DJ Kool Herc, Hip-Hop and Me

I can’t even remember the first instance I heard the name “Kool Herc,” but I am fairly certain it was during the mid to late 1980s. Ronald Reagan was president, Jesse Jackson was, well, different, a new jack filmmaker named Spike Lee was stirring the pot called Hollywood, and I was a young and avid “hip-hop head.”

Ever since I digested the boom-bap strands of hip-hop in the late 1970s in my native Jersey City, New Jersey (my hometown’s local hip-hop heroes was a crew called Sweet, Slick, and Sly) I was hooked. The Sugar Hill Gang’s landmark song “Rapper’s Delight,” which I would later learn plagiarized lyrics from Grandmaster Caz of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, was the shot heard ‘round the world. Kurtis Blow was hip-hop’s first solo superstar. Afrika Bambaataa was the spiritual and musical emissary from funk and soul to hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five spoke so poignantly to my then-ghetto existence that I cried, hard, the first time I heard “The Message.” And Run-DMC was for us b-boys and b-girls what The Beatles had been for screaming White teens two decades earlier.

Fitted Lee Jeans with stitched creases, suede Pumas, Le Tigre shirts, Kangols, name belts, baseball caps with sketched designs in the front folded on top with paper stuffed inside thus the caps floated on our heads like royal crowns, magic markers in our front or back pockets so we could tag our names here there everywhere (my tag was my nickname, “kepo1”), and so many of us popping locking breaking moonwalking doing the Pee Wee Herman the trot the wop the smurf the running man. We had no idea we were in the middle of a cultural revolution, but that is exactly what it was. And I am sure most of us did not know it was Kool Herc who kick-started the whole thing.

Right after my high school years I left Jersey City and went to college at Rutgers University where I would stumble upon the anti-apartheid movement, Black and Latino history in ways I had never contemplated previously, an upper class student named Lisa Williamson who would later change her name to Sister Souljah, and a spirit of activism that has been with me ever since. Indeed, we did not call it “hip-hop activism” back then, but that is precisely what folks like myself, Souljah, Ras Baraka, April Silver, and many other Black and Latino babies of the Civil Rights Movement were doing, to a hip-hop beat. Organizing in welfare hotels in mid-town Manhattan; building a summer camp for poor youth in North Carolina; re-registering voters in the Deep South; marching against police brutality here there everywhere; and staging state of the youth rallies and concerts in Harlem and Brooklyn.

It was somewhere between my trips to clubs with names like The Rooftop, Union Square, and Funhouse, and that work as a youth and student organizer, that his name first pushed its way into my consciousness.

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Kevin Powell is a public speaker, activist, and author or editor of  10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). Kevin was a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States Congress in New York  City. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be contacted at


Image:  David Atlas / Retna Ltd.

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