Kevin Smith, the Bronx DJ and rapper known as Lovebug Starski who is often credited with coining the term “hip-hop,” died Thursday at 57 following a heart attack in Las Vegas. His daughter, Tiffany Williams, confirmed Smith’s death to Rolling Stone.
Smith was among a core group of DJ pioneers, including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, who shaped hip-hop’s parameters in the days before recorded rap in the 1970s. Known for peppering his sets with chants and catchphrases like “make money money, make money money money,” Smith helped define the school of deejaying that would come to be known as “party rocking.”
“What set him apart was he was able to DJ and talk on the mic, and do both at the same time, and he was really good at this,” Grandmaster Flash tells Rolling Stone. “He played an extremely important role in the development of this. We all do it now, talk on the mic and DJ same time, but in the hip-hop world, Starski was probably the first to handle it.”
While some argue that Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five introduced “hip-hop” into the genre’s vernacular, Smith accepted credit for the phrase in a 2017 interview with Amoeba Music. “That was one of my rhymes when I would get stuck for words and I used to go ‘hip, hop, the hip, the hip, hip the hopping,” he said. “You know it was just a nursery rhyme that coincided with the music, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
These lines would be cemented in history in 1979 when they were co-opted, in a slightly altered form, by rapper Wonder Mike for the opening of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first commercially successful rap single. According to numerous accounts, Sugar Hill Records owner Sylvia Robinson had been inspired to cut the track after witnessing one of his sets at the Manhattan nightclub Harlem World that year. “Sylvia Robinson will tell you: I was ‘Rapper’s Delight,'” Starski was quoted as saying in the 2002 book, Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. “She got the idea off of me. But I wasn’t interested in doing no record back in them days, ’cause I was getting so much money for just DJing.”
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Smith was an early acolyte of Grandmaster Flash, rhyming alongside the DJ at parties at the Bronx River housing project in the 1970s. “He would play on my set from time to time, but his skills became so sharp that he wanted to play more,” Flash says. “He came from my camp, but he exploded when he became a tandem with [Bronx disco jock] Pete ‘DJ’ Jones.”
Around 1978, Smith joined Flash and other hip-hop pioneers at Disco Fever, the Bronx nightclub seen in the seminal hip-hop movie Krush Groove, where he remained a resident DJ through the mid-1980s. As an artist, he released his first songs – 1979’s “Gangster Rock” and 1981’s “Dancin’ Party People” – under the name Little Starsky before putting out “Positive Life,” credited to Love Bug Starski and the Harlem World Crew, in 1981. Additional singles “You’ve Gotta Believe” (backed on its B-side with the better known “Live At The Disco Fever”) and “Do the Right Thing” followed through Fever Records, a label operated by Disco Fever owner Sal Abbatiello, in 1983 and 1984, respectively. In 1985, he contributed several tracks to the soundtrack for Cannon Films’ Rappin’ starring Mario Van Peebles.
Starski’s lone album, House Rocker, including the campy electro single “Amityville (House on the Hill),” would be his final commercial release, in 1986. While a spiraling coke habit and an arrest on what he termed drug-related charges in 1987 effectively curtailed his recording career, Smith resumed making live appearances as a DJ and MC after his release from prison in December 1991.
A cassette recording of Starski emceeing a birthday party for Wendy Williams with New York DJ Mister Cee was distributed in the mid-1990s by underground Brooklyn label Tape Kingz. A shoutout from Notorious B.I.G., who worked with Mister Cee, in the opening verse of 1994’s classic “Juicy,” would bring name recognition to a new generation of rap fans.
Smith had recently relocated to Las Vegas, where he was working to revive his DJ career with gigs including a weekly residency at the rooftop lounge of Indian restaurant Turmeric. His final appearance there was on Wednesday night, just hours before his death, according to his manager, Jeremy Crittenden.
“We got him out of the club around 4 a.m., and at 4:30, after I told him I got home alright, he texted me back, ‘I love you brother,'” Crittenden tells Rolling Stone. “At around 1 p.m., I got word from a gentleman who was helping him move stuff out of storage that he passed from a heart attack. Leave it to a DJ — he was moving speakers into his apartment.”
Hip-hop icons including DJ Premier, Chuck D., Monie Love, Just Blaze and Grandmaster Flash offered tributes to Starski on social media Thursday night. “We lost one of our greatest pioneers of hip hop,” DJ Premier tweeted.
Jonathan Shecter, the founding editor of The Source, had befriended Starski following his move to Las Vegas and was helping him navigate the machinations of Vegas nightlife. “It seemed like he had been through a lot, but he was finding a niche here and it was just beginning,” Shecter said. “DJs out here earn a good living and he was more than qualified to be one of those DJs, and he was on his way. That’s why this is so heartbreaking. Everything was going right for him now.”