DJ Kool Herc is widely regarded as one of the forefathers of New York City hip hop. But what was his first song?
DJ Kool Herc began mixing music in the early 1970s. A “first song” is difficult to place, since he would mix multiple songs in his sets and it’s not known where or when he DJed for the first time. However, Kool Herc is known for pioneering a technique called the “Merry-Go-Round”, notably with James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.”
Read on to discover how DJ Kool Herc instigated a hip hop cultural movement.
The Beginnings of DJ Kool Herc
DJ Kool Herc was born Clive Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica, on April 16, 1955. He was the eldest of six siblings born to Keith and Nettie Campbell. The family emigrated to The Bronx, New York City when he was 12 years old.
Kool Herc became interested in American music soon after arriving in The States, particularly liking James Brown. He set up a sound system as a teenager by connecting two turntables to two amplifiers with a PA system, on which he could mix records.
He began to DJ in clubs in The Bronx, and from 1972, he developed a style that significantly influenced the hip hop genre. He called it the “Merry-Go-Round.”
He would play the same record on two players. When the first record reached the end of the “break” (the heavy percussion segments that riled dancers) he would switch to the second record and replay the break. This meant he could extend the breaks into a “five-minute loop of fury.”
Watch DJ Kool Herc implementing his legendary “Merry-Go-Round” technique:
The PBS Documentary series, History Detectives, asserts DJ Kool Herc kickstarted a cultural movement:
[DJ Kool Herc] extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing. … [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.
For his innovations, DJ Kool Herc has been heralded as a “founding father of hip hop,” and a “nascent cultural hero.”
DJ innovator Grandmixer DXT described the early days of the breakdancing revolutions, saying:
Everybody would form a circle and the B-boys would go into the center. At first the dance was simple: touch your toes, hop, kick out your leg. Then some guy went down, spun around on all fours. Everybody said wow and went home to try to come up with something better.
The DJ was even credited with helping to dispel the violence on the streets of The Bronx, through his street parties and the cultural movement that he helped create:
For over five years the Bronx had lived in constant terror of street gangs. Suddenly, in 1975, they disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived. This happened because something better came along to replace the gangs. That something was eventually called hip-hop.
Retirement of a Hip Hop Legend
By the late 1970s developments in hip hop had left DJ Kool Herc behind. He couldn’t keep up with techniques of cueing (prepping a record to play at a precise point), scratching and cutting.
In 1977, DJ Kool Herc was stabbed while trying to break up a fight. He survived the attack but had stopped DJing by 1980, and instead started working at a record shop.
In 1984, Kool Herc appeared as himself in the movie Beat Street, which is credited with bringing hip hop to mainstream audiences.
However, shortly after this, his father passed away and DJ Kool Herc subsequently struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. Speaking of time, he said, “I couldn’t cope, so I started medicating.”
In the following years, DJ Kool Herc was involved in occasional projects with other musicians but largely kept out the public eye.
In May of 2019, DJ Kool Herc released his first vinyl record ever alongside artist and producer, Mr. Green. The record is called Last of the Classic Beats. Listen to the record below.