Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Adventures of Jimmy Spicer

Twenty-six years after his last recording, rap pioneer Jimmy Spicer re-emerges with a new record and is making claims that are so over the top that many of his peers doubt his sanity. For the first time in over twenty years Spicer tells his story.

                                                By Mark Skillz

"because my hair's more wavy than the ships in the navy..." early 80's publicity pic
"And I want you to print this," he instructs me during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, NY. "God told me to say this now: I never heard anyone use the phrase “hip hop” or rhyme on beat before I was doing it. I never heard no one in the entire world, rhyme on beat before me,” he says with the conviction of a man who just witnessed the landing of a UFO. And then he carefully emphasized the words, “no one anywhere.”

Some would disagree. Ordinarily, I'd look at someone through slit eyes and quickly dismiss them for claiming that they coined the phrase 'hip hop' and invented rap as we know it today.

But Jimmy Spicer isn't just anyone. We’re talking about a guy who made one of the first fifteen rap records and is credited with having made the longest solo rap recording ever. His songs ‘Super Rhymes Rap’, ‘Bubble Bunch’, and ‘Dollar Bill Y’all’ are hands down old school classics. He is also one of the first artists under Russell Simmons' RUSH Artist Management. But the real feather in his cap is that he is the first real rap storyteller on wax. Maybe, Spicer, who has been reclusive for two decades, has re-emerged to spin more tales.

                                    Excuse Me Sir Are You Super Rhymes?
For two decades Jimmy Spicer has been hip hop’s missing man, an artiste insaisissable. Some say his heart was broken when his dreams went bust. Others don’t know what to make of him. Over the years phone calls to his house and messages sent to him through friends and family have gone unanswered. Now, he’s back.

Meeting Spicer is equivalent to stumbling upon Sly Stone. For the longest no one knew what he looked like, grainy publicity shots from the time – the few that exist, show a young man with sideburns and sometimes dark sun glasses.

A dark Jaguar slowly pulls up to the house on East 16th and Beverly Road in Brooklyn, I wonder if it’s the mystery man himself. Inside the vehicle is a short, bespectacled, middle aged man wearing a red fitted Yankee’s baseball hat and red goose down vest to match. He has a prominent brow and a long square jaw and a sharply groomed goatee which is sprinkled with strands of silver. “Whassup duke?” he says to me, it’s Jimmy Spicer. 

Today Spicer may look like a middle aged man, but it ends there, he has the energy of a man less than half his age. It’s two o’clock in the morning and he’s ready to go club hopping. “I don’t need much sleep,” he tells me while zooming down Ocean Avenue. “never have.” Any thoughts of encountering a battle scarred music vet with poor communication skills are thrown out the window. This guy is a character.

To get to the root as to why he dropped off the scene in ’85 and has resurfaced two and a half decades later I turn on my recorder. The rap audience is fickle. For all intents and purposes, after 1985, as far as recorded rap goes, Spicer disappeared into the celestial ether of time and became an urban legend. So why has he chosen to come back now?

It was a chance meeting with a disbelieving Funkmaster Flex, who couldn't believe who he was talking to. “Flex told me how he used to write the words [to Super Rhymes] in a notebook when he was in junior high school,” Jimmy says proudly. A week later he played at Flex’s birthday at the Club Silver Shadow. “I hadn’t been on stage in years. I got nothing but love.”  

And he’s received nothing but adulation from fans since he’s resurfaced. Today Spicer is fifty-four years old and dances better than any rapper of his generation. Period. At a time when most people his age would be unfamiliar with nightclubs and the latest songs on the radio, Spicer is an anomaly. Raising his lighter above his head he sings the latest dancehall songs word for word while swaying to the beat. 

 “Let’s go back,” I urge him. “How far back do you wanna go?” he asks me. “To when I was thirteen and the first time I put two turntables together like I saw the big guys do?”
“No, further than that,” I tell him.

James Spicer was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 30th 1958, to William and Janie Spicer. ‘When I was growing up in Flatbush,” he says, it was peaceful and pleasant. There were maybe five black people on my block. Everyone else was either Jewish or Puerto Rican.”

Judging by his description, Spicer was a bright, but dis-interested student, who was kicked out of several schools – once because he, “placed a paper bag full of shit on a radiator in the middle of winter, and left it there.” He received his GED at nineteen years old. At twenty one he decided to be a communications major so that he could follow in the footsteps of his idols Hank Spann and Gary Byrd.

Spicer came of age when hip hop was a subculture in its embryonic stages in the parks of New York City. For many Brooklynites over the age of forty-five the whole “Hip-hop started in the Bronx” mantra is a smack in the face. Many of them talk about the dozens of crews of deejays and emcee’s that rocked all over the borough since at least the mid to late 1960’s. These men had serious sound systems and were fervent record collectors: Grandmaster Flowers, Ras Maboya, Ron Plummer, Master D, QJ Simpson, Charisma Funk and Fantasia rocked crowds of thousands every weekend.
the original grandmaster: Grandmaster Flowers
In the 1970’s, Jimmy, a man who emphatically states that he, “never left Brooklyn” and says he had no idea what was going on anywhere else. Calling himself ‘MC Mop’ – short for Moppy, a name he’s had since he was a baby, Spicer says that he invented the phrase “hip hop” one day while at a jam. "I used to start my rhymes off with “I’m MC Mop and I’ll make ya hip hop.” According to him, it was just something he said that rhymed. “I never heard of Flash [back then], I never heard of Kool Herc, I never heard of Hollywood, I was too focused on what I was doing to be concerned with what anyone else was doing. I was about me,” he says.  

Celebrity Club 1980: Lovebug Starsky, Busy Bee and Caz
“Wait a minute,” I interject, “How is it, that I was a kid in Queens and I heard of some of them people, and you didn’t?” Without missing a beat he answers back rather matter of factly, “I dunno know.”

The problem we’re having is that I can’t believe that he believes that he created all of this stuff up out of nowhere. Which isn’t getting us anywhere. So I turn to a guy who I know knows better.

“Jimmy’s full of shit,” Ben “Cozmo D” Cernac tells me. Cernac is the leader of the Brooklyn based group Newcleus, their hit “Jam On It” is a certified old school classic. Cozmo made his mark back in the mid 70’s as a mobile deejay in Brooklyn. “Trust me,” he reassures me, “if somebody from Brooklyn would’ve invented all of this shit like he’s saying, as hard as we’ve had it, we would’ve been talking about it.”

But Jimmy isn’t backing down.

In the mid 70’s Spicer ran with a crew called Star Lite Disco. “My turf back then was Flatbush, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, all of Church Avenue to Bedford Avenue back up to Franklin Avenue, Fulton Avenue, I had large juice,” he boasts. Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s he and his friends threw parties in his friend Keith’s basement, they called it the Star Lite Lounge. “As far as parks went I used to do jams at 92 Park and Walt Whitman Park. One Labor Day [in 1976] we rocked Washington Square Park where Eastern Parkway and Prospect Park meet, on the back of a truck for twenty four hours straight.”

It was at Medgar Evers College where he gained local fame when he recorded a station promo for on air jock Otto Reyes’ show. He got his shot at an on air position when one day, the class instructor found Spicer in the lunchroom writing his rhymes. “Super rapper,” she said to the young man whom everyone called the teachers pet, “I need you to write me a radio show in fifteen minutes.” With no idea what to do, he went on air and asked the listeners, “So how long do you think rap’s gonna stay around?” The phones rang off the hook.

                                    This Deejay He Gets Down…
At the Club Ecstasy in Brooklyn
Even before the release of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ Spicer was shopping demos to record companies. “At the time I performed with a girl,” he says, “her name was MC Sharonette. All of the companies said, ‘Lose the girl, lose the girl.” Spicer didn’t know what to do. Eventually, Sharon stopped rapping.

And then sometime in November of 1979 he began writing a rap that would not only change his life, but would later influence hundreds of aspiring MC’s.

He had no idea what beat he was going to use. All he knew was that there were these rhymes that kept coming to him while he walked from Prospect Park to Flatbush Ave. It took him three months to write it, “I wanted it to flow from beginning to end,” he says. “I wanted it to be different. I wanted to make sure I stood out,” he tells me. He culled pieces of it from different rhymes he had previously written:

“Like Fred Flintstone said a yaba daba doo, I’ll kindly bust and I’ll bomb your crew. In through the door came Wilma too, she said I got a pack of bamboo, but the next word that I heard Wilma said Fred yo where’s the herb?” 

While walking down Church Avenue he thought about the rhyme, it didn’t fit with the new rhymes he was writing, so he expounded on it, and bought in another element, that many would copy for at least a decade.

“Like Fred Flintstone sayin’ yaba daba doo, you hear my rhymes I wanna yell at you. Cause I got more rhymes than a clock chimes. I got more rhymes than a monkey climbs. I got more rhymes than a lemon and lime and I got more rhymes than a bank got dimes.”

In the cold winter of 1979, Jimmy, with pad and pen in hand, walked around writing a rap that would take up many pages. Sometimes he’d stop and sit in front of a store or a park bench trying to get the words right. Other times it would come to him while standing in front of a bodega. Feverishly he’d jot the words down in the pad. And then a thought crossed his mind, “I’m coming down Church Avenue in the 90’s,” he begins, “taking one of my walks, I said, ‘I really like these rhymes, but I need a name. I’m Jimmy Spicer but I need two personalities.’ I’m walking down the street and then I see a sign that says “Super Signs” I say to myself, ‘Super Rhymes’, that’s it, oh shit that’s it!”

But the flash of genius didn’t end there: He changed his voice when speaking as that character, whether it was Coward Hosell or Dracula at Studio 54.

”The first disco I hit was the 54,

They didn’t even want to let me in the door.

I said listen my man I’m a real cool guy

I can turn into a bat and I can even fly.”

One of the hottest records in 1980 was Vaughn Mason and the Crew’s ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate and Roll.’ Bounce was practically invented for the bourgeoning rap scene, from it’s chest pounding bass line and percussion which sounded like it could’ve been recorded in a rec room in the Bronx River projects, to it’s funk drumming, ‘Bounce’ found an appreciative audience amongst b-boys and disco dancers the world over.

In March of 1980 Spicer and family friend record producer Billy Nichols recorded ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ at Platinum Factory Studio in Brooklyn. But before they got started Nichols went in search of the right session musicians.  They found a Jamaican drummer who, “laid down the drum track to the click, for 15 minutes straight.”  

After the drummer laid his track, Spicer stepped into the vocal booth and rapped the first four minutes and forty five seconds of the record. At the end of the verse he exited the booth for a Buddha break. After smoking a joint for thirty minutes he entered the booth again, this time, he rapped for nine minutes straight with only one punch in. After Spicer recorded his vocals, Nichols laid down the bass and guitar track, accompanied by Vaughn Mason’s friend Butch Dayo on percussion.

Spicer who was no stranger to long raps (he once rapped on a tape non stop for 45 minutes) did solo what it would take three or five MC’s to do as a group. Out of all of the rap records that exceeded the seven minute length, Spicer was the most entertaining to listen to. Some have compared fifteen minutes of the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to the equivalent of listening to the farm report. ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ was the aural equivalent of seeing Star Wars for the first time.                  
One of few rappers to have a business card in the early 80's
Look at the jam on the mic...
When ‘Super Rhymes Rap’ was released in March of 1980 it rapidly went from being a block party favorite to the hottest record on the radio. Although, Kurtis Blow’s hit ‘The Breaks’ got more play on the club scene and radio stations around the world, rap fans eagerly embraced Spicer’s at times strange vocal styling. Dust heads and pot smokers cautiously eyed their half consumed joints while looking cross eyed at their radios at lines like, “I can turn into a bat and I can even fly.”

In his book I Make My Own Rules, LL Cool J wrote of being in “a trance” literally following another kid who was reciting the words to Super Rhymes, while walking the halls in junior high school.
Spicer drew the Dazz Records logo by hand

Friends and associates remember Jimmy as being very proud of his accomplishment. For Jimmy it all came full circle while walking down Linden Plaza on the corner of Sutter and Lincoln Ave near Prospect Park. “There’s these projects, these really short projects,” he remembers, “and a bunch of stores in a big square and there was some park benches. I was walking up the street and [Super Rhymes] was coming out of every direction, no matter which way I turned or which way I looked that shit was coming at me. It was coming from everywhere. It was coming out of every car, every window and every box on the street. I stopped in the middle of the street and threw my fuckin’ hands up and said, “YEAH. I did it. I did it. I started crying.”

The response was overwhelming. Suddenly the man who hardly ever left Brooklyn was performing all over the city. He says the record got to be, “Large…too large, I never left the states. I toured off that record for two years straight. [It] was in hot rotation for a year straight. It was played everyday from June of 1980 to June of 1981.”
“How many records did it sell?” I ask him.
“Do you think I got an accurate count?” he asks me. “I couldn’t tell you to this day, but I know that mother fucker went platinum.”
Headlining a show @ The Ecstasy Garage

Mel Nelson sold the record out the trunk of his car for weeks, then as the song began to catch on he got a distributor, and another distributor and then another. And that’s when things went haywire. “What the indie record companies would do back in the day,” he explained to me, “was to tell you that they pressed up x amount records and then they’d press up more for themselves and that would be where they would make their money, they were beating everybody.”

As a result Billy Nichols says they never saw any money for that record. Jimmy quickly corrects me on this subject: “Billy didn’t tell you the truth, he never got paid, I got paid, it was far from what I deserved, and that’s why I never recorded for Dazz Records again.”

                                    The Man You Can’t Find Anywhere
Rush artist management roster
In the mid 80’s Spicer had success with two more recordings “Bubble Bunch” and ‘Dollar Bill Yall”. One would think that his career would’ve really taken off once Russell Simmons started managing him. Not.
“He mismanaged my career,” Jimmy tells me.
“How so?” I ask.
“I think the statement speaks for itself: he was missing when he should’ve been managing.” But Spicer holds no grudge against Simmons whom he still regards as a friend.

But Jimmy made the most of his association with Simmons by working at RUSH Artist Management. He answered phones, he coordinated tours and video shoots, he did everything and anything he could around the office. But the more involved he got behind the scenes the less time he spent on the mic. And then he stopped all together.

“I moved to Plainfield, New Jersey and opened a studio in the back of a record store,” he tells me. “I just wanted to be a full time dad.”

Sometime around 1990 the full time dad recorded a swing beat groover called “Money Can’t Buy You Love”, but by this time Spicer, who hadn’t had a record out in five years became gun shy and shelved the record. One day in 2010 while going through his old recordings he came across the song again. “I know I have a hit!” he says to me with his eyes shining bright.

No comments: