The story of SCOTT LA ROCK is a painful reminder of what can happen when personal conflict is resolved violently. Fifteen years after his passing, we remember an under-acknowledged hip-hop pioneer whose impact is still felt today. Words NOAH CALLAHAN-BEVER
“By age 25 Scott “La Rock” Sterling had achieved what many people only dream of. As part of a duo called Boogie Down Production, he was on the verge of signing a major recording contract…and he kept a promise that he had made to himself. He, a young man from the South Bronx who had become a high school basketball star and had earned a bachelor’s degree in business, would settle for nothing less than stardom.
All that came to an end Wednesday when Mr. Sterling was fatally shot outside the Highbridge Garden Homes on University Avenue in the South Bronx.”
—Esther Iverem, The New York Times, August 31st 1987
Fifteen years ago, New York’s adolescent rap scene was forced to grow up. Violently. The murder of Scott La Rock was more than the loss of a much-loved young man, more than the loss of a talented, up-and-coming DJ. In many ways, La Rock—in both life and death—set the stage for hip-hop as we know it today.
While he was alive, La Rock drafted the aesthetic blueprint for gangsta rap with the previously unexplored street themes and shocking imagery of BDP’s classic Criminal Minded (the only album he ever recorded). On the business side, his Black-owned independent label, B Boy Records, pioneered the burgeoning genre’s rebel entrepreneurialism.
“Scott would have been Puff before Puff, no question,” says Chris Lighty, a close friend of La Rock who now runs the Violator Records empire. “But without the dancing. He approached the music as a business at a time when most people just wanted to be down and make records.”
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Born March 2nd, 1962 in South Ozone Park, Queens, Scott Monroe Sterling was raised in an environment very different from the rap world that he would later help to mold. His parents split when he was four, and he lived with his mother, Carolyn Morant, a career municipal employee. When Scott was young, they moved from Queens to the Bronx’s Morrisania section, and then to Morris Heights. Scott excelled in both academics and sports at Our Savoir Lutheran High School, graduating in 1980 and heading off to Vermont’s Castleton State College. He earned a varsity letter in basketball there, but as it became clear that his talent would never take him to the NBA, Scott switched his extracurricular focus from hoops to music.
“Our turntables were on our desks and our books were on the floor,” said Scott’s four-year college roommate, Lee “The Mack” Smith Jr., to the Times in ’87. “I would come home and hear the bass before I opened the door.”
After graduating in 1984, Scott returned to New York in hopes of finding work and making inroads in the music industry. Though his mother, he landed a jacket-and-tie nine-to-five as a social worker at the Franklin Armory Men’s Shelter on 166th Street in the Bronx. On Friday nights, he spun records at a blossoming hip-hop hot spot, the Broadway Repertoire Theatre on 145th Street.
Socially gifted, Scott quickly became an integral figure at the weekly parties. “He was just a smooth, approachable brother,” remembers DJ Red Alert. “He could relate to any type of person, that’s why so many people gravitated to him.”
Beyond spinning records, though, Scott aspired to create his own. He began studying the art of making beats at his Bronx buddy Ced Gee’s place and searched the city’s clubs for a worthy MC partner. (Ced would go on to form the Ultramagnetic MCs with “Kool” Keith Thornton.) Strangely, La Rock would find his rapping other half not among the denizens of the dimly-lit nightspots like Broadway R.T., but under the bright fluorescents of the shelter where he worked his day job.
One of Scott’s responsibilities at the shelter was doling out subway tokens to those who needed to travel to job interviews. Shortly after starting, he got wise to the fact that several of the shelter’s residents were faking interviews to score tokens, which they’d use instead to go party. When Scott confronted one of the hustlers, the situation got loud and ugly. The resident called Scott a “house Negro, one paycheck away from homelessness.” Scott countered that the homeless man was “obviously lazy, otherwise he’s have a job.” Security was called to separate the two before they came to blows, and the resident left the shelter.
The homeless man was Kris “KRS-One” Parker—a cocky, 20-year-old graffiti artist and self-taught “philosopher” who preferred the street life to the mundane world of working. Three months later, Scott ran into him at Ced Gee’s apartment (coincidentally, KRS had also been putting in time on Ced’s equipment). After their less-than-civil start, Scott extended the olive branch by inviting KRS to one of his parties.
“My mind got blown clean out of my head,” remembers KRS-One of his summer 1985 introduction to the hip-hop scene at Broadway R.T. “Just seeing Scott DJing and then watching Mantronix walk by, and then Doug E. Fresh is in the corner grabbing a drink…It was just too much for me.”
Scott took a liking to KRS, and to two of his fellow shelter residents, Joseph “Just Ice” Williams Jr. and “I.C.U.,” as well as 15-year-old Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, a cousin of a security guard. “He’s invite us down and we’d hang out way past the nine p.m. curfew, get drunk and party,” says KRS of BDP’s prenatal period. “At the end of the night Scott would take us all out for breakfast and we’d talk about who we were gonna be and what we were gonna do.
“Scott gained a lot of freedom hanging out with us,” KRS continues. “And being around him made us feel important.”
In fall 1985, Scott and KRS started recording original music. After a succession of false starts and failed attempts, Scott responded to an ad in the paper placed by a company, Rock Candy Records and Filmworks, looking for rap talent. He set up a meeting and sold Rock Candy on the idea of a subsidiary label, B Boy Records, to be run by himself and KRS. With an office in the Bronx’s infamous Hunt’s Point neighborhood, the pair would go by the name Boogie Down Productions and split profits evenly.
Scott and KRS set to it immediately, completing a demo cassette within weeks. An engineer at Power Play Studios gave them the opportunity to slide their tape to the preeminent DJ of the day, Mr. Magic, whose Queens-based Juice Crew family ruled the streets across the five boroughs. Magic blew them off, though, and told the engineer later that BDP was wack. KRS’s reaction was automatic, “I was like ‘We’re wack? MC Shan is wack!’”
That week, Scott booked exactly two hours at a $25-an-hour studio, where KRS kicked a rough routine inspired by the insult. The result was “South Bronx,” a jarring piece of regional pride, which took shots at Magic, Shan, DJ Marley Marl, Queens and the entire Juice Crew.
“Scott played me ‘South Bronx’ for the first time and I was like ‘Damn, we goin’ at them like that?’” remembers Lighty, who led the Violators, a team of ruffians that held Kool DJ Red Alert down in New York’s often violent club scene. “He was just like, ‘Yeah, why not? It’s a business. What’s stopping us?’ It seemed like an insurmountable mountain at that point. But that was how Scott was—he could make you believe anything was possible.”
The following Thursday, Scott brought copies of the record to Red Alert at KISS FM, and Raoul, the house DJ at the Latin Quarter nightclub.
“I still remember,” says L.Q. mainstay and 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch of that night in summer ’86. “That was the first time that I ever saw a DJ play the same record back to back, over and over again.”
“South Bronx” drew a line in the sand of the rap community. Juice Crew fans listened to Marley and Magic. BDP fans bumped Red Alert. Within the next month the two crews would exchange a volley of lyrical fire, with MC Shan releasing “Kill That Noise” and BDP responding in kind with “The Bridge Is Over.”
Taking advantage of swelling buzz of the “Bridge Wars,” Scott and KRS put together the final pieces of an album that would change rap forever: their full-length debut, Criminal Minded. Aided by Ced Gee, Scott crafted a revolutionary sound—rigid and rugged with its neck-snapping drum programming, but melodic, and even playful in its diverse use of samples. On the mix, KRS-One took listeners on an unflinching tour of the BX’s crack-era mean streets. Deliberately disconcerting, designed by Scott, the LP’s cover depicted the duo seated at a desk, pistols in hand, grenades on the table, a munitions belt draped across KRS-One’s chest. Even the title was perfect—as Scott took an odd phrase from one of KRS’ rhymes and constructed a business philosophy behind it. “The title Criminal Minded was really his plan,” says Lighty. “He was like, ‘Let’s talk about reality, and do what we have to do to get the money, but not become criminals ourselves.’”
Released in early 1987 (soon after Scott’s longtime girlfriend gave birth to a child, Scott Sterling Jr.), Criminal Minded met with instant acclaim and sold 300,000 copies in its first year of release. (Unfortunately, Rock Candy turned out to be less than the best business partner. Limited distribution and reportedly shady accounting practices have left the album’s true sales figures a mystery, and Scott and KRS never saw the amount of money they deserved.)
The record got the interest of Warner Brothers A&R Benny Medina (who’d go on to manage Will Smith, P. Diddy and Jennifer Lopez, among others). In August, Medina flew Scott and KRS out to LA and offered them $275,000 to sign to the major.
KRS and Scott returned to New York amped, ready to announce their power move later that week at Madison Square Garden, where they were scheduled to perform alongside Public Enemy and L.L. Cool J as part of the Dope Jam Tour. They even began pre-production of tracks like “My Philosophy,” “Stop the Violence” and “I’m Still #1” for an album that would become By All Means Necessary.
That Tuesday night, 16-year-old crew member D-Nice was caught in the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx fooling around with someone else’s girl. The angry boyfriend pulled a gun on D, and, with the help of some friends, roughed him up pretty good.
The following afternoon, Scott, KRS, Just Ice, their manager Scott Morris and bodyguard Darrell (a.k.a. “The Original Robocop”) were breaking bread at McDonald’s on the corner of Broadway and 71st Street. They had just finalized a deal for BDP to produce Just Ice’s Kool And Deadly album.
“I suggested to Kris that we go get some weed and celebrate in Brooklyn,” Just Ice remembers. “Scott never smoked like that, so he was like ‘Nah, I’m not fuckin’ with y’all, you’re just gonna get high.’”
As the meal came to a close, Scott got a call on his antique-school, $2-a-minute cell phone. It was D-Nice, explaining his predicament. A father-figure to D, Scott didn’t hesitate in offering to go up to the Bronx and handle the situation.
“You can’t have someone doing that to the youngest member of Boogie Down Productions,” says Lighty flatly. “That just don’t make no sense.”
Scott called Lighty and the Violators for muscle. The crews met at a rendezvous point in the South Bronx. Scott, Darrel and Scotty Morris drove to Highbridge in a red drop-top Jeep. D-Nice and the Violators rolled in a second car just behind them.
It was mid-evening by the time the two cars arrived at University Avenue, between 165th and 166th Street. Though D-Nice’s assailant was not to be found, his crew was hanging out on the block. Darrel jumped out of the jeep and grabbed up the first two kids he could reach, smacking them in the mouth. Playing good cop, Scott came over and clamed things down.
“It seemed like it was mellow,” says Lighty. “Well, as mellow as some kids that just got smacked up can be. Then [Scott and Darrel] were walking back to the car, and gunfire starts—from the ground level, and it seemed like from a couple of levels up too.”
The Violators leapt out of their car to return fire, giving Scott and Darrel the cover to reach the Jeep. Moments later, two .22 caliber bullets ripped though the Jeep’s rag top. Sitting in the back seat, Scott was hit once in the neck and once behind the ear.
Scotty Morris and Darrel started the car immediately, but Highbridge’s narrow streets and the chaos of the incident made getting off the block nearly impossible. (“It kinda jams up the block when people are shooting at you,” says Lighty.) Finally, after winding their way through several back streets, they made it to Lincoln Memorial Hospital and carried Scott into the emergency room. He was admitted at 11:15 p.m., bleeding profusely and speaking incoherently.
Lighty and the Violators arrived 15 or 20 minutes later, unaware of who had been hit. “When we got there and saw him,” says Lighty, “it was like watching your own father pass away.”
Reached at Ms. Melodie’s house in Brooklyn, KRS jumped in a cab for the Bronx. When he got there, he was in shock. “Kris kept saying the same shit over and over,” says Serch, who arrived at the hospital around midnight. “‘We gotta keep going. We just gotta move on…’ I didn’t know what he meant, but that was all he would say as we walked out of the emergency room onto the street. ‘We gotta keep moving…’ And Ms. Melodie was just shaking her head.”
At 2 a.m., Scott lost consciousness completely. An hour later, doctors declared him brain dead. Scott’s mother decided to take him off life support, but not until five o’clock the following afternoon—giving loved ones the opportunity to pay their final respects.
As word spread the following afternoon, hordes of Scott’s friends and associates showed up at the hospital—everyone from the Jungle Brothers and Monie Love to little-known Latin Quarter nightclub regulars. KRS-One remained in the waiting room the entire day, not wanting to see Scott in his weakened state.
“He was laying there with his shirt off,” says MC Serch, sighing with the memory of visiting his friend for the last time, “with this white towel draped over him, and his arms were out. His fiancée was on one side and his mother on the other, holding his hands. He was laid out like Jesus on the Cross.”
“Both eyes were part open,” Serch continues. “And he had tears streaming down his face, tears rolling out of both of his eyes.”
On Friday morning, August 27, 1987, with no respirator to keep him alive, Scott “La Rock” Sterling died.
The very next day, KRS, D-Nice, Red alert and the rest of the BDP family took the stage at MSG. They stood silently for a moment. The crowd seemed unsure how to react. Then a huge photograph of Scott was lowered from the ceiling. The stadium exploded and the crew launched into a stirring version of “Poetry”—a shared moment of hip-hop healing.
In May 1988, after two Bronx teens were busted stealing subway tokens talked to police, Cory Bayne and Kendall Newland were arrested and charged with the murder of Scott Sterling. (Newland lived at 1610 University Avenue, the apartment building in front of which the shooting took place.) Police were frustrated by the lack of witnesses coming forward to testify, and Bayne and Newland were acquitted at trial on November 15th, 1989. They’ve since disappeared, their whereabouts a mystery.