Although it's impossible to point to a single originator of hip-hop music and culture, certainly one of its prime movers — and easily the father of hip-hop DJing — is the man known as Kool Herc, who took the dancehall DJing and toasting tradition of his native Jamaica and replanted it in New York's gang-dominated South Bronx in the early 1970s. There, he helped nurture b-boy culture and, ultimately, the global hip-hop explosion.
Although by no means a turntablist in today's virtuosic scratch sense, Herc was among the first DJs to cut back and forth between beats on two different records, drawing out the drum breaks on tracks from James Brown and Mandrill into extended jams — what are now recognized as breakbeats. Moreover, his club dates were the key inspiration for hip-hop's first wave of pioneers, including Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash.
Herc — born Clive Campbell in 1955 — grew up during the original, thriving ska and reggae era in Jamaica, where he witnessed the birth of the traveling “sound system,” a mojo he re-enacted in 1973 when he began promoting his own Bronx house parties at 1520 Sedgwick Ave., and later at clubs such as the Twilight Zone and The Hevalo. “I went to a party at The Hevalo, and I saw this DJ named Kool Herc,” says MC/DJ Grandmaster Caz in Yes Yes Y'All: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade (DeCapo Press). “I mean, he was it. Everything that I heard and saw all came together that night when I saw him DJing. I saw how it's really done and what it's really about, how he had all the b-boys dancin'. I said, ‘Now that's what I wanna do. I mean, I did the dancin', now I wanna be the one who makes people dance.’”
Herc provided a needed antidote to the slicker sounds and scenes of disco — embodied at that time in the DJ booth by Pete DJ Jones — and like some serendipitous soundtrack to the growing legions of graffiti artists and b-boys, Herc turned to spinning rare funk and soul, now-classic jams such as “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band (later sampled by Young MC and LL Cool J), “Just Begun” by Rare Earth, “Get Into Something” by the Isley Brothers and “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” by James Brown. Harder, funkier and more soulful than Donna Summer or the Bee Gees, Herc's playlist comprised dusty, almost-impossible-to-find tracks that weren't getting played on the radio. But Herc had even more tricks up his sleeve.
Noticing that the crowd's energy hit its pitch during drum breakdowns, Herc began creating new arrangements and extending the breakbeats by switching the audio back and forth between his two turntables. But he did it all without a mixer or a crossfader by switching from channel 1 to channel 2 on a guitar amp, which drove a set of monster, bass-rockin' P.A. columns! What's more, Herc also imported the Jamaican tradition of calling out the names of dancers and party-goers over the mix — sometimes through an echo box — helping birth both the MC and DJ arts along with partners such as Coke La Rock, Busy Bee and Clark Kent, as well as break-dancers the Nigger Twins, who evolved into The Herculoids, arguably the first bona fide hip-hop crew. Herc gigs also hosted the birth of competitive break dancing. This, along with taggers and b-boys, spawned from the gang culture that once pervaded the Bronx, but with Herc's sonic sorcery as a guiding hand eventually transformed into an art, music and fashion that would morph popular culture in the following two decades.
“Little did anybody know that this thing was going to turn into a worldwide phenomenon, billion-dollar business and all that,” Herc says in Yes Yes Y'All. “'Cause I wasn't looking at it like that back then. I love my music, I love my sound system, and I just love to see people havin' fun. Period.”