“Our friends Pretty Tony, Easy Al, and Nookie Nook were all at the party,” he recalls. “At first I would just call out their names. Then I pretended dudes had double-parked cars; that was to impress the girls,” he continues. “Truthfully, I wasn’t there to rap, I was just playing around.”
Like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, what Kool Herc created in that recreation room might seem uncomplicated in retrospect, but in 1973, it was revolutionary. It was, for hip-hop, the equivalent of the Sex Pistols concert three years later at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, where audience members went on to form the Fall, the Smiths, the Buzzcocks, and Joy Division.
“Once they heard that, there was no turning back,” Herc told me ten years ago. “They always wanted to hear breaks after breaks after breaks.” It didn’t matter if that “break” was lifted from James Brown or Led Zeppelin; the dancers responded.
“Herc was the first to play break beats, which made him a force on the turntables,” said writer Nelson George, co-executive producer of the annual Hip Hop Honors for VH1. And the event became legendary. “That first party was epic,” says Grandmaster Caz, leader of the Cold Crush Brothers, who was there. “Afterwards, everybody attempted to re-create the energy of that night.” The list of those who attended the party (or at least later claimed to) reads like a Who’s Who of old-schoolers, including Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee, Afrika Bambaataa, Sheri Sher, Mean Gene, Red Alert, and KRS-One. “I lived down the street, but when Herc put those speakers outside, you could hear them from blocks away,” says Sheri Sher of the crew Mercedes Ladies. “Later on, Herc became a hood superstar, but that night nobody knew who he was. The next day, it was a different story.”
That first party was epic. Afterwards, everybody attempted to re-create the energy of that night.
Even today, when I meet La Rock, sitting on a step next to a local bodega a few doors down from 1520, I am instantly drawn into his urban-poetic speech patterns. “To tell you the truth, we were before our time. I didn’t see it then, but I do now. Me and Herc were to hip-hop what Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas were to drugs.” The comparison is apt: La Rock used the parties to market his primary business: selling pot. “I was never worried about Herc paying me for my services, because I was getting hustling money,” he says. “Man, at a good party I could make $1,200 to $1,700.”
Before Herc, club owners paid live bands a few hundred. Herc only charged $150 and had the spot packed. “Everybody wanted it,” says La Rock. “They had to have it.”
Soon, other kids imitated Herc, and added their improvements, like scratching. Small clubs started opening: the Black Door, Ecstasy Garage, Harlem World, the Disco Fever (it was used in the 1985 film Krush Groove). Many were firetraps, and often there were fights, but this was where the music thrived and evolved. In 1977, Herc was badly stabbed at a club called the Sparkle. After spending four weeks in the hospital, he retreated a bit from the scene.
Perversely enough, the blackout that year spawned a whole new generation. According to Grandmaster Caz in the book Yes Yes Y’all, “During the looting, everybody stole turntables and stuff. Every electronics store imaginable got hit. Every record store. That sprung a whole new set of D.J.’s.”
Meanwhile, the D.J. faded in the background as the rappers became more assertive. In order for hip-hop to be marketable by the record companies, there needed to be front men—stars. Whereas La Rock was purely improvisational, the new rappers like the Furious Five were keeping rhyme books and practicing in the mirror.
In the summer of 1979, soul singer Sylvia Robinson went to Harlem World and heard this music for the first time. Lovebug Starski was the D.J., and Robinson was enthralled. She owned a studio and a small label, Sugar Hill Records. Four months later, Robinson released the first hip-hop single, “Rappers Delight,” by the Sugar Hill Gang. The following year, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were also on the label.
“People respected Herc and Coke,” says Gary Harris, who ran promotions for Sugar Hill. “But by the early eighties those guys were like specters—they just weren’t visible on the scene anymore.” The scene went mainstream. In 1985, Run-DMC’s self-titled debut album went gold. And the hip-hop era had begun.
By that time, Herc had developed a crack habit. “My father died, my music was declining, and things were changing,” he once told me. “I couldn’t cope, so I started medicating. I thought I could handle it, but it was bigger than I was.”