MP3 + Story: The History of St. Louis Hip-Hop -- Dr. Jockenstein, Charlie Chan, Dangerous D, Early D And How "Rapper's Delight" Touched Off a Revolution
Keegan Hamilton's cover story in the RFT this week is a fascinating read. Spawned from this A to Z blog post -- in which Hamilton detailed how Vintage Vinyl employees discovered a stash of old vinyl records created by Charlie Chan, Dangerous D and Early D -- the article traces how these LPs were created, and places them in context with hip-hop culture both in St. Louis and nationally.
Here are some excerpts from the story -- along with some rare audio footage of legendary St. Louis DJ Dr. Jockenstein (who passed away in 2007) and MP3s from Early D and Dangerous D.
(Dangerous D and Chan, ca. 1987)
In the early 1980s, popular hip-hop acts included Kurtis Blow (then managed by an up-and-coming promoter named Russell Simmons) and groups from Sugar Hill Records like the Sequence and the talented lyricist Melle Mel.
In St. Louis, Jim Gates' WESL (which had migrated to the FM dial, where it was rechristened Z100) was still the only radio station in the area blending rap into the regular R&B rotation. The station's most popular programming was a segment that allowed dozens of would-be St. Louis rappers to call in and perform their rhymes live for the radio audience. A DJ named Dr. Jockenstein hosted the show, known as Roll Call.
After participating in a canned call-and-response introduction (which included asking callers to give a shout out to their favorite high school teacher), a kid could freestyle rap over an instrumental version of the funk song "Genius of Love" by the Tom Tom Club.
Even though it has been more than twenty years since DJ Charlie Chan listened to Roll Call, he can still recite his rap and the entire chant required to get on the air.
"What's your name?" Chan says, imitating Jockenstein's comically deep radio voice. "Charlie, and I look so fine. What's your sign? Taurus. Gimme that number-one school! We call it U. City Senior High. The favorite teacher with the golden rule? I said me myself don't like it.
"Without a doubt, just shout it out, your favorite radio station. Last night, the night before, 24 suckas came knockin' at my door. I got up, I let 'em in, I hit 'em in the head with a rolling pin. We roll to the left, back to the right. Oh boy, what a night. My favorite radio station is Z100."
By the summer of 1979, hip-hop had moved out of Manhattan and into the adjacent suburbs. Sylvia Robinson, a pop star turned music mogul living in New Jersey, became convinced she could make a hit record using the new sound. Along with her husband Joe, she founded Sugar Hill Records, rounded up a trio of aspiring MCs and produced the song "Rapper's Delight."
With one of the first rap songs ever recorded in her hands, all Robinson had to do was find a radio DJ willing to give it a spin. The task proved tougher than anticipated. The biggest obstacle was that, at nearly fifteen minutes, the track was five times as long as anything else being played on the radio. Many disc jockeys were opposed on principle — they hated the new style and the fact that the backing music was lifted from a popular disco song at the time ("Good Times," by Chic).
Robinson's salvation took the form of Jim Gates, a 32-year-old disc jockey and manager at WESL, an AM radio station in East St. Louis that boasted a minuscule 800 watts of signal power.
"Sylvia called and told me they had this new thing where they didn't sing, they 'rapped,'" recalls Gates, now 61 and still living in East St. Louis. "I didn't know what that was about."
Gates had a long-standing relationship with Joe Robinson, dating back to his days as a radio DJ in Detroit during Motown's heyday. Trouble was, he hated the song when the Robinsons played it for him over the phone. "To me it was blasphemy to take somebody else's hit record and make it your own tune," Gates says now.
But when the Robinsons mailed him a copy of the Sugarhill Gang's tune, he gave it another listen and reconsidered. "I called back and said, 'This is going to be the biggest thing ever or the biggest flop,'" Gates recounts.
It was no flop.
When Gates put needle to wax on "Rapper's Delight" and the legendary opening verse — "Hip-hop, a hibbit to the hibbit to the hip hip-hop" — blared across the St. Louis airwaves for the first time, it had a profound impact. Not only did the album eventually sell 14 million copies worldwide, it spawned an entire generation of young St. Louis musicians.
A large man with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper Afro and a pencil-thin gray mustache, Gates remembers being stunned by the immediate and frenzied listener response the song inspired.
"The phone lines were jammed for hours," he says. "People were calling and saying, 'Where can I get it? Play it over again so I can tape it!' I made one DJ play it twice an hour for three hours — the whole fifteen minutes."
The Nasty Cuts Records crew in a Washington Avenue recording studio circa 1987. From left: Dangerous D, Tom Ray, G. Wiz, DJ Charlie Chan and Nick the Engineer. Courtesy Ronald Butts.
By 1986 it was clear that hip-hop was much more than the fad its early detractors had declared it would be. Run-DMC was partnering with Aerosmith to produce "Walk This Way," a seventeen-year-old LL Cool J had just released his first album, and the Beastie Boys were, yes, fighting for their right to party.
In St. Louis, three radio stations were playing hip-hop, as Majic 108 and KATZ (now 100.3 FM the Beat) joined Z100. The Animal House, a popular all-ages venue, hosted hip-hop shows headlined by national acts. A handful of local rap groups, including Frozen Explosion and Bit Bizarre, had recorded and released material. Virtually every record store stocked hip-hop on its shelves.
It was in that context that a seventeen-year-old DJ who called himself Charlie Chan (given name: Charles Beason) and Dangerous D (David Roberts), his fifteen-year-old cohort from the University City school system, stepped into Vintage Vinyl one day in 1987 and expressed their desire to make a record.
"David walks in and more or less announces that he would consider allowing us to release his album if we were smart enough," Tom Ray recalls. "In walks this fifteen-year-old hip-hop Napoleon. Kind of like: 'Here I am, hesitate at your own risk.'"
As fate would have it, Ray and Prince had recently ventured into the recording side of the music business by bankrolling an album by St. Louis blues legend Tommy Bankhead. It also didn't hurt that Roberts wanted to make a song called "The Power of Soul," a hip-hop tribute to Ray's boyhood idol, James Brown. They agreed to finance the record.
Chan and Dangerous D went to work in a makeshift recording studio in an apartment on Washington Avenue. G. Wiz, whom the pair knew from the skating rink, sat in on the production.
"Chan was a phenom. When he started out, all he did was live, breathe and eat turntables," recalls Chris "DJ Chilly C" Neuenkirk, a friend of the duo who was also present during the sessions. "And at that time [Dangerous D] was going through this metamorphosis from James Brown to Prince to hip-hop. He had a vision, he knew exactly what he wanted to do; he just didn't know how to capture it on a piece of plastic. That's where that union came to fruition."