Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, arrived in the Bronx in 1967, when he was twelve years old. He was already familiar with the sound systems of Jamaica. Moreover, according to his sister Cindy, their father was a technician for a local band, and had access to sound equipment.[ii] Still, Herc says his musical influences were eclectic, even when in Jamaica. When Herc was asked, did the Jamaican sound systems that were popular in Jamaica and the tri-state area, have any influence on his sets, he said, “no, that they were not involved” in his system or set.[iii] He said he was aware of Jamaican and other sound systems that were larger and more powerful than his, but they had nothing to do with what he was doing. Herc stated he fashioned his sound system after a Bahamian DJ called the Amazing Bert,[iv] who used GLI equipment and played at Fordham University. Kool DJ Dee and Tyrone the Mixologist, however, believe Herc simply copied their system. Dee had his system in early ‘73 at least three months before Herc DJed his first party. Herc was familiar with their setup and later when he built his system it was similar to theirs.
Hip Hop DJing, and specifically breakbeat DJing, has been linked to Jamaican dub music. And there appears to be some truth to this. Dub music consisted of remixing previously recorded Jamaican songs minus the vocal tracks, rearranging the instrumental tracks, emphasizing the drum and bass parts, and adding sound effects. Dub became increasingly popular in the early 70s at the same time Hip Hop was developing and apparently it did influence Herc. Herc has credited his Jamaican roots for his early development of break spinning or breakbeat DJing. “Searching for further innovations for his sets, Herc patented the breakbeat, the climatic instrumental section of a record, partly through his existing knowledge of the dub plates or “versions” prevalent in Jamaican reggae.[v] Herc could have only been partly influenced by dub music because, as Bambaataa reminds us, Herc was not the first or only DJ to play and mix “breaks.”[vi] In fact, Disco DJs were mixing the breakdown in the MFSB classic “Love is the Message” probably since late ‘74. So, DJs played breakbeats already,[vii] but Herc soon played them almost exclusively. I would argue that the isolating of the beat and the other innovations in Jamaican dub music gave Herc the license to innovate, to originate. The bass and drum were the heart and soul of Jamaican music. But these were also the heart and soul of funk. Herc’s inspiration for extending break beats thus has a dual inspiration: Dub music and funk music. James Brown--the man, his music, and his dance, also inspired Herc. I say this for a number of reasons.
First, Herc has suggested that he was too young while in Jamaica to get into sound system parties so he listened to Brown. He said, “I was listening to American music in Jamaica and my favorite artist was James Brown. That’s who inspired me. A lot of the records I played were by James Brown.” Moreover, according to Herc, “the inspiration for rap is James Brown and the album Hustler’s Convention.”[viii] We can presume, though Herc does not say it, that Hip Hop started with “Give it up Turnit Loose.” (In 1975, Kool Herc replaced it as the Hip Hop anthem with The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.”) It was the oldest song in his set, released in the 60s, while all the others songs were from the early 70s. A Herc favorite, this song featured a percussive break, and we can argue that it was Brown who brought the percussive break in music to prominence.[ix] But it had one of the shortest breaks at approximately 50 seconds. The shortness of this break was reason enough for Herc to want to extend it. There are some exaggerations concerning breakbeat DJing. The idea that Herc pioneered the use of two turntables each playing the same record in order to extend the song, is inaccurate; Pete DJ Jones did it before him.[x] Herc simply used this technique to extend break beats. But many of the songs Herc played were selected because they already had long break beats. For example, the song that Herc made famous, the Bronx/Hip Hop anthem, “Apache,” had a break that was one and a half minutes long. “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey has one of the longest breaks at over two minutes!
Second, Herc’s main reason for extending the break was to allow dancers, his B-boys, time to dance. Brown was one of the first artists to emphasize breaks and at the same time encourage dancers to “get down.” This undoubtedly bolstered the practice of dancers getting down at the “break.” And the first B-boys, the “Nigga Twins” state clearly that James Brown was their source of inspiration. In fact, when they were asked who was the first B-boy they said, “James Brown.”[xi] Herc has also said that the dancers he dubbed B-boys were inspired by James Brown – “That’s the king, the A-1 B-boy . . . . ”[xii]
Third, there is the possibility that James Brown may have inspired the growth of Dub music. Herc was not alone as an admirer of James Brown. Though Afrikan American musical influence in Jamaica was greatest in the 1950s, it remained strong during the 60s, despite the rise of Ska. So for example, an early Bob Marley could ask producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to make him sound like James Brown.[xiii] [xiv]According to Reggae historian David Katz, Brown was also one of Perry’s heroes.[xv] In fact, it has been argued that the shift from Ska to Rocksteady in Jamaica mirrored the shift from R&B to funk in America.[xvi] And while earlier soul groups influenced some Jamaican artists, the edgier James Brown funk influenced later artists, especially after reggae originated in 1968. (Marley’s “Black Progress” is a reworking of Brown’s “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”) Brown was popular in Jamaica, and some Jamaican drummers since the 1960s were influenced partly by his music. Moreover, Brown as early as 1969 was experimenting with elements that were simultaneously developing in Jamaican dub, such as removing the vocals from tracks (instrumentals), adding instrumentation (overdubbing), and using sound effects (reverb and applause overdubbing). Therefore, the question can be asked, like Jamaican Toasting earlier, could Afrikan American influences, in this case James Brown, have influenced the growth of Jamaican Dub music? Though Brown’s influence was significant in Jamaica, I do not believe this to be the case. First, we cannot connect King Tubby, the pioneer of Dub music, to Brown. Second, Dub was discovered by accident, and independently.[xvii] Therefore, we must reject this hypothesis. My only reason for this dialogue is that Herc’s Jamaican inspiration for breakbeat DJing, Dub music, was likely encouraged, reinforced, and supported by the musical innovations Brown was also making.
Lastly, Herc was a DJ and his early MCs were not exceptional. What made his set unique was the DJing and the dancing—not the MCing. Dub music, on the other hand, from its beginnings witnessed the music and toasting (MCing) develop simultaneously and nurture each other. This was not the case with Herc’s set and he shows little influence from dub music in this regard. His purpose in extending the break was for dancing, not so that MCs could rhyme. Herc has been incorrectly credited with introducing MCing/toasting to Hip Hop, when in reality he was about the music and the dance, and both were James Brown inspired.
As mentioned above, sometimes it is claimed Herc also influenced Hip Hop by introducing the Jamaican Toasting style, giving birth to Hip Hop MCing. “We just took the Jamaican style and put it to American records,”[xviii] says Bambaataa. When Herc was asked did he begin as a Reggae DJ, he stated that he would sometimes play U-Roy or Marley, but that was more for his personal liking. Reggae was not part of his set. When asked about the relationship between Jamaican Toasting and Hip Hop, Herc responded, “Jamaican toasting? Nah, nah. No connection there. I couldn’t play reggae in the Bronx. People wouldn’t accept it.[xix] Additionally, when Herc was asked, “Did Coke La Rock,” who Herc has called the first “MC,” “rhyme in a style reminiscent of Big Youth?” he replied, “Nah.” Bambaataa has also pointed out that while he introduced Reggae to his set, Herc who was from the islands “focused more on America, on funky stuff.” (Herc was not a Jamaican DJ as much as he was a DJ who was Jamaican.) So when Bambaataa tries to tie MCing with Jamaican Toasting, it is a claim that his mentor has discredited. It is also a claim that belies history.
All the various early Afrikan American MCs said they were imitating the style of radio DJs. MCs in Jamaica were likewise inspired by radio DJs.[xx] The Jamaican vocalist and pioneer of toasting was U-Roy, who made his first recording in 1969, “Dynamic Fashion Way.” (Some say “Earth Rightful Ruler” was first, which was also recorded in ‘69 with Peter Tosh and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry.) U-Roy would become increasingly popular throughout the 1970s. But U-Roy cites Count Matchuki as a major influence on his work. Who was Count Matchuki? His name was Winston Cooper and he was the first Jamaican DJ. A point of clarification is needed: In the US a DJ is the person who plays the music; while in Jamaica, that person is called a Selector. The person who talks over the song is called an MC in the US, while he is called a DJ/Toaster in Jamaica. When Matchuki was asked, “The jive talk that you did – did it just come out of you?” he responded “No. To be honest, what gave me that idea, I was walking late one night about a quarter to three somewhere in Denham Town. And I hear this guy on the radio, some American guy advertising Royal Crown hairdressing….This guy sound like a machine! A tongue twister! I heard that in 1949 on one of them States stations that was really strong. I hear this guy sing out pon the radio and I just like the sound and I say to myself I think I can do better. I would like to play some recordings and just jive talk like this guy.”[xxi]
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJkojOSppUE, about 19:00.
[iv] Ibid, about 24:10.
[vii] I was at a block party in ’75, when a DJ mixed the beginning of the instrumental “Do it anyway you wanna do it” by People’s Choice, eleven times, emphasizing that bad beat.
[ix] "Cold Sweat" is the first recording in which Brown calls for a drum solo (with the famous exclamation “give the drummer some”) from Clyde Stubblefield, beginning the tradition of rhythmic “breaks” that would become important in dance music. http://revive-music.com/2011/08/11/james-brown-cold-sweat/.
[xix] Icons of Hip Hop An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, Volume 2, edited by Mickey Hess, p. 12.
[xx] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2xR-mc-Ikw, about 9:00.
We can trace the tradition of Afrikan American rhythm talking in songs back to the early 1920s. It likely began with Louis Armstrong’s scatting. But it is undoubtedly evident in the 1937 and 1947 renditions of “Preacher and the Bear” by the Golden Gate Quartet and The Jubalaires, respectively. The song has an almost identical melody to the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” One might even think that it was the Sugar Hill Gang’s source of inspiration.[i] Really! However, the closest thing to rap is the 1968 “Here Comes the Judge” by Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham. In actuality, it is a rap song. The song’s beat is funky, and Markham’s flow is Hip Hop style! In James Brown’s 1972 influential song “Get on the Good Foot,” his rap is basically in Hip Hop style. Even in the Last Poets’ 1972 “E Pluribus Unum” their spoken word poetry is also in Hip Hop style. The “father” of Hip Hop style rapping, Anthony Holloway, better known as DJ Hollywood, in the following statement tells us his influences: “Don’t get me wrong they had people [who] rapped before me—syncopated and unsyncopated. I can’t take nothin’ away from people like Oscar Brown Jr., Pigmeat Markham, the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, the Watts Prophets, Rudy Ray Moore, I used to listen to all of ‘em. I can’t take nothin’ from none of ‘em... but none of ‘em was doin’ what I was doin’ with the turntables and a mic.”[ii] This is an unequivocal statement regarding his influences. So, MCing did not need influences from Jamaican Toasting to come into existence. It was already an Afrikan American tradition.
Still, what is most important is that Hip Hop style rapping did not even originate in the Hip Hop DJing sets. We can say with certainty that it did not originate in Herc’s, Bambaataa’s or Flash’s sets. It developed in the Disco set with DJ Hollywood, who combined the role of the DJ/Selector and MC/Toaster. (Grandmaster Caz has been erroneously identified as the first person to combine DJing and MCing; he was the first in the Hip Hop set to do it, while Cheba and Hollywood were already doing it in the Disco set.) When Herc was asked did he rhyme over the record he said, “No.”[iii] Herc was a DJ/Selector but not an MC/Toaster, though he occasionally “gave shout outs.” For a DJ to sporadically talk over the mic was not unique to Herc as many DJs did this. Herc had an MC, but clearly MCing or rapping by 1973 was already a part of the party scene, so he was no pioneer in this regard either. The earliest set to have an “MC” rapping over the mic was Grandmaster Flowers. Inspired by Hank Spann of WWRL, KC the Prince of Soul was Flowers’ MC before he joined Pete DJ Jones in 1970.[iv] [v] KC, however, did not rap in “Hip Hop” style. Neither did Herc’s earliest MC, Coke La Rock. Therefore to connect Jamaican Toasting by way of Herc, to Hip Hop style MCing is incorrect; Herc had nothing to do with it. Again, Herc was known for playing the music and B-boys dancing.
Pete DJ Jones said the first person he heard rap in Hip Hop style was DJ Hollywood.[vi] Kurtis Blow also says the first person he heard rhyme in Hip Hop style was Hollywood.[vii] (Blow states that Eddie Cheba combined DJing and MCing before Hollywood, and probably created the call and response set, but did not originate the Hip Hop style.) This was all happening in Manhattan. But Hollywood’s celebrity was such that we had even heard of him in Brooklyn.
Before Hollywood introduced “Hip Hop style” rapping, he had already impacted DJing by creating a set that included singing, rhyming, and call and response, where he interacted with the crowd. An example would be Hollywood saying, “If you’re feeling good with Hollywood somebody say, Oh yeah!” And the crowd would shout back: “Oh yeah!” The word quickly spread, and Hollywood became a regular at the Apollo, even having his named added to the marquee. Hollywood had been DJing since 1972, and like every MC, he rhythm talked. And like radio DJs, they usually pattered sequences of one or two bar rhymes. Hollywood said, he “used to like the way Frankie Crocker would ride a track, but he wasn’t syncopated to the track though. I liked [WWRL DJ] Hank Spann too, but he wasn’t on the one. Guys back then weren’t concerned with being musical. I wanted to flow with the record.”[viii] Hollywood would make his greatest contribution, in 1975, when he adapted the lyrics of Isaac Hayes’ “Good Love 6-9969” to the breakdown part of “Love is the Message.”[ix] It absolutely blew the crowd’s mind and Hollywood became an instant sensation. Hollywood did something new; he rhymed syncopated to the beat of an existing record uninterruptedly for nearly a minute! In effect, he combined the various short MC rhymes/patters into one long rhyme, giving birth to what became known as the “Hip Hop” style. Before long club owners in the South Bronx hired Hollywood to play at a spot called Club 371.
In the Bronx, Kevin Smith, better known, as Lovebug Starski is considered one of the first Hip Hop style rappers. Lovebug Starski would eventually join Pete DJ Jones’ sets (a Disco set). Starski, however, was Hollywood’s boy, and he simply imitated his new style. And what would Starski add to the game: Cholly Rock relates that Starski was the one who brought Hip Hop style rapping from Disco DJing to Hip Hop DJing[x] when he jammed at what was called the Burger King Disco, and later worked with Grandmaster Flash. Herc said the first MCs he heard that rhymed in the Hip Hop style were Melle Mel and his brother Kidd Creole, who were both part of Flash’s crew. But Starski is the person who introduced it to the Bronx Hip Hop set where it quickly became the standard.
Bambaataa has also identified the role played by Grandmaster Flash who is from Barbados, to bolster his claim of the West Indian roots of Hip Hop. Clearly, Flash has made tremendous contributions to the art of DJing: Flash developed the technique of taking phrases and sections of different records and playing them over other records; he also installed a device that would allow him, by using headphones, to cue the next record. These are important contributions to DJing, but do not suggest a West Indian origin to Hip Hop. His developments and contributions were as a DJ playing Afrikan American music in an environment that inspired and nurtured his talents. It is not like Flash or Herc took things that were unique to Caribbean music and introduced them to American audiences. This is not what they did. Tom Bell, who was the genius behind the Spinners, was Jamaican. Does that mean there is a West Indian origin to the Spinners’ music or sound? Or did Bell, like Herc, Flash, and Bambaataa, contribute to the Afrikan American musical tradition?
DJ Mario was from North Carolina. He was the first DJ to play to the gang culture that nurtured Hip Hop. He was the first to play outdoors, and he even played Hip Hop music. Kool DJ Dee and Tyrone, who claims to have invented scratching were both from North Carolina. Even Pete DJ Jones, the DJ that was the source of inspiration for Mario, Dee, and Tyrone, was from North Carolina. And Coke La Rock, who Herc considers the first MC, is also of North Carolinian pedigree. Does this mean that we can make an argument for the North Carolinian origin of Hip Hop? If we attempted to, this would be an argument just as untenable and spurious as the West Indian origins to Hip Hop argument.
Of the four elements of Hip Hop culture, how many of them have West Indian roots? Herc has stated that he was influenced with his DJing by Dub music. I have added that James Brown, and the other DJs that were already mixing breakbeats, especially the Disco DJs, also influenced him. Nevertheless, there is West Indian influence in this area. Herc has denied any connection between MCing and Jamaican Toasting, and I have pointed out that first, rhythm talking was already a part of the Afrikan American tradition and did not have to be borrowed from Jamaica, and second that the Hip Hop style of rapping did not even originate in Herc’s set. The dancing, B-boying, was heavily influenced by the Black Spades gang culture, battle dancing, and James Brown. Graffiti has no connection to Jamaica. Apart from Herc being Jamaican, and him being partly influenced by Dub music, Jamaica has very little to do with Hip Hop culture. Of the four elements West Indian influence can only be traced to one, therefore to say Hip Hop has West Indian roots is an overstatement.
Bambaataa presumed because Herc was Jamaican, and Jamaica is the land of sound systems and toasting, that Herc instinctively introduced these elements into his set. Yet Herc has clearly stated that this was not so. It is serendipity that Herc is from Jamaica and that he was the DJ who fathered Hip Hop. And the truth is that the sound systems involved in Hip Hop and Disco overall, were designed and built by Afrikan American, Caribbean American, and Afrikan Caribbean DJs, and that the “MCing” relied on the musical tradition of Afrikan Americans.
This paper has not supported a West Indian origin to Hip Hop. What it has supported is that Afrikan Caribbeans have been part and parcel of Hip Hop’s development; and that there has been influence from the West Indies, especially Jamaica. But it has been irresponsible statements and assumptions by Bambaataa that has created the urban legend that MCing is derived from Jamaican Toasting, a statement that Kool Herc denies. It was also Bambaataa who has wrongly stated that Jamaican sound systems influenced Herc’s sound system, while Herc himself has denied it. When Bambaataa was asked, did he ever go to Jamaican sound system parties, he said, “No.” Jamaican sound systems did not make their greatest impact until the late 1970s, when Hip Hop was already alive and well. However, people were aware of Jamaican sound systems earlier. They were and they did have an impact. There was Dancemaster Dony and King Charles of Queens, and The Smith Brothers of Brooklyn. These systems played mostly funk, R&B, and Disco but Afrikan Caribbeans owned them. Even Grandmaster Flowers purportedly hired Jamaicans to design his system. So clearly, Afrikan Caribbeans and Jamaican sound systems, in general,[xi] had an important influence on the mobile DJing industry.
[iii] http://www.djhistory.com/interviews/kool-herc. Herc said that eventually he began to toast more Jamaican style but the examples he gives are not Jamaican style toasting. He said for example, “I’m playing something I’d say: ‘Yes, this is through the inspiration of I, Her-Herc y’all. Check this out.’”
[xi] My older brother was a sound engineer in the mid 70s and he said that of the other Black men involved in “sound,” the majority was Afrikan Caribbean. So even if they were not the DJs, or the owners of sound systems, they were the technicians, and experts.