When it comes to golden-era Hip-Hop greats, the six-man crew Stetsasonic can proudly take their place alongside the likes of Run-DMC and Public Enemy as one of the most talented groups to have emerged during the genre’s immense growth period of the 1980s.
Signed to Tommy Boy Records, the self-proclaimed ‘Hip-Hop Band’ followed the success of their debut single “Just Say Stet” with 1986’s “On Fire” album, before adding to the catalogue of classic long-players released throughout 1988 with the brilliant “In Full Gear”, which, of course, spawned the timeless pro-sampling anthem, “Talkin’ All That Jazz”.
Led by fiery Brooklyn-bred lyricist Daddy-O, Delite, Wise, Frukwan, DBC and Prince Paul embraced the influences of multi-faceted old-school crews such as Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five whilst carving out their own creative space within the ever-evolving Hip-Hop scene of the time, delivering an energetic mix of emcee bravado, sparse beats, live instrumentation and social commentary.
By the time Stet’s 1991 album “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” was released, Prince Paul had helped to reshape Hip-Hop’s sonic landscape through his work with De La Soul, whilst Daddy-O had also been spreading his production wings via a diverse selection of artists including Queen Latifah, Third World and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In subsequent years, Paul would join Frukwan in the original line-up of the Wu-Tang spin-off project Gravediggaz, whilst Daddy-O would release his 1993 solo project “You Can Be A Daddy, But Never Daddy-O” whilst continuing to produce for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Freestyle Fellowship and Junior M.A.F.I.A..
In this first instalment of my four-part interview with the BK rap legend, Daddy-O discusses Crooklyn block parties, his introduction to Hip-Hop and the formation of Stetsasonic.
But remember, if you can’t say it all….
What are you earliest musical memories growing-up in New York City?
“I always say that Hip-Hop has a mother, a father and a godfather. This is the Daddy-O version of things, right (laughs). For me, the mother of Hip-Hop is disco. But not John Travolta disco. I’m talking about disco like First Choice and the Salsoul Orchestra. The type of music that Pete DJ Jones and all those guys were playing right before Grandmaster Flash learnt how to deejay. Now, I always say that the father of Hip-Hop is reggae because I firmly believe that we got our rhyme style from the toasters of the past like Lone Ranger, Fat Head, Yellowman and all of them. Then the godfather is James Brown. I mean, without his music I’m not sure how things would have happened because it was his whole style and rhythm that really enabled the culture to grow and develop in those very early days. So that’s what was happening in New York in the 1970s. Now, even though there were parties and things happening all year round, let’s put it in the summer. You’ve got equipment out everywhere. I’m growing-up in Brooklyn at the time, so I’m not where Flash or none of them are in the Bronx, but there were systems galore. In every project building there were people playing outside and because some of the projects were so big there might be two or three systems out playing in the same project. I remember the concept of having the newest record was always the thing, and that wasn’t just the case for the deejays, but for the fans as well. I mean, most of those records that you would hear being played at the block parties weren’t being played on the radio. The radio was playing disco like Donna Summer and that type of stuff. I mean, back then some of those underground disco records were like twelve minutes long and at that time before things like Pro Tools it was hard to make radio versions, yo. These records were twelve minutes of dopeness with bands in the studio playing, and those long records were structured that way with different breakdowns and parts where the girl would come in singing and things like that (laughs). I’m not saying it would have been impossible for some of those artists to have made radio versions of their songs that were easier to play, but going into that studio and cutting all that tape was nothing like doing a digital edit today…”
Times have definitely changed, right…
“I mean, let’s be honest, it was expensive as well (laughs). So getting back to my story, the majority of the records you were hearing at the parties and in the parks were not being heard on the radio. Those were records you would hear in the clubs or at the jams. Now me being a teenager at the time, there weren’t that many clubs I could get into (laughs). So I’m hearing records like John Davis & The Monster Orchestra’s “I Can’t Stop” being played at the jams and there would be an announcer on the mic. There wasn’t any rapping going on at this point as we came to know it. There would be an announcer on the mic and he would be saying stuff and shouting out neighbourhoods and things like that. We’d also have the reggae parties in Brooklyn at that time as well, which were a different thing altogether. You’d have the reggae block parties where they’d be playing all these different 45s and dub-plates, which was their particular thing. So the Brooklyn I grew-up in was vibrant with music and it was definitely a young crowd who were at the jams and it was a whole lot of fun. It was all about who was jammin’ on a particular day, hangin’ out at the jam, maybe a particular sound system wasn’t really killin’ it, so you’d be like, ‘Yo! We’re leaving. We’re going to go over to that jam on Williams Avenue as this one on Wyona is wack!'”
Who were some of the local deejays you remember from that time?
“I remember a kid named Reggie D. I also remember this kid called DJ Wise. But the big deejay from where I was from in Brownsville, East New York was a guy named Scooter Love. His crew had this thing called the Kickin’ Coffin and they had a real coffin that they would bring onstage with them. The thing about the Kickin’ Coffin was that people would wait to see them bring that out (laughs). I mean, even them bringing their equipment out was a show. Then Scooter and them would put on the white gloves and everything and they’d actually have their turntables inside the coffin. So the hottest parties in my area were always from Scooter Love with the Kickin’ Coffin. Now, if you were to speak with Delite, his version would be totally different because he was still in Queens at this time and I guess the guys over there had a little bit more money, which is why Queens actually had the best sound systems with cats like Cipher Sounds and all them. I mean, they would have bottoms in their set-ups and everything. Our thing in Brooklyn, we had Cerwin Vega speakers and all that, so it was still loud, but the systems were nothing like the walls of sound that guys like Cipher used to have. Our thing in Brooklyn was more about the flash and the parties and the records. I mean, every area used to have their own records and we definitely had some records that were specific to Brooklyn and were considered our anthems back then.”
What were some of the most popular Brooklyn anthems that you’d hear at the jams?
“MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” was probably the number one Brooklyn anthem back then. There was also this other record that was huge in Brooklyn at the time, which it took me a long time to find, I have it on my hard-drive now but I can’t remember the group right now. But it’s a cover version of the the O’Jay’s “For The Love Of Money” which was remade by a disco group. That was an incredible record. There was also the Brooklyn Dreams record “Music, Harmony & Rhythm” which we sampled on a Stetsasonic record years later. Then you had the whole Salsoul thing, which, I don’t know how that translated in other boroughs of New York at the time, but the Salsoul thing was huge in Brooklyn. Anything by Larry Levan, Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, all of that stuff was heavy-duty and we loved it in Brooklyn.”
So all of this is around the late-70s?
“Yeah, we’re going into the late-70s here, 78, 79. Then by 1980, that’s when I actually started hearing Hip-Hop and knowing that it existed because that’s when I started getting the tapes. I remember my prize possession back then was a Cold Crush Brothers tape that was from New Year’s Eve of 1980 going into 1981. I remember JDL had a rhyme on there where he was talking about what he’d done in 1980 but how he was going to do so much more in 81 (laughs). So that was when I really started hearing Hip-Hop, from hearing those tapes. I mean, I always loved music and I had always had a boombox that I carried around before people started rapping and stuff. But the first time I was introduced to Hip-Hop, I remember I was sitting on the stoop and one of my buddies who knew I loved music told me that he had something that I had to hear. Now, I want to say this was in 1980. But he had a Grandmaster Flash tape. But it wasn’t a Flash tape that had been recorded outside at one of the jams, this was a Flash tape that had been made inside Flash’s crib. Now, at that time, there were three types of Hip-Hop tapes. There were the live tapes that were recorded with the condenser mics that most people hated because you couldn’t really even tell what people were saying (laughs). Then you had the live tapes that were recorded at the shows that were actually taped from being plugged into the system. Those were the ones that everyone loved because you could really hear the crowd, the emcees and everything else. Then there were the tapes that people made in the crib. Now a lot of people liked hearing those tapes from the crib because they were basically practice tapes for the different crews, so you got to hear them putting their routines together. So it was one of those tapes from Flash that my buddy brought to me on this particular day. I’ll never forget it because it started off with Flash cutting up The Headhunters’ “God Made Me Funky” and Melle Mel was saying ‘One for the treble, two for the bass, C’mon Flash let’s rock the place…’ and they had the funk machine on as well with the echoes, ‘Yes, yes, y’all (y’all, y’all), To the beat y’all (y’all, y’all)’ I was like, ‘What the hell is that?!’ I had never heard nothing like that in my life. I’d never heard anybody rhyming in rhythm like that, the echo-chamber was driving me crazy because I thought it sounded so dope and the scratching behind it was just so ill.”
When did you first start rhyming yourself?
“Now at this same time, me and my brother Kedar Massenburg were going to high-school. He was going to a high-school called Erasmus Hall which was in Flatbush and I was going to a high-school called Thomas Jefferson which was in East New York. Now, Kedar said to me one day, ‘Yo, you really like all that rapping stuff? My man does all of that, my man Reggie. He’s got equipment and everything.’ Now, this was the same Reggie D that I mentioned earlier. So Kedar knew that I was starting to write my little rhymes and everything, so he knew that Reggie and this rapper he had called Barshon D had this show coming up on Labour Day. So Kedar was like, ‘Why don’t you write the rhyme for the kid?’ So he hooked it up somehow and I wrote this Labour Day rhyme for this Barshon kid for him to perform with Reggie at this show in the neighbourhood. So I went to this show to see him perform my rhyme, and he was wack! I was so hurt because it was my rhyme (laughs). I was like, ‘I will never write for anybody else again. I’m going to do this myself’ and that’s really when I seriously started rhyming (laughs).”
So this happened during that 1980 period?
“Yeah, this is 1980, slipping into 1981. I came up with a name, Doctor On, and I started rhyming. But I was rhyming differently back then to how people heard me later on. I actually still have this old Doctor On tape but I can’t find it and I’m so mad (laughs). But the largest difference back then was that I really didn’t have any point of reference in terms of what I should sound like. So I was sounding like all the different emcees from Uptown that I’d heard on the tapes because I didn’t know how else I should sound. But I was writing my own rhymes, all these different types of rhymes, and figuring out how to write four-bar rhymes, which I guess were really more like limericks, and then I was also writing regular rhymes. I mean, it amazes me that people don’t really do those kind of four-bar limerick rhymes anymore. I actually heard Kendrick Lamar doing something like that recently and it was brilliant. Now, just to clarify, what we used to call four-bar rhymes were the rhymes that would go something like, ‘I was walking down the street one day and I saw this pretty girl, But I kept on walking….’ and then you finish it with the next line. So I was doing stuff like that, the nursery-rhyme type stuff, and then I was also doing more regular rhymes as well.”
Were any other members of what would become Stetsasonic in the picture at this point?
“Well, Delite was one of my best friends and even though he knew Cipher Sounds and all those dudes out in Queens, he was just never really into it. But he had moved to Brooklyn by this time. So when I started writing my rhymes, he was like, ‘You want to get into that? I’m down!’ So me and him, just me and Delite, started figuring out what we were going to do with the music thing. So me and Delite started rhyming together, trying to figure it out, and we started going through this third member thing because we knew we wanted to be something, but we were just trying to work it out. Now, at the same time I was living in East New York, which was Ocean Hill, Brownsville, but we call it East New York, there were a group of young guys who used to hang out on the corner selling dope. I knew all of them, but they used to be on that ‘Yo, don’t come around here. Don’t hang around us’ stuff. But they’d still shout me out and say hi when they saw me. I’ll never forget this one day I was walking down the block, and one of these guys, Nathaniel, he called me over and was like, ‘Yo! What’s your name?’ I told him that I went by the name Doctor On and he was like, ‘Yo! F**k that! That’s wack! You’re going to go by the name of Daddy-O and this is how you’re going to do it…’ And he just killed me right there because he started going, ‘D-to- the-A-double-D-Y-O, I go by the code of MC Daddy-O, And this is something that you must be told, You couldn’t touch me with a sureshot pole, Daddy-O, Rhymes galore, MC Daddy-O came back for more, y’all…’ I looked at him like he was crazy but he sounded so dope. So I took on the name Daddy-O from that moment. So, from there I started hanging around these guys and they started telling me stuff, like, ‘We was in this group called the Stetson Brothers, we were out on Long Island with this deejay Pudgy T and emcee Supreme, and they tossed Melle Mel and them!’ Now Flash and Melle Mel were my favourite group at the time, so I’m thinking that nobody could beat them. But this is another tape that I wish I still had. They brought me the tape and I heard it. Flash and them had gone out to Long Island and those Stetson boys beat the brakes off them with that style that Nathaniel had used when he gave me my name. They used to call that rhyme style the ‘Gangster Rock’ because it was so much harder than what everyone else was doing at the time. I mean, Uptown, you’d hear guys saying things like, ‘Toot the horn, ring the bell…’, but with this ‘Gangster Rock’ style that these Stetson guys had which they taught me, one thing was that we slowed the beat down crazy. Let me tell you how much I thought we owned the slow beat, I didn’t even talk to Grand Daddy I.U. for the first year of knowing him (laughs). Later on, I said to him, ‘I was so mad at you, man’ and I.U. was like, ‘Why Daddy-O?’ and I told him, ‘Because that slow thing is ours, man.’ I mean, that first I.U. album was crazy to me, man, because it was slow (laughs). But the difference that let me know I.U. wasn’t biting was because he wasn’t trying to do the second part of the style, which was to be really hard and aggressive with your voice.”
So the ‘Gangster Rock’ style was about slow beats and really punctuating the words in your rhymes?
“Yeah, absolutely. So anyway, the guys on the corner, they were telling me about the whole Stetson Brothers thing and I was always saying, ‘Yo! I wanna meet Pudge. I wanna meet Supreme’ and they would always say ‘One day, one day’. But these guys were hustling. So what happened is, as they started teaching me, I started building this whole thing up. Now, Bambaataa had the Zulu Nation, so I decided I was going to make this whole Stetsa Nation thing. So I went in my old neighbourhood, where Alabama Park was, and me and Delite just started recruiting people to be in Stetsa Nation. Some people were emcees, some people were deejays, we made little buttons to show you were in Stetsa Nation (laughs). So we were just out there recruiting…”
Was anybody part of that wider crew who went on to leave their own mark in Hip-Hop?
“Nobody. Nope. They all went on to do other things with their lives, so I guess you could say those of us who ended up in Stetsasonic were the pick of the litter (laughs). The only thing I will say, is that I remember AZ was a little boy at the time we were doing the Stetsa Nation thing. I mean, when people always talk about how AZ is fly, I always tell them that AZ has been fly since he was three-years-old (laughs). I remember him being a three-old-year old kid out on Alabama Avenue with doper kicks on then the grown men (laughs). But as far as Stetsa Nation was concerned, there wasn’t really anyone else involved who went on to make a name for themselves in Hip-Hop.”
So how did the group itself start to develop out of the Stetsa Nation?
“So as we started to grow, we found this deejay. One day me and Delite were hanging out in East New York and this guy had his speakers out of his window and he was killing it. I remember we always wanted to find a guy that could do a three-second backspin and things like that and we heard this guy doing it out of his window using “I Can’t Stop”, just going back and forth doing these crazy backspins. So we were both like, ‘Who is that?!’ One of my homeboys was like, ‘Yo, that’s Mike.’ I was asking if he had emcees, but my boy was telling that he was just a deejay. So me and Delite went up to his crib like, ‘Yo, we want you to be our deejay’ and he was real happy about it (laughs). Mike had actually put together a deejay set-up called Mass Communication. So me and Delite were part of Mass Communication for a minute, we were doing the Stetsa Nation thing and then when I was out on the block I was still hanging out with Nathaniel and them from the Stetson Brothers. Now, at this point, when it looked like we were about to start bringing the equipment out and be rhyming, I tried to bring them with me. I was like, ‘Yo, man, c’mon!‘ because Nat was nice. I mean, later on I may have got better than them, but at that point, Nat was so nice that it was crazy. I mean, Nat was the dude who gave me my name, he showed me my vocal growl, all of that, so I really wanted them to come and be down to perform. But they were doing their thing on the corner, so they were like, ‘Nah, man. You can have that. We’re passing the torch.’ So when I told Delite what they’d said, he was like, ‘Okay, well I get where you’re coming from with the Stetsa Nation thing D, but what are we going to do about the group, us?’ I told him, ‘Well, we can just be Stetsa Nation’ but Delite was like, ‘Nah, that’s not going to work. We’ve got to be something. Treacherous Three is something. Fearless Four is something. We’ve got to be something.’ So Delite came up with the name Stetsasonic, which he explained by saying that Stetsa means style and Sonic means sound. So we did the Stetsasonic 3 MC’s and then we fought like battlecats for the next, let me see, 80, 81, 82, 83, for about the next two-and-a-half years to try and figure out who that third emcee was going to be. So it was me and Delite, then we put this kid Asim in the group for like half-a-second, but he said he couldn’t do it because we practiced too much (laughs). Then we put Crown Supreme in the group and actually started doing some shows around town, but then Supreme got hooked up with his girl Peaches and she didn’t want him to come to practice (laughs). Then we grabbed Del D, who would have always been the best third emcee we would have had, he was nice, but I don’t know what happened with Del (laughs). Then we grabbed Bushaan, but he got tired of practicing. Then we ended up grabbing two deejays because we were seeing Doug E. Fresh doing the two deejay thing with Chill Will and Barry B, but that didn’t really work out.”
So the group definitely didn’t come together easily then?
“Not at all (laughs). We had this guy Kevin Porter, who was kind of like a mentor, who was a dancer and one of the original lockers in New York. He was showing us the industry and getting us in, but he was more on the theatrical side. I mean, he was the reason our first show was at Carnegie Hall! Hip-Hop was so new back then that nobody denied it. I tell people all the time, that we used to perform at friggin’ dinner clubs on top of pianos while people were eating (laughs). Anyway, we were trying to pull things together, and Kevin Porter really kept trying to help us improve the group. Now, I’m trying to think if he brought Wise to us first or Frukwan. I think he brought Wise first and it was at the time when Buffy and them who went on to become the Fat Boys lived right around the corner from me and they’d just won the Tin Pan Apple contest that got them their deal. So the Fat Boys were just getting popular with the whole beatbox thing and Kevin told us he wanted to bring us this kid who could beatbox. So he brings us Wise, who was this little skinny, light-skinned, handsome dude and he could do everything that Buffy and them could do. At the time, people were under the impression that Buffy could do what he did because he was fat, and I was under that impression as well (laughs). But Wise could do all of that stuff as well, so I said he had to be in the group. Mind you, Delite was getting mad at me because I kept adding people to the group (laughs). Delite was saying that I didn’t actually have to add more people to the group, but that we could just use them as we needed them, like the equivalent of work-for-hire. But I didn’t want to do that and then have someone else run off with them in another group (laughs). So Wise became part of the group. Del D was still in the group at this point as the third emcee, but it was a weird kind of situation because he was never around. So me, Delite and Wise started making these routines, and man, we started blowing the brakes off of every block party we went to. We used to do this thing where before we would perform, we’d put Wise onstage under a sheet and he would stay really still, so nobody even knew what that was. Then me and Delite would get up there, put in a tape, rap for about half-a-second, then Wise would start doing the beatbox and as he got up the sheet would be coming up like a ghost (laughs). Man, we were burning those block parties up with that routine…”
Were these local block parties in Brooklyn or were you starting to travel more as as a crew by this time?
“I remember the one we really killed was right back at Arasmus Hall. We went right back to Arasmus and murdered it. But yeah, we were doing block parties all around Brooklyn. Then I remember, Kevin Porter brought me Frukwan. He was like, ‘You’ve got to hear this rapper.’ It was actually supposed to be Cal Cash, Frukwan’s brother, who was originally meant to be in the group. Cal was nice, he was a real emcee and he had the voice and everything. But when we heard Frukwan, he sounded just like us. We had those mean rhymes, like going at an emcee’s throat rhymes, and Frukwan had that. I told Delite, ‘Yo, if we don’t put this boy in the group then he’s going to come back at some point and destroy us.’ I remember thinking he had this ill whine in his voice as well. That was the other thing, because the original Stetson Brothers had this kid in the group called Rocko who had this whine in his voice. When I heard Frukwan I remember saying to Delite, ‘Yo, you hear the whine in his voice? He’s got the Rocko whine, yo.’ So we put Frukwan in the group. My man Shamel, he was down with us as well and was sort of like the fourth emcee who would come in sometimes and then not come in sometimes (laughs). Me, Delite and Wise used to practice a whole lot, so a lot of the others who were down with the group at different times just trailed off a bit, but Frukwan endured it. He actually endured coming to shows with us where he wouldn’t even get to go onstage. Frukwan was actually in the group when we won the contest to get our record deal and he wasn’t even on stage.”
That was the competition that Mr. Magic and WBLS were involved with, right?
“Yeah, exactly. I mean, me, Delite and Wise had practiced so much with just the three of us and we had all these different routines, we just didn’t feel that we had the time to change the routine to slide Frukwan in to do a rhyme. We told him that we were just going to have to go ahead and do it. So he endured all of that to still be part of the group. But the way the other guys got into the group was ill. So with DBC, me and Delite had a mutual friend who was DBC’s brother, and he came to us one day and was like, ‘Yo, my brother lives in Middletown, New York and he does music for this rap stuff.’ DBC had actually worked with the Boogie Boys on the “Fly Girl” record and a couple of other things, so he had equipment like drum machines and everything. So DBC came down from Middletown to meet us one time, spent the night at my house talking about some stuff, and then, once again, I got Delite mad because I told him that I was putting D in the group (laughs).”
Now, I’ve heard Prince Paul talk about how he became part of the group numerous times, but how do you remember it happening?
“At the time, we didn’t even have a deejay, but we were able to go around town and do all these different routines because we had Wise on the beatbox. The music that we used to use for our intro as we were coming onstage, I used to make that doing the pause-tape thing and then just put the cassette in at the beginning of the performance. Me and Delite just used to say a few lines over the music and then Wise would start beat-boxing and we’d do our routines. So we decided that we needed a deejay. One day, we were at Breevort Houses in Brooklyn, and they used to do a thing called Breevort Day and in the main part of the projects all the big deejays used to be out there. Now, on one of the little side blocks there was some equipment set-up and someone was cutting up Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern”. I could hear them cutting up that track and they really were hurting that record. I heard it first before I saw who was doing it. Then when I looked, I saw this little dude behind the turntables with all this attitude as he’s back-spinning those records. You know how that Liquid Liquid track has that cymbal right at the beginning of it, right? Paul was catching that and just going back and forth, but he was doing it with so much attitude that it looked like he was almost throwing the damn records (laughs).”
So it was that combination of skill and attitude that caught your attention?
“Yeah, yeah. Now, at that time, Frukwan was in the group now, Shamel was with us that day, there was a bunch of us there. Prince Paul always tells the story that he thought we were a gang when he first saw us because we were there with all those damn spikes and the leather on, which is how we were dressing back then. I’m stood there in the middle of the group and I’m motioning for him to come over and he thought we were going to beat him up (laughs).”
I’ve heard him say that he almost didn’t travel from Long Island to Brooklyn that day for that particular jam, so things could have have happened very differently…
“Yeah (laughs). So we went over there to speak with Paul and told him that we really wanted him to deejay for us and he agreed. So now we’ve got a deejay, Prince Paul, and then we just really started making a go of it with the group.”
Check Part Two of this interview here.
Stetsasonic 3 MC’s performing in 1984.