Saturday, June 16, 2007

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
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