Monday, July 31, 2006
In his time he was called 'pound for pound the best boxer ever'. He had the speed of fighters twenty pounds lighter and the strength of fighters twenty pounds heavier. But it was his technical boxing skills that earned him the right to rank himself with the immortals of boxing: Sugar Ray Robinson, Marvin Hagler, Muhammad Ali, Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Patterson.
He was the first middleweight champion in over one hundred years to capture the heavyweight title. He beat John Ruiz for the heavyweight crown - not with his strength, but with his mastery of the fine art of the sweet science. "Every time I saw him lean forward to throw that big right, I used my left jab to keep him off balance", he said after winning an unanimous decision over Ruiz, "He had to get on the ball of his foot in order to throw that punch, and I knew a jab to his forehead every time he started to get on that toe would be the perfect punch."
Roy Jones was lightning fast, arrogant and supremely talented. He fought at a time when there were no fighters of his division with equal talent. In order for a champ to really be called the best he has to fight the best - in his defense there were no great fighters in the light heavyweight division. He walked through Virgil Hill, David Telesco, Montell Griffin, James Toney and many others.
So bored was he with his competition that he joined a semi-pro basketball team and played basketball games the same day as a fight.
And then there were the forays into music: He should've stuck with boxing, but you know how rich men are, they believe they can do anything and be successful at it. Whatever.
So bored was Roy Jones with his competition that he took on any fight he could just to make a buck and show his skills. He fought bartenders, garbage men, phone guys, cops and mechanics. Jones wanted to give the people their monies worth. He'd lay on the ropes and invite his opponent to hit him. He'd dance in the ring. He took rounds off to allow his opponents to catch up with him. He'd have a concert before the fight and once, he rapped his way down the aisle to the ring.
That all changed one night when a man that many thought didn't have a snowballs chance in Satan's kitchen, of really beating Roy. But this man wasn't like any opponent Roy had ever faced: He was the same age and from the same state as Roy, but had been overlooked for all of his professional career.
Referee: Do you have any questions before the fight starts?
Tarver: Yeah, I have one. What excuse are you gonna use tonight, Roy?
And with that said, the Titan was about to be revealed as a mere mortal. BAM to the canvas Jones went in their second fight. The world of boxing was flipped on its axis. The giant is no more.
And then the same thing happened again with a man named Glenn Johnson: BAM to the canvas he went again, this time he was out like a pair of parachute pants.
What happened to Roy Jones Jr? Was it age? Or was it an accumulation of lackluster ambition and performances that dulled his sharp skillz? Roy Jones will go down in the history books as technically the greatest boxer ever. Not the greatest boxer ever, or one of the greatest boxers ever , but the greatest technical boxer ever.
He had no great fights to measure him by. Ali had Frazier, Foreman, Liston, Patterson, Shavers and Norton. Sugar Ray Robinson had more epic battles with Jake Lamotta than most fighters have in a lifetime. Joe Louis had Schmelling and Baer. Hagler had Hearns, Leonard and Mugabe. Who did Jones fight?
Monday, July 24, 2006
He was an embattled rock star whose record company no longer believed in him. To make matters worse his wife left him and the woman he really loved didn't want him. In his life he fought two good fights with depression and drug addiction. But there he was backstage before his concert at Folsom Prison staring back at his past with an unknown future ahead of him.
"Mr. Cash", the warden said, "we're really honored to have you here." The warden said as nervous as a cat burglar hyped up on speed and caught on high definition video. "But if you don't mind sir, could you refrain from singing any song that would remind the inmates about their current situation."
With a cool smirk and a touch of sarcasm the man in black said, "Do you think they can forget?"
"If you and your wife could stick to the more spiritual stuff that you sing..."
"First of all, warden, she's not my wife", Cash said coolly and with a glint of regret, in reference to his background singer and all around best friend June Carter. “I’ve asked her all kinds of ways, but she ain’t goin’ for it.”
"By the way warden, when was the last time you drank the water here?"
The warden didn't answer that question.
Inside the prison cafeteria the inmates were on edge clamoring for the arrival of the outlaw guitar man in black. Carrying his guitar in one hand and holding a glass of water in the other, Johnny Cash the man who straddled the line between Country, Rock and Gospel, the man who sang and damn near rapped stories to his audience (30 years before Ice Cube was born) about the outlaw lifestyle: sniffin' coke, drinkin' Jack, shooting lovers and enemies down in cold blood and just plain ol' fuckin' around in general. Here was the man Cash about to record one of the best albums in American music history.
In the tension filled cafeteria Cash yelled into the mic: "I'm glad to be here", he told the crowd of about 2,000 inmates on a Sunday afternoon. Surrounding the inmates were dozens of guards armed to the teeth, ready to put down any act of foolishness. Since the mid-50's Johnny Cash worked night and day at cultivating his outlaw bad ass image. "I'm not saying I've done as much time as you have, but I've found myself behind bars a time or two." A statement which received a huge chair-standing, at-a-boy kind of thunderous applause from the room full of thieves, liars, bullies, addicts, drunks and God knows what else – but one thing is for sure, he was definitely connecting with his audience in a way few in pop music would ever be able to do.
It’s a damn shame we grew up on R&B, Jazz and Hip Hop because had we been exposed to rockers like Johnny Cash or Blues men like Muddy Waters, rap music would have a deeper well to drink from. Cash was a gifted songwriter and singer, but it’s the stories he told, that like Tupac and Ice Cube, really endeared him to his audience. He told the stories of the everyday troubled man. Check ‘Cocaine Blues’ out…
Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went right home and I went to bedI stuck that lovin' .44 beneath my head
Got up next mornin' and I grabbed that gun
Took a shot of cocaine and away I run
Made a good run but I ran too slow
They overtook me down in Juarez, Mexico
Late in the hot joints takin' the pills
In walked the sheriff from Jericho Hill
He said Willy Lee your name is not Jack Brown
You're the dirty heck that shot your woman down
Said yes, oh yes my name is Willy Lee
If you've got the warrant just a-read it to me
Shot her down because she made me sore
I thought I was her daddy but she had five more
When I was arrested I was dressed in black
They put me on a train and they took me back
Had no friend for to go my bail
They slapped my dried up carcass in that county jail
There he told the story of the outlaw Willie Lee, who, because of troubles with his woman, cocaine and having all round bad disposition finds himself on the run from the law. Kind of reminds you of Eazy E’s classic ‘The Boyz in the Hood”. He simultaneously told the story without preaching against anybody, but the last line of the song says it best: “Come on you've gotta listen unto me, Lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.
I don't want to be pigeon-holed into this one little box called hip-hop. There are other subjects that interest me as well. There are dozens and dozens of stories I'd like to write: Like about the Dinner Time Bandits: a couple of guys who, for 40 years were the top cat burglars in the country; Frank Matthews: one of the biggest drug dealers of the early 70's, that was until the Feds cracked down on him and he was either killed by the Mob or he jumped bail; Iceberg Slim: the man that put the pimp game on paper; Nat Turner: I hate reading books about slavery that talk about us getting our asses whupped by massa, I wanna tell the story of the brother that fought back!"
I have always spoken out about how we as a people are not a monolithic being, that speaks with one mouth and one brain. Hell no, we have a vast ocean of experiences to tap into.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
For legal reasons I won’t reveal Ed’s full name nor will I reveal the name of the car wash or the city it’s in. But it’s safe to say that Cool Breeze Ed was a lovable guy.
Back in the day when I was a wayward youth of 19 years old I thought it would be cool to work in a car wash. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up watching too much television. This is a true story though. I’ll never forget when I went to go talk to the manager for my impromptu “interview”.
Him: “So, why do you wanna work in a car wash?”
Stupid me: “I dunno, I guess cause I always liked that movie.”
Him: “Bullshit nigga.”
Stupid me: “No for real man, I really liked that movie. I guess you’ll be kind of like Lonnie, the dude that supervised everybody.”
Him: “Are you for real?”
Stupid me: “Yeah. Somebody else around here can be ‘The Fly’ bizzzzzzz.”
Him: “You can’t be serious…”
Stupid me: “Nah, it’ll be fun.”
The manager wasn’t exactly a stranger to me I knew his brother Jason from my previous employer: Mc Donald’s.
Needless to say it wasn’t that much fun working there. To start with, I washed windows for what seemed like forever. Don’t get me wrong though, it was ok at first - in the summertime. The cars would go through some kind of conveyor system and blower and then they would roll into my section. It would be like four or five us that would jump in there and clean the windows.
There were some interesting guys that worked there – well, sort of. There was a guy named Warren, who was like 40 something years old, and a shade darker than Wesley Snipes. To make matters worse he always seemed to like to wear these extremely dark sunglasses. On a hot day, duke would be so tired from working hard in the sun that when he took his shades off, his eyes would be beet-red. He looked like a really hard-core dude, but he had one of the highest, non-gay sounding voices I’ve ever heard in my life.
“Oh, what’s up dude?” He’d say to me with that high pitched voice that had a touch of a southern drawl. I liked Warren he was a cool guy. He and I would be so busy jumping in and out of cars washing windows that we would accidentally slam each other’s hands in the car doors sometimes.
“Aaaagh! Goddamn!” I heard as one car door slammed.
“Oh shit, yo Warren, you aiight?” I’d say.
“Goddamn man, that’s the third time today!”
“Yo, man I’m sorry bout that, I ain’t see you man!”
“Do it again lil’ nigga and it’s gonna be me and you!”
When I know I’m in the wrong, I’m the type of dude that cops to it and apologizes, ain’t no sense in playing bad ass when you know your wrong. “Yo my man, I’m sorry bout that, yo go ahead and take a break, I’ll cover for you.” I said.
“Nah, that’s alright.” He said to me still holding his hand. “Just be careful.”
And back to work we’d go.
I was washing the window on the front passenger side, not paying attention to my surroundings when I tried to get out of the car. I tried to step away but I couldn’t. It seemed like my foot was stuck. I looked down on the ground and looked, my foot was stuck underneath the tire of a big ass truck. The tire rolled onto my foot in such a manner that the side of my foot was stuck underneath it. In order to avoid the pain of having the whole weight of the truck on my foot, I’d have to pull it out. But I couldn’t because the conveyor and had been stopped at the same moment as the trucks tire had rolled on my foot. “Yo!” I yelled out. “Somebody start the belt!”
And there was Warren with a bottle of water in his hand and a smile on his face. “That’s for my hand, lil’ nigga!”
Just then the whole weight of the truck was on my foot. “Yo! You win, move that shit, yo!”
That was one fond memory of that place. But the rest of my experiences there weren’t funny like that. In fact they were pretty sad. Not for me, but for the older guys that worked there. Here I was at 19 years old wayward, directionless, aimless and all that other stuff that goes with being 19. But I was in the prime of my life. On the other hand, there I was working with grown ass men my parent’s age. These dudes were in their 40’s with nothing going for themselves. They were there working for minimum wage just like I was. I couldn’t understand it back then. These brothers were down on their luck. Quite a few of them were drunks, ex-cons, drug addicts and God knows what else.
Like this guy named Mike from somewhere deep in Arkansas, he was 39 years old at the time and probably had 27 of his 32 teeth. This was problematic for everyone but Mike, you see, he was missing his front teeth, so when you combine that with his southern accent, I guess you can say the guy pretty much spoke mush mouth. “Hey, I’m a be boopin’ da car, man – wa ou now!”
The most mysterious guy there was an older white guy who looked like somebody from off of the 'Andy Griffith Show'. Go find a picture of the Kennedy assasination from 1963 - he could easily have fit into that picture. Hell, he was probably a part of the conspiracy. He wore coke bottle glasses and baggy slacks and he wore his hair slicked just like Lee Harvey Oswald. He never said a word to anyone. I used to look at him and wonder, what in the hell he was doing working there around so many black guys.
There was a down on his luck, sho nuff fo real drunk (who was also named Mike as well) that worked with us. He was a white guy that was hard to look at. He had tattoos on his arms and looked like he slept in a Meth lab day and night. I think he too, had 27 of his 32 teeth. But mostly he stank.
And there was a fat older guy named Otis - the shoeshine guy. He wore a captains hat everyday and could pick out the instances of on the job related racism faster than you could spit. Now here was an angry dude. He was quiet but he was angry. He’d say things like this: ‘You see that there, Youngblood. Look at the way the white man stands over the brother while he’s working. Do you see it? You know why he’s comfortable doing that don’t ya?”
“Slavery?” I’d say.
“Damn right. He’s trying to catch up on what he missed out on back then. But he better not bring that shit to me.” I tried to steer clear of him.
I suspected most of the brothers there had done some kind of time in prison. But the one dude whom I knew for a fact that had done a whole heap of time I avoided. He had all of his front teeth, but I suspected that he was missing his back teeth, cause I could never understand a word the brother said. His name was Duane. He had a heavy voice, on the rare occasions that he did speak it sounded like a low mumble, no words could be understood. I would just nod my head in agreement whenever he talked.
But without a doubt the most interesting guy there was a gentleman named Ed. At 46 years of age he was hardly ever seen without a bottle of ‘Cool Breeze’. Of the thirty-two teeth that a normal adult has Ed probably had 22. And they were stained yellow and brown. His uneven reddish-brown Afro was misshapen from always wearing a hat. I think he slept with that hat on because the hair on the back of his head would be flat while the sides always stuck out. He had joke about everything and everyone. And the man had no shame.
“Say Youngblood, why don’t you gimme a dollar!” He’d say to me with that squeal of an alcohol and cigarette smoke-stained voice.
“No prob, my brother.” I’d say to him as I’d extend a dollar to him.
“I’ll get you back on pay day, Youngblood.”
Of which would never happen. But I didn’t mind. After a while it got to the point where he owed everyone in the place at least twenty dollars. If you went to him to get your money he’d laugh you off.
“Yo Ed man, what’s up with my money?”
“HA HA HA HA”, he’d laugh with his mouth wide open revealing his twenty-two yellow stained teeth.
“I ain’t laughing Ed, gimme my money!”
“Eha, he he he ha”
“Yo Ed, you gonna be short mo teeth if you don’t gimme my money!”
“AAAAA HA HA AH AHA HA AH HA!”
The circumstances of my co-workers living conditions was bought home one evening at a company meeting, well, I guess you could call it a meeting, mostly the management hollered and cussed at us.
“Goddamn it, I try to help y’all out, but none of y’all appreciate shit!” The manager yelled.
“I give you a little extra money every week and you’d think that some of you would wanna do something for yourselves besides smoke that shit or drink Cool Breeze. But nah, y’all just want to act like your grown asses weren’t taught shit! I found a pair of somebody’s dirty drawers in the washing machine. Now what kind of shit is that?”
All I could think about was somebody washing their drawers there. Just then in mid-thought, Ed tapped me on my shoulder.
“Hey, Youngblood”, he whispered. “Give me a ride home.”
On the way to his house Ed told me about his newfound girlfriend and that he was gonna “hook” me up with her.
“Ok, Ed no prob.”
“Man, you gotta see her Youngblood, she sucked my dick last night.”
Just then the thought of some woman blowing his crusty ass popped into my head. I needed to change the subject. Quick.
“Yo man I’m gonna watch the Tyson fight, wanna come?’
“Nah, I’m getting’ my dick sucked tonight.”
Once again the thought of some woman with feet so dirty that the bottom of her feet were charcoal black and ashy popped into my head. I gotta find a way to keep him off of this subject.
“Yeah, I think he’s gonna take Michael Spinks out tonight.”
“I don’t care”, he said, “I’m fuckin’ tonight.”
“Isn’t this your place right here, Ed?”
“Come on Youngblood, you gotta see her.”
I guess the saying is right: curiosity is a motherfucker. I had to see what kind of broken down, old, dirty-feet havin’, snaggle-tooth, wig wearing, forest creature would be blowing him.
“Oh shit, hell naw, Ed, you’ve been fuckin’ her?”
I couldn’t believe it that ol snaggle-tooth, Cool Breeze drinkin’, quarter- stealin’, dope- fiendin’, no good money grubbin', crusty drawer wearin’ coot was fucking a broad I wouldn’t mind fuckin my damn self. For starters she had all of her teeth and was somewhere near 25 years old, she wasn’t fat and sloppy like I imagined, but thick and fit. How in the hell did this falling down drunk –
“See ya later Youngblood, enjoy the fight.” Ed said as he shut the door.
I hopped in my car and did 80 mph on the freeway laughing to myself thinking about that old lucky snaggle-toothed bastard Cool Breeze Ed.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
One Night At the Executive Playhouse
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 Rahiem LeBlanc 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 will 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 ‘lock up’, ‘the precinct’ and the ‘bullpen’, all in a manner that showed that he had more than a passing familiarity with those types of situations.
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 – the ground 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, shooooop. 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?”
Mark Skillz: “So, when you say he played ‘disco’ music what do you mean? Give me an example of a record that Pete Jones might play.
AJ: 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 says, “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 “Hotshot” 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 ‘Hotshot’ 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.