BORN ON THE ONE
New York City.
The Bronx, in particular.
Throgs Neck, to be even more specific.
2730 Dewey Avenue, to be exact.
December 31, 1960.
A few minutes before midnight. At midnight I'd be three—a new year's baby.
Born on the one.
Born right on the beat.
I heard the beat. Should have been asleep but the beats from my folks' house party had me wide awake.
Felt those beats all over me. Coming through the walls. Riding up the legs of my bed. The rhythms, the grooves, the get-down party in the next room where the lights were low and the folks were dancing.
Let me in there.
Let me in the party.
I peeked 'round the corner. I recognized a funky old organ jam but man, I wanted James Brown. James Brown had that jam where he screamed, "No, no, no, no, no…" and I wanted to scream, wanted to jump in the middle of the action.
Like magic, my jam dropped. James started doing his thing and I started to get all crazy inside. Like I didn't ever want the beats to end.
I already knew house parties were for grown-ups. My dad, whose street name was Bra—made sure all us kids were down with the rules. The man had lots of rules. But right then, the crazy feeling inside me made up its own rules.
So I crept out the bedroom that I shared with my baby sister Lilly. The hallway was dark but I could see the lights in the living room. Red and orange and blue. Could smell it too—swirling sweet and heavy in the air.
The beats that make the party.
Could almost see those beats. Could almost paint 'em, they were so clear. At the end of the hall, to the left, in the living room was the party. Everyone was vibing on James Brown, feet stomping, voices humming.
Pumping up the beats, building 'em up, keeping 'em strong.
So deep and so strong I had to get in there.
Had to be a part of it.
Suddenly I was there. Living room in front of me with the lights down low and smoke hanging from the ceiling. Family and friends, grinding and freaking, moving and grooving.
Every one of 'em in step with the beat.
When I saw what that smooth and solid beat could do, I was sold.
That's the memory.
The beat that would become the heartbeat of my life.
FLASH'S UNIVERSAL DJ RULE NUMBER ONE
Flash's universal DJ rule number one:
Don't stop the beat.
I was six and couldn't get enough of that beat.
The music would change whenever Dad went to the record store. Coming home with the new Sam and Dave, Stan Kenton and Ella Fitzgerald. Throwing 'em on the phonograph and calling up the party people. Late at night, the beat was always there in the living room. Which meant I was too.
'Butsy crawlin' out the crib.'
'Hey look, Butsy dancin' in his jammies.'
'Ain't he cute?'
Butsy. That was my nickname. Or Nonny. Doin' that crazy little bug-out dance that kids do. That was me. Had to dance. Had to let it out. So I'd crawl up out the crib to get to the party people.
My older sisters Violet and Carmetta were cool, but they weren't into the scene. The girls got tired of late nights, loud noises and cops coming around on complaints.
Police made you turn the music down. Turn it down or turn it off. Either way, it meant the party was over. Just that fast, everything stopped. But, man, you can't stop the beat.
The source of the beat fascinated me like nothing else:
The record player!
The thing that goes round and round! That thing was the secret to the beats!
Party or not, I would drag a chair over to the record player, climb up and stare at it for hours.
How did this thing work?
Someone would hit the reject button. The arm would go up and the music would stop. The next record would drop and the beats would start all over again.
Don't remember the first time I touched a record player but I remember the first time I got caught. Wasn't a party night, just a Tuesday evening.
One of the Saddler rules was no children in the living room unless Mom and Dad were present. But the stereo was in that room. So I was too.
I'd defy the rules, and sit there for hours listening to my father's records.
Monk, Mingus and Miles.
Basie and Ellington.
Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Don't know which sent me higher—the music or the mystery of how it played. I could hear the beats and feel the vibrations, but where did they come from? How did those funky sounds come out of the grooves on the disc? Through the needle? Down into the cabinet? How'd those paper cones behind the cloth speakers go thump? How did all those different sounds come out of there?
So I just sat for hours. Lost in the music, staring at the machine. Staring at the little red 'ON' switch like it was a piece of candy, all lit up. Whatever made it glow was glowing inside me.
Wanted to control it. Manipulate it. Make it do what I said.
If I only knew how it worked!
Which was when my arm got pulled back. Hard. So hard it almost came out of my shoulder.
I forgot. It was already six o' clock. I'd lost track of time. My father was home. He yanked me right out of the chair with one hand and hit me across my face with the other. Before my feet even touched the ground.
"What I tell you about coming in here?"
"What I tell you about messin' with my stuff?"
When Dad saw me in the living room, it was enough for him to put a whuppin' on my butt and put my hand to the radiator.
"That'll teach you about messin' with my stuff!"
What really set him off was me messin' with his records. It wasn't the first time I'd been in trouble, but this was different. This really twisted his cap. This was personal, and the beating was bad. Mommy got in the middle of it—she always did—and shielded me from the blows. But there was only so much she could stop.
I avoided the hospital, but not by much.
It was the first of many beatings. Yet for all my pain, I was only thinking two things: One, this phonograph equipment must be some special stuff for him to kick my ass like that. Two, don't ever stop the beat. So long as the music's playing, I'm safe.
Then came the beating of beatings.
I was almost seven. It was another Tuesday afternoon. It was cold out and the steam in the radiator was making the pipes rattle and hum. My hand was still sore from the last time Dad had put it there, but my fingers were tapping out a rhythm with the pipes that had me fiending for beats.
Violet was out with her boyfriend. Carmetta and my oldest sister, Regina, who we called Penny, were in their rooms. Mom had taken Lilly to the doctor, and Dad was at work.
Home alone. Just me and the music.
Mom and my sisters knew I was messin' with his stuff and told me not to, but I couldn't be stopped. One time, Penny asked me why I kept on messing with those records, bad as Dad hurt me.
Couldn't say. It was something I just had to do.
So I kept on doing it. I was big enough to reach the knob to the hall closet but needed a chair for the high shelves. That's where Dad kept all the good stuff. I knew there were jams at the top. I'd heard Dad and my big sister Violet say there was a new James Brown hit, and I had to hear it.
But the top shelf was way up high. Even standing on my dad's dining room chair—the one with the arms on it—I had to get on my tippy-toes and then, sometimes, I could reach the records I wanted to play.
Still, I could see the spine of the album cover, half an inch from my fingers. Close enough, I could feel its groove like electricity. So I jumped, got a hold and pulled.
But the record next to it fell to the floor and cracked in a hundred pieces. I looked down and saw it was Billy Eckstine's Jelly Jelly. JB might have survived the fall but Jelly Jelly was an old shellac 78. No way.
That's when I heard a key in the door. And one of the arms on the chair snapping. And me falling.
It was Dad.
Dad was a boxer, just like his brother Sandy. Sandy was especially bad; fact is, he was the featherweight champ of the world in 1950, retired with a hundred and three knockouts and later voted one of The Ring Magazine's fifty greatest punchers of all time. Fighting spirit ran in the family.
Dad was also a trackman. He'd come home early from his gig with the Penn Central Railroad and he was shouting, "Who's in my closet? Who's messing with my records?!" Soon as he saw me and his shattered record, he grabbed my neck, lifted me off the floor, dragged me out of the closet, then let me have it for real.
Dad knocked me clean across the hall with a slap from his hand, his skin rough as sandpaper. Next thing I remember was waking up. Mommy was screaming and Lilly was crying. There was blood all over the front of my shirt and ringing in my ears.
When Mommy came home and tried to stop Dad, he went at her with an iron skillet. Beat on her until he finally busted her head open. Both of 'em screaming so loud, a neighbor finally called the cops. The cops knew where we lived and by then my father knew the drill—he skipped out before they came, leaving them to deal with Mommy. Disappearing back out into the street life; back into the bars and boxing gyms he loved more than home.
Days later he'd show up, arms full of groceries, acting like everything was okay. But the violence would start up all over again just as soon as Mommy started yelling and screaming how he was layed up with other women. Lots of 'em.
She knew 'cause sometimes they came to our door, pregnant, and saying Dad was the daddy. Saying he was with her now. Asking when he'd be home. Nobody ever saw a four-foot-eleven woman raise such hell as Mommy did when that happened.
She'd curse him so bad it was only a matter of time before he started beating on her again. But no matter how hard he beat her, she never pressed charges. No matter how many times other women came around, she never left him.
Maybe she loved him too much.
Or maybe she was too scared.
Might have been the beating or it might have been the cheating, but my mother was not a well woman for most of my life. The more my father beat me, the more he beat her. And the more he beat her, the more unstable she got. The more unstable she got, the less he came around home. And the less he came around home, the less of a home we had.