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Old To The New Q&A – DJ Woody Wood / Three Times Dope (Part Three)

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In the final part of this interview with Philadelphia’s DJ Woody Wood, the man behind the turntables for golden-era favourites Three Times Dope talks about splitting with the Hilltop Hustlers crew, recording the group’s 1990 sophomore album “Live From Acknickulous Land” and touring across the US – check Part One and Part Two.

Was that a difficult time for you when things started to go wrong with Lawrence Goodman’s label and you had Steady B and Cool C both dissing the group?

“Well, I can only speak for myself. But yeah, it was difficult for me because although I hadn’t grown-up with those dudes we’d definitely come up together in the music thing. So, for like two or three years, we’d all been working together in some type of way. Then all of sudden all of that happened and it felt foreign to me. I was like, ‘What do I do here?’ I felt that my relationship with Lawrence was strong and I trusted him in a lot of ways, so that situation was definitely difficult for me. As a group it was also difficult because we didn’t have a manager for awhile. That first album “Original Stylin'” sold around 420,000 copies on the Arista side with just two videos. That’s why I never understood why Lawrence split it up the way he did with the other label over in the UK. It might have made financial sense to him at the time, but to me, that could have been a gold album.”

How much of a negative impact do you think it had on the Philly Hip-Hop scene when the Hilltop situation fell-apart in terms of the label and crew being a possible outlet for other upcoming artists?

“To be honest with you, I never even looked at it that deep back then. My thing was, we didn’t have no money. Before that first album came out we were doing a lot of shows but not really making any money. But when we got out of that deal with Lawrence we owned our publishing which was important for us. Our royalties and everything came directly to us and we were also able to do a lot of shows. Every weekend we were on the road doing shows after we got out of that deal. We signed to a booking agent and just did a lot of travelling. But to answer your question, in terms of the Philly scene, I think we did a lot to rep Philly on MTV, BET and places like that where we would talk about where we came from. That I think helped other artists coming out of Philly. And it wasn’t just us doing that. Schoolly D, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Cash Money & Marvelous, we were all talking about Philly and showing people that the city had a rich diversity of Hip-Hop so that hopefully they’d give other artists coming up a chance as well.”

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How did the group cope without having any official management for that time?

“It was tough for us. From the “Greatest Man Alive” single (released in 1988) through to “Funky Dividends” (released in 1989) we didn’t have a manager. There was a lot of stuff during that time that we had to deal with that a manager would have been able to help us with. That probably hurt our record sales somewhat and also our development as artists because when you have all this different business stuff coming at you it’s difficult to know what you’re doing unless someone explains it to you. So that time was hard for us.”

Did it put pressure on whether the group would stay together?

“Nah, it was never a problem with the group continiung. We all knew that we wanted the group to continue at that time, we just didn’t have a manager. So we were doing a lot of things ourselves at that point and working it out with the label.”

So how did the group approach the second album, 1990’s “Live From Acknickulous Land”?

“I mean, we were trying to work out what we were going to do. Were we going to diss Steady? Were we going to diss Cool C? Or were we going to stay away from that? I mean, we were going on big arena tours with artists like Public Enemy, N.W.A., Heavy D, the MC Hammer tour, and people were screaming at us to diss them (laughs). But we decided we really wanted to steer clear of that. I mean, I never got a chance to really speak to them about what happened so, personally, I don’t think they really knew at the time what was going on with our situation. So at that point we just wanted to work, get out there, make money and continue to show people who we were and prove that we were a good group coming out of Philly. That was really what we were trying to focus on.”


There were definitely some more radio-friendly tracks with the second album like “Mellow But Smooth” and the remix of “Weak At The Knees” which leant towards the New Jack Swing sound of the time – was that down to pressure from Arista?

“I have to say that it was partly down to everybody. It was partly us, partly the label, and partly looking at some of the groups who were out at that time in the late-80s / early 90s. I don’t want to blame it all on the label or anything because we definitely had a say in that. But at the time, I think our mentality was that we had to do things a certain way and we did it. There were things on that album we could have done differently and it would have probably been better, but you live and you learn.”

So where was Acknickulous Land exactly?

“Acknickulous meant something was better than dope. That word was something that EST and Larry Larr came up with and I give them much respect for being creative like that. So when you heard the title “Live From Acknickulous Land”, Acknickulous Land for us was a place to go to that was different and where everything was dope (laughs).”

You also had some involvement in Larry Larr’s 1991 album “Da Wizzard Of Odds”…

“Chuck did a lot of his production and I cut on some of his songs, but Larry had his own deejay. He was a very creative artist though. Larry was from right next to us at Hunting Park in a place called Logan which they used to call Logan’s Alley. Again, everyone outside of Southwest and West Philly probably had the hardest time coming up, and I believe Chuck enabled Larry to come out by being involved with his production and getting him signed. Larry was a few years younger than me but I knew him through his relationship with EST.”

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Did you notice a big difference being signed directly to Arista in terms of how the second album was promoted?

“Well, Arista really spent a lot of money on setting that second album up which at the time was unheard of to me. They set a promotional tour up that went through Los Angeles, Texas, Atlanta, D.C. and other places. But they were very smart and they took us to Boys & Girls Clubs in those areas to talk to the kids so that we could open up and they’d really be able to see who we were as people. So they got to see a side of us beyond just being recording artists, they also got to see that we cared about what was going on in the communities. We’d actually just lost a good friend of ours Terence, who was Larry Larr’s deejay at the time. I wasn’t on the corner when this happened, but Chuck was out there with a bunch of people and someone had come and held the corner up and shot Terence at the same time. Tee ran about a block to the top of my block and that’s where he died. So what we did, we were going to these places and talking to these kids about violence and things that were going on in the community, like peer pressure, teenage pregnancy and things like that. But the record label was smart because at the same time they were working with a booking agent who was getting us shows at different venues everywhere we went.”

Did you experience any regional resistance when you were visiting these different places?

“Nah, but I think that had a lot to do with our approach. I mean, we would set the turntables up in the gym, there’d be about two or three hundred kids there, we’d talk to them, I’d deejay a little, we’d perform, we’d play basketball with these kids, so it really gave them the opportunity to see that we were just regular people. We were spending a week at a time in some cities so it really gave us a chance to explore and see what was going on in places like Compton. It really was a learning experience.”

Are there any memories of meeting particular artists while you were travelling that still stand-out to you?

“Yeah, I remember Dr. Dre telling us that he wanted us on the N.W.A. tour because he wanted people to know that there were other artists outside of New York who were good. That really stood-out to me. Meeting Too Short was another moment that stood-out. Now, in Philly, Too Short didn’t really get a lot of respect as an artist, but when I saw him perform I was like, ‘Yo! These people love Too Short.’ I was shocked (laughs). He’d come out onstage like, ‘My name is Too Short…’ and the crowd would go crazy. He was like God to people in the Midwest and down South. That was amazing to me (laughs). I mean, we did shows with MC Lyte, Cash Money & Marvelous, Slick Rick. I liked being on shows with singers because that gave you a chance to be exposed to a different audience, like when we were on the Guy tour with Heavy D. I remember there was one show we did on that tour when we were in Chicago and we got our records off the bus and they’d melted or something and they were warped. Now, back then, we were working off turntables in our shows and we would perform using the instrumental version of the records and I would cut. Now, this record was so warped that it just wouldn’t play, so we were like, ‘Chuck, you’ve got to load up “Greatest Man Alive” on the drum machine.’ So Chuck had to play that live (laughs). We just had so much fun back then.”

So what happened after the second album had run its course?

“We were recording a third album. I thought the third album was good because it was more like the first album. But what happened around that time was the record business started changing and Black music divisions at labels were being phased out. So it was a transitional period for music and we were trying to figure out how we were going to carry on when the people who originally signed us weren’t at the label anymore. So after that album was actually done I remember Arista did a big ad on us in the The Source around 1993, where one page was Chuck, the second page was me and the third page was EST. So I’m thinking, ‘Great, we’re about to come out.’ Then all of a sudden we just got put on hold. I couldn’t understand it. We just sat there waiting and that third album never materialised.”

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Was any of the material from that third album on the “Sequel” project which came out some years later? 

“Nah, that was something that EST and Chuck did after we split as a group. The third album that never came out was called “Major Flavas” and really was a return to the sound of the first album. We had “Da Giddy Up 2″ on there, Larry Larr was on the album, Kwame, another emcee from Philly called D-Born was on that album. It was a good record.”

Does anyone have that now?

“It’s sitting in a label vault somewhere.”

What prompted you to step away from the group?

“It was the thing where we reached a point where we had a chance to mutually do other things. I think it was around 1994 when Arista finally let us go and at that point I think EST and Chuck connected with other people and were able to do other things. That’s something you’d need to ask them but even to this day I don’t have anything against those guys.”

What were your thoughts on the Steady B / Cool C bank robbery incident in 1996?

“I was shocked when I heard what had happened. I mean, those guys were just regular dudes, man. They weren’t bad dudes. I was sad to see that go down and there was nothing I could really do to help at that point. I mean, once I heard the names being mentioned on the news I knew straight away who it was, although a lot of people didn’t realise straight away because they used their real names and didn’t mention their recording names. I was like, ‘That’s Steady B they’re talking about’ and my friend I was with at the time was like, ‘Naaaah!’ But I knew who it was. Even though we’d been through our stuff in the past I didn’t have any anger for anyone, so it was just a really sad situation to see.”

Looking back who would you say are some of your favourite Philly artists?

“I’ve gotta say Schoolly D because I loved “Saturday Night”. Steady B for “Bring The Beat Back” because I used to cut that song all the time and even to this day if I make a mix of music from that era I have to include a Steady B song. You’ve gotta love Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for what they did with songs like “Summertime” and I’d also have to say MC Breeze because without Breeze I wouldn’t have had a chance because he really helped open the doors for Philly artists. I loved Tuff Crew’s “My Part Of Town”. I mean, those songs are classics and they bring back so many memories for me.”

So, finally, what would you like Three Times Dope to be remembered for as a group?

“I’d like people to remember us for our creativity and what we contributed to Hip-Hop in Philly. Everything we achieved was great to me, getting signed and being able to put our music out. I was a part of history and I’ll always be glad about that.”

Ryan Proctor

Follow DJ Woody Wood on Twitter (@DJWood3XD) and Instagram (DJWoodyWood3XD).

Old To The New Q&A – DJ Woody Wood / Three Times Dope (Part Two)

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In Part One of this interview with DJ Woody Wood, the Three Times Dope member reminisced on his early introduction to the Philly Hip-Hop scene. In this second instalment, Woody remembers signing with Lawrence Goodman’s Pop Art / Hilltop Hustlers label and recording the group’s debut album “Original Stylin'”.

So was it easy to get your music heard by Pop Art’s owner Lawrence Goodman considering the label was based in Philadelphia?

“Man, Lawrence’s office was all the way up in West Philly on City Line Avenue near the skating rink. I had a car back then and no matter the weather, rain or snow, me and Chuck would drive up there. But Lawrence Goodman would never come out. We never saw this dude (laughs). But there was this lady, Miss Joanne on reception, and we would give her the music and she’d be like, ‘Okay, I’ll let him hear it.’ Then she’d call us back like, ‘Well, Lawrence said go back to the drawing board. He didn’t really seem too impressed.’ So we’d go back to the drawing board.”

So is this around the 1985 / 1986 period?

“Yeah, this was in 1986. By that time Lawrence had more cats on his label who’d come out from both New York and Philly who were really starting to make some noise like Craig G and Steady B. We had these big concerts in Philly around that time like the Fresh Frest and Philly Vs. New York. You’d see some of the Philly guys who I was telling you about before battling the emcees and deejays from New York at these events. It was at those events that it really became apparent to me that the deejays from Philly were so much better than the deejays from New York. It was like the New York dudes hadn’t had enough practice when they came here (laughs). They really couldn’t mess with the dudes in Philly when it came to deejay-ing. When it came to the emcees, that was more of an even battle, but as far as the deejays were concerned, it definitely felt like we had more deejay power here in Philly. I mean, I was always impressed by the cats from New York, but I was more impressed by the deejays I could physically see in Philly. That was also around the time when I started hearing about people like Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money who did things differently to everybody else. I’m listening to the tapes and Cash Money was doing stuff like taking the ‘It’s time…’ part from Hashim’s “Al-Naafiysh” and just cutting between the two copies so quickly, like ‘It’s t-t-t-t-t-t-time…’ and then he started transforming and I’m like, ‘What’s that?’ That changed deejay-ing in Philly at that point. Jeff, Cash Money, Grand Wizard Rasheen, those dudes just had something that was so different that really caught the attention of everybody.”

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So at what point did you make something that Lawrence actually liked?

“Lawrence kept telling us to try something else and we kept going back with more music. We kept working with different emcees. We did something with a guy called Bay Ray Boogie who sounded like LL and Lawrence was like, ‘Try something else.’ So we went back again and that’s how we met EST”

How did EST become part of the group?

“Well, EST was still in high-school at that time. We met him and he started coming around. Rob (EST) was definitely pretty thorough and had his own little style. He was a creative dude. He’d carry this book around with him and doodle all the time, drawing stuff. So we did something with EST, sent it over to Lawrence and he was like, ‘Wait a minute, let me talk to you guys.’ So we went up to see him and that was how we met Lawrence Goodman. He’d just signed Steady B to Jive at that point and had all these connections and that was when he started the Hilltop Hustlers. He signed Cool C first and we were like, ‘Damn! We’ve been waiting, why’s he not signing us?!’ Eventually he did sign us and that’s when I really started to see how the music scene worked.”

How familiar were you with Steady B and Cool C at that point?

“Well, Steady had already had records out like “Bring The Beat Back” so I was very familiar with him because it was actually through looking at the back of his records that we found Lawrence Goodman. I didn’t know Cool C at the time. I mean, he was there but I didn’t know him until we got with Lawrence. Cool C didn’t have records out before like Steady B had. I think what Lawrence saw was that they had MC Shan out in New York at the time and Cool C sounded a little like Shan. I think Lawrence was smart enough back then to understand how the music game worked and he used that to mimick what some popular artists were doing and diss them which was a big thing in Hip-Hop at the time. I mean, if you dissed somebody back then it was huge.”

Steady B dissed LL Cool J with “Take Your Radio” and then Cool C went at Shan with “Juice Crew Dis” – what was the reaction on the streets of Philly when two local artists went at two of the biggest Hip-Hop artists out of New York at the time?

“I mean, I think all of that was really down to Lawrence. I think he had relationships with those guys in New York and I don’t know what happened with those relationships or if he was just capitalising off the battle scene that was in New York at the time with the whole BDP / Juice Crew thing. I think he was smart enough to think of doing some of the same thing in order to get some attention. But at the same time, although some people in Philly might have been surprised to see local artists dissing big New York artists, there was also a sense of ‘Yeah, give us our space to.’ I mean, MC Breeze had already made the song “It Ain’t New York”. It wasn’t like we were some know-nothing dudes down in Philly. We wanted our respect to. But I mean, back then, if you dissed somebody, it wasn’t like now where it’s like you’re trying to kill them, it was about going for your reputation. It was healthy competition.”

So getting back to EST, what were your first impressions of him as an emcee?

“What ES brought to the table with his lyrics and the kind of stuff he was writing was just very creative to me. I mean, we all had a mutual respect for what each member brought to the group. I’m about four years older than EST and Chuck is a year or so older than me, so we definitely had more experience than ES in terms of what we’d been doing with the deejay-ing, but we just came together so well as a group. ES definitely had his own style. He was left-handed. He always wore K-Swiss. He had his own style with his clothes and his dancing. But remember, EST was still in high-school when we got together. I mean, when our first album came out he was in twelfth-grade (laughs). But to me, EST didn’t sound like anybody else who was out at that time and that was definitely one of things I really liked about him as an emcee.”

It’s crazy to think EST was so young on those early records because he had this big voice and always sounded so self-assured and confident…

“I agree. You saw that to when we were doing shows. I mean, when we started doing shows it was new for all of us, so we were all learning as we went along. But EST definitely had that presence. I remember when we started out, Lawrence used to package Steady B, Cool C and us all together for shows, so if you wanted to book one of us, you got all three of us, and that’s how we got a lot of our early exposure. Steady was already out first, but although Cool C got signed before we did we kinda came out around the same time with records. So we would sit down in Lawrence’s basement and do all three shows together. We would go first, then Cool second and Steady B last. So when you came to one of our shows, you’d see 3-D doing our stuff, then we would stay on the turntables and the beat machine and Cool C would come out and do his show, then Steady would come out with no intermission. We would just go straight through and it was bangin’. The only thing we would switch was a Hilltop Hustlers sign we had when we were onstage because Steady had his own sign and everybody also had different dancers. But performing all together like that was definitely beneficial for everyone.”

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Where did the Hilltop Hustlers name come from?

“Well, Lawrence had his label Pop Art and then at some point he decided he was going to change it to Hilltop Hustlers Records. Steady B was from the Hilltop, which was 60th and Lansdowne in West Philly. So with Steady, Cool C and us they probably just decided it would be good to put us all under one name, the Hilltop Hustlers. The original Hilltop Hustlers were a gang back in the 70s in Philly, so he just took that name and used it.”

Was there ever any feedback from any of the gang’s members about the name being used by you all?

“I don’t think so, but then I wasn’t from Hilltop so I probably wouldn’t have heard it as much as someone like Steady would have done. But they probably didn’t think it was a bad thing because it was positive to take a name that had been used before and use it again in a way that was showing respect for where it came from. But you see, 3-D, we came from Hunting Park in North Philly, which is why you would hear EST say on records, ‘From Hunting Park, the Hilltop…’ so that we were giving respect to where we were from. We wanted to let people know the neighbourhood we were from, but we were also respectful to the Hilltop because we were under that name Hilltop Hustlers and we were all working together at that time.”

Radio always seemed like it played a big part in the Philly scene back then…

“It was crazy. We had two big stations here in Philly, WDAS and Power 99. Now you had Lady B on Power with “The Street Beat” and Mimi was on WDAS with “The Rap Digest”. All these cats from New York used to come Philly to get on the radio and I was trying to understand why they would do that. I used to ride with Lawrence back and forth to New York to drop off our music and that was when I realised that those dudes in New York were battling so hard. You had Kiss and WBLS with DJ Red Alert on one and Mr. Magic on the other station and they had beef with the whole KRS-One / MC Shan battle. So if you were affiliated with one you couldn’t get on the other station. So you had some of those dudes coming down to Philly, which was a major market with two large stations, and getting a lot of air-time. We’d see this as we bounced from station to station and that’s when it became apparent to me that we were really onto something as a group because we sounded just as good as them. In fact, when we first started getting heard outside of Philly around 87 / 88 people actually thought we were from New York because of our sound.”

That time around 87 / 88 seemed to be a real break-out period for Philly artists…

“That whole era was crazy. I mean, if they’d have had reality TV back then (laughs). There was so much stuff going on up at the radio stations and it was just so much fun. On any given Friday night, either on Mimi’s Rap Digest or Lady B’s Street Beat, you’d have Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, 3-D, Cool C, Steady B, Malika Love, DJ Bones, Tuff Crew, everyone would be up there.”

Now just to clarify, you weren’t the same Woody Wood who was a mix deejay for Lady B in the mid-80s?

“Nah, there was another guy who used the name Woody Wood from Jersey so that wasn’t me.”

Were there ever any memorable battles at either of the stations considering the amount of artists who used to congregate at each spot?

“Yeah, yeah (laughs). Steady B and the Fresh Prince went at it one time on-air. This was about 87 / 88. I mean, for the most part everyone had mutual respect for everyone else, but of course everyone wanted to be seen as the best. Steady had more street credibility at that time, but that was maybe one of the first times that people outside of those who really knew him saw a different side to the Fresh Prince, like, ‘I may sound a certain way but don’t play me, I’m from Philly to!'”

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At the time you would have been recording 1988’s “Original Stylin'” project there were a lot of classic albums coming out from Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, Biz Markie etc – what was your mindet going into making that debut album considering what else was happening in Hip-Hop back then?

“At the time, for me, I was just thinking that we wanted to sound different. Hip-Hop was just so creative back then and we really wanted to just sound like us. I felt like what we came up with on that album was a good mix of stuff that did make us stand out. We didn’t sound like anybody else and each one of us in the group brought something to the table. We all had an input on that album. But that was the case from the very beginning. I mean, our first songs, “On The Dope Side” and “Crushin’ & Bussin'”, I felt took sounds from that era, like “Funky Drummer”, but we were trying to do different things with them. We also had some creative input from Steady B early on as well as he produced “From Da Giddy Up”. The track was originally for Cool C but it was a little too fast for him. But that beat was something that Steady had come up with and DJ Tat Money actually cut on that record. So yeah, it was too fast for Cool C to flow to, so EST sat down and wrote something that became “From Da Giddy Up”.”

I remember at the time being impressed with how much of a really solid, clean sound that first album had to it, particularly on tracks like “Believe Dat” and “Straight Up”… 

“Yeah, that sound came from Chuck and Lawrence and the studio we were using at the time. We were working in Studio 4 in Philadelphia at the time with Joe ‘The Butcher’ Nicolo as our engineer. I definitely give those guys credit for what they did when it came to the overall sound of the album. I can’t take credit for any of that (laughs).”

I think the vinyl album came out here in the UK on the City Beat label a little earlier than it did in the States on Arista…

“Yeah, we were signed through City Beat in the UK. I mean, Lawrence was the business person behind what happened on that side so I’m not really sure why that was that we were signed to two different labels like that. To be honest, that was part of our challenge with some of the other stuff that happened on the business side. But we were signed to two different labels, had two different versions of our first album, and some of the tracks that were on the US version weren’t on the version that came out in the UK through City Beat.”

Yeah, “Funky Dividends” wasn’t on the UK pressing and “Once More You Hear The Dope Stuff” came as a bonus 12″ with initial copies of the vinyl version…

“I mean, we weren’t privy to a lot of the business stuff back so we didn’t really know what was going on.”

What was the impact of the album both in and outside of Philly?

“Good question. I mean, the album actually came out a little earlier in Philly. In fact, from what you said, I would say it came out in Philly the same time it came out in the UK. So people in Philly had the single “Greatest Man Alive” before everyone else had the single. That was also the first video we ever did which really opened up a lot of doors for us. Even though we were going through some internal things with the label that video still got made. When I first saw that video I was shocked because they’d done a really good job for the amount of money that was actually spent on it. But when it dropped we started realising that people outside of the Philly area, New York area, Virginia and D.C. were also picking up on the music. We could see it, because right away we started getting more fan mail (laughs). We used to have a PO Box in Hunting Park and we would open these letters and there’d be girls sending pictures and stuff like that (laughs). It was crazy to me. We used to sit there and laugh and be like, ‘Damn, people really like us.’ I wouldn’t say I was totally shocked at the time but to see people from other areas liking our music was definitely a positive thing. I still have some of the fan letters today (laughs). I’m telling you, I keep all that stuff. I’ve still got receipts for equipment, I’ve got pictures from back then, I didn’t throw anything away (laughs).”

You mentioned that there were some internal problems between the group and the label when you were making the “Greatest Man Alive” video – so things were coming to a head with Lawrence Goodman that early on?

“Oh yeah. I mean, we were cool, but it was hard at that time because we were starting to have different views on things. I mean, Lawrence was doing a good job, but he was both our manager and our record label at the same time. So we started to see there was a conflict there. I think he meant well, but we felt that some of the things that were happening weren’t in our best interests. We found out about some things and had somebody look at our contracts. Now, as I said earlier, EST wasn’t eighteen-years-old when we were first signed and his mother never really signed his contracts and stuff. So he got pulled out the group someway and then we got signed directly to Arista. There was just a whole bunch of stuff going on.”

Ryan Proctor

Read Part Three of this interview here.

Old To The New Q&A – DJ Woody Wood / Three Times Dope (Part One)

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Bursting out of the rich Hip-Hop scene of Philadelphia in the late-80s, Three Times Dope (originally known as 3-D) made their name as part of the infamous Hilltop Hustlers collective alongside fellow local artists Steady B and Cool C.

Initially signed by Lawrence Goodman of Pop Art Records fame (and Steady B’s uncle), the trio of EST (emcee), Chuck Nice (producer) and Woody Wood (deejay) quickly gained themselves a dedicated fanbase following the release of early cuts such as “Crushin’ & Bussin'” and “From Da Giddy Up”.

A falling-out with label-head and manager Goodman around the time the group dropped their impressive debut 1988 album “Original Stylin'” found Three Times Dope being dissed by their former musical allies as they began recording 1990’s sophomore effort “Live From Acknickulous Land”.

The threesome finally went their separate ways in the mid-90s, but not without having left an indelible mark on the landscape of East Coast Hip-Hop and beyond.

In this three-part interview, DJ Woody Wood talks about his early recollections of Hip-Hop in Philly, being part of the Hilltop Hustlers and touring with the likes of N.W.A and Too Short.

So how did you first become involved in the Philly Hip-Hop scene?

“When I was coming up in high-school I got involved in music by trying to listen to these tapes that would be passed around. At that time in Philly we had a number of really big deejays who would throw block parties like Cosmic Kev, DJ Thorpe, people like that. There was Parry P who was an emcee. I wanted to be like those dudes. They had cliques and groups like the Black Knights Of Funk and Cosmic Kev was from the Grandmasters Of Funk. So I would get these tapes of these guys, listen to them and want to be them (laughs). So I asked my mom if she could get me some turntables and then I started playing records, listening to what all these other guys were doing, and really just trying to be like them. So that’s really how I first got involved in the Philly music scene.”

What sort of music were you hearing on those tapes at that time?

“Back then everything was breakbeats. So they would play stuff like Brothers Johnson and then when it got to the break part just play that over and over. Then that’s when the emcees would start rapping and I’m listening to this like, ‘Damn! What is this?!’ That’s back when the deejay was still the frontman and the emcee was the hypeman for the deejay. So you’d hear these breakbeats like “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat” and also some of the records that were out at the time from, like, the Treacherous Three. The deejays would play the breaks and then mix it into some of the records that were out at the time.”

Were you actually going to the parties at this point or just listening to the tapes?

“Nah, I was still too young to go to the parties in the beginning. I was about thirteen-years-old at that time so I wasn’t allowed to go to stuff like that. I could hear it on the tapes but I couldn’t see it until some of those deejays would come around my way. Now, I lived in Hunting Park, which is North Philly. So sometimes they used to come around the way, Disco Red, Cosmic Kev, Grandmasters Of Funk, Sex Machine, they would come out with these big giant speakers and it would be loud! You could hear it from up the block and the music would just draw you in. I would go out and just stand there and watch those dudes. I’d be right there in front of the turntables. So that was really how I learnt to deejay, I would just watch those dudes.”

So what were your first turntables like?

“Man, my mom brought me some belt-driven turntables when I was in the eighth grade. She gave me two turntables, a mixer and a stereo set-up with two speakers. I got on those two belt-driven turntables and I just used to play the hell out of the two records that I had (laughs). So I was just watching these other deejays and listening to what they were doing and eventually it got to the stage where I though ‘I can do this.’ Back then people like Cosmic Kev were huge and they had such a big following. This had to be around 1983. Eventually I started doing parties in my neighbourhood and I started to get a reputation as being a deejay in Hunting Park.”

Were these parties you were putting on yourself or as part of a crew?

“Nah, they weren’t my parties. These were house parties that  people would have and sometimes they’d charge like a dollar to come in. They’d be jam-packed with people from the neighbourhood. So I wasn’t part of a crew at this point, I would just do parties for people. There were about two or three deejays in the neighbourhood and that’s actually how I met Chuck Nice initially because back in the very beginning he was also a deejay before he got into the production. We used to call him Grandmaster Blend back then (laughs). He used to blend the hell out of two records. So we used to throw parties like that and I was in demand to do a lot of cutting and scratching and Chuck was doing his thing as Grandmaster Blend.”

Was it a Hip-Hop-orientated set you were playing at those early parties?

“It was mainly breakbeats and the Hip-Hop records that were out then back in 83. You’d play records that you knew people would dance to and then you’d also play records like “Planet Rock” and others that were coming out of New York. I mean, they were real long records that you could keep a party going with from like nine at night through to maybe one in the morning.”


That’s back when you’d get ten minute long 12″ versions of tracks…

“Oh yeah (laughs). You could play the hell out of those records back then. Some people would stand in front of the turntables and just watch what you were doing but most people would be dancing and having fun. Then as time went on we started messing with these guys in the neighbourhood, Les and Disco Red’s cousin Vadar. Now Disco Red’s cousin had all these big speakers which meant he could battle against some of the bigger deejays and that’s how we got good with him. He could stack his speakers up and sound way louder than them. He had the concept of using the double-scoops and the horns and all of that and the music would be so loud that it would draw people into the park. So I used to set-up with them when they were doing a party and they’d give me a chance to spin as a part of their crew.”

So were you aware there was an actual Hip-Hop scene in Philly at this point or was it just a neighbourhood thing for you back then?

“That’s a good question. So what happened is, there were a bunch of different promoters who would have parties at different places like Hotel Philadelphia and Fantasia or the different ballrooms that were around. They would bring in deejays from the different areas of Philly. So you had Grandmaster Nell who was from South Philly. Cosmic Kev was from West Oak Lane. Thorpe was from that same area. Then you had Sex Machine who were from North Philly.  So these promoters would bring all these different guys together to deejay at different venues and that was the whole thing back then. It would cost you something like ten dollars to get in and there would be like two or three thousand people there. It was crazy. So it was the deejays in Philly who really made everything click in the city when it came down to Hip-Hop. It was all about the deejays, the dancing and the clothes back then. Everyone used to wear what we called a Joe Palmieri in Philly. Joe Palmieri was a tailor and he used to make these custom jeans and things like that which everyone had.”

joe p pic

So you’re seeing people from other parts of Philly who’re involved in Hip-Hop but how much awareness did you have of what had been happening in New York in terms of the origins of the music?

“For me, it was back to listening to those tapes (laughs). I don’t know where people got them from, but there would be these tapes of people like Grand Wizard Theodore. So you’d listen to the parties that they were doing on these tapes. You would hear someone like Theodore cutting a breakbeat and his crew would be rapping and you’d just be like ‘Damn!’ Or you’d hear someone like Grandmaster Flash. Man, if you got a Grandmaster Flash tape! You’d hear rumours at the time that Flash was blind but still mixing and doing all this crazy stuff (laughs). So, back then, the only thing I had to go on was those tapes. So I was listening to Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee and people like that. So that was really what put me onto what they were doing in New York. I mean, I was so young back then I had no way of actually going there or anything like that. So, for me, it really all came from listening to those tapes.”

In our digital world of social media etc it’s almost incomprehensible for today’s generation to grasp the fact that back then you might not even know what was happening in another neighbourhood musically let alone another city…

“Exactly. Then after the tapes came the records and we had these stores like Sound Of Market and Funk-O-Mart and I would go from store to store looking for records. So what you’d do is build an alliance with these guys who worked in these stores and were selling breakbeats and the other records that were coming out. So they would tell you about stuff when you went in there and you could also see the wax and the pictures of different artists and that’s how I visually started to see Hip-Hop. I mean, I didn’t know any of those cats back then, I just knew of their reputations. So going to the record stores was how I started to visually see what was going on in Hip-Hop at that time.”

Who were some of the earliest emcees from Philly that you heard about?

“In the early days, each deejay had his emcees. So a Cosmic Kev might have had a Parry P who was a legend back then. All those guys were legends to us back then because they were that bit older than me and had these big reputations. Sex Machine had MC Sport, Thorpe had his emcees. Everyone had their emcees (laughs). And they would be rapping over the breakbeats and sometimes they’d do these story raps and just keep everything live so the crowd would stay energized. So my first recollections of hearing emcees was hearing the people that would be with those deejays. Now, as time moved on, you started hearing about other people like DJ Jazz and Robbie B. who had one of the first records I heard that came out of Philly. Then you’d hear other records from other Philly artists like MC Breeze, Schoolly D and that was mega-huge to me back then. I was like, ‘These cats are from Philly and they’re making records?!’ That was around 85 / 86 and these were cats that I’d heard on the tapes and now they’re making actual records. So, me and Chuck started thinking that maybe we could do something. Now, everyone at that time seemed to be coming out of West Philly and me and Chuck were out in North Philly and we didn’t have any connections to what was going on. EST wasn’t a part of the crew at that time and we were still just deejays trying to find emcees and put some stuff together. Around 85 I started doing this carpentry thing. My dad was a carpenter, my brother was a carpenter and when I was in high-school I did carpentry. So I started an apprenticeship programme and that’s when the music thing really got real for me because the money I was getting from the carpentry I used to buy equipment. I still had my belt-driven turntables (laughs). I never owned a pair of 1200s until I could afford them. My mom couldn’t afford to get me anything like that.”

So were the Technics 1200s the first thing you brought when you started looking at equipment?

“See, the other crews out there already had big equipment because they were getting paid a little bit. They did it for the love of the music and all that with the block parties, but they were also making some money to be able to buy equipment. I didn’t have big equipment like that. It’s funny thinking about it now, Cosmic Kev and people like that had other turntables, like the 1800s, and I would look at what they were using like, ‘Yo!’ I didn’t really understand about all the different models of turntable in the beginning (laughs). But their turntables were so much smoother than mine. I mean, when you pushed my belt-drives to start a record you had to push them hard. But with those 1200s you could just let ’em go and they’d pick right up like, bam, bam, bam! I was like, ‘Woohoo! I like that.’ So when me and Chuck started buying our own equipment, the first thing I did was buy some proper turntables, the 1200s, a mixer and a four-track. We used to go to a store called Cintioli Music and that was where we would see all this technology that was out there. Back then all these drum machines were coming out and there were people like Mantronik who were making beats. You might hear someone mention an 808 or something like that, but we didn’t know what that was back then. We’d be like, ‘An 808?! What the f**k is an 808?!’ So me and Chuck learnt the names and then we’d talk to all these guys at the music store who would give us all this information. They’d be telling us, ‘You want to buy this’ or ‘You need to upgrade to that’ and that’s how we first started buying little bits of studio equipment.”

808 pic

So basically you were studying the records that were being made to point you in the right direction?

“Exactly. In fact, it was the guys from the music stores I was telling you about like Sound Of Market who would talk to us about what other people were doing and then say ‘You could do that.’ Me and Chuck would be like, ‘We could do that? Nah…’ and then they’d pull out a record and show us the address on the back and be like, ‘That address right there shows you who’s in charge of this. Look, there’s the office address and there’s a phone number’ and we were like ‘Ahhhh, okay.’ Then we’d go to the equipment store and tell them that there were artists making music using certain sounds and that they were using drum machines. The guys in the store would be like, ‘Well, look, here’s a drum machine. Let’s plug it up.’ They’d set it up and then play it so we could hear all the different sounds.”

So you’d be listening to them playing the equipment until you heard something that matched the drum sounds you were hearing on people’s records…

“Yeah. Then when they told us you could actually put sounds into it and sample we were like, ‘You can do what?’ When they showed us how to sample we really were like, ‘Are you serious? Show me again! Man, we got to get that!'”

So was that when Chuck Nice started to get into the production side of things?

“As I said, Chuck was known more as a blend deejay, so when he got the chance to do music with the whole sampling thing, he jumped right on that. So I brought all this equipment and we kept a lot of it at Chuck’s house. He only lived about two blocks from where I was. So we had our speakers and everything for the house parties over at Chuck’s and as we got more stuff we put it in his basement. His mom was so nice, God rest her soul, and she let us keep all our equipment down there. So we had everything down in Chuck’s basement, our little drum machine, our four-track, our turntables and all our records were over there. So that basement is basically where we started making music and learning how to use the different equipment we had. As I said, at that point I was an apprentice carpenter, so I would be at work at 7am, home by 3pm, over at Chuck’s house by 4:30pm and then I’d stay over there working on stuff and be back to work the next morning. That’s when we started making songs and sending them to different people who were already making the music we were listening to.”

Were these instrumental tracks you were sending out at that time?

“Nah, they were proper songs. The first emcees we worked with were called the Deuce MCs which was Rick Slick and this other guy we used to call Cosmic C. Me and Chuck thought they were good so we started working with them. Chuck would take some loops and come up with the music, I would cut on it, they would rap on it, we’d mix it down with the four-track, put the songs on cassettes and then give the music to people to see what they thought. We took the tape down to the record store and they were telling us about someone we should get our music to who had a lot of people out already like Super Nature, who were Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante and others. That person turned out to be Lawrence Goodman and his label Pop Art.”

Ryan Proctor

Read Part Two of this interview here.