Before there was hip hop, there was DJ Kool Herc.
On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, Laban Carrick Hill's book tells how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.
Here's a twofer: an expert biography of a hip hop and rap pioneer, and a not-to-be-missed picture-book debut by Taylor, a Washington, D.C. based artist. Herc, an aspiring DJ and reluctant immigrant from Jamaica to the Bronx, was working a house party at his Sedgwick Avenue housing project when inspiration struck: he put the same record on two turntables to extend the break in a song ("when the lyrics ended and the music bumped and thumped") and added verbal riffs drawn from Jamaican chanting and toasting. "Kool Herc's music made everybody happy," writes Hill (Dave the Potter). "Even street gangs wanted to dance, not fight." Hill walks the fine line between knowledgeable reporter and passionate fan (as is clear in his vivid author's note), and Taylor does the same, using a meticulous inkline and washes of textured earth tones to convey both a sense of observational precision and a mural-like expressionism. Whether Taylor is zooming in on Herc's dexterous hands manipulating the turntables or pulling back for a birds-eye view of the first break dance performances, he makes readers feel like they're present at hip-hop's inception. Ages 6 10.