DJ Hollywood: The Original King of New York
In 1970s Harlem, one man with a golden voice and a great idea transformed party rocking forever
Those old enough to remember call him the Godfather of Rap. He was the King of New York when hustlers wore sharkskin suits. He was the Jay-Z of the 70s. Now he’s kissing 60-years-old and can still rock a party. There’s no million dollar check waiting for him or royalty money from a hit single. Those days have passed. Now, it’s about the love he’s always had playing music.
But don’t get it twisted: in his heyday, he made money. More than any other rapper in his era. And this was before records. Not Herc, nor Bam, or Flash, or Starsky were making $500 a show back then.
“I was in demand,” he told me. “People wanted that, that, that… seasoning. And once I realized that it was me they wanted, I figured, well, they’ll have to pay a couple of extra dollars to get me.” And they did. Lines stretched for blocks to hear what the flyers advertised as the “golden voice” of DJ Hollywood.
“Before me,” he proclaimed, in the same kind of prophetic voice that the guy who discovered fire many millenniums ago may have used, “there was none. And after me…” he pauses and reflects, “there was all.”
He means that literally.
“Nobody was doin’ the turntables and the microphone before me. Nobody,” he emphasizes. “Don’t get me wrong,” he continues, “they had people [who] rapped before me—syncopated and unsyncopated. I can’t take nothin’ away from people like Oscar Brown Jr., Pigmeat Markham, the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, the Watts Prophets, Rudy Ray Moore, I used to listen to all of ‘em. I can’t take nothin’ from none of ‘em… but none of ‘em was doin’ what I was doin’ with the turntables and a mic.”
His influence on the genre he helped to pioneer is evident in the styles of DJ’s Kid Capri, Biz Markie and Lovebug Starsky, as well as rappers who specialize in crowd participation like Kurtis Blow and Doug E Fresh.
The only public acknowledgement he’s received for his hand in the creation of rap was back in 2005 on VH1’s Hip Hop Honors. For the most part, he gets left out of the story because many of his contemporaries, like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, have dismissed him as having been “disco.”
“Can you believe that? Disco?” he asks me, apparently annoyed at the idea. “What the fuck is that? So, okay, I’m disco, aight, aight,” he says, “I’m the disco nigga that made all of you niggas in hip-hop do what this nigga in disco was doin’.”
To understand his contributions, we have to travel back in time to the world inhabited by a fourteen-year-old runaway named Anthony Holloway.
Little Child, Runnin’ Wild
“Here kid, move my car,” a hustler called out to him, holding up a set of keys to a brand new Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Fumbling through the pockets of his pearl grey sharkskin suit, the man realizes he’s down to his last cigarette. “And while you’re at it,” he says, reaching into his pocket peeling off a couple of bills from a thick wad of cash, “go get me some cigarettes.” Other customers take notice, and they too eagerly dig into pockets and purses fishing out keys and money for the same type of service.
Which was fine by young Anthony.
He was more than happy to run these kinds of errands during the course of a day. He was at the beck and call of the slickest gangsters in the city. And he loved it. He was a fourteen year-old runaway obsessed with the fast life of hustlers and pimps, and the men and women who populated their world.
“My mother and I just didn’t see eye to eye,” he explained to me. “She had a lot of rules. My drive to go to school wasn’t there. I wanted to breathe. I used to see the hustlers man, and I would just marvel at the hustlers. That was the world I wanted to be in. They had the cars and money and jewelry, all that fly stuff.”
Initially, when he left home, he found shelter in a basement. In the suffocating summertime heat, he slept on rooftops to stay cool. Eventually he started living in the after-hours establishments he worked at. The clubs were dark, smoke-filled places where every vice could be had and any desire satisfied discreetly in the shadows. Windows weren’t just shut, they were covered with dark sheets to maintain a state of perpetual blackness. It would be so dim in there that you could come in at night and leave at three o’clock in the afternoon the next day, and have no idea how much time you’d lost, because you hadn’t seen a flicker of sunlight in hours.
Anthony made little bits of tip money moving cars, buying cigarettes and picking up “packages” for the clientele. He also indulged in the same activities as the grown men he admired: he smoked what they smoked, he drank what they drank, and he sniffed what they sniffed. “It was a whole lotta fun,” he says now. “I was partying all I wanted, and had all the ‘get high’ I wanted, too. That stuff later ruined my life.”
As fast as he was living he wasn’t making a name for himself as a tough street guy, on the contrary, he was earning a rep as a dancer.
Love Is the Message
“I first made my name in Harlem because of a dance called the ‘Bus Stop.’ I could ‘Bus Stop’ and I could ‘Hustle.’ I was nasty at it. I wasn’t Puerto Rican nasty at it, but I was good at it. I was making moves, looking good. Every party I would go to people would say, ‘Let me see you Bus Stop!’ Everything I did back then was theatrical. That’s how I got the name Hollywood.”
What really caught his attention was the way DJ W.T. would play the music. From behind a pair of record players and a mic connected to a small mixer, Hollywood would marvel at the way W.T. talked as Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Makin’ Love” was fading out, and Young, Holt and Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” was fading in. Hollywood loved his delivery. This too became an obsession.
To satisfy his thirst, Hollywood started playing in after-hours spots that catered to hustlers. One was on 132nd Street called Jet Set. The other was Lovely’s on 148th Street. In 1971, for fifteen bucks a night, six nights a week, he labored to learn the craft that would later make him a legend. Record after record, he’d listen for little spaces where he could talk. Sometimes, he’d find it at the beginning. Other times, it was in the middle, when all of the music would drop out and just the drum and bass rocked together. Right there, he’d say to himself, a perfect spot to say a little more.
Over a song like “Cissy Strut” by The Meters, he found space to have long conversations, rhyme after rhyme, even adding little bits of call-and-response to the routine: If you’re feeling good with Hollywood somebody say, Oh yeah! And the sharply-dressed patrons, in a funkdafied orgasmic state, drinks in hand, would shout back: Oh yeah!
“I was a singer before I ever became a DJ,” he explained to me. “I had a natural flair for talking over the records. Before me, everybody was just announcing. I had a voice. I used to like the way Frankie Crocker would ride a track, but he wasn’t syncopated to the track though. I liked [WWRL DJ] Hank Spann too, but he wasn’t on the one. Guys back then weren’t concerned with being musical. I wanted to flow with the record. As a singer that’s what you’re supposed to do. I guess I had a natural awareness of when to start talking and when to stop talking over a record.”
Week by week, month after month, Hollywood’s call-and-response routines and mixing abilities got more and more skillful. As his style of rocking the mic improved, he mixed in toasts like Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite,” the talk of the ghetto.
Some folks say that Willie Green
Was the baddest motherfucker the world ever seen►
Hollywood imitated that kind of rhyme pattern, but when he did it, he did it to the beat.
In 1975, while at home playing records, he stumbled upon Isaac Hayes’ “Good Love.” He couldn’t move. He sat transfixed by the song’s lyrics.
I’m listed in the yellow pages all around the world
Thirty years experience in lovin’ sweet young girls
Just call, the good love, six-nine-nine-six-nine
Good love, six-nine-nine-six-nine
I’m the king of the woman’s world
They tell me from town to town
And when I found a deservin’ queen
I’m gonna share my crown
But until I meet my match
I’m gonna have some fun
I’m gonna keep on bustin’ ‘em out now baby and stayin’ on the run►
At that moment, he had no idea that he had stumbled upon the equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle. He spent hours playing the song over and over. Looking at the record spinning an idea struck him: What if I take what he’s singin’ and put it with this?
“This” was a song called “Love Is the Message” by MFSB. “Love Is the Message” was eleven minutes long, most of which was corny, except for the last three or four minutes of the record. The breakdown was incredible.
The first time he said those lyrics in front of the crowd at a small bar off of 125th Street between Park and Lexington called A Bunch of Grapes, people lost their minds. “I told myself: Wood, you got something here!” he remembers.
It made him famous, more famous than he could ever imagine. “Everybody bit that rhyme,” he told me. “I would go to jams and people would be saying that rhyme, and none of them, not one of them, knew where it came from. It blew my mind.” Hollywood’s re-interpretation of Isaac Hayes’ lyrics would serve as the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-te-do for early MCs and DJs who were getting their feet wet on the mic—especially in Harlem and Queens.
Word quickly spread beyond Harlem to the South Bronx, where a group of transit workers, who called themselves the Ten Good Guys, were putting together a club at 371 E. 166th Street.
The Holy Shrine
Nothing remains of the building that used to be at 371 E. 166th Street. It burned down a couple of years ago. For many years, it had been home to the Islamic Cultural Center, which sat in the middle of the block between Clay and Teller off of Webster Ave. Thirty years ago, the building had once been home to a disco—with two floors, jam packed with people from all over the city. It was called Club 371.
The Ten Good Guys invested thousands of dollars into their business venture. From the street, descending the stairs into the club’s interior, there was a long, mahogany wood-paneled bar off to the left. In the middle, just by the dance floor, was another wet bar. Surrounding the square-shaped, sunken-in dance floor were couches and tables with chairs. Right across from the DJ booth in the back was the VIP room.
Dianne Washington was the first of the club’s regulars. She remembers her first night there. “The guy at the door says it’s two dollars. I looked at him. I told my sister to wait here a second. As I walked down there from the top of the stairs, I heard Wood rappin’ on the mic. I had never heard anything like that before. I went back upstairs and told my sister, Maaaaaan, shit, we could pay five dollars for this. This dude gonna start somethin’ up in here.”
Pretty soon a group of regulars gravitated around Hollywood. They were the core members of what would be called The Corporation. “Initially, there was me,” Dianne continued, “Captain Jack, Spanish Mack, Junebug, LTD, King Solomon and Oh Henry.” The crew followed him practically everywhere he went.
“He would say, Corporation converge,” Dianne recalls, “and we would be set up at different points around the dance floor. So when he’d say it, we would take the three steps down to the floor and dance around him.”
Word spread like wildfire throughout the Bronx about a DJ doing amazing things in a new club. Among the spectators was Grandmaster Flash and his partner Disco Bee. “When I went there and seen this guy doin’ and sayin’ all this stuff,” Disco Bee tells me now, “I was like whoa!”
Maybe there was something in the water, because in 1975 there was a musical revolution bubbling out of the asphalt of the streets of the Bronx. There were two movements coming up alongside each other, there was the rhythm and blues-based style of DJ’s like Hollywood, Pete Jones and others. And then there was the hardcore, breakbeat style of music founded by Kool Herc, Bambaataa, and Flash.
“I had heard of Kool Herc and his partner Coke LaRock,” Hollywood told me in a phone conversation. “A couple of friends of mine named Al and Coop used to play at the Hevalo on the nights that Herc wasn’t playing there. They would come back and tell me about the obscure records they were playing and people diving on the floor and shit. That wasn’t really my scene.”
When I interviewed him back in 2005, Kool Herc told me, “I would go there [Club 371] and see him. He would say things like, Holly! And his crew would shout back, Bring your Wood! Or he’d say, Get the bone out your back, boy! And they’d say, Get the bone out your back girl.
For Kool Herc and many of his followers, Hollywood had nothing to do with their movement.
“People talk about me not being hip-hop,” Wood told me. “Well, it’s because I spun the whole record. When the ‘get down’ part would come on, I would keep it going. Herc and them guys, they practiced playing the obscure parts of records. I played stuff like ‘Paradise’ and ‘Mambo Number Five’ and ‘Scorpio,’ but that wasn’t a big part of what I did. I played for hustlers. I played for people that came sharp to the party. You really had to come correct at the spots I was playing at. Harlem was on some smooth shit way before the Bronx.
“As far as the creation of hip-hop goes, with the guys spinning on their heads, and the rare breaks, I can’t take credit for that, but when it comes to rap… I had a big hand in the creation of that.”
Denise Briggs, a.k.a. DJ Lady Love, was one of the first female DJs from Queens. She had seen all of the top DJs and MCs of that time but was blown away one night at the La Chalet in Queens. “He said, Let’s rock! And the crowd shouted back and roll! It was crazy. I had never seen a DJ who had the whole crowd under his thumb the whole time he played.”
As Hollywood’s popularity grew, so did the club and the cost to get in. “It was the first black club in New York to gross over a million dollars in a year,” DJ Eddie Cheba told me. “Not to say what they made under the table.”
Due to Hollywood’s popularity, the demand to see him became overwhelming. He went from charging fifteen bucks a night, to twenty-five bucks a night, to one hundred and fifty bucks a night, to five hundred bucks for an hour—which was unheard of at the time.
“In the 70s,” Hollywood remembers, “niggas was gettin’ a hundred dollars with a sound system. I told [promoters] I wanted five.” And he got it. He would play five clubs around the city, for an hour at each venue in one night, and collect five hundred bucks a pop—without bringing his sound system. He was also the opening act at the Apollo Theatre, where rumor has it, he made fifteen hundred bucks a night. Which means in one weekend, he was making somewhere near sixty-five hundred dollars! By 1979 standards, he was getting stoopid paid.
His impact on the streets was absolutely crazy.
In 1972, he started selling his mixes on eight-track tapes for twelve bucks a pop at soul food spots and barber shops. “I went anywhere where there was a bunch of brothers with money,” he told me recently. “Back then though, there was no dubbing, so I had to record each individual tape. It got to the point where, as soon as I would come outside, and say, ‘I got tapes!’ brothers would roll up and be like, ‘Yeah, gimme one of those!’ My tapes would be gone in a flash. That was the real start of the mixtape game.”
And it didn’t end there.
“I had this friend named Gary.” Wood recalled. Gary had a ‘98 Oldsmobile, [and] he used to buy a whole lot of my tapes. I mean he had a lot of ‘em. What he would do is park his car near this schoolyard, I can’t remember where, but he would play my tapes while he played ball. There was this kid who would come around whenever he was there. He kept telling me, ‘Man, this kid don’t wanna play no ball when I come around with your tapes. All he wanna do is sit in my car and listen to your tapes.’ Later, I started hearin’ about this kid, people would come up to me and be like, ‘Yo, Wood man, there’s this kid named Starsky, man he gets down just like you do, he sounds just like you and everything!’”
The kid would become known as Lovebug Starsky and would later coin the phrase “hip-hop.”
The Lion In Winter
Nowadays the crowds are smaller, and the pay isn’t what it used to be. The half million dollars he made in his heyday are long gone. A lot of it went up his nose and on Lord knows what else. But the energy, the love of the music is still there. When I called to interview him, he was busy in the studio recording tracks.
“There’s twenty thousand cats that wanna be DJs now,” he tells me. “It’s all kinds of actors, singers and celebrities that wanna be DJs, and none of ‘em know what it is.”
To illustrate what he means he says, “Look, you got Idris Elba, he’s a DJ. MC Lyte, she’s a DJ. That makes a real DJ say… what’re you gonna do? All these people doin’ it, and it’s messin’ the game up. I’ve been through this decade after decade after decade. It’s a changing of the guard. But I’m not goin’ anywhere. I’m still cuttin’ ass, you hear me? I’ve been here for forty-three years workin’. Even when I was cracked out and cold fucked up, niggas would clean me up, so I could rock a party. In 1979, my name was in lights on the marquee at the Apollo. It’s 2014, and my name was in lights at BB King’s. I’m not goin’ nowhere!”
DJ Hollywood’s book True Hip-Hop Memoirs Presents: It’s Star Time by Lucio Dutch and Anthony Holloway is available now from Caramel City Publications
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