D.J. Bubblegum
Tony "DJ Bubblegum" James shares his life story at the Black Beauty Lounge on Centre Ave in the Hill District. Photo by Tony Norman.

Tony James was 14 when he began playing records at parties in the Hill District where he was born and raised. Before he earned his official DJ stripes around the time hip-hop was born, he was known around the East End as Bubblegum, the guy who could be counted on to play tasteful “baby-making music” by The Temptations, The Isley Brothers and the Commodores at whatever party was happening.

Now 65, the entertainer who is known as DJ Bubblegum has more than a half-century’s worth of experience figuring out what moves a crowd. Despite a moniker that evokes carefree days on the playground, Tony “DJ Bubblegum” James has seen it all.

“When I was growing up, musicians like Stanley Turrentine, Roger Humphries and George Benson used to come to my grandmother’s house and practice their music,” James says, “but I didn’t hang around. They were young artists trying to make a name for themselves.”

For his part, Bubblegum or “BG” as his friends called him, was more interested in the social scene that revolved around spinning vinyl soul music and R&B at clubs and parties than the live jazz regularly exported across the country by musicians his grandmother invited to dinner.

When hip-hop music and culture were just beginning to filter out of the Bronx in the late 1970s, Keef Cowboy (Robert Keith Wiggins) who would enter the annals of rap music history by coining the term “hip-hop” as a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, visited Pittsburgh.

Bubblegum was gaining acclaim spinning discs at a large upstairs space above a laundromat at Centre Ave. and Kirkpatrick St. at the time. He’s hazy on the year one of his friends brought Cowboy to introduce him, but he’s positive that it was at least three days before “The Message” came out, which would put their meeting in 1982. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had been together since 1978.

“My friend said ‘This is my buddy. He’s from New York. He wants to know if he can take over your music for a while’,” Bubblegum says. Though initially skeptical and resistant to an interloper taking his spot, he relented just to see what Cowboy could do.

“Cowboy got on the mic and started spittin’ rhymes and doing his thing,” Bubblegum says. “He mesmerized everyone.”

From that moment on, Bubblegum began to see the possibilities of turntable art at its fullest.

Bubblegum invited Cowboy to stay with him free of charge for nearly a week at his Elmore Square apartment if he was willing to teach him the rudiments of rap. The deal was struck and a legend was born.

“I am the first rapper in Pittsburgh,” Bubblegum says with a laugh. It’s an audacious claim sure to be disputed by others who were spittin’ rhymes long before that but didn’t have a platform as prominent as Bubblegum’s.

He still remembers his first rhymes:

“I’m B.G., don’t take me for granted / I’m down to rock this small ass planet / I’m not alone / my boys are on the way / You’ll know who they are before I finish today / I rap on the mic and my boys get down / We’re going to do our thing in this funky town.” DJ Bubblegum

True to the party spirit that propelled hip-hop to world popularity, Bubblegum’s raps were mostly braggadocio, but even in those early days, intimations of mortality slipped into the lyrics:

“[When] I die you better bury me deep / put six turntables under my feet / put a microphone above my head / so I can rock the halls / of the living dead / Give me a [bleep] bottle of gin / so I can let the devil know / I’ll be back again / BG’s my name / throwin’ down’s my game / and I plan to make the MC’s hall of fame.”

Despite winning nine of 10 contests in the Pittsburgh area, DJ Bubblegum did not become widely known locally as an MC or rapper, but it wasn’t from lack of talent. A bad habit that derailed his life for years got in the way.

“I’m not up there with LL Cool J, Craig Mack, Chubb Rock, Special Ed, Doug E. Fresh and them old, old school rappers because I became a wild child,” he says. “I did a lot of drugs.”

Bubblegum discovered mescaline, microdots and hard drinking in those pre-crack days of the early ‘80s. Cocaine was too expensive for him. Still, the drugs he could afford clouded his focus and prevented him from building enough momentum to escape Pittsburgh’s gravity like his cousin Mel-Man (Melvin Charles Bradford) did as one of Dr. Dre’s in-house producers at Aftermath Entertainment in the 1990s.

“I was on crack from ’89 to ’97,” James says. He then got clean and worked in a steel mill “putting my life back together” and found work in a hospital.

Alas, things would not stay tranquil in his life for long.

In 2000, Bubblegum ended up doing six years in federal prison in West Virginia because a passenger in a car he was driving had a lot of drugs on him when they were pulled over. It would be another hard lesson for the aspiring entertainer: the company one keeps matters.

When he left prison, Bubblegum was able to score a job at UPMC. He decided it was time to start spinning records again and bought equipment, even though he’d lost touch with popular tastes while he was locked up. He had stacks of old CDs but had no idea about music streaming or what people were listening to. It forced him to learn the audience’s tastes from scratch.

Gradually, Bubblegum got up to speed and was spinning discs and DJing nearly every night, even while holding down regular employment. During his time in prison, karaoke became a big deal in Pittsburgh’s Black communities. Suddenly, club entertainment went from passive to active participation on the part of clubgoers who had once dreamed of becoming entertainers themselves at one time. Bubblegum bought a two-mic karaoke system and reoriented his approach to what it means to be a DJ today.

Bubblegum is one of two DJs who conduct karaoke nights regularly at the Black Beauty Lounge at 2037 Centre Ave. in the Hill District. He is eager to give thanks to the club’s owner Roberta “Bert” Brassell. She installed him as a regular on Thursday nights from 6 to 10 p.m. four years ago and he’s been popular ever since.

Mural of August Wilson on the side of Black Beauty Lounge
Mural of August Wilson on the side of Black Beauty Lounge by Kyle Holbrook. Photo by sarah huny young/1839.

The crowds for karaoke nights at the 51-year-old club, which also happens to be the Hill District’s longest continuously operated bar, lean toward middle age and older, but women in their 20s and 30s step to the mic regularly, too. 

DJ X-Man presides over Saturday night karaoke at Black Beauty. Bubblegum jokes that his Thursday shows are the weekly “rehearsals” for the much more elaborate Saturday show under DJ X-Man, a performer he calls the king of karaoke DJs in Pittsburgh.

To keep things interesting on Thursdays, Bubblegum will offer $25 to the best performer of the evening. At the end of the month, there’s usually a sing-off with the winning pot paying out $100.

“For me, it’s just about having fun,” Bubblegum says. “Ain’t no one from ‘The Voice’ or ‘Star Search’ gonna come in here and whisk you off to Motown or one of those record companies.”

Bubblegum compares the Black Beauty Lounge to the bar on “Cheers” where “everyone knows your name.” This familiarity contributes to a serene and secure atmosphere maintained by hundreds of regulars throughout the week.

“The people here will make sure outsiders don’t come in and mess up their place,” Bubblegum says.

Though the crowds are overwhelmingly Black, white folks, Hispanics and Asian Americans are regular visitors even if the music they request isn’t typical.

One day, an entire corner of the bar was taken over by white performers who were eager to join in the karaoke festivities. Because Bubblegum prides himself in his ability to make everyone feel welcome, he’s always ready to cue up Brooks & Dunn, Wild Cherry, Buddy Holly or even Barry Manilow. All he asks is that folks “read the room” and “not request something that will chase my crowd out.”

Ironically, it is often a Black regular, a local artist named James “Jam” Hough who throws the Black Beauty crowd for a loop. He regularly requests “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones or some primal rocker that the crowd has never heard of or doesn’t appreciate for stylistic reasons.

“All music has its uniqueness,” Bubblegum says with a laugh as he ticks off the names of bands he’s introduced to the crowd thanks to Jam, including REO Speedwagon and Fleetwood Mac.

“Jam’s got lot of energy,” Bubblegum says, “but everyone at the bar looks at him saying: ‘Really?’ Because he’s such a good entertainer. they end up going, ‘Aww, man, that’s my guy.

“That’s a part of being a good karaoke DJ,” Bubblegum says. “If they ask for it, you need to play it.” 

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.