Harlem Superstar: DJ Hollywood

by

03/25/2023

Neighborhood: Harlem

photo credit Dianne Washington

Harlem Superstar: DJ Hollywood & the Birth of Hip-Hop

This year the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop culture. While it includes elements of break dancing and graffiti, most people’s first thoughts about the genre go to the rappers and DJs behind the music. It has been written that the soundtrack to the movement was kicked off by DJ Kool Herc and his rapping friend Coke La Rock when the former spun records at his baby sister’s birthday party on August 11, 1973 in the Bronx. During that era, however, there were other pioneering DJs hailing from different parts of the city, including Harlem homeboy DJ Hollywood.

While I’m a fan of Herc and many of the vinyl spinners (Grandmaster Flash, Kool DJ AJ, etc.) who followed, DJ Hollywood was the first dude I saw spinning and rapping 46 years ago when he and his crew, The Corporation, plugged into a lamppost outside my building.

Another reason I will always remember that day is because it was also when I smoked my first joint.

***

It was August 1977 and New York City was blazing. It was the season of the infamous blackout and a serial killer called the Son of Sam. The New York Yankees were on their way towards the World Series. Uptown in Harlem, the summer’s 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 fire hydrant sprinklers.

The bustling block where I had lived from the age of four, 151st Street between Broadway and Riverside, was full of rowdy kids who were like family to me. There was Darryl, Beedie, and Marv. One of my best friends was Kyle Jenkins, who was cool as the Fonz and lived upstairs in apartment 4-F with his mother Miss Josephine and his fine sisters.

At fourteen-years-old, Kyle was a tan charmer with short-cropped hair and a slick sense of humor. Not yet in high school, he somehow already knew more about women than I do now. Sharing a mutual love for the Blaxploitation flicks that we saw at the Tapia, the soul music that we listened to on WWRL, and pretty girls, the two of us hung out with our clique after school and on weekends.

Kyle went to public school, while I was at St. Catherine of Genoa and served as an altar boy. Though we were the same age, he was a tad more worldly than I. At age 14 Kyle and a few of my friends were already puffing weed. When we went to the movies at the Tapia, the Roosevelt, or the Victoria on weekend afternoons, I saw folks toking and choking as they watched badass flicks like The Mack, Super Fly or The Chinese Connection. The audience in the theater talked back to the screen, screaming out jokes and comments, hoping to make everyone laugh. Besides the endless junk food that the weed smokers consumed, there didn’t seem to be any problems.

When I decided I wanted to try it too, I went to Kyle. I chose the afternoon of our annual block party, which was always a day of celebration in our neighborhood. In 1970s Harlem, the slang for weed was Buddha Bless. Kyle ducked into a storefront and bought a nickel bag; I’d given him my five dollars earlier. We were both dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and our prized Pro-Keds.

“Let’s take a walk down Broadway, and then we’ll dip down to the Drive,” Kyle said as we walked up the block. At a 147th we turned right at the corner and went down to Riverside. Instead of walking down to the benches, we stood in the doorway of a quiet red brick pre-war apartment building. Kyle pulled out his Bamboo paper and rolled with expertise.

Paranoid before even taking the first puff, I trembled slightly before putting the joint to my lips. Afraid of being busted by my mom, grandmother or one of their nosy 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 clouds of reefer filled my lungs, Kyle advised me to, “hold it inside as long as possible.”

While I was 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 school, or the dopers on Amsterdam Avenue, I soon relaxed and found myself sliding into a hazy mind-state that enhanced the sounds and visions around me. In my young mind there wasn’t enough poetry on the planet to describe the feeling.

“That’s nice,” I mumbled.

After we smoked the joint down to the fire, I leaned against the building and watched as cars zoomed down the street towards the George Washington Bridge and tugs and tourist boats glided across the Hudson River.

“Don’t smoke with everybody,” Kyle advised sagely as we bopped down the sidewalk toward home. “You got to be careful.” In 1977 there was a new menace on the streets of New York City called Angel Dust (PCP). Some of the people smoking it, accidentally thinking it was just weed, were bugging-out from the stuff, losing their minds and killing loved ones.

photo credit Dianne Washington

Me and Kyle returned to 151st Street an hour later and the 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. Their equipment was stacked on a rusty table and wires hung down and connected into the lamppost, stealing its juice. The chubby dude worked in tandem with a skinny light-skinned guy. The pair was jamming loud soul music. I had seen mobile DJs spinning at parties before, but they didn’t talk over the grooves like these two did.

“What is this?” I asked Kyle

“Man, this is that new shit,” he said simply. 

Still stoned, I pushed to the front of the crowd and stared in awe as the dudes talked in rhyme, making new music from the already made music. Alternating between the microphone and turntable, one would play danceable funk on the two turntables while the other guy “talked,” later referred to as rapping, over the beats. The dynamic duo called themselves DJ Hollywood and Lovebug Starski.

Though they are early hip-hop pioneers, with Hollywood coming from Harlem and Starski from the Bronx, they’re rarely cited in the same breath as the old school innovators. Hollywood had got his start spinning for Harlem hustlers in infamous uptown after-hours spots beginning in 1972 and developed his own style. Unlike other DJs who were strictly about the music, Hollywood also rapped.

“I rock the freak and I freak the rock,” he screamed into the microphone. “I’m bonnified, 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 “Rappers Delight” was released on Sugar Hill Records, these rhythmic warriors introduced me to a new breed of music that would change so many lives. At 6 p.m. the police came down the block and began the process of opening the street up. Hollywood and his crew, with a little help from the boys in the hood, moved things down to Riverside Drive and we partied hearty for next few hours.

Being exposed to Hollywood and Starski in their early years was for me the equivalent of a future rocker accidentally running into Robert Johnson at a roadside juke joint. Unfortunately DJ Hollywood wasn’t able to make the transition from parks and parties to records and fame. Though he put out a few singles in the 1980s, they didn’t sell. While fellow Harlemites Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh were rising to the top, Hollywood fell off.

Twenty-years later I was a music journalist at Vibe magazine, under the editorship of Danyel Smith, writing mostly about rap and soul music. As a “hip hop journalist” who’d started documenting the scene back in the ’80s for various fanzines and newspapers, at Vibe, I’d already done features on Pete Rock and Curtis Mayfield. But the person I really wanted to write about was DJ Hollywood. In my mind it was hearing him and his peoples spin and rap that was a changing moment in my life.

Somehow I tracked Hollywood down, and arranged to interview him in a Harlem bar. We drank, smoked cigarettes, and talked as he chronicled his life from the early hip-hop highs to the crack era lows before bouncing back in the 1990s. About an hour into our conversation, Lovebug Starski met up with us. Though he’d had a little success as a rapper with various singles including “You Gotta Believe” (1983, Fever Records) and “Rappin’” (1985, Atlantic Records), and the album House Rocker in 1986, Lovebug too took a fall into drugs and jail.

Spending time with those dudes decades after first being moved by their creativity was cool, not to mention educational and historical. I couldn’t wait to transcribe the interviews and write the story. Back at the Vibe offices, however, before anyone even read my story, it was deemed not commercial enough and the piece was eventually killed. In the era of jiggy ghetto fabulousness, there was little time for hip-hop history.

Thankfully the brilliant music scribe (and my wonderful friend) Mark Skillz finally gave DJ Hollywood his flowers in 2014 with the story “DJ Hollywood: The Original King of New York.” Along with VH1’s Hip Hop Honors in 2005, Skillz’s piece was one of the few places that has given Hollywood his due as a pioneer.

Over four decades later, the billionaire rapper Jay-Z is profiled in Forbes and hip-hop is a zillion dollar industry firmly engrained into the fabric of pop culture. Still, it makes me chuckle that the summer afternoon I smoked my first joint was also the same day I first heard the music that, a few years later, changed the rhythm of the world.

***

Michael A. Gonzales, a native New Yorker, has written for The Village Voice, The Paris Review.com and Essence. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (Harmony Books, 1991) he has written pop culture and true crime essays for CrimeReads, soulhead.com, Catapult, and Oldster.

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§ 2 Responses to “Harlem Superstar: DJ Hollywood”

  • Keith basil morse says:

    I’ve known Hollywood 40+ years. He is very good friend of mine. Congratulations always.

  • Kia Chapman says:

    DJ Hollywood & Holly’s Angels at a park was my intro. to Hip Hop! Bless you Hollywood! The music is still in my bones…

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