DJ Kool Herc, the chief architect of hip-hop, was born Clive Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica. At the age of twelve, in the winter of 1967, Campbell moved to Bronx, New York. The year he migrated to America, sound-system culture in Jamaica had a ubiquitous presence in Kingston’s lower-class neighbourhoods. As a twelve-year-old preteen now living in the Bronx, Campbell already possessed a persistent reggae and sound-system consciousness having experienced the innovative music of Prince Buster, the Skatalites, Don Drummond, and dancehall deejay U-Roy.
At eighteen, Campbell attempted to recreate the Jamaican dancehall experience in the Bronx by spinning the latest Jamaican reggae records at neighbourhood parties, but his young African-American audience was not feeling the reggae beat and did not comprehend the Jamaican patois rhymes of sound-system MCs known as toasters. As DJ Kool Herc, Campbell shifted to playing funk records, but his reggae background caused him to favour funk with heavy-weight bass lines and lively percussive drumming. Kool Herc’s record selections were transmitted through hi-fi stereo equipment that spoke with the same awesome power and sonic quality of a roots Jamaican sound system. The selector, as a deejay is called on a reggae sound system, though using one turntable-the norm during the ’60s and ’70s- was still capable of altering the arrangement of a tune spinning off a record on the turntable platter. The selector skillfully inflicted a completely different sound context on a roots reggae recording by manipulating the controls on the sound system’s amplifier to briefly remove the bass on a tune, accentuate the singing of the song’s vocalist, and highlight the harmony of trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. The selector would create tension in a live remix by bringing back the bass booming like a compact implosion. By the ’70s, the selector had the ability to vary the sonic texture of the recording by creatively deploying reverb and echo chamber to repeat the sweetest elements of a vocal or horn solo and as a special sound effect that dramatized certain aspects of the recording with a live feel.
Kool Herc’s approach to creating something fresh from pre recorded funk on vinyl was different because he used two turntables. But his approach was similar in that he shared the same objective as the selector, which was to do a live remix of the record to heighten the entertainment of his audience. He extended the intoxicating rhythmic feel of percussive conga, bongo, or trap drums sizzling the break of records like Mandrill’s“Fencewalk,” the Incredible Bongo Band’s“Apache,” and the live version of James Brown’s“Give It Up, Turn It Loose” by playing the same record on two turntables using a sound mixer to seamlessly prolong the percussive breakbeats.
Herc pioneered the innovative use of two turntables and a sound mixer as active instruments that became more than passive facilitators, more than just pieces of electronic equipment that merely played what was recorded on vinyl.
These electronic instruments were now used to rearrange prerecorded music to suit the immediate needs of the disco and the dance floor. When DJ Kool Herc rocked a block party, dispatching African American funk with the overwhelming sonic power of a reggae sound system, no other deejay dared to compete.