kool herc

I can’t pretend to have anything other than the greatest indifference to what is these days termed dance/rap/club music. To me it sounds crap and it’s impossible to dance to without looking and feeling really stupid. Perhaps one needs to be high on chemical substances to appreciate it properly. Perhaps I’m just a miserable old fart.

In my younger days I did enjoy a bop to a funky beat every now and then and found straight ahead old school hip-hop laid down a groove that even I could move to. It was the music that made you want to dance, not the drugs.
Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang first brought a strange new music and a strange new way of making music to my and just about everyone else’s attention. Later history would show them to be rip-off charlatans using other people’s grooves and rhymes, but they were the first to break into the big time.

I didn’t really get it at first. I began to get it when I listened to John Peel playing Grandmaster Flash records on his late evening show. Playing bits of other people’s records? Talking over the top of them? When I read an interview with the aforementioned Grandmaster in the NME I began to get it a little bit more. I got the whole idea eventually. So have the record buying public, who have bought vast quantities of unpleasant rubbish by talentless shit-bags peddling ugly attitudes ever since. There was something different about those early hip-hopsters though, something wonderfully shining and positive. I found out later that one guy had started it all in the Bronx.

Clive Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955. His family moved to New York City in 1968. Crucially, his father had a double-deck sound system – an unusual thing in New York at the time. Clive was tall and worked out in the gym, gaining the nickname Hercules, abbreviated to Herc. Herc liked to dance and noted with frustration that the early DJs didn’t pay much attention to how records could create a mood on the dance-floor, often following a fine funky tune with something completely different that lost the dancer’s groove. He hired a community room in his apartment block for a party, his sister sold cans of coca-cola and beer to those that turned up and Herc played records. The light show was when the room lights were quickly switched off and on. What is almost forgotten by hip-hop historians is that Herc tried laying the latest reggae sounds upon the locals who were quick to let him know that what they really wanted to hear was the hard edged funk sounds of people like James Brown.

Herc held more of these parties in his apartment block (1520 Sedgwick Avenue) and noted whilst playing records that dancers would increase their efforts and up the sweat-factor during the instrumental break in songs. One evening in 1973 at one of his parties he joined up the instrumental breaks from three different songs seamlessly into the world’s first breakbeat – James Brown’s Give It Up Or Turn It Loose, Michael Viner’s Bongo Rock and Babe Ruth’s The Mexican. The dancer’s loved it, christening it Cool Herc’s Merry-Go-Round.

Herc started working a DJ spot at the local club The Twilight Zone and continued working out new breakbeats, often using bits of records by James Brown, the Isley Brothers, Mandrill, and The Jimmy Castor Bunch. Instead of just using the microphone to introduce records, he would call out the names of new arrivals to proceedings to welcome them or offer encouragement to dancers working out new moves on the floor – all whilst he spun records. By now he was Kool DJ Herc and the first to buy two copies of records so that he could bounce back and forward between both on his decks, stringing a short segment out much longer.

Spinning the records started getting a bit hectic as he developed his method so Herc turned the microphone over to a chap called Coke La Rock, the first hip hop MC. The patter that was delivered over the microphone became more complex with specially composed rhymes and doggerel being employed. Timmy Tim and Clark Kent soon followed as MCs and proto-rappers.

Others were taking notice and emulating Herc. Joseph Sadler kept nagging for a play on Pete DJ Jones’ sound system and when he did get to try it quickly worked out what he would need for his own. He had some electronic training and made his own cross-fader which he teamed up with two separate record decks. He quickly came up with his own “quick mix” technique and was so deft that he soon earned the soubriquet Grandmaster Flash. He was the first to scratch records, moving them on the turn-table to create rhythms, and the first (in NYC at least) to steam off the labels of the records he played so nobody else could steal his beats.

All this time Disco was sweeping all before it, with people such as the previously mentioned Pete DJ Jones becoming stars. Disco’s less glamorous twin was now developing quietly in the Bronx but would eventually supersede its flashy sibling. By 1975 Herc was working at the upmarket Hevala Club and a scene was coming into being with B-Boys (Break Boys) and dance crews. Afrika Bambata had been a gang member and despairing of the pointless violence permeating the area encouraged other young gang members to dance with each other instead of fighting with each other. Gangs with knives became crews with slick new moves.

Herc used a cover of Apache by the Incredible Bongo Band in his shows and this became the B-Boy anthem. This would be the peak of things for Kool DJ Herc. New DJs and MCs and B-Boy crews were springing up from the fertile cracked concrete of the Bronx. Afrika Bambata had his Zulu Nation and Grandmaster Flash had his Furious Five as well as young side-kick Grand Wizard Theodore (the first DJ to drop the needle directly onto the record as it played – requiring great deftness to do properly). New innovations and developments were leaving the first DJ behind, then Herc was stabbed at one of his shows and didn’t work for a long while. The world moved on until one day some opportunistic fraudsters called The Sugarhill Gang blew everything wide open and Herc was yesterday’s man. Kool DJ Herc never made a record but still occasionally plays some and gets people dancing, just like he did all those years ago when he was The First DJ of Hip Hop. (Laurence)

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