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Happy birthday to the founding father of hip-hop: DJ Kool Herc

16 Apr 2016

Today Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, turns 61. Though there is some dispute, he is credited as being the founding father of hip-hop. Despite this he is largely absent from hip-hop vocabulary. gal-dem is taking this opportunity to highlight the impact of a lesser-known legend.

The story goes that hip-hop was born in the Bronx, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where in the early 1970s Herc and his sister hosted the first hip-hop parties. The events that Herc performed at were an alternative to the Manhattan disco scene, that had begun to develop an elitist reputation fostered in clubs like the illustrious Studio 54. He soon achieved local fame, pioneering the “Merry-Go-Round” DJ-ing style, emphasising the “break” (percussion breakdown of songs). Herc would elongate the break or use his turntables to switch between the instrumental sections of old funk records. Dancers at the events were thus known as break-boys and break-girls – birthing enduring presence of b-boys and girls in hip-hop. 

DJ Kool Herc fleetingly attracted media attention in 2011 when his insurance failed to cover health care costs. This shed light on the sad reality of musical elders being forgotten by the genres they created. Enough money was raised through public fundraising but it’s disconcerting that the man who helped to create a billion dollar industry was struggling to make ends meet. Boston born hip-hop artist Mike Ladd said that this is a music industry-wide issue. “Dr Know of the Bad Brains is one of the founders of the Afro-punk genre and he’s going through the same thing.” The 57-year-old guitarist suffered a cardiac arrest last November. Ex-band mates are currently raising money to fund the cost of recovery. With an ageing generation of hip-hop elders this could become an increasingly common occurrence; Birmingham artist and Herc-admirer Juice Aleem said,“It’s a serious issue. Health care should be implemented for all artists everywhere.” He also suggested that radio should give more mention to hip-hop’s origins.

Herc’s direct involvement in the music scene came to an abrupt end after he was stabbed at a party. Following this he turned to hip-hop activism, campaigning for the recognition and preservation of the genre’s history. He now campaigns for long-term healthcare solutions. The DJ never attained commercial acclaim but lives vicariously through his influence over artists like Grandmaster Flash and Afrikaa Bambaataa. The harsh reality of creative innovation is the risk of going unrecognised but today we celebrate all Herc has contributed to hip-hop. Aleem commented, “So much is owed to Herc that it may never be fully understood. He was not the only one, but he is one of the greatest.”