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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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...hot…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