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.