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:

1 comment:

EyeGetzRaw said...


Great piece, as usual skillz!!!

These ladies were unquestionably the first female stars of post-vinyl Hip Hop.

They also brought more than a passing influence of the durty durty with them...the funk infused in much of their work was NOT typical of what NYC was generally working with. The influence of P-Funk would not be so acute again in Hip Hop until the rise of the West in that sense, they were certainly ahead of their time.

They also were the prototype for groups like TLC, Bell Biv Devoe and others who rapped AND sang full-time.

Eye have always felt that they deserve far more recognition than they have been given over the years.

Your story just reaffirms that for me.

Thanks for that...

...and nuff respect due to the ladies of Sequence!