- Craig Graziano
When the Beat Was Born, by Laban Carrick Hill, is a stunning example of just how wonderfully diverse the world of children's biographies is getting. This picture book offers a look into the life of DJ Kool Herc, one of the founders and innovators of hip-hop music.
Hill's words, when combined with Theodore Taylor III's crisp, colorful illustrations, depict how a boy named Clive left Kingston, Jamaica, for the Bronx. Clive wanted to be a DJ, slinging an arsenal of records and getting crowds amped up at parties.
Clive's athletic build and affinity for sports led to kids calling him Hercules. A couple of slight alterations led to Clive finally finding the perfect stage name: DJ Kool Herc.
Herc started setting up his own parties, borrowing his father's stereo. He learned that if you had two turntable record players running simultaneously, you could spin two copies of the same record. By focusing on a certain instrumental part, you could make a ten-second piece last as long as you want. Someone starts chanting over the music, and you have the beginnings of rap.
The book manages to concisely explain the earliest beginnings of hip-hop culture, including dance moves and how the movement's influence erupted. Pretty soon a bunch of people like Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, and Jazzy Jeff were wanting to be DJ's, too, except they were all looking up to Clive now.
Hill also has a splendid author's note in the back explaining why Herc's music is so important to him. There's also a timeline for the evolution of hip-hop up from 1973 to 1986.
Ultimately, it is so refreshing to see how children's biographies are starting to focus on a greater variety of subjects. When the Beat Was Born would be as effective for an elementary school biography project as any president's story. It would also have a much better soundtrack!