From its humble beginnings on the streets to the huge world stages where we now witness its evolution, hip-hop has become a phenomenal success in the world of music. It’s one of the most prominent cultural influences and genres we know today.
But who really started hip-hop and where did it come from?
In this bio, we dive deep into the legendary DJ Kool Herc, the man behind the musical craze that has taken over the world. Read on to find out how one man led the explosive transformation of hip-hop while touching base on the basics.
Hip-Hop as We Know It
For many, hip-hop isn’t just music — it’s a way of life and cultural movement that is inspired by various elements of art. There are four foundational pillars of hip-hop culture, which include:
- DJing or Turntablism
- B-boying or Breaking
- MCing or Rapping
- Visual or Graffiti Art
These are all forms of expression that were then developed into subcultures with their own lasting legacies. Hip-hop culture has molded various styles of music, technology, fashion, entertainment, art, dance, media, language, politics, and more.
Even now, hip-hop persists as a global phenomenon and has continued to develop brand-new art forms that impact both old-school hip-hop and the newer generations.
The Origins of Hip-Hop
Known as an art movement and a subculture that came from the Bronx in New York City, it first emerged during the 1970s. It was developed to reflect the bleak situation people faced at the time due to the rapidly changing times, political discourse, and industrial decline.
During this era, New York City was facing an economic collapse due to the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and the manufacturing industry’s decline. Because of this, many white middle-class families decided to move to the suburbs to escape both economic and social challenges.
This migration ended up segregating communities and shifting demographics, making it harder in communities that were mostly populated by Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and Caribbean immigrants. Soon after, businesses closed; sources of entertainment and economic opportunities disappeared, and the youth had nowhere to go but the streets for self-expression and recreation.
Various parking lots and abandoned buildings became the stage for countless block parties, which laid the foundation for all things related to early hip-hop culture. Both MCs and DJs lit up the parties by setting up music using mobile “sound systems,” which were introduced through Jamaican culture.
Sheets of cardboard were used by break dancers as a dance floor, and walls became a canvas for graffiti. This new era was fueled by experiences of hardship, abandonment, and anger, but emerging hip-hop movements transformed this into an outlet for people.
The Man Who Started Hip-Hop: DJ Kool Herc
While there are several people who have been credited as the father of hip-hop, such as pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc (who were later known as hip-hop’s “Holy Trinity”), the latter is arguably the most influential. A Jamaican immigrant, DJ Kool Herc was born Clive Campbell on April 16, 1955, and it wasn’t until he was 12 years of age that his family moved to America.
The first of six children, Clive Campbell was the son of Keith and Nettie Campbell, who resided in Kingston, Jamaica. In November 1967, the whole family moved to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York.
It was during this time that the family encountered the economic disruption that uprooted thousands of families and displaced various communities, causing many to flee the area. As a result, a violent street gang culture emerged in the youth during 1968, which quickly spread around the city around 1973.
As a teenager, Campbell attended the Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School which was located in the Bronx. Because of his frame, height, and attitude, he soon gained the nickname “Hercules.”
He went on to make friends with a graffiti crew known as the Ex Vandals, which is when he took on the now iconic name Kool Herc.
The Start of Something Big
During his early days as a DJ, Herc noticed that people would usually wait for the break section of a song before busting out their moves. He wanted to capture this moment and help it last longer while also making him more aware of which songs to choose to keep his crowd moving.
To do this, Herc would buy two copies of one record to play them simultaneously on separate turntables. He would play the break on one end of the turntable and then play the same part on the other side.
At first, he called this technique the “merry-go-round,” but it later came to be known as “breakbeat” deejaying, which would create an entirely separate culture. After his discovery, he would go through crates and crates just to find the perfect breakbeats to use at his parties.
He would look for any kind of song as long as it had a small section that he could use for his breaks. And, it wasn’t long before he was noticed in the community. He was also known as the person with the loudest sound system.
Because of him, breaks became the most anticipated part of a song, and the term “breaking” was coined. It eventually evolved to transcend into mainstream culture.
The Birth of Hip-Hop
On August 11, 1973, Kool Herc made history when he and his sister Cindy hosted a “Back to School Jam” in their Bronx apartment building. His first sound system consisted of two turntables, PA speakers, and a dual-channel guitar amplifier. It was at this moment that hip-hop was born.
This was the first time he officially introduced his “breakbeat” technique and played a combination of soul, funk, and other genres that used percussive sections. His style would eventually become a pivotal influence in various music scenes, such as breakdancing and rapping.
Taking inspiration from Jamaican toasting, Herc also took control of the mike to assemble dancers (where he coined the term “break-boys” and “break girls,” or B-boys and b-girls) as he delivered rhymed exhortations. As his career progressed, he improved his style of speaking in rhythm over instrumental songs that would hype his crowd.
This style of rhythmic wordplay and lyrical chanting would be used to shout phrases like “This is the joint! Herc beat on the point” and “B-Boys, B-Girls, are you ready? Keep on rock steady!”
While this paved the way for rapping, he stayed busy with his turntables, where he eventually handed the mike over to Coke La Rock, known as the first MC for hip-hop.
DJ Kool Herc’s style spread fast and was quickly mimicked by figures like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. The former even called him a hero. However, unlike the two that followed him, hip-hop’s founding father never experienced commercial success.
After a few years as the central figure in hip-hop, Kool Herc finally reached the peak of his fame in 1975, when he began working at the Hevalo, a club in the Bronx that embraced his music. By this time, plenty of competing DJs wanted a slice of the action, so Herc would always soak the labels and get rid of them from his records to prevent the theft of his beats.
Grandmaster Flash was one such competitor, and at times, he’d make his way to the Hevalo to listen to Herc, only for the latter to embarrass him. Herc would call out Flash using the mike and cut off all the system’s highs and lows, sticking with just the midrange.
He’d say that in order to become a qualified disc jockey, Flash needed to have highs. Then, he’d crank up the volume as loud as possible to hype up the crowd, only to finish by saying that Flash needed to have bass.
At this point, the whole place would start shaking. It was said to get so embarrassing for Flash that he’d leave. After some time, however, being a DJ got more and more intense, and Kool Herc wouldn’t have much time to hype the crowd. This was when he really needed help from his MC.
Later in his career, Herc also rocked the Sparkle, which was located at 174th and Jerome Avenue, also in the Bronx. Other places where he would be spotted included 371 (DJ Hollywood’s spot), Disco Fever, and the Hilltop.
It was in 1977 that Herc’s career suffered and began to break down — with the rise of Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, along with the many crews under Bambaataa who had polished their MC styles. Herc suddenly became old news. During one of his own parties, he was stabbed three times. Thankfully, he survived the ordeal but decided to walk away from the party scene for some time. His career never recovered.
After he withdrew from his performances, rap started rising, and, by the time it became mainstream, Herc was working at a record store. He has since resurfaced at different points throughout the years and has appeared on discs by the Chemical Brothers and Terminator X as well as in a movie.
Even if he didn’t get the fame and respect he deserved, the legendary DJ Kool Herc is still widely known and recognized as the father of hip-hop. The mastery of his skills on the turntables is still relevant and fresh worldwide, and he continues to have a positive contribution to modern hip-hop culture.
Since the sudden end of his career, Herc has received various accolades and recognitions for his work, including the following:
- Portraying himself in “Beat Street,” a 1984 Hollywood movie directed by Stan Lathan, and produced by Harry Belafonte and David Picker
- Being featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in 1995
- Governor Mario Cuomo handed over the people’s Hall of Fame Award and Certificate in 1994 for his work in establishing the roots of Hip-Hop in New York City
- Awarded as the “inventor” of hip-hop in the 70s inside Entertainment Weekly’s Magazine of the Greatest Moments in Rock in their May 1999 issue
- Honored with the “Hip-Hop Pioneer” Award at the 1999 Source Magazine Hip-Hop Music Awards
- Highlighted in the “Hip-Hop” Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage exhibition shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2002
- In the May 2002 issue of Time Magazine, Herc was credited for being the innovative musical founder behind hip-hop and was mentioned with Louis Armstrong for Jazz, Bill Monroe for Bluegrass, and Elvis Presley for Rock ‘N’ Roll. All of these musical categories came from the USA, which places Kool Herc among musical geniuses that live on in history as legends.
- In the April 2003 issue of the New Yorker Magazine, DJ Kool Herc was credited as one of 100 people who changed New York and was featured in 35 Years of New York’s Greatest.
- VH-1 honored Kool Herc as the founder of hip-hop on October 12th, 2004, when it celebrated its first Hip-Hop Pioneer Award Show.
- The book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” A History of the Hip-Hop Generation contains an introduction written by Herc, released in 2005. It received the American Book Award and was translated into many languages.
- Within the prestigious Vanity Fair Magazine, hip-hop was given tremendous acknowledgment by featuring the pioneers of hip-hop for the first time through in November 2005 issue. For his innovation of hip-hop, Herc received a 2-page spread.
- DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy contributed towards making their previous home at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue more affordable for current tenants in 2007.
- In The New York Times Style Magazine’s September 2015 issue, an article titled “They Made New York” featured DJ Kool Herc as someone who defined New York’s electrifying cultural scene during the ’70s and ’80s.
- At the United States of America Congressional Records Proceedings and Debate of the 110th Congress First Session, Herc and his sister Cindy were recognized for their contributions to hip-hop culture.
- To this day, Herc is frequently profiled in various books and magazines on hip-hop culture.
DJ Kool Herc’s story began back in his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, where many other musical legends also came from, such as Bob Marley and the Marley family, Big Youth, Sir Coxsone, Lee Scott Perry, Shaba Ranks, Shaggy Marcia Griffith, and more. Being heavily influenced by both Jamaican and American music, he was eventually introduced to the sound of Motown music and James Brown — credited as his biggest influence.
At a young age, Herc’s ears had already found the perfect marriage between the two traditions of Black America’s funk and soul music along with Jamaican toasting, known as a way of “rapping” with music. After his move to the Bronx, Herc’s love for music flourished and his interest in DJ-ing started.
He soon developed his own style of Jamaican toasting, where he would recite improvised rhymes along with the dubbed versions of various reggae records. His style then evolved to using percussion and instrumental sections of popular songs of the day.
During the back-to-school party that he hosted with Cindy, Herc was able to unlock a musical revolution when he adapted his style to more of an American Funk and Soul. Before DJ Kool Herc, there were no B-Boys or B-Girls — he was the one to label them and introduce the concept to the city and eventually, the world.
Herc also used the Jamaican way of calling out dancers’ names in a rhythmical pattern that he would then set into a rhyme, which became what we know to be rapping today. This trick was then picked up by MCs, and his style was inevitably copied by many.
While his career didn’t turn into a financial and commercial success compared to his counterparts, his role as the inventor of hip-hop is known worldwide, and the Bronx is still his home base. He’s also still active within the DJ circuit — you can find him performing all over the United States and worldwide in countries including:
- The U.K.
- And more
To this day, DJ Kool Herc is scouting for places around the world where he can bring his sound.