In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1970s.
“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang is often lauded as one the earliest and most seminal works of hip hop, ushering in decades of popular Black music that followed its rise. But as music historians know, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien would never have been able to create that track if it weren’t for the pioneering efforts of Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell, whom many consider the original godfather of hip-hop culture.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955 to Keith and Nettie Campbell, Herc was the first of six children. Although the Campbell family would immigrate to the U.S. in 1967, settling in the Bronx, the first 12 years of the youngster’s life in the Caribbean had a long and lasting impact on his musical future. Forever focused on fitness — his lean musclebound appearance earned him the nickname “Hercules” — “Herc” as he was often called spent much of his free time in and around Jamaican dance halls, obsessed with the booming bass local musicians would play as well as their practice of “toasting” or talking over the records they were playing.
Herc brought this musical knowledge with him to the U.S. and as he entered high school — he attended Alfred E. Smith High School — he finally got to begin putting it to use. Added by his father’s massive record collection, and the fact that his dad’s job as a technician for a local band gave him free reign to a massive sound system — Herc slowly started honing his craft.
Although he loved music of all types and all genres, the teen was most interested in the break in a song — the section where the singing stops and the beat continues on. He remembered all the people he had seen dancing at parties and clubs in the past, and thought if he could find a way to extend those sections of the music he was playing he could make his music even more original, unique and especially more enjoyable for those he was playing for.
His idea to make that happen was to buy two copies of the same record and play them on two different turntables, alternating back and forth as needed and extending the song’s break indefinitely.
Although he practiced the technique often on his own, Herc wasn’t able to put it to actual use until one fateful night when his sister Cindy asked if he would DJ for a house party she was having to celebrate her impending birthday. Herc agreed…and the rest as they say is history.
The party took place August 11, 1973 in a rec room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. Cindy charged 50 cents for the “fellas” and a quarter for the ladies — she was saving up to buy new back to school clothes. Cindy’s father bought drinks wholesale at the local bodega. And Herc brought his milk crate of records and his ever-growing DJ skills. He played Cindy’s list of requested music for hours and as the party pushed into the early morning hours, he decided it was time to try his new breakbeat extending technique in front of a live audience.
“I’m gonna try something new tonight,” he is said to have told the crowd in attendance. “Call it the merry-go-round.”
To say the crowd exploded is an understatement. Enjoying a style of music they had never heard before, the dancefloor that night was said to have been magical. People literally couldn’t get enough of this new revolutionary breakbeat “merry-go-round.” And in that moment, an otherwise quiet boy known as “Herc” by his friends became the infamous and widely beloved “DJ Kool Herc.”
Within days, word of the crazy music coming out of that Sedgwick Avenue house party had “DJ Kool Herc” booked out weeks in advance to play additional parties. At subsequent shows, rival DJs clamored over Herc’s turntables, desperate to see the music he was playing and create their own variations on it — but in a move he learned from the Jamaican musicians of his youth, he steamed the labels of the vinyl he was playing so only he knew where his beats originated.
As Herc began playing regularly in larger clubs in and around Manhattan, musicians coming up around him like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash began building on the musical foundation he created, adding scratches and musical layers to his breakbeat extensions. Many of these same musicians, citing Herc as a major influence and early inspiration for their craft, also began getting record deals and helped to push the emerging world of hip hop to ever larger markets.
For his part, Herc never attempted to become a musician who was signed to a label. Instead, he kept on being a DJ and playing the music he loved for a number of years until he eventually tired of the club scene by the early ‘80s and went to work in a record shop. He was happy to sell music to the future generations he had previously kept so happily dancing.
Many decades later, he is a local activist working to preserve Sedgwick Avenue as the birthplace of hip hop. He also released his first even album, “Last of the Classic Beats,” with underground musician Mr. Green in 2019.
In a 1998 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Herc reflected on his legacy and the simple pleasures that led to the emergence of the hip-hop behemoth of today.
He did it all for the music, Herc said. “Hearing the oohs and the aahs. People having fun.”
The power of the turntable, he recalled fondly, is all about the people you’re playing for.
“It’s to motivate the crowd, man. It’s to have the insight to motivate the crowd. To have the crowd at your fingertips. To control the crowd. That’s the best power, man,” he said.