Sunday, January 31, 2016

"...If You Got What it Takes..."

The Making of Kurtis Blow’s Classic Recording The Breaks”
                                                 By Mark Skillz
Kurtis Blow sometime in 1980
It’s eleven o’clock Sunday morning and the choir is in full swing. The organist and drummer are locked in tight syncopation. But this ain’t like the “chuuch” that your grandmoms used to make you go to. No, there is a guy on the turntables doing call and response and the beat is too funky for a gospel staple like the “Upper Room.”

This is the Hip-Hop Church.

The guy behind the turntables isn’t your ordinary choir director either, he’s a rap legend, in fact, he’s rap royalty: the first guy to record a RIAA certified gold rap twelve-inch hit: Kurtis Blow.

Back before Kurt Walker (his real name) wore a robe and a collar, he was the first bare-chested, gold-chain wearing, Jheri Curled rap sex symbol. In a recording career that spanned twelve years Kurtis planted the seeds for Run-DMC, Whodini, Will Smith, Hammer, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Nas, Jay Z, the College Boyz, Heavy D and a whole bunch of others.

Today hip-hop finds itself in a quandary: it is a youth-driven, image obsessed culture in constant search for what’s good in the hood, or hot in the streets. Many years ago it was a sub culture that disdained commercial success and pop sensibilities, now it’s a commodity dominated by artists with pop aspirations who are backed by major record corporations in partnership with Madison Avenue. If hip-hop began as a reactionary movement, as some have asserted, then the beginnings of its relationship with mainstream acceptance can be traced back to one man and his classic recording.

                                          The Producers
Robert "Rocky" Ford Billboard writer turned record producer

In 1979 Billboard record critic Rocky Ford was scared. He was thirty years old with little money and his girlfriend was expecting a child. Ford needed a break – a big break. To make some quick cash he had an unusual plan for the time: record a holiday season rap record. Problem was Rocky had never written a song, didn’t know how to sing and couldn’t play an instrument to save his life. But he knew a guy who could.

James Biggs Moore, III was a thirty plus year old ad salesman at Billboard. Born and bred in the Midwest, he describes himself as a “Rhythm and Blues player in rock and roll bands.” He was a white guy who loved everything: jazz, country, doo wop, rock – you name it, Moore had an ear for it. It was in a group called Kilroy where he met some of the best session musicians in the city. The group recorded out of studio in Manhattan called Greene Street, which would later become the recording home to acts like RUN-DMC, Jimmy Spicer and LL Cool J. Between Rocky Ford’s music biz connections and JB Moore’s musical expertise, God couldn’t have put two people together better than this.

It was from Moore where Ford got the tip about “something new happening on the streets.” Rocky Ford was the first journalist to cover the burgeoning hip-hop scene before there were any records. Combining efforts they decided to make a record, though they would both write and produce the song, the technical aspect (arrangement, mix down and editing) of it would be Moore’s department; the marketing would be Ford’s. All that was missing was the right vocalist. In the summer of 1979 they went looking for him.

                                           The Rapper
DJ Lovebug Starski at The Fever
In 1979 the most popular rappers in the city were DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheba and Lovebug Starsky. According to Ford’s recollections, “Based on pure talent alone, hands down, Hollywood was the man.” But he didn’t have the right look. 
Eddie Cheba, Hollywood’s partner in crime, was intelligent and like Hollywood, “had a very large ego.” A quality that made him all wrong for the job. Ford and Moore were looking for someone they could mold and who would take direction.

Next, they checked out Lovebug Starsky, whom they described as, “The kind of guy, you could meet in a bar and enjoy a beer with,” remembers Ford. But there was something about him too that wasn’t right for their project. “I remember he said something in our interview,” Ford recalls, “that didn’t sit right with me. It was something to the effect of: I’m into rap right now because everybody’s into rap; if everyone was into surfing – I’d be doing that.” Onward they pressed. They were looking for someone who would have that ‘it’ factor.

One day, by chance, Ford came across a kid posting up flyers for a jam. The kid referred him to his older brother - the promoter, a short, light- skinned college dropout from Hollis, Queens, whom many remember as being a good dancer, a fast talker and a sloppy dresser with a restless spirit. His name was Russell Simmons.

The fast talking visionary Russell Rush
Simmons knew some of everyone on the rap scene. If they promoted shows anywhere in the five boroughs Simmons knew them and could rattle off the names of groups associated with them within a flicker of an eye. Moore and Rocky Ford were immediately impressed with him. “There were other promoters,” Ford recalls of that time, “with other motives, but Russell wanted to make money.” This was the kind of guy they were looking for.

Russell sold them on a rapper he knew, a college friend of his who was eager to make his mark on the rap scene. He was both book smart and street smart, ambitious, competitive, talented and a natural performer. There wasn’t a rapper or rap group around that he didn’t know something about, for he had directed all of his energy into this new scene that was barely heard beyond the rivers that border New York City. His name was Kurtis Blow. “Russell kept selling us on Kurtis,” Ford remembers, “he kept saying, “you gotta check him out, you gotta check him out.” One night at a crowded party at the Hotel Diplomat Rocky Ford and JB Moore went to go see him in action.

Listening to tapes from that era, it’s difficult to see what Moore and Ford heard that night. On many live cassette tape recordings from the time Kurtis sounds nervous and unsure of himself. At times he strays off beat. At other times it sounds like he’s forgotten his rhymes. Harlem deejay and rapper William ‘B-Fats’ Bowden who recorded the late 80’s rap classic “Whoppit” recalled for hip-hop historian Troy L. Smith, how he remembered a young, eager Kurtis, “hanging out…carrying crates,” at neighborhood parties. Occasionally, he’d grab the mic., B Fats says he and his brother, the late Donald ‘D’ Bowden weren’t impressed. “Without any experience,” Bowden recalled, ‘he sounded horrible.” Many of his rhymes come straight from his heroes: Mele Mel, Hollywood, Lovebug Starsky and Eddie Cheba. But Kurtis had something that everyone else on the scene lacked: a lethal combination of ambition and charisma. No amount of critics was going to stop Kurtis Blow.

Billy Bill the first rap songwriter w/ Kurt @ the Fever
His best friend back then was a short, stocky, brown skinned guy named William Waring whom everyone called Billy Bill. Waring, who would later author rap classics ‘Basketball’, ‘Games People Play’, ‘Hard Times’ and many others, summed his friend’s early struggles up with one word: “Rejection,” he told me in a phone interview. “You know… wanting to be good and not getting the chance. You see, back then, MC’s had large ego’s and didn’t really want to see the next man come up. And Kurtis wanted to prove that he belonged.”

It was on August 31st 1979 at the Hotel Diplomat where Rocky Ford saw something special about the young man on the mike. Kurtis recounted for then Daily News writer Bill Adler how he and Grandmaster Flash “blew everyone off the stage that night.” According to Ford, “Kurtis was good looking, intelligent and well spoken.” From their initial conversation he was able to tell that he was serious minded and had been bought up pretty good in a nice family. But mostly what he and JB Moore liked about him was that he had no ego to stroke. “Kurtis hadn’t really written anything at that point,” Ford remembers, ‘he was just saying rhymes from other people.” This worked out perfectly for them because they already had the first part of the song written.

“To be honest I thought they [the lyrics] were corny,” Kurtis told me in a phone interview. “It wasn’t real authentic rap that I would do in a club,” he told me. “But I had a vision that we could make it work.” And he did. At the time Blow was twenty years old and was working like an immigrant, “I worked at a liquor store on 86th St, doing deliveries” he told me, “I drove a Gypsy cab, I was a deejay – and on top of all of that, I was in school.”

For the young, bright eyed and hungry Kurtis the recording studio experience was awe-inspiring. “I’ll never forget sitting down with Denzil Miller and Larry Smith,” he laughs as his voice becomes more animated, “and them asking me what kind of sound did I want? I was like “sound”? What do you mean what kind of sound do I want?” I had no idea what they were talking about,” he laughed. 

For many b-boys of that era James Brown was God. For Kurtis there was no doubt that he wanted some elements of the Godfather of Soul’s music in his own recordings. However, in the late 70’s the hottest band on Black radio and in discos was Chic, their music featured funky, good time feeling lush string arrangements flavored with high minded thematic lyrics which appealed to those who aspired for the finer things in life. It was funk with a sports jacket and designer jeans. “My sound is between James Brown and Chic,” he told me, “I like to think of it as progressive funk.”

The first real hip hop record producer the late Larry Smith
Larry Smith, Rocky Ford’s childhood friend from Queens, who at one time was bassist for the group Brighter Shade of Darkness, who’s song “Love Jones” was a hit on the R&B charts in the early 70’s, replayed Chic’s “Good Times’ bassline making it hit even harder over drummer Jimmy Bralower’s funky groove. Denzil Miller, whom Moore remembers as being, “a bit bi-polar and a bit of a flake”, but a superb musician who’s timing was “exquisite,” played keyboards. 

If Blow sounded like a nervous wreck live on stage at clubs like Randy’s Place and the Jamaica, Queens Armory, in the studio, he found confidence. Blow’s timing was incredible. And he did it in one or two takes.

Determined to make the song work he practiced the rhymes everywhere. “I noticed that the meter was different,” he recalled. “It was a new flow. It was faster; the rhymes are coming not at every four bars – which was common back then, but every two bars. It was a challenge.” And it was one that he was more than capable of meeting. Sometimes he practiced in his cab, other times while doing his deliveries around the city, but mostly it was either in the studio or out in Queens at a club he and Russell ran together called Night Fever Disco. The more he did it the better he got at it.

“About a red suited dude with a merry attitude…” was an example of the speed of the rhymes. For him those initial experiences in a recording studio were like a dream. “The microphone was sounding like I never heard a microphone sound before,” he recalled for me. “The headphones sounded better than any I had ever heard. The music sounded great.” But for Kurtis one of the biggest bonuses was that the beat would be steady, “there was no deejay, I didn’t have to worry about a deejay losing the beat,” he laughed, “Because in the studio the beat was locked.”

The transformation from nervous upstart to super rapper was coming to fruition. Billy Bill chalks it up to “trials and tribulations,” he says. “Everyone has their water shed period. I guess it was his metamorphosis, it was him turning into a butterfly.”

One night while Billy was playing at Dante’s on 160th and Broadway Kurtis bought a test pressing to the club. “When I heard it on that system in that club, I couldn’t believe it. Everyone [in the club] knew he was my friend, but they couldn’t believe it was him. I was blown away.” Slowly word started to travel through the streets about Kurtis’ new record. One night at the Renaissance Club on Parsons Blvd in Queens, he and Russell gave a copy to DJ Eli, the two watched as the “crowd went wild.”
And then Frankie Crocker played it on WBLS. The response was overwhelming.

JB Moore and Rocky Ford had a good feeling about the song. However, knowing what they knew about the music business, they were cautious. One day during a subway ride from 42nd St, Ford and Blow had a heart to heart. “Look man,” Ford told him, “you have to understand that you may not have another hit again. I told him how most artists go their whole careers without any hits. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up too high. I told him that we had to be realistic.”

But little did any of them know how big they were about to get.

                                               The Breaks
As a boy in Michigan, JB Moore would listen to the radio late into the night. He loved Chuck Berry. It was from his love of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and many other singers that he would grow to love the double entendre. Moore loved the art of a song lyric that had more than one meaning. But there was one record heard on just about every jukebox in America that would have a profound effect on the young James Moore.

Eddie Lawrence has been a comic and a performer since at least the 1930’s. Sometime during the late 1950’s Lawrence came up with a character called Sentimental Sam, a character for whom some of the worse things in life would happen to. It was out of the Sentimental Sam character that gave birth to the Old Philosopher. It’s highly doubtful that there has ever been or will ever be another comedy record as popular as “The Old Philosopher.”

The sentiments are about the cruel ironies that life throws our way; Lawrence’s light-hearted approach makes it sound funny:

“You say your wife went out for the weekend to get a corned beef sandwich, and the corned beef sandwich came back, but not your wife? You say your furniture is all over the street because you can’t pay the rent?”

There is nothing funky about ‘The Old Philosopher’ nor is there anything even remotely soulful about it either, in fact it’s hard to even call it a song. There’s no way it ever played on any black station in the country. But it resonated with JB Moore, who would later wonder what would happen if he took the sentiments of ‘The Old Philosopher’ and gave it a hip, funky, urban twist. The results: a song called ‘The Breaks.’

During the transit strike of 1980 the team of Moore, Ford, Miller, Bralower and Blow headed back to Green Street Recording Studio.

Kurtis Blow w/ drummer Jimmy Bralower and producer JB Moore
“I wanted to make a record with a bunch of breaks for the b-boys,” Kurtis remembered. “When I said that JB Moore got real excited and said, “Oh great!” because he had a song concept in mind along the same lines.

Like any rap song of that era the music was inspired from other sources, in this case the bass line was based on Steely Dan’s “Royal Scam.' “Tommy Woke,” Moore tells me, “played the one and three from that song.” Woke would later play bass for Hall and Oates. Using a sixteen track Neve board, engineer Rod Hui compressed the hell out of Tommy Woke’s bass and Jimmy Bralower’s funk drumming. Moore, not content to sit on his laurels for the second record, pulled out all stops and enlisted John Tropea on guitar. Tropea’s credits include Paul Simons ‘Fifty Ways’, Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats in the Cradle’ and a bunch of other hits. Kurtis really wanted to bring out the break beat element and it was he who suggested percussion, thus the services of Jaime Delgado were enlisted to play timbales. Delgado had been a member of salsa singer and musician Ray Barretto’s band.

As on ‘Christmas Rappin’ they wanted to capture the feel of a real party so they enlisted friends and family for the party track. Among the studio audience shouting “That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks” was future author and filmmaker Nelson George and Rocky Ford’s two sisters and mother. “I had to stop my mother from clapping,” Ford recalls laughing, “because she couldn’t clap on beat.”

‘The Breaks’ was the first adult themed rap record and was openly embraced by both Black radio and adult listeners. It also helped that Moore and Ford’s adult realities were reflected in the record: unemployment, rejection, lack of money, no cars, these were things that made the song appeal to more than just kids with a boom box and a bag of bamboo.

Steeped knee deep in double and triple entendre’s from the beginning to the end ‘The Breaks’ was a watershed moment in rap music. For b-boys the term ‘breaks’ had one meaning, for adults the term had a different connotation. In the midst of a deep recession, double digit inflation, sky-high unemployment rates and long gas lines, the phrase “that’s the breaks’ resonated with a whole lot of people. For the first time there was a rap song that poked fun at life’s different calamities. 

Now if your woman steps out with another man

That’s the break, that’s the breaks

And she runs off with him to Japan

That the breaks, that’s the breaks

And the IRS says they want to chat

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And you can’t explain why you claimed your cat

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks.

And Ma Bell sends you a whopping bill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

With eighteen phone calls to Brazil

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And you borrowed money from the Mob

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And yesterday you lost your job.

Throw your hands up in the sky

And wave em round from side to side

If you deserve a break tonight somebody say alright

Breaks on stage breaks on screen

Breaks to make your wallet lean

Breaks run cold and breaks run hot,

Some folks got em and some have not.

You say last week you met the perfect guy

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

And he promised you the stars in the sky

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He said his Cadillac was gold

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he didn’t say it was ten years old

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He took you out for a Red Coach Grill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he forgot the cash and you paid the bill

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

He told you the story of his life

That’s the breaks, that’s the breaks

But he forgot the part about his wife

For b-boys the funky guitar line, percussion and drum breaks were heaven sent. The phrase ‘breakdown’ was a call to get down and dance, or “go off” as we used to say. But in adult life a breakdown could literally be your car not working or the stress of life getting the best of you, which could literally make you scream and holler and breakdown crying. But like ‘The Old Philosopher’ record, ‘The Breaks’ was about not taking these things seriously. It was like someone saying to you, “Smile, they’re just the breaks.”

To this day, thirty-one years later because of “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow still travels the world and he’s thankful for it. “You have to understand something,” he said, his voice flowing with a mixture of pride and amazement, “I had the number one record in the country when I was twenty-one years old, that’s what kept me grounded. Being a pioneer for hip-hop is what kept me grounded. Russell and I believed that hip-hop could crossover; this is what we set out to do. And we did it. Look at hip-hop now, it’s everywhere. It’s taken me everywhere. I was a kid from the ghetto in Harlem…and here I was getting on planes going to London. Man, God is good. And now look at it now. Just look at it now. It’s in every country and in every language. And I was one of the first to do it? Thank you Jesus,” he said to me, “Praise God. I’m one of the pioneers of hip-hop. Praise Jesus. God is good. I’m enjoying life…”

Special shout to Bill Adler for the old newspaper clips!
originally published in Wax Poetics Magazine 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Adventures of Jimmy Spicer

Twenty-six years after his last recording, rap pioneer Jimmy Spicer re-emerges with a new record and is making claims that are so over the top that many of his peers doubt his sanity. For the first time in over twenty years Spicer tells his story.

                                                By Mark Skillz

"because my hair's more wavy than the ships in the navy..." early 80's publicity pic
"And I want you to print this," he instructs me during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, NY. "God told me to say this now: I never heard anyone use the phrase “hip hop” or rhyme on beat before I was doing it. I never heard no one in the entire world, rhyme on beat before me,” he says with the conviction of a man who just witnessed the landing of a UFO. And then he carefully emphasized the words, “no one anywhere.”

Some would disagree. Ordinarily, I'd look at someone through slit eyes and quickly dismiss them for claiming that they coined the phrase 'hip hop' and invented rap as we know it today.

But Jimmy Spicer isn't just anyone. We’re talking about a guy who made one of the first fifteen rap records and is credited with having made the longest solo rap recording ever. His songs ‘Super Rhymes Rap’, ‘Bubble Bunch’, and ‘Dollar Bill Y’all’ are hands down old school classics. He is also one of the first artists under Russell Simmons' RUSH Artist Management. But the real feather in his cap is that he is the first real rap storyteller on wax. Maybe, Spicer, who has been reclusive for two decades, has re-emerged to spin more tales.

                                    Excuse Me Sir Are You Super Rhymes?
For two decades Jimmy Spicer has been hip hop’s missing man, an artiste insaisissable. Some say his heart was broken when his dreams went bust. Others don’t know what to make of him. Over the years phone calls to his house and messages sent to him through friends and family have gone unanswered. Now, he’s back.

Meeting Spicer is equivalent to stumbling upon Sly Stone. For the longest no one knew what he looked like, grainy publicity shots from the time – the few that exist, show a young man with sideburns and sometimes dark sun glasses.

A dark Jaguar slowly pulls up to the house on East 16th and Beverly Road in Brooklyn, I wonder if it’s the mystery man himself. Inside the vehicle is a short, bespectacled, middle aged man wearing a red fitted Yankee’s baseball hat and red goose down vest to match. He has a prominent brow and a long square jaw and a sharply groomed goatee which is sprinkled with strands of silver. “Whassup duke?” he says to me, it’s Jimmy Spicer. 

Today Spicer may look like a middle aged man, but it ends there, he has the energy of a man less than half his age. It’s two o’clock in the morning and he’s ready to go club hopping. “I don’t need much sleep,” he tells me while zooming down Ocean Avenue. “never have.” Any thoughts of encountering a battle scarred music vet with poor communication skills are thrown out the window. This guy is a character.

To get to the root as to why he dropped off the scene in ’85 and has resurfaced two and a half decades later I turn on my recorder. The rap audience is fickle. For all intents and purposes, after 1985, as far as recorded rap goes, Spicer disappeared into the celestial ether of time and became an urban legend. So why has he chosen to come back now?

It was a chance meeting with a disbelieving Funkmaster Flex, who couldn't believe who he was talking to. “Flex told me how he used to write the words [to Super Rhymes] in a notebook when he was in junior high school,” Jimmy says proudly. A week later he played at Flex’s birthday at the Club Silver Shadow. “I hadn’t been on stage in years. I got nothing but love.”  

And he’s received nothing but adulation from fans since he’s resurfaced. Today Spicer is fifty-four years old and dances better than any rapper of his generation. Period. At a time when most people his age would be unfamiliar with nightclubs and the latest songs on the radio, Spicer is an anomaly. Raising his lighter above his head he sings the latest dancehall songs word for word while swaying to the beat. 

 “Let’s go back,” I urge him. “How far back do you wanna go?” he asks me. “To when I was thirteen and the first time I put two turntables together like I saw the big guys do?”
“No, further than that,” I tell him.

James Spicer was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 30th 1958, to William and Janie Spicer. ‘When I was growing up in Flatbush,” he says, it was peaceful and pleasant. There were maybe five black people on my block. Everyone else was either Jewish or Puerto Rican.”

Judging by his description, Spicer was a bright, but dis-interested student, who was kicked out of several schools – once because he, “placed a paper bag full of shit on a radiator in the middle of winter, and left it there.” He received his GED at nineteen years old. At twenty one he decided to be a communications major so that he could follow in the footsteps of his idols Hank Spann and Gary Byrd.

Spicer came of age when hip hop was a subculture in its embryonic stages in the parks of New York City. For many Brooklynites over the age of forty-five the whole “Hip-hop started in the Bronx” mantra is a smack in the face. Many of them talk about the dozens of crews of deejays and emcee’s that rocked all over the borough since at least the mid to late 1960’s. These men had serious sound systems and were fervent record collectors: Grandmaster Flowers, Ras Maboya, Ron Plummer, Master D, QJ Simpson, Charisma Funk and Fantasia rocked crowds of thousands every weekend.
the original grandmaster: Grandmaster Flowers
In the 1970’s, Jimmy, a man who emphatically states that he, “never left Brooklyn” and says he had no idea what was going on anywhere else. Calling himself ‘MC Mop’ – short for Moppy, a name he’s had since he was a baby, Spicer says that he invented the phrase “hip hop” one day while at a jam. "I used to start my rhymes off with “I’m MC Mop and I’ll make ya hip hop.” According to him, it was just something he said that rhymed. “I never heard of Flash [back then], I never heard of Kool Herc, I never heard of Hollywood, I was too focused on what I was doing to be concerned with what anyone else was doing. I was about me,” he says.  

Celebrity Club 1980: Lovebug Starsky, Busy Bee and Caz
“Wait a minute,” I interject, “How is it, that I was a kid in Queens and I heard of some of them people, and you didn’t?” Without missing a beat he answers back rather matter of factly, “I dunno know.”

The problem we’re having is that I can’t believe that he believes that he created all of this stuff up out of nowhere. Which isn’t getting us anywhere. So I turn to a guy who I know knows better.

“Jimmy’s full of shit,” Ben “Cozmo D” Cernac tells me. Cernac is the leader of the Brooklyn based group Newcleus, their hit “Jam On It” is a certified old school classic. Cozmo made his mark back in the mid 70’s as a mobile deejay in Brooklyn. “Trust me,” he reassures me, “if somebody from Brooklyn would’ve invented all of this shit like he’s saying, as hard as we’ve had it, we would’ve been talking about it.”

But Jimmy isn’t backing down.

In the mid 70’s Spicer ran with a crew called Star Lite Disco. “My turf back then was Flatbush, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, all of Church Avenue to Bedford Avenue back up to Franklin Avenue, Fulton Avenue, I had large juice,” he boasts. Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s he and his friends threw parties in his friend Keith’s basement, they called it the Star Lite Lounge. “As far as parks went I used to do jams at 92 Park and Walt Whitman Park. One Labor Day [in 1976] we rocked Washington Square Park where Eastern Parkway and Prospect Park meet, on the back of a truck for twenty four hours straight.”

It was at Medgar Evers College where he gained local fame when he recorded a station promo for on air jock Otto Reyes’ show. He got his shot at an on air position when one day, the class instructor found Spicer in the lunchroom writing his rhymes. “Super rapper,” she said to the young man whom everyone called the teachers pet, “I need you to write me a radio show in fifteen minutes.” With no idea what to do, he went on air and asked the listeners, “So how long do you think rap’s gonna stay around?” The phones rang off the hook.

                                    This Deejay He Gets Down…
At the Club Ecstasy in Brooklyn
Even before the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ Spicer was shopping demos to record companies. “At the time I performed with a girl,” he says, “her name was MC Sharonette. All of the companies said, ‘Lose the girl, lose the girl.” Spicer didn’t know what to do. Eventually, Sharon stopped rapping.

And then sometime in November of 1979 he began writing a rap that would not only change his life, but would later influence hundreds of aspiring MC’s.

He had no idea what beat he was going to use. All he knew was that there were these rhymes that kept coming to him while he walked from Prospect Park to Flatbush Ave. It took him three months to write it, “I wanted it to flow from beginning to end,” he says. “I wanted it to be different. I wanted to make sure I stood out,” he tells me. He culled pieces of it from different rhymes he had previously written:

“Like Fred Flintstone said a yaba daba doo, I’ll kindly bust and I’ll bomb your crew. In through the door came Wilma too, she said I got a pack of bamboo, but the next word that I heard Wilma said Fred yo where’s the herb?” 

While walking down Church Avenue he thought about the rhyme, it didn’t fit with the new rhymes he was writing, so he expounded on it, and bought in another element, that many would copy for at least a decade.

“Like Fred Flintstone sayin’ yaba daba doo, you hear my rhymes I wanna yell at you. Cause I got more rhymes than a clock chimes. I got more rhymes than a monkey climbs. I got more rhymes than a lemon and lime and I got more rhymes than a bank got dimes.”

In the cold winter of 1979, Jimmy, with pad and pen in hand, walked around writing a rap that would take up many pages. Sometimes he’d stop and sit in front of a store or a park bench trying to get the words right. Other times it would come to him while standing in front of a bodega. Feverishly he’d jot the words down in the pad. And then a thought crossed his mind, “I’m coming down Church Avenue in the 90’s,” he begins, “taking one of my walks, I said, ‘I really like these rhymes, but I need a name. I’m Jimmy Spicer but I need two personalities.’ I’m walking down the street and then I see a sign that says “Super Signs” I say to myself, ‘Super Rhymes’, that’s it, oh shit that’s it!”

But the flash of genius didn’t end there: He changed his voice when speaking as that character, whether it was Coward Hosell or Dracula at Studio 54.

”The first disco I hit was the 54,

They didn’t even want to let me in the door.

I said listen my man I’m a real cool guy

I can turn into a bat and I can even fly.”

One of the hottest records in 1980 was Vaughn Mason and the Crew’s ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate and Roll.’ Bounce was practically invented for the bourgeoning rap scene, from it’s chest pounding bass line and percussion which sounded like it could’ve been recorded in a rec room in the Bronx River projects, to it’s funk drumming, ‘Bounce’ found an appreciative audience amongst b-boys and disco dancers the world over.

In March of 1980 Spicer and family friend record producer Billy Nichols recorded ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ at Platinum Factory Studio in Brooklyn. But before they got started Nichols went in search of the right session musicians.  They found a Jamaican drummer who, “laid down the drum track to the click, for 15 minutes straight.”  

After the drummer laid his track, Spicer stepped into the vocal booth and rapped the first four minutes and forty five seconds of the record. At the end of the verse he exited the booth for a Buddha break. After smoking a joint for thirty minutes he entered the booth again, this time, he rapped for nine minutes straight with only one punch in. After Spicer recorded his vocals, Nichols laid down the bass and guitar track, accompanied by Vaughn Mason’s friend Butch Dayo on percussion.

Spicer who was no stranger to long raps (he once rapped on a tape non stop for 45 minutes) did solo what it would take three or five MC’s to do as a group. Out of all of the rap records that exceeded the seven minute length, Spicer was the most entertaining to listen to. Some have compared fifteen minutes of the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to the equivalent of listening to the farm report. ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ was the aural equivalent of seeing Star Wars for the first time.                  
One of few rappers to have a business card in the early 80's
Look at the jam on the mic...
When ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ was released in March of 1980 it rapidly went from being a block party favorite to the hottest record on the radio. Although, Kurtis Blow’s hit ‘The Breaks’ got more play on the club scene and radio stations around the world, rap fans eagerly embraced Spicer’s at times strange vocal styling. Dust heads and pot smokers cautiously eyed their half consumed joints while looking cross eyed at their radios at lines like, “I can turn into a bat and I can even fly.”

In his book I Make My Own Rules, LL Cool J wrote of being in “a trance” literally following another kid who was reciting the words to Super Rhymes, while walking the halls in junior high school.
Spicer drew the Dazz Records logo by hand

Friends and associates remember Jimmy as being very proud of his accomplishment. For Jimmy it all came full circle while walking down Linden Plaza on the corner of Sutter and Lincoln Ave near Prospect Park. “There’s these projects, these really short projects,” he remembers, “and a bunch of stores in a big square and there was some park benches. I was walking up the street and [Super Rhymes] was coming out of every direction, no matter which way I turned or which way I looked that shit was coming at me. It was coming from everywhere. It was coming out of every car, every window and every box on the street. I stopped in the middle of the street and threw my fuckin’ hands up and said, “YEAH. I did it. I did it. I started crying.”

The response was overwhelming. Suddenly the man who hardly ever left Brooklyn was performing all over the city. He says the record got to be, “Large…too large, I never left the states. I toured off that record for two years straight. [It] was in hot rotation for a year straight. It was played everyday from June of 1980 to June of 1981.”
“How many records did it sell?” I ask him.
“Do you think I got an accurate count?” he asks me. “I couldn’t tell you to this day, but I know that mother fucker went platinum.”
Headlining a show @ The Ecstasy Garage

Mel Nelson sold the record out the trunk of his car for weeks, then as the song began to catch on he got a distributor, and another distributor and then another. And that’s when things went haywire. “What the indie record companies would do back in the day,” he explained to me, “was to tell you that they pressed up x amount records and then they’d press up more for themselves and that would be where they would make their money, they were beating everybody.”

As a result Billy Nichols says they never saw any money for that record. Jimmy quickly corrects me on this subject: “Billy didn’t tell you the truth, he never got paid, I got paid, it was far from what I deserved, and that’s why I never recorded for Dazz Records again.”

                                    The Man You Can’t Find Anywhere
Rush artist management roster
In the mid 80’s Spicer had success with two more recordings “Bubble Bunch” and ‘Dollar Bill Yall”. One would think that his career would’ve really taken off once Russell Simmons started managing him. Not.
“He mismanaged my career,” Jimmy tells me.
“How so?” I ask.
“I think the statement speaks for itself: he was missing when he should’ve been managing.” But Spicer holds no grudge against Simmons whom he still regards as a friend.

But Jimmy made the most of his association with Simmons by working at RUSH Artist Management. He answered phones, he coordinated tours and video shoots, he did everything and anything he could around the office. But the more involved he got behind the scenes the less time he spent on the mic. And then he stopped all together.

“I moved to Plainfield, New Jersey and opened a studio in the back of a record store,” he tells me. “I just wanted to be a full time dad.”

Sometime around 1990 the full time dad recorded a swing beat groover called “Money Can’t Buy You Love”, but by this time Spicer, who hadn’t had a record out in five years became gun shy and shelved the record. One day in 2010 while going through his old recordings he came across the song again. “I know I have a hit!” he says to me with his eyes shining bright.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fela! On Broadway

Been meaning to blog about this, while I was in New York I went to go see the Broadway musical Fela! This is a musical produced by Will and Jada Smith as well as Jay Z. If you don't know who Fela is go get a late pass.

He's to African music what James Brown is to funk. What Bob Marley is to reggae and what Malcolm X is to Black Power. When your in NY go see Fela! It was just got nominated for 11 Tony awards.