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.”
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. However, he continued to make live appearances as a DJ and MC. 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.