Perfect Sound Forever

KOOL HERC


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


See Part I of the Kool Herc article


Not August 11th, 1973?

Some accounts downplay the idea that much of anything unusual happened at the August 11th, 1973 party.


According to Mark Katz

Mark Katz' 2012 book Groove Music - The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ is, with its mainly practical focus, one of the best academic contributions to hip-hop literature. Katz' story begins with Herc and continues well into our current century, tracing the evolution of the hiphop DJ.

Writing about the August 11th, 1973 party, Katz asks:

"Why is it invested with such deep significance that 1520 Sedgwick Avenue is practically a holy site? The answer isn't obvious. There was no rapping at the party, there were no backspinning b-boys on the linoleum, and Herc wasn't scratching records, all things we might expect from a hip-hop jam. No one at the time knew this was hip-hop, and the music was not literally hip-hop as we know it today - it was largely funk, soul, and rock. Moreover, Afrika Bambaataa, one of the pillars of hip-hop culture, was spinning an eclectic mix over at the Bronx River House before Herc's first party, apparently as early as 1970. He wasn't looping breaks, but then again, neither was Herc, at least at first."xxxvi
The final line (."..at least at first"), I find puzzling. Does Katz mean to say that Herc was extending breaks at the end of the party? If so, the mystery disappears. Then surely the party was significant for that reason. Or perhaps he means to say that at the time of the party, Herc wasn't looping breaks. In that case, the line is superfluous: the whole paragraph is in relation to what happened at the party and there's no need to qualify. But given the overall thrust of the paragraph and the discussion that follows it, I take it that Katz' basic point is that none of the innovations usually credited to Herc were present at this particular party, at the very least not the extension of breaks. No sources for what Katz believe happened at the party are given.xxxvii


According to Seba Kwesi Damani Agyekum

"A History of Hip Hop in Perspective" by Seba Kwesi Damani Agyekum discusses a number of foundational issues in hip-hop history, using recent videos of participants of the early scene as key sources. In the article, Agyekum specifically denies that either the Merry-Go-Round, as he understands it, or the extension of a single break happened at the August 11th, 1973 party. He writes:

"[H]ow can we call Herc's first party the first Hip Hop party, when he had not developed break beat DJing, his Merry-Go-Round technique, or his B-boys cadre yet?"xxxviii
He provides the following source for this claim: "https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lEMVD_tTqs, about 2:43. B-boying emerges at the Hevalo, and Herc played that club in 1975."xxxix

The video linked to is a brief interview by Michael Wayne with pioneering dancer Cholly Rock who talks about his experiences at Herc's parties. An excerpt:

MICHAEL WAYNE: "So your first introduction to hip-hop was..."

CHOLLY ROCK "1974, 1975"

MICHAEL WAYNE: "...with Kool Herc?"

CHOLLY ROCK: "With Kool Herc. On the west side."

With some talking over each other, not everything is easily audible to me, but the broad lines seem clear: Rock is talking about his first experiences with Herc, not about when Herc first began isolating breaks. Rock's comments support the idea that Herc played breaks at the Hevalo, and that his regular crew of dancers gathered there, but they do not tell us anything about whether Herc might first have tried it earlier. So I don't think it supports Agyekum's comment as far as Herc's performance style goes.




Maybe August 11th, 1973?

In some accounts, the events of August 11th, 1973 are touched upon indirectly, or the exact evaluation of them is left open.


According to Grandmaster Flash

While we don't have an autobiography from Kool Herc, we do have one from Grandmaster Flash, the DJ who most prominently built on Herc's style in the mid-70s. Written with David Ritz, the 2008 book The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash - My Life, My Beats is a crucial part of the hip-hop literature. While he doesn't use the Merry-Go-Round term, Flash does give us several accounts of Herc's early technique.

In the book, Flash talks about the first time he heard of Kool Herc. Flash remembers overhearing a conversation on the train between Amazing Bobo and Sa Sa about a party Bobo had attended the night before: "This girl Cindy threw a birthday party over on Sedgwick Ave. Her brother's a slammin' DJ with a killer sound system." According to Flash, Bobo said that what made Herc's style so unique was how he handled the records:

"He breaks 'em up and takes those motherfuckers apart, piece by piece. My man got everybody out on the dance floor 'cause he was playing the best parts and moving' on to the next jam. Not even waiting for the first one to end. (...) Just the drums and the get-down part."xl
Flash then reproduces the text of a flyer from the first show he attended where he himself could see Herc in action: May 25th, 1974. Flash says that the first song he heard playing was "The Mexican" by Babe Ruth, but then gets to Herc's performance style:
"But wait...
He began fading in Coke Escovedo's 'I Wouldn't Change a Ting,' playing the two songs over each other. Just like Bobo said, he wasn't playing the whole song. He jumped right to the middle of the song; the part where the rhythm section gets down to the basics of business. He would pick up the needle and drop it down on the vinyl.
Pick it up and drop it down.
Drums.
A little bass.
That's it. That's the break.
Fuck the melody, forget the chorus, and leave the verses alone; we're talking about the pure rhythmic groove. These were amazing songs.
One after the other after the other. I know the Coke Escovedo song pretty good, but right when the part he cued was supposed to end, BAM! Herc came back with another jam, but one I didn't know."xli
Later, Flash describes his thoughts when walking home after the show:
"It was like Herc had a sixth sense for where one song reached out and a magic ear for the next perfect hook. But as monumental as Herc's insight was, there was something that bothered me about his style. He didn't care about keeping the actual beat locked in tight; he didn't make the switch from one song to the next in a clean cut that matched the beats, bars, and phrases of the two jams. He just mashed one song on top of the other."xlii
Let's, for a moment, take Flash's story at face value. It then seems reasonably clear from what Bobo said he heard ("he was playing the best parts and moving' on to the next jam"), and from what Flash experienced himself ("These were amazing songs. One after the other after the other", "he didn't make the switch from one song to the next in a clean cut... he just mashed one song on top of the other"), it makes it sound like at this point, Herc was not extending one break by using two copies of the same record, but instead he was jumping from the break of one song straight to the break of another.

But later in the book, when describing events in 1975, the year after he first saw Herc, Flash writes:

"Using two copies of the same record - one to play and one to cue up while the other was playing - was the easy part. That was the thing that Herc had already figured out. That's what made him so popular. The hard part - the part Herc hadn't already figured out - was playing them right on time."xliii
This change in description of Herc is not explained. Does Flash simply mean to imply that Herc's technique changed after May 25th, 1974? Or should we read this "two copies" description back into Flash' descriptions of May 25th, 1974?

A separate question about the chronology concerns Bobo's comments. What party exactly was he talking about that day on the train?

In order to proceed with this question, we need to look a little closer at why the August 11th, 1973 party was held in the first place. On the flyer - the front of it, anyway - the party is announced as a "Back To School Jam," not a birthday party.xliv Cindy Campbell herself has also later made clear the nature of the party: "It wasn't a birthday party, it was back to school."xlv Be that as it may, the party has repeatedly been described as Campbell's birthday party, for example by Coke La Rock who himself joined the party and is listed on the flyer as a "special guest" under the name "Coco."xlvi Others that have described the party as a birthday party include Steven Hager, S. H. Fernando Jr. and Kurt B. Reighly.xlvii The claim is still occasionally made.xlviii

This opens up the possibility that in fact Bobo is talking about the August 11th, 1973 party. For the story to be true, it doesn't have to have been a birthday party, it is only necessary that Bobo had the idea that it was. Perhaps he was simply suffering from the same misunderstanding of the nature of the party as Coke La Rock and the others. In this case, Flash' retelling of Bobo's comments would appear to be second-hand testimony to what happened at the party.xlix

The deeper problem is how reliable Flash' account is and whether it is even intended to be taken literally at all. The whole book is highly stylised, with decades old discussions repeated verbatim as if it was a novel, and Flash gives no indication of working from personal notes or other contemporaneous sources, except for the flyer, which I assume to be authentic. It is, for example, clearly not possible that Flash could have heard Herc play Coke Escovedo's "I Wouldn't Change A Thing" in May 1974, since it was not released until 1976 on the Comin' at Ya! album.l


According to Wayne Marshall

Volume 1 of The Icons of Hip Hop series from 2007 edited by Mickey Hess contains a lengthy profile of Herc by Wayne Marshall discussing both Herc's personal history and his role in hiphop history. In it, Marshall writes of Herc that "his style, that is, the way he played the records" was "already present when he threw his first party."li He also writes that, "Eventually, by employing two turntables and two copies of a record, Herc developed what he called the 'Merry- Go-Round' technique."lii

Marshall includes a list of "Further Resources" at the end of his article, but there are no specific references throughout. It's not clear what he's basing any particular claim on. It's also unclear what is meant by Herc's "style" - present from his "first party" - if it is a separate thing from the Merry-Go-Round, which developed "eventually," i.e. would not have been present at his first party.


According to Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr.

Break Beats in the Bronx - Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years from 2017 by Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr. sets out to detail the often-overlooked years of hip-hop history from 1975 to 1979. It also gives some background on the years immediately prior and discusses Herc at length.

Ewoodzie Jr. begins his chapter on Herc with, "There is an age-old story that hip-hop began at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx on August 11, 1973" and then goes on to give a kind of generic outline of what happened at the party. At the end of his overview, he writes:

"Instead of dancehall music, [Herc] played soul and funk records; and instead of playing songs in their entirety, he played the portion of the song with the most percussion. Just as he hoped, this strategy turned the party out. He went from the most danceable, high-energy peak of one song to that of another so the dancers would never feel a lull. (...) Herc kept the music at that high tempo the whole night, and the partygoers loved him for it. This, according to several scholars, was the beginning of hip-hop."liii
Later, Ewoodzie Jr. discusses what is "often considered Kool DJ Herc's major contribution to DJing," referencing the idea of focusing on the breaks that made the dancers get wild. He writes that Herc "looked for ways to highlight these particular segments of the songs."liv Ewoodzie Jr. further explains that Herc called this highlighting the "Merry-Go-Round" and quotes DJ Grand Mixer D.ST, who attended Herc's parties, in this way:
"There was no attempt to cut each record into the next or to preserve the beat. Instead he just faded from one record to another, often talking over the transition."lv
This quote makes it sound like the emphasis is on jumping between different breaks. But when Ewoodzie Jr. brings up the technique again later in the book, he writes that Herc used the Merry-Go-Round to "extend funky breaks."lvi

It's not really clear from this how exactly Ewoodzie Jr. defines the Merry-Go-Round and it's equally unclear if he considers what Herc performed on August 11th, 1973 to match that definition. More importantly, Ewoodzie Jr. gives no source for the idea that already at that party, Herc's performance "went from the most danceable, high-energy peak of one song to that of another."




1974

We then finally turn to sources that place the first Merry-Go-Round after August 11th, 1973.


According to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton have done pioneering work on the history of DJ'ing, particularly in their 1999 book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life - The History of the Disc Jockey. The book chronicles the history through several genres, including in-depth chapters on hip-hop.

Brewster and Broughton's story of the Merry-Go-Round follows the idea of Herc's innovations coming in two distinct steps, similar to the later versions of Hermes and Charnas discussed above.

First step:

"One west Bronx night in 1974, Herc tried an experiment. (...) That night he tried playing a series of breaks one straight after the other, missing out the other parts of the songs."lvii
Following an enthusiastic response, Herc continued his experimentation. Brewster and Broughton explain the second step, quoting Herc himself at the end:
"Right away, Herc began to always include a sequence of breaks in the music he played over the course of a night, and he started to buy two copies of each record so that he could repeat the same break back to back. He would still play records in full: older funk tracks including a lot of James Brown, and the latest disco numbers. But there would always be a set of records aimed squarely at the ears of the b-boys. He even had a name for this part of the night: 'The Merry Go Round. See, once you hear it, you got to hop on. You're not coming' back, you got to hop on. You're not comin' back, you're goin' forward."lviii
So while the definition of the Merry-Go-Round is not exactly clear, the debut of Herc's innovations are squarely put well after the August 11, 1973 party into the following year.

Brewster and Broughton conducted a large numbers of interviews with central participants for the book and also list a number of other sources at the end (books, magazines, websites, etc.), but the book does not contain any specific reference throughout and it's not possible to trace individual claims.

In their list of sources for the book, they include an interview Broughton did with Herc in New York on September 30th, 1998.lix Presumably this is the source for many of the claims about Herc's story. A decade later, Brewster and Broughton released The Record Players - The Story of Dance Music Told By History's Greatest DJs, which includes a version of this interview with Herc.

Broughton asks:

"So when you started playing breaks, which year is this?"
To which Herc replies:
"1974"lx
This would explain the dating in the 1999 book. However, a decade after this, Red Bull Music Academy Daily publishes another version of the same interview, but now the exchange looks like this:
"When you started playing breaks, which year is this?"

"Early '70s."lxi

As it turns out, Broughton has also made audio from the interview available at the Rock's Backpages website. Here's how it plays out on that original recording, beginning at 50:20:
BROUGHTON: So the break... When you started playing breaks, which year is this?

HERC: That's in '75, '76.

BROUGHTON: And it was in the Hevalo?

HERC: Yeah.

BROUGHTON: And did...

HERC: It was earlier than that too, 'cause I had funky music before I came up to the Hevalo. It was earlier than that. I played it, but I never - you know - really put a lot of emphasis into it.lxii

This makes it unclear what Brewster and Broughton are basing their 1974 claim on in the 1999 book.lxiii I also do not think one can get the two-step development they lay out quite from that interview alone. Herc is simply too unclear in his comments on both accounts. It's possible that other interviewees supported it, but it's not clear just from reading the text.


According to Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop - A History of the Hip-Hop Generation from 2005 should be at the top of any list of hip-hop reading. The book gives a very broad overview of the music and culture, and comes with an introduction by Herc.

Chang begins his chapter on Herc with the August 11th, 1973 party. Chang describes how Herc opened by playing some dancehall tunes that did not go over well. Herc then switched to soul and funk and got the dance floor moving. There is no mention of the Merry-Go-Round, or the isolation of breaks.lxiv Chang continues with a couple of pages describing Herc's earliest experiences in New York after he arrived there in November 1967. When Chang picks up the story from the August 11th party again, he goes on to describe the other parties Cindy and Herc held at Sedgwick Avenue, where they would throw monthly parties after August 11th. By summer of 1974, Herc decided to throw a free block party that made him so popular it was no longer possible to move back to the small recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue.lxv It is at this point in the story that Chang writes, "Herc carefully studied the dancers" and then proceeds to describe Herc's creation of the Merry-Go Round, quoted earlier.lxvi Immediately after this Chang describes how Herc moves his parties to Cedar Park, where Grandmaster Flash would see him.lxvii

While Chang's chapter on Herc is not strictly chronological throughout and does not put a specific date on the debut of the Merry-Go-Round, it does very much leave me with the impression that Chang places it well after August 11th, 1973. Chang's sources are not always made clear, but he interviewed both Cindy Campbell and Herc and quotes them at various times. But it's impossible to know exactly how Chang constructed his timeline from the text itself.


According to Will Hermes

In addition to the article from 2006 discussed several times earlier, Will Hermes has written more on Herc in a 2011 book titled Love Goes To Buildings On Fire - Five Years In New York That Changed Music For Ever. The book catalogues the numerous musical developments in New York from 1973 to 1977, devoting a chapter to each year.

Hermes' portrayal of the August 11th party is similar to Chang's in that there is no mentioning of Herc isolating the breaks.lxviii Hermes writes that building on his reputation from the August 11th gig, Herc began playing outdoors at the Cedar Park and later in the Hevalo. According to Hermes, this is the critical period. Hermes writes that it's unclear when Herc first performed at the Hevalo (Herc has claimed he began in late 1973; others place it later), but continue:

"What is clear is that the segment of Herc's set called 'The Merry Go Round' - which involved isolating the most rhythmic passages of songs (what would later be called breakbeats) and playing them back-to-back - was developed at both the Hevalo and the park parties."lxix
As mentioned in n. xxviii, Hermes interviewed Herc in 2006, but the specific paragraph just quoted is without a reference, so it is not possible to know how Hermes reaches this conclusion. As we saw above, in Chang's telling, there was a period of continued regular gigs at Sedgwick Avenue before moving on to Cedar Park and later the Hevalo. If this is correct, then it is at least possible that Herc debuted the Merry-Go-Round during this period. It's unclear why Hermes is confident in not connecting the Merry-Go-Round to this earlier period.

But how one reads Hermes' account also hinges on how one reads his use of the word "developed." Does he intend it to mean "initially created" or "further elaborated"? If the later reading is warranted, Hermes' telling would not logically contradict one saying that the MerryGo-Round was first tried on August 11th, 1973, but was then somehow improved on at more parties the following year. But it would also not offer support for such a view, of course. The use of the word "both" might indicate that Hermes is in fact aiming for "further developed," leaving the initial debut in the dark.lxx Still, circumstantial evidence leads one to believe that Hermes himself thinks 1974 is the most likely year for the debut of the Merry-Go-Round since his discussion of the August 11th party comes in chapter 1, his chapter on 1973, without any mentioning of it. When the Merry-Go-Round does appear, it is in chapter 2, which deals with 1974.lxxi




1975?

According to Steven Daly

Finally, I'm aware of one commentator considering a date as late as 1975 a possibility. Writing in Vanity Fair, Steven Daly lays out the history of the earliest commercial hip-hop recordings and at one point writes:

"At some point in 1974 or '75, having already laid down the aesthetic foundations of hip-hop, Herc brought a key formal innovation to D.J.-ing. At the Heavelo, the West Bronx nightspot where he enjoyed weekly residency, Herc introduced the 'merry-goround.' The idea was simple: put two copies of the same record on parallel turntables and, by cross-fading skillfully between them, sustain those all-important rhythm breaks until the crowd couldn't take it anymore."lxxii
The article is based on interviews with numerous key players in the early hip-hop scene, including Herc, but Daly's source for the quoted section is not made clear.




Conclusion

The commentary on Kool Herc and the creation and nature of the Merry-Go-Round reviewed above lacks clarity and transparency, making it hard to evaluate.

Moving forward, there is a need for clearer acknowledgments of what sources are used and how exactly they support the claims being made. If the author is agnostic or indifferent about the timing of a particular episode or development, it would also be useful to have that stated explicitly.

Care in the terminological department is also needed if the "Merry-Go-Round" expression is going to be used. Does it refer to jumping from the break of one song to the break of another song, or did it mean the extension of one break by using two copies of the same song at the same time? Or both? Does the expression describe something that evolved over time?

Alertness is particularly required when trying to evaluate the technical contribution of Herc in contrast to Francis Grasso, Pete Jones, Walter Gibbons, Grandmaster Flash and other turntable pioneers. While many accounts emphasize Herc's extension of one break with two copies of the same record on two separate turntables, an eye for the two separate elements of Herc's technique will make it possible to have a more nuanced evaluation of his contributions, whatever we end up calling them. Grandmaster Flash's account - if we accept it - opens up the possibility that it was not in fact the extension of one break, but the jumping between different breaks that was historically of most significance. In a recent book on the use of sampling in hip-hop, Nate Patrin arrives at a conclusion along these lines. To Patrin, "Herc's big innovation was to string together a series of different songs' breaks", while on the other hand extending one break by "cueing up a second copy of the same record to keep the break going in a loop", was something that "most DJs from Grasso onward did."lxxiii

In the larger scheme of things, of course, it matters very little whether Kool Herc debuted his Merry-Go-Round at a private house party in the earliest 1970s, at Sedgwick Avenue on August 11th, 1973, at an outdoor party in early 1974 or at some later point at the Hevalo. Herc's place at the centre of early hip-hop history does not depend on dating the exact moment he introduced a certain way of playing his vinyl to the world or even the exact character of his DJ'ing technique, apart from the core that he isolated the breaks. It follows from the lineage of people that were directly inspired by him and the culture that grew up around the parties he held and what that later became.lxxiv

What might change in accordance with the chronology is what importance we assign specifically to the August 11th, 1973 party. If the view is that the party was important because it introduced Herc's new way of handling his vinyl, then that must be calibrated in accordance with the strength of the evidence presented for it.

I would further note - also of no importance in the larger scheme of things - that the earlier we have Herc isolating breaks, the more we are in need of an explanation of the period up until people like Grandmaster Flash heard about it and reacted to it. If, to take the starkest illustration, Herc would "find out where the break in the record was at and prolong it" as early as 1970 - as he told Davey D in 1989 - what was then going on until 1974 when Flash saw him in Cedar Park?

It appears there are no surviving recordings of Herc's performances in 1973 or 1974, if indeed any were ever made.lxxv It also appears that neither Herc nor any of the other main actors in this story were taking notes, writing diaries or being interviewed at the time, so no other contemporaneous sources exist either. In other words, the claims about who and what and when are - with the exceptions of the flyer text reproduced by Flash and Nelson and Ford's 1978 articles - based on the memories of the participants told to interviewers many years, often decades later.

Not optimal.lxxvi

If this is indeed the case, then the truth might not be out there; not any longer at least. The ship has sailed, leaving us forever in darkness as to the exact details.




for comments and disagreements, thanks to
Chris Cutler
Alex Benkhart
Mathieu Garillon
Martin Hoshi Vognsen

for reading material, thanks to
Mike Kubeck

See Part III (References, Footnotes) of the Kool Herc article


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