With legendary producer Easy Mo Bee having been a topic of online interest recently due to his on-off involvement in the upcoming Biggie flick “Notorious”, I thought I’d reach to the back of the stack and pull out an interview I did with the man himself back in 2004. After talking on the phone with Mo for five hours I had more than enough material to work with, but this is the first part of what actually made it into Blues & Soul magazine as a three part feature.
BEHIND THE BOARDS WITH EASY MO BEE (PART ONE)
Easy Mo Bee is extremely passionate about music. That is the first thing you notice when speaking to the producer who has worked with some of Hip-Hop’s true greats. Ask a simple question relating to something in his discography and the softly-spoken Mo Bee will not just give you a simple answer, but will talk you almost step-by-step through the process of how a particular track was put to together. It’s not that he’s showing-off, but simply that Mo wants people to have a proper understanding of what it is that he does.
With almost 20 years in the game, the Brooklyn-based beatsmith’s career has spanned three decades, from his early work in the ’80s (Big Daddy Kane, The Genius), to the ’90s (Lost Boyz, Heavy D) and more recently he has provided tracks for Mos Def and Alicia Keys. Mo Bee experienced mild success as an artist himself with the harmonising rap group Rappin’ Is Fundamental, but while music pundits probably remember him first and foremost for his Grammy Award-winning work with jazz legend Miles Davis, Hip-Hop heads know him as the man who helped lay the sonic foundations for Puffy’s Bad Boy empire.
In 1994 Mo Bee was responsible for producing both Craig Mack’s classic breakthrough single “Flava In Ya Ear” as well as key tracks from Biggie Smalls’ timeless debut album “Ready To Die” (“Warning”, “Gimme The Loot” etc). He is also the only producer able to say that he collaborated with both Biggie and 2Pac during the short lives of the two rap icons (Mo Bee created the original version of “Runnin'” which was re-released last year and remixed by Eminem).
In the first instalment of this in-depth interview, Easy Mo Bee recalls his earliest musical memories, while also recounting his initial forays into the rap business.
At what point did music become a part of your life?
“It all goes back to my father. He was always the king of the albums and 45s. He had a lot of music in the house when I was young and would play soul, gospel, jazz, rock & roll, all kinds of music. So I picked up the love of music from being around my father as a child. Then I got my own record-player, which was a Show & Tell. Remember those? It had a Jack & The Beanstalk nursery rhyme record with it and you’d watch the slides and it’d tell a story (laughs). But I never used any of those storybook records. I’d be looking at the pictures, but playing Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” (laughs). By the age of 12 I became a deejay and my first equipment was two BSR turntables and a microphone mixer. It was a set that wasn’t really even a set. I just put it all together. But then around 1984 that evolved into me actually thinking about wanting to make music.”
What are some of your earliest memories of Hip-Hop?
“My earliest memories are from my block. I lived in Lafayette Gardens in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. They used to have these street parties and would bring the equipment out into the park. This would be around 1975 and the deejay would have two copies of “Dreaming A Dream” by Crown Heights Affair and be running them back-to-back making the break section longer. I’d be like ‘Wow! That’s cool’. In Brooklyn at that time we were emulating what was going on uptown in the Bronx and Manhattan. But I missed seeing that because I was too young and my mother wouldn’t let me go up there. But I used to hear live tapes of the Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers. When I was in high-school, around ’79, the seniors used to break the rules and bring their boomboxes to school. I’d hear these tapes while I was sitting in the lunchroom and be like ‘Wow! Yeah!’. After I heard that I was like ‘That is what I wanna do’.
At what point did you actually start making beats?
“Well other people will probably say the same thing, that as a deejay you play music for so long that you end up wanting to make music. So circa ’85 / ’86, enter Marley Marl and the Cold Chillin’ crew, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Roxanne Shante, Kool G. Rap. When Marley came along and took that SP-1200 and was lifting a kick from this record, a snare from that record, that to me, along with a couple of other records out at the same time, like Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin'”, that was what influenced me. Anything that Marley Marl did, I worshipped it (laughs). I always had a deep appreciation for soul and jazz, and I felt that what Marley was doing was in line with what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of things that people like Marley Marl don’t get enough credit for. For instance, the big heavy bass sound, that sub-bass sound, we owe that to Marley. He introduced that sound to Hip-Hop and later you had people who came up and enhanced that sound, like Pete Rock and myself, but we got it from Marley Marl. So that’s where a lot of my musical influence comes from. Also at that same time I was being influenced by Hurby Luv Bug, who did all the early Salt-N-Pepa and Kid-N-Play material, and before that Larry Smith who worked with Run-DMC and Whodini. It’s those influences that make up Easy Mo Bee. I always like to remind people that anything we do, we got it from somewhere else. In order to be a better producer or a better artist, go back and study those who came before you. If you’re a producer today in 2004 you owe it to yourself to go back and find out who Larry Smith was. Find out about Arthur Baker. And if you’re talking about ‘boom-bap’ then there’s no way you can forget Jazzy Jay. Those are the dudes that we’re still emulating today when we use our MPCs and all our drum sounds. You, I, everyone from that era who was a part of this music, we were rebels because no-one understood this artform. And to have seen it grow into a billion dollar industry is amazing to me. But there’s not a lot of music out there now to equal the feeling of the first time you heard MC Shan’s “The Bridge” or Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” and stuff like that.
But I think that’s because everything was so new both musically and lyrically back then. You really were hearing revolutionary things for the first time….
“A lot of people making music today really need to go back and do their research. It’s the blueprint of this music. Fortunately enough people like me and you, we were there to witness all of that. But can you imagine, a 14-year-old kid getting into Hip-Hop today, everything he does or wants to do musically is influenced by what’s out now. That’s all he has to go by because he’s not being told to go back and listen to anything else. Do you understand that we had the privilege of being there in the beginning?”
How and when did your group Rappin’ Is Fundamental come into existence?
“I was working at Con Edison, a power company here in New York. I always lived in building 4-11 in my projects with my brother LG and then these two other brothers used to live in the back building, 4-33, JR and AB Money. They knew that I deejayed and was messing with music so we started hanging out, just sitting out on the park benches or on the staircase in our buildings. We started out just as a singing group with the doo-wop sound. We used to sit on the staircases, drinking 40s and singing Stylistics songs into the night until people got aggravated and didn’t wanna here it no more (laughs). Now JR and AB both rapped and I was the only one who didn’t. AB kept trying to influence me to rap, but I was like ‘Nah, I’ll let you handle that. I’ll just do the music.’ Then there was this one night when I was in my projects and outside it just sounded like chaos – you heard bottles smashing, sirens, people started shooting, everything. I was like ‘Yo! This is madness. It’s crazy.’ And I wrote a rap about it. I just got so frustrated with what I heard going on that I wrote my first rap. I was kinda ashamed of it, but JR told me to keep writing. This would’ve been around 1986. So that broke the ice, which meant that now all three of us sang and all three of us rhymed. We all loved soul. Things like The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, all of the famous doo-wop groups. So we thought, ‘What would people think about us rapping and singing?’ We decided to put it all together and that’s how we came up with the name for what we did – doo-hop.”
Do you feel that concept confused listeners when R.I.F.’s debut album was released?
“We were released on A&M Records. Sometimes because the machine doesn’t necessarily understand what they have, they may not put a lot of effort into marketing it. But often what people are not ready for at a certain time becomes the biggest thing later. Rappin’ Is Fundamental never got it’s true due, but there’s a lot of things we did that people took and ran away with. We had people telling us that because of the singing it wasn’t real Hip-Hop. We went through all of that. I just don’t think people were ready for what we were doing.”
The first time I became aware of Easy Mo Bee was when you produced for Big Daddy Kane on his second album in 1989. How did you hook-up with Kane?
“Well AB Money and Big Daddy Kane used to go to high-school together in Brooklyn. Biz Markie used to cut school and come and hang out up there to. That was the closest thing I had to someone who was in the business that I actually knew. Rappin’ Is Fundamental actually had an independent single out before the A&M deal and AB Money kept telling Kane about me, telling him I had beats and that he should check me out. Finally we went to Kane’s house one day to play him some beats and he found some stuff he wanted to use. So we ended-up doing “Another Victory” and “Calling Mr. Welfare” on his second album “It’s A Big Daddy Thing”. “Calling Mr Welfare” sampled James Brown’s “The Chicken” and “Another Victory” was a straight lift of Booker T & The MGs’ “Melting Pot”. I always loved that record. After working with Kane a lot of people saw my name on the record and I starting getting calls for work.”
Was the fact that you now had an affiliation with Cold Chillin’ Records how you got to work on the first Genius album “Words From The Genius”?
“Yeah, that was the second project I worked on before The Genius became the GZA and before Wu-Tang. The Genius album didn’t really blow as well as it could have and I think the main reason for that was that at the time, Big Daddy Kane was king over there at Cold Chillin’. So the Genius was not going to rise above Kane. People weren’t really thinking about the Genius like that yet. In 1990 Kane would have had out his third album “A Taste Of Chocolate” and people were still big on him. But “Words From The Genius” was the first entry into the industry of any Wu-Tang member and what a lot of people don’t realise is that me and my brother LG produced that entire record, except for the single “Come Do Me” which was done by Jesse West, a homeboy of mine. I did ten songs, LG did three. After the Genius came other things, like a lot of people don’t know I remixed the last 3rd Bass record “Gladiator”, which was on the soundtrack of the film with the same name. But I did some interesting things with that record. I always felt that a rapper sounded funky when he doesn’t rhyme ahead of the beat. To lag is to be funky. It’s the difference between how Kenny G plays saxophone compared to Grover Washington Jr. Grover Washington has more soul because he’s more laidback and everything isn’t totally syncopated and perfectly on the beat. I always felt that a rapper’s voice is like an instrument and you gotta be funky with it. Big Daddy Kane did that. Rakim did that. To me, MC Serch and Pete Nice didn’t really sound like that on the “Gladiator” record. So we set their vocals back a millisecond behind the music so there was a delay which made them sound funkier to me. I did that to plenty other people and they didn’t even realise (laughs). I never even told ’em.”
Part Two To Be Posted Tomorrow.