Hip Hop pioneer Robert Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins was well-known for being an emcee in one of the most legendary rap groups of all time: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. He was born on September 20, 1960 in New York City and raised in the South Bronx.
Origin: New York City, NY
Style/Claim to Fame: Campbell’s pioneering technique was adopted and expanded by other DJs, including Joseph Saddler (Grandmaster Flash) and Afrika Bambaataa. Robert Wiggins (Keith Cowboy), a rapper in Saddler’s outfit, the Furious Five, is credited with coining the term “hip-hop,” which he used as the basis for a scat portion of his stage routine. Cowboy was imitated by other artists, notably by Michael Anthony Wright (Wonder Mike) of the Sugarhill Gang, whose “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip-hop Top 40 single.
Robert Wiggins (Keith Cowboy), a rapper in Saddler’s outfit, the Furious Five, is credited with coining the term “hip-hop,” which he used as the basis for a scat portion of his stage routine. Cowboy was imitated by other artists, notably by Michael Anthony Wright (Wonder Mike) of the Sugarhill Gang, whose “Rapper’s Delight” became the first hip-hop Top 40 single. Afrika Bambaataa is credited with first using the term “hip-hop” in reference to the culture surrounding the music. Melle Mel, of the Furious Five, is the first rapper to call himself an MC.
His sister remembers him “bangin’ on furniture and just rhymin’” constantly with neighborhood friends from his block One of his best friends, Joseph Saddler (aka DJ Grandmaster Flash), was a local superstar from Barbados known for rocking parties with his fresh and impressive scratching and mixing techniques.
Flash decided his set needed more vocal flavor and asked Cowboy to rap over his sets to keep the crowd interested. Melle Mel (Melvin Glover) and Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover) were soon added to their roster and formed the group Grandmaster Flash and the 3 MCs. Many fans remember Cowboy as Flash’s first true MC and his energetic personality and stage presence were most evident in his call and response with the crowd. Shouting impromptu phrases like “Say ho!” or “All the sexy ladies, say ow!” may seem cliché in the Hip Hop genre now, but Cowboy can be credited with originating this type of crowd interaction and freestyling. Cowboy, who was named after his bow-legged walk that resembled cowboys in old Western films, has also been said to have coined the word “Hip Hop” himself in 1978. He invented the onomatopoetic word to describe sound of marching feet to tease his friend, Kokomo, after he joined the U.S. Army.
After gaining local popularity, Scorpio/Mr. Ness (Eddie Morris) and Raheim (Guy Williams) joined the group and became known as Younger Generation and Flash and the Five. The mainstream success of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” helped the group realize that they could also have potential commercial success since Cowboy’s scatting/rap style was heavily imitated by Wonder Mike on the song’s first verse. They soon focused on recording and changed their name to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their first single “Superrappin’” was a party track released in 1979 on Enjoy! Records and showcased Cowboy rapping about the ladies man he truly was. Scorpio remembers all of the girls after the show solely wanting to spend the night with Cowboy and wouldn’t settle for any of the other members.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five soon signed a deal with Sylvia Robinson’s label, Sugarhill Records, where they released their follow-up single, “Freedom” in 1980 which reached #19 on the R&B charts and sold over 50,000 records. “The Birthday Party” was released later that year and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel” was the first record to ever feature scratching. “The Message,” a song about the struggles and perils of inner city life became the group’s most successful record ever peaking at #4 on the R&B chart and #62 on the Pop chart in 1982. The song went platinum and is regarded as the first conscious Hip Hop record ever made.
The group soared to fame, and they had the opportunity to tour with Rick James, Teena Marie, Cameo and The Commodores. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five remember Cowboy’s unmatched passion and loyalty towards the group. He often got into physical altercations with concert promoters to get the group paid their fair share and was always prepared to fight anyone who stepped out of line or disrespected the group’s unity. Cowboy spent most of his time on tour doing push-ups, playing basketball and football and rooting on his favorite football team: The Dallas Cowboys. He lived up to his name on stage by donning leather fringed jackets, boots and cowboy hats, but his style eventually coincided with the tracksuits and Kangol hats that trended during the early days of Hip Hop.
The group’s next hit “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” was released in 1983 without Grandmaster Flash and Kid Creole who left Sugar Hill Records after suing the label for $5 million in royalty disputes. Though the group was no longer together and Flash had left the group, the song was still credited to “Grandmaster and Melle Mel,” to fool fans into thinking Flash was still associated with the track. The song was actually only recorded by Melle Mel, Raheim, Scorpio and Cowboy, who developed an addiction to crack, and ironically rapped about the dangers of getting hooked on cocaine.
The group went their separate ways and Flash collaborated with new members Lavon, Larry Love and Mr. Broadway. The original members of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five decided to reunite with a comeback album on Elektra Records in 1988 entitled On The Strength. Unfortunately, the group had trouble getting in contact with Cowboy, and he was not included on the album or any of the artwork. They had an imposter pose for the album cover and had no idea Cowboy was battling AIDS until Flash received the devastating and shocking call about his death on September 8, 1989, two weeks before his 29th birthday.
Cowboy’s last musical effort was a collaboration with Melle Mel and Scorpio on Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five’s Piano in 1989, but his legacy as the backbone of the original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five will never be forgotten. Scorpio believes the group would still be together to this day if Cowboy were still alive. One thing is for sure. After being the first rap group to ever be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Jay-Z in 2007, there is no doubt that the legacy of Cowboy as Flash’s first true MC will always continue to live on.