Monday, December 3, 2007

Funk For the Folks: The Story of Sequence

By Mark Skillz

In the dawn of recorded rap music three chicks from the Dirty South mixed gospel flavored R&B harmonies with rap and rocked stadiums full of fans when SWV and Xcape were toddlers and they did their thing long before Lil’ Kim, Shaunna, Eve, Foxy Brown and Trina ever dreamed of spitting erotic verses.

And barely anyone remembers them.

For all of those that think that the South just got into the game yesterday: Surprise, one of the first rap records was made by a group of girls from Columbia, South Carolina. From time to time their music (‘Funk You Up’, ‘Tear the Roof Off the Sucker’, ‘Monster Jam’ and ‘Let’s Dance’) pops up as samples in hits by En Vogue, Dr. Dre, Coolio, Erykah Badu, Tupac and many others.

They called themselves Blondy, Cheryl ‘The Pearl’ and Angie B (now Angie Stone), however collectively – they were known as Sequence. In the early 80’s they held their own and shared stages with the most prominent groups of the time: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One More, Spoonie Gee, Treacherous Three and the Sugar Hill Gang.

In 1979 King Tim III’s ‘Personality Jock’ and the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ were released to an unsuspecting world. They literally took the country by surprise. They were gobbled up and digested very quickly. The world wanted more. And they got it from the Funky Four Plus One, Spoonie Gee and Lady B from Philly. But there was something else on the horizon.

One Night At the Township Auditorium
From the outside the big red building with huge white pillars on the corner of Taylor St. looks like it could’ve been used as a courthouse at one time or another. But it wasn’t, it’s the cornerstone of entertainment in the capital city of one of the oldest towns in South Carolina. It’s called the Township Auditorium.

In the weeks following the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ the Sugar Hill Gang did one of their first concerts in Columbia, SC. History was made at the Township Auditorium one October night when three CA Johnson High School students got invited backstage on a humbug.

There are a lot of things that Gwendolyn ‘Blondy’ Callis (formerly Chisholm) can’t remember, a lot of it is due to the passage of time, but then again there are certain things that she just chooses to remain mum about. She has a down to Earth, easy-going personality with a husky kuntree accent – in normal conversation she sounds like the chick on the records. But what she will never forget is the night that she and her friends were discovered.

“I said I gotta get to that concert,” remembers Blondy, who, earned her nickname as a teenager because she dyed (and still does) her hair blond, “They were coming on October 20th – which is my birthday. I went through a lot that day.”

Determined to break the grip of an overly bearing mother Blondy devised a scheme to go to the show. The plan was simple: stay at her best friend and neighbors house Cheryl ‘The Pearl’ Cook. Cheryl’s mother was far more permissive than Blondy’s mother was. Despite being twenty years old at the time, Blondy’s mother would not allow her to go anywhere.

“My mother was very strict”, Blondy said to me while recalling her stern upbringing. “I wasn’t allowed to go outside when she wasn’t home. I wasn’t allowed to have friends over when she wasn’t home. She was always like that. Cheryl and I lived in the Saxon Homes. I was the only girl in the projects that had to talk to her friends through the window. That’s how strict my mother was. I don’t know why she was like that but she was.”

On the night of the Sugar Hill Gang concert Blondy had had enough. “I knew my mother wouldn’t allow me to go the concert, so I figured if I said I was spending the night at Cheryl’s house, it would be all right. But she said no. I said that I was going anyway. It wasn’t right. I was twenty years old. She said if you walk out that door – don’t come back. And I didn’t, not to this day.”

With nowhere to go Cheryl’s mother offered to take her in.

The night of the Sugar Hill concert Blondy’s employer – who used to also get them booked at local shows performing at roller-skating rinks and talent shows, promised the girls tickets to the Sugar Hill gig. But there were none waiting for them. And then fate intervened.

It just so happened that the Sugar Hill Gang’s road manager was outside the venue, “Harold [a much older man] was trying to talk to Angie. He had a thing for dark-skinned girls.” Blondy remembers. “He said he could get us backstage. But Angie said we all had to go. So he took all three of us back there. Once we got back there we started talking our shit. We said we can sing and rap better than the Sugar Hill Gang. He said, ‘you can?” We said, “Yeah”.

“So we get back there and he says [to an older woman sitting backstage], “Hey, I’ve got some girls here who say that they can sing and rap better than the Sugar Hill Gang.”

Neither Cheryl, Blondy nor Angie knew anything about the record business. And they knew absolutely nothing about the origins of either Sugar Hill Records or the group of rappers called the Sugar Hill Gang. So they definitely had no idea who the nice older lady was sitting backstage.

“Ok, let’s hear what you got”, the lady said to them. And then an impromptu audition took place.

The girls had been working on routines for weeks – singing routines that is. Every song they performed that night the lady would smile and say ‘That’s nice, that’s nice.” Blondy recalls.

And then just as they were about to leave Cheryl ‘The Pearl’ remembered something…

“Hey, we forgot to do ‘Funk You Up’. That’s when then the trio launched into the only rap routine they had the one that would change the course of their lives forever. Luckily the lady allowed them to continue.

We’re gonna funk you right on up. We’re gonna funk you right on up. I said get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, getup, get up, get up, get up – sit back down.”

“That’s when she said ‘Stop’, both Cheryl and Blondy recalled.

“She then said, “Doug [Wimbish] go get your bass and play along with them.” She started directing us right there on the spot. She told us when to come in and had Skip [McDonald Sugar Hill session guitarist] come backstage. Doug made up that bass line right there on the spot. She delayed the concert for an hour and a half so that she could direct everything. Once we were done she asked us if we wanted to make a record. We were so excited. She said, “Ok, I’m going to call you and send for you guys. We said, “Yeah sure.”

That night the girls impressed their friends by appearing onstage with the Sugar Hill Gang. After the show was over they all had doubts as to whether they would cut a record or not.

What they didn’t know was that the nice lady backstage was Sugar Hill Records boss Sylvia Robinson. They had no idea that night that Mrs. Robinson’s career went all the way back to the fifties as a member of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, and that their hit ‘Love is Strange’ is an American classic. Without a doubt they had heard the song ‘Pillow Talk’ before – but they had no idea that the lady backstage was the one who sang it.

“About a week after the concert I got a call at work, “Blondy, this Sylvia Robinson, are you girls ready to record yet?”
“I said, “Yes”.
She said, “Do you want me to call the other girls and tell them?”
I said, “No, that’s all right, I’ll call them.”
“How do you want to get here?” She asked.
By the end of the week there were airline tickets waiting for them and with that their journey began

Funk You Up
When they arrived in Englewood, New Jersey they were in awe of the sights and sounds. After all they were just girls from the south who had never been anywhere before. “When we saw the house [the Robinson’s mansion] we were like ‘Damn’ Blondy remembered, “we had never seen a house that big before. They had maids and a chef and a big ass German Shepard that patrolled the grounds. That dog used to scare the shit out of us.”

They were naïve country girls in a world they had never dreamed of before. “Everybody in New York was walking fast and whatnot, we were like: ‘What in the hell are ya’ll walking so fast for?” Blondy joked.

In the record industry in the 70’s and 80’s Joe Robinson, Sr. was a man to be feared. He was said to be of medium height with a stocky build and a gruff, rough and tough disposition to go along with it. However, neither Cheryl nor Blondy remember Joe Sr. that way, “He was a nice man that liked to laugh and tell jokes.” They told me. I told them about his reputation for being a Suge Knight/Big Red (from the movie The Five Heartbeats) type character to which Blondy suddenly got quiet and said, “He could be no nonsense now”, in her husky down home voice, ‘but he wasn’t that way with us.”

From the very beginning the Robinson’s were endeared to the girls, they took them into their home and looked out for them like surrogate parents. Blondy remembers “When we got there Joe and Sylvia talked to us about the city and what to look out for. They told us how people were going to offer us things and that we should avoid it. They said people are gonna offer you stuff to put up your nose… and alcohol – and watch out for guys don’t trust them. They told us that we had to be really careful.”

Unlike any other Sugar Hill act the girls lived in the mansion for a while. They were like three fish out of water “Our first night there we heard some strange sounds. They had these things in every room –what are they called? Oh yeah intercoms, we got on that and told Sylvia that there was something down here. And then we heard the sound again, Cheryl grabbed a straightening comb – and threw it at the door just as it was opening – and almost hit Sylvia!”

When they recorded the song ‘Funk You Up’ they knew it was a classic. Cheryl ‘the Pearl’ recalls that it was a member of the Whatnots who engineered the session, but it was Sylvia that did everything else. “Sylvia always said that you know that a song is a hit within the first eight seconds of the record.”

All three of the girls wrote the song together, however, it was Cheryl ‘The Pearl’ who came up with most of the hook. “I was a cheerleader who was heavily into the funk back then.” Cheryl tells me over the phone, ‘everything was all about the funk for me, so that’s why you hear all of the Parliament-Funkadelic influences, I loved the hell out of P-Funk.” Cheryl’s writing skills would later be finely honed under Sylvia’s tutelage.

The song ‘Funk You Up’ was an instant hit securing airplay on both of the top Black radio stations in New York at the time WBLS and WKTU. In their hometown of Columbia, SC Cheryl and Blondy recall Big DM radio jock Vanessa Pendergrass as being the first to spin their record at home.

When they were introduced to the New York audience they were called the ‘Sugar Hill Gang Girls’. Over the powerfully funky Positive Force track Cheryl ‘The Pearl’s light as a feather stroke of a voice intimated that “the only difference between you and me and that is that I’m sexy…” Blondy was big, bad, bold and aggressive on her parts: “Don’t ring my bell saying please if you cannot fulfill my needs.”

“I need to set the record straight about something”, Blondy says to me in a serious tone, ‘Blondy was just a character I made up for records. I was nothing like what I said on records. That wasn’t me at all. At that point in my life I had never done anything whatsoever, so all that stuff I used to talk on records, was just that stuff.”

The first time the girls met the Sugar Hill Gang they didn’t like each other. The Gang (Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank) according to Cheryl and Blondy came off as arrogant. “They used to say things to us like ‘Damn, not only do ya’ll talk slow but ya’ll walk slow too!” And for good measure according to Blondy they would provoke the fellas by “walking even slower just to piss them off.”

With the success of both ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and ‘Funk You Up’ Sylvia rushed both groups into the studio for a collaboration entitled ‘Rapper’s Reprise’. Once again it was Cheryl Cook that came up with the songs hook: “Jam-jam-da-jibbit-da-jam-da-jibby-jam-jam-come on.”

Gradually a friendship was struck up between the two groups; with Blondy dating Master Gee.

One Night At the Fever
In the middle of the South Bronx damn near smack dab in the heart of it there once stood a club on 167th and Jerome Ave. The name of the establishment was called Disco Fever, but to the eager attendees who regularly worshipped at the Shrine of hip-hop it was simply called ‘The Fever’.

“I’ll never forget going to the Fever”, remembers Blondy “that’s when we got to see all of the big New York groups upfront and personal for the first time. I had never been anywhere like the Fever before the things that they were doing in there!”

“I take it you got to see the ‘get high rooms’ up front and personal, huh”? I ask her.

“Child,” Blondy says to me in her down home accent, “When I saw all that was going on back there, I made so much noise that they couldn’t wait to get me outta there! Lemme tell you something: If you ain’t no big girl you ain’t have no business being back there.”

Fever owner Sal Abbatiello set the get high rooms up as a discrete place where hustlers and celebs could snort coke and drink champagne in private but mostly out of view of the police.

The naïve country girl says she “had no business being back there.”

So out of place was she that she fell down the full flight of steps of the club to where the club’s main bouncer, an awesome force of nature, an ex-con and hardened street vet named Mandingo stood. Dingo, as those that knew him called him was 6’8 and three hundred pounds of muscle.

“Dingo must’ve looked down at me ‘like are you okay? While everyone else was laughing at me. I was so embarrassed.”

Both Cheryl and Blondy have fond memories of their nights in the Fever when the Sugar Hill acts would practically take over the place. “We used to all get on the mic and rap while Junebug or Flash or whoever was mixing. You’d find everybody in there; all of the groups would be there from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush all of them. Sal, used to really look out for us too.”

The Sugar Hill Tours
Like the old Motown Revue Sylvia and Joe Robinson would pack their groups up in buses and criss-cross the country to sold out venues. The Sugar Hill tours were the first all rap concert tours that people from outside of New York got to see.

"We toured with some of the best like the O'Jay's, the Gap Band, the Jones Girls, Kool and the Gang, Con Funk Shun, Ohio Players, Cameo and Ray, Goodman and Brown to name a few

“All of the groups were cool, we were cool with everybody”, Blondy tells me, “We all got along. My favorite group of all though was the Funky Four Plus One, they could rap real good and they put on one helluva show.”

But it was the backstage behavior of some of her fellow acts that makes Blondy laugh the loudest. “Wonder Mike and Master Gee were gentleman, but Hank was rowdy – he was from the Bronx, so he carried himself differently from them. Rahiem was a gentleman as well, but trust me there was a nasty one in every group.”

“A nasty one? How so?” I ask.

“There were certain people that were really wild about what they were doing”, Blondy remembers, “they used to have sex with the girls on the bus – the girls couldn’t wait to have sex with a rapper and they would do it anywhere. Some of them dudes were real nasty. Like I said now, a lot of them were gentleman: like Wonder Mike and Master Gee. I’m not saying they were saints; they probably were just as wild as some others were but they were quiet about it. You wouldn’t know what they were up to. Rahiem was the same way."

"But some of the other guys were really wild. I never knew any group of guys as wild as them. You have to understand: girls used to see Cowboy on stage in that white leather and with them bowlegs and go crazy!"

"They used to bring girls on to the bus and be having sex with them on our beds. We used to get pissed off and be like ‘hell naw, ya’ll ain’t bringing them broads on here and having sex on our beds, ya’ll need to take that shit somewhere else! The sheets would be messed up and funky and shit like that. People would rather sleep on the floor them sleep on them nasty ass beds after those guys had sex with them girls in ‘em.”

The Sequence Meets the Cold Crushing Lover
Of all of the Sugar Hill acts the collaboration they most remember is when Sylvia paired them up with Spoonie Gee for a cut called ‘Monster Jam’. Named after the location of Sugar Hill’s studio on 96 West St in Englewood, NJ the group was called the West Street Mob.

‘We weren’t a group called the West Street Mob that was something that Sylvia and Joey came up with.” Cheryl recalls. “Really the West Street Mob was Joey and his friend Warren, but they didn’t really do anything on those records. On some of them it’s me and Angie singing not them.”

“Joey had no talent.” Cheryl stated flatly.

One of the cuts that Cheryl is referring to is the smash hit ‘Let’s Dance’ which was a cover of a break-beat classic by jazz-funk fusion group Pleasure. “That’s us, yep uh huh, sure iiiis”, Cheryl says confidently

“Sylvia came up with this track that was based on the bass line to ‘Good Times’ by Chic and thought that it would be a good idea to get Spoonie involved in it.” Blondy recalls.

The girls really looked up to Spoonie Gee, ‘He was master rapper’, both Cheryl and Blondy recall. Cheryl remembers him as being a really nice easygoing guy whose records she really enjoyed, “But he was so shy. He used to be so scared to perform back then. He used to keep his eyes closed when he was on stage.” Blondy agrees adding, “I don’t know where he performed at around New York. Maybe he was more comfortable being in smaller clubs. But when he got into big concert venues, poor Spoonie would come off the stage practically shaking to death!”

But he showed no signs of fear on record. “Monster Jam” was a departure for all of them. They all sound relaxed, confident and mature over Wood, Steel and Brass’s hard-hitting funk track.

Over Doug Wimbish’s thumping funk-style of plucking Spoonie and the Sequence flirted with each other in a smooth rap style.

“Well I’m a cherry piece on top caramel plum,
Sweet as sugar baby come on get some
Of what you’ve been waiting for my dear
That month by month year-by-year,
And that day by day
And week by week
Now you got the chance girl I’m at my peak.

“Gotta a special rap to do it all ring a ding ding a telephone call,
Spoonie you can call me anytime of the day,
Cause I always have something to say,
Like Spoonie what’s happenin’?
You Angie baby I gave you the ring…”
You see I got you in my arms and I’m squeezin’ you tight,
You melt from my might like dynamite.”

“When the time comes around and ya say you’re not ready,
Well all you gotta do is close your eyes and rock steady.
Time for love no time for hip-hoppin’
Cause once I’m gone girl it ain’t no stoppin’
So think it over Cheryl tell me what you’re gonna do,
Cause I got lovin’ just for you.”

The end of the song is like a scene out of the 1973 classic ‘The Mack’, with Spoonie giving Don Magic Juan like instructions to the girls making them respond to each and every word as if it was a verbal pimp contract.

“Say I will not stop
Say I must keep on rockin’
Say I will not stop…
I must keep on rappin’
Say he’s a cold crushing lover,
And you know there is no other.
He’s MC Spoonie Gee
Ain’t no man quite like he…

Pure pimp shit.

The Eighth Wonder
By now everyone has heard the tale of how Big Bank Hank borrowed a book of rhymes from Cold Crush Brothers frontman Grandmaster Caz. But what few are aware of is the fact that it was Cheryl ‘The Pearl’ that wrote much of the Sugar Hill Gang’s hits ‘Apache’ and ‘Eighth Wonder’.

“They were having trouble writing to the track”, Cheryl remembers, “Sylvia called me in and I helped them out.”

“They had a lot of it written out but they just needed some help

“Which parts did you write?” I ask.
“I wrote Master Gee’s part. It originally went: “You see I met this boy and I said to him honey, if you wanna be my baby, you got to give me money.” That was a rhyme I wrote for myself but we changed it around for him so that it would say ‘I met this girl’. Wonder Mike had written some parts and I came along with more stuff.”

The song ‘Eighth Wonder’ was the Gang’s last big hit it climbed the charts and got them booked on ‘American Bandstand’, ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘Soul Train’.

Early on in their careers at Sugar Hill Sylvia noticed that Cheryl the Pearl had a unique knack for songwriting. “I sat in a lot of sessions,” Cheryl told me. “I sang background and wrote on a lot of songs too.

“ I swear sometimes we were the dumbest three women on the face of the Earth.” Blondy laughs.

Their friendship stretched back to church with Blondy being the oldest and Angie the youngest. They were inseparable as kids and it was a bond that carried over to their careers.

“There was this one time when Angie put a perm in my hair”, Blondy remembers, ‘now you’re not supposed to perm your hair when it’s dyed, because all of the pigmentation is gone. Well, I really wanted my hair done bad so I decided not to wait. So Angie puts the perm in and I’m sitting there and all of a sudden…my hair starts coming out. I mean I was bald. Cheryl’s sister was there and was laying on the floor laughing her ass off at me. I was so upset about my hair that I went and got a wig. I can’t remember what record we had to make the next day, but I damn near didn’t go. There I was in the studio trying to lay my vocal down when I had to run out of the room crying. Sylvia Robinson followed me into the bathroom and asked me in this sweet concerned voice, “Oh Blondy, what’s wrong?”

“So I told her in between trying to stop myself from crying: Angie put a perm in my hair… and now all of my hair is gone.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” She said.

“And then she said: Blondy…can I see?”

“So I took my wig off and the next thing I know Sylvia is laughing her ass off at me. She said I looked just like a boy with my hair looking like that .”

All Funked Out
Like any group – even groups consisting of lifelong friends, nothing lasts forever. Distrust soon set in.

“We stopped recording because Sylvia and them were not paying us.” Blondy says.

When the subject of the Robinson’s and money is broached Cheryl ‘the Pearl’ loses her cool. “They are lowdown, rotten no good thieves”, Cheryl says on the phone as her blood pressure starts to skyrocket out of control. “Those mother fuckers owe us money and they know it.”

“Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl babe…calm down.” Blondy implores her life long friend.

“Ooooh, those mother fuckers pull so much shit to not pay you…”

“So I take it you haven’t seen a royalty statement in sometime?” I ask.

“No”, Blondy says quietly, ‘they haven’t paid us.”

Blondy says that they get statements from BMI [for radio play] but that they have never received any of their mechanical royalties. “Hell, I didn’t know what mechanical royalties were until I was working for Angie a few years ago.”

The group has a class action lawsuit against the Robinson’s for failure to pay royalties.

In the Robinson’s defense they have always maintained that they have paid all of their former artists.

“But why did you all stop recording together though?”

“People started whispering in our ears saying this and that; we saw that Cheryl and Sylvia were close and we were thinking that Cheryl was getting paid and we weren’t. It was a divide and conquer thing. You know when you can’t pay your rent and bills and your calling them begging for your money and by the time the money arrives you owe even more money for rent – that shit gets old quick.” Blondy tells me.

“There started to be a lot of mistrust between us. Angie went on and did the group Vertical Hold. Cheryl went her separate way. And I stayed at Sugar Hill Records and became the office manager.”

A few years back Blondy was Angie Stone’s personal assistant, office manager and road manager – today the two aren’t speaking. Cheryl ‘the Pearl’ is still writing and producing songs. Cheryl and Blondy got together in 2007 and recorded a Sequence track called ‘Going to the Movies’ which samples the Staples Singers ‘Let's Do it Again.’ Even though the two women are twenty years removed from their Sugar Hill heyday they still have the magic.

“We want people to know that we were before Salt and Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and all of them.” Blondy informs me, ‘Please be sure to mention that – we were before all of them, we are the original Queens of Rap!”

To contact Blondy email her:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cheeba, Cheeba Y'all!

“Let’s take a trip,
Back into the past,
When the rappers had no records
And the deejays were fast.
When the great Kool Herc lead the Hevalo pack,
And Hollywood and Cheba rocked the Diplomat…”

‘AJ Is Cool’ by Kurtis Blow

Cheeba, Cheeba Y'all: Original House Rocker Eddie Cheba

By Mark Skillz

The Fishtail Bar in the Bay Watch Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is right out back over looking the beach. Dozens of families are crowded in several swimming pools trying to beat the heat. Overhead the sound system is playing the dancehall reggae classic ‘Level the Vibes’ by Half Pint. On the surface it appears to be the most unlikely place to meet a former ghetto celeb and rap innovator. But then again it is.

Decked out in a white and green short set with matching jersey, is a middle-aged man that many would find likable. His easy-going personality mixed with his affable charm makes him the kind of guy you’d want to share a drink and swap stories with. But it’s the stories that this man with droopy eyes and a raspy voice would tell that could make you look at him cross-eyed while sipping your Long Island Iced Tea. That is unless you’re up on your hip-hop history.

Way before the bling era and rappers rubbing shoulders with the likes of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton in the Hamptons, and definitely before multi-million dollar deals, ring tones, clothing lines and sneaker endorsements, rap was the music of ghetto Black New York. That means you didn’t hear it too far beyond the infamous five boroughs.

Almost jumping out of his seat he says to me, “Most guys back then, only got $175 or $150 with a sound system to play a gig. You know what I’m sayin’? We got $500 for an hour – without a sound system.” All the while he’s tapping me on the shoulder in between sips of a Heineken. “And you’d be happy that you got that hour!” He says to me with the cockiness of a used car salesman. “We’d do one hour over here, jump in our cars and head out to Queens or Hempstead, Long Island and do an hour out there.”

That was in 1977 when the cost of living was different and so was the cost of the best deejay in New York.

Ladies and Gentlemen: meet, Eddie Cheba, who along with Mele Mel, Cowboy, Creole, Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim and DJ Hollywood is one of the founding fathers of rap.

In his day Cheba was a legend. At hot night clubbing spots like Small’s Paradise, Charles Gallery, Hotel Diplomat and Club 371, Cheba would shout into the mic: “Who makes it sweeter?” And the crowd of hundreds would shout back “Cheba, Cheba, Cheba!”

He is credited with creating the old school rhyme: “It’s on and on and on on and on like the hot butter on the what?” And if you were in the club and ‘in the know’, you knew to holler back: “Popcorn!” “We had a book of ‘em”, he told me in reference to the call and response tactics that he and his friend, partner and sometime rival, DJ Hollywood came up with.

The call and response style (back then called ‘house rockin’) that MC’s/DJ’s like Busy Bee, Kid Capri, Doug E Fresh, Kurtis Blow and Biz Markie are notorious for can be traced back to the smooth style of guys like Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood and Eddie Cheba.

On this day Eddie is in an upbeat mood because Tuff City Records is re-releasing the only recording Eddie ever did, a disco rap work out called ‘Looking Good (Shake Your Body)’. A song which was originally recorded for Tree Line Records in 1980, and was backed by the owners of Club 371, it will be a part of an old school rap compilation.

Cheba’s raspy- voiced, call and response style made a special impact out in Long Island, with some college kids that called themselves ‘Spectrum Sound’, the group would later be known as Public Enemy.

“Eddie Cheba was as important to hip-hop/rap as Ike Turner was to rock n roll”, Chuck D front man for Public Enemy informed me, “nowhere does he get his due credit for spreading it from the BX to [make it more] accessible [to] heads [outside of Harlem and the Bronx]. Cheba and Hollywood simply infiltrated the over 18 college adult bracket that simply hated on the art form. They put a bowtie on hip-hop at that time to get it through. Cheba commanded the audience with voice and a great sense of timing. These cats used rap to set up records like no other. His synergy with Easy G his deejay was simply… telepathic.”

“Now mind you”, says an emphatic Kurtis Blow, a rap pioneer in his own right, ‘let’s not get it twisted okay: Cheba was before DJ Hollywood. On that side of the family tree we have Pete DJ Jones who was the first real disco street deejay with emcee’s JJ Disco the King, KC the Prince of Soul and JT Hollywood – these guys were just announcers…the next level was the crowd response which was Eddie Cheba’s thing, he was the master of the crowd response. He had routines, he had girls – the Cheba Girls, he had little routines and he did it with a little rhythm ya know: ‘Throw your hands in the air, everybody now, we don’t need no music, come on y’all say it, so just clap your hands everybody and everybody body clap your hands! If you’re not too skinny or not too fat everybody say and ya know that!” Eddie was mad sick with the crowd response he was a master!”

As I think back on other names that rung out loud on the streets back then I ask Eddie about:

Ron Plummer: “Awww man, Plummer gave Pete Jones hell with those refrigerator sized speakers.”

Maboya: “He used to play reggae. He was one of the first ones out there to play reggae. At that time rap and reggae were not accepted – you’d play that stuff and people would turn around and look at you.”

The Smith Brothers: “They were older than us, they had an older clientele, but their sound system was good.”

But it’s the name DJ Hollywood that Cheba’s name is almost synonymous with. For many their names are almost linked together like Salt and Pepper, Butch and Sundance or Martin and Lewis. Can’t have one without the other. They were Uptown royalty when Cam’ Ron and Jim Jones were in Pampers.

Back Like Cadillac’s and Brim Hats

Edward Sturgis was born and raised in Harlem, New York’s Douglas Projects, home to such alums as Kenny Smith, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and fellow deejay Reggie Wells. Originally a music major Eddie got involved with funk and soul bands, but soon grew tired of the instability that goes with being in a group. He soon found that his love for music could be expressed another way: with turntables and records.

“My sister’s boyfriend Thomas was one of the first people I ever saw really mix music in a smooth way. I mean he knew how to keep the beat going, you know what I mean?” Eddie says to me while taking a drag off of his cigarette. “I said to myself ‘I wanna do that!”

Soon the Brandice High School student was spending hours a day practicing on his turntables. “I was completely locked into it. My girlfriend, who is my wife now, a date for us back then was, her sitting on my bed reading her books while I practiced.”

By 1974 he got so good at spinning records that he was able to quit his job at Bankers Trust and really concentrate on deejaying, “The money was flowing in.” He says to me with a sly smile.

On the way down the path to being a ghetto celeb he played in Uptown’s hottest spots: Charles Gallery, Hotel Diplomat (which on some nights attracted a white audience and was called LeJardin) and Wilt’s Small’s Paradise. “In 1972 when Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali at the Garden, he came to Small’s Paradise after the fight to hang out. I have a picture of me and him at Small’s.”

The Sound Systems in the Park

At the same time that Eddie was perfecting his craft in Harlem there was a whole other scene jumping off in the Bronx. This crowd was younger, rougher and rowdier.

“There were two different crowds”, says Kurtis Blow, who’s classic recording ‘The Breaks’ was the second 12’ inch record to be certified gold. “Grandmaster Flash calls them the shoe people and the sneaker people.”

Blow, a Harlem native, is a student of both the R&B style of guys like Pete Jones and Hollywood and the hardcore b-boy approach of the Kool Herc followers. In fact with his deep, booming bass voice and crisp enunciation Kurtis’ style was the perfect blend between Harlem’s smooth R&B chic and Bronx b-boy cool.

At the parties that guys like Eddie, Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, the Disco Twins and the Smith Brothers would play at, songs like ‘Do it Anyway You Wanna’, “I Got My Mind Made Up’, ‘All Night Thing’, ‘Pipeline’ and ‘Soul Makossa’ would rock crowds of hundreds of the 21 and over crowd. Men came to the party wearing dress shoes, suits and slacks and women wore dresses.

Kool Herc, Flash, Breakout, Kool DJ AJ, Disco King Mario, Bambaataa and others rocked the teenage b-boy crowds. Their crowds would come in packs of 15 to 20 strong, wearing sneakers, jeans, hats and silver chains. They couldn’t wait to hear their favorite deejay play obscurities like ‘Give it to Me’, ‘Champ’, ‘Mardi Gras’, ‘Synthetic Substitution’, ‘Hit or Miss’ and many other unknown records that were worshipped by this cult following.

The slight exception was in Harlem at the Renaissance Ballroom, or the ‘Renny’ as it was called, where a promoter named Willie Gums had a thing called the ‘Rolls Royce Movement’, “That was Lovebug Starski’s thing right there”, says Kurtis Blow. “It was the Sapphire Crew: Donald Dee and B Fats that was their thing. That was hip-hop with class. They were young people but they got dressed up for these parties. I think D.J. Hollywood might’ve played there once.”

“Kool Herc and them played in the park. We were blessed to be able to play in clubs,” Eddie says to me. “If you think about it anybody could play in a park; little kids were in the park. There was no money playing in parks. Either the cops was coming to tell you to turn it down or they were gonna unplug you from the light pole or there was gonna be a shootout or something. I played in clubs where people drank champagne and came to have fun. Besides, the park was dangerous”, Eddie says to me while looking from side to side. “You got five niggas over there drinkin’ talkin’ ‘bout fuckin’ you up. Would you wanna be there?”

The Man With The Golden Voice

Before anyone could claim the title of King of New York, there was the original ‘King of Rap’: DJ Hollywood. On the streets of New York in the 70’s, Wood (as he is sometimes called) was the quintessential man. He was the first deejay to play multiple spots in one night and collect a fee of $500 per appearance. According to Cheba, “Hollywood would call ahead to Club 371 [after playing at other spots around the city] and say, “I’m on my way, have my envelope ready.”

He was a rap star before there were any records. The history of the mixtape game can be traced back to him. He used to sell 8 track tapes of his mixes for ten or fifteen bucks a pop way back in 1972. He sang, he rapped, he did vocal impressions and crowd participation. On the rap tip in the 70’s no one could touch him.

“Hollywood was ‘all city’ he could play anywhere he wanted in the city back then”, says Kurtis Blow. “Hollywood, had a golden voice, he had a round and fat voice, he had tonality, tonality almost like a singer – he had singing routines where he would sing, “Got a word from the wise, just to tranquilize, your mind your body and soul. We got a brand new rhythm now, and we’re gonna let it take control. Come on y’all let’s do it. Let’s do it’… that was Hollywood, he was the master at the crowd response but his voice…” Kurtis pauses excitedly looking for the right words and when he finds them he says, ‘his voice was golden like a God almost – that’s why I wanted to be an MC!”

“If you went out to a club – you had to go to Club 371 to hear this cat. Hollywood was the talk of the town”, an animated Kurtis Blow says to me. “Everybody was losing their minds, he had skits like ‘Throw your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like ya just don’t care. And if you got on clean underwear, somebody say ‘Oh yeah!’ And the crowd would shout back: Oh yeah! Hollywood had the golden voice, the chants the rhythm. The first rhythmic rhymes I ever heard …a cat say during the hip-hop days – we’re talking about the ‘70’s. I’m not talking about the ‘60’s or anything before that because rap has been around for a long time. We’re talking about the first rhymes that I ever heard DJ Hollywood say were:

“I’m bonnified, I’m celitified and I’m qualified to do,
I say anything your heart can stand,
It all depends on you.
I’m listed in the yellow pages,
All around the world,
I got 21 years experience with loving sweet young girls…”

During an early morning phone interview Hollywood related the story of his discovery to me. “One day in 1975, I was at home playing records, and one of the records I pulled out was the "Black Moses" album. It was not popular at the time. So, there I was listening to this album, and I put on a song called "Good Love 69969". Isaac Hayes was singing this part that went "I'm listed in the yellow pages, all around the world; I got 30 years experience in loving sweet young girls." That record stopped me dead in my tracks. You see, before that record I had been doing nursery rhymes. But after that record: I was doing rhymes. And not only was I doing rhymes but I was talking about love. This was another level.”

In a reflective mood the one time King of Rap recalled the next events.”I thought to myself, what if I take what he's doing and put it with this? What would I get? I got fame, that's what I got. I got more famous than I could ever imagine. Everybody bit that rhyme. I would go to jams and people would be saying that rhyme, and none of them, not one of them, knew where it came from. It blew my mind.”

“I knew of Hollywood cause we were both from Harlem.” Eddie remembers. “Back in the day when Hollywood would play at the Apollo Theatre the marquee would say: “The Spinners, Black Ivory, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and D.J. Hollywood”. He was that large.”

But Eddie wanted the spot light too.

“I was sitting in my room one day when I came up with my rhyme. I wrote it out in a notebook it went.

“About a while ago and I want you to know, just who you been listening to. Just listen to me now, while I tell you how, who I am, and what I do. I’m 5’9 and a half, bow legged as you ever wanna see. Just look up on the stage baby doll, I’m talking about little old me. It’s Cheba girl and I’m so glad that you came around. So we can spend some time together maybe even mess around.”

Very quickly, like Hollywood’s rap, Eddie’s rap was eagerly consumed by other deejays, whom very soon, had no knowledge of the raps origin either. ASCAP and BMI were not looking for rappers back then, and rappers were no more aware of ASCAP and BMI then they were about words like ‘publishing’, ‘writing credit’, ‘points’ and ‘royalties’. This was before records.

“Before Club 371 I was playing at a spot called “A Bunch of Grapes” this was on the East side of 125th St. You see back then, the only people that were hip to my shit were the hustlers that went to the after hours spots. That’s where my rep started at was with the hustlers.” Said DJ Hollywood.

Every other rapper today fantasizes about knowing or being somehow connected with a notorious gangster, back in the day – Nicky Barnes was that gangster. Wood played for some of the most notorious figures of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, chief among them was Guy Fisher. It was Fisher who owned and operated the Apollo Theatre as a legitimate front. It was at the Apollo that Hollywood gained his rep for providing entertainment between acts for some of the biggest stars of the era, and often times he overshadowed them.

Guy Fisher was no stranger to the hip-hop set back then. Many an old timer tell stories of the days when Fisher, Bats Ross and other members of Nicky Barnes’ old crew would frequent hip-hop spots like the Hevalo and check out Kool Herc and Coke La Rock.

At the very mention of Fisher’s name Eddie becomes visibly uncomfortable. “Yes, Wood worked for Guy Fisher and them, those were Nicky Barnes’ people. I didn’t want to have anything to do with those people.” He tells me. “Yeah sure, we did parties for them, but that was it! They were nice guys outside of their business, but I didn’t want to play for them that much.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because see, Hollywood might show up to Club 371 at two, three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes he didn’t show up at all. You couldn’t do that kind of shit with people like that because they would come and get you – and throw you in a bag or something.”

Havin’ Fun at Club 371

Sometime in 1978 a group of gentlemen called the Ten Good Guys wanted to expand their Bronx disco. It was called Club 371. They got DJ Hollywood to play there after seeing the impact of what he was doing in 1975 at the club ‘A Bunch Of Grapes’. Hollywood had been playing at 371 for at least three years before the owners decided to expand the club.

“Hollywood was packing em in, they had lines around the corner. They built a part two, which was called the ‘House of Glass’. They talked to Reggie Wells and we made a deal and they came to get me.”

It was at Club 371 that Eddie Cheba would meet Hollywood.

“It was Hollywood and his deejay Junebug downstairs and me, Reggie Wells and my deejay EZ Gee upstairs. I’m telling you, we had them people running up and down those steps all night long.” Eddie recalls. “My deejay EZ Gee played with me when it was time for me to rap, [that’s when] he’d take over. I used to rent out a loft so that we could practice our routines. God sent EZ Gee to me.”

“371 was one of the greatest clubs of all time in the Bronx, New York, it was the first black owned club in New York to gross over a million dollars in one year and this was back in 1979, when they charged six or seven dollars to get in the door.” Eddie asserts. “They cleared a million dollars at the door – not to say how much they cleared under the table. This was one of the greatest clubs of all time: Eddie Cheba, Reggie Wells, Junebug and DJ Hollywood at Club 371 that’s where all the fame and fortune came from.”

“Everybody came to Club 371”, Hollywood recalls, “If you came in from out of town, people would be like, you gotta go here – it was like no other!”

Any old time Club 371 regular will tell you that the original chant that Big Bank Hank from the Sugar Hill Gang used in ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went: “Hotel/Motel/Holiday Inn, if you don’t tell then I won’t tell, but I know where you been!” 98.7 KISS-FM mix master Reggie Wells told me the origin of the chant had something to do with the Courtesy in New Jersey and people sneaking around after the club let out.

The club did so well that the owners went to great lengths to take care of their deejays. Reggie Wells remembers the money being so good at 371 that “all of the deejays had caddy’s back then.”

“Hollywood needed a car and didn’t have a license, so they bought him a Caddy and got him a license by sliding somebody at the DMV some money.” Eddie laughs while recalling the time. “They really took care of us.”

Reflecting on his heyday Eddie told me, “I had everything I shopped at AJ Lester’s. I was walked into any club in the city – I always got in free. Champagne? I got bottles of it wherever I went. If I walked down 125th St. in Harlem, people would see me and walk up to me and want to shake my hand or ask me for an autograph. If I had someplace to go I called a car service [Godfather’s, Touch of Class and OJ’s] and they would be there to pick me up. I’d say wait here until I’m done and they would. I used to sell my tapes for $20 a pop. People would be reserving tapes weeks in advance. Godfather’s and OJ’s and them used to sell my tapes. They would have a customer in a car and would be playing my stuff, the customer would be like ‘Who’s that?’ They’d say that’s Eddie Cheba. I was one of the top deejays in the city.

Like Butch and Sundance

“Me and Hollywood became really good friends. We worked together as well, but we were also friends. We used to go to after hour’s spots all over the city together and sit, drink and talk into early in the morning. We were close man.” Eddie said to me.

Soon a partnership was born. “At one point they were called DJ-Eddie-Hollywood-Cheba”, laughs Kurtis Blow.

“Let me tell you how large I got.” Eddie says as he leans back in his seat and exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke above his head. “One night we were playing in Queens at the La Chalet on Hillside Ave. Anyway, these brothers were outside shooting at each other. I mean it was a real shootout. Me and my crew, the Cheeba Crew, pulled up when all of this is going on. We were like, ‘Shit, we ain’t getting’ out of the car!’ Somebody went inside and got on the mike and said, ‘Yo y’all stop all that shit. Eddie Cheba is outside right now and he says he ain’t coming in until y’all stop that shit.” Well, the next thing we know, they drop their guns and go inside.” Eddie says to me with an amazed look on his face, “these niggas stopped shooting at each other because they wanted to hear us play.”

The partnership of Hollywood and Cheba made them the two most popular Black deejays in the city. And the best paid. “Hollywood had no problem asking for whatever he wanted.” Eddie remembers. “He could be really arrogant. He had no problem at all blowing people off. I mean Wood was really arrogant. When we first started to play together, I was afraid to ask for more money. Wood would say ‘Say you want $500.” I’d be like, “I don’t know.” Wood would say that he was getting $500, so I’d go in there and say I wanted $500 too.”

As close as the two were they didn’t play everywhere together. Eddie played in midtown clubs such as the Pegasus, Captain Nemo’s, Nell Gwynn’s, Leviticus, the Tunnel, Cork and the Bottle and the Executive Suite. But it was at Charles Gallery that Eddie started to earn his rep.

“Charles Gallery was on some other shit”, Hollywood recalls, “Those guys in there were announcers, they would get on the mike and announce the next record and shit like that. I came in there with my rappin’ – they never heard anything like it before – they threw me out of there!”

Kurtis Blow described the Charles Huggins owned Charles Gallery as a classy spot for the 21 and over crowd. Men and women were dressed to the nines. Kurtis – and his then manager Russell Simmons first saw Eddie doing his thing there on a night called ‘Wild Wild Wednesday’s’.

But Hollywood didn’t like those kinds of clubs. Nor did he like ghetto type clubs such as Disco Fever. “The Fever was a fuckin’ drug store”, Eddie shot back, “you could get anything you wanted at the Fever. Drugs were all over the place. Hollywood did not play the Fever – and he was arrogant about it too.” Eddie says while taking a drag off of his cigarette. “We used to say, ‘Yo Wood, you need to play the Fever.’ He would brush it off and say, ‘them niggas ain’t my kind of crowd.” Hollywood’s crowd were places that catered to an older black clientele such as the many clubs in the Bronx, Harlem and Queens.

“Me on the other hand I liked playing anywhere.” Eddie tells me.

It was while playing in clubs in Queens that Hollywood and Cheba would bump into an eager young promoter that called himself Russell Rush. “Every time we played in Queens in some place like… the Fantasia, Russell would be right outside waiting for us. He was a big fan of ours. He used to beg me, he’d be like “Yo Cheba, I’m throwing a party at so and so place, could you stop by and do a little something?” Hollywood would be very arrogant and would say things like ‘tell that nigga to go away’. I couldn’t do that. I’d say ‘Russell; I’m a little too expensive for what you’re trying to do. I’ll see what I can do.’ I couldn’t blow people off like Wood could.”

Out in Long Island, Hollywood and Cheba were the rap equivalent of the Beatles. According to Chuck D, “In 1979 the whole cowboy look was in [cowboy hats and boots] and Hollywood and Cheba pimped that!”

One night Eddie bought Furious Five lead MC Mele Mel with him to play a gig in Roosevelt. “When he brought Mele Mel with him it was like two voices from heaven,” Chuck D says, “back then, if you didn’t have a good voice you couldn’t 'cut through inferior sound systems. These cats were flawless. Hearing them sold me on hip-hop as being a wonderful thing for my life.”

“The night I took Mele Mel with me, out to Long Island, I dunno, he was more reserved than usual. I had to give the nigga the mike and say, “here do your thing.” I knew the nigga was bad as a motherfucker. This was just before their record ‘Superrappin’ came out.” Said Eddie.

It was also during this time that he was introduced to a young man who was trying to make a name for himself on the rap scene.

“DJ Hollywood had a ‘disco son’ named DJ Smalls, we figured a way for me get my name out there was if I was the disco son of Eddie Cheba.” Said Kurtis Blow. Although Kurtis, who would later be known as the ‘King of Rap’, would see his own career eclipse that of both Hollywood and Eddie Cheba’s, is to this day still clearly a devoted fan.

At it’s root hip-hop is a competitive art form whether its MC’s going head to head on the mike, or deejay’s crossing swords on turntables, “I was the one that did all of the battling.” Cheba tells me, “Hollywood would not battle anybody. I battled everybody. I didn’t give a fuck. Wood was not into battling. The only person he battled was Woody Wood from Queens. And me and Lovebug Starski had to push him to battle that nigga to do it.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Because that nigga was stealing everything that Wood was doing. Not only did he sound like Wood, but also he got his name from him and all of his rhymes too. I told him ‘Fuck that shit, you got to battle that nigga.’ The way Woody Wood was stealing from Hollywood was a damn shame.”

In any other business imitation is considered to be a form of flattery, but in the rap game even as far back as 1976, it was almost the equivalent of stealing a brother’s hubcaps.

“At one time there were about thirty to forty me’s out there”, Hollywood says to me sounding almost as irritated today about it as he was thirty years ago. “Everybody was saying the rhymes and when it would come time to say my name – they would take mine out and put theirs in. Woody Wood was one of them people.”
“So you battled him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I stepped on him too”, Wood said as confidently as Muhammad Ali in 1975, “at that time there wasn’t nobody that could get wit’ me. I was top dog back then. I had control of everything.”

The battle took place at the Hotel Diplomat, “It wasn’t really what you would call a battle”, Wood interjects, “He did his thing first and then I did mine. No one could beat me with the crowd response thing. Woody Wood was an imitator, his voice, his rhymes he did his pronunciations just like me.”

“We were on top.” Eddie says coolly, “I had battled everyone. But as much as Wood didn’t like to battle he’d always tell me: “Eddie, whatever you do: Never battle me.”

“I thought to myself, ‘What kind of shit is that for him to say?’ I had my own ego too you know. Little did I know…”

One night the two friends went head to head in a sound clash.

“I pulled out all stops this night at the Parkside Plaza. It was a battle for the title.” Eddie remembers. “Wood’s title was on the line. Wood did his thing, but even his people weren’t really feeling him on this night. And then I went on. I rocked the hell outta them people. At the end of the battle even Wood’s people were cheering for me, you know like his main man Captain Jack and all of them people. It took 45 minutes for the judges to make a decision. And they came back and gave the trophy to Hollywood. And that’s when it hit me: No wonder he said to never battle him, it was because he had it set up for him to win regardless. Hell, the trophy already had his name inscribed on it!”

“Nah, nah, nah, nah, it didn’t quite go down like that, Mark”, Hollywood tells me in between laughing.
“You see, it’s like this I was the top dog, couldn’t nobody touch me back then. Eddie did all of the battles. One night he kept going on and on saying, ‘I’m the king battler’ and this and that. He must’ve forgot who I was. He made that happen.” Wood said to me.
“Made what happen?” I ask.
“Yo man, he wouldn’t listen. The shit was already done. I didn’t know it was done. I told him, “Ok, but whatever you do never battle me. He wouldn’t listen.”

What Hollywood meant by it being ‘done’ was that at the time he got major love from all of the promoters back then, these were people that for many years had made good money from billing Hollywood all over the city. It was in their interest for Wood to emerge as the winner in any battle. Hollywood remembers the crowd response that night being about even, but to this day swears that he had no knowledge of the fix being in.

One Night at the Jamaica Armory

One day in October 1979 Eddie and his peers heard the sound that would forever alter the course of their lives: ‘Rapper’s Delight.’

“Hollywood and Starski, you would always hear them say ‘hip-hop-da-hippit-da-hibbit-to-da-hip-hip-a-hop ya don’t stop’ and shit like that, they started it. I heard the song on the radio. I was mad when I first heard it. These people came from out of nowhere. We didn’t have the vision to see that records were the next level.” Eddie said as he thinks back to the time. ‘We were making so much money from deejaying that making records just wasn’t our thing. We couldn’t see it.”

What he didn’t know was that the first person that Sylvia Robinson approached to record ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was Lovebug Starski. Then she went to DJ Hollywood to see about he and Eddie making the record.

“One night and this was after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ had long been out and making money, Hollywood and I were at an after hours spot called ‘Poppa Dee’s’ in Harlem. It was on 130th between 7th and Lenox Ave. I mean this was an exclusive spot. Only the hustlers could get in there – people with money. Anyway, so there we are drinking and talking and shit at like 3 o’clock in the morning when Hollywood turns to me and says, “Yeah man, she wanted me and you to do that record, but I turned her down.”

“I must’ve looked at him and said, ‘what record are you talking about?”

He said, “Yeah, Sylvia wanted us to do Rapper’s Delight first.” I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to knock him out of his seat. If I had done that record do you know what my life would be like today?”

‘Rapper’s Delight’ changed the direction of the rap movement forever. The days of guys running sections of the city or dominating the club scene were over. All you needed was a record to make a name.

It isn’t a stretch to believe that the Robinson’s wanted Hollywood and Cheba for their landmark recording, especially when you consider that both of the groundbreaking rap recordings The Fatback Band’s (a group for whom Hollywood used to open for at the Apollo Theatre) ‘King Tim III (Personality Jock)’ and the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ stylistically bore a serious resemblance to Hollywood and Cheba. Although Big Bank Hank got his rhymes from Grandmaster Caz his delivery was much closer to Hollywood’s than the Cold Crush Brothers lead MC.

One night at the Jamaica, Queens Armory the best deejays and emcees of that time got together for a jam. In some ways it was the end of an era. To this day cassette tapes of that night still circulate the streets. It was a star-studded affair; on the bill were DJ Divine and the Infinity Machine, Grandmaster Flash and his MC’s Mele Mel and Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, DJ Smalls, Eddie Cheba and DJ Easy Gee.

Like Earl the Pearl has got the moves, ya see Cheba Cheba has got the groove. Now ya heard the best and you’re ready to go, with the baddest deejay of all disco…”

Easy Gee bought in MFSB’s classic ‘Love is the Message’, cued up from the point where the sax and violins are building up to the point of climax. This was a record that guys like Hollywood, Eddie Cheba, Kool Kyle and many others knew well. It was a staple of their act. In some ways it was the main part. This was the song that showcased their skills the best. They could do their crowd participation thing, free style rhymes and party chants; all of it came together best over that song.

“Get ready now you might’ve heard on WBLS tomorrow night we gonna take the sugar out the hill at Harlem World. Sugar Hill and Eddie Cheba tomorrow night. But first we have some unfinished business to take care of right here in Jamaica…we’re gonna rundown a few of the things that we know we made famous…”

As the sax squealed and the organist rocked Eddie went into one of the many routines that made him a legend at that time.

“Go down go down go down go down, owww, go down... Get up close on the freak and shake like Jones is at its peak. Ya say who makes it sweeter? (Cheba, Cheba, Cheba)…You don’t care if I’m the one – cause all you wanna do is have some fun…”

At least for that one night it didn’t matter if there was a record selling in stores all over the country because it was the guys on the stage that night that were the real stars. It could almost be said that ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was what changed the relationship between deejay and MC. For years it was the deejays that the crowds of thousands came out to see, now because the MC’s rap could be heard on a record, the balance of power was about to change.

One by one each crew went up onstage at the Armory that night and showcased for the crowd in Queens the reasons that they were better than any group of upstarts, especially ones from across the Hudson. These guys were the originators of a new phenomenon; they were kings of a sub-culture in a time of innocence. Every empire has its time in the sun, but the sun sets on every kingdom.

Welcome Home

As we walk outside to the front of the hotel, Eddie tells me some funny stories about the club Disco Fever. If only I could print those stories. We sit on the steps and talk some more while I wait on my ride.

“I rocked the shit out of the Sugar Hill Gang that night at Harlem World”, he told me. “I pulled out all stops, I made it difficult for them to come on after me. All they had was that one record – I had books and books of rhymes – they couldn’t fuck with me.”

In the mid-80’s to everyone’s surprise hip-hop started its ascent to becoming a dominant force in music. But Eddie was nowhere to be found.

“France was some shit”, he tells me “I was the man over there.”

Sometime in the early 80’s while he was the resident deejay at the club Broadway International, Eddie got the call that would change his life. He went over to France to compete in deejay competitions and spin at clubs. Judging by his descriptions of the clubs and the audiences it sounds like he spun for the jet set crowd. “These people drove Ferrari’s and wore tuxedo’s and expensive jewelry”, he said. All together he stayed in France for eight years.

“I was a New York deejay in Paris. I was a rare commodity over there. They were so far behind what we were doing over here - I beat all of them. I did TV commercials, I spun at the biggest clubs in the country.” Eddie says, “I was a celebrity. I lived in a nice house and drove a custom made Mercedes Benz.”
“So why did you leave?” I ask him.
“Because”, he says as he frowns up his face, “I got bored over there. My daughter was growing up not knowing any of my family. I had done everything I could over there. I won the world competition; I spun at some of the chicest clubs. I got tired of it all.”

But coming back home to New York was not easy. Everything had changed. “Hollywood was over”, Eddie said looking out at the clouds, “he was on 8th Avenue messing up. Kurtis was over, he was in L.A.; Club 371 was over. Just about all of the clubs that I had spun at were over. And rap was different. I couldn’t relate to it anymore. I had been in France, I wore French clothes, and I had been living in a nice house. I couldn’t relate anymore.”

As my wife pulls up we say our good byes. I give him CD’s of the Queens Armory Jam in 1979 and mix tapes from the boat rides that he, Hollywood and Lovebug Starski had done together in the late 90’s.

“Eddie”, I ask him, “one more thing, did you know that JB Moore and Rocky Ford wanted you to do the Christmas Rappin’ record?”

“Yeah, I heard about that”, he says to me with a touch of regret. “If I had done that record do you have any idea what my life would be like right now?”

Not that the man is starving: he owns a funeral business as well as a limousine and deejay service. By no means is the man hard up for a dollar. But who among us couldn’t use a nice little royalty check every now and then?

Eddie Cheba wants to send a special shout and a big fat ‘I love you’ to all of the fans that supported him from 1972 until this day. He can be reached at Special thanks to Van Silk, Kurtis Blow, Chuck D, Dianne, Reggie Wells and DJ Hollywood.

This feature originally ran in Wax Poetics please contact author for permission to use any part of this story.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pioneer Buried Alive

The Fall and Redemption of Doreen Broadnax
b.k.a. Sparky D
By Mark Skillz

“In all thy ways acknowledge him and He shall direct thy paths.”
Proverbs 3:6

In the Book of Job, while in conversation with Satan, God asked the Devil what had he been up to? Basically, the Devil answered that he had been roaming the Earth looking for someone to corrupt. The Almighty then singled Job out to the devil, knowing how faithful Job was to him. It was then that all matter of catastrophes rained down on his life. But through it all Job never lost faith.

In the mid 80’s a female MC out of the Van Dyke Projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn embarked on a career that would see her life go from the pinnacle of early hip hop stardom to being a victim of domestic abuse, homelessness and drug addiction.

“You gotta go through something in order to grow,” says a proudly re-born Doreen Broadnax better known to hip hop fans as Sparky D.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. to a black father and a white mother, Doreen not only had to endure the prejudice of her black neighbors, but the racism of her mother’s family as well. Recalling those times Sparky says, “Being an inter-racial child in the projects was rough. We had it hard. I was raised on the 14th floor in the Van Dyke Projects. Sometimes I would sit back and ask myself ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ When I had to be black, I was black, when I had to be white, I was white, when I had to be Puerto Rican, I was Puerto Rican.”

Although she was from one of the toughest projects in Brooklyn, Sparky’s mother worked really hard to send her children to Catholic School. It was because of this that the kids in her neighborhood called her a ‘rich cracker’.

Usually people that have endured this kind of taunting grow up having poor self- esteem, but not Sparky, who adamantly says, “I always believed in myself…I didn’t really have low self-esteem, if anything I had high self-esteem.”

It was that high self-esteem that enabled Sparky to record an answer record called “Sparky’s Turn” on Nia Records in 1985. “Sparky’s Turn” was an in your face, all-out, go-for-broke-take no shorts diss record aimed at Roxanne Shante. It was by far one of the more significant answer records in the “Roxanne, Roxanne” series.

It all started in 1984, when Brooklyn rap trio UTFO recorded “Roxanne, Roxanne” on Select Records. Originally “Roxanne, Roxanne” was released as a b-side to a record entitled “Hanging Out”. It was one of the most significant rap records of that year in that it would take on a legacy of it’s own.

The song featured the three MC’s meeting a fictional girl that although very fly, had no time - or interest in any of them. The MC’s rapped about their hurt feelings over a programmed version of Billy Squire’s break beat classic “The Big Beat”.

The first person to record an answer to “Roxanne, Roxanne” was a 14 year-old MC from the Queensbridge Projects named Lolita Gooden, but known at that time as Fly Shante. With a voice as cracky as project wallpaper, and the attitude of an indignant Millie Jackson, Shante, who re-named herself “Roxanne Shante”, tore into the MC’s like a four year old with a brand new present at Christmas time.

On New Years Eve while listening to Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack on WBLS, Spyder and Sparky both agreed that Shante’s record had to be answered. Taking up the good fight for UTFO and championing her borough of Brooklyn, Sparky recorded a diss that set fire to the rap world.

With a voice that slightly echoed Bronx pioneer Sha Rock of the Funky 4 + 1, and the attitude of a concrete warrior, Sparky, over Spyder D’s minimalist drum programming and sparse keyboard accompaniment lit into Shante like the riots of 1967. The Linn Drum programming would call to mind the distant drumming of ancestors on a battlefield deep in remote antiquity.

By the end of 1985 there would be an estimated 50 answer records made in the “Roxanne, Roxanne” series. Many, if not most of them were laughable at best. “Sparky’s Turn” shined out above the mass of garbage like spinning rims on Pitkin Avenue.

Sparky D was an intimidating MC on the streets of Brooklyn her legendary battles with rival Queens- bred MC Roxanne Shante has become the stuff of urban folklore.
The two MC’s had one epic battle in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina in 1984.

“I’ll never forget that battle,” says Sparky 20 years later “It was like Ali-Frazier…It was real, there was so much energy in the air. I mean, things were really heated, Red Alert and Marley Marl didn’t speak, my people and her people were staring at each other…It was crazy.”

“The anticipation for that battle was unbelievable, there was long lines of people waiting to enter the venue. I mean you name it, they were there; old people, young people, white people, black people, it was crazy” said Spyder D, Sparky’s former boyfriend and manager.

Eventually, the two would become friends and would take their rivalry to the studio to record the EP entitled “Round One: Roxanne Shante vs. Sparky D”.

On the road according to Sparky, “Every night was like a battle.” Each MC’s respective crew was involved in the tension as well, with one notable exception: Roxanne Shante’s then human beat box, Biz Markie.

According to Sparky, in 1994 when she was down and out in Virginia, and wrestling with a raging crack addiction, she bumped into old friend Biz Mark outside of a venue he was performing at. “He saw me and gave me the biggest hug, and I guess he could tell I wasn’t doing so well, because he stuck $500 in my hand…just like that” recalls Sparky.

Now why would the “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” do such a thing? It’s because when she and Shante went out on the road, Biz was treated like a “wet food stamp.” According to Sparky, “I used to let him stay in my room with me, and would buy him steaks and things because Shante would tease him unmercifully, she talked about how his feet stank and how ugly he was…she used to kick him out of her room all the time, and he would stay with me and my crew.”

During her career Sparky – who was often perceived as an intimidating force on the rap scene, was also the type to offer encouragement and support to upstart rappers like Salt and Pepa and LL Cool J.

“When Salt and Pepa first went out and started performing, they were scared…they used to watch me [perform] and wonder how come I wasn’t scared. I used to tell them, you can’t be scared of these people,” says Sparky.

Of a young LL Cool J she says, “I remember him before he was LL, I used to take him shopping with me and everything. As a matter of fact, the first time I performed at Disco Fever I took him shopping with me when I bought my outfit for that night, I bought him a chain and used to advise him all the time, now look at him,” says a proud Sparky.

Although she wasn’t the type to be easily intimidated by any audience there was one crowd that had her shook – and that was the notorious Disco Fever crowd. “The first time I performed at the Fever, I ain’t gonna lie, I was scared,” says Sparky adding “the crowd at the Fever, were no joke, they would let you know right then if you was wack. If you could rock the Fever – you could rock anywhere on the planet,” said Sparky.

It was at one of these notorious New York City “hot spots” that Sparky was first introduced to cocaine. “The Funhouse is where I first snorted cocaine, someone had it in a dollar bill and was like, here, try this,” said Sparky. This was the beginning of a long decline for her.

When crack invaded the urban landscape like wildfire in late 1984, it held Black and Latino youth hostage for well over a decade. The first generation of hip hoppers were the earliest captives. Cocaine and PCP were staples on the early hip hop scene; at many parties the drug was readily available for partygoers and hip hop artists alike. According to Sparky, “ People used to sprinkle cocaine into their cigarettes and smoke it like that.”

It was later, after a show at the Encore in Queens, that Sparky was first introduced to crack. Though she wasn’t quickly addicted to it, she, like every other drug abuser found it difficult to repeat the ecstasy of her first hit. Most drug abusers chase highs for a lifetime. Sparky chased the white powdered ghost for two decades.

According to Sparky, “I was always able to handle business, I never got high in the day time, only at night. A person could come over to my house with two kilos in the middle of the day and I wasn’t gonna touch ‘em. But at night, it was on.”

Sparky got involved on both sides of the drug trade as both user and seller. But the life she was leading was slowly affecting other areas of her life. At first when she would get high, she would rhyme for her friends, “I would always tell them, watch I’m coming back out, just wait…and I said that shit for years and years,” says a remorseful Sparky. The more she stopped recording and performing, the faster she saw her dream slip from in between her fingers like sand on the beach.

Of all the people in the business that turned their back on Sparky during this time, there was one person who was always in her corner that was her deejay Kool DJ Red Alert, of whom she hid her addiction from for years.

Even though her life was slowly spinning out of control she says she always had it in her to encourage herself and others to do better spiritually. “I was always a spiritual person, but I wasn’t in touch with that higher spirit at that time,” says Sparky.

To complicate matters after moving to Los Angeles in 1989, her relationship with Spyder D came to an end. It was there at that time, that she met another man and had a son. That relationship soon ended due to domestic violence.

In 1994 she returned to New York with nowhere to go and no one to really stay with, she says of this period in her life, “My relationship with Spyder was over, so I couldn’t stay with him. Even my own sister wouldn’t take me in.” With nowhere to go Sparky, now a former rap star had no choice but to check into a shelter.

For many, the rapid changes in the world of hip hop are hard to take; for rap stars of a bygone era it’s even harder. One day you’re an 18 year old aspiring MC with the world ahead of you; and then slowly, at first, like the motion of the tide leaving the shore, you’re a 30 plus year old with more years behind you then ahead and your style of rap is out of date. No one tells you what to do next.

“It’s like going up the down stairs”, says Sparky adding that, “you think that you can maintain but you can’t.”

In 1998 while trying to get her life back together she met a man and got married. He was also an addict too. “He worked to get high,” says Sparky “He never missed a day of work, but that’s what he did. But, you know the saying ‘birds of a feather flock together’ Drugs ruined my marriage.”

It was this tumultuous relationship that had Sparky’s safety in jeopardy. “I have 42 stitches in my head as a result of domestic violence” says Sparky.

It was during this time that Doreen says she, “prayed to God to take the taste of drugs out of my mouth.” With a renewed sense of faith Doreen went about putting her life back together. She left her husband in Virginia and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be closer to her children.

In 1998 Doreen was re-born she is an Apostolic Pentecostal now. She hadn’t listened to secular music in years. “There’s life and death in the power of the tongue, what you say out of your mouth comes into existence. First, I was delivered from smoking cigarettes, when I stopped that my friends and family reached out for me”, says Sparky. “It took faith in a higher power for me to overcome my troubles. I always believed in myself even through domestic violence.”

As a child, before she ever entertained the thought of being a rapper, a young Doreen Broadnax wanted to be a pediatrician, but the lure of rap fame killed those thoughts. She is now an EMT/C.N.A. in Atlanta, and is working on gospel material.
Please contact author for permission to use any part of this article.

Master Mix Those Number One Tunes

Reggie Wells Talks About the Disco Side of Hip Hop

By Mark Skillz
So what do you know about this here?
“Hotel/Motel, Holiday Inn, if you don’t tell, then I won’t tell, but I know where you been!”

That’s official son, that’s the original version of the chant that Big Bank Hank used in Rapper’s Delight. It started at a spot called Club 371, way back in 1976. It’s the spot where Harlem’s smooth style came to the Boogie Down Bronx. It’s also the spot where four Manhattan deejays pioneered the disco side of hip hop.

“See, after the club, if you met a young lady and you wanted to take her to a motel or whatever, the place to go was the Courtesy in Jersey”, said pioneer deejay Reggie Wells.

“We called it the “Big C”, so if you were at the “Big C” after the club and somebody saw your car there; you’d find a note on your windshield that said “Hotel/Motel, Holiday Inn, if you don’t tell then I won’t tell, but I know where you been!”

Around the same time that a Bronx deejay named Kool Herc was pioneering the break beat style that would later be called hip hop, black club deejays in Manhattan were refining a slick style of talk over disco records.

“It wasn’t really rhyming with the music, just saying slick stuff over the music,” says Wells, “I’d say something like:
This is the man with the golden voice, that talks more shit than a toilet bowl can flush, do more gigs than your grand momma wear wigs, got more clothes than you should wear pantyhose, yes baby sexy lady I hear ya hummin’ I see you comin’, come on momma with your bad self, keep a pep in your step – ain’t no time for no half steppin’. It’s W-e- double L-s, the worlds exciting and most long lasting sound…WELLS…if you hear any noise, its just Reggie Wells and the boys.”

Starting in 1974, CCNY student Reggie Wells went on-air at WCCR. One of the students that was there at the time was rap pioneer Kurtis Blow. Wells, who got his inspiration to be a deejay from WWRL radio personality Hank Spann, is one of the few deejays of his generation to play in both clubs and on the radio.

With a changing voice at the age of 13, Wells took to crank calling random people in the phone book, “ I would call somebody up and say, “Hello, is this the Smith residence?” and I’d pretend like I was on the radio – I had the radio up real loud so that the person on the other end would think I was from a radio station – they’d be like, “Yeah it is!” and I’d say, “If you can name your favorite radio station, I have a grand prize selected just for you. They’d go “WWRL” and I’d say, “Yes, this is WWRL, and my name is Reggie Wells, and you just won a brand new Panasonic color television set that doesn’t work!”

“Hearing people respond as if I was on the radio, made me think, that, maybe that’s what I should be doing.”

The first club that Wells started rappin’ on the mike at, was on 67th St. and was called Le Martinique and after that, he did clubs like Cork in the Bottle and Casablanca. But the place that made him a legend in the city was Club 371 in the Bronx, that’s where he joined such legends as rap innovators Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood and the late-but unsung hero DJ Junebug.

A group called the Ten Good Guys owned Club 371, and it was there, that the four deejays bought Harlem’s style to the Bronx. Men wore dress shirts, slacks and dress shoes and women got in their fly wares as well, when they went out to party at 371.

However, before it was a spot for the disco side of hip hop, it had another reputation, “Club 371 was where big-time gangsters like Nicky Barnes and his crew used to hang out at in the Bronx”, says foundation-era promoter Van Silk.

“All the hustler types that went to 371 shopped at AJ Lester’s on 125th St., you had to be making money then to shop there. We bought nothing off the rack, everything was tailor-made. Brothers today don’t know about getting their pants measured from their waist to their toes”, said Silk, who back then was known as RC.

“Ron Isley and that old R&B group Black Ivory; they shopped at AJ Lester’s too. Brothers used to go there and buy sharkskin suits and gator shoes and Al Packer sweaters,” added Silk.

On the hip hop scene at that time, at clubs like the Hevalo and the Dixie, hip hop audiences wore sneakers and jeans and mock necks to jams. But, for the most part, initially, hip hop jams were in parks where anyone could attend.

“I remember going to Club 371 and standing in the middle of the place, and a record with a break came on, and we started breaking, and Hollywood, he’s my man and I love him to death, got on the mike and said, “There will be no diving on the floor in here!” That’s the kind of spot that was,” says foundation deejay and hip hop pioneer Toney Tone of the Cold Crush Brothers.

“We played break down parts of records at Club 371, but we didn’t specialize in that,” says legendary rap innovator DJ Hollywood.

“One reason that there was no break-dancing there was, because, for one thing, you couldn’t dance with a young lady, and be spinning on the floor. Girls were not going for that”, said Wells.

“Harlem was on some smooth shit way before the Bronx. In Harlem, we were about having money, and rocking nice clothes, and having your hustle game on right. All that diving on the floor shit, naw, that wasn’t happening. See while you down there on the floor, some smooth cat has come along and stole your girl!” said Hollywood.

“The real hustlers there didn’t drink. Their thing was to keep their game sharp, so if they did drink – they drank Perrier water”, said Wells.

“At that time, we drank Pipers, Moet and Don P. Drinking Don P at that time was the equivalent of drinking Cristal today. You see, back then; it was cool to drink a split. Nowadays, you see a brother in the club, and he’s walking around the club, with a bottle of Cristal – back then, you didn’t mind drinking a split. You didn’t have to buy the bottle – and your girl didn’t mind drinking a split either. You never saw anybody walking around with a bottle, we kept it in the bucket.”

“371 was one of the best clubs I ever worked for; the management, the staff, the deejays, I liked working with all of them. It’s rare that you get so many deejays together and they all got along. I met people that would come to 371 from all over, from places like; Connecticut, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens, Philly; this was a club that was known by word of mouth,” says Wells.

The club was doing so well that the deejays could afford to lease cars, “Hey I had a Lincoln Continental, Hollywood had a Cadillac, Junebug had a Cadillac as well; and Eddie Cheeba had a caddy too – except I think he had a driver!”

“I’ll never forget Grandmaster Flash had a yellow Cadillac! And you know that album Kurtis Blow did, where he was wearing the white leather suit on the cover, called “Tough”? Well on the back he’s posing in front of a limousine, that was his limo!”

Over the years it has been said that the jocks at 371 played disco – and it’s true they did, but they played the popular records of that time, that would play on radio stations like WBLS and WKTU like “Melting Pot” by Booker T and the MG’s and “Double Cross” by First Choice. These are records that deejays play today when they play the type of music called ‘classics’.

“The stuff that guys like me and Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba, and god bless Junebug, the stuff that we were doing, at that time, no one else was doing in any club in New York City. I’d say, to me, rap kind of started there, in that club, even though I heard about what was going on in the parks, as far as in the clubs, on a regular basis, that’s one of the first places you heard rap. But back then, there wasn’t so much hip hop because we didn’t have hip hop on wax, the deejays were considered the hip hop artists, but we did our thing on the club scene over disco records,” says Wells.

The distinction between what the deejays did at 371 and what Flash, Bam and Herc were doing is important. Both scenes were well aware of each other, however, they played in different markets. Flash, Bam and Herc played in parks, while Hollywood, Cheeba and Reggie Wells played in clubs for an older adult audience. What is important to point out as well is that the deejays did sometimes jam together.

“I knew about Red Alert and Kool Herc and the rest of the guys, but we played in a different market,” adds Wells.

Q: So, when was the first time you met Lovebug Starski?
A: I met Starski, when he and Hollywood did a concert at CCNY. Brainstorm, Evelyn “Champagne” King and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were on the bill that night, and Hollywood and Starski, they rocked the shit out of that crowd. I mean they totally blew them away. That style of rappin’ where they were talking with the music, I can’t tell you who really originated that style, cause you hear that this one started it - and that one started it; but for me coming from downtown, that was the first time that I had ever seen anyone do the rappin with the turntables and the mike on that level.
Q: So Hollywood was the first person that you saw rap?
A: Yes
Q: So were you aware of guys like Kool Herc, Cowboy, Timmy Tim and Coke La Rock?
A: Definitely, I had heard of them.
Q: So did you notice a big difference between what they were doing and what Hollywood was doing?
A: I heard about the deejays battling each other with lyrics, but with Hollywood, all he was doing was ad-libbing with the environment that was in front of him, so it was all about the party, just saying slick stuff and have the people respond. The other deejays, to be honest with you, I heard of them, but I really didn’t know them at that particular time, but I knew that their style was different from what were doing at that time.”

Wells came up watching the deejays before him like Pete DJ Jones, Maboya, Plummer and the late great Grandmaster Flowers. “Grandmaster Flowers was incredible, what he used to do, he would play with a record, he would take the bass out of a record, he could turn the vocals down and bring them back in…that man was creative with mixing. Not everybody can do that. I’ve been places and have watched the deejay, he’s busy cutting the record back and forth, you look up there and he’s having fun, but nobody is dancing.”

Wells can be considered a kind of deejay “shaman,” in that, he has a deep understanding of what makes a great deejay. “The job of a deejay is to maintain, sustain, create and motivate”, says Wells “I hate when deejays play by a format. Because when you play by a format in a club, and you have a consistent clientele, they get to know you and they know what to expect, change it up, crowds are different.”

One night at Paradise Garage, Wells got to witness first-hand, the “magic” of the late – but legendary club deejay Larry Levan, “I was in the booth with Larry, and he was talking, just talking a mile a minute, and I’m sitting there watching him, and I’m thinking to myself, “Does he know this record is gonna end?” and just when I was thinking that, the record ended, and all you heard was zhchczhc-zhzhzhnzk, you know the sound a record makes when it’s at the end? Well, when that happened, he and his light man, they must’ve been in sync or something, cause every time the record would make that sound…the lights went off – and would flash back on. He did that a few times, and then started the record over again, and the crowd lost their minds! See, that was a crowd that wanted to be entertained!”

One night at the Red Parrot in Manhattan, there was one audience that was not entertained by Wells; “I had to flip the script on them one night. You see the Red Parrot held about 4,000 people and on this night, there were about 3,000 people in there. So here I am playing, I’m rocking the shit out of them people, and all of a sudden…the record skipped. The next thing I knew, the crowd started booing me! So I turned the whole shit off, and got on the mike and said, “Hold up, hold up, I been playing good shit all night and I fuck up once and this is how you do ME?” I reached into my crate and pulled out the hottest shit at that time, a record called “Doin Da Butt” and they lost their minds!”

Nowadays Reggie Wells can be heard on 98.7 KISS FM on Friday nights mixing house, R&B and classic soul, with some old school rap.

Club 371 Playlist - straight from the mouths of DJ Hollywood and Reggie Wells…

Double Cross – First Choice
Soul Makossa – Manu Dubango
Galaxy – War
Runaway Love – Linda Clifford
Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me – Peter Brown
Shame – Evelyn Champagne King
Turn the Beat Around - Vicky Sue Robinson
Hotshot – Karen Young
Busting Loose- Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers
Super Sporm – Captain Sky
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is – Olympic Runner
Runnin’ Away – Roy Ayers
Movin’ On – Brass Construction
Dr. Love – First Choice
Love is the Message – MFSB
Ladies Night – Kool and the Gang
Let’s Get it Together – El Coco
Bounce, Rock, Skate and Roll – Vaughn Mason and Crew
Please contact author for permission to use any part of this article

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

You Can't Stop Us Now: The Birth of Planet Rock

By Mark Skillz

It was an age of wonder. It was the era of the pocket calculator and the digital watch. Toy manufacturer Coleco introduced the first electronic pocket-sized sports games. Video arcades were popping up in malls all over America; games like Pac Man, Centipede and Asteroids were supplanting the pinball machine as a teenager’s favorite pastime. The world of the Jetsons was slowly coming into being.

For three decades Hollywood turned out low budget sci-fi flicks that depicted a world ran by computers and policed by robots. All one had to do was to turn on the TV to get a look at what the future held for us. With all of the talk about technological advancement back then, people wondered what music would sound like in the future.

That question would be answered in 1982 with the release of the groundbreaking hit ‘Planet Rock’ on a small, struggling independent record label owned by Tom Silverman simply called Tommy Boy Records. Almost twenty-five years later the world is still feeling the impact from ‘Planet Rock’.

The Era of Soul-less Funk

By 1982 the hardcore funk music that had predominated the ‘70’s was lame. The raw and uncut funk of James Brown and Mandrill had been displaced by the tamer more crossover-oriented sounds of ‘Let It Whip’ by the Dazz Band and George Benson’s ‘Turn Your Love Around’. Even jazz/funk fusion pioneers Kool and the Gang; a group who’s string of hits in the previous decade ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’, had traded in their long Afro’s for Jheri Curls and recorded a pop piece of trash called ‘Celebrate’. The only artist at the top of the charts that could truly lay claim to being authentically funky was Rick James.

“This was a time when [black] radio was playing a kind of boring, sort of Kashif-like R&B”, says Tom Silverman, CEO of Tommy Boy Records. “Young black kids felt like there was no music for them. They adapted to hip-hop and made it their own.”

During the early to mid 80’s R&B was being marketed directly toward older more upwardly mobile African Americans. And why not? They were the ones with the money to spend. Artists like Glenn Jones, Patti Labelle, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, James Ingram, Whitney Houston and Mtume made songs, which spoke to that audience. There were minimal background singers. The voices like the subject matter were mature – lost love, in search of love and the pain of a broken heart. Black radio openly embraced these artists. Yet they shunned hip-hop records.

In Nelson George’s book ‘The Death of Rhythm and Blues’, he described the factors that led to the sterilization of soul. Among the things that happened to black music in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s were the segregation of radio (black radio and rock radio) and major corporations buying independent record companies. This in turn led to more money for black record executives. With the money flowing in at the top, black acts were encouraged to cross over to attract a wider audience in order to sell more records. All of that was nice, except for one thing, by the early to mid-80’s the music sucked.

Musically it was an age of experimentation: different forms of dance music were colliding together under the dim lights and smoky atmospheres of clubs such as the Peppermint Lounge and Paradise Garage. On the rock side of things Modern Rock was heating up the airwaves with songs like ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ by Joan Jett and ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by Human League. New Wave, Punk and Reggae were making serious inroads into popular music at the time as well. With all of the cross-pollinating of different forms of music, new recording techniques came into play. The first recording artists to use the drum machine – and use it very well, were Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and a group of guys from Germany called Kraftwerk.

Robot Pop Meets the Sound of the Streets
Heavily experimental and long on eccentricity the group Kraftwerk started out in Germany in 1968 when two classically trained musicians Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter came together to form a group called the Organization. The two men played shows in art galleries and worked out of a studio called Kling Klang; it is here that their innovations would come to light. Using any sound they could get their hands on the duo crafted music from the Mini Moog, audio feedback, analog equipment and later some self-created electronic drum pads.

With songs like ‘Man Machine’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ Kraftwerk slowly gained an underground following in the States with kids who did dances like the ‘Electric Boogie’ and the ‘Break’.

“The first time I heard Kraftwerk, Bam bought it to the house in 1977.” Recalls Mr. Biggs of the Soul Sonic Force, “Bam used to buy records just because he liked the album cover. When he bought it to my house, I was like, “Yo, these are some funky white boys.” Later on we went to go see them at the Peppermint Lounge. Bam was crazy about that group; they were different from anything that we listened to. We grew up on Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown.”

The Mr. Biggs of the Soul Sonic Force is nothing like soul singer Ron Isley’s latest incarnation as Mister Biggs, no, this Mr. Biggs is a close friend of Bambaataa’s and one of his earliest MC’s. He was a former member of the Black Spades and is a founding member of both the Soul Sonic Force and the Zulu Nation. He is the strong but silent type, he told me he got the name ‘Biggs’ as a kid because not only was he big for his size, but one day he “threw a kid over a bench, so they started calling me Biggs after that. As I got older I added on Mister.”

The song ‘Trans Europe Express’ was an underground classic. Everybody dug it: B-boys spinning on their backs and heads absolutely treasured it; party going, Patty Duke dancin’ fly guys and girls loved it; MC’s in parks and rec centers dug it to death and deejays from so many different scenes valued it as well. At Club 371 in the Bronx, DJ Hollywood (an R&B deejay) would play the song for the older, champagne-drinkin’, gold chain wearin’, sharkskin suit-wearing crowd. “Don’t miss the train!” He’d shout into the mic with his jovial sounding golden voice as he exhorted dancers into a frenzy, all the while his deejay Junebug blended in the haunting orchestration.

Crowds everywhere were held absolutely captive by the robotic-funk of four guys from Germany. ‘Trans Europe Express’ is a 9-minute, audio- cinema excursion through Cold War Berlin. The sound was sterile, yet dark and disciplined – almost as if machines were piloting the track. The orchestration done with analog keyboards of some type, sounded like they weren’t of the 20th century, but of perhaps some later point in time. The pounding of the drums suggested an acute awareness of American funk. This was the point on wax when art met electronic experimentation and skilled musicianship.

But in the streets of America there was another sound taking hold: Rap music. At the time session musicians like Pumpkin and Friends and Wood, Steel and Brass were re-playing the break-beats that hip-hop deejays spun live at block parties.

The Little Label That Could
In 1980 there were only two real independent record companies that specialized in rap music: Enjoy and Sugar Hill Records. Make no mistake there were other labels out there like Winley, Sound of New York, Brass, Dazz and all sorts of other fly by night labels whose owners hustled records out of the trunks of their cars, but none of them packed as powerful a punch as the big two.

That would all change in 1981 when dance music aficionado Tom Silverman released ‘Jazzy Sensation’ by the Bronx group Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five. Like many rap records of that era it was based on a popular song of the day, in this case Gwen McRae’s club hit ‘Funky Sensation’.

From 1981 to 2002 Tommy Boy Records released some of the most important records of the genre. One would be hard pressed to think of what direction the music would’ve taken had Tommy Boy not released such influential classics as ‘Planet Rock’, ‘Renegades of Funk’, ‘Plug Tunin’, ‘Ladies First’, ‘Humpty Dance’, ‘O.P.P’, ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’ and ‘Jump Around’. It can also be argued that some of the culture’s most influential acts came from the label: Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Afrika Bambaataa and the immortal Tupac Shakur.

“One of the things I always loved about the music business was that you never knew where the next hit was coming from”, said Tom Silverman CEO of Tommy Boy Music. “The thing that fascinates me the most is why one artist could have a smash hit out of nowhere, from nothing, and it could come from out of anywhere at anytime. To watch, what seems to be a sort of random process, but isn’t really a random process occur is very exciting to me, especially, when it comes from the independent sector”.

Silverman is one of the more interesting record men of his era, he is a fascinating mix of nuts and bolts business man, early ‘70’s flower child and dance music devotee who could’ve coined the term ‘thinking outside of the box’ twenty years before the phrase came into style. In fact, Silverman would probably say something like ‘there is no box’, when it comes to the record business, because during our conversation he made several references to the ‘organic process’ of record production.”

And he’s right. And it is because of his vision and ‘rebel with a cause’ kind of attitude that he was able to release some of the most innovative records in hip-hop history. He dared to go where his competition wouldn’t. The impact of ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Plug Tunin’ is still felt today. De La Soul are the fathers of the ‘backpack movement’. Before their seminal classic ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ rappers had regular haircuts and dressed in b-boy fashions. Lyrics were easy to understand. And only those with rough dispositions grabbed for mics at jams. Back then, kids with paisley shirts with half of their hair in dreads reached for the mic at their own risk.

While reflecting on the history of his company Silverman said, “Basically, if you really look at the history intelligently, of the twenty to twenty-five years of Tommy Boy, you can say we’re a hip-hop label, but its not really what we were. We did do hip-hop, because it was the most innovative thing. We did new music, and we always tried to push the envelope with new sounds. Whether it was Bambaataa – which was radical compared to everything before it, or De La Soul – which was really radical compared to everything before it, or House of Pain or Naughty by Nature, Digital Underground or even RuPaul, and hey, how much more radical could you get than that?”

Starting out in 1978 with a newsletter simply called the ‘Disco News’, later to be called the Dance Music Report, Silverman’s tip sheet for deejays was revolutionary. Radio and club jocks all over the nation were given tips as to what records banged in the clubs.

Silverman’s first act was the Bronx based crew Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five. Their boom box classic ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was the introduction the label needed, this was the recording that introduced the public to one of hip-hop’s most eccentric founders: Afrika Bambaataa. Although ‘Jazzy Sensation’ boomed in clubs and rocked block parties, there is nothing about the record that would hint at the genius that Bambaataa would later be heralded as. ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was a straight forward, party-rockin’, pulsatin’, inflatin’, guaranteed showstopper from a crew that would never see success beyond the Tri-State area. Recorded with a band it sold 30,000 records.

However, Tommy Boy’s next record would have an impact far beyond New York’s five boroughs.

To Build A Nation
Upon meeting Afrika Bambaataa Aasim one is immediately in awe of the man. He is as tall as he is wide. He truly is a gentle giant. One is instantly struck by the humbleness of such a large man. His words are measured carefully – he never raises his voice. It was during our conversation that it struck me as to why this man speaks in such even tones: He once commanded the largest and most powerful black gang in New York City, the Black Spades. All he’d have to do is simply say ‘Get rid of him’ and a transgressor was history.

Bam is unlike any current or former gang leader I have ever met. Most gang leaders carry themselves with a rowdy kind of arrogant swagger that suggests that they are not people to mess with. But not Bambaataa, who comes across more so as a chief of a tribe than as a one time gang leader. He has clearly been involved in street wars, yet there is nothing about Bam that suggests that he’d harm anyone. I was once told that “Bam himself is not a violent man, but the people around Bam are.” Nowadays the young men that travel with him as his security call him ‘Pops’.

“Bam was always a peaceful brother”, remembers Soul Sonic Force member Mr. Biggs. “People don’t understand that if it wasn’t for Bam, there would’ve been more bodies in graves”, he told me, “Bam would squash a lot of things on the street, we’d be like “Yo, let’s get him”, Bam would be like “Nah, let him go.”

“I first met Bam in ’72 in the Bronx River Projects”, recalls Biggs, “I was right there with him when the Zulu Nation was being formed. We went from being Spades to a group called the Organization to the Zulu Nation.”

“I heard about Bam before I met him”, recalls MC G.L.O.B.E. the lyrical titan of the group who invented a futuristic style of rap called ‘MC Poppin’ – for examples of this style think of the melodic styles of RUN-DMC and Nelly. “Bronx River used to be called the “Home of the Gods” if you were into any form of hip-hop culture, whether it be graffiti, gang member or music – that was the place.”

From an early age Bam had an innate understanding of power and how to use it. Although he was the leader of the Spades 10th division, that didn’t stop him from being friendly with other groups like the Savage Skulls. With his powerful presence Bam commanded respect, “Being one of the leaders” he told me, “ I was one of the guys who had a lot of wisdom and had my ways of controlling many other leaders within the Spades. So when the first half [of the Spades] fell and disappeared, like the division in the Bronxdale Housing projects – Bronx River [projects] became the main force, and I picked a lot of who would become the next supreme president and vice president and warlord into the Spades.”

But with all of the desperation and violence taking place around him, in his heart, Bam loved two things: Black culture and funky music.

“Bam always deejayed”, remembers Biggs, “before and after a rumble, Bam would go in the house and turn on the music full blast, he’d put the speakers in the window and play music all night long.”

It was a dance called the Break and gargantuan sized sound systems that distinguished hip-hop from all other forms of music back then. Bam’s Bronx River Projects was one of the epicenters of the hip-hop movement. It was also a place where few traveled to uninvited because it was the stronghold of the Black Spades.

It was during this time in a different section of the Bronx that a Jamaican immigrant named Kool Herc was capturing hearts and minds with a mammoth sized sound system and a brand new style of spinning records.

When I asked Mr. Biggs about the first time he saw Kool Herc his response kind of caught me off guard. “You know what? People got Kool Herc all twisted”, he said.
“How so?” I asked.

“Herc had a sophisticated crowd – he catered to the older cats back then. Those guys wore mock necks and nice clothes and all that stuff – we were thugs”, Biggs tells me. “In the beginning, Herc didn’t embrace hip-hop, we were hip-hop back then. After a while he started noticing his audience dying down, so he started playing for us. He came to me and Bam and asked our permission to play Bronx River. You couldn’t just set up your sound system and play in our rec center back then”, Biggs says, “that wasn’t gonna happen.”

At a battle between Bam and Herc, Afrika Bam proved to Kool Herc (and the audience) why he was the undisputed master of records. Herc – known for his gargantuan sized sound system the Herculords, a system so powerful that if you stood too close to it, legend has it that you could literally feel the bass pound your chest. Not only did he have the Herculords, but also in his crates were weapons of mass destruction, tunes like ‘Apache’, ‘T Plays it Cool’ and ‘Yellow Sunshine’.

Bam on the other hand was determined to best any man in a contest of obscure recordings. Of all of the deejays of his era he is noted for having the widest variety of records, thus his slogan ‘Nobody Plays More Music’. His playlist included everything from the truly rare like Nigerian-born Afro beat god Fela Ransom Kuti, to the riot inciting sounds of The Sex Pistols, 60’s rockers like The Monkees and The Rolling Stones, dub reggae, soca and salsa were also thrown into the mix as well. The Zulu King didn’t have as awesome a system as Herc but he more than made up for it with music.

“I’ll never forget that night [that Bam and Herc battled] because Bam had a toothache”, recalls Mr. Biggs. “That tooth was bothering Bam, man. He bought in the record ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen. The moment that song came on the crowd lost its mind!” Biggs tells me, “they went absolutely crazy over that record. Bam bought that record to the hip-hop community. Nobody could deal with Bam on records.”

But before there were battles on the dance floor there were wars – gang wars in the streets of the South Bronx. It got to the point where somebody had to put a stop to all of the nonsense. Starting with a core unit of brothers and sisters, Bam went from project to project with people like “B.O., Ahmed Henderson, Aziz Jackson, Sambula Nez, Queen Kenya, Queen Makeba and Queen Tamisha.” According to Bam, “We couldn’t go anywhere without those sisters. Those sisters had a lot of power.”

But how does one man get hundreds of knuckleheads to listen to him? I wondered.

“I just had a lot of wisdom and knew how to talk and use my mind.” Bam said. “I watched and mimicked a lot of the Nation of Islam ministers. They had a very powerful effect on how they used to speak and how they used to say things to grab the inner God in you that would recognize the God that was coming out that was speaking to them. I would just use that same technique. I used a lot of those techniques to speak to a lot of brothers and sisters from these other areas. I went straight for the people who I thought were ruling certain areas. I felt that if I could get control of the rulers then I could get control of the membership.”

Bambaataa introduced hundreds of young men and women to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panther Party. He expounded on the lessons of Clarence 13X (Father Allah of the Nation of Gods and Earths) and Dr. Malachi York. In Bambaataa’s Nation young men are called kings and women are queens.

“Listen to me young man”, MC GLOBE admonishes me, “This is one helluva story you’re getting here. What you are getting is the truth”, he tells me. Then taking a second to reflect he says, “I’ve never met anyone like Afrika Bambaataa. I often wonder where he came from, because what he taught us was so different from anything that any of us learned at that time. When I first started hanging around Bam, we’d go to his house and eat and he would teach us things –“
“Like what?” I interrupted.
“About life, the world, he taught us some deep stuff.”

The Record That Changed the World

Every group has its chemistry; the leadership of Otis Williams; the beautiful falsetto of Eddie Kendricks; the chest vibrating bass of Melvin Franklin; the raspy but soulful baritone of David Ruffin and the smooth tenor of Paul Williams anchored the Temptations.

For the Soul Sonic Force it was the eccentric tastes of its spiritual leader Afrika Bambaataa; the strength of Mr. Biggs; the witty lyricism of MC GLOBE and the antics of the groups ‘wild child’ Pow Wow.

“Pow Wow would start stuff and I would end it”, Biggs says to me confidently.

“I went to Bronx River to go audition to get in the group the Soul Sonic Force” GLOBE remembers, “Bam and Biggs were sitting at the table. At the time there were like eight MC’s in the group. There was Lisa Lee, Sundance, Master Ice, Master Bee, Mr. Freeze, Charlie Rock, Mr. Biggs and Love Kid Hutch. I must’ve done something because after I auditioned, the Soul Sonic Force became just me, Pow Wow and Biggs.”

Bambaataa’s initial recordings were just run of the mill rap records. There was nothing to distinguish them from the dozens of rap records that were being released at the time. ‘Zulu Nation Throwdown’s Parts I and II’, ‘Death Mix’ and ‘Cotton Candy’ were just average performances. Lyrically and vocally the Jazzy 5’s ‘Jazzy Sensation’ was the real standout.

Then along came a new record from Kraftwerk called ‘Numbers’.

The song opened up with someone speaking German into a vocoder. The record was undeniably funky. The snare drum sounded like it had been processed and compressed and processed again, perhaps in someone’s garage where the higher part of the snare’s sound could reverberate off of the walls and then back into the console. The kick drum didn’t make the same thumping sound as normal drum kits of that era – this one boomed. BOOM-BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM- BOOM. A reverb was placed on top of the kick drum sound so that it could stand out and compete with the snare. Multiple robotic voices made the following refrains: “One-uno-three- four – quarto. Uno – duo- tres – quarto.” And then: “Eech- Me- Sun- She.” The robots were counting in different languages.

The song rocked America just as ‘Trans Europe Express” had done years before.

One night at the Ecstasy Garage GLOBE and Pow Wow went to go see the Cold Crush perform. They were rhyming over ‘Numbers’. “We laughed to ourselves”, said GLOBE, “Because they had no idea what was coming their way.”

The idea for the Soul Sonic to use that beat had come from an unlikely source a few weeks earlier. “One of Bam’s most powerful Zulu’s was a dust head and a gangster named Poo”, GLOBE says to me, “He was the kind of guy who always had his ear to the ground, if you know what I mean. One night in the wee hours of the morning, Pow Wow and I were hanging out with him drinking beer and whatnot talking about records. We were like, “Yo man, I wanna come up with a joint that nobody else can do. That nobody can touch its gotta be something crazy.” We were like “what’s a real hot record right now?” Cause what you would do is you would rap over hot records. The Treacherous Three had used ‘Heartbeat’, the Sugar Hill Gang had used ‘Good Times’, and the Furious had used ‘Genius of Love’. So what were going to do? Well, Poo looked at us and asked, “What’s the hottest record out right now?” To which we responded ‘Numbers’.

“I wrote the song sitting on the edge of my bed. Then I got Pow Wow and we added more lyrics to it and then we got Mr. Biggs involved”, GLOBE said.

“Yeah we all three wrote the song together”, Mr. Biggs confirms for me adding that, “GLOBE came up with the flow, the melody. He had some stuff written but I was like ‘Nah, that’s corny, take that out.”

According to GLOBE, “At that time we were rappin’ over stuff like “Groove to Get Down”, ‘Impeach the President’, ‘God Made Me Funky’ and all that type of stuff. We never rapped over that fast stuff. After ‘Numbers’ came out Bam went crazy over it and we started on the song.”

But according to DJ Jazzy Jay, the architect behind many of the early Def Jam classics such as ‘It’s Yours’, ‘The Def Jam’ and ‘Cold Chillin’ In the Studio’ and who will be re-releasing the Strong City Records catalogue, “That song was based on a routine we used to do with ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Super Sporm’ – I used to cut those live. I showed up to the studio with a [cassette] tape and said ‘here play that.”

According to GLOBE, “The opening line ‘we know a place, where the nights are hot…’ “I was referring to Bronx River, we wanted to take people there and show them what a party was like where we come from.”

Produced by John Robie and Arthur Baker using a Roland 808, a keyboard and a Fairlight the song ‘Planet Rock’ would be an instant classic. The team of Robie and Baker replayed the melody to ‘Trans Europe Express’ and the drum beats to ‘Numbers’ and ‘Super Sporm’ the song was recorded for the measly sum of $800. When it hit the streets of America in the spring of 1982 it was an instant blockbuster.

The first people to hear it were deejays.

“I knew it was a hit the first time I heard it”, said Kool DJ Red Alert, who bears the distinction of being one of the first hip-hop mix deejays on commercial radio. “Mr. Biggs played the cassette tape for me at Danceteria in midtown Manhattan. He played it for me toward the end of the night when there was barely anyone in there”, Red recalls, “When he played it I nodded my head giving it my approval – I knew it was a hit.”

“Lady B the deejay out of Philly was the first to play the record on the radio”, says Mr. Biggs. For a while no one knew that it was a rap record because radio stations all over the country only the played the instrumental.

“I didn’t like it when I first heard it”, Jazzy Jay said emphatically. “It was too different from everything else that was out back then. The electronic feel didn’t really move me. It didn’t sound like ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Super Sporm’ or ‘Numbers’”, said Jay, “Especially coming off of ‘Jazzy Sensation’ it didn’t sound right to me.”

“It was a battle to get that record played on the radio”, remembers Tom Silverman. “Black adults hated hip-hop and fought it tooth and nail. You can only imagine the kind of comments I heard from radio programmers [when I was trying to get this record played]. I went international to try and break it internationally, and the big urban music execs were very dismissal of hip-hop. They’d say things like, “This isn’t music they’re talking on it, this is a disgrace to R&B, this is a disgrace to their race, this isn’t real music.” That’s what I got everywhere. Programmers would say, ‘Tommy, you can’t expect me to play this record, I love you, but they’re talking on this record.’ I’m telling you, we take it for granted now – hip-hop is cool, but there were like three or four stations that had one slot for hip-hop records. A lot of stations would only play the instrumental versions of records, because they didn’t play rap. It was a battle in those days to get a rap record played.”

‘Back then”, Silverman continues, “You had a lot of us banging on doors trying to get our records played. People like Will and Fred Munao, Eddie O’locklin, Bryan Turner all of us that were out there telling the majors “this is it, this is it, this is the next music’. The majors would tell us no its not, its Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.”

“The guys that were doing the first ten years of hip-hop were nothing less than musical revolutionaries”, said Silverman.

When the Planet Rocked
“The first time I heard it was on WBLS”, Jazzy Jay recalls, “I was in my car on the way to the Throgs Neck Projects. Back then in ’79, ’80 – didn’t anyone out here know anything about installing sound systems in cars. I had the woofers and tweeters and crossovers and all of that – my boys had the same things in their cars too, so if we were riding down the street listening to the radio at the same time it would sound like a block party. Anyway, here I was on my way to the Throgs Neck Projects listening to the radio when all of a sudden: “Oh snap, what’s that? We’re on the radio!” I almost crashed. I got off the highway and dropped a dime in the phone and called Bam and then my mom – we were on the radio!” Jay says to me as he recalls that day from so many years ago.

The song “Planet Rock” took off like wild fire it boomed in passing cars, boom boxes and clubs all over the world. Along with the phenomenon of this sound a new dance was introduced to the rest of the nation. It had been a part of Bronx culture for at least 10 years, it was dance that had many names ‘the b-boy’, ‘the boing-yoing’ but mostly it was known as ‘the break’. Teenagers in suburban neighborhoods were doing it with the same enthusiasm as kids in the inner cities. Everywhere you looked someone was spinning on their backs and heads, twisting their arms and legs around at gravity defying speeds. And ‘Planet Rock’ was the soundtrack.

There was a second version of the song called ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ that boomed in the hood just as hard as “Planet Rock”. It was sung by a group of session musicians that Tom Silverman dubbed “Planet Patrol” – “They weren’t really a group per se”, Silverman told me, “they were just some guys that we got to sing on the track. Really, Planet Patrol was John Robie and Arthur Baker.”

The groups first big show was in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, they shared the bill with the Jazzy Five “I knew that song was large when we played that show”, said Jazzy Jay. “There were mobs of girls chasing us and shit – it was big.”

MC GLOBE concurs “The crowd went wild for us at the Queens Day Show, they really showed us love. It was crazy. It was really crazy”, he says to me.

“When we played Studio 54” Jazzy Jay says, “People were jumping on the stage like we were Genesis or somebody like that. They were screaming – you didn’t expect that kind of reaction from a crowd like that, no way.”

“I started to like the record when it started to take me around the world – it was the first time I had ever gotten on a plane”, remembers Jay. “Tom flew us down to Florida for a fish fry at Jack the Rapper; it was me, Bam, Biggs, Pow Wow and GLOBE – now that was cool. We were just some guys from the projects in the Bronx, that was a really big deal to us.”

In the broader scope of history it was only fitting that the group would travel to Florida first. It is there that the song ‘Planet Rock’ spawned a movement: Miami Bass. “We started a phase and everyone else jumped on it”, said Jazzy Jay, ‘It spread to the Freestyle market and the whole LA scene and in Miami, Techno all of that stuff, seeing the impact – it was big.”

MC Shy D, Gigolo Tony, the 2 Live Crew, Annequette, Tag Team, 95 South and many other groups of that region owe their very careers to the song ‘Planet Rock’. Before the South was synonymous with the word ‘Crunk’ the predominate sound of that region was Miami Bass. In a whole lot of cases the producers replayed the Planet Rock beat with a heavier emphasis on the 808-kick drum. Whereas the Soul Sonic Force record went ‘boom-boom-boom boom boom- boom; the Miami records went ‘BOOM-BOOM-BOOM BOOM BOOM-BOOM’. The thunderous rattle of the low booming bass from those songs destroyed many sound systems.

At the same time on the West Coast in Los Angeles a whole other movement was taking form, the song ‘Planet Rock’ and the funk/rockateer Prince inspired their sound. Groups like Uncle Jamm’s Army, The Dream Team, Egyptian Lover and the World Class Wrecking Crew traveled and sold out stadiums all across the country. America had been listening to New York hip-hop and was starting to rap back. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force had taken hip-hop from the playgrounds and rec centers of their Bronx neighborhood and revolutionized music with a sound that would be the wave of the future.

Authors note: Interview with Bam was conducted in San Francisco in November 2004 with Davey D. Special thanks to Christie Z Pabon (Tools of War) for the hook ups with Bam and Tom Silverman. Extra loud shout goes to Big Jeff of the Zulu Nation.

This article was originally published in Wax Poetics.