Happy Birthday DJ Kool Herc!

The legendary man, Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, who is credited as being the founding father of hip-hop turns 69 today. Happy Birthday Herc!

In 1973 Herc introduced a number of innovations at a party he deejayed and cohosted that brought the foundational elements of hip-hop together for the first time.

Clive Campbell is the eldest of six children born to Keith Campbell, who worked as an automobile mechanic, and Nettie Campbell, who was a nurse. Herc’s father was an avid record collector who exposed his children to many musical genres and styles, including jazz, funk, and gospel music. Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Campbell was also influenced by the neighborhood parties at local dance halls and the innovative sound systems that deejays devised for the parties. In 1967 he immigrated to the Bronx in New York City, where his mother had moved to live and work. Eventually, the entire family joined them, and they moved into an apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.

Campbell attended the Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx, where he earned the nickname Hercules for his muscular physique. He became involved with a crew of local graffiti artists, and he began using the tag name Clyde as Kool for his graffiti. Soon, he started going by Kool Herc. His mother took him to house parties in the neighborhood, and eventually he began throwing block parties where he served as a deejay. Herc was known for his powerful sound system and impressive collection of funk and soul music records. He drew on his Jamaican background for his deejay style, incorporating a Jamaican musical tradition called “toasting,” in which the deejay spoke, or “rapped,” improvised rhymes over the music.

On August 11, 1973, Herc’s sister Cindy Campbell hosted a back-to-school party, for which she hired her brother to deejay. The party was held in the recreation room of their apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue. In a 1998 interview with writer Frank Broughton, Herc recalled the party as “Lovely. Charged 25 cents for girls, 50 cents for fellas, 50 cents for sodas…beer was a dollar.”

He introduced a new technique at the party that allowed him to keep playing the percussive instrumental breaks in songs for a longer, continuous dance flow. At previous events he noticed that the breaks brought out more people to dance. By setting up two turntables and a mixer and playing two copies of the same record, he was able to loop and extend the breaks so that guests could dance to them for longer periods of time. To build his grooves, he favored breaks from heavy funk songs such as “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” by James Brown, “Bongo Rock” by the Incredible Bongo Band, “Get into Something” by the Isley Brothers, and “Listen to Me” by Baby Huey and the Babysitters. Herc also began naming, or “calling out,” individual dancers at the party to encourage them to show off their moves. He called his two-turntable technique “merry-go-round” and the dancers who performed during the breaks “break-boys and break-girls,” or “B-boys and B-girls.”

Music historians credit Herc’s innovations and experimentation at this event with providing the foundation for hip-hop, and August 11, 1973, is now considered the birth date of hip-hop. His techniques and style influenced the earliest rappers and hip-hop artists, including deejays Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash.

After the back-to-school party, Herc continued to deejay at local events and clubs, such as the Twilight Zone in the Bronx. The events were promoted by word of mouth and handmade flyers distributed around the neighborhood. He performed with a group of dancers, deejays, and MCs known as The Herculords, who rapped over his beats. He was known for his impressive sound system and stereo speakers, which were dubbed “The Herculoids.” However, Herc stopped performing after being stabbed while trying to break up a fight at a club gig in 1977. He told Spin magazine in a 2023 interview, “It drew me into a shell. The mystique wasn’t there no more.”

He portrayed himself in the 1984 dance film Beat Street, one of the first feature films to focus on the hip-hop movement. That same year, his father died, and Herc struggled with depression and drug addiction, for which he underwent treatment. He summed up his hip-hop journey in the introduction to Jeff Chang’s seminal book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005), “I came from ‘the people’s choice,’ from the street. If the people like you, they will support you, and your work will speak for itself.”

In 2007 Herc and Cindy Campbell helped lead a campaign to have 1520 Sedgwick Avenue listed as a historic site, partly to keep it from being sold to developers. That year it became eligible to be recognized on the state and national registers of historic places, but its sale to a real estate group in 2008 threatened its status as a place of affordable housing. It fell into further disrepair after the housing market crash in 2008 caused its buyers to default on the mortgage. In 2011 a workforce housing group successfully took ownership of the building, and it was subsequently restored and renovated.

In 2018 Herc narrated the album The Last of the “Classic Beats,” the fifth of a series of instrumental albums released by music producer Mr. Green that included a compilation of the most popular drum breaks of all time. In 2021, in a congressional resolution that officially recognized August 11 as “Hip Hop Celebration Day,” Herc, Cindy Campbell, and the apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue were also recognized for their contributions to the birth of hip-hop. In 2023 another resolution passed by Congress commemorated August 11, 2023, as the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. In May 2023 Herc was selected to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.