On the morning of August 11th 1973, in the New York City borough of the Bronx, 18 year old Clive Campbell woke up early to prepare for a party he had planned for later that day. It was nothing fancy. Just a small party in the recreational room of a housing building on Sedgwick Avenue.
But he looked particularly forward to the party for two reasons. First of all it was supposed to be a back-to-school party for the kids in the neighbourhood. It was a difficult time for New Yorkers. Inflation and racial inequalities were at a peak, and he was willing to do something for the black kids in the community to put a smile on their faces.
Secondly, it was an opportunity for him to test something he had been working on for some time. You see, Clive was a DJ and he was well known around the neighbourhood. And unlike uptown New York with more affluent, more white boroughs, where Disco music was reigning, in the poorer, black Bronx boroughs, people listened to soul and funk music. And Clive loved James Brown’s music. It was funk. It was soul and it had heavy percussions (drumming) – everything Clive loved about music.
Back then the tech available for DJs was not as advanced as it is today. And DJs had to programme their playlists manually. As a DJ you had two turntables that were plugged into an amplifier and the normal thing was to wait for one record to finish playing on one turntable, before you played the record on the second turntable. This artform is what has evolved today to what is called mixing.
Clive had noticed that when he played James Brown songs at parties, the crowd would get hyped at the part of the song that had what he called the “break beats.” This was the part of the song where there was no singing and the instruments took over – the drums in particular were usually heavy at that part of the song and it got people gyrating.
He thought to himself: “what if I could play the break beat part of a song over a longer period of time such that the crowd can enjoy it more?”
So he tried something. He placed the same James Brown records on two turntables. He played turntable 1. Just as the song got to the end of the break beat, he played the break beat part of the song on turntable 2, making sure that it was on beat. And just as it was finishing there, he played the break beat again on Turntable 1. And just as it was finishing, he played the break beat again on Turntable 2, thereby manually looping the break beat over and over and over.
When DJ Kool Herc did this at the back-to-school party, everyone was surprised. No one had ever seen that before and before long, it was the talk of the town. All the DJs that heard about it wanted to try it.
Later on, DJ kool Herc wasnt only looping the break beats of the same song. He was mixing the break beats from many different songs together, keeping it on beat.
As this technique spread around town. A group of young people, all profilic dancers would show off their dancing skills specifically at the moment when DJs mixed the break beats. These young people became known as break dancers since they waited for the break beats to bust their move. And together they came up with disntictive dance moves like popping and locking that are the foundation of what break dancing is today.
It wasn’t long after that groups of young men and young women would start talking on rythm to this break beats. At parties, a young man would grab the microphone and talk into it, basically accompanying the beat in a sing-song manner as he hyped the crowd and the DJ. It was atalaku before it was called atalaku on this side of the world. The person with the microphone became known as the emcee and emcees started writing more and more lines that rhymed in order to accompany the DJ. Soon enough it became an art form. The art form became even more intricate and is what we call now call rapping.
Today it is the most popular and most influential musical art form in the world. It has given rise to global superstars and has grownd into its own culture. Yes, indeed rap music is one part of the culture of what is called hip hop. As is break dancing. As is graffiti. As is flair and street smartness. As is clothing and style. As is the knowledge of the culture.
These are the pillars of hip hop. And it started in the recreational room of a building in the Bronx, New York, 50 years ago by an 18 year-old who dared to break the codes and try something different.
That break-the-code philosophy has endured and is very much a strand of the DNA of hip hop culture. We have seen it in the Kanyes, the J Dillas, the Pharellls and the RZAs. No doubt, no one embodies it more than Kanye West.
And the culture that is hip hop has spread its tentacles far and wide and influenced many young people on this side of the world. It is largely responsible for what is today our urban music. It has given rise to our own set of local superstars; those who stay true to the source code of the art form, and those who have learned to amalgamate it with our own musical source code.
It has given rise to us as well; those who write, blog, report, comment, document, make films, work on sets, and do everything affiliated to the culture.
Today as America celebrates rap music and hip hop, we too in Cameroon join to celebrate with them. Because we too are hip hop. Because beyond the music, it is also a state of mind. It is a revolution.
Happy birthday to hip hop and to its godfather, Clive Campbell aka DJ Kool Herc. Happy birthday to all those who dare to dream and who break down walls.
The revolution has been televised, and the Camera is still rolling.