Bursting out of the rich Hip-Hop scene of Philadelphia in the late-80s, Three Times Dope (originally known as 3-D) made their name as part of the infamous Hilltop Hustlers collective alongside fellow local artists Steady B and Cool C.
Initially signed by Lawrence Goodman of Pop Art Records fame (and Steady B’s uncle), the trio of EST (emcee), Chuck Nice (producer) and Woody Wood (deejay) quickly gained themselves a dedicated fanbase following the release of early cuts such as “Crushin’ & Bussin'” and “From Da Giddy Up”.
A falling-out with label-head and manager Goodman around the time the group dropped their impressive debut 1988 album “Original Stylin'” found Three Times Dope being dissed by their former musical allies as they began recording 1990’s sophomore effort “Live From Acknickulous Land”.
The threesome finally went their separate ways in the mid-90s, but not without having left an indelible mark on the landscape of East Coast Hip-Hop and beyond.
In this three-part interview, DJ Woody Wood talks about his early recollections of Hip-Hop in Philly, being part of the Hilltop Hustlers and touring with the likes of N.W.A and Too Short.
So how did you first become involved in the Philly Hip-Hop scene?
“When I was coming up in high-school I got involved in music by trying to listen to these tapes that would be passed around. At that time in Philly we had a number of really big deejays who would throw block parties like Cosmic Kev, DJ Thorpe, people like that. There was Parry P who was an emcee. I wanted to be like those dudes. They had cliques and groups like the Black Knights Of Funk and Cosmic Kev was from the Grandmasters Of Funk. So I would get these tapes of these guys, listen to them and want to be them (laughs). So I asked my mom if she could get me some turntables and then I started playing records, listening to what all these other guys were doing, and really just trying to be like them. So that’s really how I first got involved in the Philly music scene.”
What sort of music were you hearing on those tapes at that time?
“Back then everything was breakbeats. So they would play stuff like Brothers Johnson and then when it got to the break part just play that over and over. Then that’s when the emcees would start rapping and I’m listening to this like, ‘Damn! What is this?!’ That’s back when the deejay was still the frontman and the emcee was the hypeman for the deejay. So you’d hear these breakbeats like “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat” and also some of the records that were out at the time from, like, the Treacherous Three. The deejays would play the breaks and then mix it into some of the records that were out at the time.”
Were you actually going to the parties at this point or just listening to the tapes?
“Nah, I was still too young to go to the parties in the beginning. I was about thirteen-years-old at that time so I wasn’t allowed to go to stuff like that. I could hear it on the tapes but I couldn’t see it until some of those deejays would come around my way. Now, I lived in Hunting Park, which is North Philly. So sometimes they used to come around the way, Disco Red, Cosmic Kev, Grandmasters Of Funk, Sex Machine, they would come out with these big giant speakers and it would be loud! You could hear it from up the block and the music would just draw you in. I would go out and just stand there and watch those dudes. I’d be right there in front of the turntables. So that was really how I learnt to deejay, I would just watch those dudes.”
So what were your first turntables like?
“Man, my mom brought me some belt-driven turntables when I was in the eighth grade. She gave me two turntables, a mixer and a stereo set-up with two speakers. I got on those two belt-driven turntables and I just used to play the hell out of the two records that I had (laughs). So I was just watching these other deejays and listening to what they were doing and eventually it got to the stage where I though ‘I can do this.’ Back then people like Cosmic Kev were huge and they had such a big following. This had to be around 1983. Eventually I started doing parties in my neighbourhood and I started to get a reputation as being a deejay in Hunting Park.”
Were these parties you were putting on yourself or as part of a crew?
“Nah, they weren’t my parties. These were house parties that people would have and sometimes they’d charge like a dollar to come in. They’d be jam-packed with people from the neighbourhood. So I wasn’t part of a crew at this point, I would just do parties for people. There were about two or three deejays in the neighbourhood and that’s actually how I met Chuck Nice initially because back in the very beginning he was also a deejay before he got into the production. We used to call him Grandmaster Blend back then (laughs). He used to blend the hell out of two records. So we used to throw parties like that and I was in demand to do a lot of cutting and scratching and Chuck was doing his thing as Grandmaster Blend.”
Was it a Hip-Hop-orientated set you were playing at those early parties?
“It was mainly breakbeats and the Hip-Hop records that were out then back in 83. You’d play records that you knew people would dance to and then you’d also play records like “Planet Rock” and others that were coming out of New York. I mean, they were real long records that you could keep a party going with from like nine at night through to maybe one in the morning.”
That’s back when you’d get ten minute long 12″ versions of tracks…
“Oh yeah (laughs). You could play the hell out of those records back then. Some people would stand in front of the turntables and just watch what you were doing but most people would be dancing and having fun. Then as time went on we started messing with these guys in the neighbourhood, Les and Disco Red’s cousin Vadar. Now Disco Red’s cousin had all these big speakers which meant he could battle against some of the bigger deejays and that’s how we got good with him. He could stack his speakers up and sound way louder than them. He had the concept of using the double-scoops and the horns and all of that and the music would be so loud that it would draw people into the park. So I used to set-up with them when they were doing a party and they’d give me a chance to spin as a part of their crew.”
So were you aware there was an actual Hip-Hop scene in Philly at this point or was it just a neighbourhood thing for you back then?
“That’s a good question. So what happened is, there were a bunch of different promoters who would have parties at different places like Hotel Philadelphia and Fantasia or the different ballrooms that were around. They would bring in deejays from the different areas of Philly. So you had Grandmaster Nell who was from South Philly. Cosmic Kev was from West Oak Lane. Thorpe was from that same area. Then you had Sex Machine who were from North Philly. So these promoters would bring all these different guys together to deejay at different venues and that was the whole thing back then. It would cost you something like ten dollars to get in and there would be like two or three thousand people there. It was crazy. So it was the deejays in Philly who really made everything click in the city when it came down to Hip-Hop. It was all about the deejays, the dancing and the clothes back then. Everyone used to wear what we called a Joe Palmieri in Philly. Joe Palmieri was a tailor and he used to make these custom jeans and things like that which everyone had.”
So you’re seeing people from other parts of Philly who’re involved in Hip-Hop but how much awareness did you have of what had been happening in New York in terms of the origins of the music?
“For me, it was back to listening to those tapes (laughs). I don’t know where people got them from, but there would be these tapes of people like Grand Wizard Theodore. So you’d listen to the parties that they were doing on these tapes. You would hear someone like Theodore cutting a breakbeat and his crew would be rapping and you’d just be like ‘Damn!’ Or you’d hear someone like Grandmaster Flash. Man, if you got a Grandmaster Flash tape! You’d hear rumours at the time that Flash was blind but still mixing and doing all this crazy stuff (laughs). So, back then, the only thing I had to go on was those tapes. So I was listening to Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee and people like that. So that was really what put me onto what they were doing in New York. I mean, I was so young back then I had no way of actually going there or anything like that. So, for me, it really all came from listening to those tapes.”
In our digital world of social media etc it’s almost incomprehensible for today’s generation to grasp the fact that back then you might not even know what was happening in another neighbourhood musically let alone another city…
“Exactly. Then after the tapes came the records and we had these stores like Sound Of Market and Funk-O-Mart and I would go from store to store looking for records. So what you’d do is build an alliance with these guys who worked in these stores and were selling breakbeats and the other records that were coming out. So they would tell you about stuff when you went in there and you could also see the wax and the pictures of different artists and that’s how I visually started to see Hip-Hop. I mean, I didn’t know any of those cats back then, I just knew of their reputations. So going to the record stores was how I started to visually see what was going on in Hip-Hop at that time.”
Who were some of the earliest emcees from Philly that you heard about?
“In the early days, each deejay had his emcees. So a Cosmic Kev might have had a Parry P who was a legend back then. All those guys were legends to us back then because they were that bit older than me and had these big reputations. Sex Machine had MC Sport, Thorpe had his emcees. Everyone had their emcees (laughs). And they would be rapping over the breakbeats and sometimes they’d do these story raps and just keep everything live so the crowd would stay energized. So my first recollections of hearing emcees was hearing the people that would be with those deejays. Now, as time moved on, you started hearing about other people like DJ Jazz and Robbie B. who had one of the first records I heard that came out of Philly. Then you’d hear other records from other Philly artists like MC Breeze, Schoolly D and that was mega-huge to me back then. I was like, ‘These cats are from Philly and they’re making records?!’ That was around 85 / 86 and these were cats that I’d heard on the tapes and now they’re making actual records. So, me and Chuck started thinking that maybe we could do something. Now, everyone at that time seemed to be coming out of West Philly and me and Chuck were out in North Philly and we didn’t have any connections to what was going on. EST wasn’t a part of the crew at that time and we were still just deejays trying to find emcees and put some stuff together. Around 85 I started doing this carpentry thing. My dad was a carpenter, my brother was a carpenter and when I was in high-school I did carpentry. So I started an apprenticeship programme and that’s when the music thing really got real for me because the money I was getting from the carpentry I used to buy equipment. I still had my belt-driven turntables (laughs). I never owned a pair of 1200s until I could afford them. My mom couldn’t afford to get me anything like that.”
So were the Technics 1200s the first thing you brought when you started looking at equipment?
“See, the other crews out there already had big equipment because they were getting paid a little bit. They did it for the love of the music and all that with the block parties, but they were also making some money to be able to buy equipment. I didn’t have big equipment like that. It’s funny thinking about it now, Cosmic Kev and people like that had other turntables, like the 1800s, and I would look at what they were using like, ‘Yo!’ I didn’t really understand about all the different models of turntable in the beginning (laughs). But their turntables were so much smoother than mine. I mean, when you pushed my belt-drives to start a record you had to push them hard. But with those 1200s you could just let ‘em go and they’d pick right up like, bam, bam, bam! I was like, ‘Woohoo! I like that.’ So when me and Chuck started buying our own equipment, the first thing I did was buy some proper turntables, the 1200s, a mixer and a four-track. We used to go to a store called Cintioli Music and that was where we would see all this technology that was out there. Back then all these drum machines were coming out and there were people like Mantronik who were making beats. You might hear someone mention an 808 or something like that, but we didn’t know what that was back then. We’d be like, ‘An 808?! What the f**k is an 808?!’ So me and Chuck learnt the names and then we’d talk to all these guys at the music store who would give us all this information. They’d be telling us, ‘You want to buy this’ or ‘You need to upgrade to that’ and that’s how we first started buying little bits of studio equipment.”
So basically you were studying the records that were being made to point you in the right direction?
“Exactly. In fact, it was the guys from the music stores I was telling you about like Sound Of Market who would talk to us about what other people were doing and then say ‘You could do that.’ Me and Chuck would be like, ‘We could do that? Nah…’ and then they’d pull out a record and show us the address on the back and be like, ‘That address right there shows you who’s in charge of this. Look, there’s the office address and there’s a phone number’ and we were like ‘Ahhhh, okay.’ Then we’d go to the equipment store and tell them that there were artists making music using certain sounds and that they were using drum machines. The guys in the store would be like, ‘Well, look, here’s a drum machine. Let’s plug it up.’ They’d set it up and then play it so we could hear all the different sounds.”
So you’d be listening to them playing the equipment until you heard something that matched the drum sounds you were hearing on people’s records…
“Yeah. Then when they told us you could actually put sounds into it and sample we were like, ‘You can do what?’ When they showed us how to sample we really were like, ‘Are you serious? Show me again! Man, we got to get that!'”
So was that when Chuck Nice started to get into the production side of things?
“As I said, Chuck was known more as a blend deejay, so when he got the chance to do music with the whole sampling thing, he jumped right on that. So I brought all this equipment and we kept a lot of it at Chuck’s house. He only lived about two blocks from where I was. So we had our speakers and everything for the house parties over at Chuck’s and as we got more stuff we put it in his basement. His mom was so nice, God rest her soul, and she let us keep all our equipment down there. So we had everything down in Chuck’s basement, our little drum machine, our four-track, our turntables and all our records were over there. So that basement is basically where we started making music and learning how to use the different equipment we had. As I said, at that point I was an apprentice carpenter, so I would be at work at 7am, home by 3pm, over at Chuck’s house by 4:30pm and then I’d stay over there working on stuff and be back to work the next morning. That’s when we started making songs and sending them to different people who were already making the music we were listening to.”
Were these instrumental tracks you were sending out at that time?
“Nah, they were proper songs. The first emcees we worked with were called the Deuce MCs which was Rick Slick and this other guy we used to call Cosmic C. Me and Chuck thought they were good so we started working with them. Chuck would take some loops and come up with the music, I would cut on it, they would rap on it, we’d mix it down with the four-track, put the songs on cassettes and then give the music to people to see what they thought. We took the tape down to the record store and they were telling us about someone we should get our music to who had a lot of people out already like Super Nature, who were Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante and others. That person turned out to be Lawrence Goodman and his label Pop Art.”
Read Part Two of this interview here.