We all reach an age when the music of our youth becomes “the oldies.” When it comes to music as dynamic, innovative, and far-reaching as hip-hop, that age can feel surprisingly young. Or so it seemed to me, a child of the 90s, when the 21st century dawned. Now, separated from the artists I grew up listening to by a gulf of almost thirty years, I can say they are all certifiably old school, which I suppose makes me certifiably old.
But consider this—in 1993, a year I once considered something of a golden age of hip-hop—the music had already traveled twenty years and thousands of miles from its Bronx origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. Its greatest innovators, the men and women who invented the sound, were by then very much old school.
In fact, everyone who wasn’t getting down to the sound system of DJ Kool Herc in the New York of the early seventies is a latecomer to the scene, including punks like Blondie who immediately seized on its revolutionary potential.
“In 1973,” Henry Louis Gates informs us in the video at the top from the Black History in Two Minutes series, the Jamaican-born Herc “set up his turntables and introduced a technique at a South Bronx house party that would change music as many people knew it. His ability to switch from record to record—as well as isolate and repeat music breaks—led to the discovery of the hip hop genre.”
It was the sound of a thousand radios playing, all over the city, with the noise filtered out, beats made from the breaks, and the chaos cut into pieces and stitched together into music again; the sound of turntablism, a series of techniques, from Herc’s break-beats to the “Transformer scratch” to juggling beats: switching between “two identical records at lightning fast speed,” as a PBS guide explains, “looping or re-combining individual sounds to produce an entirely new beat.”
These new means of using playback devices as instruments led “from reworking existing tracks to composing music” from the components, a mad scientist approach that preceded the age of the MC, whose primary purpose was to hype the crowd in the music’s early days, instead of delivering the news of the streets in ever more-complex rhyme schemes. In the short videos above, you can learn more about Herc’s revolution. Just above, hear from the man himself and his former neighbors, who went to his first parties in the community room of his South Bronx apartment building.
Herc took the disco DJ’s technique of using two turntables, but played punk and funk records instead, seizing on the observation that the crowd went wild during instrumental breaks. “How would it be,” he thought, “if I put them all together?” Calling it “merry-go-round,” Herc showed off his new idea, after first announcing it to the crowd, and got just the reaction he’d hoped for. The rest is a history we should know. But if we leave out the turntablists, the DJs who built the beats that made the music what it is, no matter how old school they sound to us now, we’re missing something critical, an experimental revolution that changed the world.