Category Archives: 50 Years of hip hop

50 Years of Hip Hop

Kool Herc gave hip hop its break

Kool Herc gave hip hop its break

Fifty years ago this August, Clive Campbell DJed at a party for his sister Cindy to raise a little money for some fly back-to-school clothes. They booked the recreation centre in their apartment block at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, drew some flyers and got to work decorating the place. Clive was big and tall, even then, so he’d earned the name Hercules on the basketball court. ‘Herc’ for short. His party instincts owed a lot to the sound systems he’d overheard as a kid in Jamaica before the family moved to New York. And his DJing style was something else. Fired up by the teenage energy in front of him, and a wild dancer himself, he started playing not whole records but just the bits he liked the best, the sections with the most energy – the drum breaks. This style evolved into a part of his set he called ‘The Merry Go Round’. In this way, as DJ Kool Herc, he gave the world the eureka breakthrough that created everything that followed. Herc invented hip hop.

In 1998, Herc gave us this interview for Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. After two weeks tramping around The Bronx, collecting pager numbers on scraps of paper, we gradually closed in and finally got a number that might be Herc’s sister. In those pre-internet days, most hip hop people we spoke to didn’t know if he was in New York, or even if he was still alive.

It came good, and finally there was Herc by a payphone with his friend Rodney C (of Funky Four Plus One More). We walked to a beat-up black Lincoln Town Car of mid-’80s vintage and Herc squeezed his giant 6’9″ frame behind the wheel, dropped Rodney in Harlem and we continued over to The Bronx. What followed was a truly cinematic interview, as we drove around the hallowed sites of hip hop’s earliest days, with Herc leading me round the clubs of his youth, mostly now car parks or shops. One, memorably, was now a mattress factory.

You may have read an edited version of this before, but for hip hop’s 50th birthday we’re publishing it in full for the first time.

interviewed by Frank in The Bronx, 30.9.98

…All hooked up. All hooked up.

What year did you come to New York?

I came here in ’67.

So you were how old when you came here?


So you remember your time in Jamaica?

Oh yeah, Very well. I remember Jamaican independence. Yep. I remember independence. I remember when the Queen Mother came. I remember when Emperor Haile Salassie came there.

How was that?

Lovely, lovely. All the Rastas came out of the hills. They never seen so much Rastas in all their fuckin’ life in Jamaica. Camped out, ran on the tarmac. Meet the plane. When Selassie came to the plane window he turned back in and started cryin’. He didn’t know people was worshipping him like that.

How did he deal with it?

He tried his best. He didn’t speak too much English either. And I remember when President Kennedy got shot.

How was that in Jamaica?

It was real fucked up. It was real fucked up, you know, a leader, like, of the United States, in my lifetime. You figured the United states is like a utopia, nothing goes wrong there. I was a kid, I didn’t know any better. But my mom’s you know, working as a nurse and stuff. And you see the movies, you know. You see television…

She worked over here before you all came over?

Yeah she worked as a nurse, yeah. And Kennedy got killed man! That to me just took the life out of the whole fucking world. Shit started to go downhill from there.

That was before you were here

Yeah, but still. I remember seeing the whole procession. I seen the whole shit on TV. I had a television so I was a king. My whole yard was full of people. Only a few people had television.

Where did you live in Jamaica?

I was young, my first neighbourhood I live in is Trenchtown. Bob Marley used to live there. He used to live on First Avenue, or First Street. I lived on Second Street around by a theatre called the Ambassador Theatre. Right there man. Right now they say grass grows in the streets there.

Do you go back there?

I haven’t been back in years. My father died and it took something out of me, by Jamaica, by going back there.

He was still in Jamaica?

No he came here but he was going back and forth. He caught a seizure in the water. People went down there see him and didn’t rescue him out of the water. And let him go back in. And the wave brought him back in, but the body stayed in.

What did he used to do?

Top notch mechanic. Jamaica. Used to work in this Newport West, fixed the high lifts, the fork lifts. When he came here he started to work at Clarks equipment company, out in Queens.

So do you remember the sound systems in Jamaica?

Yeah. There was a dancehall near where I lived, up in Franklyn town. We used to be playing at marbles and riding our skateboards, used to see the guys bringing the big boxes inside of the handcarts. And before that a guy used to put up watercolour signs on lightposts, let people know there’s going to be a dance coming. And the day before, you’d see a big handcart, a hand man come with a truck. Big boxes. A dancehall, you all could tell a dancehall, a spot where a dance keep at. Matter of fact I lived in a dancehall one time. The whole yard would be concrete, and there’d be a high fence. So you can’t see in.

Which were the sounds that played where you were?

I didn’t know the name of the sound system. I wasn’t too much into it. But this guy named Big George, King George used to bring his set there.

Do you remember any of the parties in particular?

I couldn’t get in. Couldn’t get in. I was ten, eleven years old.

They don’t let kids in?

Nah nah. It’s a liquor thing. And guys burning weed there and shit. If I was 17, 18, yeah, I would have been definitely up in it.

So what are the kids doing? hanging out outside?

Hanging out. We on our skateboards, skating round, you know, and you saw the little gangster kids, and they knew who from the gangs, or the bad bwoys. [whispers] ‘Yeah that’s such and such, man.’ ‘Awww’. And they see all the big reputation people come through. We’re little kids, but their reputation, them precedes them. So our dance would bring them out. And we sit on the side and watch, ‘Oh shit that’s such and such’. Little did I know that would be a big influence on me. As far as my pops wanted me to be a mechanic. I turned out to be a mechanic in what I do.

Did you ever think, when you heard the sounds, that you’d end up doing that?

No. But when I got here I see a lot of abandoned cars and TVs. And I take out the speakers and make my own little boxes for my room. Yeah, you know and it just started to progress from there.

So you were making your own equipment.

Yeah, my own little boxes. I start to get involved more with a working lifestyle. At the time people couldn’t understand what I was saying ’cos I had a heavy Jamaican accent. I was on the ‘Yeh man, Yeh man.’ And they was a place called Murphy Projects, like a recreation room where they used to give parties once a month. Right by the Cross Bronx Expressway. About a block off third Avenue.

They were the parties you just used to go to?

Yeah, go to see how the kids dance, See how they talked.

What were they like?

They were playing contemporary stuff. Kool and The Gang, Isley Brothers stuff.

So what sort of year is that?

That was like say, we talking about say ’69. 1969.

When did you start to get involved in it?

I started to get involved in it right after my house got burnt down. And I was going to parties back then, see. A place called the Tunnel, A place called The Puzzle. Right on 161st St, right where I’ma pass by right now, this was the first disco I used to party at, called The Puzzle. Used to have me, guys like Phase II, Stay High, Sweet Duke, Lionel 163, all the early graffiti writers used to come through here. This is where we used to meet up and party at. Then years later, down the block from it, this club right here, called Disco Fever. Disco Fever used to be right here on 167th. But before Disco Fever, right up near the train station up there, used to be this place called the Puzzle. That was the first Bronx disco.

So we’re on Cromwell and 167th, so just up there near the train station.

Just up the block used to be River Avenue. This is Jerome. Over there is River Avenue and 167th.

So back then you still weren’t playing?

I was dancin’, I was partying. I was partying. Right around ’70…

That was when B-boying was starting!

Yeah, people was dancing, but they wasn’t calling it B-boying. That was just the break, and people would go off. My term’s came in after I started to play, and I called them B-boys. Guys used to just breakdance, used to break it down. Right then, slang was in, and we shortened words down. Instead of disrespect, you know, you dissed me. That’s where that come from.

So who are the DJs that played these clubs?

There’s a guy I used to go to, ’cos now, now I’m in high school. The guy who used to play here I don’t know though. You never used to see him, they was in a room.

That was in the Puzzle, you never saw the DJ?

No, never saw them. But the guys in the Tunnel, I knew him, this guy named John Brown. He used to go to my school – Alfred E Smith. This blue gate coming now, it’s a store now, ain’t no club no more.

That was where it was? 41E. Now it’s a shoe store. And what about at Disco Fever?

Right there. June Bug and a guy named Sweet G.

What happened to those guys?

Jun Bug got killed. He was murdered. After that, a guy named Starchild, had the contract of playing up in there. I played up there once, for June Bug’s birthday.

When did you start playing. What made you start playing records?

John Brown, guy used to play at The Tunnel. They used to play music and I’m dancing with this girl trying to get my shit off, and they used to fuck up. And the whole party… they knew when they used to fuck up and be like, ‘Y’ahhh, what the fuck is that…? Why you took it off there? The shit was about to explode. I was about to bust a nut.’ You know. And the girl be like, ‘Damn, what the fuck is wrong?’ And I’m hearing this. I’m griping too. ‘Cos he’s fucking my groove up.

’Cos you know the tune so well.

Yeah, yeah, you know. So that stayed in my head. you know, I’m a dance person. I like to party. I used to come home and my whole clothes was soaking wet. At least. I had to tell my mother… ‘Where you going with my towel’ And I be ‘Ma, It gets like that up in there!’ Sweat Box. Down.

That was what the atmosphere was like, Everyone just getting down?

Partying partying. Rocking.

What sort of age?

18, No teenyboppers. 18 You gotta wait your turn to start partying and shit. The little recreation room parties, that’s where you might get a little taster for it when you’re 15, 14 and shit, there you’d sneak up in there.

So Disco Fever was the one you went to most?

No, naw. The Puzzle. The Puzzle and The Tunnel. The Disco Fever popped up ’79, ’78. that’s when Disco fever popped up.

The Puzzle and The Tunnel, what year was that?

The Puzzle and The Tunnel, that was back say, ’69 ’70. My stink started to kick up in ’71.

What were the clubs like inside?

Huge. Probably gonna hold a good four or 500 people.


Not too much. Not too much disco lights. All they had was a strobe light, and the little exit lights where you come in from the door. It’s dark! Not too dark. It’s light but it was a low-key light.

When did you start playing?

When I started playing is say 1970, late ’70, early ’71. That’s when the gangs rolled in, the gangs popped up and them. Start fucking people up, going to parties, start robbin’ them, fuckin’ with their girls and shit.

That wasn’t happening before then?


How come that started happening?

Gangs man, they need a place to belong. See what I’m sayin’. Punks get into gangs to be a part of something. you know. Some people just ain’t shit without being in a crowd. Some guys in the gang are serious about their shit. This is the place called The Executive Playhouse. Years later I played here.

Herc making a pronouncement on Jerome Avenue, 1998

This empty lot?

This empty lot. As I was saying: [a pronouncement] After I who have entered through this door and certain places such as the Executive Playhouse should be known as a car park… So it is, baby! After I who have entered through this door, DJ Kool Herc, no-one else shall enter, certain places like the Hevalo, should remain a car lot, so it is baby! That’s how it is! This is Jerome Avenue. Right here off the Cross Bronx Expressway at Mount Eden, this was the Executive Playhouse. This was the spot that gave me a lot of playing time when I first started playing a room.

This is where you first played?

No. This ain’t where I first played.

Where was that?

Over on Sedgwick Avenue.

You remember how it happened?

Yeah. Oh yeah. My sister wanted, my sister had a Youth Corps job and she was going back to school and she wanted her some clothes money, she wanted to invest some of her money on more money so she gave a party. And she asked me to play the music. And I was there into my graffiti work, and that’s where I graduated from the walls to the turntables. I used that curiosity of who I am on the flyer. There was a lot of curious people come to see who was doing it, ‘Oh this is what he does.’ I liked that. So right there, I’m the one who kinda resurrected the party movement back again.

And you’d been buying records anyway?

Yeah, I had records. I had records.

And how was the night, Do you remember.

Lovely! Lovely. Charged 25¢ for girls, 50¢ for fellas, 50¢ for sodas, 75¢ for franks, and beer, beer was a dollar.

And what did she buy with it?

She bought clothes. She went back to school fly.

So you got a taste of it.

Oh yeah.

You loved it.

Oh yeah. This is me at the helm now. I had the attitude of the dancefloor behind the turntables. Come up from the peoples’ choice.

Because you’re a dancer

Exactly. You know.

And how did it progress?

Every time I used to hang out. We made some money. When I used to hang out in different places, now they know who I am. Now they see me. ‘Yo man, Herc, wassup?, when is the next party? The other shit was the shit. Yo, I had me a good time, when is the next one?’ So I wait till I seen them build up [demand for the parties], and it built up and then drop it.

Where were you doing parties?

Recreation room. back in the recreation room. Till I got too big. Then, up the block.

Where was the recreation room?

1520 Sedgwick Avenue. It was for people in the building, downstairs, for anybody having a birthday party, wedding reception, tenant meeting and all that. You could rent it out for $25.

How long did you do those parties.

Off and on. It wasn’t an everyday thing, It wasn’t an every weekend thing, They wasn’t having it. Once a month or once every two months.

And what are you doing the rest of the time?

Going to school.

1970 you were in high-school?

Coming into high-school.

So you’re real young to be DJing

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

So how were you playing back then. You said you were pissed off with the way other DJs were playing the records?

I would give people what I know what people wanted to hear. I’d give it to ’em. And I was getting more music that was creative and sounded similar to the ones they liked. And that stream right there and introducing them to new music. At the same time giving up some slow music. A lot of guys like to get their shit on. I’m a guy that plays slow music. I don’t give a fuck how hard the party’s rockin’, I’ll slow it down. I have my shit in stages. I play music in stages. No format shit.

What were your big records back then?

My big record back then, and nobody had it then, was James Brown, ‘Give It Up Turn It Loose’. And a couple of records I used to play from the other clubs and as it went on I got [Babe Ruth’s] The Mexican, I got [Incredible Bongo Band] ‘Bongo Rock’, you name them, ‘It’s Just Begun’ [by Jimmy castor Bunch]. They used to rock that inside them at the Tunnel and The Puzzle. Everybody knew about it because they killed it. So if I start playing shit like that, I’m the one who played it first. If you’re playing for 50 people, yeah, but if you’re playing for 200 people, they gonna say you played it first. But I give props, no matter where I hear a record from, and I like it I know somebody played it I give them credit for it. I let them take it from me.

But after the recreation room, I gave a block party, and we couldn’t come back. So I found a place over here called the Twilight Zone. This was my first place of mass production. Giving parties. Away from the recreation room, was right here between, on Jerome Avenue, between Tremont and Burnside. The Twilight Zone.

And what was that like?

Lovely. I used to show fights up in there. I had a super 8 projector, and I’d show fights and little movies. And up the block was a place called Soulsville, but they changed the name to The Hevalo. And that was an established club. That club gave me my first break of playing week after week. ’Cos this place [Twilight Zone] I only could rent it once in a while. When I first gave the party here, everybody left from up there ’cos they used to chase me away from giving flyers out in front of their club. I’d tell ’em, ‘One day I’ma rock this club motherfucker. Watch!’

Just right here. Upstairs, right here. That was the Twilight Zone [address: 2000-something Jerome Ave] This church right there? This was a Latin club called the Hippocampo. that was a big Latin club, now it’s a church.

This whole street must have been rocking!

This block, this, Jerome Avenue. This is Herc Avenue really. I dominated this. ’Cos when I gave a party it was raining like hell, and when I look out from the window up top, all I saw was umbrellas. Nobody went to the club up there. They were like ‘Where everybody at?’ They’d say ‘They’re down the block.’ I go up to give out the flyers he’s chasing me from the door, Herc, that’s him. It’d be nice to take a look up in there. I don’t want to get a ticket though.

[We park and go up some rickety stairs, with metal plates holding the beat-up wood together, and it’s a factory where some Spanish-speaking guys are putting new covers on stained old mattresses. Mattresses old and ‘new’ are stacked to the ceiling.]

…the Zodiac

This place became the Zodiac?

Right, yeah.

[Herc asks permission from the owner]

Who the boss? Hi, how you doing sir. I used to play upstairs many years ago as a club, and I just want to show this reporter what it looked like upstairs. I know it don’t look the same, but he just want to see it.

[The lady talks in Spanish… Bossman shakes his head.  She translates: ‘He says it’s a store upstairs.’]

We just want to look.

[more Spanish] For what?

It’s nostalgia. He just wants to see it.

I used to be the DJ many years ago.

[She translates and it’s OK]

Thank you.

Some ghosts in here then?

Some ghosts gonna be up here right.

[Smoochy Puerto Rican music plays]

[to mattress-worker] Many years ago I used to play music in here. Habla Ingles? [he’s a little nostalgic] This was a club, man!

Where was the booth?

You can’t see it, it was in the back. This was the dancefloor.

And now every mattress in New York is here.

This was it.

What kind of things happened here then?

[Herc almost falls through the crumbling stairs.]

People came here to have fun. There was no fights, there was no shoot-outs.

[We walk across the street and up a block and a half to the site of the Hevalo]

This, this was the Hevalo. Now it’s a car park.

What year did you start playing here?

The good old year here was ’75, ’76.

When did you start?

’74, ’75. I was still doing my shit down here, and then late ’74, late ’74 and ’75 I started playing between here [Hevalo] and the Executive Playhouse. Matter of fact, this whole area used to be Irish, before it was called the Executive Playhouse this was called the Green Mill.

Shamrocks all over.

Yeah, the four-leaved thing, the clover. And there used to be crazy fights and everything here. Some brothers got it, big black guys, they called themselves the Eighth Executive, so they called it the Executive Playhouse.

That was a gang?

No, some black guys. I got off the train with my girlfriend to see a sign ‘Under New Management’ I said, shit, let’s find what’s going on. So I went in I said ‘I’m a DJ and I want to play up in here.’ They got a guy called Bert. This guy had some monster stuff. That’s when I first seen my equipment, my future equipment. I said this is what I want. He had good equipment but he had no skills. I had skills but I had no equipment. So something happened one time that he wasn’t there no more and they called me.

He would bring his equipment to the club, they didn’t have a sound system?


Is that how all the clubs worked?

They used to have bands. So when I started and when he started, that’s when, you know, the elimination of bands. Why give a band $600 if I could give a guy $150 and everybody’s pleased. You would have to pay seven guys and seven guys might want $100 a head or $75 a head.

And how much they gonna drink…

All of that. So they called me and I was just building my equipment but they didn’t know I had a reputation. I got experience for playing for kids, now I’m playing for adults. So the shit I’m playing for the kids I can’t play for the adults.

It was really different?

Oh yeah.

What would you play for the kids?

Most of the James Brown, Jimmy Castor, they would [up-rocks in the street], you’re not gonna have 35, 40 year old people doing that. Whole different rotation. So I’m playing for them and rockin’ their ass. Some bands still used to come up in there now, and I’d play intermission, in the break. But when they didn’t have a band I still used to play. It was the whole thing for adults, So I never used to be here on a regular thing, but this place burnt down and I started giving parties back over here, at The Twilight Zone. And every time I would play out somewhere and come back from one of my parties I would come back with a piece of the guy’s equipment. That I bought. Every time I took off from work on a weekend and do a party, I come back and the next week with a piece of equipment. And they knew it was top notch shit, and they were like ‘How the fuck you get money to buy that?’ and I was like there’s more to me than what you see.

And where were you working?

I used to give parties different places. Do my own shit. I come back with a piece of equipment. I’m building my shit there. I’m rolling with the big Mac. The big Mac, that cost like say $1600. A Macintosh, a 2300 Mac, the biggest there is, the top of the line. The guy had top-of-the-line stuff. he had GLI, and the new company came out, he had the disco fours, and he had not one Macintosh 2300, he had two of them. And he had two Voice of the Theaters.

So who’s this guy you’re buying it off?

He used to call himself the Amazing Bert.

So he’s just getting rid of all this?

This system sound like a band. People used to come just to hear the sound, they didn’t give a fuck what he was playing. What was coming through. It was crisp, you was hearing it. You could be on the Cross Bronx and be hearing this shit. Yunno. But see he was a student from the Bahamas, so he had grant money, he was at Fordham University. So he was getting grant money to buy all this new shit. I’m getting mine some fucking ground zero. I didn’t have no grant money. I had to earn mines. And still I haven’t completed it. I just didn’t complete it. I had two of the fours, two of the other Voice of The Theaters, and I had one Mac and I didn’t like the Thorens turntable, the Thorens was still top of the line.

The Technics wasn’t out yet?

The Technics was just coming out. My model, the 1100A just came in, to show Thorens that we on the block too. So between Technic and Thoren, they was fighting for the money market. So I went Technic. I went 1100A. That turntable is cut out. Because people couldn’t buy it. It wasn’t that it was no good; but it wasn’t moving off the shelf. Too expensive! So they pulled it off and put something more durable, and inexpensive with the 1200 shit. I don’t fuck with the 1200s. I wouldn’t. I still got mines, and I wish they would bring them back.

What’s the difference.

They got a higher pitch. The pitch from the table is not slant, it’s high. So for me spinning back is more easier for me. And weight. Right there, as I say I bought equipment and so one day I said I’m gonna work for three weeks without any pay, the equivalent to rent this spot. So I did that, this is my first time to bring my crowd there.

This is Executive Playhouse?

Yeah. So I put my suit on, ‘Ooh where you going?’ You watch. I’m at the door, my people paying. My man Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, they were playing with me at the time, so they’re playing. So they’re like, they see me handling the door.

With a tux on?

No, just a suit. An AJ Lester suit. That was the place to go shopping. You know and they like, ‘Oh, we never seen this side of you.’ OK… Packed it! Packed it!

What was the date?

I think I have a flyer somewhere. I think it was the summer. I packed it. I was the second person to pack it like that.

Who was the first?

Some other people gave it. But mine hit the Richter scale.

So you’d been doing parties all over the place, and this was the first time you felt you had it.

Oh yes. We running this. We running this fucking Bronx. You couldn’t throw a party on my night. I had guys had to change their dates if they found out I’m giving a party on the same night.

What year is this?

I’m at the height right now, ’75, ’76. You can’t fuck with us. You just got to deal with us. Know what I’m saying. Then those guys now, remember those eight guys. They’re supposed to be a team. Those eight executives, each and every one of them propositioned me independently. Why y’all doing this? Instead of just come to me and let’s talk a deal. Everybody wanted a piece of me. You know I could get this. This is just me and my father. So they said who teach you so well? You’re a shrewd businessman.

I want to talk more about your style about how you came about with breakbeats. When did you change it so you were just playing the breaks?

I wasn’t just still playing the breaks. The breaks was always a part of my format. Always gonna be there. Different people come there and dance to different types of music. I’m catering to each and every little volume of people there. Well the break thing happened, I was seeing everybody on the sidelines waiting for particular breaks in the records

People used to do that?

Yeah. People used to wait. I’m observing them. I wasn’t just a turntablist. I’m watching the crowd. If there’s a argument escalating into a fight, and who’s up in my place. Somebody could come up in there that could tense up the whole place. I gotta know, I gotta see if things running smooth. I was smoking cigarettes back then. I said let me put a couple of these records together, that got breaks in them. I did it. boom bom bom bom. I didn’t have one of them but I try to make it sound like a record. Place went berserk. Loved it.

What were the records?

‘Funky Music is the Thing’, by, I forgot the band, part of James Brown’s ‘Clap Your Hands Stomp Your Feet’, part of the break from ‘Drummer’s Beat’. No not ‘Drummers Beat’, The Isley brothers’ ‘Get Into Something’ and ‘Bra’ by Cymande. Took off! Then they got the guys that just wanna sit back, they might be doing their little drugs and shit, they don’t want too much screaming music in their ears. Play some mellow shit for them. Do what you gotta do. Play it cool.

So how would your set be. You’d play regular records and then a section of breaks?

Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah. I’d get everything. There’s some records everybody’s gonna get with. And there’s some records people ain’t gonna get with. So I’d get the crowd going with that. Then I’d just go into cool out music. Break music, slow dance then go right back to what everybody wanted to hear. So everybody OK cool. The contemporary stuff. Shit that’s on the radio. Shit they go to work with and listen to or round the block you’re listening to.

When did people start calling it breakbeats?

They started to do that in the ’80s. That’s when they do that.

Was anybody else doing anything similar?

No. There was guys were trying to battle me but I wasn’t fucking with them. There was a guy called Smoky. He was coming up, he was on Webster Avenue, had a group called the Masterplan Bunch. Flash was in the cuts. He was making noise and shit. And I had no competition.

But what about inspiration?

From watching the crowd. Remember, that’s where I come from. I come from the dancehall, I can’t let them down. I can’t fool around and play no wack shit. I’m watching them: the more they’re having fun, the more I get busy.

Who tried to copy you?

Tried to copy me?

Well, tried to use your idea?

I never know. I never went to their parties. I’m doing my shit, I ain’t got time to go. Saturday, I’m not in your party; I’m in my shit. I ain’t got time to check other people out. I didn’t hear no name to go check out. What would I do, if they’re trying to impress by playing my shit. That’s not too impressive. You know.

Tell me about your system.

I called my system the Herculords. People thought I was calling my crew the Herculords. the Herculords is not my crew, it’s the name of my sound system. The second sound system I was building I called it ‘Not Responsible’. Every time you play that set somewhere, some shit always jump off, some dispute, some shit, so I call it ‘Not Responsible’. That’s it, yunno. We just used to crank it, let people know Yo! if you wanna come fuck with us, this is what you have to deal with.

I remember one time Flash came to our party and shit, at the Executive Playhouse, I just got the Mac then, and he came and I said ‘Yeah I want you to feel the high, I want you to listen to the high, I want you to check out the midrange, I want the bass to walk the place.’ And I think I said ‘Flash can you deal with it?’ He ran out the spot. He said that was the only time I embarrassed him and shit. He used to have a sound system called the Gladiators. And Kid Creole, I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Yeah, it’s a known fact: the Herculords might cause a disaster, but there only could be one Grandmaster.’ A-ight motherfucker! It was cool, stood alongside them. Where the fuck we all at with that? So we just left it like that, man. We never battled.

Did you rhyme over the records?

No, I just was saying a few little words. If the party rockin I’d say, ‘Yeah, Right about now I’m rocking with the rockers, I’m jammin with the jammers. Young ladies, don’t hurt nobody. So remember it ain’t no fun unless we all get some. Rock on y’all. Rock rock and don’t stop.’ And when Bongo Rock used to come, we’d say ‘And you rock, and don’t stop. And rock. And don’t stop.’ And that’s the only part I used to say. So along the way, as the years go by, little short sayings became right into a full verse.

But you just kept it that way.

yeah. we never was…

Cos that’s very like the Jamaican way of toasting.


Is that in your mind when you were doing that?

Exactly. I say:

‘Yo you never heard it like this before. And you’re back for more. And more, and more, and this year rock this y’all. Her-Herc.’

Or this:

“Yes yes y’all. I see you comin’ down to check I, Her-Herc.’

Or if I’m playing something I’d say:

‘Yes this is through the inspiration of I, Her-Herc y’all. Check this out.’ And just go into the music, yunno. Took it nice through those raps to cover my mix, so it come on nice and smooth, ’cos I didn’t have the luxury of a headphone. I mixed over the music.

Did you ever play reggae?

A few, a few. I never played too much reggae. I never had the audience for it and people wasn’t feelin’ reggae at the time.

Is that how you started?

I played a few but it wasn’t catching

At the beginning?

At the beginning. And I introduced similar music in a funky way, so I find out: ‘Oh this is what y’all like in your music.’ So this is your funky music to me. And it’s similar for what I was trying to do for reggae music. Apply it. So a lot of my music is about bass.

So you’re thinking I want to make it like a sound system in Kingston.

Yeah. But I’m in Rome, I got to do what the Romans do. I’m here. I got to get with the groove that’s here. Who knows man, later on it took off.

You grew up in Jamaica. How much of an inspiration was that to the way you played and the way you made the music?

An inspiration to me, my father knew good music. He loved music and he taught me what was good music. [in his dad’s JA accent] ‘That’s a good bounce. That’s a good bounce.’ So I know what a good bounce is.

He didn’t play an instrument?

He was a Nat King Cole Man, Johnny Ace, all the classical old R&B blues singers. Louis Armstrong all those people. That’s… Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s his type of music and I knew what good music was. he trained my ears to it.

Do you have any tapes?

No What I’m trying to do is put together some music. Of what I used to do back in the days. We working on that. Kurtis Blow trying to fuck me around with Rhino records.

One thing you said you had some flyers.

Those flyers. We don’t put them out, we got to get something for that.

If I was livin’ like that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I’d be fucked up. A lot of people would like to see me fucked up in the game. But I’m forever standing, man. I’m still fucking standing. Like my man Sir Elton [sings] ‘I’m still standing, after all these years. feeling like a true survivor, feelin like a little kid…’ Yeah, I’m still standing man. And motherfuckers would like to see me all destitute. Say, ‘Yeah he fucked up the opportunity, look at him now.’

Now’s a good time. People are back interested in the old school.

And I have all my shit. If they set me down with a good deal they got some good shit comin’. ’Cos I could put my shit out in volumes. Yo man. A lot of money could be made out of it. It could be beats made for up-coming artists, ’cos that’s all Puffy do.


That’s all he do. He just does shit over. That’s my shit. It wouldn’t be nothing new, ‘Oh Herc is makin it’, cos that’s what the bastard’s doing out there. I got all my music. I got every single fuckin one. And they in mint condition. You ain’t gotta worry about no cshh cshh, like fry eggs or fry bacons or shit.

What about the outside parties that you used to do. How often was that?

That was not too often, because I didn’t get paid for it, and if I blew an amp or something, niggas… people wouldn’t end up givin’ me the money for it. So I never took a chance at doing that. Cos you always got to turn up the volume a little more, just to try to figure the music ain’t comin through.

You played a few though.

Oh yeah, oh yes.

How was it?

It was lovely. I played in Taft yard, and I took an aerial shot of that. It made the paper. Nelson George came up and did a story on me. His first fuckin’ assignment.

For the Village Voice?

Not for the Village Voice, for the Amsterdam News. That’s right. He forgot years later who the hell I am. I showed him, ‘Oh shit, yeah.’

Where was the party?

At Taft yard, Taft High School at 178th and Sheridan Avenue.

So when you started playing breaks, which year is this?

1975, ’76.

And that was in the Hevalo?

Yeah. It weas earlier than that too, because I had funky music before I even came up into the Hevalo. It was earlier than that. I used to play it but I never really put a lot of emphasis into it.

Can you remember the very first time you did it.

I told em ‘I’ma put some things together and I want y’all to check it out.’ And I’ma call it the Merry Go Round. See I got to hop on once I hear it. I’m not comin back. I’m gonna go forward. And so I did it, and they loved it.

Where did you take it from there?

I made it more part of the format. It was a part of the format now. People come in to hear that.

And you start looking for records just for the break?

It wasn’t just for the breaks. I have a lot of music from either Bam’s collection that I like, that I bought, but I never chased the beat like that. I’m not a beat chaser. I’m a good music chaser, and if a break so happens, comes along in it, it’s all well and good. But I’m not trying to go out there ’cos if I do a party man, I can’t play beats for people. And that’s what fucks up a lot of DJs, they can’t step out of that age frame, to play for people. they can’t, cos their shits full of fucking beats.

When you’re playing the break, you’re playing the whole break and then you’d play it again… or…?

Two of them, two of them.

But how long would you play each one?

Not too long. ’Bout four times.

And how much time would you give each one?

I’m not givin’ it too much time for the floor to be bored with it. ’Cos I got to move on. You can’t do nothin that they gonna be bored man. ‘Oh man, why don’t you let it go.’

And which breaks from which songs went down the best?

All of them, man. All of them. I don’t play wack shit. It don’t stay in the crate. All of them never get played in one night.

[we nearly run down a kid chasing a ball into the street.]

My father always tell me… [to the kid] You gonna get your ass fucked up over a ball! My father always tell me, ‘There’s always a kid chasing the bouncing ball.’

You got kids?

Yeah. Always tell me, there’s always a kid chasin’ a bouncing ball.

What was your favourite ever party?

My favourite party was my first boat ride. I played for my high school, Taft, in ’74, and the boat ride left from Battery Park, up to Rye Playland. And then, yo, at the time, ‘Rock the Boat’ [Hues Corporation] had just come out, this record, and it was, I had a favourite record I wanted to take with me and I left it at home. And that was ‘Skin Tight [Ohio Players]. And the boat got ready to dock and the water got kind of rough. And then the boat is rocking like this and I said Oh shit, I said Coke [La Rock, one of Herc’s MCs], pass me, watch this Coke. I put on ‘Rock The Boat.’ [sings] ‘If you’d like to know it, you got the notion, Rock the boat, don’t stop…’ and everybody starts running from side to side to rock this fuckin boat. The captain, the teachers said ‘Yo!, take it off. Take that goddam record off!’ And that shit made the school newspaper: ‘And as the boat was rockin, the DJ Kool Herc played “Rock The Boat”.’

Bam told a story about a battle in 1977 at the PAL…

Oh, at the PAL. They didn’t show up. Oh Oh Bam was there?

Yeah. He played first


And someone from your crew told him he’d better turn it down.

Yeah, Clark Kent threw a little spark in there. He have a young kid, no higher than this right here, and he’s on one of the powerfullest sets in the fuckin Bronx. You think he’s not gonna be cocky about it. He said, ‘Bambaataa!’ and I just had the echo chamber. ‘Bambaataa-Bambaataa-Bambaataa, turn your set down-down-down. Herc is getting’ ready to come on. If you don’t-don’t-don’t, we will drown you out-out-out.’ I say ‘Oh come on Kent, damn!’

And he kept on playing?

Naw, couldn’t, we had too much shit for him.

You just overpowered him?


Were the gangs ever a problem?

You know what, the gang never bothered us, because, my father always compliment me about the company I keep. We pick each other. You couldn’t just come around me just to say… No, he compliment me always, ‘Herc I like the way you choose your friends and how you and your friends choose each other.’

But didn’t they try to take over the clubs?

Yeah, ’cos some guys… People know us, that was in gangs, and know that we have respect. And if we… each and every one of us was approached to be a division leader, we turned it down. ’Cos we on the west side, who on the west side say ‘My man Mark, Kool Herc, Coke, Ron.’ And they know that, yo, we ain’t no punks. Niggas know that we ain’t no fuckin punks. So to get people to come on board they’d have to recruit us. And if they recruit us they know that they have everybody. We wasn’t with that. We don’t need that to get respect. People wasn’t fucking with us, why go out of our way to fuck with them.

You never got into making records. How come?

I just… I ain’t too far from it. I just, at the time, people got older, having responsibility, and then narcotics came in, I started medicating myself. My father died, that put me in a slump. I got stabbed up, ’77. Drew me back into a little shell.

How come you got stabbed?

That’s a misunderstanding shit. Kids come up in there, drunk.

You were playing at the time?

I was getting ready to play. I just changed my clothes, walked in the door, and walked into a discrepancy and I got stabbed.

You ever played downtown?

No, Never did. Downtown was bourgois to me. My shit was like elementary. You had to go through me and go on. It stayed up here. Not only that, downtown you couldn’t wear no sneakers. You can’t wear what you want to wear down there. Up here you could do your thing. Wear your sneakers, wear your jeans. Downtown you had to be dressed different, yunno. Different style.

And when you started DJing, did you carry on B-boying, going dancing?

If they’re there. If they’re there. I give it to em. If they there I’m always gonna look out for them.

No but yourself.

No, I danced behind the turntable. I got my little moves behind the turntable. ’Cos I got to be into it. I got to be feeling. I’m into it. If I’m playing, I’m into it, and if the ground is sturdy, I could really you know get busy, ‘cos as I’m throwin’ it on and I’m dancing, I know I’m making other people dance. But if I’m just there as a job unh-huh. Come on then! Feel it man!

What’s the best thing you got out of it all?

Out of playing music?


Until this day, hearing the oohs and the ahhs. Hearin the OOOhs and the Ahhs. People having fun, the mere fact that people enjoying themself, man, knowing that. Knowing the fact some motherfucker could spoil it, too.

Me and my friend used to play chess… on the turntables. Cos sometimes egotism was to take both of us at the same time. You want to play and I want to play. So how we gonna straighten this out? OK cool, no problem, we had a game. This turntable’s mine, that turntable’s yours. Match me. And the first person who play a record that the crowd say Ahh and walk off…

Who was this?

Me and Coke, my partner, Coke La Rock. That’s how we used to do it. And if you had two or three records to make a point or to bridge a gap, I would tell him. ‘I’ma go into this record and go to this record, and come outta that record.’ ‘Alright, cool.’ But the minute the crowd go huh, and then he’d take over and play. It was never a power struggle about who play for the night. If he feel like playin’ he play. Sometimes he don’t feel like playin’. Sometimes I feel like going into a James Brown attitude, I play James Brown all night long. It never bothered me. They used to say, ‘Herc, I don’t like James Brown, but when you put your shit together, about James Brown… love it.’ James brown’s my man. I’m a spin-off of James Brown. As a dancer, and as a musician. Hip hop music is a spinoff of James Brown, cos I kept James Brown alive in the neighbourhood. I kept this shit alive.

One big last question for you. What do you think is the power of the DJ?

The power? Of the DJ? It’s to motivate the crowd man. It’s to have the insight to motivate the crowd. To have the crowd at your fingertips. To control the crowd. That’s the best fuckin’ power man.

That’s it man.

Thank you.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Full audio of this interview with Kool Herc driving you through the Bronx clubs where he made his name. Thanks to Mark, Barney and Jasper at Rock’s Backpages for the transfer

Yo! The Early Years of Rap, 1982-84

Yo! The Early Years of Rap, 1982-84

We’re in the train yards, at the Fever, in Bronx River, in the Roxy. We’re tagging on the subway, looking through Bambaataa’s crates, backstage with Melle Mel. We’re in D.ST’s bedroom crammed with studio gear, at the Fun Gallery downtown. These unguarded moments tell you exactly where you are on the timeline: right at the start of things. This is hip hop when it was still fresh and fly. The first records are coming out, the breakers have just been on daytime TV, the writers watch their train-art loop the city daily. Hip hop energy is the biggest thing in New York. It’s a young scene, baby-faced and smiling, a little unsure of what’s next, but really excited to get there.

One photo shows kids queuing up to get into the Roxy. A black tape holds them in line. As the flash pops, a lad of 17 or so ­– his cap announces ‘Deeski’ – raises both hands in peace V’s for the camera, in front of a sea of faces. His smile tells us all we need to know about the excitement bottled up behind him. In a moment these kids will charge into the club for another weekly episode of the best night of their lives.

The stars are dressed in silver leather or leopard-print, with fur and tassels, studs, buckles, boots and head-dresses. They’re looking fine, but they haven’t got used to it yet. Few will ever be famous beyond the five boroughs. And the faces of future legends still look teenage. Jazzy Jay, Melle Mel, Scorpio, Afrika Islam, Cold Crush, Rock Steady, Red Alert, Fab 5 Freddy. There’s a photo of Bambaataa and Herc together, and even Kool Herc – the grandaddy of the scene – still hasn’t hit 30.

The DJs are grinning as they pass each other the next great breakbeat. There’s fun ready to burst. The breakers are still discovering all the ways their bodies can flex. The b-boys in a circle watch them battle. Sophie Bramly was clearly family. Her photos capture innocent moments that bring home how wild and new all this must have felt. She would go on to create Yo! MTV Raps for MTV Europe, copied a year later in the US.

As veteran hip hop publicist Bill Adler points out in his intro, from the birth of hip hop at Kool Herc’s back-to-school jam in 1973 up to the end of that decade there’s no photography beyond a few snaps. When the visual record begins, most is focused on graffiti or breakdancing. French Tunisian Bramley gave us the first body of work that takes in the whole joyous scene. This book drops you into those glorious years when hip hop emerged from the clubs and started making its way in the world. This is when it was all still just a party, and when the science of fun behind it: DJing, MCing, breaking and graffiti, was discovering new bombs every week. Amazing times. From the lovely people at Soul Jazz, this great book is an access-all-areas pass to see hip hop’s first steps. Frank Broughton

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Fab 5 Freddy made it fresh and fly

Fab 5 Freddy made it fresh and fly

‘Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly,’ rhymed Debbie Harry in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, before namechecking Grandmaster Flash and François Kevorkian in the next line. Graffiti artist, film-maker, MC and TV presenter Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, was early hip hop’s most dedicated ambassador. As downtown Manhattan caught on to the exciting noises brewing in The Bronx, Freddy was the key connector zipping between scenes – bringing DJs downtown and introducing them to the no-wave clubs and galleries, and taking Lower Eastsiders uptown to meet the protagonists on home turf. While most commentators saw rap as a fad, Freddy was determined to gain it critical respect, specifically by unifying the somewhat separate street cultures of graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing, and by staging gallery shows that propelled graffiti into artworld magazines and auction houses. He made the classic movie Wildstyle with director Charlie Ahearn, a film that’s near as dammit a documentary of the early hip hop universe, and which makes up in authenticity and period detail what it lacks in Hollywood polish. In 1988 Fred cemented his role as hip hop’s most vocal champion when he presented the groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, the TV show that took hip hop into living rooms globally. This interview was for the first edition of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and as well as the roots and shoots of hip hop, Freddy was a fount of knowledge on the black mobile DJs who were the scene’s direct antecedents – entrepreneurs who used their sound systems to rock college beach parties and bourgie jams in Manhattan restaurants. He was also great on The Paradise Garage, a club very close to his heart, and on the inevitable connections between disco and hip hop. As he says here, despite the rappers eventually taking centre stage, for him it was always about the power of the DJ.

interviewed by Frank in Manhattan, 5.10.98

Frank Broughton: I guess the first question would be, when did you first hear what was going on in the Bronx?
Fab 5 Freddy: I grew up in Brooklyn, and before I knew about hip hop in the mid ’70s, I grew up with the beginning of DJing. There were people who inspired the guys in the Bronx, DJs who came from Brooklyn, possibly Manhattan. These are the guys who invented disco. Long before disco was borne into the public’s consciousness by way of Saturday Night Fever etc, it existed in black and gay clubs – I didn’t go to the gay clubs I went to the black and Latin clubs – where DJs became the icons of the street.

The DJs were people like the first Grandmaster, who was a guy named Grandmaster Flowers, who died about six or seven years ago, a guy by the name of Pete DJ Jones, a guy by the name of Plumber, guy named Maboya – and there were several other guys – who would give parties and they didn’t do any cutting or scratching, but what they did is mix. They had two turntables and a mixer, and the most incredible thing that they did was the music never stopped – ’cos that was the beginning of seeing that for the first time – and they played records that you didn’t hear on the radio. They played the extended versions of records like ‘Fly Robin Fly’ by Silver Convention, records like ‘Love is The Message’ by MFSB, records like ‘Rock The Boat’ by George McCrae.

And there was a radio DJ at the time in New York who was very influential in black music across the country, a guy by the name of Frankie Crocker, who programmed a station called WBLS. He innovated FM radio programming and sophisticated the presentation of black music on the dial. He was tuned into these DJs and he started to play these records before anybody, and he broke the whole mould of radio station DJs who just followed a playlist. Frankie Crocker broke these records nationally and it became this media thing known as disco.

Those DJs, I went to those parties, I was a young person dressing up trying to be older, going to the parties where these guys were god. What they were doing was incredible. You would ask: who’s DJing? who’s the DJ? That was what made the party hot, and if Flowers or Pete DJ Jones or one of these guys was on the flyer it was a must-go-to event.

They didn’t even play clubs. What you had were these independent party promoters, who would rent restaurants in Manhattan for the weekend, take the chairs out and put up a few lights and you would consider them discos. Coming from Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, a lot of people didn’t realise these places were average restaurants in the daytime, but the whole sense of coming into Manhattan, coming into these pseudo-posh joints gave you this whole air that you were doing something really special and added to the whole excitement of it.

WBLS would advertise these parties heavily on the weekends, so you would know the names of the different clubs. They were places like Nemo’s or Nell Gwynn’s. Sometimes they’d give these big holiday events at a hotel, there was one at the time which was infamous, the Hotel Diplomat, where they’d give these big extravaganzas. Or there was this place on 34th Street, I think it was called The Riverboat. With Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, Plumber, Maboya etc.

So that was the big attraction There were these promoters, you could tune into this radio station that was reflecting what you would get at these parties, this supercool radio DJ who would give credibility to the scene. I can’t describe what you could go to now and have that same feelings that you had as a kid going to one of these places. Like going to Carnegie Hall…

How old were you?
I was a teenager. These parties were promoted as college parties. I was high school age but I was playing like I was already at college. It was a fake bourgie scene as well, they would put on these flyers, ‘NO SNEAKERS’.

So after having my flirtation with that scene, I got this whole thing as the DJ as god, or the club as a shrine – I made all these analogies when I was a kid back then. Because these DJs became icons. Then there started being another kind of DJ. Everyone in the urban areas wanted to be a DJ. So you had guys going out, getting their speakers, getting their two turntables, any how, any way, wiring them up and trying to be DJs. Like these DJs that were gods.

That’s what Flash said: he was inspired by them.
He was completely inspired by them. The first wave of hip hop DJs were all inspired by those guys. That’s where Flash got the name ‘Grandmaster’ from, was from Grandmaster Flowers. He was the first Grandmaster. That’s really important.

I’m sure when you talk to Flash, or when you talk to some of these other guys, they can bring you some of that energy, like, ‘Yo money, this is the real story.’ This is where they got their inspiration. Very few people know about it.

So for me, a kid in Brooklyn, figuring it out, I didn’t have a clue about Flash or anyone at this time. But these local guys in the area started trying to be DJs on their own. Particularly a guy named Frankie D, and Master D, these were our local guys in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, who would play in the parks and the block parties. And they started doing something a little different to what Flowers and Plumber and Pete DJ Jones would do: they started manipulating the records a little bit. Nothing too phenomenal…

When did they start doing that?
I don’t have exact years, I would have to sit down and get with some other heads to really lock into years, but this is mid ’70s now, moving into late ’70s, let’s say from ’74 to ’78, as a rough span. Now these new guys are coming out into the streets and every other guy becomes a DJ. Now I started noticing them playing a different group of records, that you didn’t hear, even from the disco parties, a record that had another kind of a feel than a disco record.

More like funk?
They were basically breakbeats, is what I’m trying to say. You would hear things like ‘Apache’, and you’d be like, ‘what’s that?’, and it made you move a little differently. They had a very crude and early version of scratching: very, very minimally, but it sounded incredible. And they had MCs. Their MCs weren’t great lyricists, at the time it was more the call and response: ‘Wave your hands in the air,’ ‘Somebody say hooo,’ and they’d mostly talk about how dope their DJ was. Which was the emphasis to this whole era for me. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was because the DJ has always been the focus of this whole thing. When rap became rap, the focus moved and a lot of people forgot the DJ. But for me, and closest to my heart, even to this day, is the effect that the DJ had on me.

I was one of the kind of kids when you went to jams I’d have to stand in front. You had your gangster kids… everyone came for the music, but within the party there were different things going on. But at every party you had a group of people that stood at the rope, watching what the DJ did. Those were the guys that wanted to be DJs and MCs.

And you would stand there… watching. That was still the era of chilling at a party in a b-boy stance. You would stand a certain way, because that was about being cool, but it was also about ‘I’m not to be fucked with’, because you were always intimidated that there were some really dangerous guys at these parties. So you wanted to chill in the b-boy stance. [he adopts it: arms crossed tight, shoulders turned inwards]. I was joking with my man, reminiscing: ‘Remember when you used to go to a party and stand like that, with your feet in a certain way?’

This is all in Brooklyn?
For me, yeah. Grandmaster Flowers was also from Brooklyn, so Brooklyn was important in the scheme of things. And he also was a graffiti writer, which was highly influential on me, ’cos that was where I came into the scene, as a painter, a graffiti writer.

So how does it fit in with the scene in the Hevalo and the Bronx in general?
Im’a tell you. Here’s the thing about me. I was mad curious, always, so when I began to go to a lot of jams and began to figure out the science of it, and observe the DJs, the things you would talk about was how much amps he had: ‘Oh money, that muhfucker, he got five-hunnerd amps, he got 500 watts, son.’ ‘Really? Yo, my man got two thousand,’ ‘Worrrd?’ ‘Yo he got 18-inch woofers, he had the piezo tweeters.’ This was the conversation around the DJ and his set. One thing Brooklyn guys were known for was having really strong, clear-sounding sets. ’Cos later, when I began to venture uptown to parties, the guys were much more advanced in terms of turntablin’ and rap but the sets were horrible.

So as I began to go to more parties I asked ‘Yo money, where did this shit start? Like what do you call this?’ And guys would say, ‘Oh it’s the uptown sound,’ or, ‘It’s from uptown,’ and uptown used to be a combination that could either be Manhattan or The Bronx. And then you began to hear a very slight inkling about a guy named Flash. who was supposed to be the fastest DJ, ’cos speed became the thing.

So I asked questions, asked questions, couple of times I even ventured out on the train up to Harlem and just walked around. In Brooklyn in the summers you’d look for a jam. You’d roll up on some heads on the corner, ‘Yo money where they jammin’ at? Anybody jammin’? Just to be out, the energy, just the classic shit, tapped into the street pole [for electricity], 2 o’clock in the morning some hot hazy Saturday night, you’re just bored, literally on the verge of doing some ill shit. It definitely kept me from doing some crazy shit.

I heard there were these tapes you could buy, from these uptown guys. Through some graffiti connections, in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side, this is now about ’78, I met Lee Quinones. That’s when me and him were getting ready to do the whole Fab 5 thing, bringing graffiti out into the mainstream. So I got with this kid, and he had a Flash tape, and that’s how I heard my first Flash tape. I’ll never forget because it was still the Furious Four. It wasn’t even the five of them at the time.

He was tellin’ me that they sometimes play in the community centre in the projects on the Lower East Side. So this was where I saw Flash with the Furious Four, but they were introducing Raheim, as the fifth member. He had just joined the group. I could remember it as if it was yesterday.

An interesting ironic fact, I went up to Melle Mel in between the sets. I was like ‘Yo man, wassup. Are you aware of how big this is? You guys should make a record.’ I remember him going, ‘Yo, who would buy it?’ I said, ‘Well at least all the people comin’ to these parties.’ But it wasn’t about that. It was just about being somebody. I’ll never forget that. So I got to see Flash do his thing. It was amazing, it was state of the art.

This was on the Lower East Side?
Yeah, at the Smith projects. Community Center of the Smith projects.

Do you remember the date or the month?
It was probably September, November ’78. ’Cos it wasn’t freezing. But anyway, boom! And when you went to these parties, there would  always be guys giving out flyers, which were a kind of connect the dots for other joints where I needed to go. I can remember all the imagery and shit. Began to get my hands on a few more Flash tapes. So I could hear the differences between what they did and what guys in Brooklyn did. Once I plugged into Flash I started getting a few flyers, I started seeing the other names.

And that was who?
Shit, money, it was Grand Wizard Theodore, and Fantastic Five MCs, it was Flash, it was Bambaataa, it was, ohmygod, other DJs? It was Charlie Chase from Cold Crush…

You haven’t mentioned Kool Herc.
No, I missed Kool Herc. When I asked people where they learnt from I began to hear ‘the legend of Kool Herc.’
A great clip from Wildstyle, with Grandmaster Flash cooking up a beat for Fab 5 Freddy as Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink throw up a piece and The Rocksteady Crew run through their moves.

Tell us about Wildstyle
Not long after that whole experience I got this idea that a movie should be made. I was serious about trying to be a painter, and I wanted graffiti to be seen as a serious movement like Futurism or Dada, or other great movements in painting. I didn’t want us, through racism and ignorance, to be looked on as folk artists. I was aware of Andy Warhol, who had become an icon for me, and I wanted to let people know that this was a complete culture, which I had read somewhere included dance, painting and music. So I wanted this film to demonstrate that this graffiti thing which was the focus, was a complete culture: that it was related to a form of music and related to a form of dance. Prior to that nobody had seen these things as being connected.

And that was the inspiration for making Wildstyle. I hooked up with Charlie Ahearn, we collaborated on making the film, I ended up starring in it, doing all the music, Charlie wrote and directed, and we basically produced it together. But in the pre-production and research process, I had to take Charlie up to the Bronx. We took a year going up to parties and researching, doing research on the whole hip hop scene.

And you made original music for it.
Well nobody was sampling yet at the time, and the rap records that were being made were just replaying the popular tunes, like what Sugar Hill and Enjoy was doing. But we wanted to capture the energy of these breakbeat records. We’re making this little independent film and Charlie was real scared about being sued. So I said I know what we’ll do. I’ll go into the studio and we’ll make our own breakbeat records. I went in with some musicians, created ten little one-minute pieces of music that would give the feel of different breakbeats, that the DJs would then take and then pick the beats they want, and then that would be our soundtrack.

I remember the day I took them up to the DJs so they could rehearse, they were saying, ‘This is incredible. You made records?’ I was like yeah, and y’all should be able to do this too. You guys are my heroes.’ But they weren’t thinking like that at the time.

Later, the best producers in hip hop were DJs, but this was before they could see the process of making records. Sampling wasn’t even a part of the game yet. That technology wasn’t there. But the ideas were there. Flash actually did it first, if you think about it. ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’ was the precursor to sampling. He just did what he would do at his show. And recorded it all.

The DJ was always the focus in the development of hip hop. His name went first. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, representative of their status. That the DJ used to own the set. And he was giving them a reason as a rapper to have a reason to rhyme.

Was there any Jamaican connection for you? Herc says he was directly inspired by the Jamaican parties of his youth. And you’re coming from Brooklyn where there’s a big Caribbean community.
No inkling. None whatsoever.

None at all?
No. What was dope about it, it was parallel. It was a parallel cultural development. Journalists have liked to imagine that everybody in Brooklyn or everyone in hip hop knew everything that was going on in Kingston, it was totally not the fact.

What’s incredible about Jamaica to me, where I’ve spent a lot of time, Jamaica to me is a combination of Africa and New York. In terms of the sensibilities. There’s this very African vibe, feeling, climate, aesthetic, mixed with this very modern thing.

Herc brought it to a point where he started to play these beats and talk over them in a way that inspired a lot of people. But I’m not sure that Herc predates Plumbers, Pete DJ Jones and Maboya. But Herc was a perfect link, in terms of what he brought to the picture. If he did experience Jamaican dub in its early form: a guy talking over the mic, use of the echo chamber. If he did hear that first it could very well be the case.

And later when Herc and them freaked it with the echo, there was a way they used to rock it: ‘And I’m going all the way-ay-ay-ay down to the last stop-stop-stop.’ That’s how Flash used to rock the echo. And DJ Breakout of the Funky Four. They were known for the echo. ‘And this is the sound-sound-sound, of the Funky Four-four-four. Plus one more-more-more, into the girls Shara-ra-ra.’ It used to be ‘Ohmygod, what are we hearing?’

It used to be so ill, the energy and the vibe. Motherfuckers used to smoke dust [angel dust, PCP] on the scene. Like back then in the hip hop scene it was very weird, it’d be really dark, the DJ would have a couple of light bulbs rigged up on a board. There might be one strobe light, and that was the lighting. And a lot of guys would sell angel dust. At least up in the Bronx, that was a popular drug at the time, and it makes a really fuckin’, sickly ill smell, when guys are smoking that, in a fuckin’ hot funky room. It used to be a really ill vibe. There used to be a lot of heavy dust-heads. That might have inspired a lot of the sound. I don’t know. I’m not saying any DJs were smoking that shit, but the scene was weird. It was cool though.

I just know, for me early on, I can remember looking at a big stack of speakers and going, ‘Money, this shit is like some kind of altar.’ ’Cos that used to be the big thing: How high a DJ could stack his shit up. How big his speakers went up. ‘Oh shit!’ Come to a party and be looking up.

And you heard some of the early MCs?
It’s really before rocking the mic was a big issue. It was just about these DJs, it was just about this energy. But they had heard Kool Herc at the Hevalo and seen his MCs Coke LaRock and Clark Kent rock the mic. They wasn’t rhyming about nothin’, they was just, ‘Yes, yes, y’all-y’all-y’all.’ That’s all they were saying, but it sounded like the coolest shit. And then later that summer everyone went out to try and do it. And the rest is history, man.

When did the battles start?
Battles seemed to start early on. I remember some ill sound system battles. I remember one back in the day in a big-ass armoury in Brooklyn. Four sounds in there. It was Frankie D, Master D, might have been Divine Sounds, and maybe the Disco Twins from Queens. Who actually I’m working with now.

The Disco Twins were real foundation DJs, as important as Frankie D and them. What was fly was they were identical twins with big Afros, They were the foundation of Queens, they’re from those projects called Queensbridge, which later gave birth to Marley Marl, the whole Juice Crew, and then Nas. Identical twins, and they would do this thing called going around the warpath, where they would move around this table cutting one after the other, and go bam, bam, bam, and then the other one would be bam, bam, bam, moving around the table, cutting up ‘Apache’ or ‘Good Times’: good time, good time. good time. good time. Oh shit!

That final scene in Wildstyle, that energy we captured, where D.ST’s cutting ‘Good Times’: good, ga, ga ga-good, ga-good, g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g ga ga good g-g-g-g-g-g-g GOOD TIMES!!! That’s how DJs played back then, they used to build you up, ’cos they knew, that was your favourite part of the record.

It’s a tease.
Pure tease, money. Just tease. That’s the skill of it. It’s the right time of night, and when you let that shit go, it‘s like aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. You so happy. It’s a science. A lot of motherfuckers don’t know how to do that no more.
The epic Wildstyle finale.

Could you hook us up with any of these Brooklyn guys?
Let me tell you a tragic story. It’s about six years ago. I’m in the middle of directing some video. We’re doing MTV, the whole shit, and I’m running around town in pre-production. So I have to run into Tower Records to buy something, on 4th and Broadway. I’m in a van with some people on my crew, a million things on my mind. And there’s a couple of guys panhandling, begging, outside Tower Records. Busy day, people walking up and down Broadway. I’m about to step into the door, and I glanced at this guy, disheveled, obviously he’s a crackhead or something. And for a second, I pause, looking at him. I’m literally in mid-step, and the guy makes eye contact and he goes, ‘You recognise me, you know who I am right?’ He’s with some other guy and he goes, ‘See, he knows me.’ And I don’t know where the fuck I know this guy from. I come back, I stop and I turn. I walk back to him and I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ And he goes, ‘You recognise me, you recognise me right. I’m Flowers.’

I felt, in a second, the whole shit just came out. I went in my pocket. I musta had about 25, whatever I had in my pocket I just took it out put it in his hand. I said, ‘Yo, you’re Flowers, you’re Grandmaster Flowers.’ I didn’t want to ask what happened. It was obvious. This was when crack still had a huge part of the community under grips. It was sad, money. Anyway, this brother I was vibing with, a year or two later, said, ‘Yeah, I seen him too, and I regret to tell you that he died. He passed on.’

That crack epidemic. If heads didn’t go to jail and get incredible, unrealistic amounts of jail time, then you know, they died. Just like Cowboy, Grandmaster Flash’s first MC. That’s another part of the whole story of rap.

Tell me about how you helped to bring hip hop downtown.
I brought it downtown in pursuit of my career as a painter. Started meeting people like Blondie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, John Lurie. I was in the midst of that whole new wave scene.

It was from graffiti becoming a part of the artworld?
Exactly. For me, people like Glenn O’Brien, the original editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, he was like a mentor to me. Chris Stein and Debbie from Blondie, they kind of were patrons to me. And I was allowed to flow on their scene. I was introduced to the Mudd Club, the whole downtown swirl, which was a very small scene at the time. People like Jean-Michel Basquiat were coming on the scene, trying to be a painter too. I was making my moves, I was meeting heads that were open to what I was talking about, what I was doing.

Which of the galleries was it?
The first gallery to really represent us effectively, was the Fun Gallery. Which was run by Patty Astor, who starred in Wildstyle as the reporter. She was a good friend of ours, an East Village icon. It was my idea that she become a gallery dealer. I said if SoHo had Mary Boone, who was a hot sexy brunette, East Village should have you as the bombshell blonde. She didn’t know too much about selling art, but she loved to give a party. The idea of the Fun Gallery was that the artist was supposed to change the name of the gallery every month. Kenny Scharf, he was on some fun-type shit, so when he had a show he called it Fun.

We were in preproduction on Wildstyle at the time and I said, ‘Well I’m gonna call it the Serious Gallery. I’m gonna flip my shit like serious.’ But Patty didn’t have any money to change the stationery that she had made for Kenny’s show, so she asked if we could still keep it Fun. It was the first gallery in the East Village; within two years there were 60. That’s how fast it happened.

I met Keith Haring who was also trying to become a painter. I also met Jean-Michel [Basquiat] around that same period. Art was the hot thing and we were this new crew trying to get a piece of it. Keith had put together this big show at Club 57 called the Invitational Black Light Art Show, where everybody had to make art that somehow or other glowed in the dark. And anybody who knew me at that time, I would tell them what kind of music I was into, which was rap. And Keith was like wow, I’ve heard some of those rap records. So I told him, look, I know the real guys. And I had Afrika Bambaataa come down and play at Club 57. And everybody was like, ‘Wow, who’s this DJ playing this new music?’

Where was Club 57?
57 St Marks Place. It was the answer to the Mudd Club, for that whole little scene. John Sex, Keith Haring, Anne Magnusson, that was their own hip little nightclub they invented for themselves, ’cos a lot of them weren’t cool enough to get into the Mudd Club.

Was that the first time a DJ came downtown from uptown?
Yeah. Effectively and officially, but it didn’t really become official official until I was asked to curate an art show at the Mudd Club, and I called it Beyond Words: graffiti based, rooted and inspired work. In which I included a lot of graffiti artists but also a lot of downtown punk rock type artists, whose work I thought had a graffiti thing, like Alan Vega from Suicide.

Which year?
1980. There was a big art frenzy going on because the Times Square Show had just happened, which was in June 1980, so it was later that same year. Even before that, I performed at the Mudd Club. Steve Maas, who owned the club was like, ‘Why don’t you bring in some more of this rap stuff? I was never trying to be a rapper. I just did it ’cos it was a great way to earn some rent money. I never tried to present myself as a rapper. I was experimenting with different shit, like two DJs cutting in and out of each other. It was kind of crazy, but it looked cool, because I knew nobody downtown had seen that.

Who were the DJs?
It was a kid from my block named DJ Spy and this white kid that used to DJ for me named DJ Nick the High Priest. He was cool, he used to DJ for Jean-Michel. He was a good friend of Jean-Michel. So when I curated a show, Steve Maas was like, ‘Let’s do some rap,’ and I was like, ‘OK, but I’ma set this shit off right.’ By this time we’re in pre-production on Wildstyle, so I’m well-connected with all the big uptown DJs. So I was able to get Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic, I had Bambaataa come down, I had Cold Crush. It was like a rap review. Three or four groups came, Bambaataa DJed all night.

Bambaataa’s title was Master of Records. He would always play some crazy records in the midst of this whole b-boy frenzy. He would put on a Monkees record and people would be like ‘What the fuck?’ but the uptown crowd would love ’em. People would invent dances, like there was this dance called the Patti Duke, that was inspired by some of these sounds. Bam always wanted to play for a white crowd like this, ’cos he’s got these kind of records in his collection. And that inspired him to go and make ‘Planet Rock’. Because now he had played for this audience, he had a feel for what they would like.

He hooked up with Arthur Baker at these downtown parties?
More or less. I forget how exactly that happened. That was a Monica Lynch, Tommy Boy thing. Somehow that was her idea to make that record.

It inspired so much.
Unbelieveable, the way that record just opened up a whole thing.

Taking that Kraftwerk sound…
Six months ago, Kraftwerk played in New York for the first time in about 15 years. I went to see them and it was so incredible, because they were such a big influence on me, when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Discovering that record, and buying that album. And just being into that whole attitude. And now 20 years later, with everything from websites to samplers, to the fucking Powerbook, all this shit connects to Kraftwerk. While they were playing I was thinking of everything you can connect back to them, that’s cool now, that they did first. Those sounds, they were so new to hear.

How did people react uptown to those kind of records?
They loved those kind of records.

They didn’t care where they came from?
Oh, nobody knew where they came from. They just sounded… The whole major thing about all of these records that were played: None of them, NONE of them, with the exception of maybe one or two, were heard on the radio. The records that were the foundation of hip hop, it wasn’t about the hot record of the moment. Maybe one or two would be played – like Parliament Funkadelic hits or some hot Michael Jackson record like Off The Wall. But what made hip hop parties were these records you didn’t hear anywhere else. It was ‘Apache’, ‘Dance to the Drummers Beat’. You went to the parties to hear these kind of records. Like ‘Welcome aboard disco airline flight 78, dum-dum dah d-dah [Eastside Connection’s ‘Frisco Disco’]. Records that made breakdancers want to breakdance. Or Chic’s ‘Good Times’, that became an anthem way after the record was a hit. ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate’ [by Vaughan Mason]. All those records you can buy now on series upon series of breakbeat compilations. Those were records that these particular DJs made their careers on.

Tracking them down.
Yeah, they and only they had those records. They would soak the labels off, so you would never know what the fuck is that record? Records like ‘Super Sperm’ [by Captain Sky], that you never heard on the radio. Records that’d just make you go crazy. That’s what made it so cool, even as a kid, you knew you were gonna hear something you couldn’t hear anywhere else. That’s why you wanted to go, you wanted to be a part of that world, hear that sound, just be in a cloud of angel dust smoke, all that energy, just funky perspiration odour. All that shit was a part of the party. Some stick up kids that could rob you. It was a whole world. that’s what hip hop was at the time.

And the DJ for me was literally god. In the ghetto. To be coming of age in a time when that person was the star that I looked up to was just incredible for me. It’s affected my whole life.

But it took so long for people to catch on that this was happening.
Well that’s why films had to be made, and stories had to be told. Our reasons for making Wildstyle were not for me to be sitting here being interviewed by you, it was just to make a film that the true hardcore members of the culture would go and see. Our dream was to have a movie that would play on 42nd Street in Times Square for like a year.

And they’d see themselves.
Exactly, that was our key thing. We wanted to make something that was real, to the real heads of the game. And we were happy as all hell that we did that. Now it’s revived, I know they just re-released it in London. It’s where this culture starts, as far as doing your research, as far as rap, it starts with Wildstyle, there’s no earlier record of this stuff on film. And there’s no truer record, which is why other Hollywood films, which were done for a lot more money, are glanced over. ’Cos you look at Wildstyle, you’re seeing Crazy Legs, you’re seeing Flash, you’re seeing Cold Crush, you’re seeing Fantastic. These were the stars of the streets at the time. It really does capture what those parties were like then. When I look at the movie it feels really old, even though it was late ’70s, early ’80s, but kids were still rocking Afros and shit… and tight jeans!

I used to be so embarrassed about the movie, technically. ’Cos we didn’t know a thing about all that real technical shit. And I used to watch the movie thinking about why this scene ended up like this, or that one like… Now I just laugh the whole way through. I’ve forgotten all the nightmare stories behind making it.

Can you date when people started using the term hip hop?
Technically it didn’t become known as hip hop until the early ’80s, but I knew early on that that was the one unifying term. And the reason that became the name of the culture was because that was the one thing that almost everybody said at a party: ‘To the hip, the hop, the hibby-hibby-dibby-dibby, hip-hip hop, and you don’t stop.’

It was coined by Lovebug Starski wasn’t it?
Either Lovebug Starski started saying that, or DJ Hollywood. Between the two of them. When you would be describing to somebody what kid of party you were at you would say, ‘Yo it was one of them hibbedy-hop things, you know, that hibbedy-hop shit.’

But it wasn’t seen as a culture. When I came up with that idea to show all these things in a movie, it wasn’t like every other breakdancer, or every other graffiti artist, was thinking about these other two forms as a part of their world.

Breakdancing and graffiti came long before the music.

They were self-sufficient cultures that kind of got roped in?
Totally. It was all roped in by Wildstyle. The perception that these things were one world. Nothing had put it all together like that, until Wildstyle. Prior to that graffiti was the scourge of the city. It was looked at by the administration like dogshit on the street. And although a lot of it was very aggressive and angry, within that anger and aggression there was great art. It challenged a lot of shit. It still does. ‘I’m gonna spray paint on your fuckin house!’ That’s really what it’s saying, ‘…and you can’t catch me!’

Then it was about communicating to other heads like you. Sayin’, ‘Oh, that muthafucka got more heart than the next nigga, ’cos look how many times his name is up.’ Muthafuckas was loving the idea of fuckin up the system. I didn’t want people to be dwelling on that. I wanted to play off the whole aesthetic attitude: ‘I’m an artist.’ It was insane, money. You’re running around spray painting, stealing paint, every chance you get, your whole life is consumed with acquiring paint, and painting. I still get an ill fucking chill when I think about painting. Or when I’m around graffiti. If I even smell spray paint I still get like – ‘Oh shit.’ That shit drove me, money, and I tried to translate that energy into everything else I did. Try to project my shit to the top.

Tell me about the Roxy parties. Were you involved with Kool Lady Blue right from the beginning?
Uh-huh. She was a really great girl. She come offa that Blitzkrieg scene or whatever [he means the Blitz club], – I’m sure she told you – Boy George and them, New Romantics. She didn’t have a clue. But she was a great girl, she had great energy, and she knew all the cool English heads on the scene at the time. Hooked up with a guy named Michael Holman who I knew, who went on to manage the rival breakdancing crew to the Rocksteady Crew [New York City Breakers]. They decided they would give a party, a la the parties that used to happen uptown, at a joint downtown, called Negril.

They had put my name on the flyer without contacting me, so I saw my name on this flyer, I’m like, ‘Who’s this Lady Blue?’ So I stepped to her, and she quickly smoothed me out, I see she’s connected with the Rocksteady, which was already my peoples. So she gave a couple of parties at Negril. I was on the mic, as the house MC. Then she came to me said, ‘Listen, I met these guys that have this rollerskating rink,’ which was the Roxy. I said, ‘Damn that place is so big. How you gonna fill it?’

What I was instrumental in doing for her was I would give her advice on people to book, because we had did the movie, so I knew who was who, uptown. She’d heard about Grand Wizard Theodore, who she put down as one of the first DJs. But the first night, Theodore didn’t show up, and the Roxy’s house DJ was playing. But this kid named D.ST was around for some reason, ’cos I think he used to be a breakdancer too, and he had a crate of records. Nobody knew him, he wasn’t a name uptown. But I knew him because we had used him for Wildstyle. He cut the final scene. Blue was standing there waiting for Grand Wizard Theodore to come, and I said listen, this shit is not happening, honey. And she’s like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ And I said ‘This kid right here. Grand Mixer D.ST, he’s incredible.’ He got on. The rest was history.

What was the greatest Roxy party for you?
The pivotal party was the night when Blue got Malcolm McLaren to let her show a copy of The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle. It was hot, because everybody was still conscious of that whole punk rock thing, but nobody had saw the film, because it was never released. So she arranged a screening, and right after was around the time when the uptown heads from the Bronx, the hip hoppers, would start coming in. These two scenes had never been mixed on this level. I had did it somewhat at the Mudd Club, but the downtown scene was pretty much predominantly white, and the uptown scene was black and Hispanic. And I couldn’t imagine it was gonna work. I just anticipated kids from the Bronx beating the shit out of weird looking punk rockers.

And true to form, she had all the fashionable on-the-edge punk rock people, the new wave people, the English glitterati, in the Roxy for the movie. And when it ended, I expected all these heads would leave. But a lot lurked around, kinda curious. And sure enough, here come all the little b-boys and b-girls, the fly guys and fly girls coming in. I was waiting for some shit to jump off. But kids was coming in, just dancing, energy was right. And it seemed to me, from that point on, you had this great mix.

From that moment on that became what the Roxy was. You had a big forum now, where uptown can meet downtown, and everybody mix, and got to hear and see what each other were into. You had punk rock kids with mohawks, standing next to b-boys [does the b-boy stance] It was the first time each other was seeing each other.

Was there much mingling, did people make friends or were they just checking each other out?
A lot of fucking going on. In short. Lot of fucking going on, because the hot dance at the time, this is when Madonna’s ‘Everybody’ is a new record. We were all moving in that same crew. ‘White Lines’ is coming out. The hot dance at the time was the Webo. It was this dance that came out of the Latin scene, where you would get all up on a girl and really rub your two pelvic areas together, furiously. Like really wind and grind on each other. If you were cool with the girl or if the girl was really wild, she would let more than one guy hop on. So you would sometimes have a guy on the front and a guy at the back. It was called the Webo, or the Freak, doing the freak.

The black and Latin girls wouldn’t want to let just any guy jump on them. But a lot of the white chicks, at the Roxy, they didn’t know that it’s cool to do this, but not like all the time, and don’t let guys get too carried away with it. So, you would see three or four Puerto Rican dudes all around one girl, and she would be like [dizzy abandon] ‘Aaah, this is greeat!,’ and them guys would be like, ‘Yeeeahhhh!’ There’d be a lot of energy like that. Just people rubbin’ on each other. Kids would be hookin’ up, you know.

So that was what brought the two scenes together.
You know… It helped! It was a really really good era. You’d see people checking out what each other’s doing. You got Madonna, a good example of that whole cross-pollenisation, cos she made her initial style what hip Puerto Rican chicks were wearing, mixed with some b-boy shit. Like, c’mon, that whole nameplate belt-buckle, that was a b-boy fuckin’ staple. That was official shit. So she incorporated that with the whole Puerto Rican disco club girl look. Took it to the world, money!

It’s quite a trip that the club was run by an Englishwoman.
There was also a kid named Jon Baker, that runs Gee Street records. He used to be the doorman at the Roxy. We used to call him Mole. He was part of that whole English crew that was running behind the Roxy. I guess through Blue, the English contribution was really important. Also for us, as far as Wildstyle, some of the first money we got was from the fourth channel [Channel 4]. So I’ve always felt a kinship there. The England scene, they gave us some money, ’cos nobody was trying to hear us over here.

What about McLaren, was he just poaching?
I had met Malcolm back then. When he first came to New York, Blue was the one taking him around. Pointing him in the direction, because he wanted to do something. But I had been connected with the punk rock scene really well. I was tight with The Clash, so I knew how people felt about him. Blue brought him to a gig I was havin’, with the Rocksteady, when he first came to town. ‘Oh, he wants to make a record!’ But I didn’t warm up to him. I was like, ‘He ripped off fuckin’ punk rock.’ So she took him over to the Supreme Team – they had one of the first hip hop radio shows – and the rest was history. Malcolm made good records. I had a lot of respect for him, I just couldn’t get down with him.

The DJ was overshadowed very quickly. Why was that?
Because of the prominence of the rapper. I just think culturally that’s how it was supposed to go. But I think the DJ’s influence is still there, just is for obvious reasons, the rapper coming out front, the DJ has a somewhat diminished role.

In any form of music, there’s not that many innovators, a handful that defined the culture. And from that handful you can make lines, drawing out, spanning out to everybody else. So as long as you understand who those key originators and innovators were, just make sure that we acknowledge who they are.

It’s not who made the most money or who sold the most records, but who made the most impact. Let’s balance who sold 50 million records with who was the first to do this. Who really invented this type of flow. This is what the real heads are conscious of. And that’s what keeps this culture so vital today. You have so many of the practitioners there still spitting game and stating facts.

You also went to the Paradise Garage
It was through my friendship with Keith Haring, I went to the Garage. That redefined his life, Keith became a part of that whole scene, he became friends with Larry, and in terms of club music, he was god. I would be able to go up into the booth. And it was indescribable, the energy in there. It was fucking incredible, you understand, it was incredible to be in that room.

The other day, I was in my car and I made a turn, and I saw King Street, I looked in my rear-view mirror, and I was like, ‘That’s where it was!’ THE ENERGY. ’Cos to be up in there was just another world. It was the only place I ever saw, where in between a DJ playing a 20, 30-minute sequence of records. When he would come out of it, people would just clap, on the dancefloor, spontaneously.

And he would play records so far before you would ever hear them anywhere else. I can remember ‘Din Daa Daa’, I remember Imagination. [Sings] It’s just an illusion. You’d hear that record six months at the Garage. Grace Jones, every time she would come out with something new. Hear that at the garage for six months. Peech Boys, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. Being at the Garage for that first night. The excitement. I can’t believe it, it was just fabulous.

Even after seeing how people talked about Flash, there was never a DJ I ever encountered, who people spoke about like Larry Levan. ‘Oh Larry, was OK, he wasn’t playing great.’ Or if Larry was angry, people would be like, ‘Oh shit, Larry’s not happy tonight. Something ain’t right.’ But if you were there on a great night, it’d just be ‘Oh my god.’ It was really that incredible. The way the lights would be working, it’d be phenomenal, money, the effect that shit had on the senses. I cannot describe it, man.

Nothing makes you feel like that no more, There’s nothing that’s going on with that kind of excitement. Just being in the room, waiting.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Kool Lady Blue brought hip hop together

Kool Lady Blue brought hip hop together

As unlikely as it sounds, the club that cemented the idea of hip hop as a rounded culture – presenting graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing as elements of a whole (and throwing in Double-Dutch skipping for good measure) – was run by an Englishwoman newly arrived from London. It was at Ruza Blue’s legendary Roxy nights that B-boys and girls from The Bronx and Harlem partied with downtown’s arty punks, and where the stars of the Bronx saw that their unique music, art and dance was going to have an impact far beyond their local neighbourhood. Fresh from London’s Blitz scene, wearing a black and white skunk haircut, Blue initially teamed up with pioneering videomaker Michael Holman to throw hip hop nights at Negril, a reggae club the Clash had made their New York hangout. After a fall-out with Holman she partnered with fellow Brit Jon Baker (who later started Gee Street Records) and took the concept to the massive roller rink of the Roxy. Every Friday from 18 June 1982 to the end of 1983, Kool Lady Blue’s Wheels Of Steel nights showcased the newly christened culture of ‘hip hop’. With residences from the Zulu Nation DJs: Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Islam, D.ST and Grand Wizard Theodore, and a constant breakdancing presence from the Rocksteady Crew, the Roxy drew a uniquely diverse and dynamic mix of people. Graffiti hung on canvas sheets. Kurtis Blow, Sequence, Indeep, Madonna performed, Fab 5 Freddy MCed, a young Russell Simmons ran around networking, and Run DMC and New Edition had their first gigs there. ‘The night had a thousand styles, a hundred dialects,’ recalls club queen Chi Chi Valenti. ‘The Roxy embodied a certain vision of what New York could be – a multiracial centre of world culture, running on a current of flaming, uncompromised youth.’ ‘It was great,’ adds her husband DJ Johnny Dynell, reflecting on the Roxy’s melting pot crowd. ‘It was like both of my worlds colliding. That was really unusual. An American couldn’t do that. It took an English person.’

interviewed by Bill and Frank in Manhattan, 29.9.98

Kool Lady Blue: I came for two weeks and ended up staying… In ’81.

Frank/Bill: And you got into some scene here?

Well funnily enough I was staying in the Chelsea Hotel and one night, cos I was dressed up in World’s End gear, the whole World’s End look, from head to toe, I looked like little Annabella [Lwin, of Bow Wow Wow], and this guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m opening up a Vivienne Westwood clothing store. Would you run it?’ Just like that and I said yeah. And that helped me stay, I got my green card and ended up staying and was running Malcolm and Vivienne’s clothing business in New York. And from that, that’s how I got into promoting clubs. When I was in London I was like booking acts into some of the clubs there, like on the Kings Road there was this funny club called Wedges and I was doing some bookings. When I came over here I really wanted to do a club but wasn’t sure what to put in it. I just knew I wanted to get into club promoting and stuff.

And while I was working for Malcolm and Vivienne I came across the Rocksteady Crew and Afrika Bambaataa. One night Malcolm was doing a show at the Ritz with Bow Wow Wow, and he had Bambaataa opening up for them [booked by Michael Holman]. And I was just completely blown away, like what the fuck is this. And I just knew, that whatever it was I wanted to get involved in it. And I wanted to present it in a nightclub atmosphere.

What was it amazing about it?

Just the music. Just what he was doing and what he was playing. It was just completely…

Was he playing breakbeats?

Yeah, and just mixing weird records with each other.

And what was the crowd like?

It was a Bow Wow Wow crowd. they’d come to see Bow Wow Wow, they had no idea who this DJ person was.

How did they react?

From what I remember they were pretty wowed by it. And there were a couple of breakdancers too and it was like ‘What the hell are those?’ I just wanted to find out more about it.

Was that the first time Bam had played downtown?

I think not. I think he’d played at the Mudd Club. I think it was his second time maybe. But it was really like premature, like way… no-one knew what the hell it was. And after that show I just went up to all of them and started talking to them. Told them I wanted to open up a club end they were like OK, and that’s how it started and they started to take me up to the Bronx to check out what they were doing up in the Bronx. They took me to a club up there called the Fever, up on 165th St and Grand Concourse. That was the hip hop club. No-one downtown knew what the hell was going on up there, and that was wild. Flash was the DJ, Melle Mel was the MC and there were all these other MCs there.

And this is ’81?

Uh-huh. And all the Sugarhill Gang were hanging out there, so yeah I’d go up there and I’d be the only white face in the club, and that was wild, and I thought Ohmygod I’ve got to bring all of this downtown.

And then while I was still working for Malcolm and Vivienne I was looking for a club to host this whole new whatever it was, and I came across this reggae club called Negril, which unfortunately is no longer there. And it was a really cool spot because Bob Marley used to hang out there, on Second Ave between 10th and 11th, it was the coolest club, oh my god this club was so cool, and I convinced the owner to let me have a Thursday night there and he let me have a Thursday night and then I started promoting. It wasn’t very good at the beginning, hardly anybody came.

Who was playing?

It was Bam, the Rocksteady Crew. All the early guys, Jazzy Jay and [Grand Wizard] Theodore.

Can you remember the very first party?

Do you know, I remember the very first party was a bit of a disaster. You know what was really weird, what I started to do to get people to come down and just check it out, was to put people like The Clash on DJing, we’d have guest spots like Joe Strummer would DJ some nights, and that’s how I met [Clash DJ] Scratchy and Kosmo Vinyl. I remember one night we had, Johnny Rotten was down there, DJing, and some of the Clash, and we were the only people in the place having a party. It was just The Clash, The Sex Pistols and a couple of my mates. And then combining the hip hop scene with the dregs of the punk scene brought the general public down. ’Cos they were all like, the Clash are gonna be there DJing, we’d better be there. Once they got down there they’d find what was really going on: the hip hop.

Were they open-minded?

Oh yeah, definitely. Once everybody started checking it out that scene took over and people were coming down just to check out the hip hop scene, but to get it going it was like a bit of a… you had to sort of mastermind a way of getting people down there.

Do you remember the first night when it worked?

Yeah. It was that night when the Clash were supposed to DJ but they didn’t. They didn’t show up. It was really funny because one of them was supposed to DJ and they couldn’t do it, but hundreds of people came to check them out. In the end they got Bambaataa and the Rocksteady Crew. But they weren’t disappointed because in the end it was better than… what they were originally were coming down to see. So that’s how it got going. It was a bit of a scam.

How long did it take you from the first night to that night?

I would say, after a lot of experimenting, gosh, a couple of months, on a weekly basis. But once it broke, gosh – we were closed down because of too many people in the club.

What was the capacity?

About 400. It was really small and intimate, and there were Marley posters everywhere. It was this really amazing reggae vibe. And then when it was closed down I was faced with this dilemma of where the hell do I go with it now? So I took it to Danceteria for a few weeks and we were there for a few weeks and we were looking and looking and looking, and one night ran across the Roxy which was a roller rink. I just moved it there and everyone thought I was mad because it was so big. It was from 400 capacity to like a 3000 capacity – ‘She’s crazy!’ But you know, we moved and it grew and it blew up and it filled the place. And I guess the rest is history.
‘The Beat Street Breakers’ (played by The NYC Breakers) take on ‘The Bronx Rockers’ (played by The Rocksteady Crew), in the battle scene from Beat Street, shot at the Roxy. Jazzy Jay is on the decks. The movie was based on a (much grittier) story ‘The Perfect Beat’ by journalist Steven Hager, and produced by actor and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte.

Do you remember any special nights at the Roxy?

Oh god, there were so many. I guess one special night was Madonna playing. That was pretty funny. She was up and coming on the scene.

She sang?

Yeah. You have to remember, even though it was where the hip hop scene was spawned, I never used to look at it as just that. I used to mix it all up. I mean one night I had a whole troupe of Native Americans doing sundances on the floor with the breakers. And that was like a really weird thing, but it worked. They would do their thing, and then when they’d finished, the Rocksteady Crew would come on and do their thing.

Fantastic. Did they battle?

I guess, in a spiritual kind of way. But you know the Roxy was like a multitude of things. It was dance music, hip hop, dance, electro, whatever.

There must have been a feeling that there’s so much going on at that time, let’s cram it all in.

Uh-huh. The thing is as well, is that hip hop is not rap music. Hip hop was never supposed to be about one form of music. It was all kinds of music and you’ll hear that from all the original guys. And my club embodied that. It wasn’t just hip hop, it was a bit of everything. Punks: the Pistols were down there every week. As well as Debbie Harry, Joey Ramone, It was like all walks of life. Rock, funk, whatever. And everyone mixed. Everyone got along, it was very multiracial.
Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force wearing their finest cosmic battledress perform ‘Frantic Situation’ in a (staged) scene in The Roxy for the film Beat Street.

Lady Miss Kier once said to me that that was one of the few clubs in New York where there was a really good racial mix and everyone got on. Never any trouble.

No tension. When I stopped doing the club, that’s when the tension started.

And Bambaataa and Rocksteady Crew were regular fixtures?

Yeah. Bam was pretty regular but they all got their turn. It wasn’t just one DJ. It was D.ST, Afrika Islam, Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay.

It was mostly the Zulu DJs?

Yeah. the whole Zulu Nation. For sure. But yeah, I think the driving force was definitely the Rocksteady Crew, because of their energy, their dance energy, it was focused on dancing, and they brought a lot of good vibes.

And they would dance on the dancefloor or on the stage?

When they did their performance they’d be onstage, but they were all dancing all night anyway. I mean there was a show going on all the time, somewhere on the dancefloor.

How long did the Roxy go on for?

With me there it went on for a year and a half.

Quite short-lived.

Yeah, yeah.

When did it start?

I moved it there in June of ’82 and it was there until end of ’83, and then me and the owner had a huge fight, he became really greedy, so we parted ways and then when I left the club became violent, and lost its mix, cos I wasn’t bringing in the special mix. It became like the hood, it was gangs. It’s really weird how it reflected in rap what happened, because rap became very segregated. It’s just weird, it was almost like a reflection of what happened in the scene.

Were all the old school guys friends or were they split into sections: Here’s the Zulu Nation, and then the others…

No everyone was… see back then people weren’t even into making money, It was all about having a laugh. It was fun, that was the driving force. No-one imagined that this would happen what’s happened today and it would earn people millions. It was beyond their comprehension. ‘What, they wanna make a record with me?’ It was very innocent, like all scenes are I guess. It was really special. Everyone and their mother was there. Russell Simmons started there. I can remember Russell Simmons, poor and…

…not on the phone.

Poor and not on the A-list. Calling me every five seconds, ‘Oh, can you do this, can you do that?’ Now try and get him on the phone. They all started there. Like the Tommy Boys, everyone.

And then it turned into something else.

Yes, people started to realise there was something going on. All of a sudden, people making records. And then they were doing commercials, and then they were in movies, and then, then there were tours, it just kept snowballing. Actually, this is the first tou I actually did, with these guys [she shows us a poster]. This is the first time a tour actually went to Europe. [She reads the poster] Bambaataa, Rocksteady Crew, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, DST, Dondi, Phase II, Fearless Four, 27th Nov 1982 in Paris Hippodrome La Porte de la Campagne. That was the first tour ever to go to Europe, and then from France we went to England, the Venue. The tour started and people started to make money. And I guess that changed everything. And everyone and their mothers wanted to rap. And then all this crazy gangster stuff came out and we just submerged, we hated it.

Who were the first people to make money out of it. I guess Sylvia and Joe Robinson?

Yeah, I guess the Sugarhill Gang, yeah, Sugar Hill records. Tommy Boy with ‘Planet Rock’, Arthur Baker, and then Russell Simmons.

Were you involved with Bambaataa when ‘Planet Rock’ came about?

I wasn’t managing him, no. But I remember he met Tom Silverman and Arthur Baker at the Roxy, and they started talking about doing a record. And it was more of like, let’s see what happens.

What were the parties like in the Fever? Was it very much focused on the DJ?

DJ, dancing and the MCs. Yeah, they were great. If you were there to party that was your call. If you weren’t there to party you shouldn’t be there.

What did the club look like?

It was not very big, it kinda reminded me of Negril. It was small, intimate, probably held like 300 people, 400 people. The dancefloor, very small stage, then the DJ booth. Then there was a bar and that was about it.

You said there were MCs, were they like rappers?

No, they were just commenting. They were up on stage, commenting on the crowd: who was in the house, just sort of egging people on to party. Cos that’s how it was in the beginning. There was nothing to do with social comment and political jargon, or hoes and bitches and I earn more money than you.

More like something from the disco era?

Yeah. Definitely. Flash was playing more disco breakbeats, and mixing disco records in with whatever, than he was anything else. And so were all these other guys. I mean when hip hop started there were no rap records for them to play ’cos there weren’t any yet. They’d take breakbeats and you know, keep repeating them and looping them, and doing all this crazy shit with the turntables, so it was just different. It was like bits that you’d heard from a record but you couldn’t figure where you’d heard it before. And then the way they were playing it you were like, ‘Oh that sounds familiar, what is it?’ And then it would go on and on and on and you’d think it was another record – you know a record. But it was just them playing the same bit over and over again, so it sounded like a completely new record. And then the MC would be commenting on the party, over that. It was like, wow! It just blew your mind because it was so different.

Do you have any tapes of it?

Ummm, I do, but I don’t know where. I mean then you’d go up to Flash and he’d be scratching and mixing and you’d be like wow, what’s he doing? I’m lucky to have been around back then, it was pretty amazing.

How did it compare to what was happening in the downtown clubs?

Well what you had downtown was Studio 54 which I hated, which was very sort of disco. because it [hip hop] was so real… and also because I was a punk back then anyway…

What did you look like?

I think I had blue hair. It was either blue or black and blonde like the skunk look. But what turned me on as well was it reminded me of punk because it felt so real. because it was very street, it was very, you know, anarchic, because of what they were doing, so I was attracted to that as well. But compared to what was going on downtown. Downtown was very new wavy, which I hated too. And very…

What would they class as New Wave here?

Flock of Seagulls?

Very poppy Euro?

Yeah. Very Euro-ey, poppy.

Depeche Mode and those kind of things?


But wasn’t Bambaataa playing that kind of stuff as well?

He was playing some of it, but it was like I said, they would take certain bits of those records. They were sly, they wouldn’t play the whole thing. They’d take bits and pieces and make them sound interesting by mixing them with something else.

Like they had the same raw materials but…

…they would just twist it a bit, which I liked. I was like yeah. In the end it sounded cool, even though I hated it beforehand. Like Bambaataa played Gary Numan one night, I was like Uggh.

He says he likes to get people dancing to things they say they hate. Which Gary Numan record? ‘Cars’?

I can’t remember. I was like, ‘Oh god, not Gary Numan,’ but then he did something with another record, and it was like, ‘Oh, OK.’

You’re forgiven.

But also back then it was very gothic. Downtown was very sort of umm, like the American version of punk, which wasn’t really our version of punk, it was kind of like…

Around that time was when the early gothic records like ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ by Bauhaus were out.

Mudd Club was cool. I liked Mudd Club.

They mixed things up, didn’t they?


That was the first place Bambaataa played downtown wasn’t it?

I think so.

So they beat you to it.

Yeah. I can’t remember exactly the party. It was something to do with Fab 5 Freddy. I think he was involved with it. But I don’t really know the ins and the outs. I just came and dived into it. I had no clue as to what else was going on. Around me or whatever. Cos I’d literally only been here about two or three months. I’d just arrived so I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on in the clubs. I just knew I wanted to develop this, whatever it was, more.

Wow, you just dived in feet first

Yeah. headfirst.

Did you go to any other clubs uptown?

No, just the Fever, that was like the place, apparently. There was really nothing else.

And that lasted quite a while?

Yeah. It was going on for years, before. The Fever? I think that club had been going at least five or six years really.

Billboard wrote about it in 1978

You should go and see Sal [Abatiello]. I can introduce you to Sal, he was the owner of the Fever. The Fever was definitely where… If anybody I would say it was the first club, the first hip hop club.

People talk about the Hevalo as well.

It actually really started on the streets. Didn’t even start in a club. It was sound systems. In parties. Really small parties in community centres.

When Billboard first wrote about Kool Herc in early 1978, they described him as a mobile DJ, so you’d assume he was setting up wherever.

Exactly, exactly.

Did you ever go to one of his parties?

No, no. When I started he wasn’t even around. He was like Herc the mysterious, but no-one knew where he was. I would have loved for him to DJ for me but I’m not sure where he was, but wherever he was he wasn’t accessible. you should ask him that question: ‘Where were you?’

He gets so much respect for starting it all but he was completely absent when it all took off. I read in a couple of places that he started off by playing reggae.

Yeah he did.

Do you know how that progressed?

No, I don’t really know. But I know all these guys were inspired by him. Like Flash. They used to watch him and make note of what he was playing. But I think he was playing not only reggae but breakbeats. And he’s Jamaican, no getting around that. And he would have his MCs toasting, and that probably inspired all these other guys to copy him.

Who MCd when Bam was playing?

He had a slew of different people. Gosh, all the different guys that were in Soulsonic Force, like Pow Wow, and Globe.

And it would be more of an MCing type thing?

Not in the Roxy. I didn’t have too many MCs. It was very focussed on the DJ. I’d hardly ever have an MC. Because I just found that they distracted everyone. I just kept it strictly DJs and dancing. Or whatever act was on. If I had an MC I’d have Freddy, Fab 5 Freddy, he’d come and MC. But I hardly had MCs. I mean, yeah, Run DMC played there, that was their first gig. And New Edition, I gave them their first gig. Kurtis Blow, and whoever. Yeah, if it was a show, yeah. But during the party I steered away from too much MCing.

What were your most special nights at the Roxy.

There were too many of them. Every night was special. They were all good. I can remember one night when I broke my wrist when I was completely pissed. New Year’s Eve, completely sloshed. No recollection. I’d actually fallen down and broken my wrist and didn’t know about it. Until three hours later when someone pointed it out cos I was completely mangled. It was like this or like that [twists wrist into impractical positions] ‘Err look at your arm!’ But yeah, that was a very special night. Every Friday night was pretty amazing. you just never knew. It was just magic. What might happen? Who might come? Because everyone and their mothers were coming. People coming from all over the world, it was crazy. Japan, France, Germany, you know… Every week there was someone from somewhere.

How did they find out about it?

I guess after a while, word of mouth became magazines and papers and people just started writing about it. And word just got out.

Who was the first person who thought they could make money out of this, or who realised that these guys had changed music, rather than that they just had great parties?

I realised it. When I first saw it, being a music head and coming from London. I just knew there was something there. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a clue what it was. But I just had this gut instinct about it. That’s how I felt. I don’t know about Freddy or anybody else on the scene. But…

The DJ was the star, the artist. Was that reflected in the way the billing worked?

Yeah, it’s funny you should say that but there’s an article in there, where I talk about the DJ being the new musician.


Yeah. I can’t remember what I said but I thought it was really good.

[She reads the article, from the East Village Eye, Feb 1983]:
‘Scratch DJs like Afrika Islam and Jazzy Jay I consider to be today’s most important musicians. they reconstruct the past to create new sounds without the help of conventional musical instruments, the turntable being the instrument. It’s an alternative direction in the sound. It’s incredible that from such a basic structure: a turntable, an amazing groove and the mixing and manipulation of beats is created. DJs take from all musical cultures: Kraftwerk, Bob Marley, the Supremes, Rolling Stones etc to do so. There are no rules or limitations as to what records should or should not be destroyed or, should I say, enhanced. Through the breakers and rappers you have a concept in live performance in which the magic is spontaneous and vivacious. It is a cultural experience which frees me to add in and around the event, whatever I feel fits, be it African dancers or double dutch girls. It thrills me to see all walks of life enjoy its overwhelming style. It excites me. The doors have now been opened to a spirit and identity tagged “fun”.’

That’s great

Every week we’d always have someone in the club, a friend of mine, taking pictures of everyone, so that everyone would always see themselves up on these humungous screens, like they’d be famous. They’d come back to see if they were there next week. It became quite a thing, because no-one knew who’d end up on the big screen for that week. And some of the pictures looked really funny because we’d try and catch people when they weren’t expecting it. Then all of a sudden there’d be this huge blown-up photograph of them on the screen and everyone ogling it.

[She reads another clipping, from Richard Grabel in the NME]
‘The feeling hits you when you walk into the Roxy on a Friday night the way it doesn’t hit you in any other New York club. Everywhere else it’s hesitation and uncertainty. At the Roxy You know you’re in the right place.’

Did you have Kraftwerk in the Roxy?

No. They did play I think a few years later.

Who were the other guests?

I can remember that night when Malcolm played, when he did ‘Buffalo Girls’. That was really funny, because he was really nervous. he didn’t want to do it.

Was he actually onstage with them, then?

Well first of all, he called me and said I’m going to the airport, I’m not gonna do it. ’Cos it was his first time in front of this crowd and I guess he got the nervous jitters. So he was like ‘I’m going to the airport, I won’t be able to do the show.’ I was like, ‘Oh no you’re not, you have to come down, ’cos everyone’s waiting for you.’ So anyway he turned up in disguise. In this raincoat. He thought no-one would recognise him and he could check out the crowd and if it was, you know, if he felt really nervous he could sneak back out. My friend Terry saw him and said ‘Malcolm’s here, Malcolm’s here. I saw him!’ So we grabbed him and we shoved him in a dressing room and had someone guard the room so he couldn’t get out, and then made him go on.

What was he actually doing?

He would walk onstage with a big megaphone. He’d just be shouting God knows what. I can’t remember if there were any dancers or if it was just him. I think it was just him and that’s why he was nervous, ‘cos it was just him and the megaphone.

You took him up to the Bronx to show him what was going on.

I took Trevor Horn up there. I didn’t take Malcolm up there. As soon as Malcolm decided that he wanted to make that album, Duck Rock, he had Trevor call me and asked me to introduce Trevor to what was going on. Show him scratching, show him breakdancing and stuff, so I did. I took him everywhere, I introduced him to everyone.

Did he go up to the Fever?

Took him up there, and he met everyone, and showed him the Double Dutch girls. ’Cos that was a complete fluke. I just saw them on TV one night in a McDonald’s commercial, and thought ‘They’d be good.’ and that’s how that happened. Double Dutch girls had nothing to do with hip hop whatsoever.

So where did that come from?

It’s old. It’s a competition thing. But all of a sudden, because it was showcased at the club one night, it was suddenly. ‘Oh that’s hip hop.’ And that was where Malcolm saw it. He got the idea and stuck it in.

What was Trevor Horn’s reaction?

Well, you know [she makes a glasses sign with hands] Buggles!? it was kind of weird taking Buggles around.

What did people make of him?

They were just, ‘Oh, another crazy English person. He was just as blown away as everyone else really. Trying to figure out how he was going to incorporate it. Wowed by it. ’Cos anyone and everyone that saw it was just like, wow! From an old granny, to… I mean we did a show for the Queen of England. I was managing the Rocksteady Crew at the time. And you know we performed at the Royal Variety performance and even she was like…

Did she whip her lino out then?

Yeah right! We met her at the end. We were told how to and what not to say to her. I think one of them screwed up. ’Cos you’re not allowed to ask her any questions, say anything, you always have to say Ma’am, or curtsey if you’re a woman. I think you have to bow if you’re a bloke. You’re not allowed to ask her anything. It was like the golden rule, and I think one of the Rocksteady Crew did ask her something. And I was like, ‘Oh no, we’re gonna get shot now.’ I can’t remember what he asked her, but it was like she almost clipped his ear.

Were they pretty impressed to be doing something like that?

Yes and no. Yunno. I mean, they didn’t really realise until a few years afterwards, the magnitude of it. At the time it was just like, ‘Oh another show. The Queen of England? Ok whatever.’ They were young. I mean I was 21, 22. Norman was 13, the tiny one. Crazy Legs was like 17. They were all between 16 and 19 years old, except for Norman who was 12, 13. I was almost their age, not much older. We were like teenagers. It was fun. Touring with them was another story.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

A uniquely revealing meeting of hip hop giants. Towards the end of the first wave of hip hop, Run DMC grabbed the mic and changed the face of rap. Their unique blend of tough lyrical artillery and fat-laced B-boy stylings put the street firmly into a genre that had previously modelled itself on the cosmic outfits of ’80s funk bands. They ripped the rhymes, rocked the set, and consigned everyone that came before them to a museum case marked ‘Old School’. Their 1986 album Raising Hell was a compulsory purchase for UK music-lovers.

DMC (Darryl McaDaniels), Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), Run (Joseph Simmons)

But hip hop always kept it fresh and fly, and by the ’90s Run DMC’s trailblazing style had been superceded by a whole new generation. Guru, the lyricist half of Gang Starr, was one of this new school, with his unmistakable downbeat vocals making him one of the coolest. His beatmaster DJ Premier quickly claimed legend status as one of the era’s greatest producers. Guru was no slouch in the studio chair either, as his Jazzmatazz series brought jazz musicans together with beats, rappers and vocalists.

Guru, mid-90s, outside Harlem’s Lenox Lounge. Photo Thierry LeGoues

In 1993, Run DMC – Joseph ‘Run’ Simmonds, Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels and Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell – returned after a hiatus, during which the group’s musical and personal fortunes had fallen so low many had written them off completely, including themselves. On the release of their comeback album, the god-friendly ‘Down With The King’, British mag Hip-Hop Connection asked Guru to interview them, with Frank holding the tape recorder. Fresh out of the studio himself after completing his first Jazzmatazz album, Guru confessed how much of an inspiration the group had been for him, and asked them about the old days rapping in the parks and wearing glasses with no lenses in.

A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Hip-Hop Connection, 1993

Guru: When I first heard your shit, that was one of the things that inspired me to take rapping seriously. I was a freshman in college and you were going ‘After 12th grade I went straight to college…’ I was like ‘Oh shit.’

DMC: We went to college for two semesters, and that’s when ‘Sucker MCs’ came out. We got a gig in North Carolina, we flew down there, and when we came back home we got more gigs, like Florida, and we had to take a leave of absence. So we’ve been absent ever since.

Guru: You’re never too old to go back and finish.

DMC: You’re never too old to go back. That’s what’s good. This career, it’s fun, you get to see a lot, you get to learn a lot, and then when you find that you do need to go back to school for something there’s less schooling to do, and then you’re complete.

Frank: Can you see yourself sitting at the back of a lecture hall?

DMC: I can. Sometimes you know I get the urge to go back now. I just went to college because I passed the entrance exam for St Johns, business management, so I went to St Johns ’cos it was right in Queens. Back in high school I didn’t even know that I was gonna be a rapper or nothin’. Jay, he had his little crew from two-fifth street, and they called themselves ‘Two-Fifth Down’, and they was the ones from the neighborhood that would bring the turntables to the park, bring out the crates of records and they would just DJ.

I was reluctant, I wouldn’t get on the mic at first. Run used to go into the park and kick his rhyme, cos they knew him – DJ Run – and I would DJ for him. But then I started going to Rice High School up in Harlem, 124th and Lenox, and I used to see the Cold Crush out there, giving out flyers, and they had tapes going around, for like eight and 12 dollars. I would buy the tapes, bring them back home, ‘Yo, check this out, listen to this!’ and boom-bam. Then I just started writing rhymes in English class, and I had a book of rhymes, and you know…

Russell [Simmons, Def Jam label founder and Run’s brother] told Run, ‘Yo, I’ll let you make records but you got to get out of high school first.’ Run was like the professional in the neighborhood. He used to rap with Kurtis Blow, go into the park and kick his rhyme, ’cos they knew him – DJ Run. Everybody else was just nervous and learning, so Run would come and bust his rhyme. It took a long time before I would get on the mic with him. I would DJ for him, or sit in the park holding my beer sayin’, ‘No you go over I’ll see you later.’ I didn’t really start rapping with him until he came and said ‘Yo D, we got a record.’ When we graduated he came, ‘Yo D, the name of the record is “It’s Like That”, the second record be “Sucker MCs”. Go home and write rhymes about, you know, the world.’ So I went home and we went and put it together. And boom!

Guru: That was it.

DMC: It hit. I remember when I first heard ‘It’s Like That’ on Kiss. I was sitting home, ‘They’re gonna play your record today’. I’m like ‘Yeah right’. It was about eight, eight thirty, ‘Its Like That’ came on — yeah!!!

Guru: That’s dope. I remember when I heard that too.

DMC: Then ‘Sucker MCs’ dropped’…

Guru: ‘I’m driving a Caddy, you’re fixing a Ford’. That one too, ‘Rock Box’ was dope. All of ‘em.

DMC: ‘Rock Box’ got us on MTV. I remember we made two versions, Russell and them had put guitar on it later, so when me and Run heard it we was mad, ’cos we just wanted the beat and the rhyme, with a little echo, with the Tramp beat, boom, and me and Run. When they said they’re gonna put a rock guitar on it, we was little kids, we were like ‘Oh man!’ But then it dropped. What sold me on it was my man Yogi that lived up the block from me. He’s giving me all these praises about ‘Rock Box’, and I’m looking at him like, ‘You like it?’ So then it started to grow and I said yeah. its not corny. It’s new and shit but it was still in there.

Guru: It was something different that nobody ever did.

DMC: That helped us. We did a rock tune on this new album, with Rage Against the Machine. But it ain’t like were gonna try and make ‘Rock Box’ over and over, you know.

Guru: So who did you all work with on the new album?

DMC: Pete Rock did two, EPMD did one, Q-Tip did one, Specialist, who does Mad Cobra and Shabba, he did one, Jermaine Dupri did one, Diamond D did one, and the guy that Jay did Onyx with, he did two.

Guru: Ah yeah, he got some fly beats. I know Onyx. We were trying to get to that video, but we had a show that weekend, we got back like one o’clock in the morning, you guys were all done.

DMC: We got finished at two o’clock, A lot of phone calls. A lot of people came down.

DMC: And Hank shocklee did one.

Guru: You got all the fat producers on your album. I cant wait to hear it all man. I just did a jazz album with these three old cats from records that we be samplin’: Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston-Smith; and three of the new cats: Branford Marsalis, this saxophonist from London, Courtney Pine, and this guy Ronnie Jordan from London, who plays guitar. I did all the production, all the beats. It’s a fusion of hip hop and jazz. I didn’t sample nothing they did, but all my beats are like regular hip hop beats. They played and I just rhymed. Its called Jazzmatazz. I did it because we were one of the first groups to use jazz in rap. Plus, my pops, my uncle and all of them, they love jazz. so that was a tribute to them. But it ain’t like I’m a ‘jazz rapper’. People want to label you.

DMC: Like they labelled us ‘rock rappers’.

Guru: It’s a blessing to be able to do music for a living. That’s a lesson right there in itself.

Frank: What were you doing before?

Guru: Working as a case worker for foster kids. Hustling and running around. Frustrated!

DMC: It’s cool. It’s cool when you get to do something that you like, too.

Guru: Some of these chumps be taking it for granted though.

Run arrives

Guru: We just been talking a little bit, but we was waiting for you. D was talking about when you used to be rocking a mic in the park, and he used to be DJing for you.

Run: Who, D? At Doug’s block? You was good!

Guru: How do you feel about the rappers that come out now? They’re successful and all that, but they don’t know much about the old school, or about the history, the artform.

DMC: What I think they should try to do, I think a lot of rappers should really try to learn their history.

Guru: Does it get to you if these new jacks come up and you can tell they don’t know nothing about the old days and the history of rap. Does it irk you at all?

DMC It doesn’t really irk me, but a lot of the new jacks’ll come out and make hit records and they’ll think that everything before them was wack, weak and abolished. They won’t give the respect that is due to the whole artform.

Guru: I think that’s how you have longevity when you…

Run: …know what it’s about

Jam Master Jay arrives

Guru: We was hanging with Jay at a club in Brooklyn, Rendezvous, the night they had a crazy shoot-out. They had to show up in there. We did something at SOBs I think you were at, too. Branford played with us. He just played with us as a guest.

I wanna talk more about the old school, and stuff like the influences and what it was like. Like when did you all start wearing the sneakers with no laces?

Run: Back in the end of high school. All through high school, way before. We’d wear one red and one green, or one Puma and one Adidas. You brought the girls out comin’ out with no shoestrings. Jay was the man in high school. Old Jay with a big velour, and then sneakers with no shoestrings, and then glasses with no shades in them. That was the move, right there. That was fly.

Jay: Hip hop has a lot to do with fashion. Before Run DMC started we we would go look at Cold Crush, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, I mean we really looked up to these kids, you know what I’m saying, and when we go see them on stage, they dressed a whole ’nother way. They was dealin’ with a whole ’nother lifestyle. They was on some rock’n’roll trip…


Jay: Just out like George Clinton or something…

DMC …Rick James!

Jay: They was dressing and beatin’ and buggin’.

DMC: That was like Fearless Four, and Flash, even Cold Crush got into it after a while, wearing all that stuff.

Run: What happened was they got confused because they started going on tour with Rick James, and they saw how much the crowd would respond to them dressed in all like that.

Jay: I was so much of a true B-boy there’s no way in the world I could do that. So when we got our chance, we just dressed the way we dressed in Hollis. To get fly to us was just to be to put on a fresh pair of adidas. Funky fresh out the box. No dirt on them. I never understand how D kept his sneakers so clean. A pair of Lees, and a fresh Al Paco you know what I’m sayin – to match the Adidas. And a velour or a Panama, with the ribbon that’s matching your sneakers.

Run: That’s that pimp shit.

Jay: It’s that pimp shit, but the pimps ain’t rockin’ the Lees, the pimps ain’t rockin’ the jeans. We put that feeling to the public. We let people know that hip hop is not just about the music, its about the style, the culture and the lifestyle. Like I used to be amazed to look at artists the way they drew on the trains. Some kids was crazy dope, a train’d go by, there’d be a gun, and somebody getting’ shot, with their name tagged up.

Guru: Sneaking into a train yard to do that. Just so somebody could notice it, that’s fly.

Jay: Its hectic.

Guru: When you get your tracks together, how do you get your concepts for your album, and your tracks? Do you get your titles first? How do you go about it?

Run: We know what we’re gonna do before we get there. Like we know that it’s gonna fly up, and then it’s gonna drop. It’s hard to say how we made our tracks. We made ’em and we made the vocals at the same time. It was a mixture.

Jay: D would go boom-bap, and then we just had to make you do that again D: boom-bap, ka-boom-boom-bap.

DMC: Or sometimes we would write a rhyme, and just by the way the rhyme go, Jay would say, ‘Yo D, start at the pillar right there, go bang, gonna drop that, like that.

Run: Like when we made ‘Hit It Run’, we wasn’t sampling back then, so we would make verdrrrrrum kish, vrun-de-dun-kish kuf-kuf-kit kuf-ke-kuf-kit.

Jay: Beats!

DMC: Just sit down and play it.  Just play it with the drum machine.

Guru: That’s coming back a little, ’cos people are tired of loopin’ breakbeats, so they take samples, chop ’em up, and make your own beat that’s a little similar but new.

Jay: Q-Tip did that.

Guru: All this stuff with sampling, what do you think about that? You got people’s albums coming out late because they gotta clear all the samples.

Run: Truthfully, I love the way this samplin’ stuff sounds, but I wish that the whole thing flips back in a way. I kinda wish it would go away a little bit, ’cos it’s buggin’ me out with getting samples cleared. They want to flip! How much? I’m charging you this, I’m charging you that. I’m tired of having to pay these people.

DMC: I think it is going away.

Run: It needs to go away because it’s buggin’. It’s wack now. It sounds good the way Pete Rock does it, it sounds so def. He’ll muffle the bass a bit and it sounds different. It definitely was a feeling, a whole spirit. But it can go the way where regular tracks sound just as def, like Dr Dre.

Guru: Dr Dre uses a lot of them

Run: He knows what he wants to sample, but he says, maybe I can make this bassline sound like something else. Dr Dre did it so def that you know it can be done.

Jay: Usually, when you sample, you sample just a bassline, then you go somewhere else and get somebody else’s.

Guru: You weave different records and stuff.

Jay: Just like Teddy Riley do. He used different records but he’ll play ’em and he’ll change ’em a little bit.

Guru: The people who are against sampling, they don’t understand that rap music started with turntables. Now it’s a billion dollar industry, but it started with catching a beat, and then the machines came out so you could do more.

Jay: I think rapping evolved from us not wanting to hear disco.

Run: One thing I like is that rap is straight from the ghetto. And God loves to work way down in the dirt. He doesn’t deal in no high industry. That’s why Dr Dre’s video is so cool [Nuthin’ But A G Thang] . His mother screams ‘Snoopy!’ and you know his name was Snoopy when he was a kid. It’s that whole thing what rap stands for. She’s yelling ‘You know if you break something and you can’t pay for it!’

Guru: There ain’t no people dancing or nothing in it. They ain’t trying to play hard, they just…

Run: I like the fact that they already know that Dr Dre is a large producer. ‘I heard your album’s a bomb.’ They ain’t even tryin’ to front for Dr Dre, but he’s large and he’s saying he’s putting my brother Snoop Dog on. That’s what I love so much about the way Dr Dre produced that video. It just shows you what rap is about, and what’s really dope, and you’re still a mystery to a lot of people. Once they get to know you too good, you kind of lose your appeal, but when you start and you’re coming from the street, people be like, ‘Damn, I wonder where that Run is at?’

Jay: Right, they wonder what we’ve been up to.

Run: So now we’re a mystery again. I don’t mean a mystery as in not known, I mean they just want to know more about us again. That’s what makes Snoop Dog so large, and even Dr Dre, as big as he is, he’s still a mystery, ’cos damn, you went and found a nigga named Snoop Dog in Longbeach, and he’s your man now.

Jay: He put Longbeach on the map because the only thing they knew Longbeach for was that riot that they had.

Run: What makes rap really dope is the ghetto aspect – that it’s from the street, and people love to want to know about that, man. They want to know where you from, like what is Guru about, man?’ They saw your video, and just to get a rep the kid bust the bottle and the sneakers, and you’re like, woah, Gang  Starr!

Guru: Let me ask you this. How do you feel if somebody say to you, ‘Ah, you’re making a comeback’? As far as I’m concerned you’ve always been here.

Run: My personal opinion about the word ‘comeback’ is that it don’t bother me man. For some people over in Nebraska somewhere funny, they ain’t seen me in a while. You leave somewhere and you’re not hitting that market. You come back! I’m back and I’m hitting again, so the word ‘comeback’ doesn’t bother me.

DMC: I met Madonna the other day and she wants to know what’s up with Run DMC, and I said we trying to come back in the ’90s, come one more time, she’s like, ‘Uh-huh you guys gotta come ten more times.’ I like the people that go ‘You’re still down, youre still together. Run DMC coming again?’

Guru: You were talking about God earlier, how important is religion in y’all lives? I know obviously it is but…

Run: It’s the most important thing. Its the number one thing. In our whole life. God made the world, He made everything. He made us who we are. He made us be larger than everybody. We’re praying all the time. It’s bringing us back into this thing stronger. People used to say Run DMC is dead and stinking. We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back, but we knew, it was up to God, so now we’re hitting again.

Guru: ‘Only G.O.D. could be a king to me, if the god be in me then a king I be.’

Run: Exactly correct. The thing with God is this is our whole life. We get something by the way we hold that God’s doing something. Another person would just think it’s by chance, but things don’t happen by chance. You get a blessing. And we just got blessed. That’s how we take everything. Everything to us is God. And I think I’m speaking for the whole group.

DMC: Since day one. Our whole thing was watch your day.

Run: When we started we was, ‘We gotta watch our day,’ ‘Watch your day, Jay,’ and we just go out of our way to help a brother, or just know that God’s looking at us.

Jay: Just checking your day. You wake up in the morning, you do something positive, go out of your way to do something positive, you will receive a blessing. It comes back to you. If you wake up in the morning and you’re thinking negative, you think, ‘Man, I’m gonna go get with the niggas and shoot these mothers, or I’ma rob up motherfuckers, word – you gonna wind up getting shot, and killed.

Run: That comes back to you.

Jay: In that same life, you wake up in the morning and say regardless: I’m gonna do something positive. I’ma do something good today. I’ma make a difference. That’s faith.

Run: We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back. But we knew that it was up to God, so now we hitting again.

Guru: Tell me about the album and the time in between, like recently. What made this all come together?

Run: We went through seven, eight years of straight success, and then we had to gather it back together. We was making rhymes, I was writing rhymes, Jay was busy producing other acts, we were opening record companies. It wasn’t nothing much. I called D and we met up. I got this thing, let’s write this D – how should we kick a ill style? You know trying to grab time, hang out with each other. That’s all. It was a building process.

Jay: I think when we were on top, even though we used to rock everybody at the shows, we was holding back. We would hold back as a group. There was a lotta ideas I wanted to do, a lotta ideas Run and D wanted to do, that we would never do…

Run: …because we had so many hit records,

Jay: We had so many hit records. It was working.

Guru: How was it working with the different producers?

Run: Diamond’s real old school. So working with him was a lot of fun, EPMD, Hank Shocklee was a pusher, a hard worker,

Guru: He seems real intense.

Run: Jermaine Dupri is a little genius. He knows what he knows. He was good too, and working with the Specialist, he knew what he wanted.

Run: I was kind of dazed, but you now it was cool, going from person to person. I was nervous trying to gather this together. I just wanted to go into the studio and come out with things that I knew were dynamic. I put my input in, and I let them put in their new stuff, ‘cos I didn’t want to be stagnant. I didn’t want to be like, Prince or something. Like ’cos he feel he gotta do it all his self.

Guru: You have a whole album here where you’re working with new producers. Is that the way forward or are you going to go back to working as a self-sufficient unit? What about Run DMC as just you three guys?

Jay: I want a hit record for my group, we’re a professional group. Go in the studio, whoever got the fat tracks, I don’t care if it’s Joe Schmo from the basement. He comes up with the fat track we’ll do it. No, I don’t care who makes our hit. Michael wasn’t like ‘Well I ain’t letting Quincy Jones do that, I’m Michael Jackson…’

Run: A producer don’t mean nothing. Oh, ‘They went platinum this time because Pete Rock helped them,’ so what? Pete Rock didn’t write me my rhyme. Larry Smith made ‘Sucker MCs’, Rick Rubin helped with ‘Raising Hell’, and Russell. These people are producers… Pete Rock didn’t write my rhymes. Pete Rock gave me some music… I did that. I rapped over it. Thank you very much for producing me, see ya. He can’t come and do it on stage for me.

Jay: Let Pete rock go platinum, my whole thing is it’s still Run DMC. We’ve been down for 10, 11 years and we’re not going nowhere. As far as what we’re doing on stage. This is going to be us.

Run: We ain’t got no ego like that. People are going to say what they’re going to say, but the point is, we coming out with these records and they’re hit records. Their beef is, this is just producers. So what? We’re rappers, we’re not producers.

Jay: I want songs, right. I want songs. We didn’t write ‘Walk This Way’. I want songs. I want hits, I want longevity. We have love so we give love. We’re not greedy. The only reason not to take tracks from other people would be money. But if Pete Rock has a fat track, I’m not going to tell him I don’t want it, I just want mine, mine, mine.

Everyone laughs

Run: You’d go stale like that…

Guru: That’d be fucked up!

Run: The only person I know that do that is Prince and he bugs me out when he comes out with an album that don’t hit. But he does that – he don’t want nobody to do nothing for him.

Guru: Like Premier did five tracks for KRS for BDP’s new album; I didn’t say ‘Yo man you can’t do that because them shits is dope. I knew Premier always wanted to work with somebody like that, I’m not going to say, oh ’cos you’re my DJ, you can’t.’ It’s not about that.

Jay: I’m mad that Premier didn’t do nothing on our tracks…

Run: You were telling us all the time.

Jay: I always wanted Premier to do something on this album. This is a crazy fat album. I know Premier would have helped a lot.

Guru: Future’s bright!

Guru: What about all these so-called new styles that came out? I heard about five demos trying to sound like Onyx. I like certain groups who are doing it – Das EFX, Treach, and Fu Schnickens – but it seems like after that a whole bunch of groups started coming out with the rolling the tongue and that. And those are styles that have been done before. Biz Markie used to do it, when he was just telling stories, and Slick Rick. Even you: you was like ‘riggy rhyme’ and all of that.

Run: Cold Crush was doin’ it too, ‘a lama lama lama.’

Guru: Little 14-year-old kids come up to me, battling me in the street, ‘Yo, you can’t do the triple-tongue-twister, Guru, I’ll burn you! And I’m like, ‘Yo, money, here’s the address, put your stuff on tape, and send us a tape. If it sounds good on tape then that’s how you know. But how do you feel about that whole thing?

Run: About tongue twisting? Its def, sometimes. It’s corny too, man, when all I hear is ‘rhymin’ a riggedy rock the shop and…’ Don’t give me that, know what I’m sayin’. Come to me and give me something that’s real dope.

DMC: Substance.

Guru: Certain groups perfected it though.

Run: Das EFX was incredible. And then Fu Schnickens does his thing. My personal thing is, I don’t really want to hear this new guy, that I never heard, comin’ with a whole lot of that jiggedy rock da dack da jiggedy ’cos you heard Das EFX and now that’s what you want to do.

DMC: Exactly.

Run: You dont wanna do that now ’cos they did it already. That’s fake, man.

Guru: Just like after you came out other groups came out using rock. They tried to rhyme the way y’all rhyme, the whole thing. Like when Chuck D came out a lot of groups came out trying to rhyme like Chuck…

Run: …and be Afrocentric and all that.

Jay: But that’s positive I think what they was talking about was cool.

Run: Its good for that awareness, but if you do it and its wack its just wack anyway, it ain’t going to hit, just sayin’ ‘I’m black’.

Jay: But somebody gonna see it. Just getting that message across to one other person, I still think that’s positive.

DMC: The whole thing is positive.

Run: It’s definitely positive.

Jay: I mean we was talking about styles, but when you start talking about what they talking about, that’s positive, because when we was comin’ up, there was nobody talking about ‘black’ nothing. In the late ‘70s there was no young black folk on TV.

DMC: It was all disco and John Travolta.

Guru: How is it like, playing live, playing big shows again? Like at Radio City everyone came to see Naughty By Nature, but you killed the show.

Run: People didn’t know what to expect, but Naughty knew we was gonna be dope.

Jay: Naughty looks out man. When nobody cared about Run DMC, Treach was going around doing his interviews, saying. ‘Yo, my favourite people are Run DMC.’ I mean we were dead and stinking to everybody, but he always gave us mad respect and he didn’t lose no face. West coast was going mad, blowin’ up, Treach was like, ‘Yo, I’m down with Run DMC, Run’s my idol, I rap like Run. When we first met him, he was like I love you. I give y’all mad props.

Run: Our record wasn’t even out yet.

Jay: He was ‘Oh, y’all about to do your record? Yo, we coming out about the same time, let’s go on tour together.’ Promoters didn’t want to go with us but he was like if Run DMC ain’t going, we not going.

Run: He was looking out for us. He knew we wanted that and we needed that.

Guru: That’s loyalty…

Run: That’s loyalty and he’s hot as a fire cracker.

Guru: But he’s real, he ain’t like souped or nothing. He’s real.

Jay: On the strength of that I always give them props. We go on stage, we battle we leave the stage. After Radio City, we hung out all night: me and my man. For all the people out there that’s trying to diss, I don’t want to say no names, but y’all niggas need to chill.

Guru: It’s like we went on the EPMD tour for the Hit Squad, we opened up for all of them, we didn’t care. And after that we all had fun together and that was just how it was, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. But what the media does, sometimes – and people in the industry – they make you feel like there ain’t enough room for everybody to get some. They ask you, ‘What do you think of this artist, what do you think of that artist?’ Just because I did a record with jazz in it, what do I think of Digable Planets. They alright. I got nothing against them. I met them and they was cool people. They doing their thing, I’m doing my thing. It’s not the same thing but it’s all involved in rap and hip hop. Each group is different, has their own style and originality, but why always do we have to get compared from one to the other?

Frank: Well, that’s marketing, that’s how the business does it…

Guru: It’s not cool. When I get asked questions that could be worded like I dissed a group, I’ll be like, ‘Man, listen, I ain’t saying nothing.’

Run: Ain’t no reason to diss. There’s room for everybody to get busy.

Guru: If you concentrate all your energies on dissing you get nowhere at all.

Run: Jesus, you get nowhere at all.

Guru: One thing I always noticed with y’all. Stage is like y’alls home, man.

Jay: Out of all this shit, the interviews, the making the records, the sampling, all that, the stage is the real shit. The stage is like being in the park. Everything else is like, you know, working, bugging. These two years we’ve toured a lotta clubs, we did a lotta club gigs and what-not, and we just got crazy mad tight as a band.

Run: That’s the love. That’s the flavour.

Guru: Y’all have always had that. That’s one thing they can never take away.

Run: I don’t wanna boost us up, but we know we’re a band live. All we got to really do is perform in front of these people that have heard that Run DMC’s fallen off. They’ll see we’re the def, the real fly band. When Jay comes out and scratches live, we will hurt up a group so bad, hurt up a rap magazine so bad.

Jay: Even when we fell off. Even when the whole world was saying we were wack, we were going to a club…

Run: …and hurting!

Jay: Behind anybody, in front of anybody, whatever, Shabba Ranks, whoever was hype at that moment. We would go into a spot and give them a run for their money. Like you know – hits are hits.

Breaks in the Air – The Birth of Rap Radio in New York City

Breaks in the Air – The Birth of Rap Radio in New York City

Hearing The World’s Famous Supreme Team between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album was mind-blowing. I wanted to be where radio was this exciting. This great book goes behind the scenes at the birth of hip hop radio to document the characters driving it and the forces pushing it in certain directions. The established black station owners knew rap was a ratings-grabber but saw it as too streetwise for their buppy aspirations. Frankie Crocker hated it but couldn’t fight the dollar signs. Mr Magic built his own show with his bare hands by buying airtime and promoting the hi-fi store he worked in. Hip hop history is mostly made of records and clubs, John Klaess shows decisively that radio deserves more of a look-in, arguing that these on-air communities were key to the development of the culture. There are great little insights, for example it was having a fully equipped radio studio at his disposal that let Marley Marl lay down the aesthetics of sample-built recordings. It’s an academic book, but written with stories and style and love for its subject. I talked to author John Klaess about the early hustles that took rap onto the airwaves, and where to find the best of the amazing recordings that exist online.

Frank Broughton: Why was radio so important in the early days of hip hop?
John Klaess: It helps to remember that when we’re talking about hip hop in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, we’re not necessarily talking about hip hop as we know it today. The concept of the “rap record” didn’t exist yet. The foundations of hip hop, like rapping, looping breaks, and creatively cutting records together were in place, but hip hop was mostly a live practice in the black and brown neighbourhoods of New York. There wasn’t an obvious or agreed upon way to take a three-hour park jam and convert it into a record. And it wasn’t clear that there would be a big enough audience to support those records that were made, not to mention that early on major labels weren’t interested in signing an unproven minority youth music. Radio wound up being a perfect medium to pull all of these threads together, accelerating the creative, commercial, social trajectory of the music. 

For one, DJs treated the studio like a laboratory. Each week they’d bring new mixes, tracks and experiments to share on the air. If you listen to mixes of the Rap Attack over time, you can hear Marley Marl getting increasingly sophisticated and adventurous with his mixing techniques in a way that presages beat-making techniques and sampling later in the decade. The Awesome 2 talk about how radio, in particular, was a great medium for experimentation because listeners were tuning in from contexts that weren’t the club. You can try out different combinations of records and sounds when you aren’t trying to drive a dancefloor. The aggregate of all of this weekly experimentation is a slow but distinct evolution of the genre over time. 

Maybe more obviously, radio has historically been one of the most important distribution mediums for record labels, and this was also true for rap. As indie and major labels started to sign hip hop acts, they looked to hip hop DJs with access to radio to get the word out about their product. Early hip hop radio DJs would get mountains of records delivered to them, and they were essential tastemakers. 

Finally, it’s hard to overestimate radio’s role in building an audience for rap music. If we go by shout-outs, early hip hop radio shows were mostly for, by, and listened to by people in the know in New York. That changed when two of the most listened to stations in the world programmed rap radio shows. In addition to the reach and validation these shows gave rap music and hip hop culture, listeners taped episodes and mailed the tapes around the world.

Radio was uniquely suited to taking a nascent urban culture and facilitating hip hop’s ascendence into one of the most important creative and commercial forces of the twentieth century. 

Your book is a powerful argument for giving radio more space in the history. What do we miss when we only think about the records and the clubs?
I think we miss, first and foremost, that the music industry is a dynamic web of work and relations that includes but isn’t limited to radio, records, and the club. It’s really hard to think of any one of these institutions without paying attention to how it’s interrelated with the others. I don’t use the metaphor in the book, but it’s more productive to think about musical ecosystems where a host of individuals and institutions work together in both symbiotic and competitive relationships that determine what we hear and what’s produced at any given time. 

I think we also miss an entire shadow history of artists and sounds and styles and communities that get cut out when we focus too heavily on discography. So many important artists never cut record deals, and so much important musical activity happens outside the purview of record labels. When you write from the point of view of records, you’re necessarily going to highlight artists with significant record catalogs, and you risk overemphasising records that loom large in historical memory, not what was played most at the time. If you listen to broadcasts of shows from the 1980s, there are plenty of commercial records, sure. But you also hear this wildly social, communal, musical event that’s not governed by what labels thought was important or worth hearing. I wanted to give an account where amateur, homemade mixes are just as important as Def Jam records, and where listeners who tuned in to deliver a shout out or hear what’s going on in their neighbourhood are just as important to the history as people who buy records. 

It’s heartwarming to read how much effort those pioneers put in. Mr Magic and The Awesome 2 were not only piecing their shows together, they were also hustling to find the sponsors and advertisers to keep them on the air. How would hip hop history be different if it showed us all the trials and efforts instead of just the successes?
I’m really happy you asked this question. There’s a narrative tendency in history to focus on triumphal achievements and big successes – especially in hip hop history. Paying attention to all of the small labours that go into funding a show forces us to look at what it takes to make and maintain a scene over time. When what matters to the history isn’t the magnitude of a success but the hustle itself, you have to tell the story from a different perspective. With the Awesome 2 in particular, paying attention to the work they put in helps us understand what it took to commercialise hip hop. It’s not like a label just signs an act and, voilà, hip hop is a global music. The Awesome 2 were drumming up sponsors for their show, building a record pool, hosting hip hop nights at the Latin Quarter, and doing management and production work for artists. Taken together, this is the work it takes to make a music and run a scene. This is definitely a thread I hope more authors pick up down the line, because I’m sure there are more stories to tell here. 

Another great thing about the book is the way it creates a bigger context for the history, showing the connections to the disco scene for example. Clubs like the Paradise Garage and industry figures like Frankie Crocker. What were some of the unexpected connections you found when researching it?
One of these connections that’s gotten a lot of attention recently is the intermixing between the uptown hip hop scene and downtown club scene in the early 1980s. DJ Afrika Islam could be the poster child for this. As a protege of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ and dancer with the Zulu Nation, and regular at the Paradise Garage. Islam’s radio show, the Zulu Beat, he fits neatly between these worlds. One of the most unexpected connections was that Ruza Blue AKA Kool Lady Blue, a staple in the downtown scene, funded some of the early episodes of the Zulu Beat. If you listen to some of the tapes, you can hear Islam announce that “This show is a KLB Fun production, a Kool Lady Blue production.” I lost it a little when I heard that for the first time because it was evidence of just how interwoven these two scenes were.

My intro to this world was hearing the World Famous Supreme Team in between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s album Duck Rock. What was their story and what happened to them? Why don’t they figure more in your book?
I think the Supreme Team were a lot of folks’ first foray into hip hop, and their show was one of the earliest to feature hip hop music. I also think you’re totally right in that they don’t figure as heavily in the books as their influence suggests they should. 

Part of the answer is that they never responded to my requests for interviews, which is fair – as a historian you can’t force yourself into peoples’ lives. So from there I was left with what I could get from other sources. There wasn’t a huge record of contemporary Supreme Team interviews or other material beyond the tapes, and with the sources I had I didn’t feel like I could tell that story in a new way without risking misrepresenting something. I opened the book with a vignette from the World Famous Supreme Team show because I wanted to quite literally put them front and centre as a way of gesturing to their importance, and as a way of making up for the fact that their radio show is regrettably underrepresented in the body of the book. 

I’ll maintain that distance here, but for folks who are familiar with the World Famous Supreme Team from their connection to Malcolm McLaren, I would highly recommend checking out broadcasts of their radio show. The broadcasts I’ve found are everything that’s interesting about early hip hop radio. You have long stretches of shout-outs, great banter and routines in between cuts, rap/disco tracks of five-percenter texts, and more. They’re just excellent listening. 

Internet radio and podcasts have ushered in a new era of radio creativity. Who do you think is keeping up the tradition of the great hip hop radio pioneers?
There are so many it’s hard to count! By far my favorite online radio resource is Some of the rap shows I like best are Screwboss Radio, Scary Things with DJ Bempah and JK (mostly UK Drill and Grime), PU$$YRAP with Jody Simms, when it was on the YGG show for grime, ONY for a mix of hip, soundtrack, and chopped and screwed, and Hit a Lick Radio for newer hip hop and trap. I find myself listening to a lot more dance music recently, and NTS is so strong there. Some shows and DJs I consistently listen to are Moxie, Kaizen with Madam X, Martha, Spinee, Ben Sims, and DJ Taye.  

Can you give us links to your favourite archived radio shows from history.
I can give a good example of each show I write about in the book. I also encourage folks to spend time looking for recordings. A lot of the hosting platforms I used when I was doing most of my collecting seven years ago aren’t up anymore.  

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton