30 Years Later: Remembering the Loss of Scott La Rock
“Scott didn’t even know he was shot.”
That was Just-Ice in 2016, recalling one of the more tragic moments in his life and career. The hip-hop vet was being interviewed by WHO?MAG TV Hip Hop Talk--discussing the 1987 murder of Scott "La Rock" Sterling. Just-Ice was with La Rock just prior to the killing, and recalled the events that led to Scott being shot from a nearby building while riding in a Jeep through the Highbridge Gardens projects in the Bronx. Just-Ice and Scott La Rock had just finalized a deal for Just-Ice's debut album.
“After we signed the contract, we went to McDonalds. It was all of us plus [former bodyguard] RoboCop was with us,” Just-Ice shared. They got a call from their young friend and affiliate D-Nice, who needed help. "[RoboCop] was like, ‘We gon’ go up there, and I’ma go get [D-Nice].’ Scott was like, ‘I’ma go witchu.’
"That’s the last we ever seen of Scott.”
The death of Scott La Rock would have a profound effect on his group Boogie Down Productions and on hip-hop's Golden Age.
Alongside Lawrence "KRS One" Parker, DJ Scott La Rock was the co-founder of Boogie Down Productions; who had emerged in 1986 as one of the most formidable new hip-hop acts in New York City. Most hip-hop heads know the lore: after hearing MC Shan's "The Bridge" and feeling like their home of the Bronx was dissed, KRS and Scott La Rock took aim at the Queens-based Shan, producer Marley Marl and Marley's Juice Crew. The "Bridge Wars" would launch BDP into the rap spotlight on the strength of early singles like "The Bridge Is Over" and "South Bronx." Always the connector, Scott La Rock had brought it all together.
A basketball standout and stellar student, Scott Sterling graduated from Our Savior Lutheran High School in 1980 and enrolled at Castleton State College in Vermont. Deejaying for campus parties gave Sterling the opportunity to expose the student body to hip-hop coming from New York City and to hone his chops. After graduating from college in 1984, Sterling moved back to New York City to find a job as a social worker. He met Lawrence (aka "Kris") Parker while Sterling was working at the Franklin Armory Men's Shelter on 166th St in the Bronx.
"Scott worked for the Franklin Men's shelter and me and BDP posse was in there, buggin'--runnin' around, illin'," KRS would recall in a 1987 interview. "But we wasn't like everybody else. Most of the people you see inside shelters, they're in there because of the bottle, the crack, the needle--whatever it is, they're there for a reason. We were there simply because no one else would believe in us, family-wise."
Scott La Rock spent his nights DJing hip-hop clubs like Danceteria, and upon meeting Kris, who was then a graffiti artist who tagged under "KRS One," Scott realized he had a charismatic emcee with whom he could partner. Scott also brought in a young up-and-coming DJ/producer named Derrick "D-Nice" Jones, and the crew initially dubbed themselves "Scott La Rock and the Celebrity Three." They eventually rechristened themselves "Boogie Down Productions" in tribute to their home borough--the "Boogie Down" Bronx.
BDP released their debut album in early 1987, and Criminal Minded would be a landmark recording in hip-hop. Featuring KRS One's gritty tales about life in the Bronx projects he'd known so well, the album became a benchmark for what would later be known as "gangsta rap." Scott's deejay skills were notable on their own--and he was also the subject of one of BDP's most notorious tracks: "Super Hoe." But much of the crew's early notoriety came from the Bridge Wars. It was WBLS's legendary Mr. Magic and his dismissal of BDP's early demos that sparked the crew to record those classic singles.
"I hear all these records about Brooklyn and Queens and then Shan saying that rap music started in Queens--that's a bunch of bull," Scott told KFPC. "I don't like Mr. Magic anyway, so I thought it was time to tell the truth." The group had released "Success Is the Word" on Sleeping Bag Records, but it wasn't a track written or produced by BDP and didn't make much of an impact. It was their focused rage on "The Bridge Is Over" and "South Bronx" that caught notice.
"[Mr. Magic] tried to diss us one night in the studio a couple of months ago," Scott explained to Long Island's WBAU in 1987. "So I said 'Kris, let's put out this record.'"
The Criminal Minded album cover featured KRS and Scott La Rock with automatic weapons and ammunition, a move that the crew explained indicated protection and militancy more than thuggery.
"The idea was revolutionaries," KRS told MTV in 2010. "If you look at the cover of Criminal Minded, that's what we were saying modern-day Black Panthers are. I had the gun belt going over the shoulder, grenades. That wasn't hood. It wasn't like [we] had guns on the table like we were drug dealers — we had grenades. Real paramilitary stuff was on the table. We were showing ourselves to be revolutionaries. Gangsters are really intelligent. We're Black Panthers. We're not just dudes on the corner."
The music was stripped down and hardcore, mostly produced by Scott, Kris and Ced Gee, who would go on to fame as a member of the Ultramagnetic MCs.
"Me and Scott grew up together," Ced told Angus Batey in 2004. "I knew Scott’s whole family. With BDP’s Criminal Minded, my input was more of showing Scott how to use the sampler. When the SP-12 came out, a lot of engineers just looped. But I would take sounds and chop ’em up – even if it wasn’t a full sound I’d make it sound full. I was the first person to chop samples on the SP-12. Soon everyone was doing it. [KRS-One] would bring the record, I would take it, chop it, rearrange it. I did the whole album, apart from four songs."
Scott was outspoken and a leader, qualities that made him imperative in pushing BDP. He was also a mentor figure to D-Nice. The teen met Scott La Rock via a cousin that worked at the shelter.
"So I brought [my cousin] food over at the Franklin Men's shelter," D-Nice explained to Combat Jack in 2014. "He was like 'Yo, I wanna introduce you to someone.' He took me into his office and introduced me to this guy."
"This guy" was DJ Scott La Rock, and D-Nice was brought into the Boogie Down Productions fold.
"He was just this tall, dark, towering dude," D-Nice recalled. "I was young at the time, I was 15. Even at work...this dude always had a brief case, short-sleeved shirt on, always wearing jeans, white pair of Nikes on, waves in his hair--smiling. He was just full of life and energy. And from that day [we met]...we hung out and went to Dr. J's on Third Avenue in the Bronx and he just started buying me shit."
It was Scott La Rock who convinced the teenager that he could build a future in hip-hop, even though the young D-Nice didn't quite envision things as Scott had. "To have people who want to give you love--you welcome that."
Scott was adamant that D-Nice not disregard his education. D-Nice hadn't grown up with a father and didn't appreciate guidance.
"I wasn't on the cover of Criminal Minded for a reason," he said. "We got into an argument. I was a smart dude, and Scott knew that. I didn't like going to school anymore...because people, when they found out that we had records out, there was always issues.
"Because I was always by myself and never rolled with a crew--most of the dudes I rolled with were older than me--so being in school it was always like an issue," he continued. "I stopped wanting to go to school and this dude...was saying to me 'Dude, if you don't wanna get your education...you can't be in the group.'"
D-Nice had dated a young lady from his neighborhood, and while he was on the phone with her friend, a man that the friend was dating grabbed the phone and threatened to kill D-Nice for talking to his girlfriend on the phone. That happened before BDP released Criminal Minded; and a few months after the album, D-Nice and a friend were walking through the Highbridge Gardens projects and a confrontation ensued. Suddenly, D-Nice's friend was gone and the young rapper was surrounded by several people. One of those people was the man from the phone call months earlier.
"One dude rolled up and said 'You don't know me, but I know you. You had some smart shit to say last year,'" D-Nice recalled. He pulled out a gun and struck D-Nice in the face with his pistol. Fearing for his life, a bloody D-Nice called his friends. Scott La Rock wanted to help.
"He said 'Yo, I'm gonna come over there and we're gonna find him and we're gonna squash the beef,'" D-Nice explained. "He was a social worker. His job was to end beef and help solve issues."
Forever a businessman ("He was taking meetings with Lyor [Cohen.]"), Scott La Rock didn't think beef was good for anyone involved. So he hopped in a Jeep with Darrel aka "The Original RoboCop", Scotty "Manager Moe" Morris, DJ McBooo and D-Nice to go settle the issue. Looking back, D-Nice says they probably didn't take the best approach to resolve the issue.
"You look at it from someone else's perspective, it looks like we're looking to start beef. That wasn't even the case. [But] looking back as an adult--what were we thinking?"
When RoboCop, acting as security, went in front of the Highbridge Gardens projects asking someone if they'd seen the people in question, things were noticeably hostile. RoboCop was suddenly in a confrontation with a young guy, and slammed him on the sidewalk. As he came back to the car, shots rang out.
"Somebody was in the bushes, somebody had ran to the roof and they just started shooting at us," D-Nice remembered.
The unarmed group of friends scrambled to get away. Scott La Rock was sitting in the passenger seat, and blood began pouring out of his head. In 2016, Just-Ice recalled that fateful day.
“According to RoboCop, they was driving and all of a sudden, Scott [grabbed his neck and fell down]; head hit the motherfucking dashboard and you see a hole. And it was a .22! That’s what you call a lucky motherfucking shot, man. If you’ve ever been to Webster Projects, those buildings are like 17 to 20 stories high. He was on the roof, and he shot him with a little .22! If the wind blows too hard, it’ll knock it off course! That day, there was no wind.”
DJ Scott La Rock died at the hospital on August 27, 1987--just six months after Criminal Minded made Boogie Down Productions the hottest new act in hip-hop. He'd just become a father.
"We just lost the leader of the group over some bullshit," recalled D-Nice, before adding, "That I was part of."
"Knowing that it was over nothing was crazy," D-Nice told Combat Jack.
The New York Times headline read "Violent Death Halts Rap Musician's Rise," as the hip-hop community came to grips with its first major casualty. D-Nice was grappled with guilt and withdrew from concerts and appearances as KRS-One attempted to soldier on. In 1988, Cory Bayne and Kendall Newland were arrested for the killing. The case had no witnesses willing to testify and both men were acquitted.
For KRS-One, he was now without his partner. But the bombastic rapper soldiered on, alongside his brother Kenny "Special K" Parker and soon-to-be-wife Miss Melodie. KRS would dub himself "The Teacha" and he maintained the banner of Boogie Down Productions, but re-shifted his lyrical focus: now his rhymes would center on elevating Black consciousness and denouncing the violence that had become so pervasive. After grieving Scott's death, Kris Parker found renewed focus.
"We all planned our goals. we knew exactly what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go," Kris stated shortly after Scott's murder in 1987. "Us as a group, we don't mourn. We had our chance for mourning. You have that one day, you cry it out--and that's it. We don't mourn and keep going and keep going. You celebrate, if anything, because we're advancing constantly. If we had flopped, then I would be sad that Scott is gone. 'Our career went down the drain' and this and that. His son will live with what he didn't have materially. So everything's straight."
But things weren't straight between KRS and D-Nice. The pair wouldn't address Scott La Rock's murder and the estrangement that followed for more than 25 years.
"Kris and I weren't really tight like that," D-Nice admitted to Combat Jack. "And there's part of me that, although I wanted my brother to understand and see who I am, I couldn't be mad at KRS because Scott was the man who pulled me into the group. KRS never knew what the story was. All he knew was now Scott is dead because he came to my aid."
Boogie Down Productions resumed work on their sophomore album, which would be released in 1988. By All Means Necessary became another critical success and drew more commercial attention than Criminal Minded. One of the songs on the album was "Stop the Violence," a track that KRS crafted to speak on the senseless killings in the community and what had happened to Scott.
"'Stop the Violence' was a freestyle," KRS shared in 1988. "Because every time we went to do a show, somebody would start acting stupid. We would have something to say, even as that was going on, because the music never stopped."
Things were further emphasized over the next few months following Scott's killing. On the Dope Jam Tour in 1988, a Sept. 10 show at Nassau Coliseum came to crystallize the tragedy of both BDP's specific loss, and a larger issue that was pervasive in urban Black communities--and at hip-hop events. The packed venue brought together seemingly every hip-hop fan in New York, and security was inadequate from the very beginning.
"It was the show of shows for that...time," KRS would explain. "The security had quit on the tour. When they quit, we had no security at Nassau Coliseum. You had Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Bronx, Long Island, Jersey--in the house. They started buggin.' This kid got killed over a gold chain. Out of all the many things that went on that night, that seemed to be the zenith of the ignorance. He died because of his gold chain. Stabbed in the heart, I think it was."
KRS-One would organize the Stop the Violence movement; a collective of hip-hop artists who came together to raise awareness and promote peace in the Black community. Recruiting rap notables like MC Lyte, Stetsasonic, Just-Ice, Heavy D, Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh and others, the collective released the single "Self Destruction" in 1988, a hit song and video that championed unity. It was the ultimate tribute to Scott La Rock and a defining moment for KRS One and for hip-hop.
Of course, KRS-One would continue as one of the more socially-aware and controversial rappers in hip-hop, dropping more classic albums, both under the BDP moniker and under his own name beginning in 1993. His shift from project crime tales to topical concerns makes him a seminal figure in two seemingly contradictory sides of hip-hop, and his legacy is undeniably shaped by the death of Scott La Rock.
In the years since, there have been other senseless murders of hip-hop greats. From 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., to Jam-Master Jay, to Mac Dre, Big L and Freaky Tah--the list is disturbingly long. And most of these killings have netted no convictions, no closure. Scott La Rock's murder happened at a time when BDP was on the rise, but the group wasn't exactly on mainstream radar. As such, casual hip-hop fans in 2017 may not fully appreciate how senseless and sad this loss truly was.
Scott La Rock's unsolved murder set off a series of events that reconfigured one of hip-hop's most influential voices. And Scott La Rock's mentorship led to D-Nice eventually pursuing a successful solo career in the 1990s before becoming one of the world's most popular DJs in the 2000s and 2010s. The corner of Jerome Ave. and Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx was renamed "DJ Scott La Rock Boulevard" in 2017, and besides his tragic ending, it was Scott La Rock's vision that brought Boogie Down Productions together. He was a DJ and a leader and was planning to be a mogul. His name can't ever be forgotten. His legacy should never be diminished.
Hip-hop will always remember.
Watch This Interview with Scott La Rock and Biz Markie:
Watch KRS One Discuss Scott La Rock and BDP Moving Forward:
Watch the Dedication of DJ Scott La Rock Blvd in the Bronx, NY: