Review of It’s Only Just Begun by Ivan Sanchez and Luis DJ Discowiz Cedeño
Dr Mark Naison
It’s Only Just Begun, by Ivan Sanchez and Luis Cedeno, is one of the most powerful memoirs I have read in recent years. Billed as “The Epic Journey of DJ Dicsowiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ,” the book presents extraordinarily vivid descriptions of the rise of hip hop in the neighborhood Cedeno grew up in (183rd Street and the Grand Concourse), of Cedeno’s emerging partnership with the brilliant DJ and rapper Curtis Fisher (aka Grandmaster Caz) and of the tensions than ensued when a light skinned Latino began showing mastery in what was widely perceived as a “Black” art form. Drawing upon Cedeno’s narrative skills and the spare, poetic language that Sanchez unveiled in his first book, Next Stop, the book contains memorable portraits of block parties and street jams, of DJ battles in community centers and clubs, of turf wars between DJ’s in different Bronx neighborhoods and of the mass appropriation of electronic equipment that took place during the 1977 Blackout Riots in the Bronx. For students of Bronx hip hop history, It’s Only Just Begun is a wonderful addition to the two excellent books published this year by Grandmaster Flash and Shelly Shel, both for its description of hip hop’s emergence in the Northwest Bronx- an area not previously viewed as an important hip hop site- and for its honest depiction of Black/ Latino tensions in hip hop’s formative years
But to look at this book as just a hip hop story would be to vastly underestimate its power and significance. Cedeno was sent to prison for attempted murder in 1978, just as his DJ career was taking off, and the vast majority of this book is about his struggles to cope with the violence instilled in him by the brutality of an abusive father, a violence that earned him respect on the streets of the Bronx and in upstate prisons, but left a trail of destruction and shattered dreams that only ended, in his late thirties, when he met an extraordinary women who believed in him enough to insist that he conquer his inner demons.
Like Down These Mean Streets , a book which it resembles in narrative power and frank discussion of Black-Latino tensions , It’s Only Just Begun is a meditation on violence, particularly on how violence in the home breeds violence in the streets. The tone for the entire book is set, early in the first chapter, by a description of the beating Cedeno took from his father when he was only eight years old, an experience which, he says, left him scarred and damaged for life:
“Maybe my father felt if he taught me how to take a beat down from a man, I’d always be able to take whatever these mean streets of the Bronx would throw my way, but this is most likely just wishful thinking on my part. . . .My father didn’t teach me how to be a man that day, he didn’t teach me how to take a beating, he didn’t teach me anything. The only thing my father accomplished that day was teaching me how to hate. The kind of hate that changes your perspective on life until you realize this hatred will cause your own destruction. The kind of hate. . . I would never want to pass along to anyone in this world.”
From this point on, Cedeno’s narrative reveals, the rage inside him was like a bomb ready to go off on the slightest provocation, but he found plenty of outlets for this anger on the streets of the Bronx, where he met other damaged young people ready to inflict their pain collectively, as well as individually, on anyone who crossed their path. There is no romance in Cedeno’s description of the beatings and stabbings he inflicted on his enemies, whether real or imagined, during his childhood and adolescence.
There were many and they are terrifying to read. But what is also disturbing is that this capacity for violence won Cedeno acceptance and respect among the toughest kids in his neighborhood, and may have even contributed to his ability to establish himself as a Latino battle DJ in a largely Black hip hop culture. Cedeno, who had near professional boxing skills and always carried a gun , was viewed, by his partner Caz and others, as a good person to have around because of his reputation as a street thug as well as for his extraordinary skill on the turntables. At a time when anyone spinning in the park was vulnerable to having their equipment stolen by “stick up kids,” having a member of your crew who was strapped and ready was seen as necessary protection.
But though Cedeno was a respected presence among Hip Hop’s founding DJ’s- he and Caz had epic DJ battles with DJ Kool Herc, and formed a close relationship with Afrika Bambatta- his uncontrollable anger put himself, and everyone around him at risk. After several near brushes with death when he challenged crews outside his neighborhoods, Cedeno finally reached the point of return when he shot and nearly killed a young man from the Crotona area who was making sexual advances to his girlfriend Jenny and adding insult to injury by mocking Cedeno in the process. Cedeno’s description of his emotions during the shooting will send chills through anyone who has spent their life trying to control their own rage:
“When I shot him the first time, I felt completely threatened. They were closing in on me and I knew that if I didn’t do they were going to end up snuffing me, taking the gun and using it on me . . . . I shot him the second time because of the anger that overcame me. This stupid motherfucker just made me shoot him! That might sound crazy but Lord knows I didn’t want to do it. I had a daughter, I was a DJ, and things were finally looking good for my life. The last thing I wanted to do was throw my entire life away because some fucking asshole couldn’t take rejection from my girl. I shot him the third time because I knew I had just cost me my life. . . . After all was said and done, this motherfucker had just denied me all my dreams and for that I deserved to die.”
In all my years of reading urban literature, I have rarely read such an honest, and self critical description of the act of inflicting violence- of the cost on the person inflicting it, as well as the cost to the victim. The rest of the book, which describes accounts Cedeno’s imprisonment, partial rehabilitation, struggles with drug addiction, and eventual redemption, never lets the reader forget the price of the brutality that Cedeno endured as a child. No matter what accomplishments he registered- the reputation he acquired as a pioneering hip hip DJ; the education he achieved in prison, both in the classroom and in political groups; the career he created for himself after his release as a chef at top New York’s men’s clubs, Cedeno always felt vulnerable to the lure of the streets and became involved in the selling and the using of cocaine even when prosperity in the mainstream economy was securely in his grasp.
It took the love of an extraordinary woman, his wife Lizette, to wean him away from the drugs, the guns, and the rush of illegal activity, and to encourage him to channel his rage into poetry and to the DJ art that had once won him fame. It was through Lizette’s connections in the music industry that Cedeno was reconnected with Grandmaster Caz, DJ Red Alert and other figures from the early days of hip hop who were still keeping that tradition alive by sponsoring “Old School “ Hip Hop concerts and jams. With their encouragement, Cedeno re-emerged in public as “DJ Discowiz- Hip Hop’s first Latino DJ” and found a ready audience for his music, and his life lessons, among young, politically conscious hip hop artists eager to distance themselves from the intellectually stale and politically retrograde hip hop that was being commercially marketed by record companies and mainstream radio.
The last portion of the book, about Cedeno’s redemption through love, through poetry, and through music, is both heartwarming and inspiring. Having attended one of Cedeno’s amazing benefits for the homeless at the Bronx Museum of the Arts- “Hip Hop Meets Spoken Wordz”- I can testify that everything that Cedeno says in the book about his inspirational influence on younger artists, and the respect with which he is regarded by other Hip Hop pioneers, is absolutely true.
But though It’s Only Just Begun is an inspiring tale of redemption and self-discovery, I could not help think, as I finished it, about all the other young victims of domestic violence being unleashed on the streets of the Bronx and other cities who might not be as lucky as Luis to find someone to believe in them and to save them.
Anyone reading this brilliant, frightening book will never forget one lesson I learned long ago when working with adolescents— that when young people are involved, violence in the home begets violence in the streets and leaves its victims with burdens they will be struggling with all their lives.
We should all be thankful to Ivan Sanchez and Luis Cedeno for having the courage to tell this story, and the skill to tell it so beautifully
Dr Mark Naison, Fordham University, December 30, 2008