In the world of Hip-Hop there are those who boastfully make misguided claims of legendary status and those who have legendary status bestowed upon them by fans and peers due to their talent and contributions to the artform. Queens, NY icon Mikey D definitely falls into the latter category.
Making his name on the streets of early-80s New York as a ferocious battle emcee, the skilled wordsmith quickly built a reputation that would see him continue to be respected as an artist throughout the years, from his L.A. Posse releases with innovative producer Paul C. and childhood friend DJ Johnny Quest, to his time as a member of Main Source in the 90s and up to the present day.
Despite enduring numerous career setbacks during decades of destroying microphones, Mikey’s passion for the music and culture which grabbed his attention as a young kid from Laurelton’s Merrick Boulevard has never left him.
Currently putting the finishing touches to a project with NY vinyl veteran DJ Mercury under the name Elements Of Hip-Hop, Mikey D kindly took some time out to discuss his long personal history for this three-part interview, including his relationship with a young LL Cool J, winning the 1988 New Music Seminar emcee battle, the tragic murder of Paul C. and his future music plans.
Can you remember when you were first introduced to Hip-Hop?
“It was around the late-70s, like 78, 79. I was in Laurelton, Queens, but my boy Derek, we called him Dee Money, he was from Harlem but his grandmother lived next door to my grandmother and in the summertime he would always come to Queens. Now, his brother was a little older than him, so he would be going to Harlem World and have all the cassettes of the live shows. So Dee Money used to steal his brother’s tapes and bring them with him to Queens for the summer (laughs). So, we’re just little kids at the time, sitting on the steps listening to this new music, which was Hip-Hop. After awhile I started emulating what I was hearing coming out of that big radio on the tapes and I had it y’know. I was saying the rhymes I was hearing on the tapes but I was doing it my way. Then eventually I started writing my own rhymes. I remember Grandmaster Caz had this rhyme about a girl named Yvette and the rhyme that I wrote was about a girl named Kim (laughs). So I was emulating Grandmaster Caz when I wrote my first rhyme and that was really my introduction right there because after I wrote that rhyme everybody started feeling it and I wanted more.”
So it was the lyrical aspect of Hip-Hop that grabbed you immediately rather than any of the other elements?
“It was definitely the rapping and the way the crowd took to the rapper that drew me in. The way the crowd would respond to a rapper’s punchlines and things like that just drove me crazy when I heard it. I was always a class clown and stuff like that and I liked the attention so that was my niche right there (laughs).”
At what point did you make the move from writing rhymes to actually performing in public?
“Johnny Quest used to live right down the block from me at the time I started writing rhymes. Johnny’s brother gave him some equipment for Christmas, around like 1980 / 81, but we were still young so we were really just rapping in the house and making tapes. Then the tapes started getting known publicly. Now, at this time, they used to always throw these park jams around the way, but I was always scared to get on because it was the older guys that were running the set and doing their thing. I was getting known underground from the tapes, so I was being recognised for that, but I was still just rapping in people’s houses. But one day I went to this park, 231, where they had this jam and I’m sitting there vibin’ and enjoying what’s going on. There was this guy there called TLC, I’ll never forget it. For some reason he had the balls to call me out. Now, at this point I’d never had a battle or rocked in front of a crowd and now we’re in the park, there’s a big crowd, I’m already hot from the tapes but I don’t have the experience of rockin’ in front of a large crowd. So TLC calls me out and starts disrespecting me in his rhyme and I was like, ‘Holy s**t!’ But what he didn’t know was that I’d come prepared. I’d already written battle rhymes just incase something like this ever happened, because when we were rockin’ in the houses there could be seventeen other emcees there getting on the tapes with you, so you never knew who had what, so you always had to be prepared for a battle. So I went out there and tore TLC apart (laughs). That was the first time I ever performed in front of an audience and it was the first time I got a taste of blood and like a pitbull I wanted more (laughs).”
Did TLC already know you from the tapes or did he call you out because he thought you were an easy target?
“TLC definitely knew who I was at that time but he had the crown in the park jams already. I was only known from the tapes, not for the park jams. So he took it upon himself to try and play me. But that was a bad decision for him and that was it for me. After I won that first battle it was off to the races, man.”
So that was the moment you decided you wanted to be known as a battle rapper?
“Yeah. I think a lot of these emcees and rappers that come out now, they learn how to do it. I feel like I was born to do this. From hearing those first tapes that Dee Money had, I knew from that point on that rhyming was what I wanted to do and it just came so naturally to me. I knew rhyming was something that was meant for me to do.”
How old were you when you had that first battle?
“I was around twelve or thirteen.”
Do you still remember the rhyme that you dropped?
“Oh my god, I don’t even remember what I said to TLC (laughs). But it definitely shut him down. I don’t even think he was rapping after that (laughs).”
And this is back when losing a public battle and having your reputation damaged by another emcee could easily end someone’s reign as a popular rapper in the neighbourhood…
“Exactly. And it wasn’t only the emcee as an individual who suffered when they lost a battle, it was the whole neighbourhood as well. See, TLC was from Farmers Boulevard and Farmers was in the house that day in the park. So he’s seen as being the best emcee from Farmers, and now here I come, a new jack from Laurelton, Merrick Boulevard to be exact, and those two places were already rivals. So here TLC is putting me on the spot, which meant putting the reputation of the area he was reppin’ on the line as well. So once I took him out, that’s what put Laurelton on the map and that was really the moment the L.A. Posse was born.”
What other artists were there at that time on the street who had reps in Queens?
“Well at that time there weren’t too many people out. I mean, this was before Run DMC, this was more around the Sugarhill Gang / Funky Four Plus One More era and a lot of those guys were coming from the Bronx. In Queens at that time we were still finding our way. We had a group called the Rappermatical 5 from Laurelton. They were the only group I knew from Queens at that time who had a record out. They were from my neighbourhood. I never had the opportunity to battle them though because I looked up to them at that time. There was another group around called the Professional 5 as well, but Queens was really still trying to find its way. We didn’t get on the map until Run DMC really.”
How did you become part of the Clientele Brothers?
“The Clientele Brothers lived in my neighbourhood. They were the baddest. They were to Queens what Cold Crush was to the Bronx. There was four of ‘em. They were all hot emcees. They had the dance steps. They were that crew that I really looked up to. There was one particular guy in the crew called Eddie O’Jay and he was like the Black Fonz. He was the coolest dude on earth to me (laughs). He had all the girls. So I followed his path in terms of the way he carried himself. I was like a young him. He didn’t even know who I was back then because they were already doing their thing, but eventually we got an opportunity to meet and talk and that’s when I actually became a part of the Clientele Brothers.”
Is that when you started using the name Playboy Mikey D?
“Well Playboy Mikey D was a little before the Clientele Brothers. At the time we had a group called the Sensational 5 and we all had our little nicknames like Everlovin’ Kid Ice, Loveable Little B, Loverboy TC, Romantic Lover Snow and I was Playboy Mikey D. That’s actually when Cool J got down with us and we gave him the name Ladies Love.”
So at what point did you meet LL and what stage was he at in terms of his aspirations to be a rapper?
“Well me and L, we were about fifteen when we met. I went to Springfield High School and he went to Jackson High School. We didn’t know each other. Now, in the same way the neighbourhoods would have one person to rep a particular place, so did the schools. Springfield and Jackson were rival schools. I was the baddest dude in Springfield and word of mouth had it that Cool J, or Jay-Ski as he was known then, was the best in Jackson. So we had mutual friends who wanted to see us battle. They hooked up a place for us to meet, which was Roller Castle in Elmont, Long Island. Flavor Flav was down with his crew called Spectrum and they used to deejay and host all these different events there. Now, me and Cool J weren’t scheduled to battle on the flyer or anything, that was just the place where everybody would go on the weekend. But we arranged to meet there, get on the mic and battle. So Cool J and I both got there and met each other for the very first time. Now, back in those days, before you’d even battle or get onstage, you might be off in a corner somewhere comparing notes, you say a rhyme, I’ll say a rhyme, just feeling each other out. So that’s what we did and both of us were buggin’ out because his voice texture and how he would spit certain rhymes reminded me of myself and vice versa. We didn’t have the exact same style, but we did have similar styles. We were feeling each other, we slapped five, we became friends and we got up on that stage and we rocked together. We didn’t battle. We thought we sounded too much alike, so we decided we should get up and rock together. We got cool from that day on and he started coming around the way all the time. So that’s how me and Cool J met in the beginning. Jay-Ski!”
So was the plan for you to continue performing together?
“Well, I was down with both Sensational and the Clientele Brothers, doing shows with both of them. Cool J was from Hollis, borderline St. Albans. He would come around my way all the time to check me out because I was already doing things. I was a street legend already from the tapes and Cool J was on the come-up. So he used to walk from his ‘hood to my ‘hood. He wasn’t wearing Kangols at this time though, he was just wearing regular clothes, head-bands, whatever. I introduced him to the whole crew and the guys from Sensational wanted to put him in the group. Now, his name being Jay-Ski just didn’t sound right with the rest of the names we had in the group. So he went home, slept on what I’d said, then came back around the way the next day and was like, ‘I’ve changed my name! I’ve changed my name to Cool J!’ I was like, ‘I like that! That sounds dope! But you need a nickname! You’re always talking about how you want the ladies to love you, so you should be called Ladies Love Cool J. That would be dope!’ He went home, thought about it, then came back the next day and said he was keeping that name. So that was the birth of Ladies Love Cool J. That’s where the name came from. The LL part got broken down when he started messing with Def Jam because they thought the name was too long. He didn’t want to get rid of the Ladies Love part of his name so he broke it down to LL Cool J.”
Were you aware of LL’s deal with Def Jam before it happened?
“Yeah, he brought it to my attention. But you see with Cool J, in the early days, he had a reputation for stretching the truth and exaggerating about certain things. So I didn’t believe him (laughs). I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ First of all, I’d never heard of Def Jam at that particular time. LL showed me the contract, he told me we could be the next Run DMC and I thought he was day-dreaming again and running off with his mouth (laughs). At that time as well, that was when I started to become more street-orientated and was really finding my own way. I was hangin’ with the Clientele Brothers who were much older than me, drinking forties, and starting to be around the wrong elements. Whereas Cool J on the other hand, he was really taking his dream seriously and was following those proper channels. What I did wrong was that I doubted him. I didn’t believe him. First of all he’d tried to steal my spot in the Clientele Brothers, he started getting this ego thinking he was better than me. So there was a little jealousy and animosity boiling between us back then. So when he showed me the Def Jam contract I just didn’t believe him. I thought it was another one of his stunts to try and impress people and make me look bad, that’s how I was looking at it. But I was wrong. Then LL got signed to Def Jam and the rest is history (laughs).”
Do you remember hearing LL’s debut single “I Need A Beat” for the first time?
“Yes I do, yes I do. The first time I heard it I was in Rochdale Village, Queens. It came on the radio and I was like ‘Damn! This s**t sounds like me. Holy cow! Cool J did it!’ I swear to God when that record first started getting played my phone was ringing off the hook with people congratulating me about my record because that’s how much we sounded alike. Everybody thought that record was me (laughs). Cool J came by the house a couple of times after that record came out and we talked, kicked it and stuff like that. But see, he wasn’t trying to put me on then because I’d have been a threat.”
So there wasn’t ever any talk at that point of you working together on any of his Def Jam material?
“No. He really tried to stay as far away from that as possible because I would have been the only person out at the time who could have given him any type of competition or been able to take any attention away from him. There would have been two of us out there then who were equally as nice and LL wouldn’t have been getting all of the attention. Plus, after a little time the streets started rejecting him because of the similarities. The way he changed his style to sound even more like me. My image became his image and people on the streets noticed that. If you were to ask anyone who came up around here during that time they would all vouch for me because the streets could see what was happening and that’s when the real animosity came in because he really wanted to prove to everyone that he was better than me. But what’s so funny about that is that a little after that Russell Simmons called my phone and asked me to sit down for a meeting with him and Rick Rubin. So I went to the meeting and these guys told me that they wanted to put me on, this, that and the third.”
How early in LL’s career did this meeting happen?
“Well, it was kinda early. It was before the “Radio” album came out so it would have been between 1984 and 1985. I remember it was a little before I got the contract with Reality Records to do “No Show” with the Symbolic Three. But the reason I never signed with Def Jam was because their intention was to have me there as that back-up in case Cool J’s fire started to go out. So they would have had a similar artist ready to come straight out. But I would have just been there sitting on the shelf. Now, LL Cool J has been going for thirty years and is still going strong so if I’d have signed that contract I’d have still been sitting on that shelf (laughs).”
Was LL aware that meeting had taken place?
“No, we never discussed that and even to this day I’m not sure he’s aware that actually happened (laughs). I think the reason they wanted to sign me was because they knew that if I got with another label then I would have been a real threat to what they had going with Cool J. Eventually we would have bumped heads and that could have meant a big problem for Def Jam back then.”
How did you end-up writing and featuring on the Symbolic Three’s 1985 Doug E. Fresh answer record “No Show”?
“Well, I already knew the group who were known as the Symbolic Four at the time. But one of them was so bad she had to go to reform school or something like that, so it just became three of them. I started dating one of the group, Sha-Love, that’s my daughter’s mom. Now what happened was, I went to the “Krush Groove” film set to be an extra. I met DJ Dr. Shock that day. Me and my human beatbox Prince Cie went down there and although we were only supposed to be extras in the movie we were all over the set freestyling. We were getting a lot of attention that day. So I met Dr. Shock who took my number and he said he knew someone who was a manager, which was Arthur Armstrong. I met with Arthur Armstrong and he wanted to sign me and then I brought in the Symbolic Three because they said they needed a girl group. Now Arthur was close friends with Jerry Bloodrock who ran Reality Records back then. Now at this time Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick had just come out with “The Show” and Jerry said he knew a lot of people were going to try and answer that record so he wanted to put out an answerback record immediately on the same label. Now back then, I was the master of parody and used to always flip people’s records, so I wrote “No Show” for the girls and obviously wrote myself into the track and threw a couple of jabs here and there (laughs). So that’s really how that record came about because Jerry Bloodrock wanted to try and keep all of the answer records to “The Show” in-house. “No Show” came out before Super Nature’s “The Show Stoppa” with Salt-N-Pepa and them.”
Considering how big of a record “The Show” was were you comfortable making “No Show” knowing that it could be seen as a diss record?
“I really didn’t care because I was just trying to get out there. My whole M.O. back then was battling so it was second nature to me to do that song. I just made it a funny song. I didn’t know Doug or Slick personally at that time but I really wasn’t caring what the response might have been if they’d wanted to battle after that because I knew Slick Rick couldn’t have touched me lyrically and Doug wasn’t really a rapper. Plus, I didn’t go too hard at them and get personal on the record or anything like that, I just wrote a fun song. I wasn’t trying to start beef or anything like that, I was just doing what the company wanted and was hoping to be able to put some hit records out.”
Did you ever get any feedback on that record from Doug or Rick?
“I never heard from Slick Rick but I did hear from Doug E. Fresh. I remember him telling me, ‘Yo! You are nice on the mic but you’ve gotta stop dissing people’ (laughs). Doug and I are friends to this day but I’ve never actually met Slick Rick personally.”
Considering you’d largely made your name as a battle emcee up to that point, how did you find the transition from rhyming in the street to working in the studio?
“It was easy because, like I said, rhyming came natural to me. When I first started writing rhymes I was already writing material based around concepts anyway. The first rhyme I ever wrote was a story. So I was used to writing stuff other than just battle rhymes. All I had to do was format the song, which wasn’t nothing. I just had to write one looooong rhyme and then just break it up. So it wasn’t hard. The only thing I did wrong back then was that I kept the streets with me. I didn’t separate the streets from the studio. I was busy, as they say now, trying to keep it real and all that crap. I didn’t separate the business from the street and that was the biggest mistake I made back then.”
Looking back now are there any street battles that you think of as moments when you really earnt your stripes as an emcee?
“Wow, there were so many of them (laughs). I remember going to Kool G. Rap’s house before he even had any records out and his name was just Kool G at the time. I remember telling him, ‘Your name sounds like you’re trying to bite off my man Cool J’ (laughs). I’d just put “No Show” out, so they took me to his house and we battled. That was a pretty nice battle. That was cool. He said I won but I actually thought we were kinda even. I think he was just being humble (laughs).”
Did G. Rap say that at the time or was that something said in hindsight?
“Nah, we slapped five and G. Rap was like ‘You got it! You got it!’ That’s just what I did back in those days. See, I just got so fed up with going from corner to corner in my neighbourhood and battling and being the best in my area, that me and Johnny Quest used to buy a quart of beer, we would jump on the bus and the train, get off at a random stop and if we saw any people in a cypher we’d assume they were rapping and I’d step into the cypher and be like, ‘Who’s the emcee over here? Who’s the baddest emcee around here? I’ll battle aaaanybody!’ We used to walk through ‘hoods doing that. We walked through Queensbridge doing that. Nobody wanted it. A few tried but they lost. There were so many of those battles (laughs). I actually remember one particular time, I used to go with this girl called Shantel who was Run’s cousin and she had this birthday party. DMC was there and Jam Master Jay was there. They were walking around the party like they were all that and I was like, ‘I’ll battle y’all! Y’all ain’t saying nothin’! I’ll battle both of y’all’ (laughs). Jam Master Jay was saying ‘Wait until Run come and then we can do it.’ I was saying that we didn’t even have to do it at the party, we could do it outside in the park, because at the same park where I beat TLC in that first battle, they were jammin’ outside that night as well. They accepted my challenge, I went to that park and those guys never showed up. So I battled them without them even being there (laughs). There’s still tapes of that going around. But when it comes to battles, the New Music Seminar in 1988 when me and Melle Mel went at it, that was the one. That battle was when I really had to earn my respect on another level.”
Lookout for Part Two of this interview coming soon with Mikey D discussing working with legendary producer Paul C. and his infamous New Music Seminar battle with Grandmaster Melle Mel.