1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, NY 10453.
The arrival of August signals the impending end of summer for children of school age. Around this time, dread begins to kick in to the minds of youths at the thought of sitting and listening to teachers drone on and on with meaningless knowledge being drilled into the heads of students whose only wish is to return to the yard. The only thing that massages these children’s brains and relieves them of some of the impending anxieties that come with going back to school is to attend with a new wardrobe—a typical means of amassing popularity and warding off bullies. But for many black youths in the early 1970s, August of 1973, to be exact, finding the funds to justifiably spend them on some new clothes was next to impossible. This whirlwind of thought inspired an event that would go on to become the catalyst for a movement that would come to dominate the world.
Cindy Campbell was one of the youths that needed money for some new threads. She wanted to take a trip to Delaney Street and amass a thrilling wardrobe to impress her friends. She came up with a brilliant, but chancy idea: to throw a party, charge people to get in, and use her 18-year-old brother Clive’s record collection. After drawing out index card sized-flyers for “A DJ Kool Herc Party” (Clive had gotten the name because of how vast he was, like his father), Cindy developed a master plan for the event. It would run on the night of August 11, from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. For guys, fifty cents to get in; ladies, only half of that. Her parents brought the snacks. What started as a selfish wish was turning into a family affair to bring a party to life. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue would be the location of history.
Clive, aka DJ Kool Herc, quickly became the star of the party with his impressive and unique DJing skills. Disco and elegant R&B were popular types of music at the time and made their way into many DJing sets, but that wasn’t the case with Herc’s selections. He preferred to play soothing soul music and outrageous funk that were on their way out of style. His friend, Coke La Rock, shouted out names of the pair’s close-knit circle as the instrumental breakdowns and scratching grew more intense. The crowd roared with appreciation and responded with vivacious dancing in turn. Kool Herc took it up a notch and tried something brand new: through breaking and scratching an instrumental, he let people talk over the beat while others breakdanced to it. It became a hit nearly immediately. By the next day, DJ Kool Herc was the talk of the town. Cindy’s party made Herc a star.
The power of Herc’s work came from the way that he isolated heavily percussive parts of funk records. He could take the section and double it by adding a second record that was cued at the beginning of the break, so as the first finished, he’d get the second one going. The convention was known as “The Merry-Go-Round” because of how, to pull it off perfectly, the DJ had to switch from break to break in the midst of a party without any slack. One of his earliest implementations of the technique came from a three-record sling: James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock,” and Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican.”
Herc’s isolated breaks brought out the dormant energy that sits below the ribs for nearly everyone at parties. Post-Back To School Jam, his work became so big that it would begin to create vistas of new movements in addition to hip-hop. His breaks would bring out more than just people eager to talk over the production, but also dancers that were teeming with excitement. The street slang for being excited at the time was “breaking” and these people that danced to Herc’s beat breaks were showcasing their hype. He would refer to them as break boys and break girls—b-boys and b-girls for short. Circles would form and the dancers would head into the center for everyone to see, acting out simple dances. But things changed with a little innovation. “At first, the dance was simple: touch your toes, hop, kick out your leg,” said Grandmixer DXT in an interview. “Then some guy went down, spun around on all fours. Everybody said ‘wow’ and went home to try to come up with something better.”
As it grew into a huge medium, Herc’s popularity catapulted with it. He began to bring his skilled breakdowns to clubs such as Executive Playhouse, Hevalo, and The Twilight Zone. Coke La Rock and Theodore Puccio, often credited as the first or second true emcee, would talk over the beats while Herc orchestrated the lucrative background behind them. By 1976, he was the most popular DJ in the Bronx. He became so big that his work inspired Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, two DJs who would follow in his footsteps and help to innovate the culture further.
Flash went from studying Herc’s style to implementing it; he began DJing in 1975, and by 1976, he was playing venues in Manhattan such as the Audubon Ballroom. He helped to separate himself from Herc with three major innovations: the quick-mix theory, clock theory and, perhaps the biggest, perfecting the scratching technique (its creation is generally credited to Grand Wizzard Theodore). Afrika Bambaataa caught wind of Herc in 1973 and began to DJ two years later in his style. Being that Bambaataa was a general in the Bronx’s Black Spades gang, his pivot to music enabled him to convert his followers to Zulu Nation’s nonviolent nature. Bambaataa was credited for the elimination of street gangs in the Bronx for a period of time, as well as his own world-defining contributions to the game in the 1980s that helped to continuously define the growing platform.
But things took a downturn for Herc as his genre began to outpace his ability to keep up. Sylvia Robinson, a former singer who had her own bones to pick with the music industry, founded Sugar Hill Records in the late 1970s. She helped to bring together The Sugar Hill Gang and their legendary hit “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1979, is credited as being the song that broke rap music into the public eye. The era of commercial hip-hop began then.
The next year, Afrika Bambaataa had begun to take off; he began to record with Winley Records and reached an entirely new world of eminence. But Herc never made these tremendous advancements; he retreated from the rap world after he got stabbed at the Executive Playhouse as he was trying to break up a fight. Along with one of the venues he was working getting burned down, Herc decided that he’d had enough. He went to work at a record shop in the Bronx and hung up DJing for good. While he retired from the public’s eye, his influence in the next wave of deejays and artists was immense; some of those who followed would become the genre’s paragons that are religiously followed, even to this day. He never has to say a word to the public; the culture that he was instrumental in creating holds him to the highest regard.
The story of hip-hop, although it’s far from ending, is bittersweet. It’s become the number one genre in the world, with a culture that holds the most influence. While Herc never received the accolades that many of his peers went on to receive, many recognize him as the founder of perhaps the world’s biggest culture. The energy created in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue was only a preview of what could come with honing and bigger influence. Now, more than 40 years later, hip-hop drives pop culture. It makes the world go around. The values of spontaneity, creativity, and authenticity that were created in that room fueled the creation of hip-hop’s foundation that continues to shape the world that we live in. Who would have thought that hip-hop could take it this far?
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