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.”