DJ Red Alert Explains How The Bridge Wars Began, Tells His Story (Audio)
Fresh off of DJ Kool Herc’s groundbreaking interview with The Combat Jack Show, another Hip-Hop pioneer is profiled extensively. Kool DJ Red Alert is Combat’s guest this week. The Harlem, New York native (not Bronx, as often reported) opens up about his career trajectory, the radio wars evolving into “The Bridge Wars,” and the formation of the Native Tongues, which he helped oversee. The conversation paints a portrait of integrity, humor, and love of the music.
The discussion begins with some little known facts surrounding Red Alert. Recalling the mid-1970s scene in New York City, especially Uptown, Red Alert lists names including, Becky ‘DJ’ Jones—who he considers Hip-Hop’s first female DJ. Pursuing an engineering degree, Red (born Fred Crute) left NYC, for Hampton University. Upon his return, the B-Boy’s infatuation with sounds and Hip-Hop did not cease. Taking a job in the Garment District on 25th Street, Red says he began, “savin’ up my money, and piece-by-piece, buyin’ equipment.” The Harlemite would take his paychecks, and go around the corner to Rock & Soul to buy $2.99 12″ singles. The NYC landmark record store helped supply Red with some of the sounds that would later mold and shape a culture.
Moving into his late 1970s DJ style, Red says, “I wasn’t doin’ too much cuttin’ at the time; I was doin’ more mixin’ and blendin’.” Notably, Alert helped mentor his cousin, DJ Jazzy Jay. Jay would become Afrika Bambaataa’s right-hand man and often, the Universal Zulu Nation founder’s actual hands for shows. “He was on KISS before me,” Red recalls of his cousin’s breakthrough. “He also took it upon himself to build his own studio.” Jazzy Jay would later establish Strong City Records, releasing material by Grand Puba’s Masters Of Ceremony, Diamond D’s Ultimate Force, and Wild Style icon Chief Rocka Busy Bee. Additionally, Jay would help Rick Rubin on the boards for Def Jam Records’ earliest says, and T La Rock. “I showed him the fundamentals,” admits Red of his cousin. He says that it was not until 1979 that he met Bambaataa, in a lengthy discussion about the New York City music scene’s gestalt including Hip-Hop, Punk, and New Wave. Red Alert recalls seeing Talking Heads, Blondie, and others at the very same parties he was playing—as well as Mick Jagger’s then-wife, Bianca.
Near the 36:00 mark, DJ Red Alert recalls his unique introduction to radio. The Universal Zulu Nation’s Afrika Islam got involved with station, WHBI. The “Zulu Beats” show was born in 1982-1983. For Red, his love of the sounds paid off. “I was known for tapin’ all the jams,” admits Red, of recording both parties and radio shows. Those segments would get excerpts played by Islam (who later worked extensively with Ice-T and Rhyme Syndicate) on radio. “He would always speak about me, big me up,” says Red Alert, supplying the live material. “After the launch of Beat Street, Afrika Islam had to go on the road with the Rocksteady Crew, so he had me in place.” Notably, the WHBI post would not last. Instead, rival KISS FM looked to occupy the space. They approached Afrika Bambaataa, asking who would be a proper fit to spin opposite Mr. Magic (who had been a mainstay Hip-Hop mixmaster on WBLS since ’79). After Afrika Islam did not appear for meetings, they approached Jazzy Jay. “They wasn’t payin’,” remembers Red Alert, explaining Jazzy Jay’s rapid exit. On the third try, Bam suggested Red Alert. History would be made, as from October, 1983 through 1994, DJ Red Alert’s voice and style would grow synonymous with the station’s identity.
Combat Jack adds some valuable perspective. Coming into his own in the 1980s, the man also known as Reggie Ossé recalls meeting DJ Red Alert, who was working in a mail-room in Midtown Manhattan (40:00). “I workin’ at Gibson Hill, workin’ in the mail-room,” explains Red. “Even though I’m puttin’ it down with the Zulu Nation, in 1980, I had my first son. You’ve got to have a job, you’ve got to take care of kids.” DJ Red Alert, considered one of Hip-Hop’s 40-year icons, recalls several mail-room jobs, as well as loading trucks in Hunter’s Point, all during a prominent radio career. Notably, for much of 1983 and 1984, even on KISS, the icon was not being compensated.
Although he worked pro-bono, DJ Red Alert supported himself through his passion. “I was known for sellin’ tapes,” he admits. After selling live recordings of party DJ sets and Rap shows, Red began bootlegging his KISS mixes. “Every time people heard me on Saturday, on Monday, I was sellin’ those tapes.” Recalling charging $10 to $20 per cassette, Red positioned himself alongside Sugar Hill’s drug pushers. “I’m sellin’ tapes at all the spots they hustlin’ at.” While KISS was not cutting checks, Red Alert says his exposure allowed bookings and party promotions that would solidify his career and subsequent travel. “All that from payin’ my dues of three-months-for-nothin’.”
It is around the 45:00 mark that things get especially noteworthy. DJ Red Alert’s name was on the rise, so much so that WBLS rival Mr. Magic (and partner Marley Marl) started taking notice. “Remember, Magic was the only man on the air,” Red contextualizes. After the late Magic had taken verbal, on-air swipes at Jazzy Jay, he moved on his KISS opposite. Magic chided “Red Dirt,” “Duck Alert,” and “Woody Woodpecker” about the ruddy-haired DJ, clowning him on ear. “I came to the program director, said, ‘Yo, this nigga is dissin’ me’,” recalls Red, who was heated. However, he used the advances to define his everlasting persona. “I’m from the underdog [mentality].” Instead, Kool DJ Red Alert focused on breaking records, on his terms. Supplied by Select Records with U.T.F.O.’s single “Hanging Out,” Red instead, favored a B-side, “Roxanne, Roxanne.” He explained, “I didn’t like it, so I flipped it to the B-side.” Being the first DJ to play the subsequent hit by the Brooklyn, New York trio, Mr. Magic and Marley Marl would respond.
As Propmaster Red Alert tells it, “That’s when Marley went ahead and got a young lady in his neighborhood for an answer record, Roxanne Shante.” Roxanne Shanté would notably release “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a famous diss record, that would ultimately form “The Roxanne Wars.” The moment is also a critical storyline in Ambrosia For Heads’ “Finding The GOAT: Ladies Second” short documentary film, narrated by Rapsody.
With Marley Marl producing “Roxanne’s Revenge,” an attack on a record DJ Red Alert broke, Combat Jack asked the DJ his relationship with Marley’s productions. “That’s a thing a lot of people don’t understand: even though Marley was producin’ a lot records, if they sounded good, I was playin’ those records!,” says Red near the 40:00 mark. At the time, Marley Marl was cultivating his own Juice Crew, while working with the likes of Spoonie Gee, Kool Mo Dee, and various others. At the 54:00 minute mark, it becomes apparent how the would-be “Bridge Wars” began with rival DJs at two of New York City’s premiere radio stations. “The radio war mainly was the Rap shows,” says Uncle Red, referring to his KISS platform versus Magic and Marley at WBLS. “You gotta understand, U.T.F.O. had a record. Then Marley go’ ahead, and he get an artist [in Roxanne Shanté]. They have a record. There’s my man Spyder-D ran and got a lady [Sparky D] to go at Roxanne–and I ended up being her DJ.” (Sparky D is another female MC whose name and achievements are chronicled in “Ladies Second.”)
Around this time, Marley Marl not only developed Shanté, but he also had MC Shan. The Queens, New York MC was famous for his belligerent bars, both at LL Cool J, as well as other members of Red Alert’s would-be crew, namely KRS-One. As for Red Alert, he says that Shan had goaded him more than once. “He was tryin’ to size me up a couple times, ’til I caught him.” As far as what exactly put the stop to Shan stepping to Red, Heads will have to wonder. “We leave that alone,” says the 58 year-old when pressed for details. DJ Red Alert adds that the late Mr. Magic enjoyed his power, and frequently dissed artists on air, as well as to their face. One act (left nameless in the conversation) was dropped from a label deal due to Magic’s on-air clowning. The contrasting styles between the two 1980s NYC radio icons becomes quite apparent.
It is around this point, in the mid-1980s that Red Alert says he met Scott La Rock. The young acquaintance was eager to show Red a particular MC “from my job” (as Scott explained). That MC: KRS-One. Red recalls hearing Kris Parker’s booming vocals for the very first time at Latin Quarters’ Celebrity Tuesdays. Around the 57:00 mark, he recalls hearing “South Bronx” on acetate (a temporary 12″ format), played back-to-back. Scott presented Red to play the track on air (which dissed MC Shan for being dropped by MCA Records, among other jokes). In perhaps a David vs. Goliath move, Red explains just how he set the premiere up that very same evening. “I’m about to play [MC Shan & Marley Marl’s] ‘The Bridge’ right as it got to the chorus, I slide in [Boogie Down Productions’] ‘South Bronx.'”
The discussion grows into some interesting facts surrounding “The Bridge Wars.” Notably, some of B.D.P.’s famous diss records were, as Red points out, recorded “not far from Queensbridge.” KRS and Scott used Power Play Studios, right within the skyline of the Queensbridge Houses. At the 1:03:00 mark, Red Alert also points out what may be the oft-forgotten final shot of the infamous wars. “There was one more, that was ’88,” he begins, adding that it came immediately following the Dope Jam Tour, which featured Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie (notably, a Juice Crew member), Boogie Down Productions, and Ice-T. Following 53 cities, B.D.P. and Red returned home to hear a record by MC Poet. “We heard that the guy named Poet did a diss record at the Juice Crew.” Famously, Poet would later form Screwball, sign to Tommy Boy Records, and years later, as a soloist, work extensively with DJ Premier and Year Round Records. Poet’s advances alongside Noel Rockwell on “Beat You Down” prompted a rarely heard alternate mix of Boogie Down Productions’ “I’m Still #1.” “Numero Uno” as its known, was a partly-Spanish version of KRS-One tearing into Poet, years before they would work with many of the same people. According to Red Alert, this closed out “The Bridge Wars.” Legend has it, the MC Poet (n/k/a Blaq Poet) was involved in several physical altercations surrounding the battles.
However, as Uncle Red describes, for the DJs—notably him and Mr. Magic, it was not ever even confrontational. At parties, Alert explains, “Magic used to always say, ‘Hey man, we just tryin’ to get somethin’ goin.’ I used to look at him like, this nigga’s crazy.” With his signature jovial demeanor, Red says Mr. Magic’s on-air tough-talk would be “quiet as a church mouse” when he saw his rival.
The discussion grows into Propmaster’s first KISS run, from late 1983 until the end of 1994. He explains going to a fledgling HOT 97, where he worked double-shifts to help the frequency establish itself in the mix. Amidst this discussion, Red drops some interesting facts about Funkmaster Flex’s beginnings on another station, and moving to HOT. He remembers their Christmas Party all-night mixes, and educating the Heads. Red Alert compares his tenure at HOT (and later, Power 105) with his “family” environment at KISS (1:23:00).
Earlier, around 1:06:00, Combat Jack asks Red Alert about young Chris Lighty and The Violators. Red Alert explains how, posing as messengers of the Zulu Nation on behalf of Afrika Bambaataa, they got close to the KISS DJ. Lovingly, he recalls Lighty as “arrogant, cocky, but very knowledgeable.” Red Alert reveals that at 18 years old, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, and Q-Tip’s would-be manager was an electrician for Metro North, as well as a college student. Believing in Chris, DJ Red Alert gave him a job as Road Manager for the Jungle Brothers, the outfit which includes Red’s nephew, Mike G.
At 1:10:00, DJ Red Alert speaks extensively about The JBeez (as they were also known) and the linguistics behind breakthrough hit “Jimbrowski.” Red also explains how the Native Tongues were birthed out of Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan. The school had classmates in would-be members of A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers and X-Clan. “They was all amongst each other, trying to reach out to help each other out,” says Red, who points out that X-Clan’s Brother J and Sugar Shaft were involved, despite later not being Tongues.
In the conversation’s close, Red discusses his relationship with radio today. He is asked about his opinions on personalities such as Charlamagne Tha God (who DJ Red Alert says dissed him a while back). Uncle Red also explains why he never enjoyed gossip or controversy in his radio shows. “I gotta walk these streets,” says the 40-year veteran of the culture, waving off prying industry questions to this day. Lastly, He discusses his (post-KISS) “Propmaster Retro” platform with HOT 97 today.
Perhaps the most important thing DJ Red Alert says in this conversation is the following power-quote:
“If I like it, I’ll play it. If I don’t, won’t play it. I don’t play no favors, no politics, no bullshit. I’m not with it. […] I saw stacks—I won’t lie, but I always felt I was worth more than the stacks I saw.”
What surprises you most about Kool DJ Red Alert’s revealing sit-down with Combat Jack and A-King?