Party Over Here: An Oral History of Kool Herc’s Historic Back-to-School Jam
You never thought that hip hop would take it this far...
On August 11, 1973, forty-four years ago today, a 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant changed pop music forever. In the rec room in an unassuming middle-class apartment building at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue, Clive Campbell, later known as Kool Herc, invented hip hop at his little sister Cindy’s “back to school jam.” The young DJ, the eldest of six kids, had been refining a new technique in his second-floor bedroom. Herc’s sonic secret was ignoring the majority of the record and playing the frantic grooves at the beginning and/or in the middle of the record. Herc referred to this as, “the get down part,” because this section of the song was when the dancers got excited.
Utilizing two turntables and a mixer, Herc used two copies of the same record (removing the labels so others couldn’t “bite”) to isolate and extend the percussion and bass of a song. This became known as “the break.” However, it wasn’t until spinning at his sister’s recreation room party that he previewed it for an audience.
“It was only twenty-five cents for girls and fifty-cents for the guys,” Cindy Campbell recalls. “I wrote out the invites on index cards, so all Herc had to do was show up. With the party set from 9 pm to 4 am, our mom served snacks and dad picked-up the sodas and beer from a local beverage warehouse.” Herc has brought new records from a shop called Sounds and Things and practiced for most of the week, the music blasting from his father’s Shure speakers.
What Kool Herc created in that recreation room on Sedgwick Avenue might seem uncomplicated in retrospect, but in 1973, it was revolutionary. And we’re still feeling the vibrations 44 years later. “Once they heard that, there was no turning back,” Herc told me in 1998. “They always wanted to hear breaks after breaks after breaks.” Forty-four years after that first party, a few (mostly) Bronx folks, pioneers in their own right, shared their Herc stories.
Cindy Campbell (Herc’s sister):
Our love for music came from our father. We listened to all different types of music from country to Nat King Cole to Pat Boone. Herc used to help my father hook-up his stereo and things like that, that was how he got into tinkering with sound-systems. After that first party, people kept asking when were we going to do it again. After that first party, there were others and we have a dance contest where the winning couple won $25.00, so people were brushing-up on their skills beforehand. Herc’s crew the Hercoloids were like our family and my father was like their father. Timmy Tim, Coke La Rock, all the dancers, we did a lot of parties together.
Coke La Rock (Herc’s MC/the first rapper):
Me and Herc met even before the parties. What would become hip hop, that was Herc’s dream. That first jam at 1520 was about friends and family in the neighborhood. You could say we were before our time. I didn’t see it then, but I do now. We did a lot of outdoor jams, but the first club we played was the Twilight Zone. That’s where I feel we became men. After that, we gave parties everywhere, the biggest being a jam we did at Taft High School We packed the whole school, the school yard and the whole Sheridan Avenue. Anytime you came to a Herc party, it was like magic and he never wanted to leave.
As far as me rapping, it was funny, because I was kind of quiet, but when the music started playing it brought something out of me and I just started talking on the mic. The first time I got on the mic, it was just me goofing with my friends. Dudes like Pretty Tony, Easy Al and Nookie Nook, I’d be messing with them, telling them to move their cars. We were only 15 or six, but we were trying to impress the girls. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to hip hop, Herc and I are the patent and everybody else is the product.
Grandmaster Caz (rapper/DJ):
I see myself as a disciple of Herc’s. That first party was epic. Everybody attempted afterwards to recreate that party, that energy; those elements sparked everything. The idea of hip hop comes from many things. In the Bronx, we followed Kool Herc. We wasn’t a part of the disco movement, because we saw ourselves as the alternative to all of that.
Jazzy Jay (DJ/record producer):
Herc single-handedly said, ‘Let there be hip hop and there was. We moved to the Bronx when I was 11, but I didn’t see Herc until I was 14. There was a club called Sparkle where he spun and I snuck out of the house. Seeing Herc spin was a monumental moment for me. The Bronx back then you saw a lot of gangs, but much of the gang era converted into hip hop, which was dancing and b-boying. Herc had the Hercoloid system, which would crush most regular DJs. When I was down with Afrika Bambaataa, we tried to battle Herc. Bam wouldn’t turn off his music and Herc screamed into the mic, ‘Turn off your system or we will crush you!’ I don’t remember what I was playing, but Herc put on this record called “The Mexican.’ These soft Spanish guitars followed by a flood of bass rushed out of the speakers and we were through. Herc’s sound was a monster.
DJ Mean Gene (The L Brothers):
The Bronx wasn’t nothing back then. There were no houses, kids were out there snatching pocketbooks and doing all kinds of stuff that wasn’t good. That was one of the reasons Herc started playing in the park, to give those kids something to do. Herc was my idol. In the parks, Herc was like a God. I used to go to all his parties and just study him. I never danced, I just studied Herc. It was like what he was doing was magic. I tried to get to know him, but that was kind of tough. There were a few ways to get to Herc, but myself, I brought him a record. This dude named James Davis had an old James Brown collector’s item and he sold it to me for $50.00. Back in the ’70s that was a lot of money, but still I took that record and presented it to Herc.
I didn’t want no money, I just wanted him to shout out my name. If Herc shouted out your name on the mic, it made you an instant celebrity. Herc was playing mostly break-beats, but being that he’s The Godfather of hip hop he was the first one playing records in that way. The thing about Herc, he was a specialist. He just did what he did. People like me and Flash, we took bits and pieces from him and put together our own programs. Everybody could do what they did, but there’s only one Herc.
Joe Conzo (photographer):
Back then, I was a chubby kid with an Angela Davis afro. I wasn’t into sports or anything, but I got into photography. My camera became my best friend and I took it everywhere. The first time I met Herc was at the T-Connection. Herc is a big, intimidating guy, but I was able to befriend him, because I was down with the Cold Crush Brothers. I have some images of him, but he didn’t really like having his picture taken. God bless him, man, because Herc opened a lot of doors for others. Kool Lady Blue helped bring hip hop downtown, but hip hop comes from the parks, block parties and school gyms. After that we had Disco Fever, Skate Place and The Hevalo.
Sheri Sher (Mercedes Ladies member):
Whenever I heard Herc spin, I felt a sense of freedom. There was always a sense of happiness at those parties. When you said Kool Herc back then, it was like saying Puff Daddy or Jay-Z. He was hood famous. I used to go see him at Cedar Park or the Black Door; wherever he played, we were there. When he played in Cedar Park, you could hear him from blocks away. hip hop was a man’s world, but there was a woman rapper named Pebblee-Poo who was down with Herc, and she inspired us.
Curtis Sherrod (former rapper/Executive Director at The Hip Hop Culture Center):
The first I saw Herc, I was very young. He and later became friendly when he worked at a record store on Boston Road across from the Stardust Ballroom. I was in a crew called Touch of Class and Herc put us on a few bills with him. We had been trying to hook-up with him for so long and then one day he put us on this flyer to do a gig at the T-Connection, which was a legendary spot on White Plains Road. It was in the Bronx, but to us it was like playing Madison Square Garden.
Troy L. Smith (hip hop Historian):
Some guys say that he wasn’t the best DJ, but he was the first. Herc didn’t have any competition when he started out, that didn’t come until later. I asked Tone one day what it was that made Herc special and he couldn’t explain it. It was like tribal music or something, and that beat would just pull you in. I can’t explain why he never made a record.
Gary Harris (music industry veteran and announcer on Apple Music’s Beats 1):
By the time “Rapper’s Delight” came out, Herc was like a specter. There wasn’t a lot of talk about him wanting to make a record. Of course, he was the overlord, but when the records started getting made he kind of disappeared from the scene. A lot of cats thought that records were a bastardization of the art form.
Hip hop is Herc’s baby. What Herc did, he could never top that. In a way, I’m glad he never made a record. On the industry side of things, you’re only as big as your last hit. Hip hop is Herc’s hit.
From The Hip-Hop Family Tree graphic novel by Ed Piskor