Kool DJ Red Alert, April 1989

Red Alert is a legendary presence in hip hop. His show on KISS 98.7FM introduced many to the music and the culture – nowhere more than in the UK, where mixtapes of his broadcasts changed hands for as much as £40. In this interview, he gave Soul Underground a first-hand account of the very earliest days of hip hop.

open-quoteZulu Nation was formed in the mid ’70’s by Afrika Bambaataa who was a warlord of the gang the Black Spades. A lot of people say I was with the Black Spades but when I was going to junior high school, there were quite a few gangs around at the time. I was liked by so many gangs because they knew me from playing basketball. That’s also how I got my name, Red Alert. The Black Spades asked me to play for them against another team that represented another gang. But I never knew Bambaataa until later on but I knew a lot of people from the Bronx River who were in the Black Spades. So really, I was never part of the Black Spades even though I had my times! But so did everyone else!

Bam was also learning all the different concepts of music from Motown, Sly and the Family Stone to George Clinton and James Brown. He also studied Africa and he won a contest to go there. It had a great influence on him and as soon as he came back, he formed a system called Zulu Nation which consisted of breakdancers called ‘Shaka-Zulu’s’. They were soon called beat-boys and beat-girls or shaka-zulu kings and shaka-zulu queens.

Kool Herc was very underground… he wasn’t a big name but to the street kids and the school kids, they always knew where a Kool Herc party was happening!

But the person to credit for the beginnings of hip hop is Kool Herc. He came from Kingston, Jamaica and he had this technique called dubbing — playing a small portion of the record where it had a breakbeat going from turntable to the other. It wasn’t really mixed in time to the beat but it created a new sound that everybody wanted to hear. Kool Herc was very underground… he wasn’t a big name but to the street kids and the school kids, they always knew where a Kool Herc party was happening! There was no advertising, it was just word of mouth and the whole place would be packed.

The very first MC I knew was Coke La Rock and he used to say one rhyme, ‘Say you rock and you don’t stop’. Then he’d say to someone, ‘Rock on my mellow’ and the people would love it! Later on he got his own DJ called Little Timmy who learned how to mix on time. He started using new breaks, such as The Rolling Stones, Baby Huey and James Brown.

I used to go to all the Kool Herc parties and you’d see this little red-haired guy running around listening all the sounds. I used to sit on the side watching the DJ all night. Then I’d go home and practice on my little stereo until I got my own style. Jazzy Jay, my cousin, learnt all the basics from me.

Then Bambaataa started hearing about Jazzy Jay who was discovered by another old-tlmer, Disco King Mario, who didn’t treat him right, So Bam put Jazzy with his other two DJs, Zombu and and Sinbad. Then of course, Jazzy started telling Barn about me. Finally he brought me in. It came to the point where there were 3 DJs and 10 emcees because Bam was the type of guy where if he liked you, he’d put you in. There was Pow Wow, Mister Big MC Hutch, Ice Ice, part of the Jazzy 5 and part of the Cosmic Force.

It came to the point where there were 3 DJs and 10 emcees because Bam was the type of guy where if he liked you, he’d put you in.

Then Bam took the whole entourage to New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and eventually Manhattan where all the trendsetters were. We went to clubs such as Danceteria, where Bam dropped the record ‘Jazzy Sensation’ by The Jazzy 5. By the lime we reached Roxy’s, he had ‘Planet Rock’ out and that opened the doors for everybody. Then people started to learn about Zulu Nation and they had Whiz Kid, Afrika Islam, Rock Steady Crew and groups from the earlier days such as Cold Crush Brothers, Funky Four and the Force MCs — now the Force MDs. There was Busy Bee Starski and Love Bug Starski. The list goes!

People started branching out from the Roxy: D. St. hooked up with Herbie Hancock, Afrika Islam got Involved with the West Coast Rhyme Syndicate, Jazzy Jay formed his own studio and produced Don Baron, Masters of Ceremony and Busy Bee. I branched out to work with Kiss FM.

Before I got on the radio they had Afrika Islam and then Jazzy Jay. Both were impatient because they didn’t see dollars! When I came on, Kiss were bit dubious because they thought I was gonna pull the same trick. What the others didn’t understand was that it opened doors for you because you’re being heard over the radio end then the industry lakes interest. So after one month of doing their format they let me do my own. You had to learn their concept of playing music and how to break new records first.

At first I was on the radio every other Saturday night from 11pm to 2am. I used to be on tape so I’d record a cassette and they’d dub it off reel to reel and then play on air. After three months they put me on the payroll. In October ’89 It will be my sixth year!

After two years of having me on the payroll they moved my show down to 9pm to midnight because they heard I had a consistent way of mixing records live. I was never into editing, splicing or pulling fancy tricks because the same audience that listen to you on air want to hear you in the clubs – so you can’t be too clever because they won’t be able to dance to you. So they put me on live and is was a prime time but it also put me against a person on the other end of the dial!

I give Mr. Magic credit because be was the very first person to play rap on the radio in 1980. First he worked for a small Independent station called WHBI. Then he moved to WBLS with a show called ‘Rap Attack’, Then in ‘83 he started noticing other people coming on another station: first he dissed Jazzy Jay and then me.

I look at it this way. How do you gain respect if you disrespect others? You can’t get respect from the people you work with, your opponents, not from the industry. I don’t mind Magic saying things about me because he doesn’t pay me my paycheck. Only thing I can say was that he was advertising me. Because when you’re doing something good, they’ll talk about you. When you’re not, they won’t.

But as of two weeks ago Mr. Magic has been cut off the radio. I can’t say I’m happy for him because I don’t like to see anyone fall but when you bring it on yourself what can you do?

During his time on the radio they used to make comments and dis records but I had a group that were down with me called Boogie Down Productions with Scott La Rock. Scott made ‘South Bronx’, which is where it all started, as far as hip hop. Then MC Shan came out with ‘Beat You Down’ and so another record came back in return called The Bridge Is Over’ and they had me do a little part in there! After Scott’s death, we vowed that we’d continue our relationship and BDP became one big family. So Mr. Magic and Marley Marl had the Juice Crew. But, like I say, I was never the cause of the problem except that I played my music.

Then I made this mastermix because everyone was saying, ‘Yo – Magic’s dissing you’. So I did this tape saying, ‘Sorry Mr. Magic, big big mouth, big big mouth’ and it really upset him. But you can’t dis if you can’t take it back. So then I let it die out. But then they came back with Marley’s record, ‘Duck Alert’. I saw the MC who did that record and he said, ‘Yo, yo they made me do itl’ II that was the case why didn’t he make a whole album dissing me because I love it when they talk about me! And here it is, Mr. Magic is no longer there and he was the cause of all of this!’

Marley Marl and I had a conversation during the ‘Stop the Violence’ video shoot and he came up to me end said, ‘thank you for playing The Symphony’ and I said, ‘no problem’. Because I’m the type of person who, if I can’t stand you but your music sounds good, I’ll play it. The same goes that you may be the best of friends with me but if your music is not good, I won’t play it. Friendship and business do not collide.close-quote

© Hannah Ford
Originally published in Soul Underground, April 1989