‘How It All Got Started’: DJ Kool Herc Talks Auction of Vintage Hip-Hop Memorabilia
For any hip-hop historian, a certain party on August 11, 1973 looms large. In a rec room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, young Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school jam with entertainment provided by her older brother, a Jamaican-born immigrant named Clive Campbell who’d renamed himself DJ Kool Herc. There, Herc put into action a new technique that would set the sonic template for hip hop — working not one but two turntables and playing two copies of the same record to extend the instrumental breaks. “One night I was watching the crowd and thought I could extend the party,” he recalls of what led to that innovation. “I went right to the breaks and that was it: ‘Oh, I like that!’ I called it the Merry Go Round.”
In the nearly 50 years since that night, Herc and Campbell have been stashing away everything from that era: speakers, turntables, fliers for shows, backstage Polaroids, and much more, some from that very first gig. “If anyone asks us, we say, ‘It’s in the bat cave!’” says Herc, 67, of the secretive storage space. “You’re not supposed to know where it is.”
But next month at the Christie’s auction house in New York, some of that vital history will be up for sale, as more than 200 of those items will be auctioned off. “A lot of people came to us to try to pull items from it and they’re doing this or that museum,” says Cindy Campbell, who went on to become a prominent promoter and graffiti artist. “But we thought the best thing to do was keep it all together.” As Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photographs, adds,“They’ve toyed with it over the years, but they’re at an age now and they’re ready.”
Some items, like party fliers, a vintage Herc vest, a contract for one his gigs, or a smoke machine, have a starting bid of just a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. Others, like Herc’s classic turntables and speakers, are pricier, have starting bids of $100,000-150,000. The auction house estimates the total worth of the entire Herc collection — spread over 121 lots — is “just under a half million dollars,” according to Himes. But Himes admits the actual value is “uncharted territory” right now. “Herc’s sneakers have never been on the market,” he says. “What they are worth, we don’t know. Let’s the market decide.”
Himes says the hardest items to pry away from Herc were the 12 vintage LPs that were the often-secretive source of some of his earliest beats and breaks: deep-catalog albums like Jackson Five’s Get It Together, the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Butt of Course, Kool and the Gang’s Wild and Peaceful, the Isley Brothers’ Get into Something, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, and the Shaft in Africa soundtrack.
The auction is another indication of pop’s changing of the guard—here, in the way the long-standing rock auction tradition is slowly giving way to the sale of hip-hop collectibles. Since 2020, Sotheby’s has held two public auctions of rap memorabilia, resulting in a few deals that made the high-end auction world take notice. The Notorious B.I.G.’s plastic crown went for $600,000, a collection of 11-year-old Tupac Shakur’s haikus for his godfather was bought for $302,400, and an art installation with 23 still-working vintage boomboxes was nabbed for $113,400.
When it comes to the Kool Herc auction Himes says he’s hoping that museums and institutions, along with private collectors, will walk away with the items, adding to their scholarly value. “A lot of people think hip hop just popped out of the air,” says Campbell. “But this [exhibit] will show how it all got started.”
When he first arrived in the U.S. in 1967, Herc was known by his birth name, Clive Campbell, and carried a passport featuring this photo taken in his home country. Just a few years later, he would change his name to DJ Kool Herc, inspired by a cigarette commercial (Kool) and his track-and-field skills in school (his classmates nicknamed him “Hercules”). “I call that the ‘government photo,’” he says. “That’s the beginning of Kool Herc. You gotta have a slang name. At the time they want to find you—the police is on your ass: ‘Oh, that’s what your name was!’ You changed your name and did your thing. It was no more Clive Campbell.”
Towers of Song
Along with a disco ball also for sale, these two, six-foot-tall AcousticResearch speaker columns (dubbed the “Herculoids”) were in the room when Herc gave his monumental rec-room performance in August 1973. The cabinets became iconic thanks to footage of Herc from a 1984 rap doc, driving around the neighborhood with the speakers in his backseat. Recalls Cindy Campbell, “You could hear a lot of bass and drums.”
Two Turntables and … a Mixer
This iconic setup—two Technics turntables, GLI mixer, Mcintosh amp, and unspecified speaker cabinets—was Herc’s gear of choice starting in 1974, a year after the rec-room parties began. “It can’t go backwards no more—it had to go forward,” Herc reflects on what he brought to the table. “I was like the Pied Piper.”
Invite to History
For the rec-room parties at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, Cindy Campbell, who went on to become a prominent force in the hip hop business, would hand-write invitations—like this one index card for a 1974 gig. Why 50 cents for admission? “We decided according to how much a soda or pack of gum was,” Campbell says. “We were kids, and we just had change, so that’s how we did it. We charged the girls 25 cents to get in. The fellas had to pay more.” The auction includes four other such cards, but this is the earliest known to exist.
Flier for Kool Herc at the Sparkle, 1977
Within a few years, Herc was spinning records at more established clubs like the Sparkle in the Bronx. Herc himself made this flier—where, he jokes, “I look like Clark Kent.” “We were moving from the rec room to a larger venue,” Cindy Campbell says “You had more people who came to the place. You dressed a little different. They had a bar. It was like moving up. This place was $4 to get in.” Ironically, given the warning about “no drugs/weapons,” Herc was stabbed at the Sparkle club that year and was hospitalized for several weeks.
Take a Flier
The growth of hip-hop, in terms of its expanding crew of DJs and MCs, is shown in another flier from the same club and the same year. “It’s starting to become a party, a show,” says Cindy. “People were becoming celebrities. The B-boys were getting their status when they came to the parties.” The disco ball installed in the club is also included in the auction. The “Herculords” was the name of Herc’s own crew.
Herc and his Sound System
“That’s a sound system I put together,” says Herc of this rare Polaroid of him at the Bronx club, the T-Connection. Adds his sister, “DJs were rising up and Herc was always looking for a location. A lot of clubs had their own sound system, but he could bring his own, so he had his crew come in and set it up and break it down.” To transport the speakers from gig to gig, Herc says they used a van he called “a squat,” since the speakers took us so much space in the back that you had to crouch in the back.
The Early Rap All Stars
Taken at the T-Connection, this circa-1980 Polaroid features a crew of established and rising DJs and hip hop talent, just as the music was just beginning to break big. Among those in the photo: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Red Alert, Tricky Tee, and Jazzy Jay. Cindy Campbell admits she didn’t frequent the club —“it was the smoking and things were starting to change.” But, she adds, “Every borough had its own style and had their own DJs. Nobody could stop it. It kept growing.”
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