Q&A: DJ Red Alert On Kiss-FM, The Bridge Wars, And Breaking "Rappin' Duke"
In October of 1983, Kool DJ Red Alert broadcast his first rap radio show on Kiss-FM. It would soon bloom into an essential listening session for hip-hop junkies, a jump-off point for upcoming artists, and a long-running part of New York City's musical soundtrack. So with Kiss closing its doors as we know it, we prompted Red Alert to look back on the very first show he broadcast, his rivalry with Mr. Magic over at WBLS, and the rap records he broke while reigning on the Kiss airwaves.
How did you come to get a show on Kiss-FM?
I got involved with Kiss through a program director named Barry Mayo who stepped to Afrika Bambaataa. He used to play in the Roxy and in '83 Barry Mayo stepped to Bambaataa looking for someone to start playing hip-hop on the radio, to add rap music to their Kiss master mixes. I was part of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation so they put me on, in October '83.
Did you have many conversations with Barry Mayo about what sort of music you'd play on Kiss?
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He had an idea about what I was going to bring from hearing me at the Roxy, so he really just had some guidelines as to what he wanted on the radio.
What was the very first record you played on air?
The very first record on Kiss was "Pleasure Of Love" by the Tom Tom Club. It was a good record, in my opinion, and I thought it was a fine introduction and it was something to show the audience what I was about.
What were some of the highlights you remember from your first show?
Wow, you're talking about 30 years! I played a little bit of everything, some dance, some R&B, some hip-hop, I was being very diverse. That's how my whole show was like. But at the time I was pre-recorded, it wasn't live. When Barry Mayo got to listen to what I played he noticed that I wasn't into using any special effects, like some of the other DJs like a Shep Pettibone did. He asked why I didn't do that. I said because the same way the audience hear you on the radio is the same way the audience expect to hear you live. Then after a good three years he moved my time shift and started having me come on live. That was around '86.
Do you have any recordings of that first show?
No. I misplaced a lot of things since I moved.
What was the first hip-hop song you felt like you really broke on air?
I think the first one I broke on the radio was "Rappin' Duke." When I first heard it, it was catchy, it was humorous, it was fun. That was the type of catchy record that everybody can sing along to; it wasn't a dancing type record.
How did you come across "Rappin' Duke"?
I'm a person that used to always come across all different types of records, so then when they allowed me to come across the free material at the radio station I listened to everything! That one just caught my ears.
As your show progressed, what are some of the most important hip-hop songs you broke on air?
A lot of people credit me for being the first to play U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne, Roxanne," and a lot of people credit me for playing Boogie Down Productionsrest in peace to Scott La Rockand the other one is the Native Tongues: Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and Black Sheep.
You had a personal connection to the Native Tongues, right?
As far as the Jungle Brothers, one of the members is my nephew, Mike G, and he always told me him and his friends wanted to get together as a group and start making records. I introduced them to a friend of mine, Tony D, who had a studio at home. This is Tony D from Brooklyn that had a group called Bad Boys that made a record called "Inspector Gadget." So the Jungle Brothers started recording and came out with "Jimbrowski." At the same time De La Soul was coming around and I met Mark The 45 King when he was having people like Queen Latifah and members of the Flavor Unit coming around and everyone just started to gel.
Is it true you were the first person to play Boogie Down Productions' "South Bronx" on the radio?
Yeah. I had a good relationship with Scott La Rock and he was always trying to find a way to break into the industry. He came to me with his artist which was KRS-One and they had this record called "South Bronx." It was something of an answer record to "The Bridge" by MC Shan.
You ended up being part of the Bridge Wars between the Juice Crew and B.D.P., right?
Well a lot of people always knew there was rivalry when I was on Kiss-FM and you had Mr. Magic and Marley Marl over at WBLS. Even before MC Shan came out with a record called "The Bridge," Scott La Rock and KRS-One were signed to a label and they dropped this record and they came over to Mr. Magic and he bad mouthed the record so bad the label dropped the group. So Marley got MC Shan to do "The Bridge." They felt insulted by what happened and signed up to another company and recorded "South Bronx" and gave it to me and I broke it.
How intense did the Bridge Wars get?
One thing I can say about the Bridge Wars, we never ever had anything physical. We always kept everything on records and everything verbal. It was all about the artistic point of what the culture is, either on the microphone or on the turntables. Matter of fact, even before the Bridge Wars, when the "Roxanne, Roxanne" era came out, Roxanne Shante came out with a record on behalf of Mr. Magic and Marley Marl and a young lady named Sparky D did an answer record and I was DJing for her. There was a point we were on the road togetherthere was rivalry, but we were on the road together. It was always professional.
What do you remember about Sparky D and The Playgirls?
They was creative, they were some young ladies coming out of Brownsville. I met Sparky because she was involved with a producer and at the time boyfriend Spyder D, and he produced the record and brought it into Russell Simmons. I happened to be at the office that daySpyder D used to be managed by Russell Simmonsand I was there and I said that's a bad record. Russell said we got to get this girl and start doing some shows. Automatically, we started working together; we never practiced one-time, we just went out and we'd feed off each other.
How deep did the rivalry between your show on Kiss and Mr. Magic on WBLS go?
I got to give a lot of love and praise to Mr. Magic because he's really the one who gave birth to hip-hop on the radio; he started at an independent station WHBI 105.9; we used to always take time to listen to him late Saturday night and Sunday morning. When he went over to WBLS he was the king, he was the man. So when he heard Kiss-FM was getting ready to introduce hip-hop, he started to make a verbal rivalry. That's how it came to be. Between him and I, it was a rivalry, but it was never disrespectful. The way Mr. Magic and I was, it was like a Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
How did you feel when Mr. Magic played a new rap record before you did?
There was never no such thing as jealously in my bones. It's not what you play firstit's how well you introduce it to the masses. That's what I've always done.
Over the years, what's your favorite drop an artist gave you for the radio show?
I had so many it's hard to say. Not only did many people give me drops, but I had a lot of promo songs and people would request those more than the [released] records themselves.
Which promos come to mind?
"The TR-808 Is Coming" by D-Nice, a promo by Fat Joe that wound up becoming the record "Flow Joe," "Red Alert Was A Great Man" by MC Mitchski. I remember with Fat Joe, I'd seen him at the Apollo through amateur night and I liked what he did. I stepped to him and told him I wanted him to do a promo for me. He did. I started playing it and one of my understudies started to form a company and one of the first artists he signed was Fat Joe.
How important was it to an artist's career to have you play one of their records on Kiss?
To the majority of the audience, if I programmed in music then they felt like the artist had arrived. A lot of people always knew that I took time and I played only the songs that I believed sounded good enoughotherwise I'd have to play every single record that came out. So I wanted my audience to believe in me and trust me, so I'd pick and chose to program the best music only.
What do you want the legacy of your Kiss-FM show to be?
I'd like it to be remembered as something that had passion in it and part of your childhood. I gave you something that was there with you and you keep it there with you for a long time and for the memories down the road. When I look back in my mind as a child about the things that was on television that still stick in my head today, that's the same way that I want people to remember my shows on Kiss.
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