The Slow Redemption of DJ Disco Wiz

Summer, 1974: New York City is buckling into bankruptcy, the Bronx is burning (already), and 13-year-old Luis Cedeño is taking out his frustrations on the heavy bag at the Webster Police Athletic League on 183rd Street. Over the dull, repetitive thud of his blows, he hears what he’ll later describe as “loud, thumping music” coming from upstairs. Piqued, he enters a room dominated by the gargantuan figure of Kool Herc, a musician and party-thrower of Jamaican heritage, standing behind two turntables. Cedeño is captivated by the way Herc, one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, plays parts of other peoples’ records in quick succession to create one continuous blend of music; immediately, he casts aside his boxing gloves, trading a life running with the East Side Boys gang for one based around crates of vinyl and parties in parks.

So begins the story of DJ Disco Wiz, hip-hop’s first Latino DJ and one of the genre’s unheralded pioneers. To both his credit and frustration, his artistic contributions take place in the years before the music made its way to wax in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight”; to reclaim his legacy, Wiz has just published a musical memoir, It’s Just Begun.

“Back then, in New York, everything was falling apart,” says Wiz from his home up in Connecticut. “There were no programs for kids, so there was a lot of pent-up frustration being expressed the wrong way. Myself, I was an angry kid. I came from a broken home, the street raised me, and I had a temper that anything would set off—if someone got too close playing ball, I’d just punch them in their face.”

Then came his epiphanic meeting with Herc: a vision that “naturally progressed to deejaying myself” and provided a new valve of release for that pressurized anger. And while Wiz caught some flack about it—”People were opinionated about my role as a predominantly Spanish person doing something that was perceived as black culture; most Latinos were listening to disco and salsa then”—the hip-hop community heartily embraced him and the dynamic DJ team he formed with future Cold Crush Brothers member Grandmaster Caz. “At first, we played out in parks and community centers as Casanova Fly [Caz’s first rap name] & DJ Disco Wiz, but that soon became the Mighty Force,” he recalls of the crew that, at its peak, would also include Prince Whipper Whip and Dot-a-Rock of the Fantastic Five, along with Wiz’s girlfriend at the time, Pambaataa, the first female rap DJ, named in homage to hip-hop spiritual godfather Afrika Bambaataa.

In an age when the culture was propelled by cocky innovation, Wiz and Caz found their niche in 1977 when “a white geek was listening to our mixtapes on a boom box and suggested we press them on to a 10-inch acetate record plate—when he said that, lightbulbs went off!” Wiz recalls with a laugh. “We went crazy taking tapes of our routines, pause-mix tapes of breaks, and all sorts of special effects, and got them pressed on to an acetate at this place downtown on 14th Street. When we’d play the ‘mixed plate’ ” [credited as the first in existence], people would look at us like we were from the future: We’d turn the lights off, walk away from the turntables, and stand there in a b-boy stance while the music played on.”

But before the Sugarhill Gang took the sound worldwide in ’79, Wiz’s street life caught up to him: Carefree afternoons spent traveling down to the Lower East Side to pick up new clothes (Kangol hats, mocknecks, and Lee jeans were the uniform of the day), and nights spent spinning breaks off records by Baby Huey, James Brown, and Dennis Coffey at venues like the Blue Lagoon were extinguished by a five-year stint in Coxsackie Correctional Facility in upstate New York on an attempted murder charge.

“It was a situation that got out of hand, that I couldn’t control,” he says now about the confrontation with a neighborhood guy who’d been harassing the mother of his first child, which culminated in Wiz firing his gun first, fleeing, and finally getting caught by cops on the elevated subway platform at 174th Street and Southern Boulevard. “Either I was going to do what I did or somebody was going to do it to me. The only reason I’m talking to you now is because I was quicker on the trigger.”

With rap’s reach failing to penetrate the walls of Coxsackie (“There was very small talk of hip-hop inside prison”), Wiz re-emerged in 1982 to an alien-feeling world altered on all counts—including musically, given that he’d lost his chance to become one of the pioneers behind the first wave of rap vinyl. “Caz and I were one of the predominant groups at the time,” he reasons. “So if I’d have been home, the opportunity to put out records would have been there.”

Cue Wiz’s retreat into a life no longer soundtracked by a hip-hop scene (by then dominated by the raw and rock-ready sounds of Run-DMC), but one no less colorful for it: There was a stint spent working his way up from dishwasher to sous chef at the Union League Club, a re-dalliance with street life and cocaine that saw him “shot in the left hand,” charity work with the Momentum project for AIDS victims and the homeless, and, finally, a personal bout with thyroid cancer.

Then, 12 years ago, with Kiss FM blaring in the background, Wiz heard the voice of his old partner Caz, on air as part of a Cold Crush Brothers tribute. Making his way to the station, he passed along a piece of paper with his DJ name on it until it got to Caz—a coy move that sparked a reunion and caused Wiz to once again swoon under the gaze of his old muse. “I started to get more involved with hip-hop as a form of channeling out my creative juices,” he says with a redemptive symmetry.

With the music back as a familiar factor in Wiz’s life, the decision to pen his thoughts was, he says, “a whole different ball game!” An intention to write a book focused on hip-hop’s aesthetics morphed into something altogether more frank: An early scene in It’s Just Begun recounts Wiz’s first time stabbing someone in cold, grisly detail, which sets the tome apart from the glossy vacuity of most musical self-profiles. “I wasn’t ready to talk about my life at first,” he explains. “My life is complex and so obscure, but once I started doing it, it was very therapeutic. It opened up chapters of my life not opened up for decades.”

Now, 35 years on from stumbling into hip-hop at a PAL gymnasium, “I feel like I’ve managed to become relevant again,” he explains. His name may not be writ large on an old-school record cover, but with a Friday-night show on Urban Latino Radio (spinning vintage rap tunes); spots bringing his aggressive DJ style and penchant for furious, up-tempo breakbeats to grassroots hip-hop activists Tools of War’s “Turntablist Sessions”; and as creator of the Hip-Hop Meets Spoken Wordz fundraiser, which has brought together the Cold Crush Brothers with new-generation fire-starter Immortal Technique and Def Poetry Jam poetess La Bruja to perform in aid for the homeless, Wiz is back as a cog in the hip-hop machine.

“There’s even talk about the book becoming a movie,” he concludes. “So I’m testament to the positive things that hip-hop can do to a life.”

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