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Tucked among the thousands of albums that comprise Ronald Butts' jaw-dropping record collection is a spoken-word piece that some argue is the first rap verse ever performed. It is a series of rhymes recited by Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) leading up to his fight against Sonny Liston in 1964, concluding with the famous line, "I am the greatest!"
Seated in front of the meticulously organized stacks of vinyl in his home in University City, Butts is a dead ringer for an aging Samuel L. Jackson. He wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses and has a stubbly bald head, piercing eyes and a deep, charismatic laugh.
When he first heard the Sugarhill Gang on the radio in 1979, Butts was nineteen years old and working as a DJ at Skate King and Saints, two popular St. Louis roller rinks. Skating was all the rage, and "Rapper's Delight," with its high-octane disco rhythms and lengthy run time, made for the perfect soundtrack.
"I started digging, looking for music like that. I used to get my records down at Skip's. It was a distributor's shop, and he was letting me go through records, the stuff that he'd get and put in a stack over in the corner," Butts says. "I'd find stuff like Harlem World Crew, Funky Four Plus One, stuff like that. This album by Grandmaster Flash, Fusion Beats — I'd find stuff like that, 'cause they had cool names."
Eventually Butts adopted an alter ego of his own. Inspired by a member of Grandmaster Flash's group the Furious Five, he chose Grand Wizard, eventually shortening it to G. Wiz. With his visible role behind the turntables at local rinks, Wiz quickly gained a reputation as a key player in St. Louis' hip-hop scene.
"Ron Butts was exactly the right person at the right time in St. Louis," says Tom Ray. "He was out there in a very crucial way in the early stages, dealing with teen culture in the skating rinks."
Luqman, a DJ, graffiti artist and break dancer who would go on to form the group Da Gatekeepaz and to cohost the famed hip-hop night at the Hi-Pointe Café (now defunct), recalls how rap slowly took root in the city's black community. The music was ubiquitous in the low-rise housing projects of Clinton-Peabody where he grew up, just south of downtown and west of Soulard.
"I would say a hip-hop community began to establish itself around here around 1982," Luqman says. "We had an outdoor skating rink at the projects, and we'd play early hip-hop records like 'Planet Rock,' 'Christmas Rappin' and 'The Message,' because they were more up-tempo than anything else at the time."
"Early 1982 is where it really started," agrees Wiz. "Then probably around '84, '85, is when it started to come up out the ground."
In the early 1980s, popular hip-hop acts included Kurtis Blow (then managed by an up-and-coming promoter named Russell Simmons) and groups from Sugar Hill Records like the Sequence and the talented lyricist Melle Mel.
In St. Louis, Jim Gates' WESL (which had migrated to the FM dial, where it was rechristened Z100) was still the only radio station in the area blending rap into the regular R&B rotation. The station's most popular programming was a segment that allowed dozens of would-be St. Louis rappers to call in and perform their rhymes live for the radio audience. A DJ named Dr. Jockenstein hosted the show, known as Roll Call.
After participating in a canned call-and-response introduction (which included asking callers to give a shout out to their favorite high school teacher), a kid could freestyle rap over an instrumental version of the funk song "Genius of Love" by the Tom Tom Club.
Even though it has been more than twenty years since DJ Charlie Chan listened to Roll Call, he can still recite his rap and the entire chant required to get on the air.
"What's your name?" Chan says, imitating Jockenstein's comically deep radio voice. "Charlie, and I look so fine. What's your sign? Taurus. Gimme that number-one school! We call it U. City Senior High. The favorite teacher with the golden rule? I said me myself don't like it.
"Without a doubt, just shout it out, your favorite radio station. Last night, the night before, 24 suckas came knockin' at my door. I got up, I let 'em in, I hit 'em in the head with a rolling pin. We roll to the left, back to the right. Oh boy, what a night. My favorite radio station is Z100."
Gates, the man who hired Jockenstein in 1979, says DJs on black radio stations had been rhyming over intros to songs since the early 1970s. One of his DJs, the Original Godfather, even performed entire rap sets for audiences while live on the air.
"The Original Godfather was the first DJ to rap, period," seconds G. Wiz. "He was doing both: He would mix, he would get on the mic and rock a crowd. He was live from the club and he'd be killing it."
It was Roll Call, however, that took disc-jockey rhyming to a new level. Interacting with the audience and playing to rivalries between local high schools allowed the show to skyrocket in popularity. The result was a vibrant outlet for the city's aspiring rappers to practice their craft and attempt to one-up each other.