"KOOL HERC (THE STORY)" - CHANNEL 4 BOOKS
Unsurprisingly, many have laid claims to roles as kings or kingmakers of the hip hop tradition. Most students, however, find one name cropping up time and again. To all intents and purposes, hip hop started the day Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, first set foot in New York in 1967. 'At the age of thirteen I migrated to the States, early '67, to the Bronx. It was winter, it was cold.'
By 1969, Herc was partying regularly at local clubs, but noticed that the crowds he joined frequently object to the city's distant, cocksure DJs. 'I used to hear the gripes from the audience on the dancefloor. Even myself, 'cause I used to be a breaker (breakdancer). Why didn't the guy let the record play out? Or why cut it off there? So with that, me gathering all this information around me, I say: "I think I could do that". So I started playing from a dancefloor perspective. I always kept up the attitude that I'm not playing it for myself, I'm playing for the people out there.'
DJs needed to establish an identity or niche in this highly competitive market. Herc was determined to find records that no one else owned, to distinguish himself from the pack. As an example, he pressed his father into buying James Brown's Sex Machine LP in 1969. 'A lot of people wanted that record and couldn't really find it. So a lot of people used to come to the party to hear that.' Herc did his research, checking out what was being played on local jukeboxes to test a song's popularity and picking up rarities at Downstairs Records on 42nd Street and the Rhythm Den. 'This is where your recognition, your rep comes from. You have a record nobody else got, or you're the first one to have it. You've got to be the first, can't be the second.'
While violence has become rap's defining characteristic in the 90s, hip hop actually started out as a means of ending black-on-black fighting two decades earlier. the Bronx citizen of the early 70s had much to live in fear of. 'The gangs came and terrorised the whole neighbourhood, the boroughs. Everybody just ran back into their house. There was no more clubs. If you did do a house party, it had to be: "I have to know you. Don't bring nobody who I don't know to my house."
It lasted for a while until the parents started to come in early, and find a house full of kids, tearing up the new furniture that she just put some money down on. The kids were still seeking for a place to release this energy.' Herc's sister asked him to help out by playing music in the recreation room of his family's housing block, 1520 Sedgewick Towers. 'OK, I throw my hand at it, and she rented the recreation room, I think for twenty-five dollars at the time. We could charge it at twenty-five cents for girls, fifty cents for fellas. It was like, "Kool Herc, man. He's giving a party, westside man. Just be cool, that's what I'm saying, come and have a good time. Just don't ditch the programme."
Dodge High School, before it became co-educational, was an all girls establishment. Not least for that reason, it became, by reputation, the top venue for aspiring DJs, as Melle Mel recalls. ' If you got to do Dodge High School, you was the fuckin' man. And Herc used to do it every year...' Searching for further innovations for his sets, Herc patented the breakbeat, the climatic instrumental section of a record, partly trough his existing knowledge of the dub plates or 'versions' prevalent in Jamaican reggae. ' I was using some of the breakdown parts.
Every Jamaican record has a dub side to it. So I just tried to apply that. As the years went along I'm watchin people, waiting for this particular break in it, the rhythm section. One night, I was waiting for the record to play out. Maybe there are dancers waiting for this particular break. I could have a couple more records got the same break in it - I wonder, how it be if I put them all together and I told them: "I'm going to try something new tonight. I'm going to call it a merry-go-round." The B-Boys, as I call it, the energetic person, they're waiting just to release this energy when this break comes in.' Herc saw a ready-made audience for his 'breakdowns'.
The merry-go-round involved him mixing sections of James Brown's 'Give It Up Or Turn It Loose' into Michael Viner's 'Bongo Rock' and back out into Babe Ruth's 'The Mexican'. His audiences loved it. The merry-go-round became the blueprint for hip hop... The first to react to the innovations, naturally enough, were Herc's party-goers. Breakdancers, or B-Boys, began to interpret Herc's idiosyncratic style with routines of their own. Some historians trace the development of Breakdancing to the African martial arts form, capoeta, brought to America by slaves a century before.
No one is entirely sure of the identity of the first New York breakdancer, but it was certainly popularised by members of the Zulu Nation. The discipline of Breakdancing / B-Boying was one of four seperate styles that eventually converged through the late 70s. Up-rocking was a kind of non-contact mock martial art first seen in Brooklyn. Plus there were two imported West Coast styles - Pop-locking (a mixture of strutting, robotics and moonwalking) and Body-popping (developed on the West Coast by Boogaloo Sam).
Channel 4 Books, 1999 . COPYRIGHT CHANNEL 4 BOOKS
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