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