Chapter 4: Making A Name [Book Excerpt]

How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent And Started Hip-Hop

…the logic is an extension rather than a negation. Alias, a.k.a.; the names describe a process of loops. From A to B and back again.
—Paul D. Miller


It has become myth, a creation myth, this West Bronx party at the end of the summer in 1973. Not for its guests–a hundred kids and kin from around the way, nor for the setting–a modest recreation room in a new apartment complex; not even for its location–two miles north of Yankee Stadium, near where the Cross-Bronx Expressway spills into Manhattan. Time remembers it for the night DJ Kool Herc made his name.

The plan was simple enough, according to the party’s host, Cindy Campbell. “I was saving my money, because what you want to do for back to school is go down to Delancey Street instead of going to Fordham Road, because you can get the newest things that a lot of people don’t have. And when you go back to school, you want to go with things that nobody has so you could look nice and fresh,” she says. “At the time my Neighborhood Youth Corps paycheck was like forty-five dollars a week–ha!–and they would pay you every two weeks. So how am I gonna turn over my money? I mean, this is not enough money!”

Cindy calculated it would cost a little more than half her paycheck to rent the rec room in their apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Her brother, whom she knew as Clive but everyone else knew as Kool Herc, was an aspiring DJ with access to a powerful sound system. All she had to do was bulk-buy some Olde English 800 malt liquor, Colt 45 beer, and soda, and advertise the party.

She, Clive, and her friends hand-wrote the announcements on index cards, scribbling the info below a song title like “Get on the Good Foot” or “Fencewalk.” If she filled the room, she could charge a quarter for the girls, two for the guys, and make back the overhead on the room. And with the profit–presto, instant wardrobe.

Clive had been DJing house parties for three years. Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, he had seen the sound systems firsthand. The local sound was called Somerset Lane, and the selector’s name was King George. Clive says, “I was too young to go in. All we could do is sneak out and see the preparation of the dance throughout the day. The guys would come with a big old handcart with the boxes in it. And then in the night time, I’m a little itchy headed, loving the vibrations on the zinc top ’cause them sound systems are powerful.

“We just stay outside like everybody else, you know, pointing at the gangsters as they come up, all the famous people. And at the time they had the little motorcycles, Triumphs and Hondas. Rudeboys used to have those souped up. They used to come up four and five six deep, with them likkle ratchet knife,” Clive says. He still remembers the crowd’s buzz when Claudie Massop arrived at a local dance one night. He wanted to be at the center of that kind of excitement, to be a King George.

Cindy and Clive’s father, Keith Campbell, was a devoted record collector, buying not only reggae, but American jazz, gospel, and country. They heard Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, even Nashville country crooner Jim Reeves. “I remember listening to Jim Reeves all the time,” Clive says. “I was singing these songs and emulating them to the fullest. That really helped me out, changing my accent, is singing to the records.”

In the Bronx, his mother, Nettie, would take him to house parties, which had the same ambrosial effect on him that the sound systems had. “I see the different guys dancing, guys rapping to girls, I’m wondering what the guy is whisperin’ in the girl’s ears about. I’m green, but I’m checking out the scene,” he recalls. “And I noticed a lot of the girls was complaining, ‘Why they not playing that record?’ ‘How come they don’t have that record?’ ‘Why did they take it off right there?’” He began buying his own 45s, waiting for the day he could have his own sound system.

As luck would have it, Keith Campbell became a sponsor for a local rhythm and blues band, investing in a brand new Shure P.A. system for the group. Clive’s father was now their soundman, and the band wanted somebody to play records during intermission. Keith told them he could get his son. But Clive had started up his own house party business, and somehow his gigs always happened to fall at the same times as the band’s, leaving Keith so angry he refused to let Clive touch the system. “So here go these big columns in my room, and my father says, ‘Don’t touch it. Go and borrow Mr. Dolphy’s stuff,’” he says. “Mr. Dolphy said, ‘Don’t worry Clive, I’ll let you borrow some of these.’ In the back of my mind, Jesus Christ, I got these big Shure columns up in the room!”

At the same time, his father was no technician. They all knew the system was powerful, but no one could seem to make it peak. Another family in the same building had the same system and seemed to be getting more juice out of it, but they wouldn’t let Keith or Clive see how they did it. “They used to put a lot of wires to distract me from chasing the wires,” he says.

One afternoon, fiddling around on the system behind his father’s back, Clive figured it out. “What I did was I took the speaker wire, put a jack onto it and jacked it into one of the channels, and I had extra power and reserve power. Now I could control it from the preamp. I got two Bogart amps, two Girard turntables, and then I just used the channel knobs as my mixer. No headphones. The system could take eight mics. I had an echo chamber in one, and a regular mic to another. So I could talk plain and, at the same time, I could wait halfway for the echo to come out.

“My father came home and it was so loud he snuck up behind me,” he remembers. Clive’s guilt was written all over his face. But his father couldn’t believe it.

Keith yelled, “Where the noise come from?”

“This is the system!”

Keith said, “What! Weh you did?”

“This is what I did,’” Clive recalls telling his father, revealing the hookup. “And he said, ‘Raas claat, man! We ‘ave sound!!!’

“So now the tables turned. Now these other guys was trying to copy what I was doing, because our sound is coming out monster, monster!” Clive says. “Me and my father came to a mutual understanding that I would go with them and play between breaks and when I do my parties, I could use the set. I didn’t have to borrow his friend’s sound system anymore. I start making up business cards saying ‘Father and Son.’ And that’s how it started, man! That’s when Cindy asked me to do a back-to-school party. Now people would come to this party and see these big-ass boxes they never seen before.”

It was the last week in August of 1973. Clive and his friends brought the equipment down from their second floor apartment and set up in the room adjacent to the rec room. “My system was on the dance floor, and I was in a little room watching, peeking out the door seeing how the party was going,” he says.

It didn’t start so well. Clive played some dancehall tunes, ones guaranteed to rock any yard dance. Like any proud DJ, he wanted to stamp his personality onto his playlist. But this was the Bronx. They wanted the breaks. So, like any good DJ, he gave the people what they wanted, and dropped some soul and funk bombs. Now they were packing the room. There was a new energy. DJ Kool Herc took the mic and carried the crowd higher.

“All people would hear is his voice coming out from the speakers,” Cindy says. “And we didn’t have no money for a strobe light. So what we had was this guy named Mike. When Herc would say, ‘Okay, Mike! Mike with the lights!’, Mike flicked the light switch. He got paid for that.”

By this point in the night, they probably didn’t need the atmospherics. The party people were moving to the shouts of James Brown, turning the place into a sweatbox. They were busy shaking off history, having the best night of their generation’s lives.

Later, as Clive and Cindy counted their money, they were giddy. This party could be the start of something big, they surmised. They just couldn’t know how big.

To give to the DJ Kool Herc Fund, go to djkoolherc.com.

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