Image: Cindy Campbell, center, her brother DJ Kool Herc, second from right, and Coke La Rock, right, at the “40th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture” concert at Central Park SummerStage in New York on Aug. 10, 2013. (Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

By Timothy Bella/Washington Post

What ended as the day that hip-hop was born began hours before with Cindy Campbell hoping she could buy some new clothes to impress her classmates.

Campbell thought the fastest and most fun way to upgrade her wardrobe, and bring joy to the Bronx during a period of despair, was to throw a back-to-school party in the recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. But as the expenses kept piling up in August 1973 — renting out the room for $25, buying hot dogs and soda wholesale, supplying bottles of malt liquor — Campbell, then 15, knew the “Back-to-School Jam” would flop unless she found a musical act that she could afford.

It’s why she turned to her 18-year-old brother, Clive, whom the community knew as DJ Kool Herc. She knew him as having a booming sound system in his room and being the cheapest music option available for a party on Aug. 11, 1973, that was charging admission of 25 cents for girls and 50 cents for boys.

“I’m thinking, ‘How can I cut my costs?’ … When you have your party, you got to have the music. So I said, ‘It’ll be free because I don’t have to pay for it.’” Campbell, now 65, recalled in a 2021 interview with the Breakdown FM podcast. “I was cutting costs!”

The cost-cutting measure brought about something else that night inside a packed, sweaty rec room of dancing youths: what’s widely regarded as the birth of an art form the world would come to know as hip-hop.

“At the time, the gangs were terrorizing the house parties and stuff, so we asked, ‘Could we give a party?’” Herc said in the Netflix series “Hip-Hop Evolution.” “They liked what I was playing and the rest is history.”

Herc saw how the scene was hopping during any song’s break — usually the drumbeat or rhythm interludes of soul and funk records — and the DJ went from one record’s break to another, much to the delight of the crowd. It’s a legacy that paved the way for hip-hop over the next half-century, Dan Charnas, a historian and author of the 2010 book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” told The Washington Post.

“When we commemorate Aug. 11, 1973, what we’re saying is that the break is the most important or fundamental genius of hip-hop,” Charnas said. “Hip-hop arises out of that particular moment of inspiration.”

Skip to end of carousel

50 of hip-hop’s top songs, selected by the artists

Hip-hop is turning 50 years old. To celebrate, we passed the mic to the legends of the culture and let them freestyle 50 of their favorite hip-hop songs.

How well do you know your hip-hop heroes? Test your knowledge with our song quiz on hip-hop artists.

End of carousel

Added Kevin Powell, a hip-hop historian and curator of the first exhibit chronicling the genre’s history in America: “It is the watershed moment for the birth of hip-hop.”

Artists and fans from around the world are celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary on Friday with shows, exhibits, playlists and re-listening to albums and artists who helped shape a culture through samples, shout-outs and collaborations. The milestone has also earned praise from unexpected sources, such as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had worked with Herc to save 1520 Sedgwick Ave. from being torn down.

DJ Kool Herc presents an award at the Source Awards on April 25, 1994, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives)

Read more