Sunday, December 21, 2008

When It Was All About A Party

Man, I've been sick with bronchitis as well as pneumonia, so I haven't been able to post, but I figure that now that I'm a little stronger I'd hit you with this...

This group right here rocked the mf'n house! They were called the Disco Four. Should've been the Disco Four Plus One More. The crew consisted of Greg G, Country, Mr. Troy, Ronnie D and Cool T. This was an Uptown group that had the hip-hop flavor, but you could really feel the R&B vibe as well.

Their best cuts were "Do, it, Do it", "Throwdown", "Here Comes that Beat" and this one right here "We're At the Party".

This may have been the best cut of that year. I think it was 1983 when this dropped. The harmonies - back in the day, four or five guys would sound like one, well, these guys would harmonize and sound like the 5 Stairsteps or something like that.

None of them, were stand out lyricists. But they all came together well and did the damn thing. My man Troy L Smith from the Foundation has interviewed Greg G (Greg Marius) and is in the process of interviewing Ronnie D (Ronnie Robinson) whose father is Bobby Robinson that owned Enjoy Records. Ronnie is also first cousin to Spoonie Gee.

The production on this cut is great it sounds like the producer - I believe Eric Matthews, replayed or should I say, made a version of Isaac Hayes "You've Lost that Lovin' feelin' if you lsiten to the piano and the bass line, tell me what you think, it sounds like that break to me. But somewhere between "Here Comes that Beat" and "We're At the Party" is the very essence of the Disco 4.

Mark Skillz

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Founding Fathers Part Two: My Disco Brother...

Because I want to be able to walk the streets of the Bronx in peace I better clarify my position on the last post.


Ok...the hip-hop of the Bronx was pioneered by Kool DJ Herc in 1973. Hands down no questions or arguments from me. What Kool Herc did back then inspired Afrika Bam, Flash, Theodore, AJ, Charlie Chase, Breakout and hundreds and hundreds of others.

However, in the other boroughs a similiar thing was going on. The differences weren't major. Whereas, Kool Herc called his set the 'merry go round' (when he played break after break after break after break) cats in Brooklyn and Queens ie; Master D, the Smith Brothers, Grandmaster Flowers, King Charles, Disco Twins, Infinity Machine and many others were playing rhythm and blues and funk and soul records. They didn't specialize in rare and obscure records with five second breaks like the Bronx cats did, but they did spin records like "Phenomenon Theme" and "Ashley's Roachclip" and when the break came on they kept it going. Not by scratching or cuttin, but they extended the break.

At that time damn near everything in Black music was called disco as the producer (Ron Lawrence) of the documentary below asked me recently.

"Yo, what was Grandmaster Flash's right hand mans name?" Disco Bee. He has a point there.

Lil Rodney Cee of the Funky Four used this line in one of his rhymes: "to be a dis-co sensation a rock rock yall."

Or how bout this: (can't remember the groups name but as the MC handed the mic off to the next MC he said) "My disco brother, get on the mic you undercover lover!"

There was an uptown group called the Disco Enforcers. There was another group (actually one of my favorite groups ) called the Disco Four.

All this to say, cats front on disco big time. But everything back then was called disco and there was no such thing or concept as hip-hop. Especially if we're talking about 1975.

King Charles, Grandmaster Flowers and Pete DJ Jones had been doing their thing since the late 60's! These guys mixed the hell out of records. What they did inspired cats in Brooklyn and Queens. At some point (don't ask me when or where) the two different styles (the Bronx style and the BK/Queens style) started converging.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Founding Fathers

This is a documentary coming out sometime next year, I don't know who the producers of this film are, but they are on point in this joint. Some of the people I recognize off the bat are: DJ Divine of Infinity Machine, Sweety Gee and Pete DJ Jones.

One of the premises of this film is that hip-hop didn't just start in the Bronx. One of the first people I remember is a guy who played all over Queens named King Charles. This was 1977 maybe early 1978, that I started seeing flyers all over the place featuring his jams, along with the Disco Twins and Cipher Sounds. At the top of the flyer it would say: Tiny Promotions, or something like that.

I hope Pete Jones says live on camera that he is NOT from Brooklyn! For years it has been reported that Pete DJ Jones was from Brooklyn - he isn't, he lives in the Bronx and is originally from Durham, North Carolina.

I remember a couple of years back my home boy Davey D was on a panel somewhere in New York, when a brother in the audience got real heated up, when a Bronx cat, possibly Grandmaster Caz, said something to the effect of hip-hop starting in the Bronx with Kool Herc.

This brother, who was the maintenance man or something like that in the venue where the panel was being held took real exception to the whole "hip-hop started in the Bronx" thing. He said, hip-hop started in Brooklyn with guys like Grandmaster Flowers and the Smith Brothers and he named off all kinds of streets and projects where the different deejays did their thing at. To top it off, he said the Bronx cats never came around there, so how would they know what they were doing?

To be sure, there were all kinds of mobile jocks in New York in the early 70's. Hands down, no questions. I've always asked the Bronx cats that I've interviewed this one important question, "Yo, what impact did the Jamaican sound systems have on ya'll?"

Everybody from Toney Tone to Kool Herc to Bambaataa said: "None, none at all. They weren't a part of our thing. They did their own thing."

Which is more than likely true, with one exception Grandmaster Flash's sound system the Gladiator was built by some Jamaican brothers on Freeman Street. And in Brooklyn, there is no way in the world those dudes in Brooklyn could not have heard the different sound systems. Deejay culture in Jamaica goes back to the 50's!

The one time I interviewed Kool Herc I asked him about the Jamaican sound systems in the Bronx and he acknowledged knowing a few of them, but said that they had no influence or impact whatsoever.

What pisses alot of dudes from Queens and Brooklyn off is when the Bronx cats dismiss them (the early dudes that is) as being "disco". That's a diss, in the literal sense. It's their way of dismissing those brothers as being something inauthentic. To be sure, yes, the brothers did play what was popular on the radio, but they also played breaks too! The real division between the Bronx and I'm gonna say the other four boroughs, is the fact that there was a heavier emphasis on breaks - rare breaks and scratching. Also the MC'ing was a little rawer too. But it was basically the same thing: Talking over funky ass beats on a sureshot sound system.

See the pic above for my personal opinion as to where hip-hop really comes from.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Tribute to a Real Rapper...

This guy was sayin' some deep stuff
when Tupac was an itch in his daddy's

He was a poet, preacher and a communicator
in the soulful age of Rhythm and Blues when
singers not only sang, but rapped as well. And
they said some really deep, soul stirring stuff too.
They talked about life, love, heartbreak,
pain and hard times.

In other words, real life ish.

By no stretch of the imagination was Bobby
Womack a hip-hopper. But we can learn
a lot from he and his music.

"Across 110th Street", "If You Think You're
Lonely Now", "A Woman's Gotta Have It",
"I'm Lookin' For A Love", "Where Do We Go
From Here", "Harry Hippie" and "I Can Understand It";
Womack had a way of getting straight to the heart of
the matter.

"When the skeletons come out of the closet,
And chase you all around the room,
And the memories sail around like a ghost,
And mess you around with a sad long tune.
If you think you're lonely now - wait until tonight."

And this...

"I was the third brother of five,
Doin' whatever I had to do to survive.

I'm not saying what I did was all right.
Tryin' to make it out of the ghetto was a day to day fight."

I met him backstage at the Oakland Paramount Theatre in 1996.
I didn't know how old he was. But the brother seemed "old"
to me. I now know that he was about fifty-two - but
from being around him and listening to him he seemed like he
was seventy-two.

My best friend Mark was working with the promoter somehow
or another, so I tagged along and got to hang out with "The Poet."
He was impressed by my knowledge of music.
Only a crate digger knows that it was Bobby and Gabor Sazbo
(I probably spelled it wrong) that originally did "Breezin"
a song that George Benson would later popularize.
Bobby's eyes glistened behind his glasses and a warm smile
enveloped his face with every song of his I mentioned.
After all it isn't everyday that a legendary soul man comes
face to face with a twenty-six year old that knows his
music like it came out yesterday.

At the time I was shopping demos and having no luck.
I had heard all of the music business horror stories: Broke artists.
Ripped off artists. Broken groups. Fat cat record men with huge
pockets made off of near destitute artists. I had to ask someone who
would really know...

"Mr. Womack, how do you make a living in the music business?"

Mr. Womack took a long draw on his cigarette while interrupting
himself from the small space of solitude that he reserved for
himself for quiet private thoughts and said to me: "Son, you gotta
love what you do."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ain't Someone Ever Gonna Give Me A Break

Kurt Walker probably never had the kind of job where he had to punch a clock or take his lunch to work in a brown paper bag everyday. And he more than likely never stood on line at the unemployment office either. Yet, his music – at least in the first part of his career, was firmly grounded in the blue collar work world of fifteen minute lunch breaks, irate supervisors, low pay and lay offs.

Of all the “firsts” that Kurtis Blow can truly lay claim to(first rapper signed to a major record company, first rapper with a RIAA certified gold record, first rapper turned producer, first rapper on Soul Train and first rapper to make a million bucks) he bears the distinction of being the first and at this point, probably the only, rapper to make songs that paid tribute to that long forgotten shadow of the American silhouette: the hard-working everyday man.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, politicians used to care about the guy who punched in at 7:30 everyday and punched out at 5:00. He got by on little and managed to eke out an existence on even less. But he’s been tossed to the side like that old worn out sofa that’s been in the living room for far longer than anyone can remember. Discarded. Dismembered. No longer useful. No one targets him as a demographic anymore. He’s been replaced by soccer moms and hockey moms.

There once was a time – when the genre was called Rhythm and Blues, that the music was directly aimed at the blue collar workforce. Men like Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Sam Cooke and ZZ Hill come to mind. They talked about “the boss” and real life every day situations. Nowadays every nigga’s a player or a hustler. And everybody knows that players and hustlers don’t work.

For whatever reason Country music never lost this connection with the everyday man.

The last Rhythm and Blues record that truly captured the sentiment of and related to the ‘hard-hat wearing, cigarette-in-one-hand and gin and tonic in the other’ everyday man was an instrumental by John Handy aptly titled “Hard Work.”

In a culture that celebrates out of control narcissism and unchecked hedonism; songs like “Hard Times”, “Tough”, “The Breaks”, “If I Ruled The World” and “Party Time” would probably not make a dent in corporate controlled radio play lists and would definitely never see the light of day on BET.

But if you listen to those songs closely you’ll hear outlooks that only a man who’s been on the wrong side of words like “opportunity” and “profit sharing” can relate to. This is real adult content.

“You work all year to buy a brand new car,

A CoupDe Ville or a Jaguar,

But you didn’t make enough for a good cigar

Cause it’s tough!”

TOUGH: It’s a way of life, lost your job,

Your money but not your wife.

ROUGH: Getting in the black

Uncle Sam’s in your pocket,

And your woman’s on your back.

HARD: That’s the deal,

Had to get a loan

Just to buy a meal

TOUGH: That’s how it goes when it’s getting better nobody knows!

TOUGH: That’s the word,

Unemployment is all I heard.

ROUGH: When you start your day,

Watching the finance man tow your car away.

HARD: To hold a job,

When your being replaced by a little blue knob.

TOUGH: Like a dollar steak

Ain’t someone ever gonna give me a break!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Street Girl: Spoonie Gee's Tale of a Doom Fox

It was an overlooked song by one of the more underrated rappers of his generation and it was a masterpiece.

It was the first time on wax that a rapper weaved together a narrative as vivid as a Donald Goines novel. It was a tale of heartbreak, deceit and revenge. In fact the main character could’ve been a vixen straight out of a Goines book. At the height of the message rap era one guy decided to do it his way.

Before Scarface, Biggie, Tupac, Kool G Rap and Slick Rick took us on cinematic lyrical journeys…there was Spoonie Gee. Before LL Cool J, Snoop, Too Short, Big Daddy Kane or anyone else who would make a claim to being a mack, player or a pimp on a rap record - there was the ‘cold crushing lover’, who composed slick narratives about cruising down the street in a new Mercedes SL, meeting fly girls and doin’ the “wild thing.”

In a conversational tone – which was unheard of at that time, Spoonie told stories that would make Jody, the mythical bad man of blues legends smile. He was cool before Rakim even touched a microphone and had mastered the art of lyrical seduction before a teenaged Todd Smith rapped “I Need Love.”

In a career that spanned from 1979 to 1987 he authored the classic recordings “Spoonin’ Rap”, “Love Rap”, “The Big Beat”, “Take it Off”, “Spoonie’s Back”, “Monster Jam”, “Survival”, “That’s My Style”, “Mighty Mike Tyson”, “You Ain’t Just A Fool” and “The Godfather.” And it all started on an obscure label called Sound Of New York with an intro that will forever be a part of hip hop history: “You say one for the trouble two for the time come on y’all let’s rock the…”

Small Talk With A Poet From 123rd St
Gabriel Jackson is not the kind of guy who opens up to strangers – especially on a three-way phone call with office noise in the background. It wasn’t gonna happen. Like Tony Soprano would say, “fuggetaboutit.”

Of all the legends of his era Spoonie Gee is something of a mystery. His best recordings were made before the advent of music videos and corporate interest in the hip-hop genre. His laid back demeanor, on one hand, probably helped him – but on the other, it more than likely hindered him in some way. If you close your eyes and listen to his music, aesthetically, he was very similar in style – and sound to another Harlem legend: the Dom P drinkin’, fur coat lovin’, shark skin suit wearing, gold-chain sportin’, diamond ring lovin’, ex-jewel thief, turned soul singer Oran ‘Juice’ Jones.

But that wasn’t quite Spoonie’s style.

Plain and simple, quiet and humble are how many have described the man named Gabriel Jackson. Whereas Oran ‘Juice’ Jones personified a smoothed out, cold-blooded mack version of Curtis Mayfield with a penchant for suits and jewelry, Spoonie was the total antithesis who opted to wear simple sweaters and shirts in publicity pictures.

Spoonie’s charisma can be found in his records. Now, somewhere in his early to mid-forties, Spoonie is a streetwise veteran, who has no doubt seen and been through a lot. Because of his quiet nature and some say shy persona, Spoonie hovered above rap fans as sort of a puzzle. But that wasn’t his aim. He’s done very few interviews and with the exception of the Sugar Hill tours in the early 80’s was never a part of any major concert tour. Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that “Spoonin’ Rap’ was the start of the underground.”

The Harlem that Gabriel Jackson was born into is different now. “Harlem was Harlem back then,” he told me on the phone. Indeed. ‘Regentrification’ has drastically changed the face of the place that poets and writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin once wrote about so vividly. But when Spoonie was growing up there he says, “It was the hustling times, when the real gangsters were out, the real hustlers.”

“Man, he was a real Harlem dude,” writer Barry Michael Cooper told me about Spoonie in a phone interview from his home in Baltimore, Maryland. Cooper, also a Harlem native wrote the movies New Jack City, Above the Rim and Sugar Hill and is no stranger to the streets that drug lords with names like Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas, Goldfinger, Freddy Myers and Nicky Barnes haunted almost a lifetime ago. “He walked the streets without fear.” Cooper told me certifying Spoonie’s street cred.

In the early eighties Cooper was a reporter and music critic for the Village Voice who covered everything from the infamous Larry Davis case to the latest twelve inch record release by up and coming rap acts. In the middle of covering all of these new and exciting singles the music bug bit him really hard and inspired him to buy equipment and write and record his own songs. A long the way he ran into and befriended one of the hottest MC’s of the time: Spoonie Gee.

“We used to eat at a joint called M&G’s.” Remembered Cooper. “M&G’s is still on 125th St. but the weird thing about it is that it used to be on the other side of the block. Spoonie used to eat there everyday. And he would flirt with this Jamaican woman; she had the biggest breasts I’ve ever seen in my life. He would always order grits, fried salami and wheat toast or something like that – and scrambled eggs. And we would sit in there and talk – and he’s not a big talker, even back then he didn’t talk a lot. All I knew about him and all he would volunteer in terms of action over words was that: Whatever he did in Harlem, whoever he ran with he was respected, man. Nobody ever came at that kid crazy. No one said a word out of place to him. He had mad respect on the street.”

Respect and honoring the hustlers code were common themes in Cooper’s movies be it Nino Brown in New Jack City or Romello in Sugar Hill Cooper bought the cold hard streets to life in his stories. “ I knew about this – the respect issue because growing up in Harlem in my little time getting’ high, I had one foot in the Schomburg Library and the other on 123rd St in building 136 buying me a bag of ‘Black’ or some ‘Improved’ or some ‘Red Devil Dust’ or some ‘Busy Bee Dust’ or whatever. If there was a drought there I’d go down to ‘dust city’ on 112th Ave. My main thing back in them days, Mark was being an observer. Unbeknownst to me at the time I was making mental notes for New Jack City and all this other stuff I would go on to write, cause I was out there. To speak on someone getting street respect I’m not saying that out of a vacuum.”

“The way Spoonie carried himself the way he dressed he was the embodiment of Harlem. I remember this guy used to wear the trench coats and mock necks and the jeans with the slants and some Italian shoes. He wasn’t wearin’ British Walkers he was goin’ downtown to get his shoes, man. He was real Harlem in the way he carried himself.”

“I grew up on 123rd between 7th and 8th [Avenue],” Spoonie told me, “if you went to 7th ave and looked around you’d see nothing but pimps and big time drug dealers and stuff like that, so I seen a lot of that as I was growing up. As far as gangs and all of that there wasn’t none of that. You had the Black Panthers when I was growing up. When you had a beef back then it was a one on one thing. If you won you won if you lost you lost. There wasn’t no going home to get a gun or a knife or none of that, it was straight up, you know?”

“I used to see the hustlers,” Spoonie continued “and look at them and see the cars they drove…you know, [I was] a kid, you know, I admired some of the things that they had, but I never looked up to them or nothing like that and said ‘I wanna be like that’. I just used to admire their cars and they had a lot of women, you know, I like women. I love them as a matter of fact.”

It was his love of women – fly girls as they were called back then, that was his main – and some could argue, only subject. He called himself the ‘cold crushing lover’, a title that he said he just “made up one day.” As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the subject of women came up in our conversation that he truly came to life: “Yo, I used to have a phonebook that I had all the broads’ numbers in,” he said to me. “I was knockin’ them off left and right – for real. I was knockin’ them off one by one.” And then he paused and said in almost a mumble of a voice, “I was very sexually active back then.”

“I used to call one she’d come over; when that one left I got the next one. That’s how it was, I had more energy back then I was younger. I was pullin’ girls everywhere I went, it didn’t make a difference it could be the store, the laundry mat – I pulled a broad at the laundry mat while I was washing my clothes, for real…it didn’t matter.” He said to me with a slight laugh.

Spoonie came up in Harlem in what could be called a special time. Right on 125th St is the Apollo Theatre, when Spoonie was coming up R&B legends like Jackie Wilson and James Brown used to play there on a regular basis. His uncle Bobby Robinson, who owned one of the first black owned businesses on 125th St., Bobby’s Happy House – a record store that recently closed, raised him. But Robinson is better known worldwide as the guy behind Enjoy Records. Before recording Spoonie, The Furious Five, The Funky Four and his son Ronnie’s group the Disco Four; Robinson recorded the late King Curtis, Elmore James, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lee Dorsey and the Shirelles.

As much as Spoonie loved Rhythm and Blues he was not a singer. He found his calling when he heard the godfather of rap DJ Hollywood. He doesn’t remember where or when he first heard Hollywood, but he remembers that it was on a tape. It made a big enough impression on him that he started writing rhymes soon after. One of the first rhymes he wrote was on his record “Spoonin’ Rap”: “I was driving down the street on a stormy night, I said up ahead was a terrible fright. There was a big fine lady she was crossing the street, she had a box with the disco beat…” he laughed a little while rapping it to me over the phone.

But aside from his rhymes about being a ‘smooth-talker and a midnight stalker’ Spoonie had depth. On the record “Spoonie’s Back” over Wood, Steel and Brass’s funky remake of James Brown’s “Funky President”, he showed a quality never before heard on a rap record: a sensitive side.

“She was a lady who lived in the past,
Whose life I thought would always last.
She’d wipe my tears when I used to cry,
Made me feel better when I thought I would die.
Helped pick me up,
When I felt so down,
Put a smile on my face,
In the place of a frown.
She took care of me from date of birth
And if it wasn’t for her
I wouldn’t be on Earth.”

The verse was dedicated to his deceased mother Frances Jackson, who passed away when Spoonie was a kid. “He often spoke about his mother,” Cooper told me, and ‘he spoke very highly and lovingly about her.”

The Era of the Big Beat Sound
R&B and funk records in the early 80’s were about having fun and dancing, the only exception to the rule was “Ghetto Life” by Rick James. That all changed in 1982 when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s groundbreaking hit “The Message” was released. This is the song that forever changed the direction of rap lyrics. It can be argued that the ripple effects from “The Message” were felt all the way into the late 80’s with NWA’s “F—k tha Police.”

The dominant sound of hip-hop in 1984 was Run-DMC’s in your face big beat drum style. Reverb effects made the kicks and snares of the Oberheim DMX and Roger Linn’s ‘Linn Drum’ sound like a busy construction site. The kick drum would literally pound with the force of a wrecking ball. BOOM. The snare drum cut through all other instrumentation like a jackhammer. CACK.

The undisputed master of the Oberheim DMX was a deejay/producer/musician from Queens named David Reeves; starting out in the mid 70’s Reeves spun break beats at parks and block parties as DJ Davy D. After mastering the Oberheim drum machine he added the name DMX.

Davy’s hit “One for the Treble” is a prerequisite for any soundtrack of early 80’s hip-hop. Reeves may have been one of the first ‘one man band’ type hip- hop producers. As brilliant as he was on the turntables he was equally adept at playing guitar and bass. On “One for the Treble” Reeves plays a funky Catfish Collins style lead guitar as well as a rolling bass line that cements all the other instrumentation. The track is firmly grounded in the b-boy ethos by Davy’s funkdafied rhythmic cutting of the Bob James classic break “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” The drums and the rhythmic electronic hand claps sounds inspired by the early 70’s break-beat “The Hand Clapping Song”; the only rapping on the whole record is by Queens emcee Sweet Tee who repeats the songs hook every sixteen bars to the sound of a motorcycle engine revving up: “One for the treble, two for the bass, come on Davy D let’s rock this place.” After which the motorcycle’s tires screeched into the next verse.

A Tale of A Doom Fox
The last novel published by author Robert ‘Iceberg Slim’ Beck was entitled The Game for Squares; his publisher later changed the book’s title to Doom Fox. For two decades Beck stalked the streets of the Midwest as a pimp and sometimes a con man, his books about his exploits on the cold and brutal streets of Chicago were at one point required reading at Harvard University. I asked Spoonie if he had ever read Beck before to which he responded, “Yeah, I read the one [called] Pimp”.

At the height of the message era Kurtis Blow was back on the scene with “8 Million Stories”, Divine Sounds had “What People Do For Money” and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde rocked the house with “Fast Life.” Everyone was making message raps about unemployment, lack of money, ghetto life and nuclear war, but Spoonie did it his way, he added something else for people to watch out for: treacherous, conniving, materialistic women. It wasn’t a message rap in the classic sense as much as it was a ghetto tale.

To drive his point home he told the story in a cinematic style.

A dejected lover plots revenge against the girlfriend who was only after his money. The girl: manipulative, cold-hearted and calculating views men as mere pawns in a game of chess. Love holds no desire for her. Money is her motivation. She’s a doom fox. But even the most cunning of manipulators can’t outmaneuver the ultimate judge: Karma. Unable to cope with being betrayed he lures her to his house under false pretenses. When she arrives she meets her fate at the end of two shots from a .38 caliber gun. CACK. CACK. This is the essence of an obscure recording Spoonie made in 1984 called “Street Girl.”

Spoonie’s story was eerily similar in tone to Iceberg Slim’s short stories Satin and The Goddess from the books Airtight Willie and Me and The Naked Soul. Satin double crossed a pair of drug lords and caught the wrath of their retribution in the end. The Goddess broke a young Bobby Beck’s heart. Later in life drugs, alcohol and the brutality of the ghetto would leave The Goddess a broken woman.

“Street Girl” is a rarity for a mid 80’s rap record in that never before had anyone told a story so vivid on wax. There are also obvious echoes of Jimi Hendrix’s classic recording “Hey Joe” and “Olivia” by the Whispers.

Hendrix seeing his friend Joe brandishing a gun warns him to not shoot his woman down, but Joe, heart broken from seeing his girl with another man, kills her in anger.

In the song “Olivia” the children’s bedtime story of little red riding hood gets a ghetto makeover: “A wolf in lamb’s clothing came blew her mind and changed her ways, and now she’s turned out. She’s lost and turned out.”

In Spoonie’s narrative the bad girl is a manipulative inner city temptress. Over Davy D’s pounding DMX drum programming accompanied by a simple keyboard melody and a guitar Spoonie sets the story up.

“Street girl one of the many: short, tall, medium, fat, bald, skinny.
They’re all the same just different names,
Consider most men everyday ass lames.
They want to meet you then mistreat you.
You got money they’ll plan to beat you.
For every dime and every cent leaving you all alone wondering where it went.
She’ll do anything for a diamond ring,
Turn cutthroat for a nice fur coat.
The cutest little thing you ever had,
You better watch out cause she’s bad…”

“What was the inspiration behind the song “Street Girl”? I asked.

“I used to see girls like that,” Spoonie responded, “I used to just see things and I would write about them. It was easy for me to do. I’d see the lifestyle.”

Barry Michael Cooper remembers Spoonie as being an observer who “knew Harlem and the streets intimately.”

“When this guy spoke you knew he was speaking from experience and when he related these things that happened, you could tell, if he didn’t experience it personally then he was an observer, he may have even been a participant observer you would never know, because back in that day you had discretion you didn’t speak on that like that. You didn’t glorify it like that.”

Spoonie tells me that the song “wasn’t about one person, there were a lot of different things that inspired it.”

“But was it based on a true story?” I asked.
He raps the hook to himself real quick in an effort to remember the song, “Street Girl” he says to himself as the memory of the melody comes back to him. “Somewhat,” he replied.

“I know of one somebody’s son,
Who’s on the run,
Because of what she done.
She met this man,
At a birthday party,
Nice kind hearted never hurt nobody.
They became friends and later on lovers,
Met each other’s mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.
Became very close only on his part.
Not knowing that soon she would break his heart.
A very nice guy
But she thought he was weak,
Well, she planned his pockets
Seven days a week.
Until she got it all every dime he had,
And then she got in the windand went left the man sad.
It was plain to see
But hard to believe
That the woman he loved had tricks up his sleeve
He’d think to himself
Ooh what a mistake
What he thought was real turned out to be fake.
It wasn’t the way that the girl had him grieving’
But deep down inside he just wanted to get even.”

“Tell me what or who inspired this story.” I implored him over the phone.

“Lemme tell ya somethin’,” Spoonie said to me with the cool demeanor of a street hardened veteran. “Ok, you got girls that date drug dealers, right? Like say a dude he got a package or something right, and the girl will get close to him and one day she’ll rock him to sleep and take his money – and the package, and he’s gotta be accountable for that. That was the type of thing that used to happen. Now he gotta account for that. He can’t account for it so he gotta go on the run. Or girls that mess with two dudes, you know he’d get mad because she’d mess with another guy and he’d go and do something to that other guy, now he gotta be accountable for that. It just so happens that the dude that he did was a guy that was down with a crew or whatever have you, you know? So now he gotta get on the run. So there’s a lot of different things I was talking about.”

“He called her up,
By disguising the fact,
Cause if she knew he was mad,
She would never come back.
She answered the phone
Sweet words came out his mouth,
Somehow he convinced her to come to his house.
He hung up the phone
And laid down on the bed
And then crazy thoughts started running through his head.
The doorbell rang
And he answered the door
She said what did you wanna see me for?
He said, ‘Come in baby’
And gave her kiss
And then he got real close
And took the girl like this
And after that you didn’t hear one word
Two shots from a gun is all you heard.”

The last verse of the song has not been equaled by any rapper of any generation. It’s at once insightful, sad, poetic and cinematic. Barry Michael Cooper summed it up the best by asking: “If it wasn’t for “Street Girl’ would Tupac have recorded ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby”?

“With the rose in my hand I went to the grave,
Hoping to God that the girl had been saved.
Though my eyes was wet
And my heart was lead
I fell on my knees and this is what I said:
Some win at life and some get defeated
Still ya gotta treat others like you wanna be treated,
Short, tall, medium, fat, bald, skinny,
She planned the game on one too many.”

“I used to go to church, man,” Spoonie said to me in a serious tone. “If you ain’t saved when you die you going to hell. That’s where I was coming from. “With a rose in my hand I went to the grave hoping to God that the girl had been saved.” If she ain’t saved she’s going to hell.” Spoonie said carefully emphasizing his point.

It’s no secret that Spoonie has lead a hard life. But what I never understood as a fan was how a man who recorded so many great records didn’t have as prolific a career as his peers Kool Moe Dee, Mele Mel and Kurtis Blow, all of whom he equaled in talent. Taking a pause to reflect on his life Spoonie says to me in parting, “I dunno man, I had a good career and all, but I think it just wasn’t meant to be, ya know?”

Special thanks to Sammy Bee, Barry Michael Cooper, and Michael Gonzalez.

This article originally appeared in Wax Poetics Issue 29

No part of this article may be reprinted anywhere without the express permission of the author. Copyright 2007.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Once Upon A Time In The Bronx: The Rise of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

By Mark Skillz

It was a extraordinary night for music history. For hip-hop it was the last barrier of mainstream acceptability. The creators of rap music were going to be recognized by the same institution that honored rock icons Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony takes place every year at the posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City; for music history buffs as well as old rock fans with salt and pepper hair this is the night. Music critics and record industry heavyweights turn out in droves to celebrate the careers of the legends of rock that inspired the music we all know and love.

But the 2007 award ceremony was different. This was the first year that a rap group would be inducted into the hall of fame. Rock fans and music critics were livid. Twenty-seven years after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ shook the world, the genre still wasn’t respected as a legitimate form of music. “I’ve heard of Grandmaster Flash”, scoffed one irate fan online, ‘but who in the hell are the Furious Five? And why on Earth are they being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ahead of INXS?”

This year the group that practically invented rap as we now know it, has been formally inducted into the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside rock greats R.E.M., Patti Smith, Van Halen and The Ronnettes. This is a large step for a crew that many have called “the greatest rap group to ever grace stage and wax.” Their story starts in 1976 when it really was just about the music.

Back in 2005 on a warm day in Oakland, CA I had the opportunity to sit and interview the man that wrote the genetic code for what we call hip- hop today: Kool DJ Herc. But back in Herc’s day, it didn’t have a name it was what it was: just a neighborhood thing.

After listening to the founding fathers reminisces on his times as the first break-beat deejay progenitor, I realized something: Kool Herc is to hip-hop what Alexander Graham Bell is to the telephone, yes, he is the creator, but what hip-hop was then and what it is now are two different things.

One hundred years ago you couldn’t have paid Bell or an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi to have predicted the wireless phone, the cell phone, the blackberry, or any other modern device. Kool Herc himself will tell you in a heartbeat “I had no idea that this would become a billion dollar a year industry.”

With that in mind I wondered something: If Coke La Rock (Kool Herc’s MC) was just spittin’ little phrases on the mike, not full all out rhymes as we know it today, then who was the first real MC spittin’ lyric for lyric on beat with a continuous flow?

“Mr. Herc,” I asked him as I scratched my head and searched for the right words. “I’m curious about something.” I said, “Who was the first person that you saw rap as we know it today?”

Just then at that moment a warm smile enveloped Kool Herc’s street hardened face. He looked out the window across the street at Lake Merritt, almost as if he was looking back at that day, in a quiet voice he said, “It was Mele Mel… Mele Mel and Kid Creole. They were at a boxing gym on 169th St, in the Fort Apache area, as a matter of fact, it was the last place that I seen Big Pun alive at.”

In a quiet and almost somber voice he recalled the events while sometimes taking a pause to look down at his battle scarred hands. “They was in the middle of a boxing ring with these big Afro’s… Kid Creole, as little as he is, had one too. Flash was behind them cuttin’. When I saw them I just smiled cause I knew where they got it from…they got it from me. And they knew that they got it from me. I wasn’t mad. Mele Mel saw me in the crowd and just nodded at me. I laughed to myself.”

It must’ve been one helluva moment.

Hanging above the dimly lit gym was a thick cloud of smoke; it was a pungent mixture of cigarettes and reefer laced with angel dust. Stoned out dust heads tripped out as the dazzling display of flashing lights played psychedelic tricks on their minds. In the red light haze surrounded by stick up kids, gangsters and hyperactive b-boys Kool Herc got to see the first steps of his creation taking on a new dimension, as brothers Mele Mel and Creole were laying down the foundation for rap, as we know it today.

According to Kool Herc’s suddenly upbeat mocking recollection “They were saying ‘Yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all, a keep on y’all and ya don’t stop…”

Melvin and Danny Glover are from the South Bronx an area that was once described as a war zone. It was there where they were born and raised, them and six other gentlemen that would fill out the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The group’s rise from hip-hop pioneers to 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees was long and hard. Their story starts in the grimy streets of the South Bronx where they were all fans of an amazingly innovative local deejay.

“This group has never been just about five people”, Arthur ‘Disco Bee’ Hayward said to me while looking out his window smoking a cigarette. What he is referring to is the fact that apart from the five MC’s (Mele Mel, Scorpio, Rahiem, Creole and the late Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggins) and the deejay Grandmaster Flash there were actually two other guys who were apart of the crew, Flash’s assistants: Disco Bee and EZ Mike.

“I go back with him to the beginning.” Bee says. “You ask around, anyone that knows the truth will tell you that originally it was Grandmaster Flash, Disco Bee and the Three MC’s.”

On this day Bee was a bit frustrated. The impact of the bands induction into the Rock Hall of Fame could finally turn the page for a group that many mainstream media outlets have ignored over the last twenty years. Thus, generating some serious cash for a generation of aging hip-hoppers that never got the chance to see any real revenue for the music they’ve given most of their lives to.

Further adding to the situation is the fact that the contributions of Disco Bee and EZ Mike have practically gone unacknowledged. “Flash didn’t invent any of this by himself!” Bee says to me. “That shit [a three man turntable routine] that he did onstage at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors with Jazzy Jeff and Kid Capri is the same thing that me, him and Mike did back in the day.”

Disco Bee goes back to Flash’s initial stages at a schoolyard called 63 Park. Bee – as friends like to call him, would be there with another young man named Cordee-O, whose older brother was Flash’s partner ‘Mean Gene’ Livingston. Disco Bee, along with Flash’s best friend EZ Mike, helped Flash innovate the turntable tricks that would elevate him from the status of a local deejay to a turntable god.

Today Disco Bee is a middle-aged man living in North Carolina with his family. With his Bronx accent, glasses and trademark baseball cap; Bee still retains much of the flavor of his Boogie Down Bronx upbringing. He was rather subdued while talking about his beginnings as a teenaged deejay more than thirty years back, but immediately snapped to life when the subject switched to his favorite sound system.

“The Gladiator”, he exclaimed with an exaggerated raspy voice while proudly wrinkling his face into an intimidating sneer while stretching out his arms and bringing them together as if he was wielding a mighty sword.

This was the system that enabled the group to compete with some of the most ground shaking sound systems in the Tri State area.

“So the Gladiator was all that?” I asked EZ Mike.
“What?” He said as his deep, death-like, gravely voice hit a high pitch, “What? No one could touch that system. It was untouchable.”

“When we started playing The Dixie, this guy on Freeman St., this Jamaican guy built this thing for us.” Disco Bee recalled while beaming with pride. “The speakers were as big as refrigerators and we had four of them. It took two people to carry the amp, this thing was so fuckin’ heavy. We used to put a towel over it, so while we were carrying it into the club people would be pointing at us wondering what we were carrying. And then… we’d uncover it. They would be blown away by… the Gladiator!” Bee exclaims again with the same exaggerated raspy voice.

They went all around the city destroying other crews in sound clashes. That was until one night in Jamaica, Queens…

“We were at this club on Hillside Avenue, what was it called?” Asked EZ Mike, “Oh yeah, the Fantasia that was it. Anyway there we were with the Gladiator, Flash was killing them people. He was cuttin’ that record ‘Catch the Groove’ to pieces: ‘Dunna dunna dun.” Mike said imitating the sound the sax squeal makes as it’s sliced and diced to pieces. “Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dunna dunna dun. Dunna dunna dun.” He was killin’ it. He was spinnin’ around and shit like that cuttin’ the record…and then all of a sudden we heard this huge monstrous sound go: “DUNNA DUNNA DUN”.

“Flash snatched the headphones off and looked around at us and said, “What the fuck was that?”

“We had no idea what it was, but it was so loud and clear that he could hear it even through the headphones!”

“So he went back to spinnin’ again. I happened to look across the room when I saw Goode, in a wheelchair push a button on his mixer and then we heard it again: “DUNNA DUNNA DUN.”

“We were all like “Oh shit, that’s their fuckin’ system making all of that noise. They fuckin’ drowned us out – even with the Gladiator they fuckin’ drowned us.” That was the night they met DJ Divine and Michael Goode and the awesome power of their set called The Infinity Machine.

But still Flash and his gravity- defying, lightning- quick, turntable techniques made him a very difficult deejay to defeat back then.

“One day after Flash had beaten Herc and all of them, there was a jam at a park.” EZ Mike tells me as his gravely voice becomes louder and louder as he gets more and more excited. “Herc was playing there. From the moment we got there people were like “Yo there goes Flash.” This nigga did one of the most awesome things I had ever seen in my life. He got on the turntables and started cuttin’ ‘Good Times”. He was killin’ that shit. “Good…Good …Good…Good Times…Good Times…Good Times. Good Times. Good Times.” And he kept doin’ it faster and faster…”Good Times. Good Times. Good Times”. Motherfuckers were watching this shit and were buggin’ the fuck out. And then all of a sudden he stopped and walked away from the set. He just kept on walking passed the ropes – we thought he was done. And then all of a sudden he went running back toward the turntables at top speed and flipped the cross fader just in time for the record to go “Good Times”. I swear everybody in the fuckin’ park lost their minds.”

The rep was growing Flash was the deejay equivalent of a mighty god like Zeus or Apollo. But he couldn’t conquer the city alone.

Before he was a self-professed former crack addict, now, turned muscle bound tough- talkin’, protein-shake drinking, rumored to be a sometime male stripper and also – nowadays, an aspiring wrestler called ‘Muscle Simmons’; Melvin Glover was known as one of the greatest rappers to ever touch a mic: Grandmaster Mele Mel.

To hear that the first real ‘King of Rap’ sometimes moonlights as a male exotic dancer is heartbreaking to hear. You see, for many rappers of a previous generation Mele Mel was the equivalent of the mystic Bob Marley and the hard partying funk god Rick James. For many Mele Mel was like a prophet.

Just like no one would’ve wanted to see or hear about Bob Marley or Martin Luther King shaking their stuff onstage wearing nothing but thongs. No old school hip-hopper wants to hear about – or more importantly, wants to see, the great Mele Mel dancing somewhere in a thong as part of the ‘Gun Show’.

I have my doubts as to whether Mel is really an exotic dancer or not. So I asked him point blank: “Mel, I hear this whole “Gun Show” thing and you being a stripper is just an extension of a joke that you and Scorp’ started some years back.” To which he responded: “I do my thing. I’m not gonna comment on that, I got my hustle.”

Just like I thought.

Today at 45 years of age Mele Mel is not ready to hang his mic up or coast his way into oblivion. In fact, he’s probably more over the top today, than when he was in his prime. He’s probably one of the few rappers alive these days that actually walks it like he talks it. He’s a man’s man in a culture that doesn’t value maturity. Anyone lacking in self-confidence could borrow a cup or two from him or at the very least could take notes. Even when he’s at his most boastful he’s being sincere.

“I made a way for me to do what I do and for them [other rappers] to do what they do. When you see Mele Mel I want people to know that you’re seeing a true to life living black legend.” He said to me with the raging confidence of a wrestling legend like Rick Flair.

When he’s not in the gym or onstage dancing in some club somewhere, he’s touring the country promoting his first solo album titled ‘M3’.

In the late ‘70’s Mel was known on the streets as “Flash’s MC”. He was the central voice for the baddest deejay the world had ever known at that time. In many ways they complimented each other: Mel was at the very pinnacle at what he did and Flash was unstoppable.

It hadn’t always been the case that Mel was the best MC though – no, many people who remember them from their days as the Three MC’s, recall when Mel’s older brother Danny (Creole) was the better of the trio. In typical fashion Mel told me quite confidently, “That’s subjective, who was better than who. Creole was good, but he wasn’t better than me.”

In the Morrisonia section of the Bronx where they grew up at there were many fledgling MC’s that got on the mic for Flash in 1976. In fact according to Mel ‘anyone could get on the mic for Flash back then’. Lovebug Starsky has made claims of being the first person to talk on the mic while Flash was cutting. But it is the late Keith Cowboy that many remember as being Flash’s first real MC. While Cowboy, Lovebug Starsky and others were doing their thing with Flash in the park, the Glover brothers were hard at work preparing to take their neighborhood by storm.

“Me and Creole were in the house everyday practicing and polishing our routines. From the very beginning – we did everything together. We used to listen to Kool Herc and them. They used to say things like, ‘and yes y’all, the sound that you hear…” They were always saying ‘and yes y’all’ we really liked that so we used it. So we would take that and lengthen it and say it to the beat. So it would be “A yes yes y’all, to the beat y’all, freak-freak y’all.”

“We went to all of Herc’s parties and studied their shit”, he continued, “We studied their format just like people would later study us – that’s how we studied Herc. There are a bunch of stories out there that say that Creole got on first and I got on a month or something like that later, no, we got on the mic for Flash at the same time.”

From the very first time that Mel saw Coke La Rock and Timmy Tim on the mic, he says that rhyming became an all-consuming obsession for him. “I knew from that very first time I held the mic that this is what I should be doing.” He told me. In fact he said as much on his very first record “Superrappin’…

“Ever since I talked at my very first party, I felt I could make my self somebody. It was somethin’ in my heart from the very start, I could see myself at the top of the charts, rappin’ on the mic, making cold cold cash, with a jock spinnin’ for me called DJ Flash. Signing autographs, for the young and old, wearing big time silver and solid gold. My name on the radio and in the magazine’s my picture on a TV screen…”

No one would’ve guessed back then that all of that would come to pass. It can be argued that Mel’s competitiveness, ego and raw determination were key ingredients to putting the band at the top of the heap. Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that Mel was far more competitive than the rest of the group. To this day, he believes that not only can he body slam any opponent in a wrestling ring but can still defeat any MC out there as well.

Many rappers over the age of 35 consistently cite Mele Mel as a prime influence. Rappers as diverse as Kid and Play, Big Daddy Kane, Hammer, Busta Rhymes, Too Short, Rakim and Kool G Rap have all praised his name over the passed two and a half decades. His lyrical prowess is unmatched with songs like “World War III”, “Step Off”, “Beat Street Breakdown”, “King of the Street”, “New York, New York”, “The Truth” and “Survival”. He stood out in an exceptionally talented group.

Nowadays it’s a hard task to get the band that changed rap music to reunite. So much has happened over the years: drug abuse, break ups, fights over money, lawsuits, envy, bitter feelings for not being properly credited and death.

But before the group was full of animosity, before the records and movies, Grammy awards, world tours, long nights with strings of groupies and critical acclaim, in his heart Mele Mel was Flash’s biggest fan.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the sound that you hear is a def to your ear. Ya have no fear cause Flash is here. The disco dream of the mean machine the Darth Vader of the slide fader, no man in the world cuts straighter or greater than New York’s number one cut creator…” That’s how Mele Mel would open many a show with Flash back in the day.

“He’s the one that made me wanna get in the game”, Busy Bee told me. Busy is one of the group’s biggest fans and himself a hip-hop pioneer who is best known for his appearance in the movie ‘Wild Style’ and his record ‘Suicide’. He remembered how the guy that he was so much a fan of, was equally, if not more so an even bigger fan of Grandmaster Flash.

“I used to see him walk around in a sky blue t-shirt that said Pro Keds. Now on the bottom of the logo that said ‘Pro Keds’ he wrote ‘Flash fan’. He was a Flash fan. And he wore the shirt so much, that that’s the way I knew who he was. It was sky blue with white letters I’ll never forget it. I still have snapshots to this day of Mel in that shirt. He was like with me what Monique [the comedian] said to the Bishop Don Magic Juan, “If you wear that green suit again motherfucker!’ You know what I’m sayin?’ He was like that back then with me, “If you wear that T-shirt one more time motherfucker, I’ll buy you a joint my motherfuckin’ self.”

When I related the story to Mel from Busy Bee he laughed hysterically and said, “ Yeah, I remember that shirt.”

EZ Mike remembers when Mel first came around their crew to get on the mic, “Mel wanted to get on the mic with Flash because [Flash] was the best. It was Flash that put him on. Mel and all of them followed Flash everywhere. I remember… they were fans of the man just like everyone else.”

Whether it was on tape or on record Mel was usually the lead voice, with an almost brimstone and fire-like delivery he’d convey lines about Flash so convincingly that people thought that it was Flash on the mic. “Grandmaster Flash is willing and able, he’s the king of the cuts on two turntables, he’s the grand grand the master man. He’s so nice on the slice he don’t need no band. He rocks 45’s and 33’s, he rocks boys, men, women and young ladies!”

Not many people today remember Sylvia Robinson as a singer. She is probably one of the first black females to find success as a songwriter and producer. But without a doubt the biggest feather in her cap is the fact that she is without question the first black female recording artist to own her own independent record company. Many people call her a genius. There isn’t a thing about record production that Sylvia Robinson doesn’t know.

On a recent rerun of the syndicated show ‘Soul Train’ a flashback segment highlighted old footage of Sylvia from 1973. “And now from the Soul Train history book this is Sylvia…” Don Cornelius said as he introduced her with his trademark smooth as velvet bass voice. The camera cut to a scene from the distant past where a dance floor full of teenagers with Afro’s and bell-bottoms swayed to the sultry sounds of an erotic disco beat. On stage wearing an oversized jazzy yellow Apple hat and big hoop earrings, Sylvia Robinson moaned and whispered between sensually charged verses “What your friends all say is fine, but it can’t compete with this pillow talk of mine…”

And to think she almost sold the song to Al Green. In 1973 the song ‘Pillow Talk’ was not only a top ten smash hit on the radio but also it was a hit in disco’s, bedrooms and in the back seats of cars parked in dark places all over America. The song ‘Pillow Talk’ resurrected a career that dated back to the 1950’s when Sylvia, as part of the R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia, busted on to the charts with the smash song ‘Love Is Strange’.

Along the way she wrote and produced for Bo Diddley, Ike and Tina Turner, The Moments, Shirley and Company, The Whatnots, Brother to Brother and many others. Sylvia knew a hit when she heard one. Whether it was The Moments singing the R&B classic ‘Love on a Two Way Street’ or Brother to Brother covering Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Bottle’ – the lady knew her stuff.

To top things off she and her husband Joe Robinson, a tough, no nonsense, gruff kind of guy, made the ultimate coupe de tat in the record biz in1975 by buying the Chess/Checker catalogue.

Or so they thought.

By purchasing the Chess/Checker publishing catalogue – a collection of some of the most treasured songs in early Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll history, the Robinson’s invited the jealous wrath of white record men. “Niggas weren’t thinking’ about buying publishing catalogues back then” a defiant Joey Robinson Jr, told me on the phone. They gave Joe and Sylvia pure hell from the moment they bought that catalogue.

In 1979 their record company All Platinum Records was struggling financially. That was until Sylvia saw Lovebug Starsky performing at the club Harlem World, that’s when a light went off: What if I could take what he’s doing and put it on wax? After thirty years in the music business Sylvia knew to trust her instincts. It would be those instincts that helped her to navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry for three decades that wouldn’t allow her to let the idea go.

First she approached Lovebug Starsky who turned her down. According to DJ Hollywood, the man that many credit as being the ‘godfather of rap’, she approached him as well and he too turned her down. “I was making so much money at the time playing at the Apollo and Club 371 and other spots around the city, that making a record didn’t make sense to me at the time.”

That’s when she got the three guys from New Jersey and christened them the Sugar Hill Gang and released the first commercially successful rap record ‘Rapper’s Delight’. The Robinson’s were the first independent record company in the world to rake in serious cash from a brand new style of music, which, much like rock n roll, would later have a profound impact on popular culture.

By 1981 Sylvia Robinson’s chokehold on the rap industry was complete. She signed all of the top groups in the city to contracts – iron clad contracts at that, so that no one could compete with her stable of acts. The best crew on her roster was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They were the real kings of rap back then.

And they were an arrogant bunch too.

Cold Crush Brothers deejay Toney Tone remembered a night at the early hip-hop hot spot the Disco Fever, when Scorpio “spent all night looking at himself in the mirror.” Many groups from that time remember the Furious Five as being the types of guys who were a little too full of themselves. “They didn’t really associate with MC’s outside of their group” many have said. Kool Herc remembered Mele Mel as being one of the only ones who would occasionally come out and play with him and his crew.

As brilliant as they were though their competition at that time would’ve been shocked to have learned that the band only practiced “maybe once a week” said Rahiem. “We didn’t really practice that much because Mel and Creole didn’t get along. Every time we would get together, it never failed, they’d get into it, and one of them – usually Creole, would wind up walking out. We may have practiced one day a week – but it was intense, we practiced from three or four o’clock in the afternoon to ten or eleven at night.”

Today at 43 years old Rahiem is the youngest member of the crew and arguably the most talented. His smooth tenor voice and wicked flow made him the lyrical co-anchor of the band. Whereas Mel is boastful and arrogant, in contrast Ra is quiet and introspective. “People see me on the street and say “Hey aren’t you…somebody I should know? They don’t know if I’m from the Cold Crush or the Treacherous Three or what”, Rahiem told me. “I’m not as easily recognizable as everyone else – and I kind of like it that way.” It was Rahiem that co-wrote many of the groups songs along with Mele Mel.

Scorpio a/k/a Mr. Ness was the ladies man; with his braided hair and sharp features it was his charismatic persona that helped to give the quintet its swagger. To this day Kid Creole has long flowing straight hair as well as non-stop rhymes and a voice like a traveling salesman.

But it is the late bow-legged, deep voiced Keith Cowboy that many revere. He had one of the best voices ever heard on a mic. The most superb example of Cowboy at his best is at the end of the record ‘Freedom’. As the tape was fading out there were more rhymes to go, so the founding member of the Furious Five ended the song in a classic street corner style with finger snaps and all. He wasn’t the best lyricist in the group, but it was his voice and flow that forever sealed the ending of the song as a classic.

Once they got on Sugar Hill and their records started selling they went way over the top as far as egos went. And why not? They toured the country with some of the biggest acts of the 80’s: Evelyn Champagne King, The Gap Band, Joan Jett, The Clash, The SOS Band and many others, the band was royalty on the street; in Hollywood they hung out and partied with Eddie Murphy. Their stage show was in demand.

Night after night they toured the world like proselytizers of a new faith. They were spreading the word of the gospel that Kool Herc had crafted ten years before and were taking it to places as far as Aruba. People in Middle America had never seen or dreamed that eight guys with two turntables and a set of microphones could do so much with so little. They were warmly received in most places, but in others they were met with stone silence and indifference. What they were doing was so much different from anything anyone had ever witnessed.

“We were playing at Bond’s International one night. I’ll never forget this”, Rahiem said as he recalled the show. “When we first started touring with Sugar Hill, Sylvia used to dress us. She picked out these velvet suits with rhinestones – we hated those suits. Anyway, here we are at Bond’s International, opening for the punk rock group The Clash.”

“Now here we are – we’re rappers, those white boys that came out you know, they wanted to slam dance and shit like that. So Flash is out there first doing his thing, and I guess he went ‘zigga zigga’ one too many times and the crowd started getting restless.”

“Well, we get out there and start doing our thing and after a while I dunno… it seemed like everybody went to take a break and head for the concession stand – at the same time. The next thing we knew we were getting hit with all kinds of shit. I remember somebody threw an orange at Scorpio and it hit him dead in the balls. It was that bad. And we had to go through it twice because we played two shows that night. But we got over it because we were being paid $18, 500 that night. When we got off that stage every white boy in that place looked like someone who threw something at us.”

But bad shows aside what making records afforded the group was the chance to tour the world. Some of them had never been outside of New York before; they were in awe of the sights and sounds of different places and having fans in neighborhoods that were similar to their own.

“I’ll never forget this time on tour in St. Thomas”, said Disco Bee. “Me and Cowboy were the only ones who woke up early, it was eight o’clock in the morning and everyone else was asleep. Cowboy said, ‘Yo Bee, let’s go out.” We were like two little kids with a new invention. I mean we were that happy. We were walking around when all of a sudden we turned a corner and were like, “Oh snap, you see that?” It was a bunch of brothers playing ball in a park with no shoes on. We joined in with them. After a while Cowboy looked at me and said, “Yo Bee, you gonna take your shoes off?” I said, ‘Hell no’. He said ‘me either’. The ground was too fuckin’ hot for that shit.”

“We really liked touring the country”, Rahiem said. “One of the things that separated us from a lot of these cats today, is we didn’t just know our hood, we were in every hood”, Mele Mel said adamantly. “A lot of these dudes today are block niggas because all they know is their block, but when we came to town, we went into every hood and hung out and got to know the people.”

Rahiem agrees, “As soon as we’d get off the plane we’d be like alright, take us to get some food, and we went straight to the hood. In every country and every city we didn’t care where – we went to the hood. We loved going to Florida, Atlanta was a good city for us, and we loved hanging out there. All over Louisiana – New Orleans, Lake Charles, Shreveport we got plenty of love there.”

“What did you love about Louisiana?” I asked.

“The food, the women, once you’ve had a Creole woman, I dunno man that shit was like crack, that shit was addictive.”

In 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five sat on top of the rap music industry like a big 800-ton elephant. But the world of funk was the dominion of a shit talkin’, weed-smokin’, cocaine-sniffin’, sex crazed, multi-talented singer, songwriter and producer named Rick James.

Decked out in leather and high heel boots his only real friends were a spliff and a guitar. With recordings like “Mary Jane”, “Bustin’ Out”, “Standing on the Top”, “Cold Blooded” and “Give it to Me Baby” Rick James was the king of funk. His songs weren’t just about sex and drugs – though they were a common theme, he also liked to write tunes that reflected his ghetto upbringing: “Pimp Simp” was a song he recorded with the Furious Five for the album ‘Cold Blooded’. His albums went platinum and he played to sold out stadiums all over the world. People that knew him have said that he was one of the hardest working musicians they ever met. For as hard as he worked though– he partied even harder.

“People need to go back in their memory banks and remember, in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, before Prince and Michael Jackson, Rick James was hot.” Mele Mel wants to reminds us. “He was the first modern day black rock star. When he walked out onstage and said “Fire It up” everybody in the place was firing their weed up. He was a talented dude.”

Mel cites the song “Déjà vu’ which James wrote and produced for Teena Marie as being his favorite Rick James record.

“Slick Rick [as James was sometimes called] was basically like our father when we were out on the road”, Mel told me. “Slick Rick did for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five what Frank Sinatra did for Sammy Davis, Jr, he made everyone respect us.”

“When we first went out on tour with him”, Mel continued, “We’d be outside our tour bus lifting our little weights that were filled with sand and doing push ups. Outside the coliseum or wherever we were doing a show at, we would get this little deli tray that would have meats and cheese and shit like that on it that looked like niggas probably could’ve wiped their balls with it or some shit like that. Rick would come around and check up on us and make sure we were all right and he saw how we were being treated. He went to Al Hayman, who at one time was the biggest promoter in the country, and put him and the union people, on notice: ‘Yo, treat them right, Flash and them are my boys.’ And they did it. So as a result of that we got better food, better places to stay, more space on stage and more time on stage.”

“We immediately clicked with Rick”, Rahiem told me, “Although he’s from Buffalo he’s still from New York, his drummer Lino, from the Stone City Band is from the Bronx – we all immediately hit it off. We got high together and everything.”

“Did you ever hear Rick James say ‘I’m Rick James, bitch!” I asked.
“Absolutely!” Rahiem responded, ‘that was his slogan, that’s really not a joke. That’s how he really carried himself.”
“I seen him straight up kick a chick in the ass with a pair of thigh high suede boots on, he was wearing some black leather pants, he straight up kicked a chick straight up her ass. He said, “You must have the game fucked up, I’m Rick James, bitch! Get out of my dressing room.”

Upon hearing Rahiem’s story Mele Mel laughed and remembered another event. “The first time I saw Rick, I hadn’t even met him yet. I seen him smack the shit out of a bitch, and this was a good-looking broad too, I mean he wasn’t no punk about his. He smacked her and said ‘Now get the fuck out of my dressing room! I was like ‘Oh shit’ this nigga is for real.”

Rick’s charismatic personality and talent made a serious impression on the Furious Five.

But there was another memory of Rick that really stands out for Mel, “When we would be onstage Rick would be on the side of the stage wearing a hood over his head, watching us silently taking mental notes. He really wanted to help us to be better performers.”

Rahiem recalls a night after the tour was over when “Rick called me when he knew he was going to be in New York, and told me to meet him at NBC studios on the set of Saturday Night Live, because he wanted to surprise Eddie. It was Smokey Robinson’s birthday; it was me, Rick, Smokey Robinson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy and a lot of others who all went out to Studio 54.”

“What was Studio 54 like?” I asked.
“The only way I know how to describe Studio 54 to you would be to say…it was like Disco Fever to the 10th power. There were celebrities walking in and out of that place, it was something else.”

While the group was out on tour having the time of their lives, Sylvia Robinson was excited about a demo she got from percussionist and songwriter Ed Fletcher. According to a 2004 article in Blender Magazine, Fletcher had two songs on the demo, one was called ‘Dumb Love’ and the other was ‘The Message’. In the article Mele Mel said, “No one wanted to do ‘The Message’ even Ed Fletcher didn’t think much of it”.

At the time the band was coming off of a string of records that blasted out of boom boxes and rocked block parties, skating rinks, cook outs and school dances – but they weren’t hits. Sales wise they were nothing in comparison with what was to come. “Freedom”, “The Birthday Party”, “It’s Nasty”, ‘Flash to the Beat”, “Superrappin’ and “The Adventures of Flash on the Wheels of Steel” were top notch rap records – but they didn’t make it to the top of the charts.

The first commercial rap artist to release a record with any kind of social awareness was a guy who at one time had been a part of Flash’s crew. According to Disco Bee, “At one point the group got really large. I mean there were a whole lot of people in the group, man.” So they ended up having two groups: the A group – which was the Furious Five, and the B group, which consisted of Kool Kyle, Lovebug Starsky, a guy named Georgie George and another guy who called himself Kurtis Blow. .

According to the band, at first no one in the group wanted anything to do with “The Message”. It was a complete departure from everything that they had done. For a year the band ducked and dodged Sylvia at every turn. But the more they resisted the more pressure she applied.

Finally she put her foot down: Either record this song or that’s it. “She’d do things like withhold advances from us as a form of punishment”, Rahiem recalls.

According to Joey Robinson, Jr., the reason Mele Mel is the only one from the group featured on the song, is because he said, ‘Mrs. Robinson if you believe in the song – then I believe in you.” No one else in the band believed in the record.

Grandmaster Flash has on gone on record as saying he was against the idea of only one person from the group being featured on the song.

However it was Rahiem’s voice that was originally on the track as well. “Mel and I co-wrote the verse ‘a child is born’ together, it was used on ‘Superrappin’. We decided while recording “The Message” that that part would fit into the new song. I was in the studio I laid down the part that Duke Bootee would later do. But Mrs. Rob had a problem with my mother and I. She called us trouble makers.”

Every group has its stand out member, whether it’s The Leaders of the New School, The Wailers or The Spinners, there is that one member that has a little bit more of that special something that makes them stand out from everyone else. From the very start of their careers at Sugar Hill, Sylvia noticed that special something in Mele Mel. ‘It was Mrs. Robinson that singled him out and made it look like he was the leader – but he wasn’t.” Rahiem told me. “Because his lyrics were more universal we let him take the lead on stuff that he wrote.”

In the song ‘The Message’ Duke Bootee and Mele Mel painted raw lyrical pictures of the suffering of ghetto dwellers huddled together in the ruins of the neglected promise of America. For the first time on wax since the days of the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, there was a record on the radio that truly captured the claustrophobic desperation and despair of the inner city at the dawn of Reaganomics.

“Broken glass everywhere,
People pissin’ on the stairs,
You know they just don’t care.
I can’t take the smell,
Can’t take the noise,
I got no money to move out,
I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room,
Roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far,
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.”

And then the songs refrain:

“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge,
I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.”
When the song finally dropped it was one of the most awesome things ever heard in rap up to that point. In fact, lyrically it forever changed the game, the days of party rhymes and fun were over the seeds for a more serious art form were finally taking root.