Mott Haven music pioneer dies at 57
Aaron O’Bryant, a legendary figure in the evolution of hip-hop and a longtime resident of Mott Haven, died in September. Better known by his stage name, Kool DJ AJ, O’Bryant changed the face of party promoting, packing South Bronx venues with hundreds of fans head-bopping to the beats and tracks he mastered while scratching turntables.
Kool DJ AJ, who officially ended his disc jockey career in 2010, died on September 9, after combating stomach cancer. He was 57.
Born on the lower east side of Manhattan, AJ later settled in the St. Mary’s Park/Moore Houses in Mott Haven following the deaths of his parents.
AJ’s career reached its peak when he co-wrote Kurtis Blow’s biggest hit “If I Ruled the World”, topping the charts. The song was featured in a film called “Krush Groove” and inspired the ’90s remake by Nas and Lauryn Hill.
He also gave Kool DJ Herc the song “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” from James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ album. It became the anthem for hip-hop,” said Blow, 56, in an interview.
AJ started hosting parties in 1978 with hip-hop’s first solo emcee, David Parker, aka ‘Busy B,’ which helped him gain a large following. Famed Def Jam label co-founder Russell Simmons managed them both.
“AJ was the first DJ promoter who brought New Edition and James Brown to Harlem,” Busy B said. “Once we put our names at the top of the flyer cards, we came home with bags of money. We had fun. We had girls.” But the two performers had extensive conversations about why they weren’t as big as they should have been, Busy B recalled.
“AJ didn’t go for the banana in the tailpipe,” he said. “He gave everybody his ideas but they didn’t want to use them. He did it himself, and when they saw what he did, they went and duplicated it in their own way and style. He did it from scratch and built an empire.”
Bill Adler, who worked for Rush Artist Management and Def Jam Recordings, honored Kool DJ AJ in a piece he wrote for Cornell Hip Hop Collection, describing him as a “vivid, soulful, likeable and funny big character.”
“It’s hard to be a DJ and make a name for yourself,” Adler said.
Kool DJ AJ spent a lot of time in Adler’s office and learned that “AJ wasn’t a guy who beat on his chest all the time, he was humble. He was a hustler who promoted events devoted to the pioneers.”
“AJ knew how to put on a show,” said Ralph Blandshaw “Vansilk”, 56, a resident of the John Adams Houses who grew up with AJ and said he used to help him distribute flyers promoting his events.
“AJ had a sound system and he would bring it to St. Mary’s Park. Kids from the nearby blocks would come and jam while the parents would sit on the benches. We’d stay in the park ’til 1 in the morning.”
“He brought life to the game with the MC Convention rap battles, where up-and-coming artists got a chance to get their content out,” he said.
Though Kool DJ AJ isn’t celebrated by the public the way his former comrades are, Hip-Hop pioneers took to social media to pay homage to the South Bronx DJ: Russell Simmons, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and Big Daddy Kane, to name a few, all sang his praises.
He was invited to open for popular DJ’s like Grandmaster Flash, who recently tweeted: “I put this DJ in front of my biggest crowds in the ’70s and he never let me down.”
When the big checks rolled in, AJ “spent a lot on his daughter, Lakeshia, his only child who was young at the time,” Blow said.
Blow remembered his friend as a practical joker who told great stories.
“His best story was at the end, was when he told us (his loved ones) not to worry,” said Blow. “He partied hard, he loved hard, and I actually know for a fact that he gave it back to God.”