Although his career on wax may have been relatively brief (spanning just four short years from 1982 to 1986), a young Ronnie Green definitely captured the imaginations of Hip-Hop fans from all corners of Planet Rock, blasting-off from NYC in his silver Dip Ship as he transformed into the larger-than-life Captain Rock.
Although the Captain Rock character was originally the creation of New York dance music producers The Aleems, former deejay Green went on to embody the persona following his early-80s audition for the position. Combining the feel-good party-based rhymes of the time with space-age subject matter and futuristic production, NIA-released singles such as “The Return Of Capt. Rock” and “Cosmic Blast” went on to become regarded as classics, not least by Hip-Hop heads here in the UK thanks to the regular inclusion of the Captain on the groundbreaking StreetSounds “Electro” compilation series.
In this interview, the man who came from Pluto and aimed to make you dance talks about coming up with Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, working with the Aleem brothers and performing at London’s huge UK Fresh ’86 event.
Calling Captain Rock….
What part of New York did you grow-up in?
“I grew-up in the borough of Manhattan, Harlem to be exact. Back in the 70s and the 80s it was really rough in New York City. The economy wasn’t up to par and there were a lot of abandoned buildings, crime and everything else. I mean, it’s totally gone in the opposite direction since and it’s a great city now, but back then, the economy wasn’t what it is today. It was tough. But before there was Captain Rock there was DJ Ronnie Green. I started out as a deejay with Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde and before that I had Mr. Barnes and MC Starchild who were my first emcees with the Get High Crew. I remember we did a show over on the East Side on First Avenue, I bumped into Mr. Hyde and he was deejay-ing with another guy Louie Lou. We gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he came and joined us. Then after that it was DJ Ronnie Green and Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde.”
Before they were signed to Profile Records, Jeckyll & Hyde were featured on the 1980 Harlem World Crew single “Rappers Convention”. Did you have any involvement in that particular record?
“No, I wasn’t recording with them at that point. I came out a little after those Harlem World Crew records. But I used to be up in Harlem World all the time. Matter of fact, I lived just three blocks from Harlem World when I was coming up. I lived on 114th and Harlem World was on 116th Street. They had a deejay there called DJ Randy who passed away a few years ago while he was deejay-ing in the park. He had a massive heart attack doing what he did best, being on those turntables. But I used to go up to Harlem World back in the day to support DJ Randy, Jeckyll & Hyde and those guys, deejay-ing for them, but we weren’t recording together at that time.”
What do you remember of your time spent at the Harlem World club?
“There was just so much going on at Harlem World, man. Every weekend it was a party. I mean, if I wasn’t there every weekend, then I was there every other weekend. I used to like it when they’d have the boxing fights up there. They wouldn’t actually hold the fights there, but they’d record them and then show them at Harlem World. That was really big back then. But there were just so many shows that happened at Harlem World. I remember seeing Kurtis Blow, Sugarhill Gang and so many local groups as well who would perform there. I really believe that Harlem World helped take rap to another level back then, because the crowds that used to turn-up every week would be enormous. It was great at the time.”
What do you think differentiated the artists that were coming up in Harlem’s Hip-Hop scene from what was happening elsewhere in NYC back then?
“Obviously, Hip-Hop began in the Bronx with Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and all those guys who really set the tone. Now the artists in the Bronx, they were really hardcore, whereas in Manhattan we were a little more laidback. The Bronx was tough and rough, whereas in Harlem we had the cool rappers. The Bronx had the hard rappers and Harlem had the cool rappers. But the way we were back then also had a lot to do with the history of Harlem. Harlem had always been known as a money-making town. Unfortunately some of the biggest drug dealers of the day like Nicky Barnes were also based in Harlem. But back then, if people wanted to make some money, they came to Harlem. People from all the different boroughs would come to 125th Street. We had The Apollo which was always a big attraction for people and it still is today. So that sense of style and flair that Harlem already had influenced the Hip-Hop that came from there.”
How much of an impact did that Nicky Barnes / Frank Lucas drug kingpin era have on the community of Harlem?
“It had a massive impact on Harlem. But for all the negative side of that situation, there were also some positives that came out of it. They opened up a lot of businesses in Harlem. During the holidays and on Thanksgiving they’d give out turkeys and food to underprivileged families and stuff like that. They would put on a lot of basketball tournaments in the neighbourhood to give the kids something to do. They’d also put on shows with different artists for the older people. I mean, I was very young at the time when this was happening, but I saw the impact it had on the environment around me. So although there was a lot of negativity around what people like Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas were doing, when they got their money they tried to do the right thing with it and give something back to the community. A lot of what you saw in that Frank Lucas film “American Gangster” with him giving back to the community, that actually happened. But I have a lot of great memories of growing-up in Harlem, man. Really great memories. Harlem was the centre of New York City back then and it still is.”
Did you have regular venues that you would deejay at?
“Before Harlem World I used to run a place on the East Side on First Avenue called the Chuck Center. I used to do parties over there and I also used to do parties in Harlem’s King Towers. This was around 1980. I was like, thirteen or fourteen-years-old running my own disco. We used to charge a dollar to get in. Now the guy who owned the Chuck Center, he was supposed to be getting funding from the state or something, but he wasn’t getting his funding, although he still had the building. So we used to help with the upkeep and bills from the money we made charging to get into the parties. We would keep half and he would take half.”
What equipment were you using?
“I was using Technics turntables. I’ll never forget those turntables. I can’t remember the exact number or model I had, but I’ll never forget how those turntables felt. I must have had about fifteen or twenty crates of albums. I had a couple of mixers and the big speakers and stuff. But I definitely remember those Technics turntables. I didn’t mess with any other turntables except for Technics (laughs).”
What sort of music were you playing?
“Now, let me think what really used to get the crowd going. “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band and Bob James “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” always used to get a great response. I still have copies of those party tapes on my computer (laughs). We’d be cutting up songs like that back-to-back and would rock for two or three hours straight. It was all about those breakbeats and cutting-up the R&B records of the time.”
When you started performing with Jeckyll & Hyde were you making appearances in other areas of New York outside of Harlem?
“We had our own spots so we didn’t have to go to places like the Bronx to perform. People from the Bronx came to us. People from all the other boroughs came to Harlem. I mean, they had their spots up in the Bronx like Disco Fever, but we had our spots like the Chuck Center, King Towers and then Harlem World. So we didn’t really have to go anywhere. Our thing was, come to Harlem if you want to party (laughs). So we didn’t really move around too much as we had our own places to perform. I remember, we used to get a lot of Bronx people at our parties, but not too many people from Brooklyn or Queens. But that had a lot to do with the fact that the Bronx and Manhattan are really close to each other. I mean if you’re in uptown Manhattan on 145th Street you’re two minutes away from being right in the Bronx. We used to have artists and deejays from the Bronx come to Harlem to perform as well. Grand Wizard Theodore used to come from the Bronx and he was such an awesome deejay. Flash and them came down a couple of times on 125th Street. Lovebug Starski used to be up at Harlem World. We were like one big family. You got up there, rocked the house and kept it moving. Of course there was competition and everybody wanted to put on the best show to rock the crowd, but everybody just came to have a good time. We just wanted to party, have a good time and then go on home.”
Did you have a particular stage-show with Jeckyll & Hyde that you’d perform?
“I remember, you’d have other deejays and acts who would come on and do their sets. Then we’d get on about 11pm. There was no dancing or anything like that, they would just get the mic and come onstage and rap. I remember they had a song they used to sing before the music had even come on, that started off ‘We’re Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde and DJ Ronnie Green…’ then towards the end of it they would sing ‘One, two, three, four, five, Ronnie Green if you’re ready make the crowd come alive…’ Then I’d starting cutting, zigga-zigga-zigga-zigga (laughs).”
Were you surprised when people like the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five started making records in the very late-70s?
“It just came out of nowhere, like ‘Wow! Here it is!’ When the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five started putting records out I remember everyone was sorta shocked. Kurtis Blow was a big inspiration to me back then as well. But people were surprised that the music was taking off like it did. We had no idea at the time that it was going to go to the level that it went to.”
So was there a particular reason why you weren’t involved with Jeckyll & Hyde in that first Harlem World Crew release?
“They really just considered me to be a deejay. Which is why I still to this day don’t really know why they took me up to the Aleems to do the Captain Rock audition. I mean, they knew I could rap a little bit, but my primary thing was always being the deejay. I definitely thank them for the opportunity and for taking me up there because if they hadn’t, there would have still been a Captain Rock, but it wouldn’t have been me (laughs).”
Considering you were known as a deejay, were you hesitant about the audition knowing you’d be behind a mic rather than behind the turntables?
“I always had the feel to rap from watching Jeckyll & Hyde onstage. The last show I did for them, we were down in Virginia which is about six hours away from New York City. I was watching them onstage and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I even prayed on it. Then a couple of weeks later they took me up to the Aleems to do the audition. But it was definitely something that I’d already thought about wanting to do. I’d started to see how the deejays were being pushed into the background and I wanted to be in the forefront. I mean, I grew-up singing in the church and playing the organ, so I already knew I had musical talent and could perform.”
So how did the audition work? Were you the only one there to audition or were there other people trying out for the Captain Rock role as well?
“It was just the two Aleem brothers, Mr. Hyde and myself. Now, there was already another guy who the Aleems had in mind for Captain Rock. This other guy they were thinking of using, they had his vocals for “Cosmic Glide” down already. But Alonzo Brown, Mr. Hyde, kept telling the Aleems ‘I’ve got the guy for this, man. This other guy can go.’ Hyde had already given me the lyrics to what became my first single, ‘Well I’m here to spread pure funk y’know, Put the beat in ya feet and the chill in ya bones, I’m stronger than steel, Impossible to stop, That’s why they call me Captain Rock…’ When I did the audition the Aleems just liked my groove and the way I presented myself. Then once we started recording “Cosmic Glide” they loved my voice and the enthusiasm I had for what I was doing. I actually listened to the version of the song the other guy recorded and his vocals were real dull to be quite honest with you. But I brought some life to it and I got it.”
Were you aware of the whole space-age concept behind the Captain Rock persona before you did the audition?
“Well, when I first got in there, I just had the lyrics and they just told me to perform them. I had no idea at that point what the idea behind Captain Rock consisted of. They didn’t even tell me about the Captain Rock angle, the Aleems were just like, ‘Okay, you’ve got the lyrics, step up to the mic and let’s hear you.’ Then afterwards on the way home Alonzo told me the whole thing, how Captain Rock was going to be this character who was supposed to be a space-man from another galaxy who would come down to Earth to rap about space, having fun and things like that. I was just like ‘Wow!’”
So how did it feel when you finally released your first single in 1982, “Cosmic Glide”?
“I was a bit discouraged by how the first single did when it was released. It did okay, but it didn’t do what it was supposed to. I mean, NIA Records was a real small independent at the time and it was the label’s first single, so the Aleems really didn’t have the money behind them that was needed to really get that single into circulation. But once the second single “The Return Of Capt. Rock” came out in 1983, that was really the record that put NIA on the map.”
As as a young fan of Hip-Hop back then the music seemed so spontaneous and organic, but people behind the scenes like the Aleems and Sylvia Robinson were definitely making some shrewd business decisions…
“Yeah, my only regret from back then is not knowing more about the business aspect. I was travelling all over and making money that I had no idea I could make before. I was young. I mean, I was about sixteen-years-old when “Cosmic Glide” came out. What was happening was unbelievable to me. But I didn’t really know much about the business aspect of what was happening behind the scenes in terms of record sales and things of that nature. I really got kicked in the butt as far as the business side of things was concerned. But I still thank God for the experience.”
Compared to the funk influences heard on “Cosmic Glide”, “The Return Of Capt. Rock” definitely had a much sparser, harder sound to it…
“I think one of the major things behind that record was that we really needed something more up-tempo. “Cosmic Glide” was good, but we really needed something with a little more punch. That was thanks to the Aleems because they took care of all of the production on those early singles and they were definitely two very talented men. They were very talented as far as putting music together was concerned. So they decided we needed to hear something a little more up-tempo from Captain Rock and that single was definitely received well.”
Considering Captain Rock was the Aleems’ creation, how much input did you have on those early singles?
“I had no input on “Cosmic Glide” whatsoever. The Aleems and Mr. Hyde took care of that with both the production and the lyrics. “The Return Of Capt. Rock”, Mr. Hyde wrote that by himself and the Aleems did the music. After those first two singles I started having a lot of input. I wrote “Cosmic Blast” and also helped produce that. Mr. Hyde was out of the picture then and was off doing other things. So after “The Return Of Capt. Rock” I took over writing for myself and was also doing the production with the Aleems.”
What was the response to “The Return Of Capt. Rock” in New York considering you felt the first single hadn’t done as well as it should have?
“New York didn’t play “The Return Of Capt. Rock” like it should have done. I remember I did a show downtown in New York City back then and one of the biggest radio jocks at the time, Chuck Leonard from Kiss FM, actually apologised to me for the station sleeping on that single. I don’t really know why that was, whether it was to do with politics with the Aleems, but as far as other places like Virginia and Philly, the response was fantastic. The record did well in New York but it didn’t get the airplay that it should have got. I mean, everyone knew that Ronnie Green was behind the Captain Rock persona, particularly in Harlem, and my name was pretty big back then. So we definitely had the support from the people. I think it was more to do with politics with the Aleems and how they were getting along with the programme directors at certain radio stations and things like that. I mean, back then the music industry was rough and if you had money then you’d hit the deejays off and the programme directors and you’d get some airtime. Like I said, NIA was a small label at the time so they really couldn’t compete like that. Plus, the Aleems had issues with a lot of people, man. Back then, we used to get these flyers done and we’d put them around Harlem and the Bronx. On the flyers it would say to call the radio stations, which were WBLS and Kiss, and request Captain Rock. There would be one thousand to two thousand people calling the radio stations requesting to hear Captain Rock every day and we still didn’t get the airtime. So that’s how I know it had to be down to politics. The Aleems weren’t the most likable people in the world, y’know. Looking back on it now, when that radio deejay apologised for not playing my record I should have asked why they didn’t support it and got more involved in the situation. But I was just so young back then and I was really just happy to be making music, making some money and flying all around the place performing.”
Where else were you travelling to perform?
“We were going all along the East Coast with that record. But my biggest market was always Philadelphia. I still go out to do shows in Philly today. Virginia was another big market for me. I was travelling all along the East Coast doing shows every weekend. It was unbelievable Like I said, I wish I’d known more about the business aspect at the time, but that’s all water under the bridge now. I had a great time.”
Who was actually in the Cosmic Crew who were mentioned heavily on 1984′s classic “Cosmic Blast”?
“Well, DJ Darryl D had been with me since the start. After “Capt. Rock To The Futureshock” we brought on Richie Rich who was our human beatbox. I met Richie Rich in a park in Harlem. Every week I used to do this thing at King Towers called Wednesday Talent Night where people from the community could come and sing, dance and whatever else. To open up I always used to do a show with DJ Darryl D. Someone had come to me and told me they knew this kid who could really beatbox. At the time Doug E. Fresh, who was also from Harlem, he’d just released a beatbox joint. So I was like, ‘You know what? I want to do a beatbox thing.’ I listened to Richie Rich do his thing and then the next day I sat down and wrote “Cosmic Blast” and put a part on the record for him to be on. “Cosmic Blast” was huge in New York. It was such a big record. I think “Cosmic Blast” had a little more funk to it, whereas “The Return…” was more electro. I just think “Cosmic Blast” was more appealing to New York. But going back to your question, I still talk to Darryl D a lot and occassionally I see Richie Rich. Everyone’s working now and has their own things to take care of, but they’re still my guys. We still hook-up. I don’t take them out on the road with me now, though. I go by myself to be quite honest with you. I’m not making that much money from the shows where I can have a budget to pay for the two of them to come along as well. But I’m talking to some old-school promoters across Europe and we’re trying to put some things together.”
How much interaction did you have in the studio with Marley Marl who is credited with mixing “Cosmic Blast”?
“I had very little interaction with Marley. It was the Aleems who brought Marley on board as he was a studio intern for them at the time. So when he came in to do the mixing, I wasn’t in the studio. I had one or two sessions when he was there and we were laying down vocals, but usually Marley would come in after the vocals had been put down. But I do remember he was a great guy and it was clear even back then that Marley was very talented and really had a good ear for music.”
Marley Marl also credits “The Pure” which was included on the “Cosmic Blast” single as one of the first times he used a sampler in the studio…
“Right. See what the Aleems did when we recorded “Cosmic Blast” was they had Richie Rich go in the studio and put down a whole bunch of tracks of just him doing the beatbox. Then off the back of that they had the idea of doing “The Pure” on the flipside and just let Marley put all those bits and pieces together. It was a great idea.”
I’ve seen people mention on the internet that they thought it was Biz Markie beat-boxing on that track because of the Marley Marl connection…
“Nah, that was definitely Richie Rich who did all of the beat-boxing on “The Pure”. Biz didn’t have anything to do with that record whatsoever. That was strictly Richie Rich.”
After the success of “Capt. Rock To The Future Shock” and “Cosmic Blast” in 1984 a couple of years would pass before you released any new material. Was there a reason for that gap?
“To be honest, I was kinda burned out. The years of touring and all the excitement, I just really needed a break. I was going through some personal issues as well at the time and I just really needed to focus on getting me together.”
Spyder-D produced “You Stink” on the b-side of your 1986 single “House Of Rock”. Was it your idea to bring Sypder in for that track?
“No, that was the Aleems who brought him in to work on that record. I’d written “You Stink” myself but then the Aleems brought Spyder-D in to handle production on that track. I had limited interaction with him during that process.”
Given the amount of singles you released was the possibility of a full-length album ever discussed?
“It was, but it had gotten to the point towards the end where I just wasn’t comfortable with the Aleems. There were a lot of money issues, a lot of things going on and I just wasn’t being compensated properly for my work. I went and got an attorney and stuff like that and I really wasn’t comfortable with doing too much more recording with the Aleems unless I was going to be properly compensated. Those guys went from working out of their apartment with NIA Records to having a big office downtown, and part of that was down to the success of Captain Rock. I mean, they had their own material they were releasing as Aleem, but it wasn’t doing as well as the Captain Rock singles. I was very instrumental in helping them climb the ladder, so I felt I should be compensated. So I got a lawyer and we worked out some stuff. In fact, my lawyer was so good that after we finished they actually hired her to work for them (laughs).”
Your music was heavily featured on the early “Electro” compilation albums that came out in England on the Streetsounds label. Were you aware that your music was being so well received over here in the UK at the time?
“You know what kills me? I had no idea at all until we came out to London to do UK Fresh ’86. I had no idea how many units we were selling out there in the UK. I didn’t even know our music was available out in England. I remember when we went out for UK Fresh and I was saying to DJ Darryl D, ‘They know about us out here? Can you believe this?’ Y’know, when they first asked us to come out to England, I was like, ‘England?! For what?! Who the hell knows about us out there?!’ I had no idea whatsoever.”
What do you remember of your appearance at UK Fresh?
“What an experience that was. We got off the plane and the steering wheel was on the opposite side of the car as we’re being driven to the hotel (laughs). We didn’t know anything about pounds or pence and the difference in the currency. We were so young back then. But basically, they didn’t have us billed to be on the first UK Fresh show which was earlier in the day. We were only supposed to be performing at the evening show. So after we ate breakfast, I said to Darryl D ‘Let’s go to the first show.’ So the people in the hotel showed us how to get to Wembley Arena and we took the train there. As soon as we get there we got whisked into a locker room by the organisers and they’re telling us that they need us to perform at the first show as well because Roxanne Shante or someone hadn’t turned up. But of course all of our stuff, our outfits, records and everything were still back at the hotel. So they somehow managed to get our records from somewhere and we performed at the earlier show just in our regular street clothes. Then we came back in the evening again and did our full show. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Great memories.”
Your 1986 single “Bongo Beat” was the last release we heard from Captain Rock. Was there a reason why you stepped away from the music scene?
“My personal life was a little bit screwed-up. I was having too much fun out there and not focusing. I needed to take some time to get myself back online and I had some personal issues I had to deal with.”
There was definitely a changing of the guard in Hip-Hop around 86 / 87 with new artists coming out like BDP, Stetsasonic, Public Enemy. Were you still listening to the music that was being released back then?
“Yeah, I was listening to the other artists that were coming out and that had a lot to do with my decision to step away also. The whole scene was starting to go in a different direction to what I’d been doing with the electro-funk stuff. My last single “Bongo Beat” was me trying to move with what was happening at the time and I regret that. I should have stayed the course with the electro stuff. I mean, it’s crazy because electro is back out there now and it’s hot again. It’s hot! But also back then, I was really burnt out. There was a time when I just wanted to be like an average, normal person again. I just wanted to go back to living a normal life. Everything was moving so fast, the money, the flying around, I was living out of a suitcase and didn’t know where I was going to be from one day to the next. I just wanted to be normal again for awhile. I wish I hadn’t been thinking that now, but y’know, s**t happens. But I had a great time back then and thank God for the opportunity.”
Captain Rock – “Cosmic Blast” (NIA Records / 1984)