Kool Herc

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.

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