Wednesday, May 9, 2007

You Can't Stop Us Now: The Birth of Planet Rock

By Mark Skillz

It was an age of wonder. It was the era of the pocket calculator and the digital watch. Toy manufacturer Coleco introduced the first electronic pocket-sized sports games. Video arcades were popping up in malls all over America; games like Pac Man, Centipede and Asteroids were supplanting the pinball machine as a teenager’s favorite pastime. The world of the Jetsons was slowly coming into being.

For three decades Hollywood turned out low budget sci-fi flicks that depicted a world ran by computers and policed by robots. All one had to do was to turn on the TV to get a look at what the future held for us. With all of the talk about technological advancement back then, people wondered what music would sound like in the future.

That question would be answered in 1982 with the release of the groundbreaking hit ‘Planet Rock’ on a small, struggling independent record label owned by Tom Silverman simply called Tommy Boy Records. Almost twenty-five years later the world is still feeling the impact from ‘Planet Rock’.

The Era of Soul-less Funk

By 1982 the hardcore funk music that had predominated the ‘70’s was lame. The raw and uncut funk of James Brown and Mandrill had been displaced by the tamer more crossover-oriented sounds of ‘Let It Whip’ by the Dazz Band and George Benson’s ‘Turn Your Love Around’. Even jazz/funk fusion pioneers Kool and the Gang; a group who’s string of hits in the previous decade ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’, had traded in their long Afro’s for Jheri Curls and recorded a pop piece of trash called ‘Celebrate’. The only artist at the top of the charts that could truly lay claim to being authentically funky was Rick James.

“This was a time when [black] radio was playing a kind of boring, sort of Kashif-like R&B”, says Tom Silverman, CEO of Tommy Boy Records. “Young black kids felt like there was no music for them. They adapted to hip-hop and made it their own.”

During the early to mid 80’s R&B was being marketed directly toward older more upwardly mobile African Americans. And why not? They were the ones with the money to spend. Artists like Glenn Jones, Patti Labelle, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, James Ingram, Whitney Houston and Mtume made songs, which spoke to that audience. There were minimal background singers. The voices like the subject matter were mature – lost love, in search of love and the pain of a broken heart. Black radio openly embraced these artists. Yet they shunned hip-hop records.

In Nelson George’s book ‘The Death of Rhythm and Blues’, he described the factors that led to the sterilization of soul. Among the things that happened to black music in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s were the segregation of radio (black radio and rock radio) and major corporations buying independent record companies. This in turn led to more money for black record executives. With the money flowing in at the top, black acts were encouraged to cross over to attract a wider audience in order to sell more records. All of that was nice, except for one thing, by the early to mid-80’s the music sucked.

Musically it was an age of experimentation: different forms of dance music were colliding together under the dim lights and smoky atmospheres of clubs such as the Peppermint Lounge and Paradise Garage. On the rock side of things Modern Rock was heating up the airwaves with songs like ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ by Joan Jett and ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by Human League. New Wave, Punk and Reggae were making serious inroads into popular music at the time as well. With all of the cross-pollinating of different forms of music, new recording techniques came into play. The first recording artists to use the drum machine – and use it very well, were Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and a group of guys from Germany called Kraftwerk.

Robot Pop Meets the Sound of the Streets
Heavily experimental and long on eccentricity the group Kraftwerk started out in Germany in 1968 when two classically trained musicians Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter came together to form a group called the Organization. The two men played shows in art galleries and worked out of a studio called Kling Klang; it is here that their innovations would come to light. Using any sound they could get their hands on the duo crafted music from the Mini Moog, audio feedback, analog equipment and later some self-created electronic drum pads.

With songs like ‘Man Machine’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ Kraftwerk slowly gained an underground following in the States with kids who did dances like the ‘Electric Boogie’ and the ‘Break’.

“The first time I heard Kraftwerk, Bam bought it to the house in 1977.” Recalls Mr. Biggs of the Soul Sonic Force, “Bam used to buy records just because he liked the album cover. When he bought it to my house, I was like, “Yo, these are some funky white boys.” Later on we went to go see them at the Peppermint Lounge. Bam was crazy about that group; they were different from anything that we listened to. We grew up on Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown.”

The Mr. Biggs of the Soul Sonic Force is nothing like soul singer Ron Isley’s latest incarnation as Mister Biggs, no, this Mr. Biggs is a close friend of Bambaataa’s and one of his earliest MC’s. He was a former member of the Black Spades and is a founding member of both the Soul Sonic Force and the Zulu Nation. He is the strong but silent type, he told me he got the name ‘Biggs’ as a kid because not only was he big for his size, but one day he “threw a kid over a bench, so they started calling me Biggs after that. As I got older I added on Mister.”

The song ‘Trans Europe Express’ was an underground classic. Everybody dug it: B-boys spinning on their backs and heads absolutely treasured it; party going, Patty Duke dancin’ fly guys and girls loved it; MC’s in parks and rec centers dug it to death and deejays from so many different scenes valued it as well. At Club 371 in the Bronx, DJ Hollywood (an R&B deejay) would play the song for the older, champagne-drinkin’, gold chain wearin’, sharkskin suit-wearing crowd. “Don’t miss the train!” He’d shout into the mic with his jovial sounding golden voice as he exhorted dancers into a frenzy, all the while his deejay Junebug blended in the haunting orchestration.

Crowds everywhere were held absolutely captive by the robotic-funk of four guys from Germany. ‘Trans Europe Express’ is a 9-minute, audio- cinema excursion through Cold War Berlin. The sound was sterile, yet dark and disciplined – almost as if machines were piloting the track. The orchestration done with analog keyboards of some type, sounded like they weren’t of the 20th century, but of perhaps some later point in time. The pounding of the drums suggested an acute awareness of American funk. This was the point on wax when art met electronic experimentation and skilled musicianship.

But in the streets of America there was another sound taking hold: Rap music. At the time session musicians like Pumpkin and Friends and Wood, Steel and Brass were re-playing the break-beats that hip-hop deejays spun live at block parties.

The Little Label That Could
In 1980 there were only two real independent record companies that specialized in rap music: Enjoy and Sugar Hill Records. Make no mistake there were other labels out there like Winley, Sound of New York, Brass, Dazz and all sorts of other fly by night labels whose owners hustled records out of the trunks of their cars, but none of them packed as powerful a punch as the big two.

That would all change in 1981 when dance music aficionado Tom Silverman released ‘Jazzy Sensation’ by the Bronx group Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five. Like many rap records of that era it was based on a popular song of the day, in this case Gwen McRae’s club hit ‘Funky Sensation’.

From 1981 to 2002 Tommy Boy Records released some of the most important records of the genre. One would be hard pressed to think of what direction the music would’ve taken had Tommy Boy not released such influential classics as ‘Planet Rock’, ‘Renegades of Funk’, ‘Plug Tunin’, ‘Ladies First’, ‘Humpty Dance’, ‘O.P.P’, ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’ and ‘Jump Around’. It can also be argued that some of the culture’s most influential acts came from the label: Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Afrika Bambaataa and the immortal Tupac Shakur.

“One of the things I always loved about the music business was that you never knew where the next hit was coming from”, said Tom Silverman CEO of Tommy Boy Music. “The thing that fascinates me the most is why one artist could have a smash hit out of nowhere, from nothing, and it could come from out of anywhere at anytime. To watch, what seems to be a sort of random process, but isn’t really a random process occur is very exciting to me, especially, when it comes from the independent sector”.

Silverman is one of the more interesting record men of his era, he is a fascinating mix of nuts and bolts business man, early ‘70’s flower child and dance music devotee who could’ve coined the term ‘thinking outside of the box’ twenty years before the phrase came into style. In fact, Silverman would probably say something like ‘there is no box’, when it comes to the record business, because during our conversation he made several references to the ‘organic process’ of record production.”

And he’s right. And it is because of his vision and ‘rebel with a cause’ kind of attitude that he was able to release some of the most innovative records in hip-hop history. He dared to go where his competition wouldn’t. The impact of ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Plug Tunin’ is still felt today. De La Soul are the fathers of the ‘backpack movement’. Before their seminal classic ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ rappers had regular haircuts and dressed in b-boy fashions. Lyrics were easy to understand. And only those with rough dispositions grabbed for mics at jams. Back then, kids with paisley shirts with half of their hair in dreads reached for the mic at their own risk.

While reflecting on the history of his company Silverman said, “Basically, if you really look at the history intelligently, of the twenty to twenty-five years of Tommy Boy, you can say we’re a hip-hop label, but its not really what we were. We did do hip-hop, because it was the most innovative thing. We did new music, and we always tried to push the envelope with new sounds. Whether it was Bambaataa – which was radical compared to everything before it, or De La Soul – which was really radical compared to everything before it, or House of Pain or Naughty by Nature, Digital Underground or even RuPaul, and hey, how much more radical could you get than that?”

Starting out in 1978 with a newsletter simply called the ‘Disco News’, later to be called the Dance Music Report, Silverman’s tip sheet for deejays was revolutionary. Radio and club jocks all over the nation were given tips as to what records banged in the clubs.

Silverman’s first act was the Bronx based crew Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five. Their boom box classic ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was the introduction the label needed, this was the recording that introduced the public to one of hip-hop’s most eccentric founders: Afrika Bambaataa. Although ‘Jazzy Sensation’ boomed in clubs and rocked block parties, there is nothing about the record that would hint at the genius that Bambaataa would later be heralded as. ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was a straight forward, party-rockin’, pulsatin’, inflatin’, guaranteed showstopper from a crew that would never see success beyond the Tri-State area. Recorded with a band it sold 30,000 records.

However, Tommy Boy’s next record would have an impact far beyond New York’s five boroughs.

To Build A Nation
Upon meeting Afrika Bambaataa Aasim one is immediately in awe of the man. He is as tall as he is wide. He truly is a gentle giant. One is instantly struck by the humbleness of such a large man. His words are measured carefully – he never raises his voice. It was during our conversation that it struck me as to why this man speaks in such even tones: He once commanded the largest and most powerful black gang in New York City, the Black Spades. All he’d have to do is simply say ‘Get rid of him’ and a transgressor was history.

Bam is unlike any current or former gang leader I have ever met. Most gang leaders carry themselves with a rowdy kind of arrogant swagger that suggests that they are not people to mess with. But not Bambaataa, who comes across more so as a chief of a tribe than as a one time gang leader. He has clearly been involved in street wars, yet there is nothing about Bam that suggests that he’d harm anyone. I was once told that “Bam himself is not a violent man, but the people around Bam are.” Nowadays the young men that travel with him as his security call him ‘Pops’.

“Bam was always a peaceful brother”, remembers Soul Sonic Force member Mr. Biggs. “People don’t understand that if it wasn’t for Bam, there would’ve been more bodies in graves”, he told me, “Bam would squash a lot of things on the street, we’d be like “Yo, let’s get him”, Bam would be like “Nah, let him go.”

“I first met Bam in ’72 in the Bronx River Projects”, recalls Biggs, “I was right there with him when the Zulu Nation was being formed. We went from being Spades to a group called the Organization to the Zulu Nation.”

“I heard about Bam before I met him”, recalls MC G.L.O.B.E. the lyrical titan of the group who invented a futuristic style of rap called ‘MC Poppin’ – for examples of this style think of the melodic styles of RUN-DMC and Nelly. “Bronx River used to be called the “Home of the Gods” if you were into any form of hip-hop culture, whether it be graffiti, gang member or music – that was the place.”

From an early age Bam had an innate understanding of power and how to use it. Although he was the leader of the Spades 10th division, that didn’t stop him from being friendly with other groups like the Savage Skulls. With his powerful presence Bam commanded respect, “Being one of the leaders” he told me, “ I was one of the guys who had a lot of wisdom and had my ways of controlling many other leaders within the Spades. So when the first half [of the Spades] fell and disappeared, like the division in the Bronxdale Housing projects – Bronx River [projects] became the main force, and I picked a lot of who would become the next supreme president and vice president and warlord into the Spades.”

But with all of the desperation and violence taking place around him, in his heart, Bam loved two things: Black culture and funky music.

“Bam always deejayed”, remembers Biggs, “before and after a rumble, Bam would go in the house and turn on the music full blast, he’d put the speakers in the window and play music all night long.”

It was a dance called the Break and gargantuan sized sound systems that distinguished hip-hop from all other forms of music back then. Bam’s Bronx River Projects was one of the epicenters of the hip-hop movement. It was also a place where few traveled to uninvited because it was the stronghold of the Black Spades.

It was during this time in a different section of the Bronx that a Jamaican immigrant named Kool Herc was capturing hearts and minds with a mammoth sized sound system and a brand new style of spinning records.

When I asked Mr. Biggs about the first time he saw Kool Herc his response kind of caught me off guard. “You know what? People got Kool Herc all twisted”, he said.
“How so?” I asked.

“Herc had a sophisticated crowd – he catered to the older cats back then. Those guys wore mock necks and nice clothes and all that stuff – we were thugs”, Biggs tells me. “In the beginning, Herc didn’t embrace hip-hop, we were hip-hop back then. After a while he started noticing his audience dying down, so he started playing for us. He came to me and Bam and asked our permission to play Bronx River. You couldn’t just set up your sound system and play in our rec center back then”, Biggs says, “that wasn’t gonna happen.”

At a battle between Bam and Herc, Afrika Bam proved to Kool Herc (and the audience) why he was the undisputed master of records. Herc – known for his gargantuan sized sound system the Herculords, a system so powerful that if you stood too close to it, legend has it that you could literally feel the bass pound your chest. Not only did he have the Herculords, but also in his crates were weapons of mass destruction, tunes like ‘Apache’, ‘T Plays it Cool’ and ‘Yellow Sunshine’.

Bam on the other hand was determined to best any man in a contest of obscure recordings. Of all of the deejays of his era he is noted for having the widest variety of records, thus his slogan ‘Nobody Plays More Music’. His playlist included everything from the truly rare like Nigerian-born Afro beat god Fela Ransom Kuti, to the riot inciting sounds of The Sex Pistols, 60’s rockers like The Monkees and The Rolling Stones, dub reggae, soca and salsa were also thrown into the mix as well. The Zulu King didn’t have as awesome a system as Herc but he more than made up for it with music.

“I’ll never forget that night [that Bam and Herc battled] because Bam had a toothache”, recalls Mr. Biggs. “That tooth was bothering Bam, man. He bought in the record ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen. The moment that song came on the crowd lost its mind!” Biggs tells me, “they went absolutely crazy over that record. Bam bought that record to the hip-hop community. Nobody could deal with Bam on records.”

But before there were battles on the dance floor there were wars – gang wars in the streets of the South Bronx. It got to the point where somebody had to put a stop to all of the nonsense. Starting with a core unit of brothers and sisters, Bam went from project to project with people like “B.O., Ahmed Henderson, Aziz Jackson, Sambula Nez, Queen Kenya, Queen Makeba and Queen Tamisha.” According to Bam, “We couldn’t go anywhere without those sisters. Those sisters had a lot of power.”

But how does one man get hundreds of knuckleheads to listen to him? I wondered.

“I just had a lot of wisdom and knew how to talk and use my mind.” Bam said. “I watched and mimicked a lot of the Nation of Islam ministers. They had a very powerful effect on how they used to speak and how they used to say things to grab the inner God in you that would recognize the God that was coming out that was speaking to them. I would just use that same technique. I used a lot of those techniques to speak to a lot of brothers and sisters from these other areas. I went straight for the people who I thought were ruling certain areas. I felt that if I could get control of the rulers then I could get control of the membership.”

Bambaataa introduced hundreds of young men and women to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panther Party. He expounded on the lessons of Clarence 13X (Father Allah of the Nation of Gods and Earths) and Dr. Malachi York. In Bambaataa’s Nation young men are called kings and women are queens.

“Listen to me young man”, MC GLOBE admonishes me, “This is one helluva story you’re getting here. What you are getting is the truth”, he tells me. Then taking a second to reflect he says, “I’ve never met anyone like Afrika Bambaataa. I often wonder where he came from, because what he taught us was so different from anything that any of us learned at that time. When I first started hanging around Bam, we’d go to his house and eat and he would teach us things –“
“Like what?” I interrupted.
“About life, the world, he taught us some deep stuff.”

The Record That Changed the World

Every group has its chemistry; the leadership of Otis Williams; the beautiful falsetto of Eddie Kendricks; the chest vibrating bass of Melvin Franklin; the raspy but soulful baritone of David Ruffin and the smooth tenor of Paul Williams anchored the Temptations.

For the Soul Sonic Force it was the eccentric tastes of its spiritual leader Afrika Bambaataa; the strength of Mr. Biggs; the witty lyricism of MC GLOBE and the antics of the groups ‘wild child’ Pow Wow.

“Pow Wow would start stuff and I would end it”, Biggs says to me confidently.

“I went to Bronx River to go audition to get in the group the Soul Sonic Force” GLOBE remembers, “Bam and Biggs were sitting at the table. At the time there were like eight MC’s in the group. There was Lisa Lee, Sundance, Master Ice, Master Bee, Mr. Freeze, Charlie Rock, Mr. Biggs and Love Kid Hutch. I must’ve done something because after I auditioned, the Soul Sonic Force became just me, Pow Wow and Biggs.”

Bambaataa’s initial recordings were just run of the mill rap records. There was nothing to distinguish them from the dozens of rap records that were being released at the time. ‘Zulu Nation Throwdown’s Parts I and II’, ‘Death Mix’ and ‘Cotton Candy’ were just average performances. Lyrically and vocally the Jazzy 5’s ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was the real standout.

Then along came a new record from Kraftwerk called ‘Numbers’.

The song opened up with someone speaking German into a vocoder. The record was undeniably funky. The snare drum sounded like it had been processed and compressed and processed again, perhaps in someone’s garage where the higher part of the snare’s sound could reverberate off of the walls and then back into the console. The kick drum didn’t make the same thumping sound as normal drum kits of that era – this one boomed. BOOM-BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM- BOOM. A reverb was placed on top of the kick drum sound so that it could stand out and compete with the snare. Multiple robotic voices made the following refrains: “One-uno-three- four – quarto. Uno – duo- tres – quarto.” And then: “Eech- Me- Sun- She.” The robots were counting in different languages.

The song rocked America just as ‘Trans Europe Express” had done years before.

One night at the Ecstasy Garage GLOBE and Pow Wow went to go see the Cold Crush perform. They were rhyming over ‘Numbers’. “We laughed to ourselves”, said GLOBE, “Because they had no idea what was coming their way.”

The idea for the Soul Sonic to use that beat had come from an unlikely source a few weeks earlier. “One of Bam’s most powerful Zulu’s was a dust head and a gangster named Poo”, GLOBE says to me, “He was the kind of guy who always had his ear to the ground, if you know what I mean. One night in the wee hours of the morning, Pow Wow and I were hanging out with him drinking beer and whatnot talking about records. We were like, “Yo man, I wanna come up with a joint that nobody else can do. That nobody can touch its gotta be something crazy.” We were like “what’s a real hot record right now?” Cause what you would do is you would rap over hot records. The Treacherous Three had used ‘Heartbeat’, the Sugar Hill Gang had used ‘Good Times’, and the Furious had used ‘Genius of Love’. So what were going to do? Well, Poo looked at us and asked, “What’s the hottest record out right now?” To which we responded ‘Numbers’.

“I wrote the song sitting on the edge of my bed. Then I got Pow Wow and we added more lyrics to it and then we got Mr. Biggs involved”, GLOBE said.

“Yeah we all three wrote the song together”, Mr. Biggs confirms for me adding that, “GLOBE came up with the flow, the melody. He had some stuff written but I was like ‘Nah, that’s corny, take that out.”

According to GLOBE, “At that time we were rappin’ over stuff like “Groove to Get Down”, ‘Impeach the President’, ‘God Made Me Funky’ and all that type of stuff. We never rapped over that fast stuff. After ‘Numbers’ came out Bam went crazy over it and we started on the song.”

But according to DJ Jazzy Jay, the architect behind many of the early Def Jam classics such as ‘It’s Yours’, ‘The Def Jam’ and ‘Cold Chillin’ In the Studio’ and who will be re-releasing the Strong City Records catalogue, “That song was based on a routine we used to do with ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Super Sporm’ – I used to cut those live. I showed up to the studio with a [cassette] tape and said ‘here play that.”

According to GLOBE, “The opening line ‘we know a place, where the nights are hot…’ “I was referring to Bronx River, we wanted to take people there and show them what a party was like where we come from.”

Produced by John Robie and Arthur Baker using a Roland 808, a keyboard and a Fairlight the song ‘Planet Rock’ would be an instant classic. The team of Robie and Baker replayed the melody to ‘Trans Europe Express’ and the drum beats to ‘Numbers’ and ‘Super Sporm’ the song was recorded for the measly sum of $800. When it hit the streets of America in the spring of 1982 it was an instant blockbuster.

The first people to hear it were deejays.

“I knew it was a hit the first time I heard it”, said Kool DJ Red Alert, who bears the distinction of being one of the first hip-hop mix deejays on commercial radio. “Mr. Biggs played the cassette tape for me at Danceteria in midtown Manhattan. He played it for me toward the end of the night when there was barely anyone in there”, Red recalls, “When he played it I nodded my head giving it my approval – I knew it was a hit.”

“Lady B the deejay out of Philly was the first to play the record on the radio”, says Mr. Biggs. For a while no one knew that it was a rap record because radio stations all over the country only the played the instrumental.

“I didn’t like it when I first heard it”, Jazzy Jay said emphatically. “It was too different from everything else that was out back then. The electronic feel didn’t really move me. It didn’t sound like ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Super Sporm’ or ‘Numbers’”, said Jay, “Especially coming off of ‘Jazzy Sensation’ it didn’t sound right to me.”

“It was a battle to get that record played on the radio”, remembers Tom Silverman. “Black adults hated hip-hop and fought it tooth and nail. You can only imagine the kind of comments I heard from radio programmers [when I was trying to get this record played]. I went international to try and break it internationally, and the big urban music execs were very dismissal of hip-hop. They’d say things like, “This isn’t music they’re talking on it, this is a disgrace to R&B, this is a disgrace to their race, this isn’t real music.” That’s what I got everywhere. Programmers would say, ‘Tommy, you can’t expect me to play this record, I love you, but they’re talking on this record.’ I’m telling you, we take it for granted now – hip-hop is cool, but there were like three or four stations that had one slot for hip-hop records. A lot of stations would only play the instrumental versions of records, because they didn’t play rap. It was a battle in those days to get a rap record played.”

‘Back then”, Silverman continues, “You had a lot of us banging on doors trying to get our records played. People like Will and Fred Munao, Eddie O’locklin, Bryan Turner all of us that were out there telling the majors “this is it, this is it, this is the next music’. The majors would tell us no its not, its Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.”

“The guys that were doing the first ten years of hip-hop were nothing less than musical revolutionaries”, said Silverman.

When the Planet Rocked
“The first time I heard it was on WBLS”, Jazzy Jay recalls, “I was in my car on the way to the Throgs Neck Projects. Back then in ’79, ’80 – didn’t anyone out here know anything about installing sound systems in cars. I had the woofers and tweeters and crossovers and all of that – my boys had the same things in their cars too, so if we were riding down the street listening to the radio at the same time it would sound like a block party. Anyway, here I was on my way to the Throgs Neck Projects listening to the radio when all of a sudden: “Oh snap, what’s that? We’re on the radio!” I almost crashed. I got off the highway and dropped a dime in the phone and called Bam and then my mom – we were on the radio!” Jay says to me as he recalls that day from so many years ago.

The song “Planet Rock” took off like wild fire it boomed in passing cars, boom boxes and clubs all over the world. Along with the phenomenon of this sound a new dance was introduced to the rest of the nation. It had been a part of Bronx culture for at least 10 years, it was dance that had many names ‘the b-boy’, ‘the boing-yoing’ but mostly it was known as ‘the break’. Teenagers in suburban neighborhoods were doing it with the same enthusiasm as kids in the inner cities. Everywhere you looked someone was spinning on their backs and heads, twisting their arms and legs around at gravity defying speeds. And ‘Planet Rock’ was the soundtrack.

There was a second version of the song called ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ that boomed in the hood just as hard as “Planet Rock”. It was sung by a group of session musicians that Tom Silverman dubbed “Planet Patrol” – “They weren’t really a group per se”, Silverman told me, “they were just some guys that we got to sing on the track. Really, Planet Patrol was John Robie and Arthur Baker.”

The groups first big show was in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, they shared the bill with the Jazzy Five “I knew that song was large when we played that show”, said Jazzy Jay. “There were mobs of girls chasing us and shit – it was big.”

MC GLOBE concurs “The crowd went wild for us at the Queens Day Show, they really showed us love. It was crazy. It was really crazy”, he says to me.

“When we played Studio 54” Jazzy Jay says, “People were jumping on the stage like we were Genesis or somebody like that. They were screaming – you didn’t expect that kind of reaction from a crowd like that, no way.”

“I started to like the record when it started to take me around the world – it was the first time I had ever gotten on a plane”, remembers Jay. “Tom flew us down to Florida for a fish fry at Jack the Rapper; it was me, Bam, Biggs, Pow Wow and GLOBE – now that was cool. We were just some guys from the projects in the Bronx, that was a really big deal to us.”

In the broader scope of history it was only fitting that the group would travel to Florida first. It is there that the song ‘Planet Rock’ spawned a movement: Miami Bass. “We started a phase and everyone else jumped on it”, said Jazzy Jay, ‘It spread to the Freestyle market and the whole LA scene and in Miami, Techno all of that stuff, seeing the impact – it was big.”

MC Shy D, Gigolo Tony, the 2 Live Crew, Annequette, Tag Team, 95 South and many other groups of that region owe their very careers to the song ‘Planet Rock’. Before the South was synonymous with the word ‘Crunk’ the predominate sound of that region was Miami Bass. In a whole lot of cases the producers replayed the Planet Rock beat with a heavier emphasis on the 808-kick drum. Whereas the Soul Sonic Force record went ‘boom-boom-boom boom boom- boom; the Miami records went ‘BOOM-BOOM-BOOM BOOM BOOM-BOOM’. The thunderous rattle of the low booming bass from those songs destroyed many sound systems.

At the same time on the West Coast in Los Angeles a whole other movement was taking form, the song ‘Planet Rock’ and the funk/rockateer Prince inspired their sound. Groups like Uncle Jamm’s Army, The Dream Team, Egyptian Lover and the World Class Wrecking Crew traveled and sold out stadiums all across the country. America had been listening to New York hip-hop and was starting to rap back. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force had taken hip-hop from the playgrounds and rec centers of their Bronx neighborhood and revolutionized music with a sound that would be the wave of the future.

Authors note: Interview with Bam was conducted in San Francisco in November 2004 with Davey D. Special thanks to Christie Z Pabon (Tools of War) for the hook ups with Bam and Tom Silverman. Extra loud shout goes to Big Jeff of the Zulu Nation.

This article was originally published in Wax Poetics.

Straight No Chaser: DJ Hollywood

Every musical genre has its folk hero. In the tradition of the Delta blues men, it is said that the great Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to give him the power to be the best blues man ever. In the early days of the rap scene, there was one name that was constantly evoked as the prime creator of the new sound of the street called rap, and that name was D.J. Hollywood.

For party-going New Yorkers in the '70's there were certain spots you had to hit, like The Loft, Paradise Garage, Justine's, and Zanzibar's. But for those that wanted to party in Harlem and the Bronx there were places like Charles Gallery, the Hotel Diplomat, Smalls Paradise, and Club 371. If you frequented places like these, you know doubt came upon a young man with crates of records and a golden voice.

Today at 50 years old, the original rhyme king is still doing his thing, he was recently honored on VH1's: "Hip Hop Honors Show", on his latest mixtape, he'll be spinning house and reggae as well as classics.

"I first made my name in Harlem because of a dance called the "Bus Stop"; I could "Bus Stop" and I could "Hustle". I was nasty at it. I wasn't Puerto Rican nasty at it- but I was good at it. I was making moves, looking good- I was really good at it. Every party I would go to people would say, "Let me see you Bus Stop! Before that, I had a rep as an entertainer; everything I did back then was theatrical. That's how I got the name Hollywood.

I was 14 years old when I left home, my mother and I just didn't see eye to eye. She had a lot of rules. My drive to go to school wasn't there. I wanted to breathe. I used to see the hustlers man, and I would just marvel at the hustlers. That was the world I wanted to be in. They had the cars and money and jewelry all that fly stuff.

I started living in the after- hours clubs around Harlem. It was a whole lot of fun back then too. What they used to do in these places was: they'd cover the windows with big dark sheets, so that it would be dark as hell in there. I mean it was completely dark. You could go in there at night and not leave until like 3 o'clock in the afternoon the next day. Hustlers used to be in there playing cards, gambling, getting' high, drinking - whatever…it was an after- hours spot.

I used to run errands for them, at 8 o'clock in the morning everybody in the spot would give me their keys to move their cars, they'd be like, "Here kid, go get me some cigarettes, and while you're at it, here's my keys go move my car." I was moving and parking Cadillac's at 14 years old.

When I was 14, maybe 15 years old, I went to a spot on 167th and Amsterdam where this guy named W.T. used to play at. He was my first real inspiration to be a deejay. He had the two turntables and a mike mixer; with no cueing; see, what he would do was, between the records, as one went off and the other came on, he would talk - I really liked his delivery.

I started playing at a couple of spots around Harlem; one was called Jet Set it was on 132nd St. and the other was called Lovely's it was on 148th St. I played at these spots 6 nights a week. I was partying all I wanted, and had all the "get high" I wanted too. That stuff later ruined my life.

A guy named Bojangles taught me how to mix. He played soul and disco stuff. Stuff like "Knock, Knock on Wood", "Melting Pot", and Sam and Dave's "Who's Making Love to Your Old Lady", stuff like that.

One of the greatest guys in Harlem though was named "Thunderbird Johnny", he was the greatest guy in existence, and he owned one of the after-hours spots I played at. I learned a lot from him.

I was a singer before I ever became a deejay. I had a natural flair for talking over the records. Before me, everybody was just announcing. I had a voice. I used to like the way Frankie Crocker would ride a track, but he wasn't syncopated to the track though. I liked Hank Spann too, but he wasn't on the one. Guys back then weren't concerned with being musical. I wanted to flow with the record. As a singer that's what you're supposed to do. I guess I had a natural awareness of when to start talking and when to stop talking over a record.

Around 1972 I started making tapes of what I was doing in the after-hours spots. I would record them onto 8-track tapes, and sell them for like 12 bucks a pop. I went around to barber shops and restaurants; I went anywhere where there was a bunch of brothers with money, that's where I would be at selling my tapes. Back then though; there was no dubbing, so I had to record each individual tape. It got to the point where, as soon as I would come outside, and say "I got tapes!" brothers would roll up and be like, "Yeah gimme one of those!" My tapes would be gone in a flash. People would rush me for them tapes. That was the real start of the mixtape game.

When the Rooftop was hot back in the day, man all them cats that had money was bidding on my tapes right there in the booth; Me and Brucie Bee were making tapes together, he had one side and I'd get the other. All those cats that were making big money back then, I'm talking about your AZ's, and Rich Porters, and Alpo's and people like that, those brothers were buying the tapes for 150 - 200 bucks right out the booth - and I'm talking about cassette tapes!"

People talk about me not being hip hop, well, it's because I spun the whole record, when the "get down" part would come on, I would keep it going. Herc and them guys, they practiced playing the obscure parts of records. I played stuff like "Paradise" and "Mambo Number Five" and "Scorpio"; but that wasn't a big part of what I did. I played for hustlers. I played for people that came sharp to the party. You really had to come correct at the spots I was playing at. Harlem was on some smooth shit way before the Bronx.

I had heard of Kool Herc and his partner Coke LaRock from a couple of friends of mine named Al and Coop, they used to play at the Hevalo on the nights that Herc wasn't playing there. They would come back and tell me about the obscure records they were playing and people diving on the floor and shit.

In 1975 I went to the Bronx and started playing at a spot called Club 371. That's when the Bronx got hip to what I was doing.

Around the time that I first started playing in the Bronx, there was this kid that used to hear my tapes. There was this friend of mine named Gary, he had a 98 Oldsmobile, he used to buy a whole lot of my tapes. I mean he had a lot of them. One day, I can't remember where right now, but this kid was sitting in Gary's car listening to one of my tapes while Gary's car was parked in front of a basketball court. Later, I started hearing about this kid, people would come up to me and be like "Yo, Wood man, there's this kid named Starski, man he gets down just like you do, he sounds just like you and everything!" I call that an indirect influence.

Now there were two guys that I can say that I did teach. I call them 1-A and 1-B. One was D.J. Smalls and the other was Junebug, god bless him. Junebug was the baddest deejay I ever saw. Period. He was a Puerto Rican cat that guy could blend his ass off, he could cut, he was the baddest deejay ever, and I taught him.

DJ Smalls kind of reminded me of myself. He was a kid who had a whole of determination; he just wanted to shine. I put a lot of cats down. I guess it was because people like Huey Newton influenced me. I always had a strong sense of black awareness. I was always about unity you know what I'm sayin'?

One day in 1975, I was at home playing records, and one of the records I pulled out was the "Black Moses" album by Isaac Hayes. It was not popular at the time. So, there I was listening to this album, and I put on a song called "Good Love 6969". Isaac Hayes was singing this part that went "I'm listed in the yellow pages, all around the world, I got 30 years experience in loving sweet young girls." That record stopped me dead in my tracks. You see, before that record I had been doing nursery rhymes. But after that record: I was doing rhymes.And not only was I doing rhymes but I was talking about love. This was another level. I told myself: "Wood, you got something here!"

I thought to myself, "What if I take what he's doing and put it with this? What would I get?" I got fame, that's what I got. I got more famous than I could ever imagine. Everybody bit that rhyme. I would go to jams and people would be saying that rhyme, and none of them, not one of them, knew where it came from. It blew my mind.

Had I known that this was gonna be a billion dollar thing - I don't think that I would've been as good at it. God sent someone to show black kids a different way. I never knew saying rhymes over a phat beat would lead to all of this. But God knew it. God used me as a vehicle. It was something for everybody to have. When a lot of people are thinking on the same wavelength, you get a multitude of sounds. It says in the Bible "Let's make a joyful noise unto the Lord", well my joyful noise came as a James Brown record."

Making of a Classic: Live at the Barbecue

On one cold November night at 3 o’clock in the morning in 1990, four up and coming MC’s from Queens, entered Long Island City’s Power Play Studios to record the unforgettable classic “Live at the Barbecue”.

“Yo that barbecue joint, we just put that down, niggas was on some ol’ natural high energy, niggas was wet behind the ears shit, you know what I’m sayin?” says Large Professor a.k.a. Extra P of Flushing, Queens.

“We didn’t have any knowledge of what was in store for us in the industry or nothing like that, this was some free spirit type shit”, added Large Pro.

No record can be a classic without the main ingredient: a hot beat. In this case Large Pro sampled Vicky Anderson’s “Land of Milk and Honey” and integrated it with a 2.5 second sample of the Bob James seminal b-boy classic break “Nautilus”. “I had been messing around with “Nautilus” for mad years and shit, I had analyzed that record and chopped it up and all kinds of stuff, I knew one day I was gonna do something with it and this was the perfect opportunity”, says Large Pro. “I had the drums sampled and edited down to just before the aqua bells came in. I got it down to the “boom-bup-pa-boom-pap” and shit, I got the drums really tight. I had the drums all looped up and we was just rocking over the drums at first, until I added the loop.”

The loop, in this case was from Vicky Anderson’s “Land of Milk and Honey” a fierce funk workout featuring the JB’s with Anderson’s voice wailing over the ensembles funk celebration.

“I was always finagling with that beat, and the Bob James loop was the perfect time to use it.”

“We used a total of 16 tracks for that record, we had the main loop, the drums, the tambourine loop, the 808, and the vocals” said Large Pro.

“There wasn’t no one-shot deals happening on this night, I know rappers be on that “one take knockout shit” but believe me, we definitely had to do some re-construction of the vocals”, said Large Pro.

“Pudgee tha Fat Bastard and Nas wrote Joe Fatal’s verse; Pudge was on the phone with Fatal while Nas was writing. Everybody else had their rhymes already done, brothers had been sharpening their swords and shit for a minute. These were my dudes; whenever you get a group of MC’s together, there is competition in the air. It doesn’t have to be said, it’s just like that. It wasn’t about one person trying to blow up the others, or this one saying Yo, let me re-do my vocal after that one was done, it wasn’t like that”, said Large Pro. It was that one opportunity for the young crew of MC’s to make their mark on the industry; and they did it.

“The only person missing from the session that night that was supposed to be there, was M.F. Grimm, that was my man too!” added P.

“This was the last song of the album and Wild Pitch was calling and was like “Yo, where’s it at?” I always had Nas around me, and Ak, and Fatal; so it was just natural for me to do something with them.”

When it all came together it was like nothing the hip hop world had seen up to that point. The chorus was an old school chant: “Aaaaay yo it’s like that y’all! That y’all! That y’all! That y’all! That y’all! And that’s all!” a chant that called to mind dark nights in Colden Park in Flushing, Queens where the air was thick with the smell of the combination of herb and cigarette smoke; forty ounce bottles of Old English 800 were tucked into brown paper bags; hot and rowdy summer nights, where the dee-jay wearing a Fedora hat and pleated slacks would grab the mike with a cigarette in one hand and the mike in the other and yell: “AAAAAAY YO, STEP THE FUCK AWAY FROM THE SPEAKERS!” All of that was captured on that record.

Streets Disciple, my raps are trifle” the first verse hit like a gunshot from, then, Nasty Nas, who, 14 years later would record the classic album entitled “Streets Disciple”. On Nas’ opening verse he aims to be the illest MC to ever come from the Queensbridge Housing Projects with lines like… “Kidnap the presidents wife without a plan, I’m hanging niggas like the Ku Klux Klan! I melt mikes ‘til the sound wave is over, before stepping to me you’d rather step to Jehovah”… Nas was on some ol’ ill-literate shit.

The final verse was Large Pro who plays resident hard rock with the line “Don’t let them kids around your way puff your head, or you’ll be the owner of a hospital bed!” A line that simultaneously played on the rock classic “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and threatened sap MC’s at the same time.

According to Bay Area hip hop radio pioneer D.J. Kevvy Kev “Cool Breeze” of Stanford’s 90.1 KZSU, “The first time I heard BBQ, I was lovin' it. My favorite part? Too many of 'em. That's why a word that's as overused as "classic" is appropriate here.” Kev’s show ‘The Drum” has been rocking Bay Area audiences every Sunday consistently for the last 20 years.

Akinyele scored with a couple of hits in the mid-90’s with “It’s the Ak” and “Put It In Your Mouth”; Pudgee tha Phat Bastard had a couple of hit records as well in the mid-90’s with “Money Don’t Make Your World Stop” and “On the Regular”.

“When we walked out of there at 5:30 in the morning – we knew we had a classic” said P.

One Night At the Executive Playhouse

Pete DJ Jones vs. Kool DJ Herc:
By Mark Skillz

Back in the good old days of 1977 when gas lines were long and unemployment was high, there were two schools of deejays competing for Black and Latino audiences in New York City: the Pete D.J. Jones crowd and the devout followers of Kool D.J. Herc. One group played the popular music of the day for party-going adult audiences in clubs in downtown Manhattan. The other played raw funk and break-beats for a rapidly growing, fanatic – almost cult-like following of teenagers in rec centers and parks. Both sides had their devotees. One night the two-masters of the separate tribes clashed in a dark and crowded club on Mount Eden and Jerome Avenue called the Executive Playhouse.

The First Master: The Wise Teacher
You can’t miss Pete D.J. Jones at a party – or anywhere else for that matter, he is somewhere near seven feet tall and bespectacled, today at 64 years old he is a retired school teacher from the Bronx, but if you listen to him speak you immediately know he ain’t from New York – he’s from ‘down home’ as they say in Durham, North Carolina. But no matter where he was from, back in the ‘70’s, Pete Jones was the man.

“I played everywhere," Mr. Jones says in a voice that sounds like your uncle or grandfather from somewhere down deep in the south, even though he’s been in New York for more than thirty years. “I played Smalls Paradise, Leviticus, Justine’s, Nells – everywhere.”

“Looky here," he says to me in the coolest southern drawl before he asks me a question, “You ever heard of Charles Gallery?”

“Yes," I said, as I tell him that I’m only 36 years old and I had only heard about the place through stories from people who had been there. “Oh," he says in response, “that was one helluva club. Tell you what, you know that club, Wilt’s ‘Small’s Paradise?”

“Yep," I said, “that place is internationally known – but I never went there either.”

“That’s ok," he says still as cool as a North Carolina summer breeze, “When I played there GQ and the Fatback Band opened for me.”

“No way – are you talking about ‘Rock-Freak’ GQ, the same people that did ‘Disco Nights?’

“One and the same," he says. He suspects that I don’t believe him so he says, “Hey, we can call Rahiem right now and he’ll tell ya.” As much as I would love to speak with Emmanuel Rahiem I pass, I believe him.

In his heyday Pete DJ Jones was to adult African- American partygoers what Kool Herc was to West Bronx proto- type hip-hoppers, he was the be all to end all. He played jams all over the city for the number one black radio station at the time: WBLS. At these jams is where he blasted away the competition with his four Bose 901 speakers and two Macintosh 100’s – which were very powerful amps. At certain venues he’d position his Bose speakers facing toward the wall, so that when they played the sound would deflect off of the wall and out to the crowd. The results were stunning to say the least. His system, complete with two belt drive Technic SL-23’s (which were way before 1200’s) and a light and screen show, which he says he’d make by: “Taking a white sheet and hanging it on the wall, and aiming a projector that had slides in it from some of the clubs I played at.” These effects wowed audiences all over the city. He went head to head with the biggest names of that era: the Smith Brothers, Ron Plummer, Maboya, Grandmaster Flowers, the Disco Twins, “Oh yeah," he says, “I took them all on.”

On the black club circuit in Manhattan at that time – much like the Bronx scene – deejays spun records and had guys rap on the mike. “I ran a club called Superstar 33, ask anyone and they'll tell you: That was the first place that Kurtis Blow got on the mic at." Says a gruff voiced gentlemen, who, back then, called himself JT Hollywood – not to be confused with D.J. Hollywood, whom JT remembers as, “An arrogant ass who always wanted shit to go his way.”

“I wouldn’t call what we did rappin’ – I used to say some ol’ slick and sophisticated shit on the mike," said a proud JT.

“We spun breaks back then too," Pete Jones says, “I played “Do it anyway you wanna,” ‘Scorpio’, ‘Bongo Rock’, BT Express, Crown Heights Affair, Kool and the Gang, we played all of that stuff – and we’d keep the break going too. I played it all, disco, it didn’t matter, there was no hip-hop per se back then, except for the parts we made up by spinning it over and over again.”

There have been so many stories written about hip-hop’s early days that have not reported on the guys that spun in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the early and mid ‘70’s, that many crucial deejays of that time feel left out.

“Kool Herc and guys like that didn’t have a big reputation back then," explains Jones, “they were in the Bronx – we, meaning guys like myself and Flowers, we played everywhere, so we were known. Their crowd was anywhere between 4 to 70. Mine was 18-22. They played in parks – where anybody could go, no matter how old you are you could go to a park. We played in clubs.”

With a sense of urgency Mr. Jones says, “I have to clear something up, many people think that we played disco – that’s not true. There were two things happening in black music at that time: there was the “Hustle” type music being played – which was stuff like Van McCoy’s “Do the Hustle” – I couldn’t stand that record. And then there were the funky type records that mixed the Blues and jazz with Latin percussion that would later be called funk. Well, hip-hop emerged from that.”

He places special emphasis on the word ‘emerged’. He says that because “If you know anything about the history of music, you know, no one person created anything, it ‘emerges’ from different things.

The Second Master: The Cult Leader

There must have been a height requirement for deejays in the ‘70’s, because like Pete DJ Jones, Kool DJ Herc is a giant among men. In fact, with his gargantuan sized sound system and 6’5, 200 plus pound frame, the man is probably the closest thing hip-hop has ever seen to the Biblical Goliath. Today, some thirty years since his first party in the West Bronx, Kool Herc is still larger than life. His long reddish-brown dreads hang on his shoulders giving him a regal look – sort of like a lion. His hands – which are big enough to crush soda cans and walnuts, reveal scarred knuckles, which are evidence of a rough life. During our conversation, Kool Herc, whose street hardened voice peppered with the speech patterns of his homeland Jamaica and his adopted city of New York made several references to the ‘lock up’, ‘the precinct’ and the ‘bullpen’, all in a manner that suggested that he had more than a passing familiarity with those types of places.

As the tale goes Kool Herc planted the seeds for hip-hop in 1973 in the West Bronx. Along with his friends Timmy Tim and Coke La Rock, and with the backing of his family – in particular his sister Cindy, the parties he threw back then are the food of urban legend. In the 1984 BBC documentary “The History of Hip Hop” an eight-millimeter movie is shown – it is perhaps the only piece of physical evidence of those historic parties. In the film, teenagers of anywhere between 17-20 years old are grooving to the sounds of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose”. Young men wearing sunglasses and sporting fishermen hats with doo rags underneath them, are seen dancing with excited young women, all while crowded into the rec room of hip-hop’s birthplace: 1520 Sedgwick Ave.

As the camera pans to the right, the large hulking figure of Kool Herc takes the forefront. Sporting dark sunglasses and wearing a large medallion around his neck, Kool Herc is decked out in an AJ Lester’s suit. He isn’t just an imposing figure over his set; he looms large over his audience as well. His sound system – a monstrous assemblage of technology, was large and intimidating too, so awesome was it that his speakers were dubbed the ‘Herculords’. When Kool Herc played his gargantuan sized sound system in the Bronx the concrete shook. And so did his competition.

Legend has it that with his twin tower Shure columns and his powerful Macintosh amplifiers, he is said to have drowned the mighty Afrika Bambaataa at a sound clash. “Bambaataa," Herc said with the volume of his echo plex turned up and in his cool Jamaica meets the Bronx voice, ‘Turn your system down…”

But the mighty Zulu chief was unbowed.

So once again Herc spoke into the mike, “Ahem, Bambaataa…turn your system down!” And with that, Herc turned the volume of the echo plex up, and bought in the notorious break-beat classic ‘The Mexican’ all the while drowning Bambaataa in a wall of reverberated bass and funk drumming. According to Disco Bee, “That was typical of Herc – if you went over your time, hell yeah, he’d drown you out.”

In his arsenal Herc had the mighty twin speakers dubbed the ‘Herculords’ and his crew, a mixture of high school friends and neighborhood kids called the ‘Herculoids’. The squad consisted of the Imperial Jay Cee, LaBrew, Sweet and Sour, Clark Kent, Timmy Tim, Pebblee Poo, Coke La Rock, Eldorado Mike and the Nigger Twins. According to Herc, “Coke and Tim were friends of mine, it’s like I got the Chevy, and I’m driving. You my man, so you roll too. So when Coke wanted to play – he play, you know what I mean?”

Although the core crew was Herc, Timmy Tim and Coke La Rock, many of the people that frequented these parties could also be dubbed Herculoids as well. Even though they weren’t members of the crew, many of these people would become disciples of a new musical gospel. They would help spread the musical message and further build upon the foundation that Herc had laid down. Much like the early Christians, who endured all manner of harassment, the early followers of Kool Herc, would lead what would later be called hip-hop, through the parks and rec centers of New York and then onto the international stage. These devotees’s would be active figures in this new genre from the late 70’s into the mid-80’s.

“Man, Herc was a monster," remembers D.J. AJ Scratch, who Kurtis Blow paid homage to on the classic record “AJ”. “I wasn’t even on back then – I was trying to get in the game back then," reminisced AJ, “I was a nobody, I was like a regular dude, you know what I’m saying? I was a Kool Herc follower – I was a loyal follower, I would’ve followed Kool Herc to the edge of the Earth.”

“Yo, Herc was unstoppable back then," said D.J. EZ Mike – who alongside Disco Bee, were Grandmaster Flash’s left and right hand men, they helped Flash develop his quick-mix theories and rock shows back in the day. “Back then, no one could touch Herc and his system – it was just that powerful.”

Disco Bee concurs, “The first time I heard Kool Herc, I used to always hear his music, I used to live in these apartments and I would hear this loud ass music. We used to go to the park and we would hear his shit from three or four blocks away! We would hear this sound coming out of the park. You’d be like ‘what is that sound?’ You’d hear (Disco Bee imitates the sound of the drums) ‘shoooop, shoooop, donk, donk, shoooop’. You wouldn’t hear any bass until you started getting closer. But you could hear his music from very far. And you’d know that Kool Herc was in the park. We used to go to Grant Ave. where Kool Herc would be giving block parties. We’d hear him while we’re coming up the street, we’re coming up from the 9 and we’d be coming up the steps and you’d hear his music on Grant Ave. It used to be crazy.”

“Herc had the recognition, he was the big name in the Bronx back then," explains AJ. “Back then the guys with the big names were: Kool D, Disco King Mario, Smokey and the Smoke-a-trons, Pete DJ Jones, Grandmaster Flowers and Kool Herc. Not even Bambaataa had a big name at that time, you know what I’m sayin?”

According to Herc’s own account, he was the man back then. “Hands down the ‘70’s were mine," he said. “Timmy Tim is the one that bought me ‘Bongo Rock’, and I made it more popular. He bought me that album, and after I heard that album I said to Coke, “Listen to this shit here man! We used that record and that was what kicked off my format called the ‘merry go round."

“Pete D.J. Jones was basically a whole other level." says AJ. “He played disco music, and Herc played b-boy music, you know what I’m sayin?”

“So, when you say he played ‘disco’ music what do you mean? Give me an example of a record that Pete Jones might play.”

“Ok, he played things like ‘Love is the Message’ and ‘Got to Be Real’ – stuff like that; he played stuff with that disco pop to it. He didn’t play original break-beats like what Kool Herc was on. He played like a lot of radio stuff. That’s what Pete D.J. Jones did – that’s what made him good. I mean he had a sound system but he played a lot of radio stuff. Kool Herc played the hardcore shit you ain’t ever hear: Yellow Sunshine, Bongo Rock and Babe Ruth – a whole variety of stuff; James Brown ‘Sex Machine’, you know the version with the ‘Clap your hands, stomp your feet?’

Before hip-hop was a multi-billion dollar a year industry, it was a sub-culture. All of the elements were coming into place, sort of being cooked like a stew, in a melting pot: a spoonful of funk, a fistful of bass, a heap of raw energy, all cut up on a platter with a dash of angel dust.

The Battleground
Deep in the heart of the Bronx located on Mt. Eden and Jerome was one of the first indoor hip hop spots. The owners of the venue probably gave it other names over the years but the two most popular ones were the Sparkle and the Executive Playhouse.

“It was real dark [in the Executive Playhouse]," remembers AJ, “it wasn’t really like put together, it had a little stage, it had like a little miniature light show, you know what I’m sayin’, it was like a low budget venue. Right around the corner from the Executive Playhouse was the Parkside Plaza – that was a disco. The Executive Playhouse was something that maybe the guys went into the Parkside Plaza and got the idea to open up a club. So they went right around the corner on Mt. Eden and Jerome and opened up the Executive Playhouse - maybe they had the idea, but it wasn’t comparable with the Parkside Plaza. You go in there [the Executive Playhouse] and would be looking around, and you probably wouldn’t wanna go to the bathroom, because of the lighting, you know what I’m saying? There were lights but it was dim. That was hip-hop back then everything was dimmed out.”

The drug of choice back then was weed sprinkled with PCP – the ‘dust heads’ and the stick-up kids were all over the place, “That was the vibe back then”, declared AJ “and you wanted to be a part of that. The lights, the breaks, the dancing, them talking on the mike with the echo – that was hip-hop back then. You would go through anything just to hear Kool Herc’s performance. Kool Herc was special back then. It didn’t matter what the venue was like. It was what he displayed the night of the show; he did his thing.”

The Protégé
By day Pete Jones was an English teacher in the Bronx. However, at night, Pete taught another set of students a whole other set of skills.

“I had several young guys that came around me trying to learn the deejay business," explains Mr. Jones, “Magic Mike, Herby Herb and a lot of others, but none of them could figure out how to hook my system up. Except for one guy: Lovebug Starski. He went everywhere with me.”

Lovebug Starski was one of the few deejays of that time that could play for either a hard-core hip-hop crowd with an underground deejay like Kool DJ AJ or for the adult audience’s downtown with Pete Jones or in Harlem with D.J. Hollywood. His original mentor was his stepfather Thunderbird Johnny, a man who ran after hour spots uptown in Harlem. Starski was one of the few cats that could rock the mike and the wheels of steel at the same time.

But Pete had another protégé whose talent was immeasurable. In fact, he would forever change the skill set necessary to be a deejay. He was one-part scientist another part electronics wizard who possessed a sense of timing that was not of this world.

“One of the baddest deejays I ever saw was Grandmaster Flowers," Jones says, “He could blend. He was a mixer. The things he did with records were incredible. He could hold a blend like you wouldn’t believe. He was the baddest thing I had ever saw.” That was until he saw a young man that had grown up in the Hoe Ave section of the South Bronx.

He was named Joseph at birth, called Joey in the neighborhood but would later gain fame under another name, a name which was partly inspired by a comic book hero. E-Z Mike, his best friend since childhood remembers it like this, “He got the name Flash because he was fast at everything he did. When we played basketball as kids, none of us could keep up with him. No matter what we did, he was always faster than the rest of us. He could outrun us all.” Later a local guy named Joe Kidd gave him the title of Grandmaster.

Before he became the Grandmaster Flash of legend, he was a student of Pete DJ Jones. Friends described him as being intense, “When that guy caught the deejay bug real bad around 1973, we didn’t know what was happening," said E-Z Mike, “He had a messenger job," Mike continues, “He would get paid and by the next day – he would be broke. We’d be like, ‘Yo, where’s all of your money?’ He spent it all on records.”

From 1973 to 1977 Flash and his crew which first consisted of Mean Gene, Disco Bee and E-Z Mike and then later Cowboy, Mele Mel, Creole and Scorpio, were struggling to gain a foothold in the Bronx scene. But they could not get around Kool Herc. He was a giant.

“We’d try and get on Herc’s system," Mike recalls, “But Herc wasn’t going for it. Flash would ask, “Could I get on?” and Herc would be like ‘Not.' You see back then," Mike explains, “Nobody wanted Flash to touch their system. They’d be like, “Hell no, you be messing up needles and records and shit.” Both Disco Bee and E-Z Mike agree that Herc used to publicly embarrass Flash on the mike by talking ‘really greasy’ about him.

There have been many stories told about Flash’s early sound system, both EZ Mike and Disco Bee confirm that although Flash was an electronic wizard (E-Z Mike says, “Flash could build a TV from scratch”), his first system was the technological equivalent of a ’75 hoopty.

Disco Bee recalls that, “Flash built his own cueing system. Anything he could think of Flash would try to invent it," Disco Bee laughs, “His system looked so raggedy, awww man, we had some raggedy junk. We were soldering stuff together right before we’d get ready to play, because he just built this thing, and he didn’t finish it. We used to get to a spot early and set up everything and he would be soldering stuff trying to get it to work. Man, we had some raggedy stuff.”

“Awww man this is gonna make you laugh," E-Z Mike chuckles. “Flash had these two speakers that he built from scratch, they were about six and a half feet tall, they were wood, he had three speakers in each one and on the top he put a piece of plastic with Christmas lights on the inside of it, so that when he deejayed the top of the speaker would be lighting up. Then he took white plastic and wrapped it around the wood – so that the speakers wouldn’t look like they were wood. We didn’t have any bass – there was no bass whatsoever. Just mids and highs," Mike remembers.

The only person willing to give Flash a break was Pete Jones.

“The first time I met Pete was when I went with Flash to ‘Pete’s Lounge’. Like I said, Flash had gotten real serious about this deejay stuff and he would hook up with Pete and learn a lot of shit from him.”

It must’ve been on one of these meetings at Pete’s Lounge that Flash and Pete plotted against Kool Herc.

A Sound Clash on the West Side of Jerome Ave.
“When I battled Pete, it wasn’t even a battle, it was telling my audience, what you think you gettin’? And you tried disrespectin’ and all that; let’s see what the other side of the spectrum sound like by a guy by the name of Pete DJ Jones," said Herc.

Jones remembers it a little differently, “I guess he was somehow down with the club, he was like the resident deejay [at the Executive Playhouse] and they wanted to get a big crowd, so I guess it was his idea to battle me.”

It was inevitable that the two masters would clash.

The way Herc describes Pete’s audience is as “The bourgeoisie, the ones that graduated from the little house parties, you grown now you out your momma’s house. You puttin’ on Pierre Cardin now, you wearing Halston, you getting’ into the Jordache and Sassoon era, you down there where Frankie Crocker hangs out at, places like Nell Gwynn’s, or the big spot, whadda ya call it? Oh yeah, Leviticus, you down there.”

“I’d say it was a week before the battle," Pete remembers, “When I was out one night, and I ran into the twins. They must’ve had some kind of falling out with Herc, cause they were real mad at him. They said, “I’ll tell you all of the records he’s gonna play”. And he wrote all of them out for me, right there on the street.”

The twins he was referring to were the Nigger Twins, a couple of dancers who were a part of Herc’s crew. “When they wrote out his playlist for me, they said, “He’s gonna play them in this order," Pete recalls.

The night of the battle Pete had a few cards up his sleeve so he went on first. ‘I broke out all of the records that the twins told me about, and I played them in the order that he would play them in. The next thing I knew I saw him walking around talking on the mike saying, “It sounds like I’m listening to a tape of myself.” He sounded real frustrated. I figured if I went first and played what he was gonna play, it would look like to the crowd he wasn’t doing anything different. That was the edge I had over him that night.”

But Herc’s followers were a devoted bunch.

After Pete played Herc went on and he dug deep into his playlist for the rarest of records.

“That was Kool Herc’s venue, the Executive Playhouse was a place that he played at constantly, so maybe they was using Pete to get a little extra audience. But Pete had notoriety. Kool Herc was big back then, he was probably number one in the Bronx.” Remembers AJ. “No matter if he took his playlist or not that doesn’t matter.”

AJ – a man who is well into his 40’s is still a devout practitioner of the ‘keep it real’ mentality. “Nah, Pete didn’t get the edge over Kool Herc," AJ says, “You know why I think he got the edge over Kool Herc to be honest with you. This is only my opinion: Pete DJ Jones was a deejay but he was mad lazy yo. Pete DJ Jones used to hire dudes to come and play for him. The Executive Playhouse was not Pete’s kind of crowd. It wasn’t that he was a lazy dude it just wasn’t his crowd. It wasn’t Nell Gwynn’s or Nemo’s, it wasn’t downtown, so he wasn’t comfortable, so he put on the people that could rock that kind of crowd.”

After Herc played it was Pete’s turn again, this time he played his R&B and funk records – but the crowd wasn’t feeling it. So he pulled out a couple of ringers, in the form of his protégés: Lovebug Starski and Grandmaster Flash.

“Flash tore Herc’s ass up that night," remembers E-Z Mike. “When it came crunch time to see what was what: Pete put Grandmaster Flash on," remembers AJ. That was the first time I ever saw Flash play. The people were amazed. You see, Flash was a deejay, he was doing all that quick-mixing and spinning around and stuff – the Bronx lost its mind that night because we had never seen anything like that before.”

To the crowd of hundreds it looked like Pete Jones was winning. No one knew who Grandmaster Flash was that night. He was an unknown deejay playing on the set of one of the most popular jocks of that time. People yelled and screamed because it was the first time that they had seen a deejay with a magician’s flair for showmanship. Nobody played like that before. Kool Herc would haphazardly drop the needle on the record – sometimes the break was there, often times it wasn’t. Pete Jones could mix his ass off – but he wasn’t entertaining to watch. Both men had huge sound systems, but they weren’t charismatic spinners. Flash was.

On this night, the crowd at the Executive Playhouse was entranced with Flash’s spinning techniques, which were really revolutionary at this time. He had perfected a new technique called the ‘backspin’.

E-Z Mike remembers the first time Flash did the backspin: “He spent the night at my house, he woke up out of his sleep and turned the equipment on, it was like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. The first record he did it with was Karen Young’s “Hot Shot” and he backspun it a bunch of times, and then turned to me and said “Yo, remember that and remind me about it when I wake up.” And he jumped back in his bed. When he woke up the next morning, he did it again.”

One could only imagine that night at the Executive Playhouse in front of hundreds of stunned spectators Flash cutting ‘Hot Shot’ to pieces:
Hot shot, hot shot, hot…hot shot hot shot hot…hot shot. Hot shot. Hot shot……hot.

“You know what at that battle, Flash showed the Bronx that he was for real," said AJ. By Herc’s own admission by 1977 he was on the decline. Whether or not it had anything to do with him getting stabbed at the Executive Playhouse is open to speculation. What is a fact though, is that after this battle between two of the biggest stars of the era the name Grandmaster Flash was no longer relegated to a small section of the Bronx. His fame spread like wildfire throughout the city. According to more than just one person interviewed for this story, the long-term effects of the battle on Kool Herc were not good. In the weeks proceeding the battle Herc’s audience got smaller and smaller. They were leaving the Executive Playhouse for another hotspot: The Dixie, which was the home of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Four.

Soon The Dixie would become so crowded that by 4 a.m. when the house was still packed the only way they could get people out of there was by playing Jackie Wilson’s “Work Out”, but the fly girls and b-boys would still want to party, “We’d put that record on," said Disco Bee, “And you’d look out on the floor and folks would be doing the Twist."

The battle between Kool Herc and Pete Jones was also a pivotal moment in time because previous to it battles were all about equipment, records and who moved the crowd – Grandmaster Flash added the next dimension: showmanship. This was at a time when the sound system was king. Breakout and Baron had Sasquatch. D.J. Divine had the Infinity Machine, Kool Herc had the Herculords and Grandmaster Flash would later have a system called the Gladiator. Today’s deejays know nothing of sound systems; even fewer know how to hook one up.

Mark Skillz says peace, respect and special thanks to Jeff Chang, Davey D, Christie Z Pabon, Cindy Campbell, Kool Herc, Kool DJ AJ, E-Z Mike, KC the Prince of Soul, JT Hollywood, Pete Jones, Charlie Ahearn for the photos and Disco Bee.

This article was originally published in Wax Poetics

The Place They Called 'The Fever'

If Hip Hop was your thing in the early 80’s there were a few things you understood: The hottest spot in the city at that time was Studio 54 in Manhattan, and you weren’t getting in there; but the club Disco Fever was in the Bronx; and if you wanted to be a legend in hip hop at that time, your ass had to play the Fever.

The Fever wasn’t just a club; it was the club, not only was it the place to be but it was an experience, if you performed at the Fever, and you rocked it, that meant that you were somebody. You were among the elite. For legions of rap fans at that time it was the Mecca of the South Bronx. It was a star- studded time for many in the 80’s. It was a time when fly girls, b-boys, stick-up kids, coke dealers, hookers, thugs, gamblers, home boys and the everyday man could party in style with the ghetto celebs of that period.

The wall behind the stage, emblazoned big red and black with big bold gold graffiti lettering displaying the names of the legends of that time: DISCO FEVER THE HOME OF: Lovebug Starski, Junebug, Grandmaster Flash, Sweet Gee, D.J. Hollywood, Sugar Hill Gang, Eddie Cheba, Kurtis Blow, Sequence, Brucie Bee, Furious 5, Reggie Wells, Kool Kyle, Disco Bee, and Star Child. Those were the names of some of the immortals that blessed the mikes and the deejay booth; that’s where you wanted your name to be.

“When I went there, the vibe was definitely celebratory”, says Fab 5 Freddy, who at the time was the Ambassador between the hard-core underground hip-hop scene and the downtown art and punk rock scenes. “You definitely got hit with the aroma of cocaine burning with cigarettes or weed; you smelled angel dust being smoked once you got in the club. It wasn’t like going to the Dixie or somewhere like the Smith Projects, although that hard-core element was there, the vibe was different. It was more of a celebration.”

“The Fever was way different from Krush Groove” proclaimed Grandmaster Caz, “There wasn’t no Fat Boys and RUN-DMC and LL all in the Fever, it was mother fuckin’ drug dealers man, all they showed was the front room, they didn’t show the back room!”

“We played whatever was hot at that time”, boasts George “Sweet Gee” Godfrey, who was the clubs manager as well as a deejay, and later recorded the classic 12-inch “Games People Play”. “On any given night seven days a week, you’d come in there and hear something like “Catch the Beat” by T Ski Valley, or “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls; “Catch the Beat” was definitely a club classic!”

In the Beginning
"When the Fever first opened up, we couldn't get in, because we were too young, only Flash and Lovebug Starski were able to get in", so says rap pioneer Mele Mel of the Furious Five, who, once he was able to get in, was treated like royalty.

Mel couldn’t get in because initially, the club catered to an older audience. In the 60’s and early 70’s the Abbatiello family owned a jazz bar in the Bronx called the Salt and Pepper Lounge that catered to a mostly adult black clientele.

“Sal’s dad, Ally, was a musician, and he used to have all kinds of people come down to that bar for jam sessions, people like George Benson for instance, he used to come in and jam 3 or 4 nights a week”, said Sweet Gee.

“Every once in awhile, my dad would sit in with the band and play his trumpet”, said Sal Abbatiello who owns and operates Fever Enterprises.

In the movie ‘Casablanca’ Humphrey Bogart played a smooth, tuxedo-jacketed, cigar- smoking, tough-talking yet sensitive character named Rick, who’s connections with the underworld and cops alike made him the man to go to in Morocco; Sal Abbatiello was the Rick character of the South Bronx.

“People used to come around the clubs and say to each other “Who’s the white kid?” Like I came from somewhere else, when, I didn’t. I’m from the South Bronx; I was born and raised in the Bronx. My family is from the Bronx. We have been involved and owned nightclubs here for years. So all of my dealings have been with black people. At my dinner table, during holidays, there were black people at the table with us. So, you see, I was no stranger to Black culture’, said Abbatiello.

“In 1978, my dad decided to buy a bar down the block from the “Salt and Pepper Lounge”, said Abbatiello.

“When Ally bought that bar, I was there when it was being built, I’m talking literally, I mean I had a hammer and nails and was helping them build that place”, said Sweet Gee.

“So one night we were out at Sal’s dad’s house in New Jersey and a commercial came on for a new movie called “Saturday Night Fever”, and it came on while we were trying to think of a name for the club, and all of a sudden Sal’s mom said, “Hey, why not call it “Disco Fever”? And we all looked at each other and said: “Hey that’s it!” said Sweet Gee.

“So the club is up and going, we had a white deejay there at first playing Top 40, cause you gotta remember, we were still catering to an older clientele”, said Abbatiello.

“Well, this white guy, he used to get tired and want to quit early, it would be 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and he’d be ready to go”, said Sweet Gee adding, “So when he would leave or take a break I would take over. Now, I’m not a great deejay or nothing, but I had watched Flash and all of those guys and knew all of the hot break records from that time like Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real”; I would turn down the music and talk between her singing like she would sing: “What you find…I’d say: “Sweet Gee”, she’d sing… “What you feel,” I’d say: “D.J. Junebug”; what you know: “Disco Fever”, and that was my routine”, said Sweet Gee.

“Well, one night I’m there at the club and I see Gee go into this routine, and I’m saying, “What in the fuck is Gee doing? He was saying things like “Throw your hands in the air and wave ‘em like you just don’t care” and all of this other stuff and I’m looking at the crowd and I’m noticing that he’s bringing people together, and then it clicked: This is what the club needs. So I talked my dad into letting me have a night and after a while he agreed. He wasn’t sure about this rap stuff, but he let me try, so I went out to find the best: and that was a guy named Grandmaster Flash”.

“I tried to promote other nights there before I got Flash, I even had Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes there, but people didn’t come, you know why? Because no one believed that Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes would be in some club in the South Bronx. So when I got Flash to play, we charged a dollar and there were only four of us working the whole club – 600 people showed up that night. I was calling home and the Salt and Pepper Lounge pleading with my dad, “Dad, Dad please, send more people; we’re swamped in here.”

The Place to Be
To be sure, hip-hop was not born in the Disco Fever, its birthplace is said to have been 1520 Sdgwick Ave. in the West Bronx. What the Fever was was the hot spot where the stars of that era went to chill and be seen in high fashion.

Hip-hop fashion at that time was different from what it is today; there was no specialized hip-hop designer gear, because people in general didn’t have a lot of money back then. Party-goers wore leather bomber jackets, sweaters, mock necks, Polo shirts, leather pants, British Walkers, Calvin Klein or Lee jeans, and Kangol hats; hip-hop fashion has come a long way since then.

Even though it has been said that the Fever had a dress code, according to promoter Van Silk, then known as R.C., “Yeah right the Fever had a dress code. Do you know what the dress code was? It was money. If you had enough money in your pocket then you could get in there regardless how you were dressed. But you knew you were going out that night and you wanted to look right, so you wore your leather pants.”

According to Silk, “I was one of the first promoters Sal let in there do his own night. As a matter of fact, me and Sal were trying to start a video show out of the Fever; it was going to be called ‘Video Fever’. This was before MTV. We had Nyobe and some other people on that show. Sal has it to this day on a beta tape”, said Silk.

“The Fever was like a second home to us”, said Mele Mel, “We could be overseas in Italy or Germany or somewhere like that and we would be calling the Fever, right into the deejay booth, and would be talking to Junebug on the phone, we would be like, “Yeah yeah, so what’s going on over there, who’s there tonight? If we were in New York, like say, the Roxy, we would hang out at the Roxy and then leave there at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and then go to the Fever when we were done. No matter where we were we always ended up back at the Fever.”

“People that went there regularly they were called “believers” – “Fever believers”, said Grandmaster Caz adding, “And then the girls that used to come all the time but they ain’t look all that hot, we used to call them “Fever blisters”.

As hot as the Fever was there were certain pioneers that didn't play there, most notably: Afrika Bambaataa. “Bambaataa did not play the Fever, nor did he play Harlem World,” said Van Silk, “You have to understand something, 125th St. was Harlem, and Bam came from the gang days, there were still groups out there with that kind of mentality. Bam is not a violent man. Now, the people around Bam were violent. So Bam didn't travel everywhere, anything beyond 225th was Uptown, and that's when you get into some ‘Warriors’ type shit.”

Unlike other hip hop spots at that time like the Ecstasy Garage, The Dixie, and the T Connection; the Fever had the style of a downtown club – uptown.

“Yo there were three kinds of cats in the Fever: there was the rappers – the emcee’s the hip hop cats, the drug dealers and then there was the regular pedestrians I like to call them”, said Grandmaster Caz, “They would be in there with their eyes wide open, but there weren’t that many of them in there because everybody was pretty much somebody. The Fever wasn’t like a big, big, club – you know what I mean? The regular crowd of people would pack the club alone, it wasn’t about any outside people coming from out of town and shit like that, they wasn’t fitting in in the Fever.”

“The Fever crowd were the type of crowd that liked to sing a long with the record”, said D.J. Rockwell who spun there from 1980 – 1985, “I would mix something like “Do You Wanna Rock” by the Funky 4, and the crowd would be singing along and then I would go into “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly, from there I would go into “I Found Love” by the Fatback Band and the crowd would lose their minds. That’s the way the Fever crowd was.”

“I held down a night, Brucie Bee had a night and Disco Bee had a night too. A lot of times when people thought that it was Flash spinning there – it was really me, because Flash would spin for an hour or so and then stop, and when he stopped, that’s when I would come on”, said Rockwell.

For Sal, the one night that stands out for him that made him see just how popular the club was. “One night, I’m outside looking at the line and there’s this guy out there who wants to get in, he’s a young guy, good-looking guy, somebody taps me on the shoulder and said, “Yo that’s the guy with the hot record out”, I said “Let him in”, turns out, it was Kurtis Blow.”

Junebug the Baddest Deejay Ever
“I could be at the bar sipping a drink or whatever, and all of a sudden Junebug would play the Philadelphia Orchestra’s version of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”; and that would be my cue for us to get into our thing”, said Sweet Gee.

Out of all of the deejays from that era, the name Junebug is mentioned with reverence. He was a young Puerto Rican deejay from Manhattan, who had a bearded face and a long Afro with a neck full of gold chains and the sort of playful smile that only a mother could love. “Nobody could do what Junebug did. He was the absolute best. Flash was bad, but Junebug was better.”

“I agree”, Sal added, “all the other deejays scratched or just threw a record in, Junebug, mixed records in, and he did it extremely well. He didn’t really need headphones. I used to go to Club 371 and check the deejays out, and Junebug, was one hell of a deejay. He was D.J. Hollywood’s deejay. I stole him from them [Club 371], and made him the main house deejay along with Sweet Gee.”

“As far as a club deejay – Junebug was a really nice”, says Grandmaster Caz, “But really, when I went there, I thought all of the disco deejays were the best there: Junebug, Starski, Starchild, but yeah, I have to say Junebug stood out. Sweet Gee was the host, he’d be the voice, he’d be biggin’ up everybody in the spot.”

But that wasn’t all that Junebug was best at; he also made his money on the street. According to Sweet Gee, “Junebug had two apartments: one for where he lived; the other, was where he kept his stash.”

“He was a nice guy,” Mele Mel says. “He would give you the shirt off his back, he was a stand up dude, he just happened to be a deejay who also sold cocaine. You know, he, like the rest of us, we all got caught up in something that was bigger than what we could deal with at the time”, said Mele Mel.

The Other Bronx Disco
“When the Fever opened up there was an immediate rivalry with Club 371, I’m talking about a heated rivalry,” said Sweet Gee, “You have to understand, once the Fever opened the owners of the place started looking around and they noticed that most of their black clientele was disappearing, this became a major problem.”

Club 371 was the spot where four deejays from Manhattan bought Harlem’s smooth style to the Bronx. Deejays: Reggie Wells, Hollywood, Junebug and Eddie Cheeba had all been spinning R&B since at least the early 70’s; two of them: D.J.’s Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba were godfathers of rap.

“When I was first investigating the rap scene, Club 371 was one of the places I went to. When I went there I was in awe of this big fat guy, with this golden voice and he had absolute control over the crowd. He was the best entertainer ever; this guy rapped and sang, he mixed, he was a star, I mean a real star, even back then: his name was D.J. Hollywood. He had a Spanish deejay that used to spin for him named Junebug; I wanted both of them at my club. At first, only Junebug came over, but Hollywood didn’t; it took a long time to get him [Hollywood] to come over. He didn’t think the Fever was the right spot for him, I guess it was because he was used to playing for older adults who listened to a more R&B type music, he used to tell me “I don’t know man, I don’t think that’s my kinda crowd; but I’d tell him “Yo, all you gotta do is come on down and play for them. They’ll love you”, said Sal.

“When I first got to Club 371 in 1978, the owners were looking to expand the place, Hollywood was so popular at the time, and they needed somebody just as good as he was”, said Eddie Cheba, “So they built an upstairs – but nobody was going upstairs – Hollywood was so good nobody wanted to leave that part of the club, so they got me. So, upstairs it was me and my deejay EZ Gee and Reggie Wells, and downstairs it was Hollywood and Junebug; people were running downstairs and upstairs all night.”

“But eventually I got Hollywood”, Sal says. “I got all of them: Eddie Cheeba, Reggie Wells, Junebug, and Hollywood; we were doing it then.”

“It got to the point where the fire department would show up and we’d have to empty the place out because somebody called and said that there was a fire. After this happened a few times, we figured out what was going on, we found out it was the guy’s that owned Club 371 that were calling the fire department on us, and it was on from then on. For a while there, we played a game of one upmanship with them meaning: they called in and said we had a fire, we’d call the cops and say that there was a bomb in their place. This went on for a while, and got even worse when Sal stole Junebug”, remembers Sweet Gee.

“After a while the two owners made a truce and the beef was over. Their owner came over to our place for drinks; Sal went over there for drinks, everything was good.”

Chillin' V.I.P. Style
“You have to understand the neighborhood; I’d have a pimp here, a doctor here, a lawyer here, a hooker here and gangsters all over. So, once we started frisking people – as a matter of fact, we were the first with the metal detectors, once we started frisking people, we started turning up guns. People thought I was crazy, they were saying things like, “Sal, what kind of club are you running? Come on, metal detectors?” Now in this neighborhood, certain people needed guns. There were just certain people whose guns you couldn’t take away. So, we started a gun-check policy. Our thing was: Ok, you have a gun. However, you may not bring that gun in the club. So, we would take the gun and lock it – and the ammunition – up in the office”, said Abbatiello.

“People were getting high snorting coke out in the open and shit, so we created a room, the “get high room” for them to do that in, it wasn’t like we could really stop them.”

“This was the cocaine era”, Grandmaster Caz reminds us. “Girls would come in from Connecticut cause they knew all the rap cats was gonna be there, they knew that the drug dealers were gonna be in there, this was the cocaine years baby – pre crack.”

Patterned after the speakeasies of the 1920’s, the VIP areas were an elaborate set of walls enclosed in walls. They also set up red alarm lights behind the bar, in the deejay booth, and in the offices in case the cops raided the place. “When the red light went off, the deejay would make an announcement: Code Red. That meant hide the blow. Code Blue meant the cops were gone, go back to doing what you were doing”, Sweet Gee recalls.

“All kinds of stuff went on back there", said Mele Mel, "If you were back there, you were royalty. You got the best that the club had to offer. I would leave that place at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning with 2 or 3 females and depending on what was going on: if we were gonna do our thing locally there was the Alps, which was a little roach motel. Or there was the Courtesy in Jersey which had rooms with Jacuzzi’s and mirror’s on the ceilings and all that kind of stuff”, said Mele Mel.

“Things were going so well that after awhile, there was this place around the corner from the club on Burnside Ave. that I made into an after hours spot I named it “Games People Play”, we had gambling and all that kinds of stuff going on over there. That’s where the name of the record that Gee did came from”, said Sal.

“The V.I.P areas were strictly for celebs, we had one room for the artists, where they would be sniffing coke out of dollar bills; or they had a gram of blow or something and they had a female with them, that was the spot for them for all that”, said Sweet Gee, “Now, in the other room we reserved that for the high rollers, I’m talking about guys that were dealing with more than a 8 ball of blow, they were the one’s dealing in some serious weight.”

Sal puts it bluntly, “You’d go back there and everybody would be back there, I’m talking about your Russell Simmons, your Lyor Cohen’s; everybody that was in the rap business back then was who you could find back there with their noses open – including me.”

For close to a decade The Fever had been the Mecca of Hip Hop, it was the place where Mele Mel was king, Kurtis Blow was a star, Flash was a legend and Lovebug Starski, made you a believer. But there was something new on the horizon.

“I was with Run and them all that day when we performed at the Fever”, said Spyder D, whose hit record “Smerphies Dance” was a Fever classic. “I was there every step of the way that day. It was me, Run and D and Larry Smith. It was just like the song said: “Larry put me inside his Cadillac”, that literally happened that day.”

Spyder continues, “To be from Queens and to perform at the Fever was the highest honor. You have to understand, Uptown cats didn’t respect Queens cats, and so for us to be performing there, that was a big deal, because, previous to that, if you were from Queens, you got no love.”

When the three ambitious MC’s from Queens stepped into the Fever at 2 o’clock in the morning, they were immediately in awe of the club, the mystique of the Fever had more than met their expectations. They had all probably secretly dreamed and privately whispered to friends what that moment would be like, and they weren’t disappointed.

They had all performed earlier that day at gigs around the city; their first show had been a disaster: While he was performing, DMC’s glasses fell off of his face and fell flat on to the stage. Run, full of nervous energy could hardly control himself. According to Spyder, RUN DMC’s producer and mentor Larry Smith screamed at them on the way to the Bronx, “If y’all niggas are anything like that tonight at the Fever, you’re gonna get shot. New Edition performed there last week and niggas were turning over tables shooting at them. You mother fucker’s better get it together. I was like, “Yo, yo Larry man iksnae on the guns man.”

Spyder remembers that night like it had happened last week, ““So we get there, and Starchild was the deejay that night, we stepped in there and it was like, “Yo, this is about to go down.”

Performing after a “Smerph dancing” Spyder D, Run and D, were not quite yet the black leather-jacketed, Stetson hat b-boys yet. “You should’ve seen them in those checkered jackets and turtle-neck sweaters”, laughs Spyder, “It was a far cry from the RUN DMC of the future.”

“I watched them from early that afternoon when they were like, these two total amateurs who were too scared to be on stage, to that night at the Fever, when they turned that place out. I saw D and Joey become: RUN-DMC, right before my eyes, and I’ll never forget it. They were rookies coming into that night but they were superstars by the end of the night – that’s how fast they transformed”, said an emphatic Spyder D.

Performing “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MC’s” before a stunned late-night, coked- up Bronx audience, Run and D were laughed at by a couple, fronted on by a few, but warmly received by everyone else. A few coked-out Bronx veterans that were there that night peeked out of the VIP section and dismissively said: “Who’s them niggas?”

They were the future. The days of the Bronx being the Mecca were coming to an end.

The Party is Over
As the 80’s progressed the record industry machine rolled closer and closer toward the tiny sub-culture from the Bronx. Deals were being made and labels were being born at a dizzying pace. A new breed of hip hoppers was coming into being. The older crowd was slowly being phased out.

“One night me, Junebug and Mr. Magic were supposed to go to the movies together”, recounts Sweet Gee, “I called Bug’s house all that day, and got nothing. I called Sal and told him, “Man, something ain’t right, I’m worried, I haven’t heard from Bug all day, this ain’t like him. So the next day somebody went around to his stash house to go and check on him and there he was, somebody had killed him.”

“When I was writing ‘White Lines” I was thinking about Junebug”, Mele Mel says, “This was before I got hooked on cocaine. I used to buy it; I used to buy it more than I actually used it. I think I was just hooked on buying it. When I wrote the song I was thinking about Junebug, he wasn't the inspiration for the song, I was thinking of him because even though he was a deejay he was our little connect. He was the dude that we used to get our little packages from. I remember thinking to myself “Yeah we gonna have some fun when this comes out.” But, a couple of weeks after “White Lines” dropped Junebug had gotten killed”, Mele Mel remembers somberly.

“I grew up around wise guys all of my life, they were in our clubs and everything, so I was no stranger to that kind of element. There was this notorious gangster in the Bronx named Crazy Eddie who used to come around to the club, he had my back against this guy Tommy for a while, and then, Eddie and I had a falling out. Oh man, shit was hectic”, Sal remembers remorsefully.

“I was having problems with this gangster named Tommy; he was trying to shake me down for a whole lot of money. For a year and a half I was walking around wearing a bulletproof vest. It was crazy. I wasn’t able to be around everyday to run the businesses, so things started to go bad. Everybody that worked for me was strung out on coke. Things were really going bad”, remembers Sal.

Things eventually worked themselves out: Eddie shot Tommy, Tommy shot Eddie, and things went back and forth until eventually they both ended up going to jail.

As bad as things were looking, it looked like the Fever was about to get a second life, the movie Krush Groove was being shot there. Hollywood had aimed their cameras at the Bronx. Things were looking up. That was, until the last day of filming.

“We were celebrating Mele Mel’s birthday party at the club, when all of a sudden I get in trouble for not having a cabaret license. It was all a result of that year and a half of being on the run; my paperwork wasn’t being kept up. We finished Mel’s party in the street that night. The cops put a lock on the front door, but that didn’t stop somebody from coming along later and breaking in through the roof and stealing everything. All I did for the neighborhood, and that happened.”

“You gotta understand, there were many nights that people came to me and asked for help paying rent. I’m talking about people from the neighborhood that attended the club, they would come to me and say, “Sal, Sal we’re about to be evicted, can you help us? And I would. I can’t tell you how many abortions I paid for – that I had nothing to do with - young girls would come up to me crying and shit talking about they’re pregnant, and how their mother was gonna kill them. I’d reach in my pocket and give them the money. I cared about the neighborhood. I really did”, Sal says.

Between 1976 and 1983, guys like Mele Mel and Lovebug Starski were the toast of the streets. They ruled in the period before trunk jewels and the bling era. They were ghetto celebs at a moment when hip-hop wasn’t fabulous. Time and circumstance cheated them out of the pot of gold that is said to over the rainbow. When their reign came to an end, so did the Fever’s. Every generation has that moment in time when their youth is celebrated, when their child-like innocence becomes the food of legend, before grown-up realities create jaded adults. Today, men well into their forties get misty-eyed when they recall their heyday of twenty-five years before. They weren’t ready to leave the scene, but time dictated that they must.

Mele Mel breaks it down like this: “You know people don’t understand that we came through a rough era back then. Yeah, ok, we would be in the V.I.P. section of the Fever, but we would be back there with cats like Corley and Supreme and Fat Cat and them from Queens. Now these were some thorough brothers back then. We’d be back there with gangsters like that. A lot of us got lost in that era. A lot of people didn’t survive from all that went on back then. If you survived all that and you got it together now, you a strong cat. Because you had to be strong to come through all of that.”

By Mark Skillz
This feature originally ran in Wax Poetics Journal