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

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop Book Poster Image
Insightful, kid-friendly intro to the history of hip-hop.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A valuable and straightforward introduction to the cultural history of rap music. The time line in the afterword also is a great tool for understanding the chronology of hip-hop's rise.

Positive Messages

The story highlights positive developments in a neglected and underserved community, documenting how art can empower people, neighborhoods, and entire generations.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although some parents may not think of DJs and rappers as positive role models, DJ Kool Herc represents everything that was pure and fun in the early days of hip-hop dance parties. The author also stresses that participation in these parties and new art styles helped disenfranchised youth stay out of trouble and away from violent gangs.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip-Hop is an excellent overview of hip-hop's New York origin story. Tracing the life of Jamaican immigrant and highly influential turntable master and rapper Kool Herc, author Laban Carrick Hill sheds light on an underappreciated moment in American cultural history. 

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What's the story?

WHEN THE BEAT WAS BORN tells the story of the birth of hip-hop and rap culture in the early 1970s in the projects of the South Bronx. Fusing the sound-system-toasting style of the West Indies with the bounce and groove of soul and funk, disc jockeys, break dancers (or "B-boys"), MCs, and graffiti artists created a fresh expression of urban self-empowerment. Hip-hop, the movement that began in New York City with illegal outdoor parties presided over by legendary figures such as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and KRS-One exploded into a worldwide phenomenon in the 1980s.

Is it any good?

Subdued but beautiful illustrations by Theodore Taylor III match the clear and simple storytelling of Laban Carrick Hill. In the vision they present, the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, and New York City aren't ugly, rough, or rugged but rather exciting, colorful, and magical. Kids dancing in the streets and plugging enormous speakers into street lamps are portrayed as urban heroes, defying conventions and expectations, inspiring everyone around them and reminding them that anything is possible.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the social conditions that led to the creation of hip-hop: the cutting of arts programs, widespread poverty, lack of law enforcement and access to basic public services, and a culturally diverse population. How did this unique combination of factors lead to such vibrant artistic development? 

  • Although the origin stories and mythic figures of other genres such as rock and jazz are well known and revered, rap music's genesis has received much less attention. Why do you think this cultural bias exists?

  • Can you hear the influence of West Indian dancehall and reggae in contemporary rap music? 

Book details

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For kids who love history

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