Originally printed in the September 2002 issue of XXL

“By age 25 Scott ‘La Rock’ Sterling had achieved what many people only dream of. As part of a duo called Boogie Down Productions, he was on the verge of signing a major recording contract and he had kept a promise that he had made to himself: He, a young man from the South Bronx who had become a high school basketball star and had earned a bachelor’s degree in business, would settle for nothing less than stardom. All that came to an end Wednesday when Mr. Sterling was fatally shot outside the Highbridge Homes on University Avenue in the South Bronx.” —Esther Iverem, The New York Times, August 31, 1987

Twenty-three years ago, New York’s adolescent rap scene was forced to grow up. Violently. The murder of Scott La Rock was much more than simply the loss of a talented up and coming DJ. In many ways, La Rock—in both his life and his death—set the stage for hip-hop as we know it today.

While he was alive, La Rock drafted the aesthetic blueprint for gangsta rap with the previously unexplored street themes and shocking imagery of BDP’s classic Criminal Minded (the only album he ever recorded). On the business side, his Black-owned independent label, B Boy Records, pioneered the burgeoning genre’s rebel entrepreneurialism.

“Scott would have been Puff before Puff, no question,” says Chris Lighty, a close friend of Scott’s who now runs the Violator Records empire. “But without the dancing. He approached the music as a business at a time when most people just wanted to be down and make records.”

Born March 2, 1962, in South Ozone Park, Queens, Scott Monroe Sterling was raised far from the grimy scene that he would later help to mold. His parents split when he was four, and he lived with his mother, Carolyn Morant, a career municipal employee. When Scott was young, they moved from Queens to the Morisania section of the Bronx, and then to Morris Heights. Scott excelled in both academics and sports at Our Savior Lutheran High School, graduating in 1980 and heading off to Vermont’s Castleton State College. He earned a varsity letter in basketball there, but as it became clear that his talent would never take him to the NBA, Scott switched his extracurricular focus from hoops music.

“Our turntables were on our desks and our books were on the floor,” said La Rock’s four-year college roommate, Lee “The Mack” Smith Jr., to the Times back in ‘87. “I would come home and hear the bass before I opened the door.”

After graduating in 1984, Scott returned to New York in hopes of finding work and making in-roads to the music industry. Through a connection of his mother’s, Scott landed a jacket-and-tie nine-to-five as a social worker at the Franklin Armory Men’s Shelter on 166th St in the Bronx. At night, though, he’d lose the noose, spinning at the blossoming hip-hop hot spot, the Broadway Repertoire Theatre on 145th Street.

Socially gifted, Scott quickly earned a rep for his skills on the turntables and a progressive business sense as well. “He was just a smooth, approachable brother,” remembers DJ Red Alert. “He could relate to any type of person, that’s why so many people gravitated to him.”

Beyond spinning records, though, Scott aspired to create his own. He began studying the art of making beats at his Bronx buddy Ced Gee’s place and searching the city’s clubs for a worthy MC partner. (Ced would go on to form the Ultramagnetic MCs with Kool Keith Thornton.) Strangely, La Rock would find his rapping other half not among the denizens of dimly-lit nightspots like Broadway R.T., but under the bright fluorescents of the shelter where he worked his day job.

One of Scott’s responsibilities at the shelter was doling out subway tokens to those who needed to travel to job interviews. Shortly after starting, though, he got wise to the fact that several of the shelter’s residents were faking interviews to score tokens, which they’d use instead to go party. When Scott confronted one of the hustlers, the situation got loud and ugly. The resident called Scott a “house Negro, one paycheck away from homelessness.” Scott countered that the homeless man was “obviously lazy, otherwise he’d have a job.” Security was called to separate the two before they came to blows, and the resident left the shelter.

The homeless man was Kris “KRS-One” Parker—a cocky, 20 year-old graffiti artist and self-taught “philosopher” who preferred the street life to the mundane world of working. Three months later, Scott ran into him at Ced Gee’s apartment (coincidentally, KRS had also been putting in time on Ced’s equipment.) After their less-than-civil start, Scott extended the olive branch by inviting KRS to one of his parties.

“My mind got blown clean out of my head,” remembers KRS-One of his summer 1985 introduction to the hip-hop scene at the Broadway R.T. “Just seeing Scott DJing, and then watching Mantronix walk by, and then Doug E. Fresh is in the corner grabbing a drink… It was just too much for me.”

Scott took a liking to KRS, and to two of his fellow shelter residents, Joseph “Just Ice” Williams, Jr., “I.C.U.” and 15-year-old Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, a cousin of a security guard. “He’d invite us down and we’d hang out way past the nine p.m. curfew, get drunk and party,” says KRS of BDP’s prenatal period. “At the end of the night Scott would take us all out for breakfast and we’d talk about who we were gonna be and what we were gonna do.”

“Scott gained a freedom hanging out with us,” KRS continues. “And being around him made us feel important.”