Perfect Sound Forever

KOOL HERC


When did he make hip hop history
and first perform his Merry-Go-Round?
by J. Vognsen


As school was about to begin in the summer of 1973, Cindy Campbell thought about how she might get her hands on money to buy new clothes. She decided to throw a party and charge an entrance fee: 25 cents for "ladies" and 50 cents for "fellas" to be precise. To spin some music, Campbell called upon her brother Clive, who went by the name of Kool Herc. The party eventually took place on August 11th at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. It has now achieved a mythological status, often referred to as the birth of hip hop.

In a lengthy profile of Herc, Wayne Marshall describes Herc's major aesthetic innovation as a DJ as, "[T]he isolation and repetition of the breaks."i That is to say, Herc developed a technique where instead of simply playing entire songs, he would hone in on the bits he noticed caused most excitement on the dance floor; i.e. the instrumental breaks where the drums would dominate. With this idea an important part of the musical foundation of hip-hop was laid.ii

Kool Herc has often used the term "Merry-Go-Round" when talking about his DJ'ing technique and what made it special. But what exactly did Herc mean by this expression and when did he first perform it in public? I don't know. But I thought it'd be useful to have an overview of the claims that have been made on the matter. What follows then is an attempt to map out and examine the different versions that already exist.iii My examples are chosen either because they provide the clearest version of a particular view or because they are very prominent.

I hope this will help future writers on this topic achieve swift clarity on what the issues of contention are.




What Kool Herc has said

First, let's turn to Kool Herc and the versions of the chronology he has given. We'll begin with the current biography on Herc's official website. As of January 4th, 2021 the text focuses on the August 11th, 1973 party:

"In 1973 August, 11th. Herc DJ'd a back to school party for his sister, Cindy, which was held at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the recreational room, on the west side of the Bronx, New York City. It was there that a musical revolution was conceived when DJ Kool Herc adapted his style to American Funk & Soul. He developed a method for keeping the music going at the breaks in the records. Because these breaks were relatively short, he extended them on two turntables."iv
How does this fit with the explanations given by Herc over the years?

Asked sometime in the mid- or late 1990s, Herc explained the Merry-Go-Round in the following, often quoted way:

"As the years went along I'm watching people, waiting for this particular break in it, the rhythm section. One night, I was waiting for the record to play out. Maybe they're [the dancers] waiting for this particular break. I could have a couple more records got the same break in it - I wonder, how would it be if I put them all together and I told them: 'I'm going to try something new tonight. I'm going to call it a merry-go-round.'"v
"One night" might appear to be a strange choice of words if Herc was in fact talking specifically about the famous August 11th, 1973 party, but it should be noted that the party had much less of an iconic status in the wider public at the time of the interview, making it perhaps less strange. Of course, it is also by no means impossible for people to use strange formulations, so perhaps not too much should be read into it.

The expression "As the years went along," on the other hand, could either indicate that at the point he is describing, Herc had been DJ'ing for some period of time. In this case it's important to bear in mind that while the August 11th, 1973 party was Herc's first public appearance, he had been playing at private house parties for 3 years prior.vi He might be referring to that. Or the years going along could just be indicating the years where Herc attended parties as a guest before he began DJ'ing himself.

This telling of the story, in other words, is inconclusive. It does not give any specific date and neither excludes or supports the idea that Herc debuted the Merry-Go-Round at the August 11th, 1973 party.

There are other sources where Herc has been more specific. In a 1989 interview with Davey D, Herc does not use the expression Merry-Go-Round but describes the following:

"So what I did here was go right to the 'yoke'. I cut off all anticipation and played the beats. I'd find out where the break in the record was at and prolong it and people would love it."
When Davey D asks, "What year did this happen?," Herc responds: "1970."vii

This version would indicate that Herc began isolating breaks at a very early private party. This could be in contradiction with the "As the years went along" phrase quoted above. There's a limit to how many years he could have been performing before an early private party, especially if they only began in 1970, as noted above.viii But, as before, it is possible that the years going along were as a party guest, not as a DJ. For now, let's just say that while this version might not technically be outside the realm of possibilities, it is not one I have ever seen repeated elsewhere.ix

Asked the more general question, "When did you actually start playing then?" by Frank Broughton in 1998, Herc responds, "When I started playing is (...) late '70, early '71." But when Herc is later asked where he began playing, he answers "Over on Sedgwick Avenue," in specific reference to his sister's fundraising party in 1973. And when asked, "When did you start changing it so that you were just playing the breaks?" Herc answers: "The breaks were always part of my format. Always gonna be there." Later in the interview, Broughton tries again: "When you started playing breaks, which year is this?" This time, Herc responds: "That's in '75, '76," but quickly qualifies this: "It was earlier than that too... It was earlier than that. I played it, but I never - you know - really put a lot of emphasis into it."x

Herc is difficult to interpret here. For example, when he speaks of "breaks" in this context, is he simply referring to the records that included the break sections; or is he thinking about when he began using them specifically in the way he describes as the Merry-Go-Round? And how far back, exactly, does his "always" go? Does it include private house parties or is he only talking about public performances?

Finally, there are the two earliest sources on Herc that I am aware of. Two articles by Nelson George and Robert Ford, Jr., both published on July 1st, 1978, both mentioning Herc.xi Ford, Jr.'s article does not date the origin of Herc's style, but George does make a specific claim.xii In "DJ Herc and his 'B-Beats'" for the Amsterdam News, George wrote about a Herc performance he had attended that summer. The article does not use the Merry-Go-Round expression for Herc's technique, opting instead for the term "B-Beats." It includes the following slightly unusual description of Herc's style:

"[B]y interjecting into the middle of a current hit the percussive sections of old hits like Dennis Coffrey's 'Scorpio' or a section from the obscure Willie Dynamite soundtrack album, Herc creates a lengthened and more exciting dance experience.xiii
" Reflecting on the article in a 1998 book, George dates Herc's playing of break beats to "as early as 1974" referencing the 1978 article's claim that Herc had developed it "about four years ago." George - in 1998 - comments that this was a fact he got directly from Herc.xiv "About four years" is not the most specific of comments, and we only have George's retelling of it, not Herc's original phrasing. But it does at least indicate that at one point Herc himself dated the debut of his playing of break beats to after the August 11th, 1973 party, sometime into 1974. In George's interpretation, perhaps even later.xv

In summation, no clear and consistent picture has emerged from Herc's own comments over the years.xvi




What was the Merry-Go-Round?

Now, let's look a bit closer at what's the term "Merry-Go-Round" has been used to describe.

In Herc's comments above - "a couple more records got the same break in it" and "I'd find out where the break in the record was at and prolong it - it seems clear that he is talking about taking the break from one single song and extending it by jumping back and forth between two copies of the same record. This is often how the Merry-Go-Round is now described. For example, in one of the key portrayals of Herc, Jeff Chang writes:

"In a technique he called 'the Merry-Go-Round,' Herc began to work two copies of the same record, back-cuing a record to the beginning of the break as the other reached the end, extending a five-second breakdown into a five minute loop of fury, a makeshift version excursion."xvii
But Herc himself has not always talked about the Merry-Go-Round in this way. In an interview with Jon Lentz in 2015, Herc is asked: "What did you play at these dance parties?" Herc answers:
"Everything, a little bit of everything. The breaks came when I experimented, and they love it. I put all my beats together that I know, and called it the Merry-Go-Round."xviii
Beats are put together; extension is not mentioned.

The first quote from Herc used above ("As the years...") comes from a book by Alex Ogg and David Upshal called The Hip Hop Years that accompanies a series of TV programs made for Channel 4 in 1999. It also appears in the first of these programs alongside the only example I know of Herc demonstrating the Merry-Go-Round on video. This is probably the single most important source on the Merry-Go-Round.

What Herc says in the video, however, does not exactly match what we see him doing. Herc talks about "a couple more records got the same break in it," but what we actually see is Herc spinning James Brown: "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose," The Incredible Bongo Band:"Bongo Rock" and Baby Huey:"The Mexican." The editing is not completely transparent, but Herc does not in fact appear to extend any one break, but is seen mixing between different breaks.xix

One way of explaining this apparent contradiction would be that the Merry-Go-Round was not simply one thing as often portrayed, but something that changed over time, where the extension of one break was only one part of, or perhaps the last development of, something that began elsewhere. This way there would not so much be a discrepancy between Herc's comments as much as just imprecise wording. A 2006 article by Will Hermes fits with such a view. He quotes Herc on the Merry-Go-Round as follows:

"[The Merry-Go-Round] was the segment where I played all the records I had with beats in them, one by one. I'd use it at the hypest part of the night, between 2:30 and 3 a.m. Everybody loved that part of my format."
Hermes continues on what happened after:
"Soon, the Merry-Go-Round evolved, as Herc acquired extra copies of certain records, which allowed him to extend percussion-driven sections of songs indefinitely through hand manipulation of the turntables, creating hypnotic percussive loops."xx
So Herc here himself again describes the Merry-Go-Round not as the extension of individual breaks, but as playing different records with breaks "one by one." In this version, the routine would only later include the working of two copies of the same song simultaneously in the way that Chang and others highlight.

Whether or not the idea of this two-step development comes directly from Herc or is Hermes' interpretation is not clear from the article, but at least it is now clear that Herc is on record at one point describing the Merry-Go-Round as using records with "the same break in it" and at another point as using different records "one by one."

Dan Charnas' writing on Herc is of interest here, because it not only describes a similar evolution of Herc's technique, but also gives a specific reason for why it developed this way. It's worth quoting at length:

"Herc had taken to playing only the break sections of his records - just the parts where the song stripped down to a bare beat. But it was frustrating, because the breakdowns were usually only seconds long. It meant that Herc had to go through a lot of records in quick succession, or else pick up the needle and drop it back to the start of the break, which he could often discern by looking at the texture of the grooves in the vinyl. But that meant that the music had to stop, which was jarring for the 'b-boys,' Herc's nickname for the kids who came to dance to the breaks. What if, Herc thought, I could extend the break without stopping the beat? The solution came to him. He needed two copies of the same record. Placing one copy on each turntable, as soon as the break section ended on the first, he'd start the second. Back and forth he'd go, turning a fifteen- or thirty-second breakdown into a three-, five-, or ten-minute beat-down, before moving onto the next break, and the next. Herc called it the 'merry-go-round.'"xxi
Charnas here tells the same basic story of development as Hermes - without placing it a specific moment in time - but he appears to only use the name Merry-Go-Round for the final stage, where Herc combines jumping between different breaks with the extension of a single break. Charnas, however, does not provide any sources for his account, so it's unclear how he arrived at it.xxii

There is also an example of someone employing the same distinction between the two techniques while using the name Merry-Go-Round to only one of them, but in the opposite direction. In an article by Seba Kwesi Damani Agyekum the Merry-Go-Round is explained as using the breaks of different songs, while extending one beat is a separate thing, apparently not considered part of the Merry-Go-Round itself. He formulates it like this:

"Rather than play the entire song, Herc would start his tracks at the break beats, then either extend the song by mixing two of the same break beats or using his Merry-GoRound technique, where he mixed the break beats of different songs."xxiii
Agyekum does also not explain how he arrives at this understanding of Herc's technique.

Where does this leave us? First, I think it is useful to make a conceptual separation between the two different techniques Herc is usually credited with using: 1) Isolating the breaks of different songs and playing them one after the other; 2) Isolating one individual break and extending it by using two copies of the same record.

Second, this would leave us with three basic options for the historical development of Herc's technique: 1) Herc first played the breaks of different records one by one, then included extension of each break as well; 2) Herc first began extending beats, then proceeded to use the technique in combination with jumping between different songs 3) Herc introduced both techniques at the same time.xxiv

Finally, the terminological question then simply becomes: Where in this process did the term Merry-Go-Round apply? With that, I'll proceed to examine the material on Herc.




1972

We'll first look at an attempt to date the Merry-Go-Round to before the August 11th, 1973 party.

According to Wikipedia

As of January 3rd, 2021 the Wikipedia article on Herc includes the following line: "Herc stated that he first introduced the Merry-Go-Round into his sets in 1972."xxv The line - or something virtually identical - has been part of the article for more than a decade.xxvi I suspect that the occasional, random 1972 claim found online and elsewhere can be traced back to this Wikipedia article.xxvii As we shall see, it can safely be ignored.

The reference given for the claim on Wikipedia is the same article by Will Hermes from 2006 discussed above. Here's the relevant section of Hermes' article:

"Meanwhile, back in late 1972 in the Bronx, a young Jamaican immigrant who worked as a D.J at parties under the name Kool Herc discovered the 'Bongo Rock' LP through his colleague, DJ Timmy Tim. He had heard the 'Bongo Rock' single, which he thought was O.K. But "Apache" was something else. Beginning with the tandem drumming of Mr. Errisson and Mr. Gordon, the song peaks like a fireworks display, with bursts of organ, horns and surf guitar exploding amid a rain of bongo and kitdrum beats. It drove dancers crazy at the Hevalo, on Jerome Avenue between Tremont and Burnside, where Herc had a steady gig and where he first played the record for a crowd.

"'I used that record to start what I called the Merry-Go-Round,' he explained in a telephone interview, retelling an oft-told story. 'It was the segment where I played all the records I had with beats in them, one by one. I'd use it at the hypest part of the night, between 2:30 and 3 a.m. Everybody loved that part of my format.'"

There are two points to make in response to this. First, it is clear that nowhere in his comments does Herc in fact state that he "first introduced the Merry-Go-Round into his sets in 1972." But being charitable to the Wikipedia contributor in question, might the claim then be extrapolated from the quote somehow?

Hermes' writing is indeed a bit unclear, leaving space for interpretation about the 1972 claim. When Hermes' writes at one point that in 1972 Herc "worked as a D.J at parties" and at another that while playing at the Hevalo he "had a steady gig" there, does Hermes mean to imply that these are different periods, or in fact the same period and that Herc was thus at the Hevalo in 1972? The latter reading is not an unreasonable one when viewed in isolation, but it is in clear contradiction with the timeline Hermes himself uses just a few years later in his other writing on the topic. There he clearly places Herc at the Hevalo at a later point in time. This lends some support to the idea that Hermes was imprecise in 2006 and did not mean to imply that they were the same period.xxviii If so, that would leave us with no way to date the Merry-Go-Round from this article.xxix

Secondly and more importantly, it is clearly false that Herc could in fact have performed at the Hevalo in 1972. There is no telling of Herc's story - by Herc or anyone else - that has him performing at the Hevalo before the August 11th, 1973 party. The August 11th party is widely regarded as Herc's first public appearance as a DJ and it is the success that Herc experiences after the August 11th party, that eventually makes it possible for him to perform at the Hevalo.xxx

The 1972 claim thus comes from what is almost certainly a Wiki writer's misreading of Hermes article and is, in any case, a claim that is most certainly wrong.




August 11th, 1973

As far as I know, no one apart from Herc himself and people citing Wikipedia have claimed that Herc began isolating breaks in public earlier than August 11th, 1973. But several accounts highlight that particular party.

According to History Detectives

In Season 6, Episode 11 of History Detectives, which aired on PBS in February of 2009, Tukufu Zuberi sets out to uncover "The Birthplace of Hip Hop," as the episode is called. In the program, Zuberi talks to Curtis Sherrod, executive director at the Hip Hop Culture Center of Harlem. Sherrod makes the following claim about what happened on August 11th:

"From what I understand, you know Herc would take just the hot part of the record and prolong it." Zuberi then follows up with: "Curtis says that at the now legendary Bronx jam on August 11th, Herc saw the crowd dance most intensely during the instrumental break - and used two turntables and copies of the same song to keep that break going."xxxi

I take it that "From what I understand" means that someone told Sherrod about the party, but that he did not experience it himself. No further details are given on the basis for Sherrod's comments.


According to Alec Banks

Writing for Rock The Bells - a website founded by LL Cool J - Alec Banks has given a version of the August 11th party very similar to the History Detectives program in an article titled "The Anatomy of the 1973 Party." Describing "the inaugural party," he writes:

"The surge of energy was palpable. (...) Herc's ability to highlight nothing but the record's 'break' and his pioneering 'Merry-Go-Round' technique -- where he matched two identical records to form one continuous loop -- turned the tiny recreation room into a sweatbox as bodies jostled against one another."
The major difference to the History Detectives version is that Banks here connects the Merry-Go-Round expression directly to the August 11th, 1973 party. But no sources are given for the quoted paragraph.


According to Michael A. Gonzales

Writing for New York Magazine, Michael A. Gonzales also focuses on the August 11th, 1973 party:

"Herc had been refining a new technique in his second-floor bedroom: He'd ignore the majority of the record and play the frantic grooves at the beginning or in the middle of the song. Herc referred to this as 'the get-down part,' because this section of the song was when the dancers got excited. Utilizing two turntables and a mixer, Herc used two copies of the same record (removing the labels so others couldn't 'steal' them) to isolate and extend the percussion and bass. This became known as 'the break.' It wasn't until he was spinning at his sister's party that he showed it to an audience."xxxii
What is noteworthy here is the idea that Herc had practiced the technique at home prior to using it in public. It sits uneasily alongside Herc's earlier quoted comment that "I wonder, how would it be if I put them all together" which implies that the idea came at the spur of the moment during a party.

Gonzales gives no references for the section quoted, but did interview Herc's sister Cindy for the article, and mentions talking to Herc as well ten years prior. It's not possible to determine from the text itself whether any of the claims in the section quoted can be traced back to either of them.


According to James Campion

In a lengthy article on the August 11th, 1973 party for The Dog Door Cultural, James Campion tells a similar story to Gonzales with Herc practicing the new technique at home, as far back as the summer of 1972, before he finally used it in public at his sister's party. Campion states:

"[I]t 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."xxxiii
The idea that Herc was scratching at the party is novel. Campion later qualifies it by stating that it is "debated (...) whether or not DJ Kool Herc 'scratched' that evening." I am not aware of any such debate and have never seen the idea proposed outside of Campion's article.xxxiv

The article provides no sources for any of its claims.


According to Questlove

Finally there's Questlove who has given his take on the story while drunk as part of Comedy Central's Drunk History series.xxxv His telling has Herc premiering the Merry-Go-Round at the August 11th party. Questlove also describes Herc's idea behind the technique:

"Yo, I got it! I'm gonna play only the best part of the song, only the break, and then move on, and then move on, and then move on!"
Then in 1976, Grandmaster Flash appears and begins using two copies of the same record. It's not clear what Questlove is basing his version on, but he does mention, "I'm so dizzy right now, you just don't know..."


See Part II of the Kool Herc article


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