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How an East St. Louis radio station first brought hip-hop to the region’s ears in 1979

Jim Gates, center, along with his WESL 1490 Radio staff in the late 1970s around the time he was given the go-ahead to play the first rap record over the air in the St. Louis market.
Jim Gates
Jim Gates, center, along with his WESL 1490 Radio staff in the late 1970s, around the time he was given the go-ahead to play the first rap record over the air in the St. Louis market.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, DJs like Gentleman Jim Gates, Edie Bee Anderson, Sweet Charlie and Dr. Jockenstein helped introduce the St. Louis region to hip-hop and a new era of music.

The genre turns 50 this year and is still at the forefront of pop culture around the world. The St. Louis region's hip-hop artists have captured fans and made their mark in music history.

But the genre was relatively unknown until East St. Louis radio station WESL played the song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979. The moment is credited as the first time hip-hop was played on St. Louis radio.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis talked with Gentleman Jim Gates, former part-owner of WESL, about how listeners responded to hip-hop music.

Chad Davis: Could you kind of describe a little bit how it was in the St. Louis, East St. Louis radio scene prior to “Rapper’s Delight” coming out? Who are the big players, and what kind of music was typically played?

Gentleman Jim Gates: We were all in our 30s or 20s. I normally call WESL the Motown of radio. You got a chance to know the Spinners and then the O’Jays and then Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the Temptations. So that music was very popular. But then all of a sudden here comes Funkadelic, Parliament.

George [Clinton] would rap a little bit on certain songs, he’d stop singing, give a response from the audience, y’all sing, men sing, and he would be rapping.

But all of a sudden, here comes some records out of New York. They weren't all as good as “Rapper’s Delight” — they weren't even close — because a lot of the companies would do their own track or whatever. But Joe Robinson from Sugar Hill Records, which was all platinum records, his wife [Sylvia Robinson] just took the instrumental side — it was Chic’s “Good Times” — and just flipped it over, and they did their own rap. I played that. And the next day Joe heard about how big it got. He had sent me overnight about five copies, which everybody in town wanted to buy for unbelievable amounts of money. A lot of DJs were calling the studio until the distributor finally got records in.

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
Edie Bee Anderson was the first person in the country to play the song "Rapper's Delight" over the radio.

Davis: So it immediately kind of took off when you played "Rapper's Delight" the first time?

Gates: I played it in my office. And I gave it to Edie, and she didn't want to play it, but I told her she had to, she was getting off the air in about two hours and this record was 14 minutes, almost 15 minutes long. First time she heard a scratch, she said, “Oh, no.” I said, “you’re going to have to play that twice an hour.”

Davis: What was the response after you played that record?

Gates: Well, you started getting all kinds of records. But Joe Robinson was ahead of the pack because he had you know, Melle Mel with the Furious Five with Grandmaster Flash. Joe had everybody, even the first girl group that rapped, the Sequence.

Davis: When did rap kind of take over here?

Gates: It had to be the early '80s. We still had Teddy Pendergrass, and the Temptations still had hit records, but always the biggest records were rap, it was still sort of new.

If you notice Black consumers generationally, they love being on top of what's new, what's hot.

Gentleman Jim Gates in a headshot portrait.
Jim Gates
Gentleman Jim Gates was part-owner and vice president of programming for East St. Louis radio station WESL when the station introduced listeners across the region to rap music.

Davis: Who were like the hip-hop DJs in the St. Louis area on radio stations who were like the pioneers?

Gates: You can't say anything about St. Louis radio unless you've mentioned Dr. Jockenstein. His name is Rod King. I hired him in about 1977.

There was Rod King, Curtis Soul, The Original Godfather, myself, Terry Houston. The whole image that I wanted to make of WESL was the Motown radio, meaning if you listen to us, and you hear all these names, Gentleman Jim Gates, Dr. Jockenstein, Curtis Boogeyman Soul, the Original Godfather, Edie Bee. These are star names, but they were real names.

Davis: How did the public respond to the hip-hop music that you all were playing?

Gates: As the years go by, you kind of integrate all of that stuff, the old with the current and then the new, and you can evolve, and it creates its own environment.

It's funny, most folks who love hip-hop and rap didn't really know that they were really evolving into that. They just knew what was hip, what was hot, what was now.

I love Motown, which I knew was a sound, but the audience didn't really know Motown from Philadelphia, which was O’Jays and Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass. But if you mix them all during the day, they hear it, they're evolving into all of that. They don't call it hip-hop or whatever, they just call it straight-up soul music with rap.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.