wax Poetics
Illustrations by FA.

Coke La Rock

The Bronx’s unsung hero has the distinction of being hip-hop’s first rapper

“It started in a spot we called the Twilight Zone
This is where Herc and I became men of our own  
We took it down to a spot we called the Exec  
That’s where we started demanding respect  
Then we took it to the Park side, created a landslide  
That’s where we seen we owned the Bronx”
-Coke La Rock, circa 1977

published online
Originally published in Issue 51
By Michael A. Gonzales

    It was August 11, 1973, and a lanky teenager from the Bronx, New York, named Coke was helping his homeboy Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell set up stereo equipment for a party scheduled for that night. Coke, a self-professed “stylish street dude” who wore thick glasses, a parted Afro, and a slick wardrobe, had befriended Herc a few years after the hulking Jamaican moved to the “Boogie Down” in 1967.

    With the festivities set to begin at 9:00 PM inside the recreation room located in Herc’s building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, his mom prepared snacks while little sister Cindy decorated and dad picked up the beverages. The gathering was Cindy’s venture, a “back to school” bash where ladies were charged a quarter and “fellas” paid fifty cents. 

    “I wrote out the invites on index cards, so all Herc had to do was show up,” recalls Cindy Campbell almost four decades later. Earlier that week, Herc bought new records from a shop called Sounds and Things, and practiced spinning discs as the soulful music screamed from his pop’s Shure speakers. 

    Come nightfall, Coke, who told hip-hop historian Troy Smith that his nickname came from having to drink cocoa-flavored milk when he was a baby, showed up to the jam dressed in spotless Pumas, new double-knit pants purchased at the playa emporium A. J. Lester’s in Harlem, and sporting a fresh haircut from Dennis’ Barbershop on Featherbed Lane. 

    “Herc had a lot of friends, but Coke was always around,” Cindy says. “He was like our brother.” As Herc spun “beat after beat after beat,” something possessed Coke to pick up the microphone from the table and start talking shit. Although the mic was connected so Herc could control the crowd, no one had used it for any other purpose.

    “Man, when I first started, I didn’t know anything about rapping,” Coke explains. “I just got on the mic playing around. I was a quiet guy, but when the music started playing, it just brought out another person. The talking just came out of me.

    “Our friends Pretty Tony, Easy Al, and Nookie Nook were all there,” Coke continues. “At first, I just called out their names. Like Cheers, everybody likes to hear their name called out. ‘My mellow is in the house,’ I said. Though we were only fifteen or sixteen, I pretended dudes had double-parked cars; that was to impress the girls.” 

    Grandmaster Caz was just one party patron changed by the event. “That first party was epic. Afterwards, everybody attempted to recreate the energy of that night, because that sparked everything.” 

    Beginning that summer night—and lasting four years until a bloody confrontation with some rowdy party people—Herc and La Rock were the guiding force behind a new music scene, not yet called rap or hip-hop. Yet, while the focus has often been on Herc’s innovations, the contributions of rapper Coke La Rock’s vocal improvisations are often ignored. 

    “Coke is an unsung hero,” says DJ Red Alert. “He was a party rocker who could keep the party going. He didn’t rap like guys do today. Coke had his own vibe, a different sound. Herc and Coke were like Batman and Robin. Everyone knows that Batman was the main man, but Robin helped his ass out too.”

     

    I read these things, and it hurts when you say Herc and don’t mention Coke La Rock. Coke La Rock

    Performing throughout the Bronx, Herc and Coke introduced the world to the musical combination of the DJ and rapper at numerous outdoor jams. “The Bronx wasn’t nothing back then,” explains DJ Mean Gene, formerly of the L Brothers. “There were no houses; kids were snatching pocketbooks and doing all kinds of stuff that wasn’t good. One of the reasons DJs started playing in the park was to give kids something to do.” 

    AJ Scratch, who later became the DJ for Kurtis Blow, recalls, “If Coke shouted your name out on the mic, it made you an instant neighborhood celebrity in the parks.” 

    Coke remembers those early shows well. “We gave parties everywhere. We did one at Dodge High School, and they shut the party down after a half hour because there were just too many people. The same thing happened at Taft High School. Everybody wanted to hear the new sound; that’s how we made hip-hop, and it felt like we owned New York.”

    The popular teens soon moved from the streets and began doing their musical thing in local clubs the Executive Playhouse, Twilight Zone, and the Hevalo. In addition, their clique called the Herculords included Clark Kent, Pebblee-Poo, Sweet ’n’ Sour, and Tony D. 

    “It’s funny,” Kool Herc told me in 1998. “At the time, I never thought of myself as creating a new musical art form. I just wanted to see people having fun.” 

    While he always left a microphone lying next to the two turntables, Herc really didn’t care who was rapping. “I was never really big on the MC stuff, but there was always room for them. I wanted to see the crowd moving, not standing around watching somebody MC.” On most nights when it came to the mic, it was all about the around-the-way lyrics of La Rock. 

    Many moons after his short rap reign, Coke lounges on the steps of a building down the block from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue and wipes his glasses. 

    “A lot of wrong history has been written about those days, and some history hasn’t been written at all,” he says, taking a drag from a Newport. “I read these things, and it hurts when you say Herc and don’t mention Coke La Rock.”

    Sociologists and filmmakers, novelists and photographers have documented the bleakness of the Bronx during the ’70s. Looking like a postapocalyptic cityscape, the bombed-out sensibility of the borough was very real. “But, even when the Bronx was burning,” says photographer Joe Conzo, “there was a lot of solitary.”

    Thinking back to those early days, Coke sighs. “I can’t speak about the rest of the country, but the Bronx in 1973 was crazy. Buildings were burning, and we were dealing with street gangs like the Savage Skulls, the Nomads, the Reapers, and the Pearls.”

    Living on Jesup Avenue, he was born on April 25, 1955, in Lincoln Hospital. “When I was in high school at Alfred E. Smith,” Coke continues, “some gang members bum-rushed the classroom and dragged a rival into the hallway. The whole time, the teacher never moved from the blackboard. That’s just the way it was up here.” 

    However, while the gangs were running wild, Coke managed to escape their clutches. “My mother wasn’t having it; plus, I didn’t really want to wear the same dirty dungaree jacket all the time.” Instead, like many ghetto youth in the super-fly ’70s, Coke was into basketball and hustling. 
    “I was never worried about Herc paying me for my services,” says Coke, who would sell weed at their parties, “because I was getting hustling money. At a good party, I could make $1,200 to $1,700 in one night.”

    After playing their set at the Hevalo, they sometimes headed to an after-hours spot called Top of the Lane on Featherbed Lane. “That was a gambling spot where Harlem gangsters like Nicky Barnes and Guy Fisher used to come. We would play in there too. One night, the manager was trying to pay us in cocaine, but Herc said, ‘Man, this is a business—give that shit back.’ We were making $350 a night back then.”

    Many of their fans were inspired to buy or steal their own gear and started practicing playing breaks and/or rhyming. Thinking back to those early days, Coke sighs. “No disrespect, but Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, and all those guys used to come watch us,” he says. “Me and Herc had a good four-year run before others became skillful enough to challenge us. We had the first Technics turntables. Other people couldn’t afford that stuff until later, but we was making G money. We always had a G or more in our pockets.”

    One night in 1977, Herc battled DJ Pete Jones, a turntable master more known with the adult crowd in Harlem. The two faced off at Herc’s spot, the Executive Playhouse on 173rd Street. While folks are divided about who won, Coke says, “People say Pete did this or Pete did that, but my man Herc cut his ass. The first record Herc put on was that Dr. John song ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ and it was over. I’ll never forget that.”

    A few months after their battle with Jones, the Herculords returned to the same location, though the club was renamed the Sparkle. “That’s where Herc got stabbed,” Coke says sadly. “Some guys came to the party starting trouble at the door. They wanted to be let in free, but our boy Mike Mike was at the door, and he called Herc over. 

    “One guy got nervous, and he stabbed Herc. I had gone home and when I came back, there were all these police cars outside. The thing that saved Herc was this thick, suede hunting jacket he was wearing that night. If he had been wearing something thinner, he might not be here today.”

    Not long after Herc was stabbed, the Sparkle burned down. As of 2012, the location is now a small playground. “After a while, I just went back to doing what I was doing, but I could see and hear guys I influenced. After me, there was T La Rock, K La Rock, Scott La Rock—rocks after rocks after rocks.”

    Having stepped away from the mic a few years before the Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, Coke never got a chance to record. “A lot of cats didn’t think making records was real,” explains Gary Harris, a former Sugar Hill Records executive. “Some of the original talent thought of records as a bastardization of the art form.”

    Standing up from the stairs, Coke brushes his pants. “Getting into the music business wasn’t my dream. I remember Big Hank from Sugarhill telling me to come talk to Sylvia [Robinson], but I stayed away from all that. You know, look how a lot of them got bamboozled. She was paying them little money, but she was making that world money.”

    Still living in the same New York neighborhood, Coke La Rock can often be seen at summertime park jams uptown, hanging with the old-school crews. Coke never recorded any songs, but he did make history. “Like Frank Sinatra say, me and Herc did it our way.”

    Michael A. Gonzales has written about rap music and hip-hop culture for Ego Trip, Vibe, The Source, XXL, Rap Pages, Mass Appeal, Complex.com, and Spin. He lives in Brooklyn.