On DJ Kool Herc and a Seminal Moment in Hip-Hop History

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Journalist Jeff Chang’s 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop offers a history of hip-hop culture, and he’s particularly good at capturing the 1970s Bronx neighborhood party scene that helped start it all, with a young Jamaican-born DJ named Clive Campbell—who moved to the Bronx with his family as a child and soon started hosting parties as DJ Kool Herc. Here, Herc describes the moment he started experimenting with isolating the break in certain songs:

Herc carefully studied the dancers. “I was smoking cigarettes and I was waiting for the records to finish. And I noticed people was waiting for certain parts of the record,” he says. It was an insight as profound as Ruddy Redwood’s dub discovery. The moment when the dancers really got wild was in a song’s short instrumental break, when the band would drop out and the rhythm section would get elemental. Forget melody, chorus, songs— it was all about the groove, building it, keeping it going. Like a string theorist, Herc zeroed in on the fundamental vibrating loop at the heart of the record, the break.

He started searching for songs by the sound of their break, songs that he would make into his signature tunes: the nonstop conga epics from The Incredible Bongo Band called “Apache” and “Bongo Rock,” James Brown’s “live” version of “Give It Up Turn It Loose” from the Sex Machine album, Johnny Pate’s theme to Shaft in Africa, Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio”— Black soul and white rock records with an uptempo, often Afro-Latinized backbeat. Then he soaked off the labels, Jamaican style. “My father said, ‘Hide the name of your records because that’s how you get your rep. That’s how you get your clientele.’ You don’t want the same people to have your same record down the block,” Herc says. Here was one source of hip-hop’s competitive ethic and beat-this aesthetic.

In a technique he called “the Merry-Go-Round,” Herc began to work two copies of the same record, back-cueing a record to the beginning of the break as the other reached the end, extending a five-second breakdown into a five-minute loop of fury, a makeshift version excursion. Before long he had tossed most of the songs, focusing on the breaks alone. His sets drove the dancers from climax to climax on waves of churning drums. “And once they heard that, that was it, wasn’t no turning back,” Herc says. “They always wanted to hear breaks after breaks after breaks after breaks.”

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