Before there was internet radio, streaming services, hundreds of hip-hop YouTube channels and SoundCloud, really and truly, the only way people were going to find out about you and your music (on a large scale) was if your music was on the airwaves and to achieve that you needed Kool DJ Red Alert.
If you could get your music played by Kool, it would open your music up to a whole new audience. When hip-hop was starting out, local acts in the South Bronx didn’t have much trouble getting their records played at block parties. However, the artists knew that a few spins of their track at a block party in their neighbourhood wouldn’t do anything for their record sales.
These musicians needed their records to be heard en masse so that one spin wouldn’t just reach 100 locals and thousands of eager people looking for hot new music. However, in the early days of hip-hop, aside from block parties, DJs struggled to find work in clubs and mainstream radio. Grandmaster Flash, one of hip hop’s pioneers, once explained that he struggled to get bookings in clubs because he put his fingers on the vinyl during his sets. Purist funk and soul DJs and club owners saw this as desecration and took it as a sign of unprofessionalism.
However, while legends were getting doors slammed in their faces by clubs and mainstream radio stations, one DJ managed to slip through the net and secure a slot on the radio. This was Kool DJ Red Alert, often considered as hip hop’s first-ever mainstream radio DJ.
In the 1980s, New York radio was a battle between two stations, WBLS and Kiss FM. It was the latter that Red Alert managed to crack. Born in Antigua but raised in Harlem from a baby, Red Alert (real name Frederick Crute) made friends in The Bronx when he began attending Dewitt Clinton High School.
In an interview with the Redbull Music Academy, Crute revealed that during the mid-1970s, his Bronx friends were always inviting him to block parties. Recalling his Bronx high school days, Crute explained to the interviewer, “During my time in school there, they’d tell me about these parties up in the Bronx. ‘You need to come to the jam!’ That’s what they’d call them.”
After attending a block party on Jerome Avenue, Red Alert explained how he loved it so much that after that, “then I just kept regularly going to all the parties.” Continuing to explain how inspired he was by the likes of Kool Herc and others, Red Alert talking about his first DJ setup, divulged, “I bought a set, Technics 1800’s with a Clubman 1-1 mixer. I had it set up with my boxspring and mattress on the floor, put my crates right in front of it and my set right on top of it. I’d have my crates of records right around in front of the bed, put my set in front of me and started DJing.”
However, before all of these more prominent DJs, how did he land the first hip hop radio slot? Well, after building a name for himself, Crute began consistently packing out a downtown Manhattan club called The Roxy. As a result, heads were turning, and the word spread of how incredible his nights were.
Talking of how he got selected, Crute recalled, “there were some people coming from the radio station, 98.7 Kiss FM, they were hearing so much about The Roxy they came down, a guy by the name of Barry Mayo who was the programme director at the time, he said, “We have interests in forming a mix show with some hip-hop in it.” Already WBLS had introduced Mister Magic over there in ’82 with his show Mister Magic Rap Attack. So Kiss FM, who are their competitors, wanted a mix show with some hip-hop involvement.”
Detailing his employment timeline to the interviewer, the former DJ explained, “They brought me in October of ’83, and I did it for a few months without pay. Then ’84, I got my first cheque, which wasn’t much, and at that time, I was on every other week.”
Considering this was the early ’80s, apart from Mister Magic, Kool DJ Red Alert was the only DJ in America to have a nationally broadcasted hip-hop radio show. When he was employed at Kiss FM, Red Alert became hip-hop’s gatekeeper. People differentiated between what was hot and what was not by whether or not it was on the radio. If Red Alert played your record during his prime time radio set, it was getting heard by people in your city and the rest of the country.
In a nutshell, this is how Kool DJ Red Alert became hip-hop’s gatekeeper.