It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ, By Luis “DJ Disco Wiz” Cedeno, powerHouse Books, $22.95.
The Rat That Got Away, by Allen Jones with Mark Naison, Fordham University Press, $29.95.
What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the Penthouse, By Michael Rosen, PublicAffairs Books, $24.95.
A quarter-century ago, as New York City's unemployment rate ballooned past eleven percent, recordings from the burgeoning world of rap chronicled the plight of the city's poor. Coming out of Queens, there was “Hard Times” by Run-DMC, and from Bronx artists, “Sign of The Times” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and “Unity” by Afrika Bambaataa, along with soul legend James Brown.
Hit hard by crime, neglect, drug abuse, homelessness, decaying housing and a range of other social ills, neighborhoods from Harlem to Bushwick were in dire shape in the early 1980s. News reports and academic analyses endlessly dissected the city's overall plight, but it was the rappers and deejays with firsthand knowledge of the streets that provided a riveting musical document of the times. Their socially-conscious rap songs echo today. The social afflictions that commercial rap artists once regularly explored on vinyl still resonate, sharply depicting how inequities of class and race impact New York's communities of color during the current recession.
The 80s scene comes back in living color in the recently published memoir, It's Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip-Hop's First Latino DJ. Born in the South Bronx, Luis “Disco Wiz” Cedeno offers a candid – and often shocking – account of his life and times. Cedeno’s childhood was spent dodging his father's fists at home, and watching violence in the neighborhood as it deteriorated in the 1960s. As an adolescent, he carried a knife to defend himself against street bullies. He used another blade to press against his father’s throat one time when his father had been beating his mother.
“It's Just Begun” shows how the decline of the South Bronx could – and did – produce its share of criminals and adherents to thug life. For his part, Cedeno candidly relates being arrested six times before he was 16 for engaging in street brawls and other transgressions. Aided by writer Ian Sanchez, Cedeno keeps a conversational tone throughout the book, allowing for the raw delivery of his painful memories.
For wayward youth like Cedeno, hip-hop became a powerful lifeline. The chapters in which he recalls being introduced to hip-hop legend Grandmaster Caz; purchasing his first sound system equipment with Caz (“I could smell the plastic on the two Kenwood belt drive turntables…”); and his emergence as a respected DJ who challenges pioneers like DJ Kool Herc at neighborhood block parties in the late 1970s are particularly striking.
Even for longtime hip-hop fans, there's fresh insight about the genre's well-documented origins. As he describes creative exploits behind the turntables, from infusing breakbeats with Latin rhythms to the production of a ten-inch demo LP, Cedeno chronicles his own role in the innovation of hip-hop's essential DJ culture.
Long before the dancing spinmeister Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon or rappers Fat Joe and Big Pun cemented Hispanic influences on hip-hop, Cedeno's groundbreaking collaboration with the African-American Grandmaster Caz symbolized cross-cultural unity. While exploring this relationship, “It's Just Begun” frankly exposes the racial and ethnic tensions that sharply divided blacks and Hispanics in the South Bronx. In the process, Cedeno – and hip-hop itself – would challenge existing social barriers.
He seems equally determined to shatter the prevailing notion in some quarters that hip-hop's humble rise was a far more innocent era for the genre than the 1990s, which culminated with the expansion of rap as a global billion-dollar industry and saw the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. While carefree, the storied 70s block parties in Harlem and the South Bronx were not without their dangers, reflecting the violence that plagued the surrounding communities. And so, Cedeno regularly spun records with a gun strapped to his waist in the event that he and Caz found themselves in a difficult jam.
Ultimately, it was those same streets that would thwart his musical career just as hip-hop was beginning to attract mainstream attention when he found himself in yet another violent encounter. After shooting and wounding a man (who he'd been told had assaulted the mother of his daughter), Cedeno was incarcerated for more than four years in New York state prisons. Behind bars, he received his GED and followed the positive advice dispensed by fellow inmates, which inspired him to channel his anger, study the roots of his Latin heritage, and resulted in his being transferred to a minimum-security facility.
When he details his newfound optimism and subsequent release on parole, a Hollywood-esque transition to a happy ending appears to be in the making. But it isn’t long before he’s back on the streets, selling cocaine in the Bronx – a time in his life that he recalls with great disgust. “I was an empty shell of the man I once was, and far from the man I wanted to be,” he writes.
Maybe today is the Hollywood ending. Cedeno managed to pursue a legitimate career as a professional chef. These days, he’s clean and sober and lives a far more peaceful existence in Manhattan with his wife, Lizette, whom he credits with saving his life after a drug overdose. With “It’s Just Begun,” he's clearly trying to set the historical record straight after being largely unknown and forgotten until now. Yet the work also serves as a public service announcement with the enduring lesson that actions have consequences from someone who after falling close to the edge – and being pushed more than once in his life – has survived long enough to begin making amends.
Earlier this year, the New York City Housing Authority marked its 75th anniversary. In 1934, the agency was created to oversee new public housing developments being erected across the city. Catering to lower and working-class families, the subsidized housing model was a first for the nation and was rapidly adopted by major urban centers across the country.
Once idyllic and well-kept, many of the massive properties, however, began to erode by the late 1960s. In the process, “the projects” earned their infamous reputation as forbidding zones of violence and lawlessness. And that image continues to persist in the public consciousness despite, ironically enough, the changing income mix at some of these complexes citywide. In The Rat That Got Away, the engrossing story of one Bronx housing project is told through the eyes of Allen Jones, who endured – and participated in – its grim transformation over the course of a turbulent decade.
Constructed as part of a revitalization effort in 1950, the Lester Patterson Houses in the South Bronx provided low-cost housing for a racially diverse group of returning WWII veterans and their families. It was a far calmer period than the notorious “Bronx Is Burning” era later, and Jones – whose work is co-written by Mark Naison, a Fordham University professor and director of the Bronx African American History Project – unearths previously unexplored terrain about life in what was predominantly a working-class black community. Born and reared in a two-parent household, Jones had a relatively carefree upbringing – though memories of his father's temper clearly left a lasting imprint. By the early 1960s, Jones at the age of 11 had grown curious about the seedier aspects to street life.
The irresistible – and often dangerous – allure of peer pressure is sharply illustrated as Jones details his journey from adolescent mischief to criminal offenses. It's a story that coincides with the steady decay of Patterson Houses and the neighborhood itself. And while readers will have a stronger appreciation for this work by understanding some of the city, state and federal political decision-making that perpetuated the erosion – which doesn't receive a full explanation in this work – the book is most effective in describing the impact.
Crafted with more of a tilt toward sociology than history, “The Rat That Got Away” – whose conversational tone is breezy throughout – doesn't venture much beyond Jones. But given that he lived during a time and place that has yet to receive a full historical treatment elsewhere, his individual experiences will resonate among those seeking to learn more about the era that was, particularly from someone who directly had to deal with the personal ramifications of the decline of public housing in the city. (For much more on the current state of public housing, see last winter's issue of City Limits Investigates, Last Stand.)
In the late '60s, Jones was a promising high school basketball player. But he was also steeped in a world of drugs. After partnering in a heroin-dealing operation, Jones got hooked off his own supply. He memorably describes the haunting sights and sounds of shoot-up galleries and lost souls. When he carries out a series of stick-up robberies to cover a drug debt, Jones finds himself locked up in Rikers Island.
A remarkable set of circumstances, a valued support system and a series of chance encounters – with everyone from influential basketball figures to the defense minister of Luxembourg – led him to an unpredictable place. For nearly the past 30 years, he's been living in Europe and is currently a bank executive in Luxembourg. And while his personal story is ultimately one of success, Jones' stirring work reminds the reader of all the “rats” left behind, at the Patterson Houses and elsewhere.
In 1998, Michael Rosen, a well-off real-estate developer, accompanied his wife, Leslie, and his son, Ripton, to Tompkins Square Park. A white Jewish kid, Ripton joined a game of pick-up baseball with a group of black and Latino youngsters. Then the 7-year-old boy invited the group back to the Rosens' East Village penthouse for a round of Nintendo video game action. “Ripton didn't know it was unusual to invite a crowd home, kids who didn't look like him, spoke and dressed differently, lived under different circumstances. He didn't have the language of race,” writes Rosen about the first encounter in his absorbing new release, What Else But Home: Seven Boys And An American Journey Between The Projects and The Penthouse.
And so began the first of a regular series of visits that the five children, who resided in nearby housing projects, paid to the Rosens. They're a naturally hyper bunch, inclined to use the language and tough posturing of the street. But the Rosens, despite repeated warnings from concerned friends and family members, manage to look beyond the surface to rapidly forge a bond with the boys. While baseball serves as the initial glue between their disparate worlds, it's Michael Rosen's curiosity about the nature of the boys' lives that leads to so much more. As trust develops between them, Rosen discovers the challenges of each boy’s daily life, including single-parent households grappling with drug abuse and domestic violence. In “What Else But Home,” Rosen details what he calls “our strange accidental family” that's created when he and his wife find themselves increasingly responsible for taking care of the boys without formally adopting them. Not surprisingly, the relationships suffer their share of setbacks – mistakes are made, a number of the adolescents struggle with anger, and the Rosens face marital difficulties of their own.
It's been 11 years since the young men have been a part of the Rosen family. And in “What Else But Home,” the author documents their gradual evolution with great attentiveness. He uses a far less penetrating lens, however, on himself. There are glimpses and flashes of moments from his life apart from his adopted children – including memories of his own upbringing to the state of his career as a real estate developer. But they're brief and fleeting. Perhaps he prefers keeping the spotlight on the experience itself. But readers will be left wondering how his adopted family impacted – or changed, if at all – Rosen himself.
Interestingly, it's the seemingly intractable divisions over race and class that the Rosens and the youth shatter faster than any other. And doing so presents its share of comical moments, complete with puzzling inquiries from strangers – like the confounded reactions that many characters on the '80s-era sitcom “Diff'rent Strokes” had upon sighting Philip Drummond, a white affluent widower, alongside the two black Harlem adolescents he adopted.
Throughout the book, which documents the extended family’s experiences over the course of six years, Rosen punctuates the storytelling with fluid writing that, at times, is poetic: “The game ended when the heat came off the day, before dusk into dinnertime.” But a sharp reportorial eye allows the story to unfold in a relaxed pace that also enables the reader to experience what he describes as if it were all happening in the here and now. On the tough road to manhood, the boys are provided with unique opportunities and experiences – traveling well beyond their once-restricted boundaries to see the country and encounter an eclectic mix of prominent individuals, from Bobby Valentine, former manager of the New York Mets, to the iconic civil rights movement leader, Fred Shuttlesworth. While the narrative shows how tragically common are the chaotic circumstances that the boys had once found themselves in, it also illuminates an inspiring and highly unusual family arrangement.