Rapper’s delight: the record collection of DJ Kool Herc
The legendary DJ and Father of Hip-Hop’s catalogue contains foundational elements of the modern American musical canon
In DJ Kool Herc’s record collection, we see more than the musical interests of the Jamaican-American DJ recognized as the Father of Hip-Hop: these vinyl records are the genre’s essential building blocks. They contain breaks — the portions of the song that Herc would convert to drum loops in his signature ‘merry-go-round’ technique — whose grooves charged the makeshift dancefloors of the Bronx during the earliest hip-hop parties in the 1970s, and are still used today.
Like the guitars of Eric Clapton or B.B. King, Herc’s records — on sale at Christie’s from 4-18 August in DJ Kool Herc and the Birth of Hip-Hop — are pieces of American musical history that changed the world’s perception of what music was, what it could be.
This was the Bronx in 1973. In the Boogie Down, as the borough became known, people wanted to move. They were raised in the golden era of soul — with labels like Motown, Atlantic and Stax Records dominating the airwaves of the 1960s — and they went out to clubs where disco and R&B were the sounds of the party. They wanted to be energized by funk, and disco, both of which were characterised by the drum break, when everything but the drums dropped out and a frenzy of dancing blew through the room.
The records included in this exhibition — many of them inscribed with Herc’s graffiti — are those he used to capture this early sound. Each one was held by him, placed on his pair of Technics 1200s, and spun in the moments that created hip-hop.
Pleasure, the third album by the legendary funk and soul group Ohio Players, was recorded in Detroit and released on the Westbound label in 1972. Its single, Funky Worm, ended up at the top spot on the Billboard R&B rankings, a first of many hits for the group.
DJ Kool Herc pioneered the use of many of the breaks from their catalogue, including Funky Worm, but later hip-hop artists on the West Coast like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg also used the song as the basis for their regional sound.
Played by Junie Morrison, who would later go on to be part of Parliament Funkadelic, the ARP Synthesizer solos throughout Funky Worm were sampled in hundreds of tracks in the ‘90s and 2000s, but all of this comes directly from Herc’s use of the song’s break during his parties in the ‘70s.
Rare Earth, formed in 1960 in Detroit, could be called a classic rock group. But by incorporating brass arrangements and complex harmonies, their style effortlessly blended the disparate worlds of rock and R&B. They released their first album, Dream/Answers in 1968 to little critical acclaim, but a stroke of fortune — and a great sound — brought them to Motown Records in 1969.
At the time, Motown had just established a subsidiary label in hopes of signing more white rock bands, but they had not yet decided on a name. In jest, the band suggested they name it ‘Rare Earth,’ which, to their surprise, Motown did.
Released under the Rare Earth label in September of 1969, Get Ready was the first hit record by Motown-affiliated act comprising an all-white band. Its single — an edited version of the album’s title track which did not include the drum break Herc used — reached #4 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1970, getting Gold certification, while the album would eventually be certified Platinum.
In the same year, Gil Scott Heron mentioned them dismissively in his poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, saying ‘the theme song [to the revolution] will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Engelbert Humperdinck, or the Rare Earth.’
The group went on to achieve twelve more hits throughout the 1970s and were a key part of DJ Kool Herc’s set at the time.
One of the best-known songs from the 20th century, Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, off his 1970 debut Curtis was one of the most important parts of Herc’s sets. Its initial movement up the Billboard charts was lacklustre, with John Wendell of Rolling Stone calling the album ‘fragmentary, garbled and frustrating to listen to.’
But elsewhere, Move On Up was an instant hit, spending ten weeks in the UK 50 Top Singles chart. Curtis went on to win the Prix Otis Redding from the French Académie du Jazz in 1972, and was later revisited by Rolling Stone, who ranked it #275 in a list of the best albums ever made.
Move on Up, a track that epitomises the album’s sentiment of togetherness instead of segregation, would go on to become one of the most replayed songs of the 70s soul era, opening doors for Mayfield as a legendary songwriter, bandleader, and record producer.
For Herc, it was the perfect song to get the whole crowd moving. With its fast tempo and phenomenal focus on rhythm, it’s hard to keep still while listening to it even in private, let alone on a packed dancefloor in 1973. Its chorus, ‘Move on up!’ came from the song We’re a Winner, which Mayfield wrote with his first group, The Impressions, in 1967.
Mayfield repurposing this chorus from his earlier track served as a precursor to how his music would be sampled throughout hip-hop. By encouraging musicians — such as Baby Huey, who was a protégé of Mayfield’s and a member of his label — to cover his music in their own style, Mayfield helped launch the genre of psychedelic soul.
Kool Herc has said that James Brown was ‘the A-1 b-boy, the first MC.’ Seeing him dance with electric vigour across the stage, anyone familiar with his work would likely agree. When he broke onto the scene in 1965, he instantly made his impact on music felt. With its crunch and rhythm, his guitar came from early rock and R&B, while his chunky and jumping bass played against the downbeats of the drums in the syncopated style of Latin-inspired jazz, and his horns — staccato but also driving — were pulled straight out of the soul catalogue. But it was he as a performer that brought it all together.
His record Hell, released in 1974 as a double album, is a bit of a departure from what he had become known for. It’s filled with familiar party music, but it also has curious interpretations of other genres like Please, Please, Please, where he can be heard saying ‘buenas noches, y vayas con dios’ before breaking into a funk-infused Latin rhythm.
Songs like My Thang and the title track Hell became dancefloor classics, not even relying on a drum break to boost the energy. Brown had the rare ability to match the energy of a break to his whole song, culminating in a hip-hop-esque sound that inspired Herc’s own explorations in the fledgling genre.
Coke La Rock, an early emcee who attended Herc’s parties, delivered his first rhymes —often cited as among the first rap lyrics — over a looped James Brown break: ‘There’s not a man who can’t be thrown, a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s no disco that I Coke La Rock can’t rock.’
Born James Thomas Ramey, in 1944 in Richmond, Indiana, Baby Huey moved to Chicago at age 19. Describing himself as ‘400 pounds of soul,’he adopted the stage name Baby Huey, after the giant cartoon duck. Huey and his band, The Babysitters, played around the city, performing their own work, but also playing Curtis Mayfield tracks better than he did. This caught Mayfield’s attention, and before long they were in his studio recording their debut record, Living Legend.
It was released posthumously, one year after Huey’s early death in 1970. By 1973, everybody aware of Mayfield — that is, anyone who listened to soul music — knew Huey’s album, and recognised its phenomenal quality. This made it an obvious inclusion into Kool Herc’s set, and he incorporated the first track, Listen to Me, into the ‘merry-go-round’ through his records.
The break occurs at the very end of the track, with Huey singing the phrase ‘kinda funky!’ over it. He breaks into a scream reminiscent of James Brown or Sly Stone before the song comes back in and all the energy built up comes to a release.
‘People used to wait [for the breaks],’ said Herc in an interview with Red Bull Music. ‘I said “Let me put a couple of these records together that got breaks in them.” I did it. The place went berserk and I loved it.’
This is how Herc approached his sets in ’75 and ’76, at the height of his early fame, almost discarding the instrumental sections of songs entirely. He would spin some James Brown, then loop the break from the Isley Brothers’ Get Into Something, the title track off their 1970 album of the same name, and continue that process until the party ended.
1970 was the high point for funk of this style. James Brown was performing as the frontman for The J.B.’s, which included bassist Bootsy Collins of Parliament Funkadelic. Sly and the Family Stone had appeared, and bands were beginning to put a fine point on using rhythm and horn orchestrations to crystallise what the funk was.
This is why Herc would pair James Brown and the Isley Brothers together in his sets: the break from Get Into Something sounds like something out of the James Brown catalogue. It’s fast, and its heaviness makes it sound like two drummers are playing at the same time. Sonically, rhythmically, it was perfect for maintaining the energy level once Herc had achieved it.
Roy Ayers was born in Los Angeles in 1940, and his 1971 song Everybody Loves the Sunshine is a timeless, feel-good anthem. Considered ‘the godfather of neo-soul’, owing to his fusion of a jazz-tinged musical complexity with a more digestible R&B form, he is said to have been sampled for more hit hip-hop records than any other artist in history — an accolade that, depending on who you ask, he shares with James Brown.
Embracing this stature, he worked directly with established hip-hop artists in the ‘90s and 2000s, and his discography boasts collaborations and song writing credits with everyone from Herbie Mann — the flautist in whose group Ayers got his start — to Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, and Mos Def.
Freaky Deaky, which Herc spun and isolated its break, was released as a 12” single from Ayers’ album Let’s Do It on Polydor Records in 1978. Peaking at #15 on the R&B charts, it also served — as much of his music did — as a foundational stone in the development of hip-hop as a worldwide phenomenon.
In the early 1970s, the trope of the masculine, renegade cop rose in popular cinema. Stemming from the behaviour of cops in America’s big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, 1971 films such as The French Connection and Dirty Harry would capitalize on this with violent, action-packed cop thrillers with a clear leading man.
John Shaft, portrayed by Richard Roundtree, entered the world of pop culture at this point. Despite being cut from the same cloth, he would serve as the genre’s antihero, and his adventures made the Shaft film series one of the era’s most popular Blaxploitation franchises.
The film's theme, Shaft in Africa (Addis) was later immortalized as the sample for Jay-Z’s 2006 song Show Me What You Got, but it was Herc who brought the soundtrack to people’s attention as something separate from the film.
Shaft in Africa, the third instalment, was scored by Johnny Pate, a bassist and composer who had worked as an arranger for Curtis Mayfield in the ‘60s. Its title track Shaft in Africa (Addis), to which Herc would give his ‘merry-go-round’ treatment, opens with a break comprising a drum set, a pair of congas, and syncopated guitar plucks. It served as the perfect energy-raising track — if he let it run a little beyond the break, the dramatic horns would begin and he could tease his audience with a shift in energy.
Part of why Herc’s events gained acclaim so quickly was because of his willingness to try types of music that other DJs simply didn’t know about. One of these bands was Babe Ruth, a British prog rock group. They were far away culturally and sonically from the funk and soul gems usually played at his parties, but the track Herc spun seemed to find its way into every hip-hop event before long.
Keep Your Distance, track four off their 1976 record Kids’ Stuff, utilizes a fairly unorthodox time-feel, pushing and pulling its tempo without settling into a groove in the same way that other more funk-oriented songs would. This allowed Herc to really show off his skill in matching the beat and keeping time for his audience even when the song made the process difficult.
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Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live!
Herc’s copy of Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles is another example of his interest in exploring genres other than funk and disco. Recorded on 1 January, at the Sunshine '72 festival, in Honolulu, it features a star-studded cast assembled from both Santana and Miles’ bands. With a total of six drummers and percussionists in addition to guitars, bass, keys and a brass section, it provided Herc with any number of loops to be used in his set.
The album came three years after Santana’s performance at Woodstock, when his band’s 11-minute rendition of the song Soul Sacrifice cemented him as the leading psychedelic Latin rock star in America. His series of three albums in three years took advantage of this success — Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970), and Santana III (1971) — as they all received at least double-platinum certification, achieved by selling more than two million units.
The legacy of DJ Kool Herc is often overlooked due to his lack of recorded music. But he is, like the jazz, dub, and rock n’ roll greats that came before him, part of a musical tradition that prioritizes the performance over the recording. He knew that no record could capture what he did at a party, how people reacted to what he played and how he played it.
His collection of records, bearing his graffiti as well as his marks of use, invites us to encounter the objects that made these parties happen, holding the moment when hip-hop began.