KRS-One Explains Why Kool Herc Is THE Founder Of Hip-Hop
Throughout 2023, Hip-Hop culture is celebrating its most significant anniversary to date. At the top of the year, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Congressman Jamaal Bowman appeared at the Universal Hip Hop Museum construction site in New York’s Bronx borough. There, attending with KRS-One, Roxanne Shanté, Grandmaster Flash, and others, the politicians announced $5 million in federal funding going towards the landmark. “With the 50th-anniversary of Hip-Hop right around the corner, I am proud to have secured funds to help the Universal Hip Hop Museum celebrate everything that is beautiful about Hip-Hop culture,” said Gillibrand. Schumer added, “Since its birth in the Bronx 50 years ago, Hip-Hop culture has transcended language, race, age, in addition to geographic and socioeconomic barriers. It is a uniquely American art form that has become a global cultural movement. That’s why I’m so proud to deliver $5,000,000 to the Universal Hip Hop Museum, which will serve as the ‘Official Record of Hip Hop.'”
Just days ago, the Recording Academy took nearly 20 minutes of CBS television time to honor “Hip Hop 50” at the Grammy Awards, including performances from pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and Run-D.M.C. alongside various innovators and torch-carriers throughout the decades and regions, into contemporary stars like Lil Uzi Vert and GloRilla. During that performance, LL Cool J highlighted a specific date, August 11, 1973, in which DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cynthia Campbell (aka Cindy C.) threw a back-to-school jam in the rec room of the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue houses in the Bronx.
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Many Hip-Hop fans are aware of this August 11, 1973 date. A notecard flyer from Herc’s 1973 party often circulates across social media each August. Two years ago, the federal government honored August 11, 2021, as “National Hip Hop Celebration Day,” and its same month as “Hip Hop Recognition Month.” However, each of the elements of Hip-Hop–DJ’ing, rapping, break dancing and graffiti–predate that day in August. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham’s “Here Comes The Judge,” which features the comedian rapping on the record was released five years before this ’73 date. The Mills Brothers released Caravan, a musical featuring dance moves that are undoubtedly familiar to B-Boys and B-Girls, in the late 1930s. Similarly, DJ’ing also was an art form that began in the 1930s. Lastly, graffiti’s genesis can be traced all the way back to prehistoric times with hieroglyphics. Murals have existed for millennia, and urban street art has been around for decades. The New York Times reported on the city’s graffiti and tagging artists, including TAKI 183 in the summer of 1972. So…with each of Hip-Hop’s elements existing long before August 11, 1973, it begs the question why is that date considered Hip-Hop’s birthday, and why is Kool Herc seen as its founder?
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In the premiere episode of this year’s Fight The Power: How Hip Hop Changed The World, the history leading up to Hip-Hop’s inception is explored, including Kool Herc’s role in launching the culture. Kool Herc was famed for the volume and bass of his speakers. According to pioneering dancer Douglas “Dancin’ Doug” Colon, those legendary speakers and amps reportedly belonged to Herc’s father, a musician in a Jamaican band—where many artists battled with sound. “DJ Kool Herc was an innovator,” says Chuck D, who authored and co-produced the four-part Fight The Power documentary series. “A Caribbean immigrant, like so many of the communities in The Bronx at that time, he revolutionized how the music was played. And that inventiveness comes out of being able to have that sound system and play that for the people.”
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Colon and the Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz build on Chuck D’s observations, describing the seminal DJ style that Herc brought to the table. “Herc would take this music [and] go to the best part of the record; he [equated it] to the yolk of the egg,” says Colon. Those portions would come to be known as the “break” in the records, and Herc’s method of repeating them over and over again would send dancers–break dancers–into a fury. “Those breaks eventually led to the dance,” adds Caz. Legendary graffiti artist Lee Quiñones, who starred in the movie Wild Style, spoke to the powerful effect of the break, saying “I thought that we were saving ourselves to that beat. In other words, extend the beat on the turntables. Make it longer than 3, 4, 5, 6 seconds. Make it into a minute. A minute is a long time in the ghetto. And, a minute of that beat that makes you feel uplifted, giving you self-therapeutic power, you want to extend that because you want to live through that movement of that music.”
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While much has been documented about Herc’s booming sound system, and his focus on break beats, KRS-One expounds on what Kool Herc did that had never been done before. The Boogie Down Productions co-founder asserts that Herc’s contribution was more than just a party on that August 11, 1973 date. The MC born Kris Parker says Herc was the first to merge all four elements of Hip-Hop culture together, at once. “Rap–rhythmically rhyming in Spoken Word, Breakin’, Graffiti art—aerosol art, and DJ’ing were four distinct cultures—four distinct communities. Kool Herc came and brought all that together into one place,” says KRS-One at 42:10 of the PBS documentary, which is available online (embedded below).
KRS then provides some important additional history. “Some years later, Lovebug Starski and Chief Rocka Busy Bee started calling it ‘Hip-Hop.'” In 2018, Lovebug Starski passed away. In addition to helping brand the culture as “Hip-Hop,” Starski was a pioneer of DJ’ing and rapping simultaneously.
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Other pioneers, including Grandmaster Flash, have asserted their own place in enhancing Hip-Hop’s evolution through DJ techniques. In 2017, Flash, another pioneer and self-proclaimed godfather, credited Herc’s groundbreaking accomplishments in a video letter seeking peace in their relationship. “It is absolutely clear that you played the grooves and the drum breaks first that hot day in August [of 1973]. It’s absolutely clear that you had the greatest sound system. And it is absolutely crystal clear that you had the echo chamber, first. Did I go out and buy one when I seen yours? Absolutely. Did I wish I had a sound system like you? Absolutely,” said Flash five-plus years ago. “But I could not.”
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Later in the episode, KRS-One speaks to the lasting impact the influences of Kool Herc and other pioneers had on the generations that followed them. “These were the kids that had an attitude about themselves. Hip-Hop is coming from within us; we were never not Hip-Hop. We were always this, from the time we were born. We were always this.”
#BonusBeat: A 2022 episode of Ambrosia For Heads’ What’s The Headline podcast analyzes Hip-Hop culture is closer to 100 years old than 50 years old: