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From Scratch 

A new kids book by Laban Carrick Hill explores hip-hop history

Children's books by Vermont authors often celebrate the state's rural heritage. But Winooski writer Laban Carrick Hill's latest release is set on the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop is a picture book for children ages 6 to 10 that traces the origins of one of today's most influential forms of music. Released in August, it's earned praise from Publishers Weekly, which calls it an "expert biography" with "not-to-be-missed" illustrations. The Junior Library Guild, an independent book-review and library-collection development service, chose When the Beat Was Born as one of its 2013 selections.

But while the book celebrates African American culture, its author is white — as are 96.2 percent of Vermont residents. Hill notes that being here, it's easy to forget that much of American culture — music, sports, literature — has African American origins or inflections.

"You scratch the surface of any part of American culture," avers Hill, "and underneath it will be some aspect of African American culture influencing it."

This isn't the first time the 53-year-old writer has celebrated those influences. His other recent books for young adults and children include Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance and Dave the Potter, about a South Carolina slave who left behind works of pottery inscribed with his own lines of poetry. The former was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award; the latter won a 2011 Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustration Award.

Emily Bernard, a University of Vermont English professor who has written two books on the Harlem Renaissance, exchanged ideas with Hill about Harlem Stomp! during its draft stage. She admires his work. "I think he's a very serious scholar who has a knack for taking big, sober, historical moments and translating them into stories that are enjoyable for kids," she says.

Over coffee at Feldman's Bagels in Burlington, Hill traces his passion for the subject matter to his experiences growing up in still-largely segregated Memphis during the 1970s. The gulf between white and black Tennesseans made an impression on him. So did the racially mixed community he discovered when he moved to New York City at age 17. He spent 17 years in the city, earning degrees in English and writing at the City University of New York and Columbia University, respectively. He moved to Vermont in 1994.

It was an experience he had in New York that inspired When the Beat Was Born, which Hill began in 2008. While living in the city, he worked for a marketing firm, canvassing bodegas in Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx. The job required him to walk the streets day after day, clipboard in hand, the only white man in sight at a time when the area was known chiefly for gang violence and poverty. But on those walks, he discovered something that had nothing to do with violence: hip-hop.

"Initially, I didn't like it; I found it annoying that the DJs were scratching and messing up the music," Hill admits. "I didn't understand it until I saw it in the street."

What Hill saw were DJs, their equipment plugged in to street lamps, urging on breakdancers who were executing explosive dance moves that had never been seen before. It was a scene DJ Kool Herc, aka Clive Campbell, helped create, and it's at the heart of When the Beat Was Born.

The book begins with a young Clive pictured in his native Jamaica, learning the art of DJing from a neighborhood pro. At 13, he moves to the Bronx and earns his nickname playing basketball — at over 6 feet tall, he is called Hercules. At 18, he DJs his younger sister's birthday block party.

That last event, which occurred in 1973, is the first item on a timeline of hip-hop history Hill includes at the back of his book. The timeline is a godsend for clueless parents who, say, may remember hip-hop's first commercial hit ("Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang in 1979) but not the origins of "scratching." According to the timeline, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore stumbles upon the technique in 1975 "when his mother distracts him by yelling at him."

"I always found it really cool that kids were the inventors of hip-hop," Hill says, contrasting it with top-down, commercially driven movements in African American music that came out of Motown in Detroit and Stax Records in Memphis.

When the Beat Was Born goes on to describe DJ Kool Herc's innovations: switching between two identical records on side-by-side turntables to elongate the instrumental break in a song — allowing "break" dancers to go wild during those beat-heavy interludes — and the "toast," a rhythmic shout-out to friends on the dance floor that helped give rise to rapping.

Hill arrived on the Bronx scene in 1980, shortly after DJ Kool Herc had exited due to a heroin addiction, so he had to rely on a history of hip-hop for toasts the DJ actually gave. One included in the book reads, "There goes my mellow / Timmy Tim in the house. / There goes my mellow / Bambaataa." Asked to demonstrate how he performs the passage at book readings, Hill rises admirably to the occasion, adding that he tries not to shout.

But for "accuracy of the South Bronx in post-1977," Hill says, he was the main resource for the book's young, Washington D.C.-based illustrator, Theodore Taylor III. Primarily an album-cover artist, Taylor, an African American, took on his first children's book with When the Beat Was Born. His drawings are kinetic and dominated by earth tones; my son, 7, studied the characters' varying skin colors carefully.

One compellingly imaginative illustration, depicting enormous stacks of records topped by tiny dancing figures, raises the question of whether today's 6- to 10-year-olds actually know what records are. Hill admits that kids these days likely rap using computer software. But, while some DJs may still use turntables, most have switched to a vinyl-emulation software such as Serato, according to Seven Days music editor Dan Bolles. That allows them to manipulate a plastic disc on a turntable that's hooked up to a laptop loaded with a music library. So the fundamentals of scratching live on.

Vermont, Hill admits, is not his primary market. It isn't among the seven states, for example, which have given Dave the Potter state awards. He guesses people here don't quite see the relevance of his work, and he worries that Vermont's children are exiting school "unprepared for the global economy" — that is, unfamiliar with nonwhite cultures.

But he's confident that, if they pick up When the Beat Was Born, they'll be able to relate to it. "There's a sense of joy and exuberance [in the book] that crosses cultures and takes us through life."

"When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop" by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Published by Roaring Brook Press, 32 pages. $17.99 hardcover.
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