Hip-Hop Hero: A Q&A With DJ Kool Herc

Written by Jon Lentz on . Posted in Interviews.





Forty years ago Clive Campbell and his sister organized a back-to-school dance party in a recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, a housing project in the Bronx. Under the moniker DJ Kool Herc, Campbell served as emcee and introduced a mixing technique using two turntables and two copies of the same record. The innovation became a foundation of hip-hop music.

While Kool Herc went down in history as a founder of hip-hop, the building where he got his start fell into disrepair. Developers tried to convert the apartments to market rates in the 2000s, but U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer joined city officials, tenants and Kool Herc in a successful campaign to restore the building and maintain it as affordable housing.

City & State Managing Editor Jon Lentz caught up with DJ Kool Herc last month at a celebration for the renovated building and asked him about his music, his thoughts on Mayor Michael Bloomberg and whom he is backing in the New York City mayoral race.

The following is an edited transcript.


City & State: What’s it like to be back here?
DJ Kool Herc: Refreshing. We never gave up on the struggle. This is a milestone. Senator Chuck Schumer, Congressman Serrano and the building association, we fought it. We didn’t lay back. And this is a result of our struggle, man. It’s a beautiful, uplifting makeover. The people, they stood their ground. They never gave up.

Photo: Peter Calvin

C&S: The renovation of this building happened under the Bloomberg administration. What do you think of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s time in office?
KH: He did what he had to do. He fought some battles, and not everybody gonna love the president, and not everybody gonna love the mayor. They gonna do some sour grapes, but overall they tried to bring moral standards to the neighborhood. They might do it a little rough way, but nothin’ easy. So you know, God bless him, and I know he’s gonna be vital out of office because he loves New York.

C&S: When you say things were done in a rough way, does that include the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics?
KH: Well, you know, I don’t mind stop-and-frisk if everybody gets stopped and frisked. It’s no more fisticuffs these days, everybody want to pull something out. So they got to do what they got to do. If they’re living good, we all right, but if you’re living foul, that’s what they’re there for. At the same time, don’t single out one person. If you’ve got to do that, do that to everybody.

C&S: Do you have a favorite in the mayoral race?
KH: Right now I’m looking at de Blasio. He’s got a community fiber of New York, and you can see it. So you know they’re going to dig up the dirt and all that, but that comes with the business. But overall, it sounds like he is a family man, and he is New York, and he took some battles that some people may not like, but hey, come on. From what I hear that he’s said, I like him. I’m going to hear more stuff about him, because it’s coming down to crunch time. So let’s see what more they got to say. It’s not over yet. I like how it come down, Thompson backed out, and they’ve got to use each other. Thompson’s not going to go anywhere. We still need your insight for New York.

C&S: It was 40 years ago that you held dance parties here.
KH: We couldn’t come back here in ’73—it was too much. We took it to the park, looked around for a place of business, and found a place over on Jerome Avenue called the Twilight Zone, then … at a place called Soulsville. The rest is history, ’cause Kool Herc could play there week after week.

C&S: What kind of music were you listening to?
KH: James Brown. I bought James Brown, you know, I bought his package. He kept it in the neighborhood, and I bought it, and that’s what I played for people. I had a James Brown record that my father bought—the Sex Machine album—and I played it and played, because nobody had it. And the rest of the other stuff I add to it. And the kids love it. I never played a song that the radio played.

C&S: What did you play at these dance parties?
KH: Everything, a little bit of everything. The breaks came when I experimented, and they love it. I put all my beats together that I know, and called it the Merry-Go-Round. And “Apache” was the one that leaded it off. The cut’s called “Apache,” and the band is called Incredible Bongo Rock. It was a studio band, and that was a hit that I loved.

C&S: What was it that you did differently?
KH: Everything, everything. We rented a place, we gave out the flyers. We don’t play music the radio played. We played music that should be on the radio. ’Cause I’m a dancer I came from the dancer perspective behind the turntable. What the other guy wasn’t playing, and what we wanted to hear, I took that perspective behind the turntable. So I’m always in the interest of the dance floor, not no ego-tripping nothing.

C&S: What do you listen to now?
KH: Everything. Amy Winehouse, I heard her music before she was to become blow up. And even when she did “I don’t wanna go to rehab,” I went to rehab. I messed up. I went and got my life back together, and I don’t hide that. So I can relate to Amy Winehouse, and why the people let her down. So my ear is still my business. Even Kanye West’s new record he’s using—“Bound” by the Ponderosa Twins—that’s before I became Kool Herc. That new record Kanye West is doing in his new album, to let me know my selections are still there. Even Jay Z jumped on a couple of them things. This wave! This wave! I’m sorry, that’s my Kool Herc record. Again, it’s all love. I’m not mad at none of it. I love it. They grow, I grow. Jay Z right now, he’s the CEO of hip-hop. That’s my friend. He got some other elements, you know, it’s all in the family, you got some good ones, you got some bad, but it’s still family. I just hope they, as men, put it together and know that the young ones are watching them and make a difference, because you are a role model, like it or not. You’re either a good one or a bad one, and that’s how it goes. If you’re out there, got the kids’ attention, make use of it. Talk to them. Turn the music off some time. Let them know we’re entertainers, we’re not your father or mother, so don’t disrespect your father and mother. They are your hero, the one who put the food in your mouth, a roof over your head. My whole philosophy is: I want you to feel as good as I feel. Otherwise, we can’t hang. It’s not a colored thing or anything; it’s just a people thing. My father always complimented me and said, “Herc, I look how you and your friends choose each other.”

C&S: Where does the name Kool Herc come from?
KH: It comes from nicknames tried to stick on me for years— Cyclops, Samson, Lurch—because I play aggressive basketball. When I came from Jamaica, I was an aggressive cyclist, my legs was developed, I could just leap, all that stuff that you see LeBron James doing. That’s where my name comes from, not music, so those guys started calling me Hercules. And I was like, “Oh, come on, not again.” So when we started picking nicknames in the neighborhood, I picked Kool, so I tell the guys, and they tried to make this nickname stick on me, they used to call me Hercules, and I said, “I don’t want no Hercules,” so I said, “What’s a short name for Hercules?” I said, “Herc!” I like that! It’s unique, it means strength, but you know, I said, “Yo, my man, call me Herc, man.” All right, Herc. Okay, Herc. That was it.

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