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