Broadway Buddhas and the Birth of Hip-Hop
originally published in One More Robot #8
New York City, 1977: it was the humid summer of a serial killer named the Son of Sam, the infamous blackout and Bronx bombers the Yankees heading towards the World Series. Uptown in Washington Heights, the sweltering streets were alive with musical ice cream trucks, the sweaty slaps of Dominican domino games, perspiring boys pitching pennies on the corner and young kids darting through the fire hydrant sprinklers.
The bustling block where I lived on 151st Street between Broadway and Riverside from the age of four was full of rowdy kids who were like family. My best friend was Kyle Jenkins, who was cool as the Fonz and lived upstairs in apartment 4-F with his gossipy mother Miss Josephine and five fine sisters.
At 13-years-old, Kyle was a tan-skinned charmer with short-cropped hair and a slick sense of humor. Not yet in high school, Kyle knew more about women then than I know now. Sharing a mutual love forblaxploitation flicks, soul music and pretty girls, we were together constantly.
Hanging on Riverside Drive, a few blocks from our building, we stood in the doorway of a quiet red-brick pre-war apartment house and Kyle sparked a bamboo paper rolled joint. In seventies New York, the slang for weed was Budda and Kyle bought trey bags for three dollars each from a red-door storefront spot up on Broadway.
Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and Pro-Keds sneakers, I was paranoid before even taking the first puff. Although I had never smoked before, the year before my mom found a High Times magazine stashed in a box that also contained copies of Players and Cheri. While she didn’t seem to mind the smut, mom lost her mind over the High Times.
As cars zoomed down the street towards the George Washington Bridge and tugs and tourist boats glided across the Hudson River, I trembled slightly as Kyle passed me the joint and I put it to my lips. Afraid of being busted by my mother, grandmother or one of their nosey friends, my head spun around like that little girl in The Exorcist.
“The faster you smoke, the faster we can get out of here,” Kyle said, amused by my caution. As the clouds of reefer filled my lungs, he advised me to “hold it inside as long as possible”. While scared of becoming a corner-nodding junkie hanging around Needle Park like the losers I’d seen in the anti-drug propaganda films the nuns showed at St. Catherine of Genoa, I soon relaxed.
Sliding into a hazy mind-state that enhanced the sounds and visions of the world, in my young mind there wasn’t enough electric poetry on the planet to describe the feeling. “That’s nice,” I mumbled blissfully.
“Don’t smoke that with everybody,” Kyle advised sagely as we later bopped down Broadway. Although we were the same age, Kyle seemed older because of his worldly ways. At the time, there was a new drug menace on the streets of New York City called Angel Dust (PCP) and people – some who slipped up and smoked it accidentally – were bugging out from the stuff.
In comparison, weed seemed much more fun. Going to the movies at the Tapia or the Roosevelt on Saturday afternoons, I saw folks smoking, toking and choking as they watched badass blaxploitation movies and karate flicks while talking back to the screen. Besides the endless junk food they consumed, there didn’t seem to be any problems.
Returning to 151st Street a half-hour later, Kyle and I walked down the hill where our annual block party was in full swing. Strolling slowly down the street, I noticed a chubby dude and his crew standing behind a set of turntables. With their equipment stacked on a rusty lunchroom table, wires hung down and connected into the lamppost, stealing juice.
Along with a skinny light-skinned guy, the pair jammed loud soul sides, yet only playing and replaying the same parts. While I had seen guys spinning at parties before, they usually played the whole song and didn’t talk so much over the music; obviously, this was something different. “What are they doing?” I asked.
Since Kyle went to a wild school, my altar boy self merely assumed he knew all the musical movements bubbling in the underground. “Man, this is that new stuff,” he said simply. Still stoned, I pushed to the front of the crowd and stared in awe as the dudes talked in rhymes and made new music from borrowed basslines and drumbeats. As the lanky one played the disco funk of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Brazilian Rhyme’ on two turntables, I listened closely to the other guy ‘talking’, which later was referred to as rapping, over the beat.
Later I learnt that the dynamic duo called themselves DJ Hollywood and Lovebug Starski. Though they were early hip-hop pioneers, Hollywood and Starski are rarely cited in the same breath as Bronx-identified old schoolers like Caz, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Still, as the first rapper and DJ duo I ever saw on the streets of New York City, the musical legacy of Hollywood and Starski was just as important to the history of pre-pop hip-hop as the boogie down boys in the Bronx.
Nodding my head, the music grabbed hold of my consciousness and kicked down the doors of aural perception. “I rock the freak and I freak the rock,” Hollywood rapped into the microphone, constructing a new form of urban poetics. “I’m bona fide, I’m certified and I’m qualified to do/I say anything your heart can stand, it all depends on you/I’m listed in the yellow pages, all around the world/I got 21 years experience with loving sweet young girls.”
Two years before the single ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was released on Sugar Hill Records, taking street-smart hip-hop culture and transforming it into a pop community, Hollywood and Starski introduced me to the music. Indeed, being exposed to those rhythmic warriors that summer afternoon was the equivalent of a future blues fan accidentally running into Robert Johnson at the crossroads, a budding rock star seeing The Beatles jamming in Hamburg, or a young trumpet player being gifted Miles Davis’s brilliant Kind of Blue.
Over 30 years later, rapper Jay-Z can be seen profiling on the cover of Forbes and hip-hop has long become a billion dollar ‘branded’ industry firmly ingrained into the fabric of pop culture. Still, it makes me chuckle that the day I smoked my first joint coincided with my introduction to the music that, a few years into the future, changed the rhythm of the world.