A Hip-Hop Pioneer in Pain

The legendary DJ Kool Herc is sick and can't afford proper health care.

Feb. 1, 2011 -- Apparently it doesn't pay much to be a legend these days.

The Internet lit up over the weekend with rumors that DJ Kool Herc, the man universally acknowledged as the founding father of hip-hop music and culture, was "very sick" and "broke."

It was revealed Monday that Herc, originally known as Clive Campbell, was not near death but suffering with the (still very real) pain of kidney stones. He lacks the medical insurance needed to cover more than $10,000 in hospital bills he has already amassed.

A spokesman for St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, where Herc had a stent inserted in October as treatment for his stones, declined to discuss the matter, citing patient privacy rules.

But a spokeswoman for Herc said that when he returned to the hospital for a follow-up procedure he was asked for a prohibitively expensive deposit.

That Herc's relatively banal health issue should have evolved into a full-blown financial crisis for the hip-hop trailblazer has infuriated fans who have followed his four-decade career.

"He's a cultural icon on the level of somebody like Louis Armstrong," author and activist Jeff Chang told ABC News. "To me he's one of the most important Americans of the 20th and 21st centuries, culturally. One of the reasons you saw Kool Herc become a trending topic on Twitter over the weekend was because of that impact. Hip-hop has become the youth culture of the world."

And it all started in a downtrodden South Bronx, at parties Herc would throw with his sister Cindy, starting in 1973. Herc, a formidable figure whose nickname is short for Hercules, grew up in Jamaica.

His family moved to New York in 1967, where, before long, he would have the biggest speakers in the borough. At his parties, he would pioneer the technique of juggling breakbeats -- looping short drum breaks from funk, rock and jazz songs into extended rhythmic workouts -- which in turn became the backbone of hip-hop.

Meanwhile, his parties became the places where all the different youth subcultures of the time began to converge -- dance, music, graffiti, and eventually the beginning of emceeing over extended breakbeat jams.

"What he did was offer an alternative to young people to fighting in the streets," said Chang, whose "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" is considered the definitive history of the genre.

What he didn't do was get paid a lot for it. And as so often happens with pioneers, it is their followers who get rich in their wakes.

"There was none of that business sense that there is today in hip-hop," says Herc's publicist, Alyse Feldman. "In terms of what they started and created, there is no way to say 'Hey, I started this thing.' There were no records, so there's no royalties."

Hip-Hop Trailblazer, Hurting and Poor

Herc, 55, was resting and declined to be interviewed.

But those he influenced have come out in full force this week.

"The hip-hop community does owe him," conceded Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the drummer for the rap group the Roots. "Everybody and their mother is telling me, 'You know rich rappers; make them pay for Herc!'

"The idea is nice, but there's a bigger matter at hand," he said. "The irony is not lost on me that this is happening when [House Republicans] are demanding a repeal of health care reform. Giving him money is putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Herc won't be the only one with this problem. This is going to be an ongoing story."

It is estimated that up to 45 percent of working musicians do not have health insurance, compared to the rest of the country, which is at 15 percent, according to Sweet Relief, which provides assistance to ailing musicians.

"Herc's options in relation to his situation now are zero. This is a pre-existing condition. No one would give him health insurance," said Sweet Relief's director, Rob Max. "All the musicians who thought they were going to retire on royalties now don't have that money."

One such musician is Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers, said Max. At 71, Chambers saw his royalties -- for such hits as "Time Has Come Today" and "I Can't Turn You Loose" -- drop from $20,000 to $2,000 a year.

"Last year he was homeless in San Francisco," said Max. "Right now he's living off Social Security, which is $600 a month, royalities and some other small income."

For his part Chang is working with others, like DJ Premier, who discussed Herc on his Sirius radio show, to set up a website where the latest information on Herc's condition can be centralized and people can make a quick donation. Because even Hercules needs a hand sometimes.