When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop

Book Review by Derrick Weston Brown

In most children’s books about the history of Hip-Hop, there’s often one figure who has continuously been relegated to the background, even though he’s the architect of the sound from which Hip-Hop was born.  Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, finally gets his time in the spotlight in Laban Carrick Hill’s children’s book, When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop.

Going back to Kool Herc’s childhood on Somerset Lane in Kingston, Jamaica and then tracing his eventual immigration to the South Bronx in his teens, Hill really pays homage to the Caribbean origins and style that influenced Herc’s showmanship and hungry ear as a rising DJ; likewise, illustrator Theodore Taylor III’s colorful but not cartoonish pictures, give us a story that’s part history lesson and part warm earth tone landscape, capturing the wildness and the warmth of a culture that flourished in project parks and community recreation centers.

Without being too scholarly or too basic, Hill’s pacing and confident storytelling feel like the coolest of subtle head nods to a fly, Hip Hop breakbeat. He acknowledges that regular young guys and girls who had come to party were actually the originators of the dances and lyrical wizardry that would eventually change the world.  Although Hill gives ample time to acknowledge three of the most basic and well known elements of Hip Hop – deejaying, emceeing, and breaking – he leaves out the fourth element, graffiti, and focuses on an often ignored but very present fifth element of Hip Hop, the gangs.

Hill wisely shows how Hip Hop not only brought opposing gangs together, but also created an atmosphere of peace that eventually transformed these same gangs into famous Hip Hop crews. If you wish to give children a real Hip Hop history lesson, this book is a refreshing and well-schooled voice to add to the call and response of children’s Hip Hop literature for the young and curious.


Derrick Weston Brown, author of Wisdom Teethis a full time Teaching for Change staff member at our bookstore at Busboys and Poets. He teaches creative writing to middle school students and hosts the Busboys and Poets Nine on the Ninth poetry series.


A great companion title for When the Beat Was Born is Hip-Hop Speaks to Children by Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni’s book has been a best seller every month at our bookstore since the title was released.