so it stuck. KOOL derived from a television commercial about cigarettes with a James Bond type cat, his threads, mannerism and casual attitude to his female acquaintance seemed Kool to him. He added to his moniker a smiley face with a cigarette hanging from the mouth and an Apple Jack’s hat. Clive’s penmanship brought him the super-crew, EX-VANDALS whom he started to hang with. They were a revolutionary graffiti crew hailing from Brooklyn starring some of the culture’s most prolific artists. This passion would not come naturally to Clive who distributed his time evenly with his extra curricular activities at school running track, lifting weights and playing rough street ball basketball. Clive was a gifted athlete and had grown an almost mythical shadow behind him, a mammoth physique inside a 6 foot 5 frame, and with his steam-rolling drives to the basket peers and onlookers dubbed him ‘Hercules’. He took a disliking to the name Hercules favouring a shortened nick of HERC. Balancing the street and school, he adopted KOOL, dropped CLYDE and became known across New York as Kool Herc!
Not long after, the family home and tenement building was burnt out due to his younger brother’s pyrotechnics. He sat at the window lighting matches and throwing them outside until one flew back inside from the wind and lit the place up. Before eventually relocating out to West Bronx, at a new housing complex at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, two miles north of the Yankee stadium at the Cross-Bronx Expressway, they temporarily called the Concourse Plaza Hotel on Grand Concourse and 161st street home. The venue was used as a refuge for families made homeless due to the fire. Herc frequented the hotel’s downstairs disco the Plaza Tunnel where his high school friend Shaft and John Brown spun records. Unlike most clubs on the circuit the vibe of this place was rawer playing James Brown’s, “Give it Up or Turn it Loose” and “Get Ready” by Rare Earth. This latter track was a huge hit across the Bronx due to it being 21 minutes in duration allowing hot-steppers to get into their dance grooves with a two minute drum solo which saw them displaying their flashiest James Brown-esque moves. This may have been the pivotal juncture in developing the break beat. About this time James Brown’s commercial career was in steep decline due to a change in political and racial climate across the country, his moves and records became outlaw cult-favourites by a fresh budding hip-hop generation thanks to DJs from the Plaza and Herc adopting his energy. The atmosphere at the Plaza set the bar for Herc to hurdle at his own house parties and park jams. Before too long discos across South and West Bronx were closing down doe to heavy gang activity by the Spades making them unsafe to attend and attracting attention from the authorities. Here gave birth to the house party revolution making Sedgwick Ave. a new hotspot for the movement. This opened doors for young Clive to give Kool Herc its predestined legend. His father had a sound system used by a local rhythm and blues band for which Keith was the soundman for. He invested in a brand new Shure P.A. system. Clive had soon started hosting his own house parties which managed to fall on the same time as his father’s events which made it impossible for Clive to borrow his father’s system for these parties. Huge Shure columns sat in his room while Clive was forced to borrow a neighbour’s equipment. Keith was unable to utilise the speakers at its maximum potential. Clive wanted to squeeze more juice out of them and make them peak much louder. Other people in their building had their speakers pumping at a greater volume but this would be a well-kept secret, hidden with decoy wires entangled at the back to stop someone figuring out how they did it. Clive was left to his own initiative. Fiddling with his father’s columns behind his back he worked it out and had it peaking much louder than previously. He took out the speaker wire and connected it to a channel port with a jack giving him more power and a reserve bank allowing him to control it from the preamp. He got two Bogart amps, two Girard turntables and used the channel knobs as a mixer. The system could now also handle eight microphones; he had a regular mic in one and another as an echo chamber where he could speak through the speakers plainly and wait for an echoing half way through. When his father came home to catch him at it he couldn’t believe what he heard through his own equipment. Keith’s system was a monster stomping on everybody’s set up. Father and son came to an arrangement of sharing the system, with Clive playing intermission records at Keith’s band nights and Clive borrowing them for his house parties. They made business cards entitled ‘Father and Son’ and they became the local pulse of the night. Early house parties were held downstairs at Sedgwick’s recreation room with crowds of dominantly high-school kids who generally lived outside the reaches of gangs and criminal activity. Some parents even attended as supervision and had their moment when Herc would play slow jams for them to dance to while kids escaped round the block to puff on joints and sneak sips of liquor. Keith was always in attendance, again a well-respected man of the borough held it down without any violence. It became an accepted monthly social occasion on the calendar for young meet and greets.
The buzz had spread wide about a going-back-to-school party for his younger sister Cindy to be held at the rec-room at Sedgwick Ave. On late August, 1973 Cindy’s organised Dodge High School event would later become one of the single-most pivotal moments in hip-hop’s early timeline staining Kool Herc in history forever as the foremost revolutionary hip-hop DJ and on this night hip-hop’s ball of culture started rolling. The purpose of this party was for Cindy to raise money for the fashionable purchases for school down Delancey Street instead of Fordham Road. The Neighborhood Youth Corps provided $45 paid fortnightly which according to Cindy was pathetic. For half the paycheck she could rent the rec-room and bulk buy Olde English malt liquor, Colt 45 beer and soda, advertise the event and the DJ and speaker system were already assumed thanks to her local legend brother and father. They hand-wrote on index cards to hand out and post on neighbourhood streets song titles to entice, ‘Get on the Good Foot’ or ‘Fencewalk’. Cindy calculated if she charged a quarter for the girls, two quarters for guys she would reach profits to boost her wardrobe, hardly a charitable cause but the event itself shone light on many darkened youths for following generations. Herc brought the sound system down from their second floor apartment and set up in the rec-room dance floor. The size of the speakers was unimaginable to most eyes and set the tone of the night. He opened up with some dancehall tunes to rock any yard party, unknown sound to the Bronx, they wanted the breaks. He gave them what they wanted and blasted the ever-popular heart of funk and soul. The energy exploded leaving no elbow room on the dance floor as everyone bopped together in waves to the beat. Herc elevated it once more by adding his vocals on the mic, stealing the show forever with his voice heavily echoing through the speakers. With no money for a strobe light, they utilised the most basic form of atmospherics switching the house light on and off with a guy named Mike in control. “Okay Mike, Mike with the lights!” roared Herc from the speakers and Mike was paid for his efforts.
With James Brown making his entrance into the soundtrack of a generation’s most unforgettable experience, they shifted back history making this auspicious event hip-hop’s early equivalent to that of rock and folk music’s Woodstock. Herc had brought back the life into the concrete Boogie-Down and had now become the King George he idolised as a young child at his native Kingston Yard parties. Cindy and Clive counted their success at the end of the night and opened a new future. Herc continued to host regular parties to a following cast of supporters through the summer of 1974. He built a name for himself from using Reggae records with Jamaican artists U-Roy and I-Roy creating the catalyst between Reggae and Rap. However after word spread and his reputation grew the Sedgwick rec-room was proving to be too small now and Herc decided to hold free block party events in the nearby Cedar Park where Herc could peak out his massive speaker system and play his signature tastes and placate to the popular demand of his crowd. Herc noticed construction workers hooking up power from tapping into the power source from lamp posts. He attempted this and his 300 watt per channel Mackintosh amp sucked so much juice the lights dimmed. Adding to that he had the Tehchnics 1100A turntable which needed its own source of power, he plugged it into a nearby tool shed and hey presto. Setting up outdoors he knew he was putting his electrical equipment at risk from weather and break-out fights. He always warned the crowd not to start any trouble or else he would pull the plug on the entire event. He catered for the older generation as well as the up-n-comers. Again it was a trouble-free event to a three-thousand thick crowd that grooved the neighbourhood till daylight the next morning. As Herc’s efforts were all too intensive on the turntables alone he couldn’t find the time to hype the crowd with his chanting and rhyming over the mic. He needed someone to take over the duties as the Master of Ceremonies, thus becoming the first ever hip hop MC, Coke La Rock was given the royalty. Herc introduced his fellow immigrant friend Coke La Rock as an MC and he began to send shout-outs or toasts over popular yard-classic Jamaican records such as Count Machuki, Big Youth, King Stitt and U-Roy and hooked up his mic to a space echo box. This element of vocal support over the break beat heightened the crowd onto another platform. The pair developed their own slang to use. Soon after at an after-hours spot a drunken regular would verse “To my mellow! My mellow is in the house”. During a cigarette break waiting for the record to finish Herc witnessed the dancers’ energy fading, springing to life at certain short instrumental breaks or grooves when the band would drop out leaving the rhythm section to endure where upon they would ignite with electric moves. This profound discovery left Herc with the impression of engineering this particular section to repeat or loop over and over to allow the dancers to continue with their high-energy. Herc learnt how to own the ‘Break’. He began to play tracks based on their break potential. The everlasting conga classics like ‘Bongo Rock’ and ‘Apache’ from the ‘Incredible Bongo Rock’ album and James Brown’s ‘Give it Up or Turn it Loose’ live version from the ‘Sex Machine’ album, Johnny Pate’s theme to ‘Shaft in Africa’ and Dennis Coffey’s ‘Scorpio’. He also experimented with soul and white rock records depending on their funk-influenced backbeats. Then in true Jamaican DJ style he soaked off the LP labels to hinder the competition’s chance of stealing his beats. He introduced a new arsenal to his repertoire where he used two copies of the same record placed on each turntable back-cueing one copy to the start of the break section ready to take over once the other had finished, looping the break over stretching it from several seconds to a five minute moment of madness. He focused all his efforts on this new weapon of choice sending dancers into ecstatic fits of fury. This he dubbed the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ Kool Herc and the element of DJing would never look back again.
His celebrity was growing so ferociously he attracted some real numbers in crowds. Notable fans were Aaron ‘DJ AJ’ O’Bryant and Joseph Saddler, better known today as the legendary Grandmaster Flash who followed him on every show he put out emulating his style and techniques with aspirations of taking this phenomenon to another level. So popular were Herc’s shows he distracted gang activity changing their climate to a more creative atmosphere. Instead of involving in a criminal element gangs or crews formed based on the music scene with dance acts, DJ’s and representing their turf through movement and expression over violence. At many of his large events crews would arrive not to disrupt and cause trouble but to make room in the crowd and strut new moves to show up other crews. A new element had taken over for the better. To the point where if a fight broke out Herc would announce on the mic with a warning for them to cut it out and like being told off in class, they took to the warning and cooled out. Herc was The Man and no-one wanted to be called out by him and left for suckers. Local followers of his Merry-Go-Round who refused to conform to the choreographed dance steps to that of the groups like The Hustle would form circles and jump in with impromptu spasms of body contortions in the middle of the break. Herc called these guys the Break Boys known know as B-Boys. Yet another element of hip-hop had unfolded right before Herc’s eyes and this continued to gain interest. Pretty soon after Herc had established his own clique of DJs and B-Boys and rappers who assembled at his events to put on a show and spread the energy of his movement. He called them the Herculords featuring the talents of Coke La Rock, DJ Timmy Tim with Little Tiny Feet, DJ Clark Kent the Rock Machine, The Imperial JC, Blackjack and a host of b-boys including Pebelee-Poo and Sweet N’ Sour, who established their own personalities in the scene. Herc refused to call them a crew insisting ‘crew’ carried a gang-like stigma, the clique would appear named on flyers alongside the Herculoids sound system that made him famous and heard so far and wide. These outside events were beginning to come together as an all-round spectacle, where the first DJ battles took places introducing groundbreaking artists such as Afrika Bambaataa from the Zulu Nation. The Herculoids sound system was put into effect to shut down up ‘n comers like Bam and Grandmaster Flash. Jazzy Jay from The Zulu Nation recalls: Herc was late setting up and Bam continued to play longer than he should have. Once Herc was set up he got on the microphone and said “Bambaataa, could you please turn your system down?” Bam’s crew was pumped and told Bam not to do it. So Herc said louder, “Yo, Bambaataa, turn your system down-down-down.” Bam’s crew started cursing Herc until Herc put the full weight of his system up and said, “Bambaataa-baataa -baataa, TURN YOUR SYSTEM DOWN!” And you couldn’t even hear Bam’s set at all. The Zulu crew tried to turn up the juice but it was no use. Everybody just looked at them like, “You should’ve listened to Kool Herc.”
In 1975 Herc moved up a notch trying to turn his efforts professional, investing his money in various sound system set-ups, performing at all-age dances at the Webster Avenue P.A.L. He was turning twenty and wanted a more adult crowd to appreciate and attend his performances. The Twilight Zone on Jerome Avenue became his first professional venue after repeated shut downs of his illegal parties at Cedar park. He turned up with the Herculords and the Herculoids and screened large video footage of Muhammad Ali fights until he warned the video was revving up individuals to fight at his shows. He would turn up a club called Hevalo handing out flyers for the Twilight Zone shows until he empited out the club in favour of his shows. Eventually the owner of the Hevalo joined Herc and hired him to play there as well. He played there and a joint called the Executive Playhouse(later renamed The Sparkle on 174th and Jerome Avenue near Tremont) to a full house of adults. Kool Herc also took his talents to Hilltop 371 which was DJ Hollywood’s spot and Disco Fever. Crowds came to hear Herc and Coke La Rock’s rapping over the breaks, Herc would chant out proudly:
“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 partyers. Young lady don’t hurt nobody. It ain’t no fun till we all get some. Don’t hurt nobody young lady.”
Coke and another member would continue with:
“There’s no story can’t be told, there’s no story can’t be told a no bull 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!”
By 1976 Kool Herc was the top draw in the Bronx, he was the freshest presence with the dopest threads, coming a long way from his ill snow-caps and cowboy boots to sporting Lee or AJ Lester suits, his trend followed by notorious ghetto-celebs, drug dealers and high-rollers and Harlem hustlers. Kool Herc and Coke La Rock owned the movement until 1977 when younger protégées Flash and Bambaataa captivated the Boogie-Down with their honed continuation of Herc’s legacy. Right before their time, Herc was gearing up play an event at the Playhouse when fate sent him a terrifying signal to stand down from the turntables. At the venue he overheard a scuffle breaking out between Mike-with-the-Lights (from Cindy’s back to school party at Sedgwick) and somebody at the door. Mike had refused entry to three men who grew increasingly intolerant of this. Herc went to mediate between the two parties one of the men drew a knife and stabbed Herc three times in the side and once more in the palm of his hand when he put his hand up to cover his face before retreating upstairs out of the venue leaving Herc shell-shocked and he went into recluse. After this occasion in ’77 his flame died out and the torch was passed to his prodigal DJs’ Grandmaster Flash and The 3 MC’s and the various crews behind Afrika Bambaataa with their polished emceeing over more developed turntable skills. This put Herc at a disadvantage, he stepped aside to allow the younger generation to redefine this new-found genre of music. Herc played at his last old school party in 1984 and also appeared in the film “Breakbeat” as himself. The impression on hip-hop’s genre Herc left has never been surpassed yet to date. The man responsible for unfolding the core elements of a generation and unleashing an unprecedented genre of music that had transcended today into the greatest influence to popular culture some thirty plus years later. To reinstate the statement, before there was hip-hop there was Herc and without him the movement would not be so. He holds sessions today standing tall as Hercules as the foremost revolutionary of not only a music genre but the messiah of a movement we know today worldwide as hip-hop before it was.
(Davey D interview w. Kool Herc)