Last weekend, I was scanning my Twitter feed and several posts indicated that the great New York hip hop radio legend, Kool DJ Red Alert was celebrating 30 years in the game. That caught me by surprise. For 29 of those years, we have known each other. Where did the time go?
When we first met, I made a living getting records exposed, and he exposed ’em. We ran in the same circles but there was a difference between us; I worked as both an independent operative, and a staff member for important but small record labels where hip hop was taken seriously. Red was a DJ for a few hours every weekend on the powerhouse New York Urban outlet, 98.7 Kiss-FM and because he was one of the guys who could give your record airtime, DJ Red Alert became one of the most important figures from the golden age of hip hop.
In addition to getting my records to him at the station, I’d see him everywhere; shows where new artist and stars were performing, the multi leveled new wave, dance and hip hop smorgasbord at Danceteria, the spot where Madonna was discovered by in house DJ Mark Kamins, and the girls had purple hair mow-hawk haircuts, body piercings and combat boots, but they loved to shake it to U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne Roxanne”. I’d see him at the shabby chic cavern of The World where I caught the DC go-go band Trouble Funk play “Drop The Bomb”, where I hung out with Coati Mundi from Kid Creole and The Coconuts and I watched Andy Warhol look on in stoic fashion. I’d see Red at the rotating art instillation with bars and booming system that doubled as the club called Area where the downtown mix master Justin Strauss spun hip hop, new wave and disco to good effect. Boy George and Grace Jones were frequently seen there and pioneering filmmakers Darnell Martin and Kate Lanier worked there too.
I would hear Red spinning at the B-Boy headquarters of the Roxy, the roller skating rink in pre-gentrified Chelsea where the rock and roll swindler, Malcolm McClaren’s cohort, Ruza Blue promoted a party that catered to adventurous European dancers, b-boys and girls and the members of the emerging hip hop business. It was the place where Afrika (Bam) Bambaattaa, the Zulu overlord first held sway on the 1 and 2s, and formed a small beach head in the alternative rock world and began to slowly introduce members of his Zulu Nation clique to the untapped and unsettled region known as Downtown. Along with Red’s cousins Jazzy Jay and Afrika Islam, Bam sponsored each of them as DJs at the Roxy. Around the same time, Bam released the anthemic smash “Planet Rock” and a young visionary radio programmer named Barry Mayo was hired at 98.7 Kiss FM to challenge the hegemony of the “Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker at WBLS-FM. Red Alert was central to Mayo’s strategy to unseat Crocker and BLS as the primary outlet for Urban programming in New York.
Crocker and WBLS were enjoying tremendous success as the number one overall station in New York by programming a mixture of independent Black Dance and corporate Black Pop releases that he chose, and New Wave and crossover pop records that were chosen for him by a transplanted young Chicagoan named Beth Yenni. He also added hip hop records that he was forced to play but he never fully embraced the music. This created an opportunity for Mayo, and he elected to play any and all records that appealed to 12-24 year old Black and Latin kids, and in the New York of that time that meant hip hop.
Mayo formed an alliance with clubs, labels and retailers who were catering to the tastes of this 12-24 demo and built his growing powerhouse by playing any “bangers” that would appeal to them. He reached out for Bam, the planet rocker for recommendations for a weekend mix show that he was launching. Red’s cousins Islam and Jazzy had gotten shots but weren’t feeling radio. Tommy Boy record exec, Monica Lynch recommended Red and history was made.
Red grew up in Harlem and went to school in the Bronx, he also had a brief but important career as a basketball star at the All American factory, Dewitt Clinton High School, alma mater of Nate “Tiny” Archibald. When I met him, he hadn’t become a hip hop legend yet, but he had the juice to make his name ring out. He was on the rise.
As I have detailed previously, I grew up in a small town just outside of the northern tip of Manhattan and slightly south of the Boogie Down that I now call Soul City, around the same time that Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz and others were inventing our thing. The heat of the moment was making its way across the Hudson River and infected Soul City with the fever too. Like many who pioneered in our thing, Red put in some nonspecific type of work in the street that could easily be described by the catchall phrase “hustling,” before he started spinning. The citizens of Harlem, the Boogie Down and Soul City all flowed freely through each others communities and hustlers and their aesthetic permeated these districts.
Red went back to the earliest days of hip hop and caught the feeling early, I spoke with him recently and asked, how it all began? He replied, “When I was in school, I played ball, but I used to go to all the hot parties in New York,” he said, “I snuck downtown to Negril, I went to Kool Herc’s parties in the Bronx, park jams, and all the rest… and I just paid attention. At that time, I didn’t care about girls, drinking or anything else, it was all about music. I would go and stand in front of the booth and just peep what the DJ was playing.” He paused and continued, “My family background is Caribbean, so I heard a lot of different kinds of music because of the culture and because of my older brother. I heard the reggae, ska, funk, soul and disco and I loved it all.”
Along with a few other spots, the Roxy formed the world that we affectionately referred to as Downtown, the area of town were the fewest restrictions were enforced, unfettered creativity was allowed to flourish, freedom of expression was valued most and the place where we operated with comfort. Mainstream Black culture and Black owned media outlets held us at arm’s length. Our path toward wider acceptance began through alternative White media, clubs and rock press. You were more likely to read 3,000 words written about one of us in The Village Voice or Spin Magazine, than you were to read a paragraph about any of us in Ebony or Essence. Early on, Afrika Bambaattaa was the primary force and conduit for access. When I asked, if at the time, “Was Bam running an underground railroad from Uptown to Downtown?”
Red said, “Yeah, he was the Harriet Tubman for that time.”
Even though he may have had the methods of a monastic record collecting nerd, by the time I met Red, he conveyed a different image all together. He played the smooth Uptown hustler chic. He wore flavor jogging suits with color coordinated track shoes and rocked whatever the official bomber, shearling or label promotion jacket that was in vogue that season. His jewelry game was basic and tasteful; one thin chain, no medallion, no ice. Casual, neat, trendy and understated. No flash, his vibe said, “player at work.”
While we talked, he mentioned corporate record execs who treated our thing with disdain and didn’t take him seriously because of his gear. Class based discrimination was rampant in the record business of the New York of the ’80s and ’90s, and his beef echoed experiences of my own. He recalled a particular regional rep who worked for Motown, who didn’t quite get it, “Yeah, I used to make it my business to get as many different records from different labels as I could. I went by this guy’s office and he handled me crazy, he treated me like I was a piece of shit. Tony Gray, my PD, called him up later, and cursed him out like crazy. After that, I never had problems getting records from him again.”
Subsequently, Red has had few problems in the game at all. New York’s Hot 97 hosted the Red Head and Funk Master Flex made way one more time for the legend. These days, the legend is based in Atlanta and is a family man working on his Prop Master clothing line. He does the occasional gig with Chubb Rock and we recently collaborated when I helped him get on the EVR.com website with the help of my old friend Mark Ronson. Red played a few classics for the storefront East Village online radio station and rocked “Pump It Up” by Trouble Funk while setting Twitter on fire for a bit. If I closed my eyes and imagined, I felt like I was transported back to the late ’80s Downtown when Red Alert held sway and the Zulus ran the motherfucker.
For Monica Lynch, Tony Gray, Chuck Chillout, The Awesome 2, The Latin Rascals and Super Rocking Mr. Magic R.I.P.
Read Full Post »