Nearly 50 years ago, a handful of visionary DJs in the Bronx invented hip-hop. Pete DJ Jones was among them. Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Jones moved to New York City in 1970 in search of basketball opportunities. He soon began throwing parties, putting together makeshift discos in restaurants and rec halls. He taught himself to DJ and developed new techniques; he was among the first to play two copies of a record simultaneously, enabling him to chop and extend the percussive breaks from soul and funk songs.
Jones moved in the same circles as the most important names in ’70s hip-hop. He faced off with early pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flowers at raucous DJ battles. He performed with the MC Lovebug Starski, often credited with popularizing the term “hip-hop.” The legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash learned how to cue on a mixer from watching him spin. Kurtis Blow, one of rap’s first superstars, even gave him a tagline: “Dynamite Pete from across the street with that funky beat.”
Jones, who died in 2014, is not as well known as some of his peers. Regardless, his critical role in hip-hop’s early days should not be overlooked. Read on for an enlightening conversation with DJ History about how he got started, who he influenced and the ways in which his Southern upbringing informed his style.
How did you get started?
I got started as a DJ in 1970. They had just had the first Gramley Morgan game, which is a game between two black schools, and I had just moved here. [This club] had a back room, and I asked the guy there if I could have a party. I rented the room before I got the DJ. I put the egg before the chicken. So when I realized that all the DJs were booked, I went down to Sam Ash and bought the speakers and everything.
I put this system together, went out and bought the top twenty, and rocked the house. The party was so successful that the guy gave me the back room of the club every Friday and Saturday. That’s when I started running my own DJ unit. Later on that year, this promoter Bob Kagle was giving a party on 57th Street. Matter of fact, it was Grandmaster Flowers who didn’t show. He had a habit of not showing up. I got a call from Bob Kagle. He wanted a DJ. I said, “Where? Downtown?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “I don’t know about downtown.” He said, “You can do it.” I had four Bose 901 speakers and a Mackintosh 2100 amplifier, two dual turntables. So I went down there and the place was jam-packed. I rocked them until about five in the morning. And that was my start playing downtown discos.
And from there?
Do you remember M. Morton Hall?
M. Morton Hall. He’s really the guy who put disco on the map. Around 1971 they had a meat crisis. Beef was scarce and the restaurants were struggling downtown. These guys were going down and asking the restaurateurs if they could rent their room after 10 PM. They started off guaranteeing them a minimum at the bar. They would go down there after they’d finished serving the last meal, and start throwing the tables to one side and put the chairs on top of each other, put a makeshift bar up. The place would be jam-packed until four in the morning.
Did they give the parties a name?
They’d just say “M. Morton Hall Productions Presents.” To be honest with you, I think that was the start of disco downtown, because they didn’t have any discos down there.
That came after ’70.
The Loft started in 1970.
Did it? I was aware of the Loft and the Gallery. You probably didn’t have any black people going there.
No, you had a lot of black people going, but they were gay rather than straight. Was the clientele at the M. Morton Hall parties straight?
Yeah. Put it this way, I think it was the start of disco for black straight people downtown. These were public, and the Loft and places like that, they was private. Was that on Prince Street? Mancuso? Judy Weinberg?
Yeah, I was in a pool down there.
How did you find out about the pool?
I found out about the pool about ’73, but I saw they had a soundsystem round there, and didn’t know they had discos in there, until later. They had this punch. This punch would wire you up!
You know the mixing that you were doing, where did you learn those skills from? Were there other DJs around you doing that?
No. I was the first DJ that started running records, and I’ll tell you why. This is the reason. Most of these records were about two minutes long or so. We didn’t have no TK Records and Salsoul. I was using a mixer that didn’t have a cueing system. I don’t know whether they had mixers with cueing systems, but if they did I didn’t know about it. There were about three other DJs downtown. Me, Maboya, Flowers, then later on came DJ Plummer, around ’73. We got all the jobs. We was the names you heard on the radio, WBLS.
Everybody says, “Man, I never heard anybody play that record like you do!” Over and over: bam, bam, bam, bam.
If you didn’t have a cueing system, what did you do?
I developed a knack so that I could read the grooves with a portable flashlight and see the changes. I’d play a record over and over again, because you didn’t have many hits in those days, and you had to keep playing until four or five in the morning. So you’d play it over again and you’d shine a light on that groove and play it awhile. Eventually, I thought to myself, there’s got to be some way or other that I can hear one record – I was using a Sony MX-12 Mic Mixer, battery operated, didn’t have a cue system.
You understand the groove part, the beat part of the record?
Yeah, the break.
We used to sometimes play ten records with nothing but the beat part. I think hip-hop is nothing but R&B music that took a turn from that. Hip-hop and rap are expressions of poverty. Blues did the same thing back in the ’30s.
Where were you buying your records from?
Record Shack on 3rd Avenue, until I discovered the pool. I’d go to the record companies, too, because they’d hear my name on the radio.
Do you remember the kinds of records you were playing in that early ’70s period?
I was playing most of the hits, like James Brown… I think what created hip-hop was the multi-ethnic music in the New York area. Every DJ had an MC.
Did you have one?
Yeah, KC The Prince Of Soul. I stole him from Flowers. He started MCing with me around 1971, then I had JD The Disco Prince, then I had Lovebug Starski.
When did you start using MCs?
I started MCing myself, I used to like talking over the music. You got guys like Kool Herc and Bambaataa that claimed they started hip-hop, they gotta remember that hip-hop emerged from R&B. I had a lot of rappers say they was influenced by me. These rappers started emerging about 1975 and 1976.
When the sun started going down and it cooled off there’d be kids running around saying, “It’s Pete DJ Jones in the park tonight!”
Did you play block parties?
I used to set up over there on 138th Street and Morris Avenue. I’d get some lights. We’d set up in the afternoon when it was real hot, but when the sun started going down and it cooled off there’d be kids running around saying, “It’s Pete DJ Jones in the park tonight!” About 8 or 9 PM, it would be packed.
Where is that?
Junior High School 48th, Paterson Projects, we’d play all over. We started setting up around ’73.
What about Superstar Cafeteria?
It was near Madison Square Garden. It was like a fast food place where people go eat lunch. Then you had the Automat, it was a lunch place for a working crowd. They’d go in there and put their money in a vending machine and get a sandwich and a soda. Any place where there was a restaurant, that’s where we made discos.
How did you meet Flash in the first place?
I was working for the Department of Social Services at the time and this woman called me and said she had a young DJ and they were really trying to launch him. Trying to get him known, get him out there. So we set up this battle. I used to have a Volkswagen, I had my bus out there. I had those big horns like they have at Yankee Stadium. I had two of those. Then Flash came down. He was talented. He was fast. I’d say he’s one of the smoothest mixers, other than Grandmaster Flowers. He reminded me of Flowers. Then Flash started blowing up.
He was another person that didn’t know about cueing systems. And he knew that you had some kind of cueing system, didn’t he?
Right. He got it from me. I’m sure he did.
He told a story once about coming to have a listen to what you were doing with the cueing system. Do you remember where that was?
It could have been anywhere. Sometimes he says he was influenced by me. But they’re trying to say that I played a different type of music, that I didn’t play his type of music, I played disco music. This is where the controversy comes in. Disco music is hip-hop music! Hip-hop music is nothing but R&B.
But the difference is how you play it. Were you just playing the records or were you playing breaks?
I was playing the breaks for a while, then I played the records for a while.
Did you just play the one copy or did you have two copies?
I had two copies. I had two copies of everything. Best part of the record is usually that groove part.
What kind of style were the other DJs like Flowers playing?
Similar kind of style, but Flowers was an expert mixer. He didn’t chop too many of the records, he would blend.
He was more like the gay disco DJs?
Right, right! They would say that Flowers was a mixer and I was a chopper. Plummer was a mixer also, but I liked to chop, I liked to get the beat – BANG! BANG! – I loved to chop. Even before I had a cueing system, I liked to chop them records up.
What happened to Grandmaster Flowers? He died, right?
Yeah, he died.
What happened to Plummer?
He just disappeared off the stage. He said he was going to Boston, to medical school or something. I saw him when they had the Legends of DJing in Brooklyn about four or five years ago and he gave me a card, but I lost it.
They used to advertise it on the radio: New York’s Number One.
So you were king of that scene?
Well, yeah. I never used to battle Plummer all that much, but I used to battle Flowers all the time. I won DJ of the Year at least three years. They used to advertise it on the radio: New York’s Number One.
Which of the downtown clubs did you go to? Did you go to any of the gay clubs?
I went to the Loft a couple of times.
What was the difference between the Loft and the places you were playing at?
Well, they played house, stuff like that. They would play a lot of that regular R&B music, but they would play some of that thumpin’ music. Most of my records were about 90 and 100 BPM. I very seldom played above that. “Do It Till You’re Satisfied,” Jimmy Castor, Barrabas’ “Woman” and “Wild Safari.”
Did you get those from the DJ pool?
What year were you born?
In 1939. My mother and grandmother had a gramophone. We were one of the only ones in the community with a record player. We had this big tall gramophone with a needle that looked like a nail. We used to screw ’em in the wall to sharpen them! Put it right back in there. We used to play stuff like Louis Jordan “Chicken Back,” we played “Hi De Ho” by Cab Calloway.
What town are you from?
You’re from much further south than a lot of the DJs in New York; your taste was slightly different?
Yeah. Gutbucket music. Gutbucket music is stuff like James Brown, BB King, Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Dr. John.
The bluesier, rawer end of R&B?
Yeah, sort of bluesy. That’s where my roots came from. I usually listened to stuff with a funky beat. I used to play Bee Gees, Tony Orlando, all of that shit. Other DJs used to say, “You play that shit?” I used to hear other DJs saying, “That Pete Jones music, it puts me to sleep!” because it’s too slow. It’s that special beat. It’s that downbeat. It’s the only music they listen to down south.
From the DJs who were around at the time, who was playing your sort of stuff?
Flowers played music that was sort of similar.
Where was he from?
He was from Brooklyn. And later on a lot of DJs started developing my style of music, that funky stuff.
When did you meet Kool Herc?
I met Kool Herc around ’76. I battled him at the Executive Playhouse. Kool Herc and those guys, they never played outside the Bronx. They might tell you different, and I ain’t knocking them DJs. But if you asked Flash, Bambaataa, those guys, for a list of clubs they played, I bet they couldn’t give you one outside of the Bronx. And I bet they couldn’t name more than two in the Bronx. They were basically schoolyard DJs; they played outside in the parks.
What was Herc’s style compared to you?
Well, Herc played stuff like “Bongo Rock” and “Bongolia.” He played a lot of James Brown stuff. He played unique music, too. Music that other DJs don’t play.
Was he chopping it up much?
I don’t think Herc did, but he had a lot of guys with him who were doing that stuff; Coke La Rock, Clark Kent, those guys. Most of them were playing gutbucket music, you know, poverty music; that’s what I call it. When you go downtown and play in a club and everybody’s dressed up, I’d play more of the stuff that was on the radio.
The more complex songs, with the strings?
Yeah. But usually what I liked was the dirty-sounding stuff with guitars. The Dennis Coffey style. If anybody wants to call themselves the godfathers of hip-hop I would have to say Kurtis Blow and Sugarhill Gang.
What about Flash?
He came after that. They were the ones that made it known nationwide and worldwide.
But in the Bronx they were playing that stuff five years before it was on a record.
True. You gotta give them the credit for getting it to the masses.
If you credit them for getting it to the world, who would you give credit to for having the idea in the first place?
You can’t give it to just one person. I’d say there was at least five to ten DJs who were contributors to the hip-hop scene.
You said that you were using MCs – had you seen other DJs using it?
No. I started off doing it myself, until I realized I had to work too hard to do it. It wasn’t really MCing. It was just yakking. If it comes to putting the rap to a beat, I gotta give guys like Hollywood, Starski and Eddie Cheeba the credit for putting it to the beat. But if I was talking about just yelling and screaming, well, I was doing that in the mid-’70s. I always had a mic and a mic stand. I was always influenced by radio DJs, like Frankie Crocker, Eddie OJ and all those guys. I don’t know who I influenced; I know Kurtis Blow says I influenced him.
Flash as well.
Oh, I didn’t know that. When he was around me, he said something different. Everybody’s influenced by somebody. Ain’t no tellin’ where this thing started. It goes back to Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. It goes back to Jocko, back to Eddie OJ and Frankie Crocker and those radio DJs. But first you gotta give credit to the artist, because without the artist there would be no hip-hop. Nobody between ’70 and ’74 recorded any hip-hop music. So I’d like to give credit to the artists: to Dennis Coffey and BT Express, James Brown, and Fatback Band, because they came out with that unique beat.