Born in West Virginia but raised in the New Jersey of the 1970s, a young Robert Cheese discovered Hip-Hop early, combining his love of the new culture with his already-established passion for music to begin turning out local parties as DJ Cheese around the same time as the 1980s rolled around.
By the time the new decade had reached its mid-way point, Cheese had firmly established his name in the world of Hip-Hop. Having won 1984’s New Music Seminar deejay battle, Cheese then teamed-up with New Jersey emcee duo Word Of Mouth to release 1985’s classic “King Kut” single on Duke Bootee’s Beauty And The Beat imprint, before being signed to then powerhouse rap label Profile Records and going on to win the 1986 DMC World Championships with a ground-breaking routine that would have a profound impact on the way many deejays viewed their two turntables.
Following the release of their speaker-busting 1986 single “Coast To Coast”, label wrangles, money issues and the lure of the street life prevented the crew from building on their strong musical foundations, with Cheese becoming involved in the drug game and spending the following years in and out of prison, largely detached from the artform he once played such a big part in.
Having now put his past troubles behind him, DJ Cheese has returned to his first love of Hip-Hop, keen to reclaim the respect and admiration he once received from both fans and peers alike.
In the first instalment of this two-part interview, the man who once shocked the world with his deejay skills discusses working with Sugarhill Records affiliate Duke Bootee, meeting Run DMC in the early-80s and appearing on Mike Allen’s legendary London-based Capital Radio Hip-Hop show during his first visit to the UK.
What was your introduction to Hip-Hop?
“Well my initial introduction to the music was hearing early emcees like the Cold Crush Brothers, Treacherous Three, the Fearless Four and then “Rapper’s Delight” came out. I was living in New Jersey already by this time. So there were tapes being passed around of freestyles and that’s really how I got wind of the music. When I heard those tapes I knew that Hip-Hop was going to be something big.”
What initially interested you in becoming a DJ?
“It was really through listening to the radio and hearing what the deejays on there were doing. That was really where my interest started. The first deejay that really caught my interest was Frankie Crocker on WBLS. This was before I heard Hip-Hop and started to get those tapes I mentioned, but I was already listening to Frankie Crocker on the radio. People often ask me that question and I guess it kinda shocks them when I say Frankie was a big influence on me (laughs).”
They’re probably expecting you to say someone like a Grandmaster Flash or a Jazzy Jay…
“No doubt (laughs). It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to be like Frankie Crocker, it was more about the fact that he was on the radio playing all the hot new music at the time. I mean, at that time Parliament Funkadelic were blowing-up and I was a huge fan of theirs and I’d hear Frankie playing their music and it just grabbed my interest.”
When did you get your first turntable set-up?
“Well, I didn’t actually get my first set-up when I first started deejay-ing. I was rockin’ on someone else’s equipment who was also trying to learn at the same time as me. It was a guy from my neighbourhood called Brian Cox. I guess I was more of a fast learner than he was so then it got to the point where he just enjoyed watching me practice. He was like, ‘You can use my stuff anytime just as long as you’re down with me’ and I was like, ‘Bet!’. So it was around 1980 when I actually got my first set. Before that I was rockin’ with Brian Cox, John Brown and this guy from a crew called Sound On Sound who’s name was Carl Burnett. I already had it in my mind then that I wanted to be a Hip-Hop deejay and it was at that time that I really started to learn about Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay and guys like that. I started out on Technics SL-D1s and then upgraded to 1200s real quick. I mean, you had to try and keep up back then with the new equipment because everthing in Hip-Hop was moving so fast. We’d see stuff that other deejays had and be like, ‘Yo! We’ve gotta get that.'”
What was the New Jersey Hip-Hop scene like back then?
“Well, living in Jersey we’re only like maybe twenty, twenty-five minutes away from New York. So everything New York were doing back then, we were doing. We copied the whole style. So there was nothing too different between New York and Jersey. I mean, we had the graffiti, the break-dancing, freestyling, the battles, we were really doing the same thing they were doing in New York. I mean, I was still too young to travel to New York myself at the time. But in New Jersey we had people like the True Brothers from Asbury, there were a couple of guys from Plainfield coming up like Ken Doo. As far as deejays we had DJ Sky, who was further north and closer to New York than I was, but at that time there really weren’t too many deejays who were known to me. I always remembered Sky because his name always stood-out to me.”
Were there any particular battles back then that you remember?
“I mean, there were so many battles back then and everybody was doing them. We used to have battles at the Falcon Casino in Jersey. But like I said, we were basically doing everything that New York was doing so almost every party we had there was a battle between crews with emcees and deejays. But there were so many battles back then that it’s hard to really think back to any particular ones that stoodout.”
What type of records were you playing at your parties?
“I would always play a variety of music and what the people wanted to hear. But I would play a lot of breakbeats. I mean, at my parties people definitely partied but then you’d also have a lot of people who would just stand around and watch me. I would have my own show that I would put on that would catch their attention. I was deejay-ing with the handcuffs back then, using the blindfold, spinning around, scratching with my sneakers, so all that stuff really caught people’s attention.”
So a lot of what was seen in your winning DMC routine in 1986 were tricks that you’d been using for years before?
So at that time in the early-80s would artists from New York regularly come to perform in New Jersey?
“Yeah, New York was definitely coming to Jersey back then. I remember seeing Stetsasonic before they came out on record here in Jersey. That was actually the first group I did see when I was young. Stetsasonic were out performing at a school in East Orange and even back then they had the whole live band thing with the drum machine. That was definitely cool to see how they were rockin’ at that time. I remember seeing the Force MCs before they became the Force MDs, they used to be over performing in Jersey. The Cold Crush Brothers came over to Jersey to rock a few times as well.”
Were those artists who came from New York treated respectfully by upcoming New Jersey artists or was there an element of competition involved as well?
“There was definitely a respect thing. I mean, you did have people in Jersey who did feel that they were better than the artists coming from New York but for the most part they were definitely welcomed over here.”
So how did you hook-up with the Word Of Mouth emcees KMC and Ali-G?
“That happened when I met up with Ed Fletcher and this is where the story really gets interesting (laughs). Ed was also known as Duke Bootee and I’m sure you’re familiar with who he is. Ed was a ghost-writer for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. He wrote for “The Message”, “New York New York”, “Survival (Message II)” and also produced and rapped on those records. I guess because he was a little older than those guys and because of his look he didn’t really fit into the group. But it was Ed who brought me and Word Of Mouth together, as he managed us both and Word Of Mouth were from Elizabeth and I was from Plainfield. Now as I said, Ed at that time was involved with the Sugarhill label and Sylvia Robinson which was based in Jersey. I mean, the first rap record that came out “Rapper’s Delight” really came from New Jersey and that’s not something that New York ever really gives New Jersey its props for. But Ed introduced me to Word Of Mouth with the intention of putting a group together. I heard them and thought they were hot at the time. We definitely sounded good together so I knew we could do something. At the time Duke Bootee was the man from all the hit records he’d had out and I was so young back then. So I was really just following his idea to put us together as a group.”
Was 1985’s “King Kut” the first track you recorded together with Word Of Mouth?
“Yeah, that was the first track we recorded together. The name King Kut had been given to me by the True Brothers from Asbury who I used to deejay for back in the day. Back then, Hip-Hop was all about the deejay and we were still in that era where the deejay was the main focus of a crew. So that’s the reason why we went that route and made “King Kut” a deejay record.”
“King Kut” initially came out on Duke Bootee’s independent Beauty And The Beat label and really took off – were you expecting that single to become so big?
“Nah, I was surprised by it. I definitely wasn’t expecting the record to be as big as it was. I mean, I had hopes for it to be that big but I was definitely surprised when it happened. I believe it was actually bigger than even we thought it was back then, but after Ed started robbing us for our royalties and everything, I had no idea of really knowing exactly how big that record was. To this day, I couldn’t tell you how much that record even sold. I mean, at the time we made that record I was still in high-school and in the era I came up in Hip-Hop wasn’t about money, it was about the art, doing shows and having fun. So at the time I was just happy to have a record out. The money aspect came later when one of the guys in Word Of Mouth felt that something wasn’t right because at the time they weren’t really seeing any money and I was seeing a little bit of money. So that’s when we started looking into it and realised that the label had been robbing us. Before that we didn’t really know that the record had been making money like that.”
How did the crew end-up getting signed to Profile Records?
“Profile originally wanted to sue us for the samples that I used in “King Kut” which were from Run DMC’s “Jam Master Jay”. But then after they actually listened to the song they realised it was a hot record and decided that they wanted to sign us instead. So Profile brought the record from Beauty And The Beat and gave us a deal for another single. Then they told us that if that second single did well they’d let us do an album. I mean, “King Kut” was definitely getting out there on Beauty And The Beat but Profile really took that single around the world.”
It must have been a good feeling to get signed to a label like Profile at that time considering they were already working with some big Hip-Hop artists…
“Oh yeah, that was real big because Profile back then were like what Def Jam became in the 90s. For me to see my music and my name on that label was huge for me. I mean, we were on the same label as Run DMC!”
Which was ironic considering they namechecked you a couple of years before on their 1983 single “Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse)”…
“Yeah, I opened up for Run DMC in 1983 at The Ritz in Jersey and I was onstage doing my routine. The crowd were going bonkers. From what I was told, Run came out of his dressing room first and he came downstairs and was watching. By the end of my routine all three of them were standing on the side of the stage and from what I understood they never ever used to come out of their dressing rooms to watch someone perform back then. But they came out because they heard the crowd and they wanted to know who was onstage. I remember Whodini were there as well and some other groups. I was onstage rockin’ and then when I looked up Run DMC were stood there watching me. That was the night I learnt that Run was a deejay before he was an emcee when he used to be with Kurtis Blow. So he was giving me his story on deejay-ing and I took a couple of pictures with them. Then from there they put my name in their “Here We Go” single.”
Was Jam Master Jay a hero of yours?
“When Jam Master Jay came into the game he was just always so cool with it. That’s what I liked about him. I took some of his style as far as the way he had his equipment with the flight cases and the GLI mixer. Seeing Jay with that GLI is what made me get that mixer as well. Later on I actually had a chance to work on Run DMC’s “Raising Hell” album when I came back from Europe. I was approached at the airport to go straight to the studio but I’d just come back off a two month tour and I was tired so I said I couldn’t do it.”
What did they want you to do on the album?
“I don’t know what they actually wanted me to do on there. I just knew that I was scheduled to work with them when I got back but I didn’t know that they wanted me to go straight from the airport. I mean, I wanted to do it but I was just too beat from the tour. I was just mentally exhausted.”
You became known for having your turntables next to each other rather than having the mixer in the middle – where there any technical reasons why you decided to do that?
“The reason I put the turntables side-by-side was because back then Hip-Hop was all about being creative and having your own style. So I just decided to put the turntables next to each other to standout. I mean, I started out with the mixer in the middle and the turntables on either side, but then I just made a decision to put the turntables next to each other because I hadn’t seen anyone doing it at that time.”
How would you describe your scratching style back then because to me you always sounded very clean and precise compared to some other deejays at the time who weren’t quite so refined…
“Back then, I’d have to give credit for that to Duke Bootee. One thing I could say about him is that when we were doing a record, everything we were doing was live and he had me approaching everything I did in the studio like we really were in a band. So I had to do my cuts over and over until they were really on-point. Duke was something of a perfectionist in the studio so he definitely helped keep me sharp on that. Even today, when I do mixes and blends I’ll still do them over and over until they’re on-point.”
What was your involvement in some of the other records to come out on Beauty And The Beat like Z-3 MC’s’ “Triple Threat” and Point Blank MC’s’ “What The Party Needs”?
“It was really the same role I had with Word Of Mouth. I was the deejay on those records doing all of the scratching. I also did the production on Point Blank MC’s. I’ve probably got about twenty-five records under my belt I was involved in that came out that people are only really now starting to pick up on as I wasn’t given proper credit on a lot of them.”
Do you have any personal favourites out of the records you worked on?
“Yeah, “King Kut” and “Coast To Coast” obviously. The record I did for Triple Threat MC’s and also the Fats Comet “King Of The Beat” record I did with Keith LeBlanc from Sugar Hill. The Masterdon Committee’s “Get Off My Tip” on Profile is another favourite and also K-Rob’s “I’m A Homeboy”. What a lot of people actually don’t know about “Coast To Coast” is that that record was created and recorded while we were touring Europe and over in the UK in 1986. “King Kut” had been out for awhile and we were out on tour but Profile wanted a second single from us. The deal was that if the second single we dropped did well, which it did, then they were going to give us an album deal. At the time we realised this guy was robbing us and that was when we walked away from the label and the music. We didn’t even really think about the larger label we were signed to in terms of Beauty And The Beat being under Profile and seeing if we could work with them without Duke. We were just so young and we were kept in the dark about everything in terms of the business, so we really didn’t have any access to Profile because it wasn’t us who’d been dealing with them.”
You mentioned K-Rob’s “I’m A Homeboy” which is still one of my favourite singles from the 80s to this day…
“That was Duke Bootee’s work. See, what happened is, once Profile ran with “King Kut” and then “Coast To Coast” did so well, they basically appointed Duke to be like an A&R and get involved in some other projects that I guess were on the shelf at the time to see what he could do with them. So they gave him K-Rob and he put his touch on it and he brought me on that particular record. But again it was all about the money with him.”
Were you and Word Of Mouth performing regularly in New York around this time?
“We did all the famous spots in New York except for The Rooftop and The Fever. We performed in New York quite a few times. We performed at the Latin Quarter. I think for me though the biggest spot we performed in was The Roxy. That was actually the first time I saw Slick Rick because he was in a talent show there. He won the talent show doing “La-Di-Da-Di” before he ever recorded it with Doug E. Fresh. I can even remember the way Slick Rick was dressed with the long trench coat on and Kangol hat. He had some shades on at the time and wasn’t wearing the patch yet. I mean, there’s actually nothing wrong with Slick Rick’s eye. He’s just cock-eyed and started wearing the patch as a gimmick and it definitely worked for him. I remember LL Cool J was there as well. It was a good night. But that was a big deal for me to be up in the Roxy at that time seeing all the break-dancing and everything.”
“King Kut” was a big record in the UK and you visited here in the mid-80s – were you surprised to see such a vibrant Hip-Hop scene in London when you toured?
“The very first trip to the UK was exciting for me and it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. I was surprised by the amount of people that knew about me over there. I mean, being young at the time and still in high-school, the furthest I’d ever been before was to New York City. Then to go almost to the other side of the world and have so many people knowing about me was incredible. I mean, we were getting so many articles and interviews, people were approaching me telling me how much they loved the music and wanting to take pictures with me, it was just mind-blowing. Hip-Hop was just so big out there. Plus, what y’all were doing at that time, with the graffiti and the break-dancing, we weren’t doing back home like that anymore. It was like going back into time for me being in the UK in 1986 because y’all were still in that era of Hip-Hop that nobody ever wanted to let go. It was like “Wild Style” all over again (laughs). I tell people all the time that I’ve always respected the UK because they respect the culture of Hip-Hop more than the US does. I loved it over there back then.”
You were also featured on Mike Allen’s Capital Radio Hip-Hop show – what are you memories of that experience?
“When we were on Mike Allen’s show that was the first time someone had really given me full access to do what I wanted to do at a radio station. That was huge to me back then. Plus, it was big to me to meet Mike Allen. I mean, at the time I didn’t realise exactly how big he was in the UK back then until after we’d left the station and people were telling me more about him and what he was doing at the time with his radio show. But even before that, I was still excited to meet Mike because that was the first time I’d ever deejay-ed live on a radio station. So I was excited about being given that opportunity. Then when we were on air and I started to see the phonelines lighting-up and saw the amount of people that were calling in, that was another mind-blowing experience for me. Those moments on Mike Allen’s show were some of my best moments in Hip-Hop. I remember when we were being interviewed on the show I really didn’t have that much to say because I was this young, shy dude at the time.”
What do you recall about headlining both of London’s UK Fresh ’86 shows at Wembley with Word Of Mouth alongside other artists like Mantronix, Roxanne Shante, Just-Ice etc.?
“That was another highlight of my career to be able to perform with all the artists that were on that line-up like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. It’s crazy because back then I couldn’t remember people like Jazzy Jay being there, but then when I see the pictures I’m like, ‘Aw man, I didn’t realise Jazzy Jay was there. I didn’t realise Howie Tee was there.’ There were just so many well-known artists that performed on that bill that at the time I didn’t even know were there (laughs). I do remember Lovebug Starski being there though because I had an issue with him during soundcheck. He didn’t want me onstage while he was doing his soundcheck which I didn’t have a problem with as I was only sitting on my equipment at the time, but it was the way that he said it to me. I was only a little dude back then and some of the members of the Furious Five snapped out on Lovebug Starski. The police had to get involved but thankfully nobody got locked up. At the end of the night, Starski had police officers outside watching his door as he was scared for his life afterwards. I mean, we’re friends on Facebook and that now and sometimes I’ll remind him of that time and he’ll just laugh.”
Lovebug Starski was riding high in the UK pop charts at that time with “Amityville” so he was probably playing that rock-star role to the fullest (laughs)…
“That’s exactly what he was doing. Lovebug Starski was definitely acting like he was the star of the show at that time (laughs).”
Check out Part Two of this interview here.
Audio of 1986 DJ Cheese / Word Of Mouth / Duke Bootee interview on London’s Capital Radio with Mike Allen.