Hip-Hop 50: Cowboy – Hip-Hop’s FIRST Emcee

Dynamite and Cowboy

Roosevelt “Dynamite” Simmons explains the origin story of the term “Hip-Hop” and discusses why Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins is the first emcee.

Hip-Hop. Two of the most commonly used words in the world today. 

You see it in the way we dress. You hear it in the way we talk. Hip-Hop is what we are. I am Hip-Hop. We live and breathe it, for it is our culture. The way we walk and the way we stand in a B-Boy stance, that’s Hip-Hop. The way our hats are tilted to one side is Hip-Hop. I just might let my pants sag a little off my ass, for I am Hip-Hop. If my music is a little too loud, forgive me. It’s Hip-Hop, and it should be played loud.

When a journalist asked Afrika Bambaataa, “What do you call this new art form?” he didn’t hesitate to call it Hip-Hop and traced the word’s origin to Cowboy. 

It consists of DJ’ing, Emceeing, Breakdancing, Graffiti, and Beatboxing. Hip-Hop is a lifestyle. 

You see it in fashion advertising and merchandising. Nothing has brought Italian, Caucasian, Japanese, Spanish, Indian, Negro, and Vietnamese together more than Hip-Hop. For Hip-Hop has truly changed the world. 

Two Words.

The first time I ever heard those two words used was in the summer of 1977 when my childhood friend Bill Brown from Boston Road was off to the Army. He came to a Flash party to hang with Cowboy. Cowboy would always shout him out on the mic. (Billy Bill is in the house, and Dynamite is in the house).

But on that particular day, Cowboy did something different when he saw Billy Bill. He started saying Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop in a marching cadence, you might hear in boot camp. Another friend Kokomo was also off to the Army. Cowboy did it again. After that, the Hip-Hop routine stuck and became a familiar chant at all of Flash’s parties from then on. 

Luv Bug Starski then also began to use the chant in his routines. Cowboy had coined the phrase “Hip-Hop.” This is a well-known and documented fact. Hip-Hop was born and raised in The Bronx, New York.

No disrespect to Hollywood (the first DJ Rapper) or Coke La Rock (who was a DJ with Kool Herc and said things on the mic), but these were DJs. Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins is Hip-Hop’s FIRST emcee. He was hand-picked by Grandmaster Flash in 1975 to emcee his parties when the crowd would stare at him. 

At these park Jams, he incorporated a “Simon Says” style that would later be called crowd participation. When you hear “throw your hands in the air, somebody says oh yeah!” That’s Cowboy. When you hear the Zodiac countdown (“Is it Virgo? What about Capricorn? Could it be Aries?”), That’s Cowboy. Or when you walked into Disco Fever on a Tuesday night and heard “on the count of three, make yo body freeze,” and the whole club froze, that’s Cowboy. Mr. Crowd controller. He had a special talent for making a crowd eat out of his hands while simultaneously shutting parties down. As talented as Grandmaster Flash was, he would only have become the premiere DJ of that era with Keith Cowboy on that mic.

Cowboy and Flash had a special bond. Out of all The Furious 5, Flash was closer to Cowboy. That was the glue that held the Furious 5 and Flash together – our own system of checks and balances.

By his own admission, Flash was an unknown DJ before he met Cowboy. He most certainly wasn’t Grand Master back then. Here’s how Flash met Cowboy. 

The two would plant the foundation for what we all know as Hip-Hop today. In his own words, here’s an excerpt from Flash’s book, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash.” It was the summer of 1975 in the South Bronx.

Flash: The crowd didn’t know what to make of what I was doing. They would crowd around the turntables and just stare. It was somewhat unnerving. I needed a distraction to take some of this attention off of me.

Flash: Herc’s guys would say things and talk to the crowd while he was spinning. (Clark Kent would say, “Jammin with the Jammin Servin wit The Servers, Kool Herc Y’all”) Other DJs could spin and rap at the same time, guys like Hollywood and Luv Bug Starski. Even if they couldn’t cut like me. (Now listen closely to what Flash said next.) But if I wanted to get bigger, the answer was simple: I needed a cheerleader. I needed somebody to tell the crowd who I was. Enter Cowboy.

Cowboy was a young rhyme slinger who hailed from the same South Bronx neighborhood as Flash. He was a natural on the mic and did not fear telling the crowd exactly what he wanted to do. A master of improvisation, he could make rhymes up right on the spot off the top of his head, and the crowd loved him.

Cowboy: Can you give me a funky-ass beat?

Flash: And as soon as I cued up “Seven Minutes of Funk,” Cowboy started dropping rhyme for rhyme. Damn, this guy was good! I could see the crowd was feeling it. Cowboy took it directly to them, and the crowd exploded.

Flash: I knew that whatever records I spun, Cowboy would instinctively know what to say. Best of all, I knew I had my first emcee.

At those early Flash jams, you could see the star quality about him. He had a stage presence about him. He wasn’t the greatest lyricist, but the way he handled himself on that stage said a mouthful. He had this loving personality that everyone gravitated to. He was a modern-day Simon Says. The audience loved him early on. I mean, the man could literally make a whole club freeze in place. From coining the term Hip-Hop to the crowd participation, he was writing the book on emceeing right before our eyes.

And there lies the difference between the emcee and the DJ. There were plenty of DJs that said things on the mic and even some who rapped while playing. Hollywood, Coke La Rock, Caz, Love Bug, Clark Kent, Eddie Cheba. But the pure emcee never was a DJ. His only job was to host the party and compliment the DJ while doing so. He lived for the microphone. He wasn’t born playing disco at a club. His bones were made in the parks of the Bronx. 

Keith Cowboy is the first emcee.

The stories you hear about Cowboy are the stuff of legend. Him knocking out this one and that one, how he was always down to earth, how he always helped people, how he kept the group on the same page. Whenever any member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 got big-headed or out of line, Cowboy pulled that person back in line.

Here’s a typical day in my life with Cowboy and The Furious 5 circa 1982.

It was six o’clock in the morning, and my day had already started. I had just gotten off the phone with Mrs. Rob and the guy we’ll call Road Manager #1. 

Due to a change in weather, the bus driver now wants to leave an hour earlier for Philly. Out of the seven group members I need to advise of the change in schedule, three of them have given me more s### to do.

Scorpio is adamant about bringing the weights – all of them. Mind you, we are just going to Philly. 

Flash needs me to go to Crazy Eddie’s and get a new copy of “Good Times” because he thinks one of his is scratched. 

Creole wants the paper and “The Sports Illustrated” with Tony Dorsett on the cover. 

Mel won’t answer his phone, so that’s a physical wake-up visit, and I don’t know where the f### Cowboy is.

Welcome to my world.

Scorpio is now on the phone for the third time this morning, wanting to be picked up from the garage where he keeps the Benz. I don’t panic.

“Hello,” answered the sleepy voice on the other end.

“Gino!” I screamed.


“Wake the f### up!”

“I’m up, Dyno.”

“But you’re still in bed, b####. I need you to put a car on hold. Get Rahiem up and get his bags. Then I need you to go to the garage on Webster and pick up Scorp. Go to Flash’s house, drop them off, pick up Kev there, keep the car, and go to Scorp’s house and get his weights.”

“His weights?” Gino asked in disbelief.

“All of them.”

“You must be joking?”

“No joke.”

“And what will you be doing?”

“It’s too early for you to think, Gino. I’ll get Mel and Cowboy. The bus is leaving in an hour. If you f### up, you know Scorp will find you. Later!”

In my collection was my own fresh copy of “Good Times.” I know Flash doesn’t think the record store will be open this morning. I owned one of the vastest collections of breakbeats in the city, and my mother wanted all those crates of records out of her living room. 

Of course, Flash was tickled pink when he inherited that collection by default.

Next, I woke Bird up and instructed him to stop and get Creole’s paper and magazine and then scoop me. On the way down to The Grand Concourse, I stopped at Mel’s. He was already up workin’ out.

“I’m good, Dyno. If you can just grab those three bags, I’ll be right behind you.”

Next, I had to find Cowboy. I knew he wasn’t home because Judy was p##### when I called, so I rode through Trixey’s Block looking for the Benz. After no sign of his car, I told Bird to drive by the motel on Fordham. Sure enough, the Money Green Mercedes is parked outside room 321.

Bird thinks this s### is funny. I rocked the car till the alarm went off, then got out of the way ’cause the n#### will shoot. Sure enough, he steps out the doorway with a gun.

“Stop doing that s###, Dyno.”

“What? How the f### am I supposed to know what room you are in?”

“What’s up?”

“Bus leaves for Philly in a half hour.”

“What are we doing?”

“Radio wit that chick Lady B. A television show called Dancin’ On Air and a show at The Spectrum.”

“Go by my house and get my two bags by the closet in the hallway. And in that same closet, get my black boots and my white, black, and red outfits. I’ll meet you at Flash’s house.”

“You’re not gonna leave the car in the street, are you?”

“You take the car and put it in the garage on Prospect. Honey’s driving. She’ll drop me off at Flash’s.”

“Who’s that in there? Ruth from Connecticut?”

“Uh huh.”

So I take Cowboy’s car, and Bird follows me to the garage. Next, Bird (who can’t believe any of this) takes me to Cowboy’s house to get his stuff. As I’m working, Judy’s cursing me the f### out, giving me several crazy-ass messages for Cowboy.

I arrive at Flash’s house in time to meet the bus driver and bring him up to speed. The driver seemed a bit p#####, so I was only too glad to remind him that he still worked for us at the end of the day.

Everyone was there except Gino and Kev. Scorpio could not wait to find their a#### for holding up the bus. (And remember, it was he who wanted the weights.) Everybody else camped out on Flash’s stoop. The neighborhood children had now begun to gather. One by one, they started to make their way over.

“Where y’all going this time?” asked a little boy.

“Philadelphia,” replied Creole.

“Man! Y’all always going somewhere. Can we have your autograph?”

“If you tell me who was Dr. Martin Luther King?”

“Ooh, I know,” they all replied.

Scorp damn near opened the cab door. He wanted to curse Gino and Kev out so bad. So he showed no shame when he let them have it.

“If y’all don’t have my s### on this bus in exactly two minutes, your a#### are minus a hundred dollars. Plus the fifty I already fined y’all.” 

And just like that, we were loaded.


Your Hip-Hop Aficionado,