It was 11 August 1973 and Cindy Campbell was throwing a back to school party. She had asked her brother to DJ the event, which would be held in the recreation room of their building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Cindy planned to charge admission at the door — a quarter for girls, 50 cents for the boys. She wanted to use the proceeds to buy new clothes for the upcoming school year.
Cindy's brother was known by most as DJ Kool Herc — a name that alluded to the Greek God of strength, Hercules. An up-and-coming DJ looking to make a name for himself, Herc understood that a party lived and died on the dancefloor, and so he found what set it off. As Herc’s hands worked across two parallel turntables, he unknowingly ushered in a new era of musical culture, laying the foundation for what we now call hip-hop.
Introducing a technique he called ‘The Merry-Go-Round,’ Herc pioneered a way to strip down the music by isolating the percussive nature of the ‘breakbeat,’ the instrumental section that is considered a ‘break’ from the main musical pattern. It was during the ‘breaks,’ he noticed, that the crowds would hit the dancefloor. Using two copies of the same record, Herc was able to shift quickly from break to break by allowing a second back-cued record to continue the beat as the first record reached its end.
With ‘The Merry-Go-Round,’ Herc turned a seconds-long moment into prolonged minutes of dancefloor action, allowing the break boys, or ‘b-boys’ as he dubbed them, to take over the floor and battle with their bodies in rhythm to the music.
The technique he introduced that August evening became the cornerstone of hip-hop, cementing Herc as the genre’s universally recognized founder. From 4-18 August, Christie’s will present DJ Kool Herc & The Birth of Hip-Hop, an online auction of his and Cindy’s private collection that charts the early stages and ultimate rise of a now ubiquitous culture.
Beyond his turntable stylings, Herc’s influence on hip-hop was far-reaching. Known for playing music and listening to records that weren’t mainstream, Herc introduced partygoers to artists and songs they had never heard before. His own musical indoctrination began at home with his father, Keith Campbell, an avid record collector. Keith exposed his children to genres that ranged from American jazz to gospel and country. As Herc’s musical tastes evolved, he developed an interest in soul, and artists like James Brown would prove to be major influences on his DJing techniques.
In items from DJ Kool Herc & The Birth of Hip-Hop, the depth and breadth of his vinyl collection is clear. Records by Jimmy Castor, Baby Huey and the Jackson Five mingle with those of Joan Baez, Cream and Curtis Mayfield. There are even some, like Rare Earth’s Get Ready or Ohio Players Pleasure, that Herc tagged himself, colouring his name in black marker across the album covers.
Another crucial element of Herc’s influence was his sound system, especially his speakers, ‘The Herculoids.’ Having grown up in Kingston, Jamaica before immigrating to the US in 1967, Herc was inspired by the loud, innovative set-ups he saw there. In the Bronx, he distinguished himself by bringing a Jamaican edge to his DJing style, hooking up microphones to a Space Echo box and making sure his speakers were the loudest around.
Several sound systems — emblems of hip-hop history and in of themselves — are part of the upcoming sale, including the original mixer and speakers used at the legendary 1973 back-to-school party.
At its core, the genesis of hip-hop is simple: it derived from a desire by young people to bring everyone together. Without pretension and open to all, this growing movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s drew crowds of all kinds from across the city’s five boroughs. ‘To me, hip-hop says, “Come as you are,”’ Herc wrote in the introduction to Jeff Chang and Dave Cook’s book, Can't Stop Won't Stop. ‘It’s about you and me, connecting one-to-one. That’s why it has universal appeal.’
Though hip-hop has gone through dramatic changes over the decades, it’s clear through early flyers, event posters and other materials from Herc’s collection that its beginnings were homespun and humble. Herc was not only channelling his creativity into music, but also through hand-drawn advertisements and customised clothing.
In examples of early street style from the collection, including bejewelled belt buckles, sneakers, necklaces and the iconic outfit Herc wore in Beat Street, Herc’s holistic vision is on full display. Completely on his own, Herc was branding himself — and hip-hop — before the idea of a personal brand even existed.
Through these homemade elements and other items from Herc’s collection, the five pillars of hip-hop — DJing, rapping or MCing, graffiti art, breakdancing and fashion — are found. They mark where hip-hop began and how it has evolved into an international, multi-billion-dollar business.
Today, hip-hop is as prominent in college dorm rooms as it is in both urban centres and small towns, as known across the US as it is throughout the rest of the world. ‘What I notice with hip-hop,’ reflects Cindy, ‘is that it just keeps transcending and transforming. Next year is the 50th anniversary; it’s still here and still very popular.’
Though it has and will continue to grow and change, it began with a breakbeat in a West Bronx recreation room, with DJ Kool Herc as its pioneer. ‘I came from “the people's choice,” from the street,’ Herc wrote in Can't Stop Won't Stop. ‘If the people like you, they will support you, and your work will speak for itself.’ From the streets to the history books and in-between, Herc has stood as a pillar of the hip-hop community, and his collection captures the early spirit of a worldwide cultural phenomenon.