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Flex Time

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When hip-hop music emerged in the eighties, he desperately wanted to be a part of it. His first job was lugging around record boxes for Chuck Chillout, then one of the main D.J.’s, with Red Alert, on Kiss FM. “I did everything for Chuck Chillout,” remembers Flex. “If he wanted fried chicken, I got it. If he wanted McDonald’s, I got it. If he wanted $20, I gave it to him. You had to make it happen, or you took the risk of him saying, ‘Yo, man, why don’t you just go home?’ And then it was, I’m gonna be at my house? With my mother and my sister? And there’s gonna be no hip-hop playing and people are gonna be calling me Junior?! But whatever time I was with Chuck Chillout, I was considered being in hip-hop. I was around the music, the language, the clothing. . . . And everybody called me Flex!”

At 22 (he’s 30 now), he was D.J.-ing at clubs like Red Zone, Mars, Homebase, and Powerhouse while holding down a day job in A&R at Profile. “Hip-hop is everything, even what time you get up in the morning,” laughs Flex. “The hip-hop people didn’t come into the label until, like, four.”

In 1992, he was hired to do what he considers his breakthrough gig, the Def Jam Records Christmas party at the Puck Building. Kid Capri, the biggest D.J. in New York at the time, was also on the bill. “It was me and him playing together, and there were two rooms,” says Flex. “I went there early to scout it out and see which one was better. And I said, ‘Mmm, I wanna be in the room with the alcohol and the performances.’” He chuckles.

The program director for Kiss FM approached Flex at the party and promised a permanent spot; it never happened, but word of him started zooming around the stations and he was soon hired by Hot 97, which was looking to create a rap show. “In the beginning, people didn’t like it,” says Flex. “People would call up and call me nigger. ‘Stop playing that fuckin’ nigger music.’ But I remember one night, we were going to the phones, and someone asked for Onyx” -- a hip-hop group -- “and I was like, yo, it’s on.”

Every night except Sunday, Flex does his mix show. The Hot 97 studio on Hudson Street is regularly visited for on-air sessions by a host of rappers and other celebrities, from L’il Kim to Ma$e to Mike Tyson to Patti LaBelle. But tonight, it’s just Flex, his producer, Rivera, and Cipha Sounds, a slim, mustachioed 21-year-old D.J. from the Bronx Flex has taken under his wing. “I see him six days a week,” says Cipha. “He teaches me. He gave me a shot at the Tunnel, and then” -- he shrugs modestly -- “I blew up.”

Something else is about to blow up tonight.

“Yo, Flex, we gotta put it on,” Cipha’s telling the Funkmaster, waving a CD. It’s “Second Round K.O.,” the young rapper Canibus’slethal diss of venerable rap veteran L. L. Cool J. “It’s hot,” Cipha insists.

“Mm, I don’t know . . . ,” Flex says. In the single, Canibus takes L.L. to task for how success has supposedly made him soft -- a sitcom star, a pretty boy (“You walkin’ around showin’ off your body ‘cause it sells, plus to avoid the fact that you ain’t got skills!”). Hearing the song feels like what it would be to watch a minor mayor from upstate get on television and call Mayor Giuliani a fascist, a creep.

“I don’t know . . . ,” says Flex. L.L. is a friend. On top of which, Flex knows, giving this thing play could start an all-out war. But listening to the lines -- “If you really wanna show off, we can get it on, live in front of the cameras on your own sitcom” -- Flex starts to giggle a little. “Let’s play it once and see what happens,” he says finally.

The phones light up before the track is over. The faxes come whirring in: “Yo Flex Play That Canibus Shit Again!” Flex sighs. His face seems to say, “L.L. isn’t gonna like this.” In fact, the rapper didn’t at all, responding with an anti-Canibus single of his own; Flex plays it on air regularly these days. Canibus, meanwhile, has a top-ten rap hit. The war is on. It started, as it only could, on Flex’s show.

“It’s hot, it’s hot,” says Cipha, listening.

“As fish grease!” says Flex.

At the Sony after-Grammy party at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett are holding hands. Celine Dion is conversing with Gloria Estefan (so much in common). Bob Dylan -- both irritated and comatose-looking after the “Soy Bomb” incident -- is scowling. The party’s in full swing.


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