WRITER’S NOTE: Please visit this site right away to learn more about Kool Herc and how you can support him during his time of medical challenges: http://www.djkoolherc.com/
I can’t even remember the first instance I heard the name “Kool Herc,” but I am fairly certain it was during the mid to late 1980s. Ronald Reagan was president, Jesse Jackson was, well, different, a new jack filmmaker named Spike Lee was stirring the pot called Hollywood, and I was a young and avid “hiphop head.”
Ever since I digested the boom-bap strands of hiphop in the late 1970s in my native Jersey City, New Jersey (my hometown’s local hiphop heroes was a crew called Sweet, Slick, and Sly) I was hooked. The Sugar Hill Gang’s landmark song “Rapper’s Delight,” which I would later learn plagiarized lyrics from Grandmaster Caz of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, was the shot heard ‘round the world. Kurtis Blow was hiphop’s first solo superstar. Afrika Bambaataa was the spiritual and musical emissary from funk and soul to hiphop. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five spoke so poignantly to my then-ghetto existence that I cried, hard, the first time I heard “The Message.” And Run-DMC was for us bboys and bgirls what The Beatles had been for screaming White teens two decades earlier.
Fitted Lee Jeans with stitched creases, suede Pumas, Le Tigre shirts, Kangols, name belts, baseball caps with sketched designs in the front folded on top with paper stuffed inside thus the caps floated on our heads like royal crowns, magic markers in our front or back pockets so we could tag our names here there everywhere (my tag was my nickname, “kepo1”), and so many of us popping locking breaking moonwalking doing the Pee Wee Herman the trot the wop the smurf the running man. We had no idea we were in the middle of a cultural revolution, but that is exactly what it was. And I am sure most of us did not know it was Kool Herc who kick-started the whole thing.
Right after my high school years I left Jersey City and went to college at Rutgers University where I would stumble upon the anti-apartheid movement, Black and Latino history in ways I had never contemplated previously, an upper class student named Lisa Williamson who would later change her name to Sister Souljah, and a spirit of activism that has been with me ever since. Indeed, we did not call it “hiphop activism” back then, but that is precisely what folks like myself, Souljah, Ras Baraka, April Silver, and many other Black and Latino babies of the Civil Rights Movement were doing, to a hiphop beat. Organizing in welfare hotels in mid-town Manhattan; building a summer camp for poor youth in North Carolina; re-registering voters in the Deep South; marching against police brutality here there everywhere; and staging state of the youth rallies and concerts in Harlem and Brooklyn.
It was somewhere between my trips to clubs with names like The Rooftop, Union Square, and Funhouse, and that work as a youth and student organizer, that his name first pushed its way into my consciousness:
Kool Herc, the father of hiphop—
But the details were sketchy at best:
Born in Jamaica as Clive Campbell.
Came to America in the late 1960s, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement.
Heavily influenced by great artists of the funk and soul era, including James Brown.
Lived in The Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs, and the birthplace of hiphop culture.
Earned his nickname, “Hercules,” because of his height, frame, and demeanor on the basketball court as a youth. It was later shortened to Herc. And DJ Kool Herc & The Herculoids would become one of the early groundbreaking hiphop acts.
Along with Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash widely considered the founding fathers, and the holy trinity of hiphop.
Generally credited with creating “the break beat” in the early 1970s, a djing technique that forms a critical foundation for hiphop music.
And that is essentially what I would know until far into the 1990s, when I first met Kool Herc in person at one or another hiphop program attempting to make hiphop into the political movement it never was, and that it will never be.
For hiphop is a cultural movement with political roots and political overtones, no question, but I have always been clear, even as a youth, that leaders have to emerge from hiphop’s multiple generations who, while nurtured on hiphop culture, must engage and work with the artists and iconic figures of our day just the way, say, Malcolm X engaged Sam Cooke, Maya Angelou, and Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte. Artists, cultural icons, can highlight, reflect, and support a movement, but those of us with real organizing skills and consistent activist mindsets must be the ones to make movements happen. The artists inspire activists to do what we do, and we activists inspire the artists to do what they do. And every now and then a great artist also happens to also be a great activist. (Think of Bono of the rock group U2, or Chuck D, front man for Public Enemy.)
That, for sure, is what we were doing in the late 1980s and early 1990s here in New York City, and in other parts of America. Making a movement go as we connected with everyone from LL Cool J and MC Lyte to Doug E Fresh and Ice Cube. But somewhere things went awry, many of us young activists fell off and out of the work for the people, and what we thought was a burgeoning social movement for change, fueled by hiphop, got decimated by a shift in what the corporations were suddenly permitting to be marketed and sold, with enthusiasm. Or not.
In other words, ever since the early 1990s we’ve had those of us who represent hiphop culture, with its five core elements (djing, mcing, dancing, graffiti writing, and knowledge). And then there is the hiphop industry, the bastard child of the culture, manipulated, twisted, and bent out of shape by a few corporations more interested in a dollar bill than the holistic development and natural growth of this art form. That is why we’ve been bombarded with over-the-top cursing and use of the N word, glorified violence, sexism and a ruthless disrespect for women and girls, excessive materialism, and soft porn and gangsterism passing as music videos for far too long. I am a writer, an artist myself, so I do not believe in censorship in any form. I am also a history buff, so I know full well our society is riddled with racism, sexism, violence, anti-intellectualism, and materialism, and that hiphop did not create any of these things. Hiphop, being the dominant cultural expression it is, simply is the most immediate and accessible frame flashing, 100 beats per minute, what is very wrong in too many to count American ‘hoods, both urban and suburban.
Likewise, what I do believe is missing is balance. Yes, I am absolutely clear that hiphop is a multicultural movement, belonging to people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, throughout the globe. And I love that I have come across, say, Israeli and Palestinian hiphoppers using the music to talk peace, or Italian, German, or French hiphoppers learning English via the music, or South African or Latin American hiphoppers using it as a tool for social change, or Asian American hiphoppers in California who love, embrace, and represent the culture far more than the offspring of the founders do. But the harsh reality is that the images we see, the sagas of mayhem we hear most, are of Black and Latino people. This is not just damaging to our psyches, just as crack cocaine was, but it is damaging to our spirits. And we’ve become stuck in a very vicious cycle where I sometimes wonder how many of us truly grasp that there is nothing wrong with rhyming about the ghetto, about parties and material things, if we also are expanding our worldviews enough to discuss other concerns, too. But that can’t happen if specific gatekeepers in the industry game block that kind of personal and cultural evolution from occurring.
A Lil’ Wayne, talented and fascinating as he is, is put on a mighty big pedestal because he is not really saying much at all and has become a cartoonish figure merely there for entertainment and shock value. Meanwhile, someone as intelligent and insightful as a Talib Kweli has to grind, hard, just for airplay, gigs, and our Twitter attention spans. As long as that kind of awful imbalance exists, then you can bet your bottom buck that Kool Herc and every other hiphop pioneer are not a part of conversations around the state of hiphop, the culture or the industry.
And just as there is a huge gap between older folks who know and can speak to the social struggles of bygone eras and the youth who often do not know those tales, there too is a huge gap between we heads who understand the history and traditions of hiphop, and those who actually believe it must’ve begun with Tupac or The Notorious B.I.G. I wish I were exaggerating, but the things I have heard in my travels across America about what hiphop is or is not are often, at best, numbing. No fault of our own, it is simply not taught in the schools, as it should be at this point. And God knows very few grade or high schools, or colleges or universities, ever consider bringing a living, breathing hiphop legend in to guest lecture, to be an artist in residence, especially given how much hiphop music and culture have penetrated every single crevice of American society.
And that is why quite a few who claim to love and be hiphop do not even know who Kool Herc is. And why those who have benefited, culturally, spiritually, and, yes, monetarily, have rarely engaged him from this thing we call hiphop. And this thing called hiphop, which was, for the most part, created by poor, working-class African Americans, West Indians, and Latinos in New York City, with a parallel energy generated by Latinos and Black on the West Coast in the 1970s, is now a multi-billion dollar global industry, and the dominant cultural expression on the planet for 30plus years and counting.
That, I imagine, is why Kool Herc and other pioneers of hiphop have always made it a point to stand up at various hiphop-related events and state who they are—sometimes with love and respect, sometimes with shades of bitterness and resentment framing the edges of their mouths—because if they do not, then they would remain largely invisible, or completely ignored. Think about how, for example, Black basketball trailblazers from back in the day, the ones documented in that great ESPN film “Black Magic,” must feel when they hear of the millions a LeBron James can command because of the sweat and blood equity they put in when there was no cable television, no endorsement deals, and these players were just as likely to be the victims of racial injustices as cheers.
As a matter of fact, I recall when I curated the very first exhibit on the history of hiphop culture in America, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1999, I encountered this kind of weariness, born of years of neglect, on numerous occasions. But I also remember the great joy many of these hiphop legends displayed because they were being recognized for their contributions. Unfortunately, that exhibit was so woefully under-funded, that we had to scrape together sponsors as best we could just to mount the show and fly pioneers there. For all the billions of dollars hiphop has made our economy and certain corporate giants, the great irony is how some still don’t view it as a legitimate art form, then and now. Regardless, as you can imagine, it was profoundly moving to meet, one by one, the architects of hiphop. Folks with names like Lady Pink, Popmaster Fabel, Lee Quinones, and an army of others. But the one person who always had the greatest mystique around him, without question, was Kool Herc.
For the record, we need to understand that Kool Herc is to hiphop what individuals like Big Mama Thornton, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard are to the history of rock and roll. Or what Jelly Roll Morton and The Creole Band are to jazz: visionary figures that far ahead of their time that they have been taken for granted, save a handful of diehard fans and historians.
And therein lies the enormous dilemma of Kool Herc’s current health condition. According to his sister Cindy Campbell who, as long as I can remember, has always been there supporting the legacy of her brother, Herc was hospitalized last October. He has serious kidney stones and they must be removed. $10,000 worth of medical bills have been piled up, and there is a need, according to Cindy, to raise at least $25,000 to cover expenses tied to this very necessary surgical procedure.
And Kool Herc, founding father of hiphop, is like so many dwelling in America: He does not have health insurance. Kool Herc makes his living djing and speaking, but he undoubtedly has not been treated in the way rock and jazz heroes and sheroes are treated.
Moreover, such a twisted paradox, this theme of Kool Herc’s lack of healthcare coverage, as we watch lawsuit after lawsuit being filed, throughout our nation, to dismantle President Obama’s historic legislation. And the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has already voted to repeal the president’s healthcare reform. Although that will not happen in the Democratic-controlled Senate chamber, the House vote is, assuredly, part of a long-term strategy aimed at undermining and derailing our president’s legislation.
To put this in a different context, as Kool Herc was setting foot in America in the late 1960s, Dr. King was publicly condemning the war in Vietnam and ultimately calling for “a poor people’s campaign.” For Dr. King understood that true democracy could never be fully realized in America if each and every one of us did not have access to the most basic of needs, including a quality education, a decent place to live, an opportunity to work, and the ability to get help if we were to take ill.
Dr. King was assassinated, and as quickly as major civil rights victories were won, conservative forces moved to dismantle or destroy them. That is why I always say to those critical of hiphop to keep in mind that if Kool Herc and others had not created this art form in the first place, there would be even more Blacks and Latinos, especially, who are unemployed, on the streets committing crimes, in jail, and without healthcare, or without anyone to petition for us to get help as hiphop icon DJ Premiere initially did for Kool Herc.
“Herc wants to use this to bring awareness, not just about healthcare,” says Cindy Campbell. She adds: “There are so many other hiphop legends in similar situations, but they are not Kool Herc, so no one is going to rally around them. We want to create a foundation, a union, a fund, that makes sure these pioneers are protected in their time of need.”
And that is what we who truly care need to do. I have been bombarded with facebook messages and tweets from individuals not only angry and disturbed that Kool Herc is in this position, but also that certain hiphop luminaries are not moving, quickly or at all, to cover Herc’s medical bills. Names are being called. And hiphop moguls and superstars are being denigrated publicly. I personally don’t think that is the way to go. If the wealthy in hiphop America want to step up, they will. I hope they do, but I am not expecting much at this point given how much our culture has deteriorated into a space of spiritual imbalance and extreme individualism at the expense of the larger hiphop world. When any people, community, or culture has been dumbed down that much by forces beyond our comprehension, then it is not difficult to get why someone as valuable as a Kool Herc is as easily discarded as one’s last text message, or one’s last order of fast food.
Thus, what would be much more effective is, again, that permanent fund or foundation to support hiphop pioneers and classic hiphop artists just like we see with other genres of popular music. That way we never again have one of our legends sitting without healthcare as they make their way through their 50s, 60s, and beyond.
Additionally, I echo Cindy’s contention that hiphop, after all these years, needs to be recognized by our country, on a federal level, for the great cultural contributions it has made to America, and to the planet. No Kool Herc, no hiphop, and there would be no Queen Latifah, no Will Smith, no Jay-Z, no Russell Simmons, no Eminem, no mass popularity of professional basketball, no swagger to President Obama’s walk, no street teams as a marketing concept, and no spice to our American vocab (Do we really think catchphrases like “I’m good” just fall from the sky?).
Similarly, my friend, Toni Blackman, is not only one of the best freestyle rappers in the world, but she has made a career of being an American cultural ambassador, traveling from nation to nation, as a hiphop artist, crossing boundaries in the same way that American jazz musicians, for years, have done with the U.S. State Department.
Imagine if someone in Washington acknowledges our hiphop legends for their cultural contributions. It would be the path to truly honoring and recognizing a Kool Herc, an Afrika Bambaataa, a Grandmaster Flash, a Cold Crush Brothers, a Rock Steady Crew, a Universal Zulu Nation, an Ernie Paniciolli (the dean of hiphop photographers), and the numerous founding fathers and mothers of hiphop culture.
By treating them like the national treasures that they are—
Kevin Powell is a public speaker, activist, and author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). Kevin was a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States Congress in New York City. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.