Kool Herc plays the genesis figure in hip-hop’s fable; the first party the Jamaican-born, Bronx-raised DJ threw in the recreation room of his building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in 1973 is credited with formalizing the genre. From behind two turntables Herc spun the short, percussive sections of (often) soul and funk songs; on the dance floor in front of him, kids would kick moves that eventually became known as breaking. Before hip-hop’s holy old school trinity of Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, there was Herc. As Herc puts it today, “That’s the reference point for hip-hop right there.”
Backed up by the might of his Herculoids crew and a sound system comprised of a gargantuan wall of speakers, Herc continued to hold down the key DJ position during the period of hip-hop history that unfurled before the first rap records were released in 1979. Herc excelled in a creative playground of high school gymnasiums and local nightclubs, not the recording studios of corporate record labels that would scramble around to try and monetize hip-hop. In advance of his appearance at fellow old-school giant Melle Mel’s 50th birthday party at BB Kings tomorrow–which will have a lineup spanning several rap generations–Herc looks back on his three most notable old-school hip-hop venues.
The Recreation Room At 1520 Sedgwick Avenue
“That’s the reference point for hip-hop right there, without a doubt. This is where it all started. It wasn’t a club, it was a recreation room for all the tenants in the building. They’d have birthday parties there, and tenants meetings, and you could rent the room for $25. The set-up was a kitchen, two bathrooms, a coat-check room, and then the space and some chairs.
“When I played there, people came through after the block party. It was a harmonious vibe. And it meant the end of house parties–after I started playing there it was no more house parties, because this was more convenient. I put the stop to house parties, and I deaded the house band. Your mother didn’t have to pay for the furniture or wait until someone went away on holiday any more. Instead, the parties at the rec room were like a speakeasy place: You’d come through, show respect, look good, and you’ve had a good time.
“The first record I played at the rec room? Nah, I can’t remember that–I just played good music. At that time, I got most of my records from Downstairs Records, the place at the 42nd Street subway station, downstairs–Uncle Nick was the one who gave records to everyone. They first put me on to James Brown’s ‘Get It Together,’ Bob Marley, Booker T & The MG’s ‘Melting Pot,’ Jimmy Castor Bunch… But I never spent more than $5, maybe $10 on a record. When I played, I used two turntables; we set them up with an amplifier, and it started from there. Hip-hop was born, and I’m responsible for it all.”
The Twilight Zone
“We moved the party to the Twilight Zone after the recreation room got popular. The Twilight Zone was on Jerome Avenue, between Tremont and Burnside Avenues–if you weren’t local you’d take the IRT train right to Burnside Avenue. It was right down the block from a very historic Latino club that Eddie Palmieri and all the best played at, and it was up the block from a biker club called Soulsville, where a Latino lady who was in West Side Story was performing.
“The Twilight Zone was a big space. It didn’t look too great from the outside–it was kinda sketchy–but people liked it inside. I used to show camera footage of the boxing in a room there–that was the entertainment in another room. That always made people happy, man. And when I gave the party there at the Twilight Zone, nobody came to the Hevalo, which was the club nearby.
“The atmosphere at the Twilight Zone was just good people, it was elementary. When you were outside, waiting to see if you would get in, you had to come with it–if you got in it was about the way you speak, you got to be looking fresh, gotta be wearing the cologne, the high dress. It was maybe three, four dollars to get in. And keep it funny, keep it cool, and have a good time.”
“So what happened was the guy who owned a ballroom called the Parkside Plaza, he was named Bob Hevalo, and when the biker club called Soulsville went down they went into partnership and operated the Hevalo. It was on 180th Street and Jerome Avenue. I used to give out flyers for my own parties outside the Hevalo, and they would always chase me away, tell me to step off.
“But I remember when I gave my first party at the Twilight Zone, it was raining outside–heavily raining, like from the gods!–and that day no one went to the Hevalo ’cause they were at my party. So a couple of weeks later, they [the Hevalo] gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse–to play Friday and Saturday. That club was a step up for me. In the Hevalo, in my repertoire I’d have things like [the Whole Darn Family’s] ‘Seven Minutes of Funk,’ and [Johnny Pate’s] ‘Shaft In Africa’–that’s my record out of my crates. I mean, Jay-Z jumped on a couple of these songs, but these are my tools that I work with.
“And it was there that we’d really start to see the dancers, the break-dancers in there. I mean historically, this was hip-hop at the beginning and it was here that played a major part in it. That’s all I can say, man!”
The Tribute To Kool Herc & 50th Born Day For Melle Mel–with special guests Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought & DJ ?uesto Two Turntables and a Microphone,The Force MDs, Money Harm, Jeru the Damaja, Freedom Williams, AG, T Ski Valley, DJ Premier, DJ Jazzy G, Team Weapons, C Toma and Selima, and DJ Jazzy Jay–takes place at BB King’s on Tuesday, May 17