Scott La Rock: Wasted In The Zoo,NME, 26 September 1987
Less than a month ago, the Bronx rap supremo SCOTT LA ROCK was tragically shot dead in a street brawl, the very day he’d signed a high profile contract with Sleeping Bag. FRANK OWEN, who did the last interview before Scott’s death, here pays tribute.
“Instead of educating people in the Bronx, they want to keep you at a level where you will always have to depend. The Bronx is a valuable piece of real estate, so why don’t they build it up? It’s as if they won’t spend the money because they want to keep it this way.” — Scott La Rock.
BEING DRIVEN along the Cross-Bronx Expressway is an eerie experience, and Shaman’s 1985 release, ‘This Is Not A Jungle, This Is A Zoo’ makes the perfect soundtrack: “This is not a jungle, this is a zoo/This is not a jungle, this is a zoo/High crime cities, bars on the window/Just like the cages in the zoo”.
Much of the expressway is underground, but occasionally, you catch glimpses of the blasted cityscape of burnt-out tenements and rubbish-littered streets that the Bronx is infamous for the world over. Everybody knows the Bronx. Just trot down to your local video shop and take out Fort Apache, The Bronx, South Bronx Heroes or Enemy Territory or Bronx Warriors to see how the borough has become an endless source of images of our era’s accumulated urban nightmares — drugs, crime, casual violence, urban decay, gangs, guns etc.
But the Bronx isn’t an urban jungle; contrary to its media image, it’s an inner-city zoo. There’s nothing natural about the havoc wrought on this area. Rather the Bronx is a sort of poverty theme park, a carefully preserved spectacle of deprivation designed to strike fear into the hearts of decent, law-abiding citizens across the world.
“This is what happens when the rule of law is not upheld” is the implied threat, people turn into animals and neighbourhoods into urban jungles. The Bronx is a spectacle that teaches the need to stay ahead, as well as graphically illustrating how far one can fall down the social hierarchy. The Bronx constantly throws up new definitions of poverty and degradation; ‘you think you’re badly off, then look at this!’
It may be surprising that such a desolate landscape could produce the most exciting pop development of the ’80s, hip-hop. But hip-hop is not so much a product of the Bronx environment as a triumph over it. Not so long ago, that triumph seemed a fleeting one, with the decline in influence of the original generation of inner-city Bronx rappers and DJs like Kool Herc, Bambaataa and Flash, and the rise of the suburban rappers of Def Jam, like LL Cool J, Run DMC and Public Enemy.
Afflicted by bad recording deals and bad drugs, many of the original Bronx talents are now spent forces. One such original, not long ago resident in the UK Top Ten, was last seen on the corner of 53rd Street and 3rd Avenue, a well-known gay pick-up spot in Manhattan, fronting as a male prostitute and robbing clients in the back of their cars. Previous to that, he’d been spotted begging for money on the street. This was a man who, when I first met him, was convinced he was going to be as big as Michael Jackson.
But the Bronx is biting back with a whole new generation of rappers and DJs. There’s Ultra-Magnetic MCs over at Next Plateau Records, there’s Masters of Ceremony on Fourth and Broadway, there’s T La Rock working out of Sleeping Bag.
And there was Scott La Rock, the homeboy’s choice and the most hardcore of them all, who was destined to become the figurehead of this new wave of Bronx talent.
It’s deeply cynical. It’s deeply syncopated. It’s seismic, brutal and inhuman. It’s Criminal Minded, the debut album by the Grand, Incredible DJ Scott La Rock and the Poet, Blastmaster KRS One, released earlier this year on a small independent rap label out of the Bronx called B. Boy Records.
This be minimal. This be tense. This be hardcore, renegade, street regal beats with a marked reggae influence. But this is a version of reggae where all the visionary, contemplative and herbally mellow elements have been ruthlessly shorn off in the interests of the naked street nihilism that pervades the whole album.
If it’s true, as has been said, that crime is the central reality of ghetto life, then Criminal Minded, is well named. Since the rise of hardcore rap many rappers (Run DMC, Schoolly D, LL Cool J, Public Enemy etc.) have used the language of criminality to get over, but rarely has it been so naked and upfront.
AN UNCOMFORTABLY hot summer’s day in the South Bronx and I’m standing outside the burnt-out shell of the Overcoming Tabernacle House of God, a one time Hebrew Pentecostal Church that now functions as one of the Bronx’s many herbgates (a building where weed is sold). Across the street, a brand new black BMW stands abandoned, riddled with bullet holes. One of Scott’s rasta friends asks me where I’m from. I tell him Brixton. He looks troubled for a moment and says “Isn’t that really heavy?”.
I start to quiz Scott about one of the tracks on the album called ‘My 9mm Goes Bang’, a violent tale of a shootout at a herbgate not dissimilar to the one we’re lounging outside at the moment.
Scott: “‘My 9mm Goes Bang’ is based on KRS’s brother who got out of jail a couple of months back. His name is ICU and he heads a posse by the same name who hang out around Cyprus Avenue. ICU stands for Intelligent Criminals United — all the smart-thinking, rational thought criminals united as one. They’re called that because while they’re criminal minded, they’re intelligent criminals like the Mafia or Reagan.”
Why call the album Criminal Minded?
Scott: “Because everyone is; it’s just that some are more naked about it than others. Ollie North is criminal minded. Anytime you break a rule to advance yourself, that’s being criminal minded. The government is criminal minded. They raid other countries, take shit. They don’t put that in the paper, but America do that shit all the time. Reagan says ‘let’s screw these mothers up today’. So he sends in a posse. We had this much land, now we’ve got this much more. That’s the way shit is. People think we’re all stick up kids in the Bronx but the government are bigger gangsters and hoodlums than we’re ever be. That’s life, man.”
Doesn’t this criminal minded attitude inevitably demand victims and by being so associated with such an attitude, aren’t you going to be accused of promoting violence?
Scott: “I don’t promote anything. Just because it’s called Criminal Minded doesn’t mean that the record is going to mug you or steal your television. We’re just portraying how things are. That’s how this country is. The strong will survive, the weak will perish. That’s it. If you want it, you take it.”
Does such a situation ever make you feel sad?
Scott: “Yes but there’s nothing you can do. All the talking in the world ain’t going to change shit. You hope it don’t have to be that way but you’ve got to be a realist. Because in the end somebody always wants more than somebody else. It’s human nature.”
Human nature or American nature?
Scott: “It’s human nature — always want, never satisfied. Russia makes a missile, we have to come back with one better so that we’re still the best, still the most powerful. And this won’t stop until we self-destruct. All countries are on a destructive course. The way of the world is that it’s going to destroy itself. That’s the way all civilisations go. Right now we’re having fun, 20 years from now this mother might be Planet of the Apes.”
Scott speaks from a position that’s gone way beyond the land of alienation (where the message raps of the early ’80s were said to come from) and into the land of detachment. The democratic false promises of the Carter and Reagan eras have been brutally demystified to reveal, what was already suspected, that the whole structure is criminal. Everything is upfront. Notions like “the common good”, “the American people”, “the community” are just political abstractions. There are criminals and there are victims and that’s all.
As Scott put it: “This whole country is in such a mess that while I’m living I’m going to make sure I get mine. While I’m alive I’m going to lead the extravagant life.”
Less than a month later Scott would be dead, shot by two gunmen after a street argument.
The last time I met Scott La Rock he took me on a sort of hip-hop tour of the Bronx, pointing out important landmarks in the history of rap. The highlight of the tour was Cedar Park, a small, scrubby piece of land situated on the side of a hill between Burnside Avenue and Sedgewick Avenue in the West Bronx.
“This is where rap was born” announced Scott. “This was Kool Herc’s first venue. This is where the Godfather of Hip-Hop first got started.” I was immediately reminded of what DJ Red Alert of New York radio station Kiss FM, said to me about Criminal Minded: “It’s the nearest thing on wax to what rap sounded like back in the days of Kool Herc”.
Kool Herc was a Jamaican DJ who emigrated to the States in the late ’60s, settling in the West Bronx. By the mid-’70s he was renowned for his mighty sound system and as the inventor of break-beat music (the DJ technique of extending an instrumental/rhythmic break by using two copies of a record endlessly repeat the same section) which was to become the foundation of hip-hop. Initially Herc took care of both rap and DJ duties, but as the music got more complicated he employed MCs like Coke La Rock, Herc’s right hand man and the person Scott was named after.
Denied access to clubs where disco still held sway, Herc played outdoor in the parks which became the incubators of rap.
Scott: “When I was about 12 I was always hearing about Kool Herc’s jams in Cedar Park. But I was so into basketball that I took no notice. Then one day my homeboy Chuck said ‘Let’s go to the park, they’re having a jam. Let’s see some females’. So I rode down the hill from Sedgewick Project, where I lived, on my blue bike, carefully avoiding the potholes. When I got to Cedar Park, I climbed in through this gap in the fence and that was when I saw Herc for the first time. I was 12 then, I’m 25 now.”
From the streets to the suites, from the schoolyards to the stadiums, from the parks to the pop charts, hip-hop has come a long way in the intervening years but Scott kept alive a vivid memory of the old school.
Scott: “They were wild times. Throughout the summer the park would be jam packed. People would be hanging off the trees. See that lamp post over there? That’s where Herc got the electricity from to power his system. His shit was powerful. At night it would get real dark in here. That’s when things got real scary. At this time the gangs like the Black Spades, the Savage Skulls, and the Savage Nomads had largely died out. The gangs became much smaller and were called posses. But they were still ill. They’d be stick-up crews like the Casanova Boys wandering all over the park. If you got beat up you got beat up. You took your chances.”
How important were the gangs and posses to the original rap scene?
Scott: “Some times they were most of the audience. That’s how shit was back in the day. A lot of rap groups came out of the gangs like the Black Spades and the Kent Organisation and the Gestapo. Bambaataa was in the Spades — they were vicious. You couldn’t bring your sound system down to the clubs, so you’d rent out the local community centre or go in the park. So you’d need protection from people like the Casanovas to back you up. You’d get people from other parts of town coming to roll you so you needed a crew to look after your back. You had to ride in crews if you didn’t want your stuff stolen. That’s why there was always a lot of shoot-outs. You see rap grew out of the gangs. Violence has always been a part of the rap scene. That’s life. That’s just how it is.”
Whatever happened to Herc and Coke La Rock?
Scott: “Herc is out there somewhere. You see him once in a while. He’s always there at the Zulu anniversary celebration in October. That’s when Bam and the Zulu Nation gather to commemorate the original Bronx figureheads like Herc. Coke, I’ve not seen him for about four years. The problem with these guys is they never thought rap would become a multi-million dollar industry.”
UP UNTIL LATE that evening, Wednesday August 26th had been a good day for DJ Scott La Rock. That afternoon he’d left his apartment to drive into Manhattan to the offices of Sleeping Bag Records. There, along with his rapping partner KRS 1, he signed a contract to produce the follow up to Just Ice’s debut album, the Mantronik produced Back To The Old School. Scott La Rock signed under his real name, Scott Monroe Sterling, and KRS 1 signed under his real name, Laurence Parker.
With the ink dry on the contract, Sleeping Bag’s Ron Resnick was well pleased. The recent departure of their house producer Mantronik had thrown the company into disarray. Little Louis Vega, DJ at the premier Latin hip-hop club Hearthrob and one of the hottest young production talents around, had been called into take care of the dancefloor side of things. And now that Scott and KRS were aboard, the hardcore rap market had been taken care of. Moreover, as artists in their own right, Scott and KRS had been responsible for the underground rap album of the year in Criminal Minded and could command the respect of the homeboy crowd in a way that was always denied to Mantronik because of his Trevor Horn-influenced electro predilections.
Come nightfall, Scott was back in the Bronx hanging out with close friend D. Nice, a rapper who at one time had been a member of Boogie Down Productions, the collective title that Scott and KRS work under. Leaving the High Bridge Project where he lived, D was confronted by a small posse and got into an argument over a girl with one of her ex-boyfriends. Scott intervened, and after the ritual exchange of a few insults, the confrontation appeared to die down. Just another petty street hassle, the sort of thing that must happen a thousand times a day in the Bronx.
After the argument, Scott took D to his jeep, parked across the street, to simmer down. While chatting in the front seat, two assassins approached the vehicle and opened fire with .22 calibre pistols. In all ten shots were fired, two of which hit Scott, one in the head and the other in the neck.
Scott was rushed to the nearby Lincoln Hospital. By the time he arrived, at around 12.30am, he was in a coma. At 1.25am doctors pronounced him brain dead. Soon after, Scott’s mother, who had rushed to her son’s bedside, gave permission for Scott to betaken off the life-support system. She also gave permission for Scott’s organs to be donated to the hospital, in the hope that something good would come from that night.
Scott La Rock was 25. He left a young son, Scott La Rock Jnr. whom he loved dearly (“my pride and joy” as he referred to him on ‘Dope Beat’ off the album). He left a girlfriend Deadama, who he planned to wed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And he left behind a reputation as the man, who after the demise of the original generation of Bronx rappers and DJ’s, put the Boogie Down Borough back on the hip-hop map.
Remember the mawkish sentimentality of the Ian-Curtis-died-for-us obituaries that followed the death of the Joy Division singer. One thing’s for certain, Scott La Rock didn’t die for ‘Us’.
There was once, so the story goes, a pop language that we all could share. In the past the Beatles, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, Joy Division spoke this language. They united us, they explained us, they spoke for us. But as rock’s cultural authority continues to decline, as the pop scene fragments into a mass of competing mini-scenes, as the connections that once brought us together continue to fade, Pop Babylon is not so much upon us as a pop Tower Of Babel — a place where no one speaks the same language anymore.
Scott’s music refuses to speak in an officially sanctioned pop language. Instead it prefers an alien and harsh vernacular that tells of localised debates, places, characters the full meaning of which is denied to outsiders. Who are the Cyprus Boys? Where are Patterson and Millbrook projects. Who are Flavius Walker and Miss Melody?
Away with pop music that pretends to tell you the meaning of life. Give me a music that tells you what time of day it is or where such and such a neighbourhood is. Such a music was Scott La Rock’s.
© Frank Owen, 1987
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Boogie Down Productions/1987/Frank Owen/NME/Scott La Rock: Wasted in the Zoo/18/12/2013 18:26:19/http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/scott-la-rock-wasted-in-the-zoo