DJ Red Alert Interview (by A to the L)
Kool DJ Red Alert is one of the pioneers of Hiphop music. He was there in the beginning, and he’s still making records now. Red Alert is about to release a compilation on Loud, showcasing some of the greatest battle rhymes committed to wax. He took time out to speak to me, and to be honest, I was honoured. He spoke politely, gave me time to ask my questions, and gave me extensively detailed answers. A true Hiphop gentleman… this time its the Propmaster who gets the props.
For the benefit of some of the newer Hiphop fans who maybe aren’t aware of the significance of Red Alert, Bambaataa, Kool Herc etc, can you give them a little background info – how did you get started in hiphop?
Red Alert: I was influenced by watching people like Kool Herc. I used to go to all the various parties in the Upper West Side of the Bronx in the early seventies – places like the Twilight Zone and the Executive Playhouse. Herc also played outdoors at various places – different highschools and playgrounds. And then all the time that was going on, there were other people who were starting to rise up such as Grandmaster Flash, the L Brothers, and Grand Wizard Theodore, and on the other side of town you had Afrika Bambaataa who was influencing a lot of people.
When I was coming up, coming from Harlem, I would go up to all the parties in the Bronx. (I was attending high school there, so thats how I knew what was going on.) All of that inspired me to start deejaying, and then I introduced all this to my cousin, DJ Jazzy Jay. Jay moved up to the Bronx, where Bam noticed him, as he was working with Disco King Mario (Rest In Peace). Bam brought Jay in, and Jay spoke highly about me, which made Bam bring me in too. Bam was the type of person that didn’t care how many people he had – if he felt for you – he put you on. From there on, Bam started letting me be involved, and I started spinning for him, and we started reaching a lot of places in the Tri-State area.
Our work in the clubs opened up recording opportunities with a guy called Paul Whitley. He helped make the record ‘Zulu Throwdown’ which consisted of part of the Zulu Nation and the Cosmic Force. At the same time, me and Jazzy had a group on the side called the Jazzy 3, which later on became the Jazzy 5. So he took that group and brought them over to Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy, and made a record called Jazzy Sensation. After that there was another branch off with the whole Soulsonic Force and the recording of Planet Rock. By the time Planet Rock came out, it started opening doors for the whole entire Zulu Nation. We were leaving from up in the Bronx, and coming down to Midtown to play various places like the Original Danceteria on 21st Street, and the Roxy. It was a good time, because with the launch of Planet Rock, and us being in a new venue… everything came at just the right time. In the Roxy on a Friday night you used to have about 3500 people in there – a collaboration of a whole lotta different nationalities, who had their ears opened to the Hiphop sound. It was like Hiphop meeting Punk Rock meeting New Wave, and a whole lot of other different types of dance music, and we were collaborating and doing a bit of everything at one time.
As we were doing all of that, thats when the people from Kiss FM took notice of the massive following we had going. So they came down and asked Bam to get involved with radio. Bam first wanted to introduce them to Afrika Islam, but on the day of the meeting Islam never showed up. Bam then got them hooked up with Jazzy Jay. Jay got doing the mixes on Kiss for a couple of months, but he wasn’t getting paid. (Although he later realised he still benefitted because of the amount of exposure he was getting was helping him to get gigs and studio work.) So Jazzy let the slot go. Kiss came back to Bam and asked him who he had in mind for a replacement… and thats when he brought my name up. So I started out at Kiss around October 1983.
Tell me about the new album.
Red Alert: Well the new album is called “Beats, Rhymes and Battles”. The reason I’m putting this out is to address some of the stuff thats going on today. A lot of people are taking things out of context, where when they’re hearing about battles on records as well as on stage, they’re thinking it has to move into a physical field. People are letting things get out of perspective. I’m trying to explain to them, that in the beginning stages when rap was just coming out on vinyl, it was all for the fun of it. It was a chance to show your skills. The people and tracks that I picked to be part of this project – they’ve shown how much togetherness they have with each other. You had the Roxanne Roxanne craze going on – I was part of that – I used to deejay for Sparky D. We all used to travel around doing shows in various cities. When you had the Juice Crew versus BDP – even though there was that rivallry between me and Mr. Magic – who what have thought later on that you’d see a Sprite commercial with me and KRS-One along with Magic and MC Shan? I also got highlights of the LL Cool J / Kool Moe Dee battles which some people consider to be one of the greatest battles of the past. Basically I think that the generation of today tend to forget what took place in the beginning and how we kept battles on vinyl. And thats why I think this is a good piece to have in your collection.
What do you think was the greater battle in terms of the quality of the tracks recorded, and how they got fans involved. BDP vs Shan and the Juice Crew, or LL vs Kool Moe Dee?
Red Alert: To tell you the truth, I never took a decision on which was greater than the other. I think its because I was in the midst of all this, and at that time you were just happy to see things continue to go on, and good records continue to be put out. You had a battle going on, and after a little while that battle would die out, because you had a new one going on. Thats what happened all the time during that time period. And then with the whole thing with me and Mr. Magic, with me on Kiss and Magic on WBLS, we kept it healthy – the radio wars kept it new and exciting. Also you had me spinning for Sparky D, and Marley Marl spinning for Shante (who was down with Magic)… then later on you have me representing BDP, they representing the Juice Crew. It just kept… keeping going. And once again it was nothing but lyrical content – nothing more than just that.
There’s kind of an old school revival going on at the minute. You have your album coming out. Big Daddy Kane has a new album in the pipeline. Biz is coming out with new tracks. Tommy Boy are reissuing old Stetasonic and Bambaataa albums. Do you think that there’s a place for all these albums on the shelf of the “modern” Hiphop fan, beside their DMX and Jay-Z albums?
Red Alert: Well lets face it – if you think about it, as time goes by, you have the modern sound of jazz, the modern sound of R’n’B, but you still see people coming out with reissues of the classical stuff, you see all the old Motown sounds, and all the seventies disco sounds branching out from the R’n’B era. Its exactly the same thing in the field of Hiphop. because although Hiphop music has its modern stuff, it also branches off back to the classics.
In the beginning, hiphop music seemed to carry a party atmosphere. How do you feel now when a lot of the hiphop music getting mainstream exposure seems to enforce stereotypes and negativity? Do you think the fun vibe has gone a little bit – that its more about money nowadays?
Red Alert: Well of course, because corporate America has to take time to see what enhancements they can make to make dollars. When you see that things like sex and violence are what are making the establishment the greatest amount of money, they’re gonna overlook all the other diverse entities of Hiphop. We know that there’s people like Channel Live, Mos Def and many others who are positive, but the industry is gonna look at the commercialism first, and put their dollars behind the commercial cats because they feel thats what sells fastest. Remember when you had Public Enemy, BDP, and several others coming out with concious rap? Industry felt that it was too serious and too boring, and so they started to push out other types of rap, thinking that this is what will pull the kids.
How does it feel to you now when you see how much hiphop music and culture has grown? Did you ever imagine things would blow up the way they have?
Red Alert: I never thought it would be taken as far as it has. But I guess you gotta think of two things – the Creators and the Consumers. The creators are the ones that go ahead and make it, portray it, and put it out, while the consumers are the ones who believe in it and buy it. As long as you got both of them, Hiphop is gonna stay around.
I’m sure you’ve played thousand of shows and concerts in your time – do any stick out in your mind as potential favourites?
Red Alert: Not really… I was the type of person who was alway collaborating. Always doing a little bit of everything. When I was playing in the clubs and playing on radio, I tried to play a little bit of everything. I’ll give you a prime example – during the time I was on Hot 97, you may have heard me play a pop record, an underground record, then a commercial record. You may hear me play a Jay-Z or a Puffy. You may hear me play a Will Smith. You may hear me play a Channel Live or Mos Def. Now I’ve just said 3 different entities of Hiphop. Different people like different types of music, so I’ve tried to please the crowd by giving them a little bit of everybody, instead of just being pigeonholed by playing only one type of thing.
There was a lot of hype recently about your switch from Hot 97 back to Kiss. Can you give me some info on why the switch happened?
Red Alert: Well what it is, is that there were some differences happening over at Hot 97 in a political field. And thats what made me just step away from the station. I had already taken a three month break but I just felt I had to step away. They say though that every disappointment turns out to be a blessing in disguise, and after some consideration I came back over to Kiss (which is still under the same affiliation), and I’m happy I’m back home. I’m not gonna lie – I miss Hot 97 – I had some good times over there, and they helped to keep my name out there, but you know… one door closes, another opens.
If you were to retire from hiphop tomorrow – how would you like to be remembered? What would be your legacy?
Red Alert: I would want to be remembered as a person who gave you what you enjoyed, gave you something you could feel. I don’t want you to study my livelihood, I want you to study my entertainment.
I got one last question from a purely selfish point of view – in the last 2 years Belfast has had visits from Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and Jazzy Jay. Is Red Alert ever gonna make the trip to take in some Irish hospitality?
Red Alert: Listen here, I’m looking to go travelling! Anywhere around the world is possible – all people have to do is get in touch with Violator Management and work out the business side of things, and anything can happen!
DJ Red Alert’s “Beat’s, Rhymes and Battles” will be released on August 7th on Loud Records. For more information, check Red Alert’s website at www.kooldjredalert.com
Thanks again to Red Alert for taking part, and for Asia at Concrete Planet for setting this up.