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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: DJ Kool Herc

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This month marks 50 years of hip-hop. To celebrate, all this week we'll be featuring interviews with some of the most influential rappers and DJs over the last 50 years. We'll start at the beginning with DJ Kool Herc, who, on August 11, 1973, DJ'd an end-of-summer party in his Bronx apartment's rec center. Little did he know that it was the beginning of hip-hop as we know it. Kool Herc was the first DJ to isolate and repeat the breaks - the most danceable beats in a record - to rev the party and keep the dancers going. Although Herc is often credited as the father of hip-hop, he didn't record and, for years, remained relatively unknown.

Grandmaster Flash took Herc's method one step further, developing mixing and scratching techniques that became part of the basics of hip-hop. We'll hear Terry's interview with him later in the show. His group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, was the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Melle Mel was a member and rapped on "The Message," which is considered one of the best rap records ever made. We'll hear from him also. But let's kick it off with DJ Kool Herc. He spoke to Terry in 2005 about the parties he threw in the Bronx back in the '70s. They started with a mix that Kool Herc would often play at parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Oh, I wouldn't change a thing if I had to live my life all over. Oh, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Kool Herc, welcome to FRESH AIR. Take us back to the beginning of hip-hop. Would you describe what you would do at parties?

DJ KOOL HERC: OK. The party would start out like this. I ride my bicycle - summertime - all over the Bronx everywhere. And people would - as I go along, they would ask me, hey, Herc. The last party was - it was the bomb. It was the joint. You know, that was just - that's when the first slang thing started. It was the joint. I love it. When is the next one? Until that build up, when is the next one, that's when we give the party. And we give the party - three weeks prior to the date, we start to put out invitations about it on index card.

GROSS: Tell us what it was like at the party - like, how you would play records, how you would find the breaks, how you started finding the breaks.

DJ KOOL HERC: I would - well, I thought people didn't see me. I was in a room. I had to stick my head out and see how the party was going. Me and my friends was in the room, and I would - we would stick our head out and see how the party's doing, or we'd call people names out. And I didn't have the luxury of headphones. I had to queue in the record over the music 'cause that's the way my setup was set up. And I was - you know, the record - you could tell where the breaks are. It's a dark groove. And people used to wait some time for those particular parts of the record to come on. And I would just play stuff, you know, and I would tell them that I have new records. I wanted them to check it out at the same time I'm checking it out. And if it's something I personally like, I would tell them, I'm feeling this one, and I hope you like the rest I play, you know, 'cause they came to my house. You know, they were my guests.

GROSS: Now, what made you think that it would be great at parties to just play those breaks over and over to make almost, like, a loop of those breaks instead of just playing...

DJ KOOL HERC: Because...

GROSS: ...The whole record straight through?

DJ KOOL HERC: That's the one misconception of me. I'm a disc jockey. I'm not a DJ. I'm a disc jockey. I play the disc to make you jockey. And one night, I experiment. The breaks came out of an experiment by - I'm watching the people dancing, and a lot of people used to wait for some particular part of the records. I'm studying the floor. I'm like a shepherd. I'm watching the flock. You know, I got to maintain this crowd going on till around 4 o'clock. So I'm - I have to - I'm very observant. So what - I was noticing people used to wait for them particular parts of the record to dance to just to do their special little move. So I said, listen. I'm going to do a thing. I'm going to call it the merry-go-round. So I put all these breaks that I know that I have in my collection together. Some of them have two, but most of them only had one, so then I thought to keep it going. I called it the merry-go-round. And at the time, I had a record called "Apache," and it was off an album called "The Incredible Bongo Rock." And that record set the tone.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kool Herc, and he's basically considered the father of hip-hop, of...

DJ KOOL HERC: No, not basically. I am.

GROSS: OK (laughter). And Kool...

DJ KOOL HERC: The buck stop right here. Ain't nobody after George Washington. Likewise, same thing for Kool Herc.

GROSS: What were the records that you thought had the best breaks when you were doing parties in the '70s?

DJ KOOL HERC: James Brown, "Give It Up Turn It Loose" (ph) - a lot of James Brown record - "Get Involved." Bobby Byrd record, "Hot Pants," you know, and Dennis Coffey, you know, "Scorpio," soundtracks from "Shaft In Africa," you know, and the list goes on and on. I'm still buying records to this day.

GROSS: What are you buying?

DJ KOOL HERC: Good stuff that's not played on the radio.

GROSS: Would you describe one of the best parties that you can remember from the early days of hip-hop?

DJ KOOL HERC: But all of them was good - all of them. But I couldn't - I just could remember sometime I play some particular record that we were - I remember that when we first heard a record called "Seven Minutes Of Funk," we heard it in a place called - at Hunts Point. And Jay-Z used it, and a few other people used that same record. And that came out of my collection. And when we played our record - what we did - Coke did - Coke put the record on, and we all walked off the stage. And the record just came on. (Vocalizing). And it kept on going. And it just kept on going through changes. And everybody was like, whoa. You know, even when we played "Heatwave," the slow record, you know, everybody was shocked 'cause we - you know, we played a lot of records that the radio wasn't playing till we found out the radio stations started sending spies to the clubs to hear what we're playing. Then suddenly, a lot of the records now started to get played on the radio.

GROSS: You know, back in the '70s, when you were doing parties, you'd charge for admission, right?

DJ KOOL HERC: Twenty-five cents for fellas - for ladies and 50 cents for fellas. After that, it was 75 for fellas, 50 cents for ladies. We was charging according to what the Juicy Fruit gum was selling for.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DJ KOOL HERC: We'd budget ourselves according to - we weren't trying to get rich, you know? Every soda was 50 cents. We got to charge 25 cents for ladies. I mean, the gum was 20 - if the gum was a dime, a nickel, we got to charge - you know, like that. We wasn't trying to get rich.

GROSS: So how many people would show up to the typical party?

DJ KOOL HERC: Well, I'll tell you one thing. We went upstairs. We put it out on the table. We made $500 selling franks and all that. Three to $400 we was clocking.

GROSS: So...

DJ KOOL HERC: And it was a little recreation room.

GROSS: Did you have to pay to rent the room?

DJ KOOL HERC: Yes, twenty-five dollars.

GROSS: Oh, that's not bad.

DJ KOOL HERC: No. You know, it was just - you know, it was fun. And at the time, people couldn't - people didn't want nobody in their house. Mom's still paying for the furniture. People is not going to be too careful in your house. You don't want people all up in your business. So the recreation was perfect. You couldn't tear nothing up in there. We had two bathrooms. We had a kitchen, and we had space to dance.

GROSS: So a lot of the apartment buildings had recreation rooms.

DJ KOOL HERC: Yeah, a few of them, at least the new one. We lived in a new building at the time 'cause we had - we was burnt out from where we lived at on the east side. And we stayed in the Grand Concourse Hotel for a minute. And my moms held out and held out till something came along. And it was the first building on Cedric Avenue right by the Major Deegan Highway. They said, Mrs. Campbell, we think we have something you're looking for. And sure enough, we found it - two bathrooms and enough room for all of us. It was the Brady - we were "The Brady Bunch" family - three boys and three girls.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DJ KOOL HERC: And we lived on the first floor.

GROSS: You moved to New York in 1967 from Jamaica at the age...

DJ KOOL HERC: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of 13. What was your first reaction to New York? You moved to - what? - to the South Bronx.

DJ KOOL HERC: No, I move on the West Bronx on Tremont Avenue, 178th Street - 611 East 178th Street.

GROSS: OK, so...

DJ KOOL HERC: And...

GROSS: What was your first reaction to it? And how did it compare to the neighborhood you were used to in Jamaica?

DJ KOOL HERC: Well, I was, at the time, watching TV down there - "Petticoat Junction" and "Dennis The Menace." And I just thought the United - all the United States was, like, good old Mr. Wilson "Dennis The Menace" neighborhood.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DJ KOOL HERC: I was in for a rude awakening when I got here. I went from - I was living in Jamaica originally in Jones Town, you know, Trench Town over there on Second Street there. Bob Marley lived on First. I lived on Second Street nearby a little school nearby - I attended school nearby a movie theater called the Ambassador Theater. And when I moved to Franklin Town and got more into seeing the disco develop, I was - I didn't live in a ghetto part of Jamaica - Franklin Town, you know? It was, like, a little suburbia, but it was - probably there's something about me ghetto. But when I got here, it was - like, it was no different. I was like, whoa. I'm living upstairs, and it's over other people, people living over me. I lived in a yard in Jamaica. I had a yard. I didn't live in a tenement, you know? And I see dirt. I didn't see concrete all the time, you know? And snow - I'd never seen snow before, you know? And it was like a - it was a wake-up call. It wasn't the good old Mr. Wilson neighborhood.

GROSS: (Laughter) What surprised you most about what the styles were when you got to New York? You know, were the clothes different? Were...

DJ KOOL HERC: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

DJ KOOL HERC: I wasn't - I didn't have the hip clothes that day. I had on the hick clothes. I had on a aviator hat that you pull over your ears and then flip up top. I had the white corduroy jacket on. I looked straight like a hick. And then I had on - I love cowboy boots from back in Jamaica and watching cowboy pictures, so I thought that, you know, cowboy boots was - you know, was the bomb. When I got here and got a pair of cowboy winter boots, this girl in high school - junior high school was teasing me to death. Hey. Look at him. He got on roach killers, roach killers. And she had a whole hallway just tearing me up - roach killers, roach killers and all that.

Do you know I seen her one time years later? I said, remember me? She says, yeah. I remember you. I used to tease you about them - wearing them cowboy boots. And I said, look around the place right now. What do you see? She said, oh, my God. I said, yeah, I guess I was ahead of my time then, right? Show you right. It was - cowboy style was in the - cowboy style was in when Teddy Pendergrass made that record and had on the cowboy hat and all that.

GROSS: So - but they called your cowboy boots roach killers.

DJ KOOL HERC: Yes. It has the pointy toe. They called them - any pointed-toe shoes like that, it was called roach killers. OK? You could get in a corner and kill a roach with it.

GROSS: (Laughter) So have you ever done a radio show?

DJ KOOL HERC: No.

GROSS: Do you think that's...

DJ KOOL HERC: I've been on a radio show.

GROSS: ...Something you'd want to do sometime - you know, like, to DJ on the radio?

DJ KOOL HERC: I would love it, but I'd have to have free reign to play what I'll play. And I don't - you don't get that at radio stations, so I don't really bother with that.

GROSS: Right.

DJ KOOL HERC: You can't tell me what to play in New York City when this culture was born here.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

DJ KOOL HERC: You're welcome.

MOSLEY: DJ Kool Herc, the first hip-hop DJ, spoke to Terry in 2005. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past May. Let's listen to a record that Herc would play a lot when he DJed with singer Jill Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHA")

JILL SCOTT: (Singing) Brother, (vocalizing), brotha, (vocalizing), so many times you tried to cut we. You want to tear we down, but you can't touch we. We ain't invincible. Lord knows we are beautiful and blessed. Check the affirmative. Oh, yes, brother, don't let nobody hold you back. No, no, no. Don't let nobody hold you, control you or mold you. Brother...

MOSLEY: Coming up, we'll hear what Grandmaster Flash did to take DJing to the next level with turntable techniques like scratching, needle drops and his quick mix theory. We'll be back after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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