Kool Herc gave hip hop its break

Fifty years ago this August, Clive Campbell DJed at a party for his sister Cindy to raise a little money for some fly back-to-school clothes. They booked the recreation centre in their apartment block at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, drew some flyers and got to work decorating the place. Clive was big and tall, even then, so he’d earned the name Hercules on the basketball court. ‘Herc’ for short. His party instincts owed a lot to the sound systems he’d overheard as a kid in Jamaica before the family moved to New York. And his DJing style was something else. Fired up by the teenage energy in front of him, and a wild dancer himself, he started playing not whole records but just the bits he liked the best, the sections with the most energy – the drum breaks. This style evolved into a part of his set he called ‘The Merry Go Round’. In this way, as DJ Kool Herc, he gave the world the eureka breakthrough that created everything that followed. Herc invented hip hop.

In 1998, Herc gave us this interview for Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. After two weeks tramping around The Bronx, collecting pager numbers on scraps of paper, we gradually closed in and finally got a number that might be Herc’s sister. In those pre-internet days, most hip hop people we spoke to didn’t know if he was in New York, or even if he was still alive.

It came good, and finally there was Herc by a payphone with his friend Rodney C (of Funky Four Plus One More). We walked to a beat-up black Lincoln Town Car of mid-’80s vintage and Herc squeezed his giant 6’9″ frame behind the wheel, dropped Rodney in Harlem and we continued over to The Bronx. What followed was a truly cinematic interview, as we drove around the hallowed sites of hip hop’s earliest days, with Herc leading me round the clubs of his youth, mostly now car parks or shops. One, memorably, was now a mattress factory.

You may have read an edited version of this before, but for hip hop’s 50th birthday we’re publishing it in full for the first time.

interviewed by Frank in The Bronx, 30.9.98

…All hooked up. All hooked up.

What year did you come to New York?

I came here in ’67.

So you were how old when you came here?


So you remember your time in Jamaica?

Oh yeah, Very well. I remember Jamaican independence. Yep. I remember independence. I remember when the Queen Mother came. I remember when Emperor Haile Salassie came there.

How was that?

Lovely, lovely. All the Rastas came out of the hills. They never seen so much Rastas in all their fuckin’ life in Jamaica. Camped out, ran on the tarmac. Meet the plane. When Selassie came to the plane window he turned back in and started cryin’. He didn’t know people was worshipping him like that.

How did he deal with it?

He tried his best. He didn’t speak too much English either. And I remember when President Kennedy got shot.

How was that in Jamaica?

It was real fucked up. It was real fucked up, you know, a leader, like, of the United States, in my lifetime. You figured the United states is like a utopia, nothing goes wrong there. I was a kid, I didn’t know any better. But my mom’s you know, working as a nurse and stuff. And you see the movies, you know. You see television…

She worked over here before you all came over?

Yeah she worked as a nurse, yeah. And Kennedy got killed man! That to me just took the life out of the whole fucking world. Shit started to go downhill from there.

That was before you were here

Yeah, but still. I remember seeing the whole procession. I seen the whole shit on TV. I had a television so I was a king. My whole yard was full of people. Only a few people had television.

Where did you live in Jamaica?

I was young, my first neighbourhood I live in is Trenchtown. Bob Marley used to live there. He used to live on First Avenue, or First Street. I lived on Second Street around by a theatre called the Ambassador Theatre. Right there man. Right now they say grass grows in the streets there.

Do you go back there?

I haven’t been back in years. My father died and it took something out of me, by Jamaica, by going back there.

He was still in Jamaica?

No he came here but he was going back and forth. He caught a seizure in the water. People went down there see him and didn’t rescue him out of the water. And let him go back in. And the wave brought him back in, but the body stayed in.

What did he used to do?

Top notch mechanic. Jamaica. Used to work in this Newport West, fixed the high lifts, the fork lifts. When he came here he started to work at Clarks equipment company, out in Queens.

So do you remember the sound systems in Jamaica?

Yeah. There was a dancehall near where I lived, up in Franklyn town. We used to be playing at marbles and riding our skateboards, used to see the guys bringing the big boxes inside of the handcarts. And before that a guy used to put up watercolour signs on lightposts, let people know there’s going to be a dance coming. And the day before, you’d see a big handcart, a hand man come with a truck. Big boxes. A dancehall, you all could tell a dancehall, a spot where a dance keep at. Matter of fact I lived in a dancehall one time. The whole yard would be concrete, and there’d be a high fence. So you can’t see in.

Which were the sounds that played where you were?

I didn’t know the name of the sound system. I wasn’t too much into it. But this guy named Big George, King George used to bring his set there.

Do you remember any of the parties in particular?

I couldn’t get in. Couldn’t get in. I was ten, eleven years old.

They don’t let kids in?

Nah nah. It’s a liquor thing. And guys burning weed there and shit. If I was 17, 18, yeah, I would have been definitely up in it.

So what are the kids doing? hanging out outside?

Hanging out. We on our skateboards, skating round, you know, and you saw the little gangster kids, and they knew who from the gangs, or the bad bwoys. [whispers] ‘Yeah that’s such and such, man.’ ‘Awww’. And they see all the big reputation people come through. We’re little kids, but their reputation, them precedes them. So our dance would bring them out. And we sit on the side and watch, ‘Oh shit that’s such and such’. Little did I know that would be a big influence on me. As far as my pops wanted me to be a mechanic. I turned out to be a mechanic in what I do.

Did you ever think, when you heard the sounds, that you’d end up doing that?

No. But when I got here I see a lot of abandoned cars and TVs. And I take out the speakers and make my own little boxes for my room. Yeah, you know and it just started to progress from there.

So you were making your own equipment.

Yeah, my own little boxes. I start to get involved more with a working lifestyle. At the time people couldn’t understand what I was saying ’cos I had a heavy Jamaican accent. I was on the ‘Yeh man, Yeh man.’ And they was a place called Murphy Projects, like a recreation room where they used to give parties once a month. Right by the Cross Bronx Expressway. About a block off third Avenue.

They were the parties you just used to go to?

Yeah, go to see how the kids dance, See how they talked.

What were they like?

They were playing contemporary stuff. Kool and The Gang, Isley Brothers stuff.

So what sort of year is that?

That was like say, we talking about say ’69. 1969.

When did you start to get involved in it?

I started to get involved in it right after my house got burnt down. And I was going to parties back then, see. A place called the Tunnel, A place called The Puzzle. Right on 161st St, right where I’ma pass by right now, this was the first disco I used to party at, called The Puzzle. Used to have me, guys like Phase II, Stay High, Sweet Duke, Lionel 163, all the early graffiti writers used to come through here. This is where we used to meet up and party at. Then years later, down the block from it, this club right here, called Disco Fever. Disco Fever used to be right here on 167th. But before Disco Fever, right up near the train station up there, used to be this place called the Puzzle. That was the first Bronx disco.

So we’re on Cromwell and 167th, so just up there near the train station.

Just up the block used to be River Avenue. This is Jerome. Over there is River Avenue and 167th.

So back then you still weren’t playing?

I was dancin’, I was partying. I was partying. Right around ’70…

That was when B-boying was starting!

Yeah, people was dancing, but they wasn’t calling it B-boying. That was just the break, and people would go off. My term’s came in after I started to play, and I called them B-boys. Guys used to just breakdance, used to break it down. Right then, slang was in, and we shortened words down. Instead of disrespect, you know, you dissed me. That’s where that come from.

So who are the DJs that played these clubs?

There’s a guy I used to go to, ’cos now, now I’m in high school. The guy who used to play here I don’t know though. You never used to see him, they was in a room.

That was in the Puzzle, you never saw the DJ?

No, never saw them. But the guys in the Tunnel, I knew him, this guy named John Brown. He used to go to my school – Alfred E Smith. This blue gate coming now, it’s a store now, ain’t no club no more.

That was where it was? 41E. Now it’s a shoe store. And what about at Disco Fever?

Right there. June Bug and a guy named Sweet G.

What happened to those guys?

Jun Bug got killed. He was murdered. After that, a guy named Starchild, had the contract of playing up in there. I played up there once, for June Bug’s birthday.

When did you start playing. What made you start playing records?

John Brown, guy used to play at The Tunnel. They used to play music and I’m dancing with this girl trying to get my shit off, and they used to fuck up. And the whole party… they knew when they used to fuck up and be like, ‘Y’ahhh, what the fuck is that…? Why you took it off there? The shit was about to explode. I was about to bust a nut.’ You know. And the girl be like, ‘Damn, what the fuck is wrong?’ And I’m hearing this. I’m griping too. ‘Cos he’s fucking my groove up.

’Cos you know the tune so well.

Yeah, yeah, you know. So that stayed in my head. you know, I’m a dance person. I like to party. I used to come home and my whole clothes was soaking wet. At least. I had to tell my mother… ‘Where you going with my towel’ And I be ‘Ma, It gets like that up in there!’ Sweat Box. Down.

That was what the atmosphere was like, Everyone just getting down?

Partying partying. Rocking.

What sort of age?

18, No teenyboppers. 18 You gotta wait your turn to start partying and shit. The little recreation room parties, that’s where you might get a little taster for it when you’re 15, 14 and shit, there you’d sneak up in there.

So Disco Fever was the one you went to most?

No, naw. The Puzzle. The Puzzle and The Tunnel. The Disco Fever popped up ’79, ’78. that’s when Disco fever popped up.

The Puzzle and The Tunnel, what year was that?

The Puzzle and The Tunnel, that was back say, ’69 ’70. My stink started to kick up in ’71.

What were the clubs like inside?

Huge. Probably gonna hold a good four or 500 people.


Not too much. Not too much disco lights. All they had was a strobe light, and the little exit lights where you come in from the door. It’s dark! Not too dark. It’s light but it was a low-key light.

When did you start playing?

When I started playing is say 1970, late ’70, early ’71. That’s when the gangs rolled in, the gangs popped up and them. Start fucking people up, going to parties, start robbin’ them, fuckin’ with their girls and shit.

That wasn’t happening before then?


How come that started happening?

Gangs man, they need a place to belong. See what I’m sayin’. Punks get into gangs to be a part of something. you know. Some people just ain’t shit without being in a crowd. Some guys in the gang are serious about their shit. This is the place called The Executive Playhouse. Years later I played here.

Herc making a pronouncement on Jerome Avenue, 1998

This empty lot?

This empty lot. As I was saying: [a pronouncement] After I who have entered through this door and certain places such as the Executive Playhouse should be known as a car park… So it is, baby! After I who have entered through this door, DJ Kool Herc, no-one else shall enter, certain places like the Hevalo, should remain a car lot, so it is baby! That’s how it is! This is Jerome Avenue. Right here off the Cross Bronx Expressway at Mount Eden, this was the Executive Playhouse. This was the spot that gave me a lot of playing time when I first started playing a room.

This is where you first played?

No. This ain’t where I first played.

Where was that?

Over on Sedgwick Avenue.

You remember how it happened?

Yeah. Oh yeah. My sister wanted, my sister had a Youth Corps job and she was going back to school and she wanted her some clothes money, she wanted to invest some of her money on more money so she gave a party. And she asked me to play the music. And I was there into my graffiti work, and that’s where I graduated from the walls to the turntables. I used that curiosity of who I am on the flyer. There was a lot of curious people come to see who was doing it, ‘Oh this is what he does.’ I liked that. So right there, I’m the one who kinda resurrected the party movement back again.

And you’d been buying records anyway?

Yeah, I had records. I had records.

And how was the night, Do you remember.

Lovely! Lovely. Charged 25¢ for girls, 50¢ for fellas, 50¢ for sodas, 75¢ for franks, and beer, beer was a dollar.

And what did she buy with it?

She bought clothes. She went back to school fly.

So you got a taste of it.

Oh yeah.

You loved it.

Oh yeah. This is me at the helm now. I had the attitude of the dancefloor behind the turntables. Come up from the peoples’ choice.

Because you’re a dancer

Exactly. You know.

And how did it progress?

Every time I used to hang out. We made some money. When I used to hang out in different places, now they know who I am. Now they see me. ‘Yo man, Herc, wassup?, when is the next party? The other shit was the shit. Yo, I had me a good time, when is the next one?’ So I wait till I seen them build up [demand for the parties], and it built up and then drop it.

Where were you doing parties?

Recreation room. back in the recreation room. Till I got too big. Then, up the block.

Where was the recreation room?

1520 Sedgwick Avenue. It was for people in the building, downstairs, for anybody having a birthday party, wedding reception, tenant meeting and all that. You could rent it out for $25.

How long did you do those parties.

Off and on. It wasn’t an everyday thing, It wasn’t an every weekend thing, They wasn’t having it. Once a month or once every two months.

And what are you doing the rest of the time?

Going to school.

1970 you were in high-school?

Coming into high-school.

So you’re real young to be DJing

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

So how were you playing back then. You said you were pissed off with the way other DJs were playing the records?

I would give people what I know what people wanted to hear. I’d give it to ’em. And I was getting more music that was creative and sounded similar to the ones they liked. And that stream right there and introducing them to new music. At the same time giving up some slow music. A lot of guys like to get their shit on. I’m a guy that plays slow music. I don’t give a fuck how hard the party’s rockin’, I’ll slow it down. I have my shit in stages. I play music in stages. No format shit.

What were your big records back then?

My big record back then, and nobody had it then, was James Brown, ‘Give It Up Turn It Loose’. And a couple of records I used to play from the other clubs and as it went on I got [Babe Ruth’s] The Mexican, I got [Incredible Bongo Band] ‘Bongo Rock’, you name them, ‘It’s Just Begun’ [by Jimmy castor Bunch]. They used to rock that inside them at the Tunnel and The Puzzle. Everybody knew about it because they killed it. So if I start playing shit like that, I’m the one who played it first. If you’re playing for 50 people, yeah, but if you’re playing for 200 people, they gonna say you played it first. But I give props, no matter where I hear a record from, and I like it I know somebody played it I give them credit for it. I let them take it from me.

But after the recreation room, I gave a block party, and we couldn’t come back. So I found a place over here called the Twilight Zone. This was my first place of mass production. Giving parties. Away from the recreation room, was right here between, on Jerome Avenue, between Tremont and Burnside. The Twilight Zone.

And what was that like?

Lovely. I used to show fights up in there. I had a super 8 projector, and I’d show fights and little movies. And up the block was a place called Soulsville, but they changed the name to The Hevalo. And that was an established club. That club gave me my first break of playing week after week. ’Cos this place [Twilight Zone] I only could rent it once in a while. When I first gave the party here, everybody left from up there ’cos they used to chase me away from giving flyers out in front of their club. I’d tell ’em, ‘One day I’ma rock this club motherfucker. Watch!’

Just right here. Upstairs, right here. That was the Twilight Zone [address: 2000-something Jerome Ave] This church right there? This was a Latin club called the Hippocampo. that was a big Latin club, now it’s a church.

This whole street must have been rocking!

This block, this, Jerome Avenue. This is Herc Avenue really. I dominated this. ’Cos when I gave a party it was raining like hell, and when I look out from the window up top, all I saw was umbrellas. Nobody went to the club up there. They were like ‘Where everybody at?’ They’d say ‘They’re down the block.’ I go up to give out the flyers he’s chasing me from the door, Herc, that’s him. It’d be nice to take a look up in there. I don’t want to get a ticket though.

[We park and go up some rickety stairs, with metal plates holding the beat-up wood together, and it’s a factory where some Spanish-speaking guys are putting new covers on stained old mattresses. Mattresses old and ‘new’ are stacked to the ceiling.]

…the Zodiac

This place became the Zodiac?

Right, yeah.

[Herc asks permission from the owner]

Who the boss? Hi, how you doing sir. I used to play upstairs many years ago as a club, and I just want to show this reporter what it looked like upstairs. I know it don’t look the same, but he just want to see it.

[The lady talks in Spanish… Bossman shakes his head.  She translates: ‘He says it’s a store upstairs.’]

We just want to look.

[more Spanish] For what?

It’s nostalgia. He just wants to see it.

I used to be the DJ many years ago.

[She translates and it’s OK]

Thank you.

Some ghosts in here then?

Some ghosts gonna be up here right.

[Smoochy Puerto Rican music plays]

[to mattress-worker] Many years ago I used to play music in here. Habla Ingles? [he’s a little nostalgic] This was a club, man!

Where was the booth?

You can’t see it, it was in the back. This was the dancefloor.

And now every mattress in New York is here.

This was it.

What kind of things happened here then?

[Herc almost falls through the crumbling stairs.]

People came here to have fun. There was no fights, there was no shoot-outs.

[We walk across the street and up a block and a half to the site of the Hevalo]

This, this was the Hevalo. Now it’s a car park.

What year did you start playing here?

The good old year here was ’75, ’76.

When did you start?

’74, ’75. I was still doing my shit down here, and then late ’74, late ’74 and ’75 I started playing between here [Hevalo] and the Executive Playhouse. Matter of fact, this whole area used to be Irish, before it was called the Executive Playhouse this was called the Green Mill.

Shamrocks all over.

Yeah, the four-leaved thing, the clover. And there used to be crazy fights and everything here. Some brothers got it, big black guys, they called themselves the Eighth Executive, so they called it the Executive Playhouse.

That was a gang?

No, some black guys. I got off the train with my girlfriend to see a sign ‘Under New Management’ I said, shit, let’s find what’s going on. So I went in I said ‘I’m a DJ and I want to play up in here.’ They got a guy called Bert. This guy had some monster stuff. That’s when I first seen my equipment, my future equipment. I said this is what I want. He had good equipment but he had no skills. I had skills but I had no equipment. So something happened one time that he wasn’t there no more and they called me.

He would bring his equipment to the club, they didn’t have a sound system?


Is that how all the clubs worked?

They used to have bands. So when I started and when he started, that’s when, you know, the elimination of bands. Why give a band $600 if I could give a guy $150 and everybody’s pleased. You would have to pay seven guys and seven guys might want $100 a head or $75 a head.

And how much they gonna drink…

All of that. So they called me and I was just building my equipment but they didn’t know I had a reputation. I got experience for playing for kids, now I’m playing for adults. So the shit I’m playing for the kids I can’t play for the adults.

It was really different?

Oh yeah.

What would you play for the kids?

Most of the James Brown, Jimmy Castor, they would [up-rocks in the street], you’re not gonna have 35, 40 year old people doing that. Whole different rotation. So I’m playing for them and rockin’ their ass. Some bands still used to come up in there now, and I’d play intermission, in the break. But when they didn’t have a band I still used to play. It was the whole thing for adults, So I never used to be here on a regular thing, but this place burnt down and I started giving parties back over here, at The Twilight Zone. And every time I would play out somewhere and come back from one of my parties I would come back with a piece of the guy’s equipment. That I bought. Every time I took off from work on a weekend and do a party, I come back and the next week with a piece of equipment. And they knew it was top notch shit, and they were like ‘How the fuck you get money to buy that?’ and I was like there’s more to me than what you see.

And where were you working?

I used to give parties different places. Do my own shit. I come back with a piece of equipment. I’m building my shit there. I’m rolling with the big Mac. The big Mac, that cost like say $1600. A Macintosh, a 2300 Mac, the biggest there is, the top of the line. The guy had top-of-the-line stuff. he had GLI, and the new company came out, he had the disco fours, and he had not one Macintosh 2300, he had two of them. And he had two Voice of the Theaters.

So who’s this guy you’re buying it off?

He used to call himself the Amazing Bert.

So he’s just getting rid of all this?

This system sound like a band. People used to come just to hear the sound, they didn’t give a fuck what he was playing. What was coming through. It was crisp, you was hearing it. You could be on the Cross Bronx and be hearing this shit. Yunno. But see he was a student from the Bahamas, so he had grant money, he was at Fordham University. So he was getting grant money to buy all this new shit. I’m getting mine some fucking ground zero. I didn’t have no grant money. I had to earn mines. And still I haven’t completed it. I just didn’t complete it. I had two of the fours, two of the other Voice of The Theaters, and I had one Mac and I didn’t like the Thorens turntable, the Thorens was still top of the line.

The Technics wasn’t out yet?

The Technics was just coming out. My model, the 1100A just came in, to show Thorens that we on the block too. So between Technic and Thoren, they was fighting for the money market. So I went Technic. I went 1100A. That turntable is cut out. Because people couldn’t buy it. It wasn’t that it was no good; but it wasn’t moving off the shelf. Too expensive! So they pulled it off and put something more durable, and inexpensive with the 1200 shit. I don’t fuck with the 1200s. I wouldn’t. I still got mines, and I wish they would bring them back.

What’s the difference.

They got a higher pitch. The pitch from the table is not slant, it’s high. So for me spinning back is more easier for me. And weight. Right there, as I say I bought equipment and so one day I said I’m gonna work for three weeks without any pay, the equivalent to rent this spot. So I did that, this is my first time to bring my crowd there.

This is Executive Playhouse?

Yeah. So I put my suit on, ‘Ooh where you going?’ You watch. I’m at the door, my people paying. My man Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, they were playing with me at the time, so they’re playing. So they’re like, they see me handling the door.

With a tux on?

No, just a suit. An AJ Lester suit. That was the place to go shopping. You know and they like, ‘Oh, we never seen this side of you.’ OK… Packed it! Packed it!

What was the date?

I think I have a flyer somewhere. I think it was the summer. I packed it. I was the second person to pack it like that.

Who was the first?

Some other people gave it. But mine hit the Richter scale.

So you’d been doing parties all over the place, and this was the first time you felt you had it.

Oh yes. We running this. We running this fucking Bronx. You couldn’t throw a party on my night. I had guys had to change their dates if they found out I’m giving a party on the same night.

What year is this?

I’m at the height right now, ’75, ’76. You can’t fuck with us. You just got to deal with us. Know what I’m saying. Then those guys now, remember those eight guys. They’re supposed to be a team. Those eight executives, each and every one of them propositioned me independently. Why y’all doing this? Instead of just come to me and let’s talk a deal. Everybody wanted a piece of me. You know I could get this. This is just me and my father. So they said who teach you so well? You’re a shrewd businessman.

I want to talk more about your style about how you came about with breakbeats. When did you change it so you were just playing the breaks?

I wasn’t just still playing the breaks. The breaks was always a part of my format. Always gonna be there. Different people come there and dance to different types of music. I’m catering to each and every little volume of people there. Well the break thing happened, I was seeing everybody on the sidelines waiting for particular breaks in the records

People used to do that?

Yeah. People used to wait. I’m observing them. I wasn’t just a turntablist. I’m watching the crowd. If there’s a argument escalating into a fight, and who’s up in my place. Somebody could come up in there that could tense up the whole place. I gotta know, I gotta see if things running smooth. I was smoking cigarettes back then. I said let me put a couple of these records together, that got breaks in them. I did it. boom bom bom bom. I didn’t have one of them but I try to make it sound like a record. Place went berserk. Loved it.

What were the records?

‘Funky Music is the Thing’, by, I forgot the band, part of James Brown’s ‘Clap Your Hands Stomp Your Feet’, part of the break from ‘Drummer’s Beat’. No not ‘Drummers Beat’, The Isley brothers’ ‘Get Into Something’ and ‘Bra’ by Cymande. Took off! Then they got the guys that just wanna sit back, they might be doing their little drugs and shit, they don’t want too much screaming music in their ears. Play some mellow shit for them. Do what you gotta do. Play it cool.


So how would your set be. You’d play regular records and then a section of breaks?

Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah. I’d get everything. There’s some records everybody’s gonna get with. And there’s some records people ain’t gonna get with. So I’d get the crowd going with that. Then I’d just go into cool out music. Break music, slow dance then go right back to what everybody wanted to hear. So everybody OK cool. The contemporary stuff. Shit that’s on the radio. Shit they go to work with and listen to or round the block you’re listening to.

When did people start calling it breakbeats?

They started to do that in the ’80s. That’s when they do that.

Was anybody else doing anything similar?

No. There was guys were trying to battle me but I wasn’t fucking with them. There was a guy called Smoky. He was coming up, he was on Webster Avenue, had a group called the Masterplan Bunch. Flash was in the cuts. He was making noise and shit. And I had no competition.

But what about inspiration?

From watching the crowd. Remember, that’s where I come from. I come from the dancehall, I can’t let them down. I can’t fool around and play no wack shit. I’m watching them: the more they’re having fun, the more I get busy.

Who tried to copy you?

Tried to copy me?

Well, tried to use your idea?

I never know. I never went to their parties. I’m doing my shit, I ain’t got time to go. Saturday, I’m not in your party; I’m in my shit. I ain’t got time to check other people out. I didn’t hear no name to go check out. What would I do, if they’re trying to impress by playing my shit. That’s not too impressive. You know.

Tell me about your system.

I called my system the Herculords. People thought I was calling my crew the Herculords. the Herculords is not my crew, it’s the name of my sound system. The second sound system I was building I called it ‘Not Responsible’. Every time you play that set somewhere, some shit always jump off, some dispute, some shit, so I call it ‘Not Responsible’. That’s it, yunno. We just used to crank it, let people know Yo! if you wanna come fuck with us, this is what you have to deal with.

I remember one time Flash came to our party and shit, at the Executive Playhouse, I just got the Mac then, and he came and I said ‘Yeah I want you to feel the high, I want you to listen to the high, I want you to check out the midrange, I want the bass to walk the place.’ And I think I said ‘Flash can you deal with it?’ He ran out the spot. He said that was the only time I embarrassed him and shit. He used to have a sound system called the Gladiators. And Kid Creole, I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Yeah, it’s a known fact: the Herculords might cause a disaster, but there only could be one Grandmaster.’ A-ight motherfucker! It was cool, stood alongside them. Where the fuck we all at with that? So we just left it like that, man. We never battled.

Did you rhyme over the records?

No, I just was saying a few little words. If the party rockin I’d say, ‘Yeah, Right about now I’m rocking with the rockers, I’m jammin with the jammers. Young ladies, don’t hurt nobody. So remember it ain’t no fun unless we all get some. Rock on y’all. Rock rock and don’t stop.’ And when Bongo Rock used to come, we’d say ‘And you rock, and don’t stop. And rock. And don’t stop.’ And that’s the only part I used to say. So along the way, as the years go by, little short sayings became right into a full verse.

But you just kept it that way.

yeah. we never was…

Cos that’s very like the Jamaican way of toasting.


Is that in your mind when you were doing that?

Exactly. I say:

‘Yo you never heard it like this before. And you’re back for more. And more, and more, and this year rock this y’all. Her-Herc.’

Or this:

“Yes yes y’all. I see you comin’ down to check I, Her-Herc.’

Or if I’m playing something I’d say:

‘Yes this is through the inspiration of I, Her-Herc y’all. Check this out.’ And just go into the music, yunno. Took it nice through those raps to cover my mix, so it come on nice and smooth, ’cos I didn’t have the luxury of a headphone. I mixed over the music.

Did you ever play reggae?

A few, a few. I never played too much reggae. I never had the audience for it and people wasn’t feelin’ reggae at the time.

Is that how you started?

I played a few but it wasn’t catching

At the beginning?

At the beginning. And I introduced similar music in a funky way, so I find out: ‘Oh this is what y’all like in your music.’ So this is your funky music to me. And it’s similar for what I was trying to do for reggae music. Apply it. So a lot of my music is about bass.

So you’re thinking I want to make it like a sound system in Kingston.

Yeah. But I’m in Rome, I got to do what the Romans do. I’m here. I got to get with the groove that’s here. Who knows man, later on it took off.

You grew up in Jamaica. How much of an inspiration was that to the way you played and the way you made the music?

An inspiration to me, my father knew good music. He loved music and he taught me what was good music. [in his dad’s JA accent] ‘That’s a good bounce. That’s a good bounce.’ So I know what a good bounce is.

He didn’t play an instrument?

He was a Nat King Cole Man, Johnny Ace, all the classical old R&B blues singers. Louis Armstrong all those people. That’s… Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s his type of music and I knew what good music was. he trained my ears to it.

Do you have any tapes?

No What I’m trying to do is put together some music. Of what I used to do back in the days. We working on that. Kurtis Blow trying to fuck me around with Rhino records.

One thing you said you had some flyers.

Those flyers. We don’t put them out, we got to get something for that.

If I was livin’ like that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I’d be fucked up. A lot of people would like to see me fucked up in the game. But I’m forever standing, man. I’m still fucking standing. Like my man Sir Elton [sings] ‘I’m still standing, after all these years. feeling like a true survivor, feelin like a little kid…’ Yeah, I’m still standing man. And motherfuckers would like to see me all destitute. Say, ‘Yeah he fucked up the opportunity, look at him now.’

Now’s a good time. People are back interested in the old school.

And I have all my shit. If they set me down with a good deal they got some good shit comin’. ’Cos I could put my shit out in volumes. Yo man. A lot of money could be made out of it. It could be beats made for up-coming artists, ’cos that’s all Puffy do.


That’s all he do. He just does shit over. That’s my shit. It wouldn’t be nothing new, ‘Oh Herc is makin it’, cos that’s what the bastard’s doing out there. I got all my music. I got every single fuckin one. And they in mint condition. You ain’t gotta worry about no cshh cshh, like fry eggs or fry bacons or shit.

What about the outside parties that you used to do. How often was that?

That was not too often, because I didn’t get paid for it, and if I blew an amp or something, niggas… people wouldn’t end up givin’ me the money for it. So I never took a chance at doing that. Cos you always got to turn up the volume a little more, just to try to figure the music ain’t comin through.

You played a few though.

Oh yeah, oh yes.

How was it?

It was lovely. I played in Taft yard, and I took an aerial shot of that. It made the paper. Nelson George came up and did a story on me. His first fuckin’ assignment.

For the Village Voice?

Not for the Village Voice, for the Amsterdam News. That’s right. He forgot years later who the hell I am. I showed him, ‘Oh shit, yeah.’

Where was the party?

At Taft yard, Taft High School at 178th and Sheridan Avenue.

So when you started playing breaks, which year is this?

1975, ’76.

And that was in the Hevalo?

Yeah. It weas earlier than that too, because I had funky music before I even came up into the Hevalo. It was earlier than that. I used to play it but I never really put a lot of emphasis into it.

Can you remember the very first time you did it.

I told em ‘I’ma put some things together and I want y’all to check it out.’ And I’ma call it the Merry Go Round. See I got to hop on once I hear it. I’m not comin back. I’m gonna go forward. And so I did it, and they loved it.

Where did you take it from there?

I made it more part of the format. It was a part of the format now. People come in to hear that.

And you start looking for records just for the break?

It wasn’t just for the breaks. I have a lot of music from either Bam’s collection that I like, that I bought, but I never chased the beat like that. I’m not a beat chaser. I’m a good music chaser, and if a break so happens, comes along in it, it’s all well and good. But I’m not trying to go out there ’cos if I do a party man, I can’t play beats for people. And that’s what fucks up a lot of DJs, they can’t step out of that age frame, to play for people. they can’t, cos their shits full of fucking beats.

When you’re playing the break, you’re playing the whole break and then you’d play it again… or…?

Two of them, two of them.

But how long would you play each one?

Not too long. ’Bout four times.

And how much time would you give each one?

I’m not givin’ it too much time for the floor to be bored with it. ’Cos I got to move on. You can’t do nothin that they gonna be bored man. ‘Oh man, why don’t you let it go.’

And which breaks from which songs went down the best?

All of them, man. All of them. I don’t play wack shit. It don’t stay in the crate. All of them never get played in one night.

[we nearly run down a kid chasing a ball into the street.]

My father always tell me… [to the kid] You gonna get your ass fucked up over a ball! My father always tell me, ‘There’s always a kid chasing the bouncing ball.’

You got kids?

Yeah. Always tell me, there’s always a kid chasin’ a bouncing ball.

What was your favourite ever party?

My favourite party was my first boat ride. I played for my high school, Taft, in ’74, and the boat ride left from Battery Park, up to Rye Playland. And then, yo, at the time, ‘Rock the Boat’ [Hues Corporation] had just come out, this record, and it was, I had a favourite record I wanted to take with me and I left it at home. And that was ‘Skin Tight [Ohio Players]. And the boat got ready to dock and the water got kind of rough. And then the boat is rocking like this and I said Oh shit, I said Coke [La Rock, one of Herc’s MCs], pass me, watch this Coke. I put on ‘Rock The Boat.’ [sings] ‘If you’d like to know it, you got the notion, Rock the boat, don’t stop…’ and everybody starts running from side to side to rock this fuckin boat. The captain, the teachers said ‘Yo!, take it off. Take that goddam record off!’ And that shit made the school newspaper: ‘And as the boat was rockin, the DJ Kool Herc played “Rock The Boat”.’

Bam told a story about a battle in 1977 at the PAL…

Oh, at the PAL. They didn’t show up. Oh Oh Bam was there?

Yeah. He played first


And someone from your crew told him he’d better turn it down.

Yeah, Clark Kent threw a little spark in there. He have a young kid, no higher than this right here, and he’s on one of the powerfullest sets in the fuckin Bronx. You think he’s not gonna be cocky about it. He said, ‘Bambaataa!’ and I just had the echo chamber. ‘Bambaataa-Bambaataa-Bambaataa, turn your set down-down-down. Herc is getting’ ready to come on. If you don’t-don’t-don’t, we will drown you out-out-out.’ I say ‘Oh come on Kent, damn!’

And he kept on playing?

Naw, couldn’t, we had too much shit for him.

You just overpowered him?


Were the gangs ever a problem?

You know what, the gang never bothered us, because, my father always compliment me about the company I keep. We pick each other. You couldn’t just come around me just to say… No, he compliment me always, ‘Herc I like the way you choose your friends and how you and your friends choose each other.’

But didn’t they try to take over the clubs?

Yeah, ’cos some guys… People know us, that was in gangs, and know that we have respect. And if we… each and every one of us was approached to be a division leader, we turned it down. ’Cos we on the west side, who on the west side say ‘My man Mark, Kool Herc, Coke, Ron.’ And they know that, yo, we ain’t no punks. Niggas know that we ain’t no fuckin punks. So to get people to come on board they’d have to recruit us. And if they recruit us they know that they have everybody. We wasn’t with that. We don’t need that to get respect. People wasn’t fucking with us, why go out of our way to fuck with them.

You never got into making records. How come?

I just… I ain’t too far from it. I just, at the time, people got older, having responsibility, and then narcotics came in, I started medicating myself. My father died, that put me in a slump. I got stabbed up, ’77. Drew me back into a little shell.

How come you got stabbed?

That’s a misunderstanding shit. Kids come up in there, drunk.

You were playing at the time?

I was getting ready to play. I just changed my clothes, walked in the door, and walked into a discrepancy and I got stabbed.

You ever played downtown?

No, Never did. Downtown was bourgois to me. My shit was like elementary. You had to go through me and go on. It stayed up here. Not only that, downtown you couldn’t wear no sneakers. You can’t wear what you want to wear down there. Up here you could do your thing. Wear your sneakers, wear your jeans. Downtown you had to be dressed different, yunno. Different style.

And when you started DJing, did you carry on B-boying, going dancing?

If they’re there. If they’re there. I give it to em. If they there I’m always gonna look out for them.

No but yourself.

No, I danced behind the turntable. I got my little moves behind the turntable. ’Cos I got to be into it. I got to be feeling. I’m into it. If I’m playing, I’m into it, and if the ground is sturdy, I could really you know get busy, ‘cos as I’m throwin’ it on and I’m dancing, I know I’m making other people dance. But if I’m just there as a job unh-huh. Come on then! Feel it man!

What’s the best thing you got out of it all?

Out of playing music?


Until this day, hearing the oohs and the ahhs. Hearin the OOOhs and the Ahhs. People having fun, the mere fact that people enjoying themself, man, knowing that. Knowing the fact some motherfucker could spoil it, too.

Me and my friend used to play chess… on the turntables. Cos sometimes egotism was to take both of us at the same time. You want to play and I want to play. So how we gonna straighten this out? OK cool, no problem, we had a game. This turntable’s mine, that turntable’s yours. Match me. And the first person who play a record that the crowd say Ahh and walk off…

Who was this?

Me and Coke, my partner, Coke La Rock. That’s how we used to do it. And if you had two or three records to make a point or to bridge a gap, I would tell him. ‘I’ma go into this record and go to this record, and come outta that record.’ ‘Alright, cool.’ But the minute the crowd go huh, and then he’d take over and play. It was never a power struggle about who play for the night. If he feel like playin’ he play. Sometimes he don’t feel like playin’. Sometimes I feel like going into a James Brown attitude, I play James Brown all night long. It never bothered me. They used to say, ‘Herc, I don’t like James Brown, but when you put your shit together, about James Brown… love it.’ James brown’s my man. I’m a spin-off of James Brown. As a dancer, and as a musician. Hip hop music is a spinoff of James Brown, cos I kept James Brown alive in the neighbourhood. I kept this shit alive.

One big last question for you. What do you think is the power of the DJ?

The power? Of the DJ? It’s to motivate the crowd man. It’s to have the insight to motivate the crowd. To have the crowd at your fingertips. To control the crowd. That’s the best fuckin’ power man.

That’s it man.

Thank you.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Full audio of this interview with Kool Herc driving you through the Bronx clubs where he made his name. Thanks to Mark, Barney and Jasper at Rock’s Backpages for the transfer