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Rap Biographies: Kool DJ Herc

Kool DJ Herc
Kool DJ Herc (born Clive Campbell) is a Jamaican-American musician and producer, generally credited as a pioneer of hip hop during the 1970s. He was the originator of break-beat deejaying, where the breaks of funk songs-being the most danceable part, often featuring percussion-were isolated and repeated for the purpose of all-night dance parties. Later DJs such as Grandmaster Flash refined and developed the use of breakbeats, including cutting.

He is also well known for his massive high quality high volume sound system, against which even superior DJs could not compete. Herc - from Herc from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the original name was Kool Herc and the Herculoids - first used reggae records and was toasting to the music like Jamaican artists U-Roy and I-Roy. But he started using funk records due to popular demand.

Kool DJ Herc and his MC crew The Herculoids started a movement which recycled the creativity of black American jive jocks back into the USA. The relationship between hip hop and reggae became more important again with reggae artists and rappers collaborating with each other, from Yellowman and Afrika Bambaataa to KRS One and Shabba Ranks. Hip hop and reggae still influence each other in both directions.

Kool DJ Herc was born in Jamaica in 1955. He moved to the Bronx in 1967, at the age of twelve. With his unique playlist of R&B, soul, funk, and obscure disco, Herc quickly became the catalyst of the hip-hop way of life. The kids from the Bronx and Harlem loved his ghetto style, which gave birth to the concept of the B-Boy.

The B-Boy - or beat boy, break boy, Bronx boy - loved the breaks of Kool Herc, and as a result soon created break dancing. These were the people of the hip-hop culture. While Pete DJ Jones was #1 for the black disco crowd in NYC, Herc and the B-Boys were the essence of the hip-hop movement, because of they lived the lifestyle. The way they danced, dressed, walked, and talked was unique, as opposed to most of the disco artists and fans of the time, who were not as in touch with the urban streets of America.

As Steve Barrow (author of The Rough Guide to Reggae/Blood and Fire Records) writes in the sleeve notes, Jamaican deejay music is the source for all Rap music: From Count Machuki talking over records on Sir Coxsone's legendary Downbeat Sound System this style would eventually travel to America when the Jamaican-born Kool Herc began playing at Block parties (a version of the Kingston Soundsystem parties) in the Bronx. Cutting up rare-groove classics for the first B-Boys to rap over, Hip-Hop was born and the DJ music!

By most accounts Herc was the first DJ to buy two copies of the same record for just a 15-second break (rhythmic instrumental segment) in the middle. By mixing back and forth between the two copies he was able to double, triple, or indefinitely extend the break. In so doing, Herc effectively deconstructed and reconstructed so-called found sound, using the turntable as a musical instrument, making music with music.

When he performed to Breaks at crowded venues, such as the Hervalo in the Bronx, he would shout loudly 'B-Boys go down!' and this was the cue for dancers to cut and jump their gymnastics. Even today nobody is quite clear what Kool Herc meant by his phrase. Some suggest B-Boys stands for 'Boogie Boy' while others insist it means 'Break Boy'. The later has become the favored choice. But who were the original B-Boys and where had they learned their skills? Again the answer is fairly straight-forward. They had simply adapted what they had been doing on the ghetto streets.

Modern day rap music finds its immediate roots in the toasting and dub talk over elements of reggae music. In the 1967 moved from Kingston to NY's West Bronx Kool Herc attempted to incorporate his Jamaican style of dj which involved reciting improvised rhymes over the dub versions of his reggae records. Unfortunately, New Yorkers weren't into reggae at the time. Thus Kool Herc adapted his style by chanting over the instrumental or percussion sections of the day's popular songs.

In those early days, young party goers initially recited popular phrases and used the slang of the day. For example, it was fashionable for dj to acknowledge people who were in attendance at a party. These early raps featured someone such as Herc shouting over the instrumental break; 'Yo this is Kool Herc in the joint-ski saying my mellow-ski Marky D is in the house'. This would usually evoke a response from the crowd, who began to call out their own names and slogans.

As this phenomenon evolved, the party shouts became more elaborate as dj in an effort to be different, began to incorporate little rhymes-'Davey D is in the house/An he'll turn it out without a doubt.' It wasn't long before people began drawing upon outdated dozens and school yard rhymes. Many would add a little twist and customize these rhymes to make them suitable for the party environment. At that time rap was not yet known as 'rap' but called 'emceeing'. With regards to Kool Herc, as he progressed, he eventually turned his attention to the complexities of dj-ing and let two friends Coke La Rock and Clark Kent (not Dana Dane's dj) handle the microphone duties. This was rap music first emcee team. They became known as Kool Herc and the Herculoids.

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.

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.

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, 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 separate 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 moon walking) and Body-popping (developed on the West Coast by Boogaloo Sam).

Herc's methods also pre-dated, and partially introduced, sampling. By adapting pieces of Funk, Soul, Jazz and other music into the melting pot, he would be able to keep a party buzzing. With his sound system the Herculoids, he would tailor his sets to the participants, most of whom he knew by name. He would call these out over improvised sets. As one of Hip Hop's founding Fathers, Kool Herc's reputation and influence has outlasted the vaguaries of musical fashion. A status no doubt boosted by the fact that he has not attempted to launch a spurious recording career on the back of it.

Herc came to prominence in the West Bronx between 1974 and 1975. Kool Herc was the subject of celebration at the Rapmania Festival in 1990.

Herc became aware that although he new which records would keep the crowd moving, he was more interested in the break section of the song. At this point in a song, the vocals would stop and the beat would just ride for short period. His desire to capture this moment for a longer period of time would be a very important one for hip hop.

He would dig in crates and look everywhere to find the perfect break beat for his parties. He didn't care what type of music, because he only needed a small section of a song for his purposes.

His fame grew. In addition to his break beats, Herc also became known as the man with the loudest system around. When he decided to hold a party in one of the parks, it was a crazy event. And a loud one. At this time Afrika Bambaataa and other competing DJ's began trying to take Herc's crown. Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation recalls one monumentous meeting between Herc and Bam.

After a while spinning the records got to be an all intensive thing and Herc wouldn't have as much time to talk to the crowd and get them going. He needed someone else to help out and act as the Master of Ceremonies for him. And thus, for all practical purposes, Coke La Rock became the first hip hop MC ever.

In 1977, Herc's career began to fall. The rise of Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, and Bambaataa's various crews with their polished emcee styles put Herc at a disadvantage. One night he was stabbed three times at his own party and his career never fully recovered.

During the later part of the decade, Herc was stabbed at one of his own parties, sidelining him during most of the 1980s as hip hop spread throughout the country. During the 1990s, he made several appearances, gave interviews. He still DJs around the world.

Kool Herc played his last Old School party in 1984.

Most recently he has appeared on Terminator X's release "The Godfathers of Threat" and with the Chemical Brothers on their album "Dig Your Own Hole."

Similar to Bambaataa he does appear in Europe and New York from time to time.

Although he is not part of the hip hop vocabulary of most of those who listen to it these days (unfortunately), Kool Herc is the father of this underground sound from New York that found its way to becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Kool Herc lives on...
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