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During the summer of 1987, me and my brother would sit on the porch of our Baltimore row house, listening to local radio deity Frank Ski’s hiphop mix show. Almost every evening, Frank would play a cut called “The Music Ain’t Loud Enough.” The lyrics didn’t really strike us, but the drum track was irresistible, and the hook featured rap lord Rakim’s sampled voice chanting, “Pump up the volume.” In addition, the MC had a magnetic old-school energy in his voice, the kind that made the wackest of parties bearable: “Louder and louder we go!!/ Where we gonna stop nobody knows!!”
We assumed the guy had to be another one of those New York kids. After all, that’s where almost all the hiphop we heard came from. Little did we know that the artist, DJ Kool, came from our urban rival only 45 minutes down 295.
Now, almost 10 years later, sitting in front of me in a Pizza Hut on Potomac Avenue is the man responsible for that cut. There are no crowds clamoring for his autograph, no women offering themselves up in skin-tight jeans, and even though everybody in the joint knows him, they seem more impressed with him than he is with himself. Even his slim frame, slender face, and baby dreads sit in direct contrast with the voice that ritually booms across the airwaves. When we begin the interview, I’m still not convinced that this isn’t an impostor, the agent of some vengeful plot by an angry reader or past interviewee.
Kool’s newest hit record, the live cut “Let Me Clear My Throat,” has propelled him onto almost every radio station in the country and sent him on international tours. Yet despite the fame, he speaks of the record in comical fashion. It “was just me clowning one night,” he says. “I guess I’m one of those DJs that do a lot of talking or whatever, hyping the crowd while I’m mixing. One night I was getting ready to say something and I coughed….Instead of saying what I was gonna say, I coughed. Then I said, ‘God damn!’ just like that, right?—which is actually the hook to the song, ‘Ah-huh, Ah-huh, Uh! God damn!’….The crowd kinda caught on to it….After a while, I was saying the cough and they was saying the other part.”
Making a hook from a cough is unthinkable to most MCs today. Yet when rap first began, this type of thing would not have been that unlikely. In those days, the MC was just someone who came out and said a few rhyming bars to get the crowd going. Almost anything could be a rhyme. Back then, opinions of your mike skills were based on your ability to rock a party, not how clever your lyrics were. So it is still with Kool.
“A lot of [today’s MCs]…get out of the performance aspect of it, and that’s what I try to focus on….I don’t necessarily have to have the dope-dope lyrics to do what I’m doing. Basically what I’m doing is rocking a party. I might rhyme just enough to make it a ‘rap’ song,” he says. This might seem like high treason to most hiphop fiends, but the pundits should hold their horses. Kool’s old-school style reflects what rap was before it was rap. Kool is actually an artifact, sitting in the last place most rap archaeologists would think to look, Go-Go City.
Kool grew up in the Southeast neighborhood where this Pizza Hut sits. He points affectionately in various directions, running off a list of schools he attended as a child. “This is my neighborhood around here. I’ve been living here for 31, 32 years….I’ve seen a lot of stuff around here, you know what I’m saying, some good, some bad….I wouldn’t never consider this a violent neighborhood back then…but now man, with the type of attitude a lot of younguns have nowadays….It changed the neighborhood.”
As a child, even if there was trouble, Kool would not be involved in it. His parents were strict and very religious, making sure their son attended church on the regular. They also kept him occupied with basketball: “When I was coming up…a lot of us were involved in sports….We had recreation centers and stuff to go to to keep the kids and stuff busy during the day while they were out of school during the summer….For me, it was either I was at a game or at practice….I personally didn’t have time to be out here acting up.”
When Kool was 16 his father died, but he didn’t take it as a cue to hit the streets. “He left me a pretty good amount of money,” Kool says, “and so I…went and bought DJ equipment. I went and bought turntables and a mixer.”
Like almost all DJs, Kool started out doing the house-party circuit. A short time later he met up with D.C. DJ legend Maniac McCloud. “Back then, I used to club-hop. After a while it seemed like the only one I wanted to dance to or listen to was Maniac. ’Cause he was the only one scratching at the time. He was mixing…plus he was MCing at the time.”
When he met the older DJ, Kool had already started spinning at a club called the Room, at 12th Street and New York Avenue NW. “It’s a furniture store now,” he notes. Maniac eventually took the young DJ under his wing. “After Maniac slid off and he kinda put me in his spot, then I kinda took on the slot he had. I got all these DJs wanting to come up under me now, looking up to me now. I guess what Maniac was to D.C. in the ’70s and ’80s, I guess I was to D.C. in the ’80s and into the ’90s.”
This was also about the same time that a new music was emerging out of New York that would be called rap.
When Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” hit, “it was like an explosion—everybody was, like, ‘Damn, what is that?’ and everybody was on it….Then, here come these other artists, Kurtis Blow, Flash, so on and so forth.” Kool was slowly building his rep as a hiphop DJ. He added the rhyming bars that had marked his mentor, and soon he was considered the top DJ in D.C.
While working at the Room in 1986, Kool got his first recording offer. “This guy came up to me and asked did I wanna go to the studio and do a mix for him on a group that he had….While we was doing the work he asked me had I ever thought about making records myself, and I was, like, ‘Yeah.’”
The result was the song we heard on the radio in Baltimore, “The Music Ain’t Loud Enough.” It and “Reggae Dance” were the two biggest hits of Kool’s career until “Let Me Clear My Throat” was released late last year.
The music has been pretty good to Kool. He has managed to tour in Europe, and there are plans now for a remix of “Let Me Clear My Throat,” featuring Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, and Busta Rhymes. But what about the locals back here? What about the people who clamor for DJ Kool to get behind the wheels one more time and give a shout-out to the Southeast younguns? “I wanna retire,” he says, “but I guess I’m like Michael Jordan. I can’t.” CP