The first time I heard the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” I was in ninth grade at Edwardsville High School. A quiet black guy – I think his name was Kevin -- used to play the song between classes on a boombox. He had taped it off the radio. He said someone named Dr. Frankenstein played a lot of music like “Genius of Love” on KATZ-FM (which later morphed into what is now hip-hop station “The Beat” (100.3 FM)), and that during one part of the show he invited to listeners to call in and “rap” along with the music.
Edwardsville hadn’t been suburbanized then, it was still a sleepy, privileged college town that just happened to be a half-hour from St. Louis. I didn’t know Roosevelt High School from Pluto; I was just beginning to listen to punk rock – the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks – and the music this Kevin guy was playing was totally alien. But it fed a similar excitement.
Sometime after that I took Kevin’s advice and tuned in. It turned out that the DJ’s name was Dr. Jockenstein, who died at age 55 on Monday morning after suffering a series of debilitating strokes. He was born Roderick G. King, but everyone knew him as Dr. Jock – a man who, in the early ´80s introduced a new kind of music to St. Louis called “rap” through a show called “Roll Call.” He taught the first generation of St. Louis emcees that what Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash were doing on the east coast could be done just as well by St. Louis kids.
Each night for about a half hour Dr. Jock played the instrumental version of “Genius of Love” in a loop. The song was hypnotic, with its steady synthetic handclap on the two and four, a sparse, deliberate bass line, and a few clean rhythm guitar riffs which follow along while a cheesy, totally infectious synthesizer plonks out a melody: “Duh-dunt, duh duh duhdunt.” (Mariah Carey most famously samples/denigrates the melody in her song “Fantasy.”)
After a few runs of the melody, the commanding voice of Dr. Jockenstein, who was given his nickname by longtime friend and founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton, interrupted with the station’s phone number. Then he opened a phone line and said to the caller, in rhythm with the song: “What’s your name?” and the listener answered to the beat.
“What’s your sign?"
“Capricorn!” the caller sang proudly.
“What’s your school?”
“Who’s the teacher with the golden rule?” and the caller shouted out his favorite teacher.
Then, like a skydiver pushing a novice out of the plane, Dr. Jock rapped, “Check it out! Here we go! Your time to blow on the roll call show!” and the caller started rapping a 32-bar freestyle as “Genius of Love” thumped along. Then he took another call, then another. Night after night he did this. Some of the callers were terrible, others were incredible, most of them were somewhere in between. But it didn’t matter. If you landed on “Roll Call” representing your school, the next day your were famous, the kid who rapped on the radio last night. At its peak, it was impossible to get through, the phones were so clogged.
Over time, rivalries developed. Crews from Vashon would verbally spar with others from McCluer North. Girls rapped, boys rapped, kids rapped. Though I was a long way from Vashon, “Roll Call” taught me and everyone else in the region, regardless of race or social strata, more about the St. Louis school system than the Post-Dispatch did. We learned who the best teachers were, learned about the city, learned about rhyming and freestyling.
I never dialed “Roll Call,” but one night Kevin ended up on the air. I don’t remember if he was any good, but it didn’t matter. The next day he strutted down the hallway with a new little posse. Kevin, who before then was “the guy with the radio,” was now Kevin the Rapper, whose teacher with the golden rule was Mr. Dwyer, Kevin who announced to all of St. Louis -- the north side, south side, east side, west side -- that Edwardsville High School was in the house.
Last night “The Remedy,” a fantastic hip hop show on KDHX (88.1 FM) featuring DJ Needles and DJ G-Wiz, kicked off their show with “Genius of Love,” and over the next two hours celebrated Dr. Jockenstein’s contributions to the city’s rap scene. They dropped classic tracks from rap’s early days – Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” Houdini, Main Source – and mixed them with cuts by musicians carrying the torch – Little Brother, Lil Wayne, Ghostface Killah. At each break they requested that anyone looking to freestyle on the radio to “Genius of Love,” old school Dr. Jock style, should call in.
At 9:45, the DJs played “Genius of Love,” but not one listener had called to join in. Attempting to pique their interest, Needles nudged a local emcee who was in the studio, Wall Street, to try it. Needles played the part of Dr. Jock, and ran through the whole call-and-response. (If memory serves, Wall Street is a Taurus who went to Roosevelt High whose favorite teacher is himself.) Still no calls. Another emcee in the studio, Finsta, did it. Still none. Then MC La Hoya stumbled through. Still no callers.
Needles and G-Wiz were disappointed. Of all the emcees in the city, of all the amateurs in the city who can rap along to every word – hell, every inflection -- on Nas’ Illmatic, not one of them had the guts to go it alone, to phone in and rhyme live on the air without a net. Back in the day, that’s how you strutted, that’s how you did it, and if you tripped and fell, no harm done. Dr. Jock was there to pick you up and dust you off. Last year Nas famously declared that hip hop is dead, and last night’s showing offered little evidence to the contrary.
Then again, Needles and G-Wiz dropped an amazing show – they always do – and had the sense of history, and the respect, to honor the man who started it all in St. Louis. As long as Dr. Jockenstein’s DNA (and tapes of the show, which are highly sought after in collectors’ circles) remains nestled in cells of St. Louis’ bloodstream, the music will outlive the DJ, even one as towering and influential as Dr. Jockenstein.
An archived version of “The Remedy”’s salute to Dr. Jockenstein is here, but it expires on Monday, May 13.