To hear Lovebug Starski tell it, he was there when the phrase “hip-hop” was coined, trading the two words back and forth while improvising lines with Cowboy of the Furious Five at a farewell party for a friend who was headed into the Army.
He incorporated the phrase into the D.J. sets he was playing in the South Bronx, helping to solidify it as lingo of the scene and inadvertently providing the opening line to “Rapper’s Delight,” the 1979 Sugarhill Gang song that would take hip-hop out of parties and onto the radio.
And about that song: To hear Lovebug Starski tell it, he was the inspiration for it.
“Sylvia Robinson will tell you: I was ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ ” he was quoted in the book “Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade” (2002), referring to the record executive who formed the Sugarhill Gang and released the song. (She died in 2011.)
“She got the idea off of me,” he said. “I did her birthday party at Harlem World, and that’s where she got the idea. She said, ‘I’ve got to have him.’ She’ll tell you that, but I wasn’t interested in doing no record back in them days, ’cause I was getting so much money for just D.J.-ing.”
Lovebug Starski, a versatile D.J. and rapper who was a key figure in the development and early evolution of hip-hop in the South Bronx throughout the 1970s, died on Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 57.
His manager, Jeremy Crittenden, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Lovebug Starski was born Kevin Smith in the Bronx on May 16, 1960. In his teenage years, he was a member of the Black Spades gang, one of the borough’s most notorious. “Everyone used to carry machetes,” he told Rolling Stone in 1993.
But he had musical aspirations and aptitude.
Decades before hip-hop was the dominant influence on American popular culture, it was the work of Bronx teenagers gathering in parks, recreation centers and clubs and improvising a new approach to music by jury-rigging old records and technology.
Lovebug Starski was a mainstay of this scene in the 1970s. He started out carrying records and equipment for the disco and funk D.J. Pete (DJ) Jones — one of the first to mix two copies of the same record — at the Starland Ballroom in the Bronx before becoming a D.J. in his own right, spinning at numerous Bronx clubs.
He was a rapper as well, one of the first to rhyme and spin records at the same time. When rapping was little more than accompanying patter to enhance a D.J. set, he was a charismatic source of party-moving phraseology, and he would also handle the microphone for other D.J.s, including a young Grandmaster Flash.
In 1978, just as hip-hop was making the transition from live parties to records, Lovebug Starski (sometimes known as just Starski, or Love Bug Starski, or Luv Bug Starski, or Luvbug Starski) was the house D.J. at the crucial South Bronx club Disco Fever.
He was also a regular at the New York venues the Audubon Ballroom, Harlem World and the Renaissance. He was famously mentioned as part of the roll call of influential early hip-hop D.J.s on the Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal 1994 single “Juicy.”
While D.J.-ing was the coin of the realm in the 1970s, after “Rapper’s Delight” was released its importance took a back seat to rapping, and Lovebug Starski released some music of his own in the early and mid-1980s as an M.C.
His recorded output amounts to just a few 12-inch singles — “You’ve Gotta Believe” / “Starski Live at the Disco Fever” is the most essential — and one album. He also contributed the title track to the soundtrack of “Rappin’,” the third film in the “Breakin’ ” franchise. (“You’ve Gotta Believe” was sampled by the rock group Smiths and by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.)
Drugs were a significant part of the night-life scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and as he was experiencing success and, later, as the genre was changing, moving away from the casual party rap of the early ‘80s, Lovebug Starski struggled with a cocaine habit.
“I was gettin’ paid. Coked out of my mind,” he told Rolling Stone. He was arrested twice for burglary and once for petty larceny in 1987 (he described the charges as drug-related) and was incarcerated for a few years, until 1991.
After his release he returned to D.J.-ing, along with producing. In the 1990s he was the D.J. at Russell Simmons’s wedding to Kimora Lee and at various events for the clothing company Phat Farm, and the M.C. at a birthday party for Wendy Williams, who was then a radio personality.
He moved to Las Vegas a year ago in hopes of securing regular work and had begun gaining traction there as a D.J.
He is survived by his mother, Martha Bowes; two sisters, Kim Shaw and Karen Rivers; two daughters, Tiffany Williams and Bryanna Smith; and two granddaughters.
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