1520 Sedgwick Avenue: The Back-To-School Party That Became the Birthplace of Hip Hop
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
It was hot. I mean, it is always hot in New York in the summer, but on this particular August evening it was unusually sweltering. A Bronx house party was in full swing. There was plenty of dancing and imbibing and random romancing, but that was to be expected. What transpired – the birth of a musical revolution that would dominate the pop charts over the coming decades – was not expected. The handmade fliers exclaimed a “Back to School Jam – 9:00 pm to 4:00 am” and to get in “fellas” had to pony up fifty cents and “ladies” a quarter. Sure, there would be snacks and drinks, but there was one more key element: the event was billed as a “DJ Kool Herc Party,” and that was supposed to give it another level of street gravitas. Hell, as long as DJ Kool Herc is spinning, this has to be something. Right?
Of course, none of the pertinent details of the how or why you might check your pockets for loose change to attend a soiree featuring any DJ – much less someone named Kool Herc – would reverberate beyond the fading memories of the people who eventually headed over to a South Bronx apartment complex that steamy eleventh day of August 1973. What did end up mattering to future generations, a street-youth culture, a thriving business model and a style of music that would emerge from this gathering is what DJ Kool Herc (aka Clive Campbell) would perform and hence invent during those proposed seven hours of revelry: hip hop. Long after the fellas and ladies made their way home in the wee hours of August 12, drenched, exhausted and duly entertained, what they had experienced was the first glimpse of what would eventually, in 2017, surpass rock and roll for the first time since the mid-1950s to become the most listened to genre of popular music in the western hemisphere. There are theories, debates and several contenders, but no one is quite sure the exact room or date where the first signs of jazz began to take hold, or the space where country music was initially introduced, or where rock and roll specifically launched, but it is a fairly unified notion that on the evening of August 11, 1973 the music that would eventually be called hip hop was first on display at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. It was all there: the rapping, the scratching, the DJ controlling a room using his personality, his voice, his multi-turntable command of back-beats and segues combined with the rhyming and acute timing of an improvisational young wizard spouting cultural witticisms and turning out something new and exciting, a form that like any great art is constructed from all others at once. DJ Kool Herc was the technical mastermind with a showbiz instinct on this night, but his inspirations, ingenuity and bold instinct were honed over time from international sources and prompted by his kid sister’s need to look fashionable.
The story of the birthing of hip hop at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the apartment complex where the Campbell family called home, begins with pre-teen Cindy Campbell needing some extra cash to buy expensive Manhattan styles for her upcoming school year. Hatching a plan to host a party in the complex’s recreation room, not unlike VA spaces throughout the five boroughs, she first asked her older brother, the sixteen year-old Clive, to spin some music and then recruited her dad to pick up refreshments and her mom to handle the food. She put together the handmade fliers and started bugging friends and neighbors of all ages. This seemed like a fairly equitable way to charge a few cents in order to outfit herself properly. Cindy had no interest in being an entrepreneur or starting a cultural or musical movement that would dominate the pop charts some four decades later; she just wanted to look good. She was nothing if not a young, unashamed capitalist. Plus, school was still out – and it was something to do. Her brother, no stranger to spinning records between two turntables and MC-ing block parties and, perhaps more significantly for what was to come, combining every kind of music that provided the backbeat to keep his friends on their feet, was, by late summer of ’73, already someone you might want to put on your flier to convince locals to part with their cash to keep you in sartorial splendor. I was sittin' back, observin', watching the crowd who were all waiting for this particular part of the record. And after I did it for the first time, there was no turnin' back – everybody was comin' to the party for that particular part of my set. — DJ Kool Herc
Clive Campbell, the first of six children born to Keith and Nettie Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica, was a relentless audiophile and certified music geek. At an impressionable age he was drawn to two key elements of what he introduced that summer evening, both of which transformed the person merely playing the music into the central figure of the proceedings and stemmed from not only the music Campbell heard as a kid – mostly American R&B records bursting out of Memphis through Stax Records and Atlantic Records in New York City – but the technology that amplified its seductive rhythms throughout neighborhood parties and teaming dance halls. The art of “dubbing”– paring down popular records to its rhythmic core by using their instrumental back-beats sans vocals with added reverb effects – was of particular interest to the Kingston youth of Campbell’s day, but to a rambunctious boy fueled with endless imagination, what may have been far more intriguing was what the guys who spun the records were doing while they played: a style of syncopated speech called “toasting.”
A Jamaican “Blues Dance” tradition that began to develop in the 1960s combining running MC commentary along with popular beats of the time had originally been introduced to the locals by American sailors and later U.S. radio stations. The earliest known form of toasting is said to be a 1940 recording of an African myth called “The Signifying Monkey” that was turned into a hilariously vulgar folk side that sounds like something you’d play for a kid, if one ignores its violent imagery and incessant cursing. But what caught Campbell’s ear was the more subdued, if not still humorously vicious and culturally expedient, spoken-word additions by DJs taking playful jabs at their competition or easy-target celebrities that were judiciously incorporated into studio tracks of traditional reggae and ska beats by producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry. Just before emigrating to the Bronx at age twelve, Campbell started imitating a Jamaican master of ceremonies with the uncanny ability to mess with existing records while toasting whatever came into his head.
It is no coincidence that Campbell ended up at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx, where his muscular frame helped turn him into something of a basketball legend, earning him the nickname "Hercules." His other moniker, Kool Herc, was a nom de plume for the myriad of kids who turned the Bronx into their own canvases: a graffiti crew running by the name Ex-Vandals. But his true passion was always music and performing – not so much as a musician but as an MC, a disc jockey, someone who brought the music to the masses and then presented it in the flamboyantly unique style of his Jamaican heroes.
Campbell’s first sound system consisted of two turntables connected to a pair of amplifiers and a Shure "Vocal Master" PA system with two speaker columns. He began his record collection with James Brown’s signature 1970 single "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," featuring the signature “Get up – Get on up!” call and response that was later used ad infinitum on a myriad of rap and hip hop tracks. This expanded to much of Brown's early ‘70s output, including the ultra-funk-out "Give It Up or Turn It a Loose" with its fat-back conga/drum breakdown by the late, great Clyde Stubblefield that prompts Brown’s “Clap yo hands – Stomp yo feet” mantra, which Campbell would integrate as a default backdrop before long. Later, he added more novel tracks with their own personalities – saxophonist Jimmy Castor's 1972 jam, "It's Just Begun" being a particular favorite. His growing eclectic musical tastes led him to the Edgar Winter Group's 1973 smash-hit cross pollination of funk fusion rock, “Frankenstein,” to the rarely-heard prog rockers Babe Ruth (perhaps the Bronx connection to the Yankees?), and a ‘72 track called “The Mexican,” which reeks of pseudo-Latin rhythms and features a spectacular guitar/keyboard arpeggio interlude. Campbell’s secret weapon was another horn-laden 1973 instrumental called "Bongo Rock" by the oft forgotten (and for mostly good reason) Incredible Bongo Band. He dove deep into the classic Booker T. & the M.G.’s oeuvre, specifically their down and dirty "Melting Pot" from 1970, which incorporated much of what James Brown was doing at the time – mid-tempo, deep groove workouts with call-and-response hoots and hollers, horn blasts, bass breakdowns and solid drum layouts that provided many places for Campbell to cut back and forth with his two turntables, and not lose the precious beat on which a packed floor of dancers relied. It is also noteworthy that he chose songs that all run around 108 to 115 BPM (beats per minute), allowing for seamless segues and interplay – a prescient choice as most hip hop songs would later settle in this range. Eventually christening this practice the “Merry-Go-Round,” by 1972, at the age of fifteen, and the summer before that fateful August night, Campbell had perfected it.
But Campbell did not just smoothly segue all types of music into one another, turning single recordings into nonstop dance symphonies. He was, after all, Kool Herc. And Kool Herc was your MC, your main man, your central figure, and his personality would shine at the most opportune times throughout these performances. Dancing infectiously between turntables, his fast-developing rhyming style that punctuated the jams used recognizable and most effectively repeatable slang phrases like "Rock on, my mellow!" or “Keep on, rock steady!" He would taunt the audience with "B-boys, b-girls, are you ready?” Then testify to the disc that was already kicking ass with "This is the joint!” and always give himself a well-earned plaudit, “Herc beat on the point." He was beginning to coin signature phrases that flowed with the drum-breaks: "To the beat, y'all!", "You don't stop!” Like radio personalities from the early days of rock and soul, Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed to later Robbie Vincent and Greg Edwards and even the late 1960s New Journalism authors or Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo style of placing the commentator not on the fringes of the event but part of it, Kool Herc was using the music as a backdrop to the action he was conducting and now chatting up, prompting chants from the audience and essentially creating a new musical form. And with Bronx clubs struggling with street gangs, uptown DJs catering to older, more sophisticated dance crowds, and commercial radio abandoning new street music to cater to tested demographics, the Kool Herc brand was indeed becoming an organic youth “street thing” worth paying attention to.
This would culminate at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue around nine o’clock on a particularly sticky and humid August night in the hilly borough that would soon, thanks to Kool Herc and his turntables, be known as the Boogie Down. But young Clive and his sis, Cindy, the architect of the event, would not be alone. There was one more piece to the hip hop puzzle to put in place. Truthfully, I wasn’t there to rap, I was just playing around. — Coke La Rock That night, Clive's friend, Coke La Rock, sporting a pair of spanking-new shiny Adidas pants and, what he described later as “a fresh haircut,” joined the act. It turns out the eighteen-year-old La Rock, a schoolmate of Campbell’s, was the hip to Kool Herc’s hop. However, neither of them had a clue what the hell they were doing that night. In fact, before August 11, 1973, Coke and Clive had never worked together. There is no evidence that the latter was aware of what the former could bring to the table beyond another personality to fill the instrumental breaks with clever asides, or if the former had any idea what he would do or say when given the chance. But, shit, it was a party, and like Cindy Campbell surmised when she hatched this money-making scheme, school was still out, and it was something to do. So, it would be a night of firsts and experimentation and letting it loose for all involved, and when the festivities were over, they would both be hot commodities. According to the legend of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, at certain crucial flashes throughout the night, La Rock grabbed the mic to shout out friends’ names and make phony announcements about double-parked cars over the drum-heavy intros and patented Kool Herc instrumental breakdowns. Then at one seminal moment, he dropped a sustained rhyme into the mix that, according to hip hop lore, went like this:
There is not a man that can’t be thrown A horse that can’t be rode A bull that can’t be stopped There is not a disco that I Coke La Rock can’t rock
It was a foundational moment to be sure. In the annals of the form, those four lines present a declaration, a whole lot of bravado and a fucking personal name-check! It is a template, a concrete framework – not to mention three concussive inner rhymes between “stopped, L Rock and rock” – and certainly sounds like a preamble to something greater. It has a “Four score and seven years ago…” quality to it. And Kool Herc knew it. Mostly, Campbell recognized the tone and measure of his friend’s presentation, because it was the soundtrack of his childhood awakening. This was toasting. For years afterwards, so efficiently and effortlessly did he nail the toasting method of phrasing, La Rock aficionados were certain he was also Jamaican. There was a discovered kinship emerging on the microphone between the DJ and the rapper that night and those who were there said it did not end with those four lines. Both men indeed “rocked the mic” and received a roar from the over three-hundred participants – yeah, little Cindy got some new clothes, all right – and things rose to another level.
Now, like any pivotal moment in cultural or artistic history, no one is absolutely sure La Rock uttered any of the classic hip hop phrases attributed to him: "You rock and you don't stop" is one – although, considering the surviving stanza quoted above, it is entirely plausible how you get there fairly easily – another is "Hotel, motel, you don't tell, we won't tell,” which was, of course, immortalized six years later on the first Sugarhill Gang single, "Rapper's Delight" (long considered the first twelve-inch dedicated solely to rapping and a precursor to hip hop studio ingenuity), despite La Rock receiving no credit. In fact, what did become clear from this night of nights is that Coke La Rock would not be a recording star. His raps were always and purely improvisational. He did not rehearse them or edit them or woodshed them or even repeat them on purpose. It came out, and what you get is what you get, and if no one remembers or is running tape in the audience it is lost to the ages. This little tidbit makes what went down at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue all the more monumental and pretty damn cool.
What is also debated is whether or not DJ Kool Herc “scratched” that evening. A style of using vinyl records as part of the rhythmic experience, as one turntable plays a groove, scratching is literally what happens when the DJ holds onto the album that would follow in the segue and moves it back and forth under the needle to create a percussive “scratching” sound that would later become a signature of the burgeoning late-‘70s and ‘80s rap music. This sound, while originating as a form of performance art, was nothing new to radio jocks since the medium’s inaugural days. In order to queue a record to play right after another, a DJ would scratch it back and forth, listening intently under headphones off the air and then holding it to let go as the previous record faded out, essentially eliminating the silent space between songs (“dead air” being an anathema in radio), and creating a simultaneously pleasant and grating noise that someone (DJ Kool Herc?) decided would really hit the sweet spot.
None of this, the dub music infusion, the scratching, the origins of rapping, was lost on La Rock, who told New York Magazine in 2008 that there was something about the Bronx at the time that leant to all of this free expression: “I can’t speak about the rest of the country, but the Bronx in 1973 was crazy. Anybody that tells you different wasn’t here. Buildings were burning, Vietnam vets were coming home messed up, there were street gangs. It was like that movie The Warriors.” There’s something about the grit and patina of the city as it’s revealed through the aesthetic techniques of film-makers that drew on a desire for authenticity amongst audiences. It’s exactly that same kind of desire that led people to find value in the historic aspects of New York City. What you see in all of these cases is an alignment of cultural sensibilities. There was a newly emergent sense of the value of authenticity.
— McLain Clutter, author of Imaginary Apparatus: New York City and Its Mediated Representation We left the Bronx in 1972 when I was nearly ten. My parents were born and bred there and then married and had two children in a predominately Italian section of the North Bronx (within walking distance of the famous Bronx Zoo) on Van Ness Avenue. They did not do much traveling and only knew the streets of their neighborhood, so they lived through rapid infrastructure decline and a subsequent rise in violence as early as the late ‘60s. We would eventually be part of a 1970s exodus from the inner city to the suburbs that would be derisively called “White Flight.” Yet there was something about New York City in the early 1970s that went beyond race – my parents never spoke in overt terms about race, either negatively or otherwise, around my brother and I – that reflected the foundation of the cynicism, fear and fuck-it attitude that made an impression on those not wanting to go down with the ship. Starting in the mid-‘60s, my father went to school at night for seven years at Manhattan’s Pace University to get a gig that paid enough to move us out to literally greener pastures in Central New Jersey. Much of my extended family followed suit. Those who stayed, like La Rock and Clive Campbell, would not be as economically or, to be fair, racially fortunate as to escape what was fast becoming a daily nightmare. Much of New York, specifically its boroughs, was under the stress of urban decay due to rampant political corruption and bankruptcy in the civil services (cops, firefighters, welfare programs). As a result, it was fast becoming a hotbed for drug abuse, teen delinquency, rampant theft, and tribal warring between neighborhoods, races and economic stations. The infamous 1975 Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” that heralded the then-president’s refusal to bail the city out said it all. The recent hit movie The Joker, shot primarily in the Bronx and set in the early 1980s, reflects this milieu impeccably, which makes sense in that it is a homage to the underground anti-hero auteur cinema of the time that set their tales of a society in upheaval in New York: Scorsese’s inner turmoil aria, Taxi Driver (1976), The French Connection, William Friedkin’s 1971 effort that deconstructs the clash of police brutality and drug trafficking, Sidney Lumet’s gritty New York introspections based on true stories starring a young Al Pacino, Serpico (a 1973 film about police corruption) and Dog Day Afternoon (a 1975 hit about a botched bank robbery turned cause célèbre), and Death Wish, a 1974 vigilante saga directed by Michael Winner. Perhaps it was the 1977 film, Saturday Night Fever, the story of a lost Brooklyn youth named Tony Montero and his going-nowhere contemporaries that nailed the despair growing specifically in New York’s boroughs during this period. It was based on the 1976 New York magazine piece by British journalist Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” in which he deconstructs the vibe of the boroughs: “Within the closed circuits of rock & roll fashion, it is assumed that New York means Manhattan. The center is everything, all the rest irrelevant. If the other boroughs exist at all, it is merely as a camp joke — Bronx-Brooklyn-Queens, monstrous urban limbo, filled with everyone who is no one.” Prominent authors, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, also framed the city’s disorder, and urban reality insights are found in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire.
There was a sense that whoever was left in the crumbling metropolis had to fend for themselves – already an ingrained concept for the African-American and Latino-American NYC experiences. And this would duly and impeccably be reflected in their musical movements. But they were not alone. Within a year of the sparks lit by DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock’s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue night of firsts, rag-tag bands in Queens, Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan sped up rock rhythms, cranked up the volume, and simplified its structure to create a street-inspired style that the underground press would soon be calling punk. This was music with an attitude that reflected much of the outer boroughs’ sense of isolation and anguish. In Midtown Manhattan, however, the hip and beautiful ignored the troubling times and began filling exclusive, high-priced clubs to dance and cavort to a four-on-the-floor beat that would later in the decade have a dominant, if not short-lived, stranglehold on the zeitgeist, and the charts, called disco.
New York was indeed “a crazy place,” facing economic uncertainty, political corruption, an influx of gangs, drug abuse and random, almost by-the-hour violence that scared the hell out of its residents while inspiring others to break molds and create new artistic formulae. Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss. Just sharing that truth can be a very powerful thing.
— Jay-Z, performer, composer, producer, entrepreneur and the first billionaire hip hop artist Of course, no one who left the Campbell’s party that night, or any of the DJs and potential mic rockers, thought to coin this completely new art form: hip hop. To eventually get there, the music, as the culture it would eventually enthuse and then dominate, would need to go through an evolution. Musicologists still work out the details of where these initial splashes by Bronx teenagers started the expansive ripples that advanced into a genre and found its way across the globe in one form or another. The details are as vague as the etymology of the term hip hop itself. There are still others that argue that everything I have written above can be refuted and, instead, trace the birthplace of hip hop to anywhere from Brooklyn to Queens where a myriad of dual-turntables and mics mixed with a whole lot of gumption could easily have sparked all of this. Still others point out, and it is hard to refute, that Gil Scott-Heron, a jazz poet from the Bronx by way of Chicago, at the very least originated the art of speaking over a funk rhythm in his socially relevant 1971 song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” that would eventually appear on his brilliant 1974 album of the same name. But, as stated above, I’m a Bronx boy and there is ample evidence that it all went down up there for the first time. Again, that’s another discussion entirely. For the purposes of the significance of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue and its central characters, life had changed.
Cindy Campbell earned five-hundred dollars for her idea and efforts. I’m not sure how much of that went to her autumnal wardrobe, but I am sure it was not insignificant, judging by her motivation to even throw the party in the first place. And predictably, if not ironically, she would become a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and go on to work with top designers as a fashion model, earning a license as a cosmetologist and an esthetician license with the prestigious Christine Valmay International School of Skin Care and Make-up. She would continue to work as the First Lady of Hip Hop by founding a non-profit organization, the Hip-Hop Preserve Inc., maintaining the origins of hip hop culture.
Coke La Rock would build on the rousing success of his few hours at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue to become a prominent MC in the mid-to-late-‘70s’ NYC dance clubs like the Black Door, Ecstasy Garage, Harlem World and the Disco Fever. He also became just as prominent for his work as a drug dealer around town, where he really made his underground living. Sometimes the two vocations would intersect, as he was allegedly paid money to promote other neighborhood dealers from the stage, incorporating their products and names in his raps. An enigma, a natural, a street-cred legend – during work on this piece I could not find the man’s actual name! – he remains the model for all those who would follow and make more money and gain more fame but continue to struggle to achieve his unquestionable authenticity in a scene constantly clamoring for it. DJ Kool Herc’s name is spoken today with a reverence due the man who started it all, morphing Jamaican styles, African rhythms, pure soul fundamentals and an inner-city brashness. Predictably, in the New York of the 1970s he was a hunted man; stabbed at one of his appearances by a member of the Executive Playhouse crew at a club called The Sparkle. Nonetheless, his MC crew, the Herculoids, became a staple of the founding movement, influencing those who would build on his exploits: fellow Bronxites such as the legendary Afrika Bambaataa, Lovebug Starski, and the soon-to-be household name Grandmaster Flash and his notorious Furious Five; the aforementioned Sugarhill Gang from Harlem by way of New Jersey; later, of course, Run-DMC from Queens; L.L. Cool J, The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, Jay Z and Naz from Brooklyn; and Manhattan’s Sean Puffy Combs. Soon this groove would make its way west thanks to other enterprising DJs from Compton, California: Alonzo Williams and Rodger Clayton in the late 1970s, inspiring the 1980s cultural dominance of Suge Knight and Dr. Dre's Death Row Records (Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg), Ice Cube's Lench Mob Records (Ice Cube, Kam YoYo) and Eazy-E's Ruthless Records (N.W.A., Eazy-E). And the rest, as they say, is living history.
Perhaps even more significant than even the artists Kool Herc inspired was the emerging art of “sampling,” which later became the bedrock of the hip hop revolution. Taking isolated samples from popular beats and song clips from every genre of music and laying it as a looping backdrop to the raps and creating new rhythms and compositions, something the teenaged Clive Campbell experimented with in his apartment, would take over the entire industry (utilized to epic effect in some of the most influential and popular records of the 1980s and well into the ‘90s). Most effectively engineered by Brooklyn’s Public Enemy, whose groundbreaking 1991 Fear of a Black Planet allegedly used nearly two-hundred samples, eclipsed only by the Beastie Boys oft-overlooked 1989 classic Paul’s Boutique, which, according to producers the Dust Brothers, features over three-hundred songs as sound effects, backbeats or segues to the music. What Kool Herc would later tell interviewers was prompted by simple boredom while waiting for the entire song to play out before “getting to the part everyone loved,” became the prototype for a billion-dollar industry. This understandably brought lawsuits from the artists being “sampled” that forever changed the art form and consequently the music industry, but that, again, is yet another subject for a different essay.
There were feature films, documentaries, books and countless articles about Kool Herc, Coke La Rock and what went down at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue since the 1970s. The Morris Heights neighborhood became a haven for hip hop fans and emerging artists during the past decades and in fact, in the summer of 2007, nearly thirty-four years to the day of the “Back to School Jam,” 1520 Sedgwick Avenue was recognized by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation as the official birthplace of hip hop. In their 2017 year-end report, it was, as noted above, Nielsen that recorded for the first time that hip hop surpassed rock as the most popular musical genre in the U.S. Of course, none of these accolades and notations speak to the organic creative spirits elemental to hip hop – as it is to all lasting and influential art forms – to express, unite, entertain. It also does not sufficiently note its symbolism to community, fashion and culture for generations past and those to come. No matter its origins or birthplace, or even its originators, it is what comes after, what transforms in the music that is crucial to appreciate as hip hop’s place in the most American of journeys from invention to reinvention to becoming standard and then, ultimately, legacy.
As all journeys, though, it has to start somewhere. ▲
James Campion is an essayist, music journalist, contributing editor to the Aquarian Weekly, and author of seven published works including Shout It Out Loud - The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and Accidentally Like a Martyr - The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon. His podcast with Adam Duritz, “Underwater Sunshine,” concentrates on new and classic music of all genres, as the two hosts curate a bi-annual music festival in NYC each year.