The Birth of Hip Hop: How DJ Kool Herc Used Turntables to Change the Musical World (1973)

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.

via The Kids Should See This

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Jazz Became the “Moth­er of Hip Hop”

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

Found­ing Fathers, A Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed By Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D, Presents the True His­to­ry of Hip Hop

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.