Kool Keith used to love the Times Square of the early ’80s; while interviewing him for this week’s Voice, he waxed lyrical on the subject. Here’s his full and lengthy rememberance of the days when 42nd Street was a seedier place, one lit by marquees advertising kung-fu flicks and boomboxes that looked like spaceships.
When was the first time you went to Times Square?
First time I went to Times Square, my pops took me down there. I went to see a movie as a kid—Superfly or something. There were all the lights, colors, all the bulbs around the movie theaters; marquees had the balls all around. Nathan’s was down there. It was, like, no gift shops—it was really pinball places, arcades, and you saw pimps riding by in the streets. Like the old 42nd Street, by the Greyhound bus station, you used to see like 20 pimps out there with the Jheri curl. Dudes was coming in from Ohio. It was real. You’d see cats in, like, Fila sweatpants standing on the deuce. That was the thing, to be a pimp on 42nd Street, to be on 8th Avenue. It used to be, like, pimps with suits on, Jheri curl pimps, the Fila sweatsuit pimps.
What do you remember about the pimps in Times Square?
They used to be waiting for girls to come off the Greyhound bus station. That was the trap, like, girls coming from different cities. The Greyhound bus station used to be real pimp-infested. Friday used to be the trendy night; all the pimps would be out standing in front of the bus stain, Jheri curls all wet, S-Curl Activator. Back when that Activator shit was hot, you’d see the real pimps with the real wetness dripping on their shirts; their shirts [would] be wet from the Activator. That was real, like Stoney Jackson, real Stoney Jackson looking. You don’t see that no more. That’s gone.
As a kid, what did you think of it all?
It was funny, it was like The Mack in your face. We had to go to movies and it was in your face 3D-like as a kid, like all the colors they had on and big giant Cadillac El Dorados, big orange 1974 El Dorados. It was just wild. You go in the movies, then it was like the movies but real and outside. [The pimps] had like a culture. They wasn’t out there every week, man, it was like a ritual—they’d be out Friday and Saturday. You see them out there, a bunch of them looking like S-Curl Activator everywhere, like 10.8 S-Curl Activator. Some had their hair like the long shit, like the pressed iron shit, some had the Jheri curl.
Those cats came from different places, though, and planted themselves in New York. A lot of those cats came from Cincinnati, some of them cats came from Detroit, I think some as far as Chicago. [Pauses] Nah, Chicago stayed in Chicago. A lot of dudes from Ohio. It’s funny to me ’cause they [Ohio] had the music back then: Slave was out, Slave was probably the band, and they had the Ohio Players. You don’t see that no more.
Did you go into the arcades much?
I mean, you go out there and play games. There would be a guy in there with a bunch of quarters who’d give you a bunch of change. You’d break out, like, a hundred dollars and he’d give you a hundred bucks worth of quarters. All them games was down there, all those games, many different games. Before, like, combat stuff was out, it was the hard driving thing: you sit in a car, put like eight quarters in there. That was cool. They had that in there.
Were you any good at the video games?
I used to go in there; I was good at pinball though. I forgot that game, it was a game where you keep getting the ball, like “pop” and get a free ball—”Pop!”—and a free credit. I forgot the name of that game. It was shaped like Las Vegas with all the beams, you could see the back of other things and it would go “ding ding ding” and start adding balls.
What about the movie theaters?
I was there all the time. I used to go to the movies a lot, see karate flicks. That’s when the movie was like two bucks. It was like early ’80s, late-’70s. I’d go see, like, Drunken Monkey. What else I see? There was five dudes and they all had illnesses. One was blind and one couldn’t see, that was a good one. One could not see, one couldn’t hear, one couldn’t talk. There was five of them, but that’s how they worked together. Saw that one. [Clan Of The] White Lotus was always in the movies a lot—you know, he had the white hair, the grey hair, his hair was always white in movies. His costume used to always look ill. I liked when the karate flicks did the air breaks, like a full spin and they slow down and threw the sound effects, like when they made the wind with their hands.
Was it rowdy in the movie theaters?
Rowdy, yeah, like throwing shit off the balconies. You had the balconies, and it would be, like, they [would] always talk about everything in the movie, telling you shit like, “Watch him fuck this dude up!” Used to be good, though.
Did you used to yell at the screen too?
Nah. We would sneak in with Old Gold beer and everybody had like a big giant bag of potato chips.
What brand of potato chips did you prefer?
Like some big giant Bon Ton potato chips and two big quarts of beer. For chips, we make our own mix of all the different chips and pretzels, and some people [would] bring weed. If you [got] to the movies early… people used to make a sound like “Uh-oo! I’m over here!” They didn’t care about people making noise or somebody saying shut up or going “Uh-oo! Where you at?” That was the call, “Uh-oo!”
What was the most bizarre thing you ever saw in Times Square?
Back in the day I saw this guy in a car and that shit was made out of all types of cars. Like the front was a Cadillac, the back was a Ford, the top was a General Motors, the motor area was a Volkswagen. It just had like all types of cars. Every part of the car is that car.
Were you attempting to make music during that time?
I was buying records in Midtown. I was buying Slave and Con Funk Shun and GAP Band; I was into Atlantic Starr and all those type of groups. I was buying like all types of funk records, like a big confluence of funk stuff. What else did I buy? Whoever had weird costumes, these bands, like whoever had some crazy space shit on their album, I bought it. Bands that had their Galactica uniforms on, I had all that stuff. They had a lot of radio stores, too, where you bought the big JVCs, the boxes that all the rappers had back in the day. They used to have those big radio stores and you see dudes walking down 42nd with the lights. At night time it looked like they’re carrying some big spaceship.
What sort of boombox did you have?
I had, like, a JVC. It was cool, you bought it in the box. They had all those JVC stores, and Sanyo and Sony.
What did you play on your boombox?
I had Cameo. I used to make cassettes with Cameo. Dudes would be looking at me crazy ’cause I’m not playing some early hip-hop that came out on a record from Sugar Hill. I used to make cassettes of Cameo. I’d be playing Cameo or Ohio Players, walking down the street playing Slave. If I came out with the radio I would be blasting Cameo or something or like Brick, some funk records. I didn’t really play the first rap records that came out.
Did you hear a lot of rap records around Times Square?
Some people had radios, like the Puerto Ricans would be playing like “Diamond Girl” Spanish stuff, whatever their stuff was, some Donna Summer type house music and being a rebel on roller skates. People might have had rap in there, some people might have had Run-DMC on their radios and stuff.
So when did you notice Times Square start to change?
Early ’90s. The Howard Johnson’s was gone, you started to see stores close and places like Benetton getting ready to come in, you started seeing McDonalds, you started seeing all the porno spots being moved off of 8th Avenue to, like, the side block. You started seeing little kids on 42nd Street. I was like, “Wow, little kids are not supposed to be on 42nd.”
Why did the change happen?
They wanted to water it down for the kids. They was using money for tourist attractions and people [would] spend money. They went to make it watered down so they can change it into the Epcot Center. They need a couple of rides: they should put a rollercoaster in there and a Ferris wheel, a whole rollercoaster that goes around Times Square, have it go up 56th Street, do a loop, some wild shit.
Before the change, did Times Square feel like a dangerous place?
It wasn’t scary, more like adult. It was more adult. Now when you go down there you feel like a kid. What you gon’ buy, M&Ms? You gon’ buy peanuts, cotton candy, candy? It’s doing more business, it’s just for little babies. Not even people no more, just bring the little kids. Little forty-kids street! It’s not, like, adult 42nd Street. Bring your baby, bring your nephew. All the little kids running around, babies in their diapers playing with Spongebobs. It’s just not for the people, not for adults.
Kool Keith plays solo at Brooklyn Bowl on June 14 and as part of Ultramagnetic MCs at Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 17.