The rise and fall of the first heroes of hip‑hop
December 23, 1993- January 6, 1994
By Eric Berman

LIKE THE FOUNDERS OF rock & roll, the forefathers of hip‑hop never found great fortune. But the rock & roll names ‑ Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Chuck Berry, and blues artists from Robert Johnson to Howlin' Wolf- are at least familiar and their influence is uncontested.

It is the rare rap purist, however, who has heard the name of Kool DJ Herc (short for Hercules), born in Kingston, Jamaica, the first hip‑hop DJ. Never captured on record, Herc pumped his blistering Caribbean sound system at South Bronx, N.Y., block parties as early as 1969. Or heard the name of DJ Hollywood, the first rapping DJ.

Better known, perhaps because they had hit records, are the names DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Lovebug Starski and Kurtis Blow, who ‑with others from the South Bronx neighborhood ‑ started playing with their turntables in the early '70s.

The musical and cultural revolution that bore hip‑hop -now essentially the background music for rap ‑ rose out of the ashes of a South Bronx that burned for a decade, from the mid '60s to the mid‑70s, as landlords looking to collect insurance money on run‑down buildings paid arsonists to destroy the area. Since its earliest recorded hits, such as “Wheels of Steel," by Grandmaster Flash, “The Breaks," by Kurtis Blow, "Rapper's Delight," by Sugarhill Gang "Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force and “The Message," by Flash and the Furious Five, featuring Melle Mel, hip‑hop has become a multibillion‑dollar industry. But its pioneers have long been left behind.

Did hip‑hop devour its early creators? Who stole the soul, in the words of Public Enemy's Chuck D ‑ was it crooked record companies exploiting novice businessmen? And what role did drugs play and the addictions that took over when crack was as new and as unexplored as the music itself? For the core group of South Bronx gang members‑turned‑DJs who all but reinvented American popular culture by accident, it has been an epic of intertwined and inseparable travails.

Lovebug Starski working the mic and spinning his wheels of steel at the Disco Fever, in the South Bronx in 1983.

LOVEBUG STARSKI WORKING THE MIC AND SPINNING HIS WHEELS OF STEEL AT DISCO FEVER, IN THE SOUTH BRONX, IN 1983"BACK IN THE DAY, WE USED TO PUSH REFRIGERATOR‑size speakers through the blocks," says DJ Lovebug Starski (Kevin Smith) of hip‑hop music's early days, dominated by massive mobile sound systems introduced to the South Bronx by Kool Herc "It was just for the love of it. We wasn't gettin' no money at all."

With perseverance, Lovebug, along with many of hip‑hop's other founding fathers, is now attempting to re‑enter the music business. At 36, he is struggling to make a living as a DJ and to support his wife, Tanya, and two daughters, who live in Bridgeport, Conn. He says he's excited by what hip‑hop has become. But he remembers the block parties "back in the day" and wonders how it all got away from him and his friends ‑ how the industry chewed them up and spit them out.

As a teen‑ager in the early '70s, Lovebug would set up two turntables and a sound system in the parks of his South Bronx neighborhood and mix records at block parties. He soon became one of the first rapping DJs to rhyme for party crowds over the records he played.

At 13, Lovebug ran with South Bronx's Black Spades, the presiding street gang at the time, "gangbustin'," he says. "Everyone used to carry machetes." He'd already been hanging out for four years, smoking Newports and drinking Olde English 800 malt liquor in front of Forest Houses, on East 167th Street and Trinity Avenue, where he grew up. But like other members of the Black Spades, he began DJ'ing with other people's equipment and moving away from gang street fighting.

Increasingly, Lovebug would play with the records. He would put them on his turntable and move them with his hands, making weird sounds with the needle. Most kids he knew at the time were in ninth grade or selling loose joints in front of Forest Houses. But he was beginning to be recognized by people in the neighborhood.

Lovebug started sneaking into the 371, a West Bronx club where a friend, DJ Hollywood, worked. “I was too young to get in there back in them days," he says. But Lovebug knew he was in his element. He soon met Pete 'DJ" Jones, one of the city's most popular club DJs at the time, who played regularly at the 371. Lovebug worked for $5 a night, setting up Jones' equipment. Soon after, Lovebug learned how to set up a system with his eyes closed.

Things started moving for 'Bug by 1975. It was not long before he and a couple of other young, up‑and‑coming Bronx DJs began getting gigs at the big‑time downtown clubs and discos, "where all the older people would go" -Superstar 33, the Roxy, Danceteria, Stardust Ballroom- even though “I was still young, 15,16 years old," he recalls, "still wearin' holes and dungarees and fucked up shoes."

By 1979, hip‑hop had been alive in the streets, parks and clubs of the Bronx for 10 years but was not yet immortalized on record. Lovebug landed a job DJ'ing at Disco Fever, the club at the pinnacle of hip‑hop's late ‘70s/early '80s boom, on East 167th Street and Jerome Avenue, in the Bronx. It would be almost a decade until Ice‑T and Public Enemy would make mainstream record deals and sell millions of rap records to white, African American and Latino kids. Fledgling rap labels such as West End Records and Enjoy Records, on the other hand, would go under, while their artists floundered.

"You have to be business‑oriented," says Lovebug. “I was not. I knew enough to get some money [from his first label, Fever Records] but not the money I was sup­posed to be getting. 'Cause I loved what I did."

BRONX RIVER HOUSES ARE A SMALL CLUSTER OF nondescript New York City tenements off East 174th Street, near the Cross Bronx Expressway. The cement park in the center of the buildings, where jams were held, looks all but dead now; weeds sprout up through the cracks in the concrete. The community center which was used for the indoor shows is silent now.

Home and headquarters to the Zulu Nation, the inner circle of ex‑gang members turned '70s hip‑hop security force, Bronx River projects also double as the offices for Planet Rock Music, DJ Afrika Bambaataa's new label, named after his landmark 1982 12‑inch single, "Planet Rock."

An iron African sword reading ZULU and green‑belt certificates from the Wolfox School of Fighting Arts bring life to the bland living room that is part home, part office for Bambaataa. Piles of records are stacked on sofas, on an easy chair, even on an old 10‑inch TV set. An old poster shows Bam in the African‑inspired George Clintonesque gear of his days as a performer, a white turban flowing from under a red, gold, black and green Nigerian cap. He is covered in black leather. Dozens of African medallions hang from his neck.

But now his hair is buzzed short, hidden almost entirely by a tan sweater cap, and a gray sweat shirt surrounds his paunch. Like his Bronx River neighborhood, Bam seems far removed from the furor of the boiling street life that gave rise to hip‑hop culture. "It's part of life," he says. “We just paved the way. I always knew that down the line, other people and cultures would be into the music. I just get mad when certain people rise up into power and don't push the original creators."

Recent rap hits like Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)," 95 South's "Whoot, There It Is" and Duice's "Dazzey Duks" were inspired by and, in the case of the latter two, directly sampled from Bam's early singles, "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat," proving that Bam's influence is still tremendous. Now dropping hundreds of record‑label names, artists, tracks and B sides, he attempts to place them all in their hip‑hop context.

“The first rap record came out in early '79," Bambaataa says, as though school's now in session. “It was 'King Tim III," by the Fatback Band, on Spring Records. I wouldn't say it was strictly hip‑hop. This was the first record that was coming out as rap," he says. (The first rap records, including "King Tim III" and "Rapper's Delight," had bands playing on them.)

Hip‑hop music has since become rap's spouse (replac­ing live instruments). Unlike the relatively brief history of hip‑hop, however, traceable to the very late '60s, rap has been evolving for decades, even centuries. Bam paints a gorgeous mosaic of the roots that still influence the genre today. He mentions Cab Calloway's signature chant "Hi‑de‑hi-de‑hi‑de‑ho" and Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." "Way back into Africa," Barn says, "they used to have the call and response, which was a form of rap. In the '60s, the kids gave each other the dozens, where you'd say, 'Your momma ain't this, and your sister ain't that.” There was the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, the militant rapping of the Last Poets and the Watts Poets on the West Coast. Then you had the wakeup message 'rapping' of Mr. Malcolm X, Minister Louis Farrakhan."

These different styles of rapping, mixed with Jamaican "toasting" -quick vocal deliveries more like speech than singin ‑ defined the bond between rap and reggae.

Bam was familiar with toasting because his parents were from Jamaica. Most pioneers agree that toasting, as performed by U Roy, I Roy and Yellowman, was the final influence on rap's lengthy evolution. "We just took the Jamaican style and put to American records," says Bam.

Rap and hip‑hop then borrowed some attitude from James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and his group Parliament‑Funkadelic and often literally lifted ‑ sampled ‑ their funky rhythm tracks right off the records. "George [Clinton] was doing rap also, before it was even called rapping," says Bam.

“It all started with the DJs," Bam says. "Mixing up the cuts, putting in effects, and gradually some DJs started coming out and talking over their records to get the crowd going."

Bam's "contemporary crush music," his early hip‑hop electrofunk, like "Planet Rock," mixed crisp bass samples, laser‑drum beats and techno voices to make music that sounded years ahead of its time. "I'd play anything that made the party groove," he says, "as long as it had that beat, that bass, that groove that would make you get crazy. The break dancing was out [in the streets] even before hip‑hop ever got a name" The kids were called break boys and break girls or B‑boys and B‑girls.

Bam says he had his first idea of hip‑hop's potential scale when downtown punks started coming up to Bronx River: "The punk rockers and the blacks and Latinos at the parties here showed how people could come together and learn to respect each other and start liking each other's music. Everybody was partying together. It's dead now. It's strictly, 'house music all night long' and 'reggae rules' and 'hip‑hop rocks.' Everybody's doing their own separate thing. No DJs are progressive in the '90s on a worldwide scale."

IN 1972, JOSEPH SADDLER WAS A SKINNY FRESHMAN at Samuel Gompers Vocational Technical High School, on East 147th Street and Southern Boulevard, in the South Bronx. "I had a knack for tinkering," he says. He grew up with Lovebug around the corner from Forest Houses, and began watching DJs ‑ Grandmaster Flowers, MaBoya and Pete "DJ" Jones ‑ at the outdoor dances in the Mitchell Houses projects, in the South Bronx and in West Tremont, where Kool Herc played.

While Saddler learned the technical side of electronics, he became a student of Jones. Saddler also watched Kool Herc closely at block parties. He liked Herc's "antidisco" records. "I had to find a way to keep it on time like Pete did but play the music that Herc played," he says. That's where his electronics came in. In late 1973, Saddler set out to find a way to segue records smoothly and repeat the "break" ‑ the part of a song where the drums are momentarily isolated for a solo ‑ without skipping a beat so the dancers wouldn't misstep.

Saddler stayed in his apartment, on 167th Street, for "about a year," he says, experimenting with techniques, using two copies of the same record on two turntables, like Kool Herc, bringing one record back with his hands to the point where the break started (marked with a pencil) while the other record played, and then switching turntables using a single‑poled, double‑throw switch glued to his mixer. Back and forth. He had to be fast. Then he went out to the parks ‑"63 Park" on East 163rd and Boston Road. South Bronx, of course.

"Half an hour into my thing, in my experimental stage, people would just start watching me," Saddler says. "This got me very angry. I wanted to excite the crowd, to make people dance." Kids around the neighborhood started calling him Flash because his hands were so fast.

He needed someone to offset the crowd's attention yet complement what he was doing. He played with Lovebug for a while; then a guy named Keith Wiggins started coming to the parks. He got on Flash's mike a few times. They clicked. Wiggins would become known as Cowboy ‑ one of the first "MCs," or microphone controllers, shouting party rhymes to the crowd along with the records.

Flash and Cowboy used to get a couple of shopping carts and wheel speakers and crates of records to one of the neighborhood parks. Flash would open up the casing of a lamppost, cut the wire, wrap it around the prongs of an extension cord, tape the cord up and run it to the park. “We would play until the cops chased us out," says Flash. “I did it for the love of it, not realizing anyone would want to pay to come see this."

Seven‑foot‑tall Ray Chandler, a guy who was res­pected around the neighborhood, approached Flash one day when he was breaking down his equipment after playing a block party at 63 Park. "I need to speak to you," Chandler said. "You need to let me promote this. Let's take it inside and charge people a dollar to get in."

"It's been free for so long," said Flash, "who'd want to hear this?"

"I'll find the spot," said Chandler. "You show up."

Flash then added another kid from Forest Houses, Melvin Glover, who called himself MC Melle Mel, and his brother Nathaniel, another MC, who took the name Kid Creole (no relation to the dance music group Kid Creole and the Coconuts). They joined Cowboy, riling up the crowd with chants like "Throw your bands in the air/And wave 'em like ya just don't care!" After adding two more MCs, Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams) and Scorpio (Eddie Morris), to the group, they christened themselves Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They were fast becoming one of the hottest groups in the metropolitan area when Flash was approached by a tiny record label.

"Let me bring you in the studio," said one of the owners. "Do exactly what you guys do at a party, but let's go into a recording studio."

"It wouldn't work," said Flash. Who would wanna spend $4.99?" He was charging a dollar or two for the shows in school gymnasiums and community centers at housing projects. "Nobody would want to buy the record," he said.

The idea was killed. "I regret that," says Flash. "Coulda been the first. The very first."

"AFTER MYSELF, HERC AND FLASH, CRAZY AMOUNTS of DJs started springing up everywhere," Bam says, "and they always wanted to challenge or battle somebody. It was no joke. You had to really know how to rock the crowd, or you could get your stuff taken." Many of the battles were over equipment. It was strictly survival of the fittest onstage. What is known now as a posse would come in handy, "so you could keep your equipment," Bam says. That's where the Zulu Nation came in. "If you lost, you could kiss your career goodbye." Many credit Bam and the Zulu Nation for slowing gang activity in the volatile South Bronx of the early 70s.

"Me, Herc and Flash would hide our records from each other so nobody would know what we were jamming," says Bam, who prided himself on the obscurity of his breaks. Removing record labels by soaking the record or cutting out part of its center label was protocol for the first hip‑hop DJs.

"I knew the records so well that I could figure out the song by the color of the label or the jacket and find it," says Bam. "People had hard times finding out my records, because my music was coming from so many different areas ‑ rock, jazz, funk. They were just playing disco records."

Years before hip‑hop got on record, the music exist­ed only as a raw, instrumentless, '70s funk fusion, predating rap, alive only at the block parties at places like Bronx River Center, where Afrika Bambaataa grew up, where he rose to power and where he finds himself two decades later struggling to keep Planet Rock Records afloat. "I consider myself what you call a historian of the whole thing," he says. "The only one who can sit there at the table with me is Kool Herc."

ON SEPT. 2, 1976, THE DOORS TO HARLEM'S AUDUBON Ballroom opened at 9 p.m. There were about 500 people there. Flash and the Five were to play their first big gig that night. "But in that place, it might as well have been five," he says.

The main power amplifier controlling the bass blew out in sound check, and the group's system was insufficient for the size of the room. Between 11 and midnight, about a thousand more people came. By quarter of 2, there were nearly 2,300 people in the place. Flash had never seen so many people in one place for a jam. He went out back to check license plates. They were from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington.

Flash and the Five packed local houses beyond capacity every weekend for a couple of years. They had become New York City heroes. Flash says he almost got into fights when he wanted a weekend off.

Then, listening to the car radio one day in 1979, Flash heard, "A hip‑hop/The hi-be/To the hi‑be/The hip hip‑hop/You don't stop rockin'/To the bang bang the boogie/Say up jump the boogie/To the rhythm/Of the boogie/The beat."

"What is this?" Flash marveled. "I heard this record on the radio almost every 10 minutes on almost every station that I switched to. They said it was these boys out of Jersey." Flash thought the record would come and go, but it stayed, and it stayed. "It haunted me. It was a superhuge record." It was "Rapper's Delight."

The Englewood, NJ., Sugarhill Gang shocked the South Bronx rap community with their breakthrough hip‑hop single, "Rapper's Delight." It instantly added a new dimension to the careers of so many struggling Bronx hip‑hop DJs like Flash and Lovebug. Sugarhill immortalized the phrase hip‑hop in the first line of "Rapper's Delight" (though Bambaataa says he got the phrase from Lovebug in 1974). It was the single that would transform the gram roots music movement into an entertainment industry.

In fact, it may have taken an outsider like Sugarhill to galvanize the movement ‑ no one in the early hip‑hop gang had seen a market for their sound beyond Bronx River or Tremont Avenue. When the market was discovered, no one knew when it would dry up, including the early fly‑by‑night financiers. But when "Rapper's Delight" opened the door, many young DJs and MCs were suddenly getting signed off the streets.

One night after a party, when Flash was breaking down his system, Bobby Robinson, who owned Enjoy Records, in Harlem, asked, "Do you want to make a record?" This time the answer was different: "Yeah," Flash said.

They went into the studio and recorded "Super Rappin'," which did OK but was no "Rapper's Delight." Then Joey Robinson Jr. (no relation to Bobby) of Sugarhill Records, the Jersey label that had put out "Rapper's Delight," paid a visit to Disco Fever, the South Bronx club where Flash was spinning on Tuesday nights. "Flash, we want to put you on our label," he said. Sugarhill ended up buying the group's contract from Enjoy.

“We entered into what you would call unorthodox contractual procedures," says Flash. "No lawyers. No business people in the middle. We didn't know." Flash and the Furious Five cut "Freedom," their first record on Sugarhill. “We wanted instant boom," says Flash. The record did well in New York, though it was still no "Rapper's Delight" in terms of impact and sales.

Still, Sugarhill's Sylvia Robinson (who wrote and produced the songs, while her husband, Joey, ran the company) called the six young men into her office. "Pack your bags, 'cause you're not gonna be home for along time" she said. "Why?" asked Flash. "You're going on tour," she said.

There was a list of about 40 cities. "Freedom" had gone gold, selling 500,000 copies, and there was instant response everywhere they went. More records came. "Birthday Party." "Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel," a 1982 testament to Flash's turntable wizardry. Then later that year, Robinson sat Flash and the Five down and played them a haunting disco‑funk demo she wanted them to work on. The lyrics went, "Don't push me/Cause I'm close to the edge." "Listen to the record," she said. Robinson said she had a gut feeling, though the record ran 7:11, way too long for commercial radio. "You gotta trust me on this," she said.

Against their own judgment, Flash and Cowboy brought a demo, “The Message," to Frankie Crocker, a DJ at WBLS radio in New York City. It went gold in 21 days and platinum 20 days later. It was the first "conscience rap" of the modern era. They toured again. This time they went to Europe.

After the tour, Flash, as leader of the group, went to Sugarhill. He had a few questions. "If this record sold so much, why are we in the red?" he asked. They had become the label's bread and butter, displacing Sugarhill Gang with consistent sales. “We were only in the studio for three weeks," he says. We would have recouped all the money." Sylvia Robinson told Flash he was asking too many questions.

“I didn't have the right questions," say Flash. "And I didn't hear the right answers. I went into a depression." He says Mel and the others went to Robinson. We can get rid of Flash, they said. He's only the DJ. "They didn't realize that I was the nucleus, the creator of the group," he says. It got so ugly, Flash says, he had to leave Sugarhill. "I said, 'Is everybody coming with me?'"

Kid Creole and Rahiem stood by Flash and signed with Elektra Records. Cowboy, Melle Met and Scorpio stayed on at Sugarhill. "I kept my name," says Flash. "They kept The Furious Five, and I kept Grandmaster Flash." In a few more months, Melle Mel would hit with his record "White Lines (Don't Do It)." Though the record mysteriously reads GRANDMASTER FLASH AND MELLE MEL, Flash says "that's a Melle Mel record. It was his genius."

Mel says he felt the group needed to make another record before they sued Sugarhill, so money would be coming in while they were in court. “White Lines," he says, was that record. Flash disagreed and did not want to make any more records with Sugarhill. "But the machine kept running," says Mel. "The Run D.M.Cs and Whodinis made a run at our title while we were in court."

The real problem, Mel says, was that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five didn't even know how many records they sold. "'The Message' didn't go gold, according to [Sugarhill]," he says, but the court proceeding revealed otherwise.

But Joey Robinson says Flash still owes Sugarhill $350,000. “Who gives a fuck what those fuckin' bums think?" Robinson fumes. "Them guys was drug addicts using crack when it first came out. Flash never wrote a song, never did a rap ‑ son of a bitch was never in the studio when a record was made out of here. It's all in the court records." He says Melle Mel was the only member of the group who appeared on "The Message," and "we paid him thousands."

Everybody eventually went their separate ways, and Flash made three albums on Elektra as Grandmaster Flash, with moderate success. Meanwhile, his dabbling with cocaine became more frequent. "I looked for an escape," he says. "It really messed me up. I walked away from my equipment for almost a year. I walked away from my beats. Lost touch with what I loved. I no longer had the freedom, like back in the park."

One day he went cold turkey. "All it took me was a week. My sister Regina was behind me. She said, 'You can still DJ. You have a gift.'"

“I had always wanted to put music together for other people," Flash says, kicking back on a leather sofa in his newly renovated Harlem recording studio. Now, at 36, he says, "I want to be a producer."

Flash says Sylvia Robinson taught him a lot about business. "I watched how they did things in the office," he says. "How they contacted this agent, how they called up this town to see how the record was doing, and if it was weak, what had to be done. It wasn't all bad.

"Everything goes in a cycle," he says.

IN THE '80s, COCAINE WAS A SIGN OF getting paid. And a whole crowd of young DJs and MCs riding the crescendo of the burgeoning '70s Bronx hip‑hop underground were getting paid ‑ at least enough to keep themselves in cocaine.

"When 'White Lines' came out, it said, 'Don't do it,' but everybody was doin' it more, says Lovebug, who was DJ'ing at the Fever when the back room was called the Ice Room. "It was total hypocrisy. They knew it was, 'cause they was doin' it with me."

Mel says when he was in the studio in late 1982, laying down the vocal track for “White Lines (Don't Do It)" ‑ the first anti‑drug rap ‑ "Only thing I was thinking about in that studio was listening to the record, joking and getting high with Junebug," Lovebug's cousin, who dealt blow. Junebug was later found shot dead in his home, on Decatur Avenue, in Brooklyn, his girlfriend drowned in the swimming pool. "At that point," Mel says, "coke stopped being fun."

In 1983, Sal Abatiello, manager of Disco Fever, persuaded Lovebug to make a record. "You Gotta Believe," backed with "At the Fever," was released on Abatiello's Fever label, which was distributed by West End Records. The record sold nearly a million copies.

What kind of deal did he have? "I really didn't know at the time," says Lovebug. "All I knew was I was gettin' paid. Coked out of my mind. They took advantage of me. Put that in bold." He says he got enough money to "drug around" and support himself.

Then, in 1986, Lovebug surprised a lot of people in the industry when he got a one‑album deal with Epic Records. "I kept company with Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Sade." But he says, the more popular he got, the more coke he did, and as Sal puts it, "The album sucked." Lovebug, on the other hand, blames Epic for poor promotion. The Epic contract was not renewed, and Lovebug was forced to confront his role as one of hip‑hop's casualties, as rap shed its skin in the '80s. He turned back to the streets, no better off financially than before it all started. "Everybody's episode is basically the same," he says. "You rob, you steal, to support your habit."

In 1987, Lovebug was busted on what he calls drug‑related charges and sent upstate, where he did five years at several state detention facilities. He doesn't like to talk about the incident that led to his arrest, saying only, "I did my bid. I took the humiliation and rehabilitated myself off the coke. Most of all, I was tired of being fucked up."

In December 1991, Lovebug was released and, until recently, DJ'd at the reopened Fever. The new Fever has rekindled some of the old‑school flavor in the South Bronx neighborhood. Kool Herc drops by. Flash drops by. Melle Mel, Grandmaster Casanova. Even the legendary Rock Steady Crew of break dancers, now approaching middle age, bust moves on their heads to classic disco grooves on the club's checkered-linoleum dance floor, as if the Fever never missed a beat.

For all the pioneers still hanging around, second‑ and third‑generation groups are experiencing the "fading out," as Bam calls it. Groups and performers like U.T.F.O., the Fat Boys, Whodini, Stetsasonic and Doug B. Fresh saw their heyday in the mid‑'80s. Even Run D.M.C., the biggest‑selling rap group of all time, has had only one hit single in recent years, 1993's "Down With the King."

"Most of the pioneers were just music lovers ‑ record collectors," says Chuck D of Public Enemy. "They were busy experimenting and being innovative in the art, and nobody knew where it was going, so when it blew up, they felt like 'Hey, I'm gonna reap it for all it's worth' and sell it before it dies. People got caught up in trying to plan for it to disappear."

Bam sees the difference in the way the industry is more organized now. "The Public Enemys and LL Cool Js have people looking out for them. The pioneers paved the way, to go through all the hell. It was a fight. Some have made it through. Others fell."

ERIC BERMAN is a freelance writer living in New York City. He would like to thank Robin Reisig for her help with this story.