Janice Headley revisits the Cedar Park Jams, which kicked off in the spring of 1974.  

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Janice Headley revisits the Cedar Park Jams, which kicked off in the spring of 1974. At this point, DJ Kool Herc’s parties became so popular that they outgrew his apartment on Sedgwick Avenue.

Written and produced by Janice Headley

Mixed and mastered by Roddy Nikpour

Podcast managed by Isabel Khalili. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop 


As we mentioned at the launch of this podcast series, hip-hop is widely considered to have started on August 11th, 1973, when a 16-year-old up-and-coming DJ named Clive Campbell – better known as Kool Herc – was asked to throw a “back to school jam” by his little sister, Cindy. 

They paid $25 to rent out the rec room in their apartment complex at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Cindy, Herc, and their friends hand-wrote the invitations on index cards. Admission was ​​25 cents for the ladies, and 50 cents for guys. Their Mom served snacks, and their Dad picked up sodas and beer, and then they joined the other parents in the lobby, acting as security guards.

It was that night that Herc developed the technique of isolating and repeating the “breaks” on his funk and soul records, resulting in the “birth” – so to speak – of hip-hop. 

But 1974 is the year hip-hop began to walk… and then run.

As word began to spread about Herc’s prowess on the turntables, it quickly became evident that the apartment complex’s community room wasn’t going to hold all the burgeoning hip-hop fans traveling from across the five boroughs to attend. So, Herc decided to relocate the parties down the street to Cedar Park.

This tree-lined acreage of land sits between Cedar Ave and Sedgwick Ave at West 179th Street. As author Jeff Chang reports in his book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Herc had watched construction crews tapping power from the base of a lamp post, which he used to power his DJ equipment. He found a tool shed in the park, and had a kid climb in through the window to plug in a sound system. 

Their very first Cedar Park jam was held on May 25, 1974. 

Also on the bill was DJ Clark Kent and Herc’s first MC, Coke La Rock. This time, the event was free. The flier said it was limited to ages 16 to 18, but reports say the whole neighborhood turned out, with over 1,000 attendees. Quite the turn of events from the 40 or so people guesstimated to be at the Sedgwick Avenue party the year before.

In his autobiography – The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My BeatsGrandmaster Flash remembers, “Cedar Park was almost all the way to the Harlem River and 10 blocks north of my house, but I was prepared to crawl there if I had to.” He was sixteen years old at the time, and still developing his technique. He had heard about Kool Herc and was determined to catch him in action. 

He says he was still two blocks away when he felt the bass from Babe Ruth’s 1972 single “The Mexican” shake the Bronx streets… 

“I had never heard sound — let alone music — that loud before in my whole life,” he wrote. “And though the speakers made the ground shake, I could hear the highs of the trumpets as clear as I could feel the boom of the bass coming up through my Super Pro Keds.”

Grandmaster Flash writes that as the sun began to rise on the Cedar Park show, Herc began to spin the Incredible Bongo Band’s latest single “Apache.” It would be seven more years before the Sugarhill Gang would release their rendition. 

As the neighborhood danced, Flash stood to the side, inspired. As he writes in his memoir, “By the end of the party, my whole universe had shrunk down to one single thing: I can do that.”

He wasn’t the only one to leave the jam inspired. Sharon Green – aka Sha-Rock of Funky Four + 1 – was only 10-years-old at the time, and begged her mom to let her attend. As she writes in her autobiography – titled The Story of the Beginning and End of the First Hip Hop Female MC: Luminary Icon Sha-Rock – “I almost lost my mind, I just stood behind the ropes, shocked and amazed as if something came over me. I can’t explain it. All I knew was I was going to come back to another Herc jam.”

And despite the heavy infiltration of gangs in the Bronx in 1974, members of the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls, and the Black Pearls danced side by side to Herc’s mixes. Both Herc and Coke La Rock would shout out members of the audience to help create a sense of unity, as Jeff Chang recalls in his book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation:

The shout-outs especially kept the peace and the vibe chill. They spotlighted people whom society otherwise ignored. Herc shouted out the local shot callers, gang leaders, neighborhoods, high schools, housing projects, guys trying to impress girls, girls trying to impress guys, crews that might otherwise be causing trouble, kids whose parents were trying to get them to come home.

As Sha-Rock wrote in her autobiography, "When Herc gave you a shout-out, you best believe everybody in the park knew you were somebody. Everybody always wanted that status."

The Cedar Park jams only lasted one brief, beautiful year, but they clearly had an enormous impact on the neighborhood, uplifting and inspiring future MCs and DJs. When the weather turned bad, Herc took the events to the Webster Avenue Police Athletic League, and then once he turned 20, he took on the club circuit. 

Cedar Park still stands strong today, just a 15 minute walk from Herc and Cindy’s old apartment. Grandmaster Caz – another Bronx-based rapper inspired by Herc’s parties – reports from the grounds in a recent NYC Parks video:

Cedar Park just takes us back to, I mean, the essence of hip-hop, where we just brought our music outside, into the park, and played for the community for free, and that eventually gave birth to what we now know as hip-hop music.

The park is, I mean, beautiful. Look at the terraces, now. This used to be just a long sloping hill with dirt and rocks, very dangerous if a kid was to try to walk down that hill, but now it's terraced off. The basketball courts have been renovated. Of course, the space for people to play is wider. Okay. They even have an exercise part because the Parks Department is trying to implement things in the parks for all ages. And now that since health is such an issue here, especially here in the Bronx, we are providing places for us to work out as well. So this is a great day here in Cedar Park, great day for the park, great day for the Bronx.

Introducing

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