As someone who lived in New York during the ’80s – and paid rapt attention to the city’s black radio powerhouses then – I found a lot to love about Revolutions on Air, a documentary from RBMA about that time and place. It paints portraits of a whole crew of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who had only been names to me previously... and shines a welcome light as well on such certified hip hop icons as Red Alert and Marley Marl. It also contains a glimpse of my old pal Chuck Chillout – another Hall of Fame DJ from hip hop’s golden era. You can see him for yourself, to the left of Red Alert, in a vintage photo that’s onscreen from 14:11 to 14:13.
But when I spoke to Chuck about the doc, he was kind of tight. It wasn’t just that he himself wasn’t interviewed. Watched closely, Revolutions On Air turns out to be about the two separate scenes – dance music and hip hop – that jointly (if somewhat separately) revolutionized New York radio. In the film, Tony Humphries, one of the master mixers for the station known as KISS, alludes to the tension that existed between the two camps. “Hip hop people would not get into dance records or disco records and they had their little biases,” he says.
To hear Chuck tell it in the interview below, the dance people had their little biases, too. In fact, there was undoubtedly social tension between the two scenes even as there was a ton of musical admiration. After laying out some of the nuances of this complicated relationship, Chuck takes us on a tour of his early days as a record collector and DJ in the Bronx, and of his adventures at WRKS, AKA KISS, in the ’80s. Think of it as a hip hip supplement to Revolutions on Air, which loves disco a little too much and hip hop not quite enough.
If you had been the director of Revolutions On Air, who would you have cast in it?
Well, I would put World Famous Supreme Team in there, The Awesome Two, DNA, Hank Love, myself, Red Alert, Marley, Afrika Islam with “Zulu Beats,” and a lot of people that had shows on WHBI – because in the early days, before there was rap on commercial radio, you had to go to WHBI. They was the only persons that was playing rap at two in the morning. They were very instrumental in breaking acts.
It seems to me that Revolutions favored dance-oriented DJs over guys who were more hip hop-oriented.
Them dance cats didn’t like us. We didn’t really hang out with those guys. I know I didn’t. I just remember going to the dance clubs to hear their music – and they were playing good music. For instance, you had Tony Humphries at Club Zanzibar. He had that place off the hook. First time I heard Grace Jones, Peech Boys, “Seventh Heaven” by Gwen Guthrie, “Just An Illusion” by Imagination. Then there was Larry Levan. I heard him cut up the 12-inch of GQ’s “Disco Nights” at Paradise Garage. He had it first, before anyone else, because he was mixing a lot of those records. Those records broke from those clubs before they got on the radio. But the only cat I really hung out with really back then who gave me some kind of respect was Tony Humphries. Because Timmy Regisford didn’t like us hip hop dudes and neither did Larry Levan.
What was the beef?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. You should speak to them. Timmy just looked at you and didn’t say nothing: “Hey, what’s up?” That was it. He didn’t want no real conversation. Larry Levan? Me and Red Alert went to go see him at Paradise Garage one night. He comes down the stairs and goes, “What are you guys doing here? We don’t play your kind of music.” And he walked away. I thought to myself, “I just came out of respect to hear you play.” After that, the hell with him.
All this time later, what do you think actually was going on? Did it ever go the other way with Larry Levan? Did he ever show up at the Latin Quarter?
If he would have came, I would have been, like, “Yo, what’s good!?” I’d have been happy to meet him.
You think there might have been tension because the dance scene was mostly gay and the hip hop scene was straight?
[laughs] Yeah, it was a little strange. We didn’t...we just went to hear the music. Being a DJ, you had to hear everything and everybody. We would go from the Roxys to Club Area, from Club Area to Danceteria, from Danceteria to the Paradise Garage at four in the morning and stay in that motherfucker ‘til eleven o’clock.
But you’re saying that maybe the hip hop DJs were a little more open to visiting the dance clubs than vice-versa?
Yeah, because they didn’t come into our scene.
Is it possible that they felt uncomfortable?
They probably were. Probably were. But Jellybean came to the Roxys. He DJ’d at the Funhouse.
And you think of him as a dance music guy, but also somebody who cared about hip hop?
Yeah. Jellybean definitely had an ear. His partner Randy Murray was the one who taped “Here We Go” by Run DMC, and Profile put it out as a record. “Here We Go” was recorded live at the Funhouse.
“Rockit!” When I heard that shit, I lost my mind.
Speaking of clubs, let’s talk about the Roxy. It’s downtown, but it features a ton of uptown talent – not just rappers and DJs, but graf artists and breakdancers – and it attracted a pretty high-toned crowd. And you used to DJ there, too.
I’m going to tell you, one night I was there I saw Mick Jagger and that motherfucker David Bowie, Madonna, Leon Kennedy and Jayne Kennedy.
What, all on the same night?
Yes! It got so wild on a Friday night that I would try to get my friends to come downtown. But they wouldn’t come. “I ain’t coming. Fuck that.” I’d have to take the Number 2 train from 225th Street in the Bronx, go all the way downtown to 14th street, then walk over to the Roxy on the far west side of 10th Avenue and stay there until five or six in the morning.
But your friends weren’t feeling it. Maybe they figured that they didn’t need to go to the Roxy because they had all the hip hop they needed up in the Bronx.
No, not like that. The Roxy was a multi-cultural club. You saw a lot of people in there that you wouldn’t see up close otherwise. It was because of the Roxy that hip hop went worldwide.
Didn’t Herbie Hancock used to hang out there, too?
I saw him in there a couple of times.
And you say DST brought him there?
D happened to be DJing that night, so the two of them made a connection, somehow, some way.
And Herb said, “Let’s make a record?”
Probably did...and you saw what happened – “Rockit!” Biggest fucking rap record ever! When I heard that shit, I lost my mind.
All right, so let’s go back even a little bit further. You’re a music-loving youngster. When do you decide maybe you want to be a DJ?
My mother threw herself a party for her 50th birthday. She hired a DJ and this guy was playing Brass Construction’s “Movin’.” But what caught my eye is that he had a real club DJ’s setup, with two turntables and a mixer. I’m like, “Yo! Why has this guy got two turntables? What’s going on?” That started it for me.
When did you begin to collect records?
In my neighborhood the weed spot was where the albums were. Mom said, “Don’t go in there because that’s where they sell the funny cigarettes.” I went anyway. They had the incense, the black light posters illustrating the different sex positions, the albums on the wall – and in the back they was selling weed! So I went in there and bought records. My first record was Ohio Players, a little 45 of “Skin Tight.”
Were you smoking weed by that time?
Hell, no! I didn’t know what that was. I buy “Skin Tight” and after that I’m hooked. Hooked! Then I went back and see the Skin Tight album with that crazy gatefold cover. Open it up – “Oh, hey! What’s going on here?” [laughs] You know I got to meet Sugarfoot a couple of months before he passed away? [Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner was the Ohio Players’ front man. He died in January of 2013.] I got a picture I could show you. I turned into a kid when I met him. [laughs]
You were in junior high school then. Where did you get the money to buy albums?
What, you wouldn’t eat lunch?
Hell, no. I was that stupid. My mother give me money to go buy clothes, I’d go buy records. Mom thought I was nuts. Yeah, I was that crazy with it.
Records could be expensive in the ’70s, especially if you were looking for breakbeats. Then in 1986, the series called Ultimate Breaks and Beats starting coming out. Eventually there were 25 volumes, including all of the great breaks that made a party a party. You had been a hardcore crate digger for ten years by then. How did cats feel about the series?
People were mad – because before the series came out, you was paying 25, 30, 40 dollars for an album. Just to get that one breakbeat, you had to have the whole original album. Then Lenny Roberts, who was behind Ultimate Breaks and Beats, put everything on one shit and got paid. Lenny was an older dude, but he was running ‘round with us. We was maybe 20. He was like 60. But he was up on all the breakbeats. When he put out Ultimate Breaks, he kind of killed the b-boy DJ game. The ones who had been looking for those breaks but couldn’t find them were happy. But the ones who already had ‘em were tight.
Name a record you paid 40 dollars for.
No. It was a album. Had a silver cover with bongos on it. And that album was goin’ for 25, 30, 40 dollars for one. Everybody was just getting it and playing it.
All right. Name another one.
Your man DC LaRue put out “Indiscreet.” He only made a hundred copies of those.
And people were fighting for it.
Were they!? The 12-inch was going for a hundred bucks! And I finally met him and I was like, “Hell, you made ‘Indiscreet!?’” Old white guy.
Did you ever hold a job?
I took a job supervising the kids at a day camp...some shit like that. I get my first paycheck and go buy a big-ass boom box. It was a JVC. They called it the Bionic Box. It had blinking lights and it was about this big. [He told his hands a yard apart.] I have it somewhere. I don’t know what happened to it. Anyway, you had to put twenty “D” batteries in this motherfucker – and they cost $2.50 a piece.
Damn, that’s fifty bucks!
Exactly. So you get a paycheck – a hundred bucks – working in the park and you spend half of it on batteries. Then you’re blasting a cassette tape of “Trans-Europe Express” or Peter Brown or whatever, and the batteries would last maybe a day or two before they died.
We were coming to the party with at least ten full crates... You had to have the massive sound system. You had to.
OK, so you had your own records and your mom bought you your own turntables. What was the first professional gig you ever played?
I played Twin Parks on 180th street. I took my mother’s car, put her speakers in the trunk. I come back, she says, “You got paid?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, ‘How much?” I said, “A hundred bucks.” She says, “Where the money?” I said, “I spent the shit.” She shook her head.
What’d you spend it on?
I spent it before the gig. We had to eat.
The crew that helped me carry the equipment. We had to bring speakers, amps, and records. We were coming to the party with at least ten full crates. Easily. Because you had to have the massive sound system. You had to. You had to show a presence, that you was official. Otherwise nobody was taking you for real.
Otherwise somebody else would blow you out of the park!
One guy would set up over here, one guy would set up over there, and if his shit was louder than your shit, everybody would go over there. That’s how it works.
All right, so you had your big crew. They’re going to carry all your stuff for you. They’re also going to make sure nobody runs off with your shit.
Oh yeah! Dudes would come, take your shit in the middle of the party, and leave. I’ve seen it happen: “Yo, gimme your shit.” Unplug your shit and keep it moving.
Frankie Crocker was like God in black radio. He was the king of New York at that time.
In the middle of the damn party?
If you didn’t have no security around you? Back then you had to have security. Like, I remember going to a Grandmaster Flash party, and you would get robbed in the bathroom. Flash had the crazy crew with him, the Casanovas, and they had girls that were down with them. The girls would rob the girls. And the dudes would rob the dudes. That’s how it was. Don’t go to the bathroom – you was getting robbed. Yeah, this was Truman High School in the Bronx!
You didn’t fuck with them dudes. In my neighborhood we had DJ Breakout. Breakout had the Funky Four MCs: Sha-Rock, Rahiem, KK Rockwell, Keith Keith. They were dope. But Breakout also had the Edenwald Projects behind him, which was why nobody fucked with him either.
Everybody had to be mobbed up?
Yeah, you had to! That’s how it was.
How did rap end up on commercial radio in New York?
In 1982 Frankie Crocker heard Mr. Magic on WHBI and hired him to work on WBLS.
Frankie’s an interesting dude. He hung out at the dance clubs and at the hip hop spots. What was he like personally?
Oh man, the greatest dude on the planet. He was like God in black radio. He was the king of New York at that time.
But why? What was so respectable about him?
Well, Frank hung out in the streets. He went to the clubs. You had to do that if you were a program director in New York City. And if a record was hot in the streets, he would be the first to play it on the air.
So Frankie hires Magic and teams him up with Marley Marl. Then what happens?
Man, they was out of here! Rap was fucking on the radio! Primetime!
Frankie’s chief competitor was Barry Mayo, the general manager, at KISS-FM. How long did it take Barry to catch up?
Maybe six months. Then he said to me and Red Alert, “I want to put this on the radio.” And we was like, [disbelievingly] “Get the fuck out of here!” But I went down to the studio, and found Barry, who brought us to Tony Q., the PD. So then ‘BLS had Magic on Friday and Saturday nights, and KISS had me on Fridays and Red on Saturdays, from nine till midnight.
What were some of the rap records that you broke on the radio in the ‘80s?
What about “Pee Wee’s Dance” by Joe-Ski Love?
I’d been making records for Vincent Davis. He had the Vintertainment label. Pee Wee Herman’s TV show was huge then. There was an episode where Pee Wee’s in a biker bar, plays “Tequila” on the jukebox, and does a dance on top of a table. All the kids were doing that dance, and Vincent said, “We need a record,” and he had Joe write and rap it. Then he gives this shit to me on a reel-to-reel tape. And I play it on the air. Barry Mayo walks into the studio and says, “Why are you playing this shit? Are you taking money? What’s going on?” But the next day he calls me: “So what was that you played, because the phones are going crazy?” After that, he never again questioned me about the songs I chose.
Okay, what about Public Enemy? How’d they go over at first?
I’ll tell you a funny story about that. When I met Chuck, in ‘85, he was a promoter, not a rapper. There was no Public Enemy. Chuck was promoting shows in Long Island, and he had booked me and Red, UTFO, and Roxanne Shante. That Shante record was big. Then Chuck goes, “Yo! I’m going to make some records. Can I call you and keep in touch?” I give him my number, but I really didn’t pay him no mind. So a couple of years go by, he brings me “Public Enemy No. 1,” right? I played it, but it didn’t really have...I played it because it sampled “Blow Your Head” by the JBs. Then he comes to the station with “Rebel Without a Pause” on an acetate. I put it on the radio before Chuck got downstairs, played it three times that night. Everybody taped it, and the next day, everybody was blasting that shit.
You can hear Chuck nowadays in New York on WBLS on Saturday nights from 11pm till midnight. He also does radio online twice weekly, on Monday nights from 10-11pm courtesy of Chuck D’s rapstation.com and on Thursday afternoons from 4-6pm via DesertStormRadio.com.