Black Sheep Dres – “Propagation” (@DresBlackSheep / 2014)
The Native Tongues emcee imparts wise words and thoughtful social commentary on his latest single.
Black Sheep Dres – “Propagation” (@DresBlackSheep / 2014)
The Native Tongues emcee imparts wise words and thoughtful social commentary on his latest single.
In the third part of my interview with Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, the talented producer-on-the-mic talks about working with the Audio Two, recording the timeless classic “Talkin’ All That Jazz” and why Stet were always welcome in Miami – check Part One and Part Two.
1987 was a busy year for Daddy-O outside of Stetsasonic with you being involved in producing MC Watchout & DJ OZ’s “Blind Man’s Bluff” plus Positive K’s “Quarter Gram Pam” and Audio Two’s “Make It Funky” / “Top Billin'” singles which were both on First Priority. How did you come to work so closely with the First Priority label?
“Okay, so Delite was really the catalyst for that. Back then, Red Alert had this night at the Latin Quarter which used to be on a Tuesday, like an after-work night. It wasn’t all Hip-Hop, but it was still a Red Alert night. Now first of all, and I’ve said this before, without Delite there would have been no Stetsasonic. Just like Delite could probably say that without Daddy-O there would have been no Stet. But my reasons for saying that and his reasons would be totally different (laughs). Now, the reason I can say that without Delite there’d be no Stet, is because I hated everything. I hated everything, yo. I was such a hater back then (laughs). One time, Delite went to see Flash and them at the Peppermint Lounge and he came back saying how great it was. I was like, ‘F**k them, man. Are they better than us?’ I hated everything (laughs). Delite always used to tell me, ‘Just do it better. And if you’re not going to do it better than don’t talk to me about it, D.’ So Delite was the quintessential taste-maker in my opinion. He was the guy who knew everything that was going on just to try and figure out what was going to happen next. So Delite was hanging out at the Latin Quarter on a Tuesday night when everybody else was doing Friday and Saturday nights. I’m like, ‘What the f**k are you going down there on a Tuesday for?’ Delite would be like, ‘Red Alert’s playing and your man Lumumba be down there sometimes..’ and I was just like, ‘Whatever, man.’ So Delite was staying with me at the time and he always used to come back from those Tuesday nights singing ‘I like cherries ‘cos cherries taste better….’ and I’d be like, ‘What the hell are you singing?’ Delite would keep telling me that I had to hear this Audio Two song. Now, Delite ain’t got no singing voice either, so he was making it sound even worse, right (laughs). But Delite was like, ‘Yo, you’ve got to hear this record.’ But it was only Red Alert who was playing it and he was only playing it on a Tuesday night at the Latin Quarter. I don’t know if he couldn’t or wouldn’t play it on the radio, but he was only playing it on these Tuesday nights. So I went with Delite one night and I heard the record. Now, Delite had been trying to describe the record to me and had told me it was this bugged out song that sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before. But when I actually heard the record, I liked it.”
So how did that lead to you actually connecting with the Audio Two?
“What happened was, Stetsasonic had got a nice little name in the city. We started getting around. Now, we were doing a release party that was going to be at the Palladium. Not the main part of the Palladium, but the Michael Todd Room which was still a nice venue. We invited all these people and Tommy Boy invited a lot of people as well. So Nat Robinson from First Priority came along with MC Lyte and the Audio Two. I looked Milk in his face and was like, ‘Yo! If you ever need anyone to produce for you, then I’m here.’ Milk was like, ‘Word?!’ So I told him that I really liked their stuff a lot and next thing Milk was calling to Nat, ‘Dad! Dad! Daddy-O said he’ll produce us! Daddy-O said he’ll produce us!’ So Nat was just like, ‘Okay, we’ll talk about it.’ So that’s how I ended up working with the Audio Two and MC Lyte. Now, I’m trying to think how I got hooked-up with Positive K. I almost want to say that I got with Pos K through Lumumba Carson…
Because Lumumba was managing Positive K during the same period he was managing Stetsasonic, right?
“Yeah, that’s right. So I got hooked up with Positive K through Lumumba. But now that you’re saying it, I guess my mind just wasn’t on it that “Quarter Gram Pam” was on First Priority as well (laughs). I remember making “Quarter Gram Pam” before we did “Top Billin'”….”
After Stet’s “Go Stetsa I”, Audio Two’s “Top Billin'” was the second official Brooklyn anthem you had a hand in producing and it had such a unique sound to it. What inspired that beat?
“It’s so funny that you’re saying what you’re saying because both of those records were just great mistakes (laughs). Like I explained earlier, “Go Stetsa” was a great mistake with us bringing in the live drummer to do the fills and rolls etc. Now, before I did “Top Billin'” for the Audio Two I was working on their single “Make It Funky”. Now, I’m in Staten Island at Nat Robinson’s crib which was Milk and Giz’s crib as well. I’d programmed the SP-12 to do some things for “Make It Funky”. I go upstairs to talk to Nat or whatever and Milk calls up from the studio and is like, ‘Yo! You’ve got to hear something I just did.’ We’re like, ‘Okay, what’s he done now.’ I mean, if anyone was going to be the producer in Audio Two it was going to be Giz anyway, right. Now, I’d been trying to sample “Impeach The President” but the SP-12 only gave you x-amount of time, so Milk couldn’t get the full loop in there. So all he got was the ‘boom-boom-kick’ and that was it. So now Milk has that boom and kick up in the SP bouncing against my “Make It Funky” drum pattern. So we heard it and thought it was dope and then Milk is like, ‘I wrote something…’ and he did the whole thing right there. Milk looked at me and was like, ‘Daddy-O, should I make it longer?’ and I said ‘F**k no!’ I knew exactly what we were going to do with that record and I told Milk right there, ‘This is a Red Alert classic. We’re going to go ahead and do this “Make It Funky” track but we’re not going to tell anyone about this “Top Billin'” record.’ The plan was to make the deejays feel like they found it themselves on the b-side of the single and it worked.”
1987 also saw Stetsasonic drop the “A.F.R.I.C.A.” single which made a huge political statement against apartheid. Was that track something that the group wanted to do initially or was it something that Tommy Boy instigated?
“It was actually initiated by Tommy Boy but in a weird kind of way. Now, that track did end up on “Blood, Sweat & No Tears” but that was just because the Norman Cook remix was so hot and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve got to put this on something.’ “A.F.R.I.C.A” would never have made it onto any album if Norman Cook never did that remix. His remix made me feel like it was something that I could put on an album. The original version, which I love, I just loved it being what it was as a single. So the original version of “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was a stand-alone piece that was what I always call Stetsasonic’s longest running record, meaning that long after that record was off radio, the Africa Fund had worked with us to put teaching guides in schools and all of that, so that record was constantly being used and referred to long after it came out. Now, what happened was, through Monica Lynch at Tommy Boy we met a guy from ABC 20/20 called Danny Schechter. He used to call himself Danny Schechter The News Dissector and he became a good friend of mine. Danny was just one of those erratic white guys, scruffy beard, almost looked like Captain Kangaroo, who was probably one of the earliest versions of a WikiLeaks or something like that. He was always challenging everything like, ‘This is what’s really going on.’ So he had an idea that he had taken to Monica with no particular group in mind. He said to her that apartheid in South Africa was a big issue and that he didn’t understand why no rappers were covering it. So, Monica brought the idea of doing the record to us. She told us that they were going to talk about doing a song to some of the other groups on the label as well, but that she wanted to hear what we thought about it. I immediately said yes, went home and did a little bit of research. Danny actually had a video tape and it was heart-wrenching watching that for the first time and seeing everything that was going on in South Africa…”
At the time apartheid was a topic that nobody really wanted to speak on in the Western world because, regardless of your skin colour, it was almost impossible to talk about it without having to confront certain uncomfortable contributing issues…
“Right, right. Absolutely. So Dan showed us this tape and straight away I was like, ‘We’re going to do it.’ Now, Delite, that was one thing that he wasn’t really with initially, but Frukwan definitely was. So we went into the studio, Frukwan, myself and Wise. Now the beat for “A.F.R.I.C.A.”, that came from Wise with him beat-boxing and we took that and made it into a beat. Then me and Frukwan wrote the rhyme. We wrote the whole thing. So by the time we brought Delite, Paul and DBC in, they were like, ‘Yo, that’s kinda hot.’ I showed Delite where he was going to fit in and that was it. We did it and it really worked out. Looking back on it, what was interesting was that “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was our first video as Stetsasonic. We used to have big fights with Tommy Boy because Monica Lynch used to say that videos didn’t sell records. So we never got the videos that you saw other artists at that time getting from their labels. So with “A.F.R.I.C.A.”, we were happy to be getting a video.”
That record really made a big impact at the time because this was before the likes of Public Enemy and KRS-One were really dealing with politics in a major way in their music…
“Yeah, definitely. But it was really that 1990 Wembley performance in London for Nelson Mandela that opened a lot up for us. Even though we’d done a lot of other things around the record and apartheid with people like Jesse Jackson, that Wembley performance really opened things up. The crowd were receptive to what we were saying and that was great. I mean, that was a great day for us as a group. Going back to when Kevin Porter used to mentor us, he always used to tell us not to just look at ourselves as a rap group, but to look at ourselves as entertainers who could be on a par with a Prince or a Michael Jackson, who just happened to rap. So that performance at Wembley let us feel like we were real entertainers. I remember, we met Terence Trent D’Arby, Patti Labelle, Neil Young and just an array of entertainers who were huge at the time. Me and Bono from U2 were talking, just kickin’ it, and that was dope because we were being accepted by everyone. I remember Denzel Washington was there, we performed that song, I walked offstage and Denzel hugged me. But it just felt like the other artists there understood what we were trying to do and that was always something that Delite and I wanted to do for Hip-Hop, to get people to understand what Hip-Hop was about and what it could be. I mean, I’m still the same way today because I still think a lot of people have got it twisted in terms of what they think we are.”
Would you say “A.F.R.I.C.A.” was the catalyst which led to you addressing other political issues on 1988’s “In Full Gear” album with tracks like “Freedom Or Death”?
“I’d say yes, but in a weird way (laughs). I mean, “Freedom Or Death” was something I made for Sonny Carson. That was always his line. I mean there were different things happening in New York at the time, there was the whole Yusef Hawkins thing, and Sonny had this whole ‘freedom or death’ thing that he was doing in response to that. Lumumba Carson and them hadn’t made any records yet. He wasn’t Professor X yet and there was no X-Clan at this point. So there was really no voice at that time to express what Sonny was talking about. I sat with Sonny one day and he explained the whole freedom or death concept to me and he said it exactly the way I wrote it. So I would say that “A.F.R.I.C.A.” did have something to do with us touching on other issues because making that record let us know that we could cover certain issues as a group because the challenge had been how do we make a record about something like apartheid and make it fun? I mean, you could make message records all day, but they’re not necessarily going to be hot. Plus, it wasn’t like we were making a song like Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” that was about the general ghetto that a lot of people already knew about or could relate to. There were specific names of people who were involved in apartheid in South Africa and different things that were going on, so in order to really express what was happening we knew that we had to put all of that into the record. We knew it wouldn’t have been enough to just gloss over it and say that apartheid was going on and that people shouldn’t like what was happening. We knew that wasn’t going to work. We had to go into detail. So then it was about how do we make that fun for people to listen to. But once we’d done it, that first time, we realised that there was no telling what we could do musically. So “A.F.R.I.C.A.” definitely opened up something for us as far as that was concerned and introduced us to being able to make songs about specific things. I mean, when we were recording “On Fire”, there were songs on there about specific things as well, but it was more about us being Stetsasonic…”
There was definitely a noticeable amount of artistic growth between “On Fire” and “In Full Gear”…
“Right, right. Well, you’ve probably heard Chuck D’s story about how Stetsasonic and Public Enemy went on tour together and three albums came out of that tour bus – “In Full Gear”, “It Takes A Nation Of Millions…” and “3 Feet High And Rising”. I mean, whilst Public Enemy were making “Nation” we were making “In Full Gear”, so we were bouncing ideas off of each other all the time. But one story I always remember about “A.F.R.I.C.A.” is when we were on tour with MC Hammer, Public Enemy, EPMD and 2 Live Crew. I can’t remember exactly what year this was, but it was heyday Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This” Hammer. We were doing different spots and on some dates you got all of the groups, other times you might just get three of us. But as Stetsasonic we were used to opening up and we would trade with EPMD, so one night it was them opening and the next night it was us. Anyway, this one night, Hammer had flown in on his private jet, EPMD had opened up, we were getting ready to go onstage and the promoter came to us and said that Hammer was going on before us. We were like, ‘What?!’ I mean, when I say this was heyday Hammer, he had the full stage show with all the dancers and everything. So there was nothing we would do about it. Hammer went out there and killed it and then we’ve got to go on after that. So the rest of the group are looking at me like, ‘What are we going to do now, D?’ I was like, ‘I know how we’re going to do this. I want you to come out with me first Paul.’ Everyone was like, ‘Huh?!’ because the way we used to do it was the band would go out first and play a little, then introduce Frukwan, he would introduce Delite and then Delite would introduce me and we’d do the show. But I wanted Paul to just come out with me and I told him to get “A.F.R.I.C.A.” ready. So we went out there and I got on some real preacher s**t. I was saying how for years Black people had been singing and dancing. I made Hammer look like it was buffoonery that he’d just done (laughs). I talked a little about apartheid, told Paul to drop the beat, the rest of the group came out and we performed “A.F.R.I.C.A.” first before we did all our other records that people wanted to hear.”
When you recorded “Talkin’ All That Jazz” were you expecting it to play such a large part in the debate surrounding sampling at the time?
“Absolutely not. “Talkin’ All That Jazz” was the only record on “In Full Gear” that I wrote for all three of us, me, Delite and Frukwan. Now, there’s a radio show in New York called The Week In Review with Bob Slade which is still on today. It’s a very, very informative show where they highlight certain things and talk about different issues. So what happened was, James Mtume was a guest on the radio show and he was talking about how Hip-Hop was creating this generation of uncreative musicians through sampling. He’s saying how it’s making people lazy and how the people who’re sampling don’t know how to play instruments or really know anything about music, blah, blah, blah. Now, I wasn’t able to be a guest on that particular show, but then Bob Slade brought me up on another show and I was able to talk about sampling from our perspective. So it kinda kept going back and forth between me and Mtume, but not directly. Now, Delite had already come up with the idea of doing a record called “Talkin’ All That Jazz”, but his idea was to do something similar to what Guru and Premier did later with “Jazz Music” and “Jazz Thing”. Delite wanted to do a record like that, really showing the similarities between Hip-Hop and jazz. We also wanted to show how, not being disrespectful, but in the same way that people thought Kenny G and Najee was real jazz, we felt the same thing was going to happen with Hip-Hop and that our own Coltranes and all of that would be pushed to the side if we weren’t being mindful. So that was originally what we wanted to do with “Talkin’ All That Jazz” and Delite had also come up with the idea of using the Lonnie Liston Smith “Expansions” sample.
Were you already a fan of “Expansions”?
“Yeah, yeah. I mean, “Expansions” was one of the records that people used to play out in the parks at those jams back in Brooklyn in the 70s. So I thought the original idea was cool and we were going to do it. But when this whole Mtume thing came up, I told Delite and Frukwan that I was going to write “Talkin’ All That Jazz” about that situation. I remember them both saying to me, ‘Are you sure, D?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this.’ So I put it together. Then we went in the studio and we tried to sample “Expansions” but it was too fast, so we slowed it down but it didn’t sound right. I guess if the time-stretch stuff that they use nowadays had been available then we would have done that. But it wasn’t. So, Prince Paul was already in the studio at this point working with De La Soul and Don Newkirk was also involved in some of those sessions. So Paul just said we should let Don play it. Bobby Simmons said that we needed to have it played using this cello type sound and when he pulled it up I told Don that’s what we were looking for. So he played those opening bars that you hear on the record. Then Newkirk said he was going to do something else with it, and that’s when he added some of the other keyboard parts that you hear on there. Then Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy had to get me on the phone with Lonnie Liston Smith for the rights to use his record. I remember I got on the phone and Lonnie said to me, ‘Young blood, you can have that, man. That ain’t “Expansions” no more, you done made something new.'”
Which basically proved the exact point you were trying to make with the record…
“It did (laughs). I couldn’t believe he was saying that to me. I remember him saying how he was proud of us for taking his music and making something new out of it.”
Throughout “In Full Gear” you made a handful of references to Miami and there was also the track “Miami Bass”. What was your preoccupation with Miami at the time you were recording that album?
“At that time, I’ll tell you what it was in one word…
“No, it was Luke (laughs). When Stetsasonic went to Miami for the first time when we did the Def Jam tour in 87 with LL Cool J, Luke took care of me like, man, I don’t really know how to describe it. It was like the royal guard came out for me or something, yo. He took me to the ‘hood and showed me around and from that point on there was like a carte blanch thing going on with Stetsasonic in Miami. All the way down to Luke telling us what to perform in Miami. I remember him telling us to perform “On Fire” and saying that they didn’t know anything else that we did down there (laughs). I was like, ‘They like “On Fire”?!’ and Luke said, ‘It’s the bass! That’s what they listen to down here.’ I was smoking weed at the time and I remember Luke taking me to this guy’s house to pick some up and when the guy opened the door he started jumping up and down saying ‘You’re “On Fire”?! “On Fire”, “On Fire”?!’ Luke really laid it out and it was such a great experience for us, particularly in contrast with other people on the tour like LL. He had a lot of pressure at the time and they didn’t really like him down there. But one thing about Stet which I really think went a long way towards how people accepted us was that we never sneered our noses at anybody. We always let the music speak for itself and we really won a lot of people over that way. I remember we were on tour in the Midwest one time with Public Enemy and we were getting ready to perform. There was this dude there who was saying, ‘Ya’ll Stetsasonic? Yeah, I like you, y’all okay, but Public Enemy are my boys.’ He had a little money and whatever. I’ll never forget, we did the show, and he left Public Enemy and took us to the club and brought us all champagne (laughs).”
You were featured some years back in Mikey D’s documentary “The Making Of A Legend” commenting on his infamous battle with Melle Mel at the 1988 New Music Seminar. What do you remember about that incident?
“That was just a horrible night, man. I don’t think anyone is ever going to forget what happened that night. I mean, I tell people all the time, when they’re talking about the greatest emcee to ever live, I always say Melle Mel. When people talk about the greatest rhyme ever recorded, I always say it’s Melle Mel’s rhyme on “Beat Street Breakdown”…
Melle Mel will always be one of my favourite emcees and personally I think his three greatest lyrical moments are “The Message”, “Beat Street Breakdown” and “World War III”…
“Yeah, I mean that rhyme on “Beat Street Breakdown” just encompasses everything. He didn’t miss out anything on that record. It’s all there. So I say all of that almost as a disclaimer because Mel will always be my hero. But, when it comes down to it, a battle is a battle. So he tried to come at Mikey D with some rhymes that he’d done before and Mikey really isn’t the type of emcee to come at or go up against like that. Mike is nice. So Mel came at him and Mikey tossed him (laughs). Then Melle Mel got physically mad and went and took the Seminar belt back. It was sad, man. I mean, Mike ain’t no super tough guy but he ain’t from no punk part of Queens either and he had enough massive in there with him that night to have turned that into something totally different. But the respect level was there. So I remember Mikey just looking at Mel, like ‘What?!’ There was definitely a sadness in Mikey that night like, ‘I can’t believe Mel would do that.’ I mean, it was an honour for Mikey to go up against Melle Mel, it would have been an honour for Mikey to have lost to Melle Mel, but he didn’t (laughs). It was tough to see that happen to Mikey, man. But Mel’s got those moments, man. Some years back I worked with a company called Sock Bandit on their documentary “Hip-Hop Immortals”. Now, when we did that we called Mel up to the office, and Melle Mel went on for about forty minutes cursing out 50 Cent and then we found out he didn’t actually know 50 (laughs). It was just weird. So Mel has his moments, man (laughs).”
You produced Bango’s “Ghettoish” for Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate compilation in 1988 and you also worked on a couple of tracks off the 7A3 album “Coolin’ In Cali”. How did you get involved in those two projects?
“The Bango track came about purely through me and Ice-T being cool and him liking me as a producer. He told me that he was working on the Rhyme Syndicate compilation and that he had this kid out of Cleveland with a little street edge to him who he thought I would like. Now, 7A3, I actually knew Sean and Brett already because we were from the same area in Brooklyn. But again, that came through Ice-T and Jorge Hinosoja, because Jorge was involved in putting that project together. Jorge was just a cool dude and when you were working with him, if he saw there was an opportunity, then he did it. So I knew Sean and Brett from East New York, I knew Jorge and Ice-T, so we just put it together and made that happen.”
1989 saw Stetsasonic taking on a major role in the Stop The Violence Movement’s “Self-Destruction”. What do you remember about recording that single?
“There’s a couple of things that I always remember, like LL Cool J not being on the record. Now, there’s actually a performance we did on the Dr. Ruth Show that had LL on it that was really dope. He obviously didn’t have a part on the record, but the band played something behind him and he did a little something on there. LL was asked about “Self-Destruction” and why he didn’t participate and he said it was because of that beat that we used for the song. He said he hadn’t had a record out in awhile, he was due to be coming out with “Walking With A Panther” and he said, ‘Man, I haven’t been heard for awhile and I didn’t want to be heard after some time away on that beat.’ There were actually a few people who didn’t really care for the original track. Public Enemy actually didn’t really care for the track. Then D-Nice started throwing those extra parts in there from people’s own records. We actually didn’t say anything. So we didn’t know he was going to throw that part from the “Talkin’ All That Jazz” remix up under there because when we’d recorded our part we’d rhymed to the original track. So that was something I remember. Plus, I was right there when LL wrote MC Lyte’s rhyme and that really was an ill piece of history to see. LL asked Lyte to say her rhyme and she’d done this part rhyming all these facts together. LL asked Lyte who was going on after her on the record and she said it was me. LL was like, ‘You can’t go on before Daddy-O with that. You know how he’s going to come…’ So LL just took the pad from her and started writing the whole thing down which became Lyte’s verse. Then, one of my biggest recollections of making that record, which connects with what we were talking about earlier, is that the video shoot for “Self-Destruction” is where I first met James Mtume. He walked up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m James Mtume the narrow-minded.’ I mean, we’re really good friends now (laughs). But that was definitely a moment.”
Check the final part of this interview here.
Stetsasonic performing “A.F.R.I.C.A.” at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1990.
In this second instalment of my interview with Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, the Brooklyn-bred Hip-Hop legend discusses almost signing to Sugarhill Records, recording the group’s debut 1986 album “On Fire” and rocking the stage at NYC’s infamous Latin Quarter – check Part One here.
So how did you get involved in the Mr. Magic competition that subsequently led to Stetsasonic securing a record deal?
“I’m trying to think how we met Fly Ty because that’s how it came about. We met Tyrone from Cold Chillin’. I don’t remember exactly how we met Fly Ty, that’s something that Delite probably would remember better. But we met Ty somehow and he liked us, so he was kind of managing us for a time, and at the same time he was managing Roxanne Shante and I think he had Biz Markie as well. It was at the time when they were first trying to pull that whole Cold Chillin’ roster together. Ty was telling us that we should enter this rap contest that Mr. Magic was putting on. Now, we’d been entering different contests prior to the Mr. Magic thing. But as Delite so eloquently puts it, we always kept coming in second (laughs). I mean, I remember being beaten by this kid Mike in Brooklyn who was one of the baddest singers I ever heard, which was ill because he ended-up just singing on the train. But I remember Mike beating us one time. I remember losing to Father Taheem out in Queens. I remember all of that. It’s not like we were wack, but we just kept coming in second (laughs). I remember one time we had a tie and we got thirty three dollars and some cents because we had to split the one hundred dollars prize money with Doug E. Fresh and Busy Bee at a competition at the Roxy (laughs). I was mad because Doug came on with Ricky, Slick Rick, and that was the first time Doug had brought Rick out. They actually performed “Treat Her Like A Prositute” that night. I left early because I was so mad (laughs). I remember Delite coming to my house, explaining that we’d tied and giving me this money, but telling me that I shouldn’t have left (laughs).”
So what happened with the Mr. Magic contest?
“So anyway, Fly Ty told us we should enter the contest and we did it. I’m not sure how many times we performed before we got into the finals. It might have been twice or it might have been three times. But we performed in different boroughs of New York and every time we did it went really well and the people loved us. Each time we got boosted up to the next level.”
Who else do you remember being in the competition?
“I know there were other people who ended up making records who performed as part of the contest, but I can’t really remember who. What I do remember though is that we won so unanimously in the final and Coney Island was going bananas. Now the way it was set up, there were three labels involved who would each give a deal to the artists in first, second and third place. I remember Pop Art was the third place label, Tommy Boy was second place and Sugarhill Records was first place. I always tell people that if we’d been smart we’d have gone with Lawrence Goodman and Pop Art as that could have led us to Next Plateau with the link he had with Salt-N-Pepa and all the success they had. But that’s a whole other story, right. I mean, Lawrence told us that day that we should have rocked with him, but we didn’t. Then there was Tommy Boy, but as we’d won first place we weren’t really thinking about Tommy Boy at that time. So we ended up doing the Sugarhill thing and Fly Ty knew Sylvia Robinson and all those guys. So we won the competition and now Sugarhill are going to offer us this contract. We went up to Sugarhill Records in New Jersey and it was just a joke. It was like this crazy, whole pre-staged thing. I mean, the Furious Five were playing frisbee in the parking lot when we arrived, Melle Mel comes out from the back of the house with two girls up under his arms, like ‘What’s up Daddy-O?’ I’ll never forget, Leland Robinson, who was real young at the time, but he was out there with a new Toyota which was the hot car at the time. So he was cleaning the rims of his Toyota and then Joey Robinson Jr. drove in with a Benz.”
So they were really pulling out all the stops to show you there was big money at Sugarhill…
“Exactly. Now Sugarhill had two properties that looked exactly the same, one at the bottom of the hill in New Jersey and one up the hill. So we were at the one down the hill, and then they said they were going to take us to the other property up the hill as Sylvia Robinson wanted to meet us. So we went, and all of us in the group tell this story the same way, but we kinda felt like her Rolls Royce keys were strategically placed on the counter in the house and things like that (laughs). Sylvia kept saying, ‘The kids have been raging about y’all’, but when they gave us the contract it was just horrible…”
Locking you in for ten years with two percent royalties or something?
“It was exactly two percent royalties (laughs). It was four percent wholesale. But we were just like, ‘Yo, this is just…no.’ Not that our Tommy Boy deal ended up being that much better, but I did love the flexibility and the time that we had with Tommy Boy. So we told Fly Ty, we’re not rocking with Sugarhill. He was trying to convince us to go with them and saying how big they were as a label and if we put a record out on Sugarhill then it would blow up. But we were all just like, ‘This is wack!'”
So you decided to take the competition’s second prize of signing with Tommy Boy…
“That’s right. It was actually Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy who taught us what a hook was in a record because we didn’t know (laughs). Our first single “Just Say Stet” was originally a record we’d made that was just called “Stetsasonic” and the hook we ended-up using, ‘If you can’t say it all, Just say Stet…’, was originally just a line from one of my rhymes. Tom heard that line and was like, ‘That’s a hook!’ and we were like, ‘What do you mean?’ So he explained the whole thing about using that line as a hook. Then after the single dropped we started working on the first album, “On Fire”.”
“On Fire” dropped in 1986 but that same year you and Delite appeared on the Incredible Mr. Freeze single “Back To The Scene Of The Crime” on Pow Wow Records. How did that come about?
“Freeze was another guy that I knew through Kevin Porter. It’s funny because at that time we were trying so hard to get on. But Stetsasonic’s road to getting put on was so different to everyone else’s (laughs). Now, Freeze was from East New York, he had a record deal, and he said to us, ‘Yo, I want you guys to rhyme on this.’ But to be honest, we weren’t really in love with the beat on that particular track…”
I always thought perhaps the reason you were featured on that single was due to the fact it was produced by Arthur Baker and the connection he had with Tommy Boy…
“No, no. Like I said, we already knew Freeze and at the time that he got his deal we were killing the park jams. Freeze wished that he was getting what me and Delite were getting in Alabama Park. I mean, once we started doing those Alabama jams, we got nice. Delite became everything I wanted him to become. I mean, D would say to me, ‘Yo, do I sound good?’ and I’d be like, ‘D, you don’t know how good you sound.’ I mean, his voice next to mine and the way we would bounce off of each other….”
When Stetsasonic’s first album came out I was still a huge Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five fan and I would judge any new group I heard against them. I always remember thinking at the time that, to me, Delite was to Stet what Cowboy was to the Furious Five in terms of how his voice had such a big presence on record…
“Absolutely. You nailed it one thousand percent. I loved the way we sounded together and what Delite brought to the group. I mean, we were really doing it out in those parks, so Freeze wanted us on his record because he’d already told us that he loved what we were doing. When we actually recorded “Back To The Scene Of The Crime” we didn’t even had a record deal ourselves. So doing that record was part of us trying to get on and get ourselves a deal.”
At what point did Stet first start referring to themselves as ‘The Hip-Hop Band’?
“We started using that name when DBC first came onboard. We didn’t have Bobby Simmons in the group yet on the drums. But we started using the Hip-Hop Band name when DBC joined us because me and Delite looked around and said, ‘Holy s**t, we’ve got a band now.’ The band to us was always DBC, Wise and Paul, because those guys could play music all day, whether it be on the drum machine, the human beatbox or the turntables. Then you had the three emcees, which was me, Delite and Frukwan. I mean, if you listen to “On Fire”, you hear us talking about being the six-man band. One of the most prominent lines on “On Fire” that related to how we saw ourselves was, ‘If you call us a group, we’ll call you a liar, Stetsasonic is a band my man, We’re on fire!'”
So how did Bobby Simmons originally become involved with the group?
“Okay, this is a long story (laughs). When we did “Go Stetsa I” I had originally programmed the beat on the LinnDrum for that track and it was an old-school James Brown beat, right? But I wanted drum rolls. Now, me and Delite we had a friend called Nawthar Muhammad and he played the drums. So we asked him to come in and do drum rolls and cymbals for the track. I remember we were in Calliope Studios and I was telling him exactly where I wanted him to do a cymbal, do a roll, and he did it. But we had to play a little beat up underneath what he was doing so that he could keep the beat. It was so unplanned, but the drums on “Go Stetsa” are only three tracks. We had a mic on him and then a mic all the way on the other side of the studio in the bathroom that we used for ambience. So if you listen to my verse on “Go Stetsa” we dropped that ambience track out and then we bring it back. So that’s why my line ‘Brooklyn, New York is our hometown…’ sounds so tight because we took that track out. So it was so unplanned, because we’d talked to the engineer and he’d said we didn’t need to put extra mics on the drums if all we were doing was recording a roll.”
Bob Power of A Tribe Called Quest fame engineered that record, right?
“Bob Power was a pain in the ass (laughs). We taught Bob Power how to make all these types of Hip-Hop records. I’m not saying he wasn’t already a good engineer, but he really cut his teeth with Stetsasonic. I mean, this is obviously pre-D’Angelo and all of that. In fact, the reason he got hooked up with all of that was through me and Kedar Massenburg being connected, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, he was a good engineer but it was very difficult for us to deal with him back then because of what we were trying to do. Especially me and Prince Paul because of the type of guys we are. We are super spontaneous in the studio.”
Plus, with Hip-Hop still being relatively new, it must have been a completely different recording experience to what studio engineers were used to in comparison to working with artists from other genres…
“Right, right. So on and off Bob Power wouldn’t be available and we’d be happy when he wasn’t (laughs). So the reason we hooked up with Bob Colter is because we’d already tried working with all these different engineers and things just hadn’t worked out. I mean, we even tried the tech guy because we thought he might work as he knew so much about all of the equipment. One of the biggest problems we had was that we had this raw sound because we were still trying to mimick the whole two turntables and a mic sound, and the engineers used to always clean it up and we’d be like, ‘That’s not what we want!’ Then we’d go through this whole thing and they’d end up giving the music back to us how we originally wanted it and that was something they could have done two hours before (laughs). So anyway, one day we had Bob Colter in the studio, who we later found out was just as spontaneous as we were. So anyway, he pulls up the “Go Stetsa” track which we were getting ready to work on, but he only pulls up the live drums and the vocals, I guess because of the way the track was labelled. So then he’s getting ready to pull up the drum machine track and I just said, ‘Whoa! Hold up, hold up. Play it like that.’ I was like, ‘Delite, come over here. Do you hear this s**t?’ And that’s how “Go Stetsa” ended-up sounding the way it did with the drums. Which is a very long story to say, that experience then let us know exactly how we sounded on live drums and that we could use those live drums in a way that didn’t sound like some corny R&B record.”
Is that what then gave you the idea of putting Bobby Simmons down with the group?
“So getting back to Bobby, remember I mentioned DJ Scooter Love and the Kickin’ Coffin earlier? Bobby used to carry records for those guys and was already my boy from Brownsville. So Bobby was now the back-up deejay for Red Alert at the Latin Quarter when we started poppin’. He walked up to me one day and said, ‘Yo, D. I know you cut “Go Stetsa” with drums and you know that I’m nice on the drums. We should try it one time…’ and I just said, ‘Let’s do it!’ But it was an ill set-up the way we performed with Bobby in the Latin Quarter for the first time. Now, the best way I can describe it to you is if you look at the video to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Tramp”, you can see how the Latin Quarter worked. The stage they had was up top and then the dance-floor was at the bottom. We had to put Bobby and his drums down on the floor and then we were up top on the stage. But it turned out dope as hell.”
So Bobby was performing with Stet in a live context before he actually started working with the group in the studio?
“Exactly. I mean, the live performances were coming out so dope that by the time we went into the studio to do “In Full Gear”, Bobby was officially in the group.”
Touching on the Latin Quarter for a moment, what memories do you have of that particular spot?
“Overall, I remember that the Latin Quarter represented the underground. I mean, I know that word gets used over and over, but it’s really the only word I’ve got to describe what was happening in New York back then. I mean, at the time, Russell Simmons was really starting to blow with the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, he had Whodini, so the commercial part of being on the radio and getting big money for tours was starting to happen and a lot of that was happening with Russell. Russell was that guy who was doing all of that. But then there were the rest of us, and all the rest of us had to cut our teeth at the Latin Quarter. Now, this is obviously prior to us being managed by Rush a little later down the line. But when it came to the Latin Quarter, you had Stetsasonic, you had Ultramagnetic MC’s, you had Boogie-Down Productions, Lumumba Carson who went on to be Professor X in X-Clan was hanging out there with me as he was managing us for awhile, you had Just-Ice, even Kid-N-Play and a little later on the Audio Two. It was actually through meeting Audio Two at the Latin Quarter that I ended-up producing “Top Billin'” for them because Red Alert used to play “I Like Cherries” all the time. Of course, Red Alert played a huge part in the Latin Quarter, then along with Red came the Violators. So you had all of this real Hip-Hop that was happening in this place and it was kinda the polar opposite at the time of what Russell was doing with the tours and all of that.”
When you think back to that time, are there any particular moments that standout to you that really represent the Latin Quarter experience?
“One particular moment that I always think of when people ask me about the Latin Quarter was Red Alert playing Eric B. & Rakim’s “My Melody” for the first time. Yo, man, that might even be my most magical moment in Hip-Hop. That was the first time that any of us had heard it. I remember it coming on and just thinking, ‘What the hell is happening right now?’ The way the record started with the keyboard and then it goes into those drums was just crazy, but then Rakim’s voice came on and everyone was just like, ‘Yooooooo!’ I mean, none of us who went to the Latin Quarter knew Rakim at this point. Actually, Biz Markie knew Rakim because he used to be out on Long Island. But the rest of us didn’t know Rakim. We didn’t really know anything about him. The only tapes you could find of Rakim back then were Wyandanch High School parties or whatever from all the way out there in Long Island. I mean, it wasn’t like Rakim was coming and rhyming with people at the Latin Quarter or anything like that. So we still didn’t really know who he was. Which is what made it so ill when everyone heard that record for the first time. Eric B. was there that night though. I remember Eric coming in with his whole massive, Supreme Magnetic and all of those dudes. They were standing there with all these gold rings on and all of that whilst “My Melody” is playing (laughs). It was just the illest thing.”
Just to let everyone know that was their boy Rakim booming over the system…
“Man, that record was so hot that Red Alert played it three times in a row that night. I tell people all the time, that on the streets of New York, “My Melody” was killin’ “Eric B. Is President”. I think “Eric B. Is President” was a better radio record, but “My Melody” was the bigger street record.”
Considering the amount of legendary artists who were part of that Latin Quarter scene, how much of a sense of community was there amongst you all?
“I think it was the tightest Hip-Hop community I’ve ever seen. I mean, the only thing I’ve ever felt that could rival that was when Stetsasonic and Public Enemy shared a tour bus together, but that was just two groups, so it wasn’t what you would call a community like the Latin Quarter. There was so much of a community at the Latin Quarter that Lumumba Carson had actually created a Hip-Hop Coalition thing that Stetsasonic, MC Serch, King Sun, Eric B. & Rakim, all of us were part of that. Also, a lot of us were still doing day jobs at the time, so when it came to paid gigs, the Latin Quarter was one of the only places you could go as an artist. There were a couple of things that might have happened at the Rooftop in Harlem, but they had there own thing going on there. There were a couple of things that might have happened at the USA roller-skating rink out in Queens, but they had there own little thing going on as well. But when it came to some real Hip-Hop, the Latin Quarter was where it was at and everyone wanted to be a part of it. So much so that you had a group like Salt-N-Pepa, who weren’t frequently at the Latin Quarter, but, as I mentioned earlier, they ended up shooting their video for “Tramp” there because that place was a staple of New York Hip-Hop.”
It was the place that everybody wanted to be affiliated with in some way at the time?
“Absolutely. Let me tell you, one of my dopest Latin Quarter stories involves MC Hammer. Now, me and Hammer have been cool for a long time. But when I first met Hammer I met him as Stanley Kirk Burrell of the Holy Ghost Boys. He was the first gospel rapper I ever met in my life. He used to come to the Latin Quarter to watch Stretch and Tron dance. Now, that whole thing he used to do going across the stage that everyone called the Hammer Dance, that was Stretch and Tron’s thing. But the Latin Quarter was like a university or something, man. I mean, I can’t even front, there were some guys who went in there wack who came out dope (laughs). But you really had to be there to fully understand how important the Latin Quarter was, man. Every week there would be someone performing, every week Red Alert would be playing something new, there was the fashion, there was just all this stuff going on. I mean, Union Square was the only real equivalent to Latin Quarter, although they had a lot of problems with violence. But Latin Quarter got violent to. Man, it got so violent that it was ridiculous.”
People who were associated with the Latin Quarter seem to have differing opinions on how violent it actually was there. From what you remember, was violence a regular problem?
“I mean, people were getting robbed at Latin Quarter every week. People were getting robbed and all of that. But the security dudes, Robocop and them, they had a way of getting the trouble out of the club quickly. They did it the same way the guys at the Roxy used to do it early in the disco days. At the Roxy, a fight would break out, the guards would jump in, grab the guy, take him outside, and the party would just keep on going. That’s how they did it at the Latin Quarter as well. But I do remember there was this one particular night that was just the illest night. Paradise was my man and him and Stetsasonic’s then manager Lumumba Carson were cool, so we used to hang out up in the office. Now, the office in the Latin Quarter was also upstairs where the stage was, but it was across from the stage on the other side. Now, this one particular night, man, it just went bananas. We were all standing upstairs in the office just looking down watching this fight break out and it was nuts. People were throwing stuff and it was just really going crazy. I’ll never forget that night…”
Was this the infamous Jackie Wilson benefit event that so many artists have spoken about over the years?
“I don’t remember what night it was. All I remember was, yo, it was like something out of a movie. It was crazy. But like I said, there was always something happening at Latin Quarter, but they were just real good at isolating it quickly and getting it outside. There was a backdoor downstairs that was directly underneath the office and that gave them a pretty straight line to grab the culprit if they were on the dance-floor and then get them straight outside.”
How true is it that “Go Stetsa I” was the Crooklyn stick-up kid anthem at the Latin Quarter?
“For robbing people? Yeah, it was (laughs). That’s true. I don’t know how that happened but it’s true…”
It probably had something to do with that ‘Go Brooklyn!’ chant…
“Maybe it was (laughs). But “Go Stetsa” was definitely the tuck-your-chain record in the Latin Quarter. Once you heard that drum roll, if you weren’t ’bout it then you needed to leave right then (laughs). I don’t really know where that started, but it might have started in prison. I had a homie who was locked-up on Rikers Island when “Go Stetsa” came out and he told me that people used to throw their shoes at the speaker when that record came on the radio. Not to cut the record off, but just because they were excited to hear it. So when “Go Stetsa” came on the radio in prison, people would start throwing their shoes at the speaker (laughs). That’s crazy.”
So dudes were probably coming out of prison and telling people how “Go Stetsa” used to make people go crazy when they were locked-up…
“Exactly (laughs). But yeah, that’s definitely true that “Go Stetsa” was the stick-up kid anthem. That’s not a myth. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. It was nuts. The one thing that we did love though, was that Stetsasonic, and also BDP, had a certain reputation. When both us and BDP performed at the Latin Quarter, no junk went on in the crowd. I can’t say anything about what would happen after, but while we were onstage nothing went down.”
Was that down to the respect the LQ crowd had for Stet and BDP as artists or was it down to the size of the crews that you rolled with?
“It was a little bit of both. I only remember one particular night when I had to get a little bit antsy with the crowd. Someone in the crowd had said something and I just said, ‘Stop the music! Man, they’ll take you out of here in a bag, man…’ and the whole audience started laughing because they knew. But overall, I think a lot of it had to do with the respect both us and BDP had, but it also had a lot to do with the actual entertainment as well. I mean, with Stetsasonic, there was a bunch of us onstage so people knew that was going to be exciting. But with BDP, there was only three of them, Scott La Rock, D-Nice and KRS-One. But to see them onstage was incredible. I mean, even to this day Kris is phenomenal, but back then they were just the illest thing to watch, yo. To watch Kris as a young kid, brand new, doing “Poetry”, we were looking at him like, ‘How the f**k did he come up with this?’ I’m listening to him and watching him as an emcee myself, thinking, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ It was bananas, man. But I would say, aside from Just-Ice, compared to Stetsasonic and BDP, the rest of the artists who would perform at the Latin Quarter didn’t really make the grade. They were okay, they did their thing, they rocked, but not like that. If I could describe it as one thing, they just didn’t keep it interesting enough for the crowd. I mean, with BDP, Scott La Rock would take the SP-12 onstage with them and things like that. So we were always doing something to make it interesting. Like, whatever was the hot record out at the time, we might drop that at the beginning of the show and say a rhyme over it, just to give the people something a little different each time we performed.”
What impact do you remember the news of Scott La Rock’s tragic murder having on the Latin Quarter community?
“I remember Lumumba calling me to tell me what had happened and I couldn’t believe it. We jumped in the car and went Uptown to confirm it. It was hard on all of us, man. Scott was Puffy before Puffy was Puff. Scott had three label deals before he died. He really was about his business and he was about the business of Hip-Hop. So Scott’s whole thing wasn’t just about making the music, it was about how we could be independent and in control of our own music. Scott wasn’t really with Stet being signed to Tommy Boy in particular (laughs). He’d say to me, ‘Daddy-O, you could have you own label.'”
So he had that sense of vision back then to understand how large Hip-Hop could become as a business?
“Exactly. But what made Scott’s death so tough was that, when someone close to you passes away and they’ve reached an old age you can make sense of it, but when it happens to a young person, it’s unexpected. Plus, what made it even more unexpected, was that we were all going through this huge period of growth in Hip-Hop and there was so much happening at the time, so for one of our heroes to get taken out like that, it was just real tough. Obviously we heard what happened around D-Nice getting into some beef over a chick, but then we started to hear rumours that the guy who did it wasn’t even no hardcore dude like that, so it was like ‘C’mon, man. That didn’t have to happen.’ So that was a tough one, man. But as far as KRS, I’m not saying that Kris wasn’t already dope, but it definitely did something to him on the rhyming side…”
There was definitely a huge difference between the KRS you heard on the “Criminal Minded” album in 1987 and the KRS you heard on 1988’s “By All Means Necessary”…
“To me, at that point, KRS-One became the best emcee in the world…”
As as fan, you listened to “Criminal Minded” and thought KRS-One was a great emcee, but you listened to “By All Means Necessary” and thought, ‘This is someone who’s really trying to teach me something here’…
“That situation definitely changed Kris and, this is just my opinion, but I think he felt he definitely had to make sure that Scott’s legacy stood for something. I mean, I wasn’t privy to any of this, but knowing the type of person that Scott was, Scott probably always told Kris to rhyme about the stuff he was talking about on “By All Means Necessary”. I can see Scott La Rock saying to Kris, ‘Yo, man. Why don’t you say something, man?’ So if there was anything good that came out of that whole situation, I guess you can say it was the impact it had on the music KRS went on to make.”
Check Part Three of this interview here.
Stetsasonic – “Go Stetsa I” (Tommy Boy Records / 1986)
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.
Part One of this interview with turntable pioneer DJ Cheese found the New Jersey native discussing his introduction to Hip-Hop, hooking-up with Word Of Mouth and signing with Profile Records. In this concluding instalment Cheese remembers winning the 1986 DMC World Championships, hanging-out with Biz Markie and paying for his time spent hustling in the streets.
So how did you get involved with 1986’s DMC competition?
“Well, I didn’t really choose to enter the DMC, the DMC chose me. How it happened was through me being in the New Music Seminar battles in New York. I won the New Music Seminar battle in ’84 and then came back in 1985. I really won that battle as well but I was cheated out of it. Tony Prince from DMC was there at the time and everyone knew I won that battle which is how I ended-up going to England for the DMC. At the time New York was always about New York, so you couldn’t really go there then and get a fair battle. I was lucky enough to get one in ’84 but they weren’t about to let me win two times in a row. Now the winner of that 1985 battle was going to go to the UK to represent the United States in the DMC World Championships, that was announced at the beginning of the battle. Now, even though I didn’t win that NMS title that year (note: NYC’s DJ Easy G Rockwell won) in the books they know who really won that battle because I was told right there that night that I was going to the DMC event. I remember Kurtis Blow coming over to me and telling me it wasn’t right what had happened and that it was clear who’d really won the battle.”
You won the DMC event with a ground-breaking routine made-up of various turntable tricks – were you aware that what you were bringing to the competition was so different to what the other deejays would be doing?
“Nah, not at all. I thought the other deejays there were going to be doing the same thing that I came to do, which was battle. I didn’t think the competition was going to be that laidback. I thought everyone knew why every other person was there, but obviously not. I didn’t go there to mix. I went there to battle.”
At the beginning of the routine there was that slight glitch when you started cutting the Hashim record – what went through your mind at that point when the needle skipped?
“I was always used to things like that happening. I never panicked in a situation like that because that was just Hip-Hop back then. If you were good at what you did then you already knew that the crowd were going to love it. So I didn’t panic at that point. That’s why I got right back to it so fast because I knew where the routine was going to go from there and what I was going to do.”
Dutch deejay Orlando Voorn famously shouted “What is this, a mixing competition or a scratching competition?” after your win was announced and he placed third – what was your response to the reactions you were getting?
“I didn’t really get any negative feedback about my routine other than from the other deejays who were involved in the competition. I remember I could see the fire coming out of Orlando Voorn’s face (laughs). Chad Jackson (note: 1987’s DMC Champion) was definitely cool about it. I got a lot of positive feedback from people saying that they’d never seen anything like that before up close and personal. Back then we did two sets over two days and I remember the attention I got from other deejays being upset after the first day just made me want to go even harder, because they hated what I’d done but the crowd loved it. The first day they weren’t ready with what I came with so I took everybody off guard with the handcuffs, the blindfold, spinning around, using my elbows. But then the next day when we came back there were guys there with pool sticks, bike tyres, one dude even had the kitchen sink! It was crazy (laughs). Suddenly it was like a magic show and everybody had to come up with some new tricks.”
How did it feel to win that DMC event?
“That was definitely another highlight for me to take the title of world champion deejay at the time. I didn’t think I was going to go over there and win that. I mean, it was a world championship, so I figured I was going to go over there and be up against all these deejays from all around the world and have more competition than I really had at that event.”
So with 1986 being such a huge year for you with the success of “Coast To Coast”, the DMC win and headlining UK Fresh, what was the plan moving forward?
“The plan moving forward was to do the album with Word Of Mouth on Profile, but as I said we started to understand what was happening with our management so we let Duke Bootee know that we didn’t want to be a part of his label anymore. We didn’t want anything else to do with him. When he picked us up from the airport after we came back from Europe he was basically telling us that we didn’t have no other choice. I remember him saying that he had contracts and that even if we were reincarnated we’d come back and he’d still own us. He basically told Word Of Mouth that he didn’t give a f**k about them. He told them, ‘You two can leave today and I wouldn’t give a f**k but this guy here ain’t going nowhere.’ Duke was like, ‘Finding a deejay like Cheese is like finding a needle in a haystack but you rappers are a dime a dozen.’ I think Word Of Mouth were shocked when he said that because he was real aggressive with it. Duke pulled over on the highway and was like, ‘You two can get the f**k out now or we can go back to my house and we can split this money out and we done.’ Like I said, we didn’t really have access to the business side of things and that was then the group really fell apart because I still wanted to do music but the other guys were hesitant on how we were going to do it on our own. I felt there were ways we could’ve gotten it done but they weren’t as motivated about it as I was. So I actually walked away from them afterwards. I mean, looking back, we really should have made a group decision and fought it out more than we did. Even though we were being robbed we should have stuck it out a little longer and used the situation to make other connections in the industry so that we could move on. I mean, I remember hearing bad talk about Duke Bootee from Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy and then I went to the DMC and Tony Prince was in my ear telling me to watch the dude. So I’m hearing the same story from two major industry dudes, which let me know that Duke was already known as a slimeball in the business. But being young at the time, I didn’t know any of that before we got involved with him. I mean, I looked up to Duke because he was the one who put me on and got me to do my first record. But on the other side of the coin, he was a bad businessman and it seemed that the industry knew it already, it was just me who didn’t know that.”
What was your involvement with Tom Silverman?
“Tom Silverman was trying to sign me to Tommy Boy and he told me like, ‘Duke’s not a good dude. He’s going to get you for your money.’ I was working from Tom’s studio at the time when Keith LeBlanc was doing the “Lipservice” record (note: released on Tommy Boy in 1984 under the name Beatmaster). Back then in Hip-Hop if you f**ked with a crew then you were loyal to that one crew. So I made Duke aware of what Tom had said to me and he was like, ‘Well, that’s the last time you’re working there.’ So when Tony Prince told me the same thing that was when I kept it to myself because I wanted to see where it was going to go. So when Word Of Mouth started to see what was going on, that was when I told them what had been said to me and that was when we decided to walk away from the label.”
So was Tom Silverman trying to sign just you to Tommy Boy or Word Of Mouth as well?
“We really didn’t get too much into the conversation but I believe he just wanted to sign me as a deejay because he really didn’t speak on the group. He was impressed with me as he was involved in setting-up the New Music Seminar and had seen what I was capable of doing.”
I understand that Biz Markie also approached you about being his deejay when he first started putting records out in the mid-80s?
“Yeah. At that time it was me, Biz, Big Daddy Kane and TJ Swan who were all running together at one point. They used to spend the night at my house and go to parties with me. At the time, I was doing two or three parties a week so they used to travel with me. It was towards the end of our run with “Coast To Coast” when Biz first asked me to be his deejay. I still didn’t know where things were going to go with Word Of Mouth, so I was like, ‘I’m down with these dudes already’ and I didn’t want to just walk away from them at that point. Then Big Daddy Kane came along and he was the second one to ask me to be his deejay. Biz and Kane would freestyle at all the parties I was doing in Jersey and the way I was rockin’ with them it was as if we’d practiced routines together, but we never had practiced. They’d just be hanging out with me coming to the parties. Kane would be like, ‘Let me get the mic’ and I already knew he was hot even though people didn’t really know who he was at that time, but he would turn the party out. He’d be rockin’ and I’d drop the beat out on his punchline or throw a cut in there and he’d look back over his shoulder like, ‘How the f**k did you know I was about to drop that punchline?’ So after that he wanted me to be his deejay as well.”
So did you turn Kane down as well because you were still with Word Of Mouth?
“Yeah, right. I was also approached by Queen Latifah and Shakim of the Flavor Unit to be her deejay as well. At that time, I wasn’t even with Word Of Mouth no more, I was in the streets hustling. But I was so caught up in the streets at that time that I turned them down, which became the third biggest disappointment of my career. First I let Biz go by, then Big Daddy Kane, and then here comes Queen Latifah. I let all three of those opportunities go by.”
What was your connection with Biz Markie?
“Biz at the time basically lived in Jersey. You used to see Biz walking around Jersey on a Tuesday (laughs). I mean, Biz was already hot even before his records came out and hit radio because he was known for doing his human beatbox. So he’d already established himself and Kane was running with Biz at that time. As far as Kane, anyone who came from New York to Jersey, the crowd was already looking forward to seeing them rock because they were expecting them to be dope. I mean, that wasn’t always the case, but Kane obviously was a real dope emcee so he definitely left a big impression on people. From time to time people will remind me, ‘You remember that time you brought Kane out at such and such a party? You remember when you brought Biz?’ People still remember that.”
Did anyone ever try and battle Kane at any of those Jersey parties?
“Nah, not at all (laughs). I mean, after Kane got on the mic didn’t nobody else wanna get on it. If he was the first one on, then Kane was the last one on. A person would be a fool to try and go in behind that (laughs).”
Were you involved with any of the other Flavor Unit members aside from Latifah?
“Nah, but I knew all of them. I knew Mark The 45 King. I mean, when Shakim approached me about working with Latifah it was because Mark was busy with other projects so he couldn’t be her deejay as well. This was around the time that “Wrath Of My Madness” was being played on the radio which was a hot single to me. But part of the reason I turned them down was because I really didn’t want to relive the experience I’d had with Word Of Mouth and the music business.”
So at that point you were burnt out with the business side of the music game?
“Yeah, I was definitely burnt out with the business side of the game and that was when I got caught up in the lifestyle as far as being in the streets was concerned. Basically my addiction in the streets was the lifestyle and the money. I never had a drug habit which is what some people think. I’ve never used drugs, had a drink or smoked a cigarette in my life. So it wasn’t what a lot of people thought it was in terms of them thinking I had a drug addiction because everytime I came home from jail I went right back. No, I had an addiction to money. I mean, when I was touring the UK and making records my addiction was Hip-Hop and it was always about the love of the culture for me and at that point it wasn’t about the money. But that addiction to money came later once I got into the streets.”
How long were you in the streets for?
“I would say from about 1987 through to 2002. I was in and out prison and my mindset during that time was all about getting out to go straight back to the streets. I knew exactly what I was going to do. Today, that’s not my mindset. I’ve prepared myself for it this time. Today my mind is back to the music and I’m back to where I was in ’83, ’84. I know there are people out there who think it’s just a matter of time before I go back to jail but I’m looking to prove them wrong. I’m not upset with anyone for thinking that, because I know I let people down, but now I have to work hard to get that respect back.”
What did you serve time for?
“Distribution of cocaine. There’s nothing else on my jacket other than that.”
Were you still dabbling with Hip-Hop while you were in the streets or did you completely disconnect yourself from the music business?
“I was still doing parties inbetween all that and I did a couple of shows. I did a couple of shows with Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick when I was in the streets. I opened up for 50 Cent while I was in the streets. But for the most part I just walked away from the music even though I would still practice on the turntables at home. I remember I did a show with Kane at The Apollo one time around ’88 / ’89 and he gave me a cold shoulder and treated me like I was a stranger. I don’t know if he was disappointed because I turned him down when he asked me about being his deejay or whether he was disappointed because he knew what I was doing in the streets. I remember we were in the green room and he was standing in the doorway. He was looking at me and I was looking at him, but he didn’t give me a head-nod or nothing. So I approached him like, ‘Remember me?’ and he was just like, ‘Yeah’ and that was it. In my mind I was like, ‘Wow! You used to sleep on my floor and this is how it is now?’ I went and sat back down and I was kinda upset but now when I look back at it I know I disappointed a lot of people with what I was doing. I mean, I’ve talked to Kane since I last came home and we didn’t speak about that particular incident but he was just happy that I’m home and doing what I’m doing.”
How long were you locked-up for before the last time you came home?
“I was released in 2011 and I’d been away for almost nine years.”
So are you still in touch with Word Of Mouth today?
“Yeah, we did a single called “Life Without Hip-Hop” a little while ago. Like I said, I’m not going going back to the streets again whether this music thing goes my way or it fails. I’m so motivated right now and I keep telling Word Of Mouth that all the old-school crews are still touring and we’re one of the few groups that aren’t out there touring. I understand I was away, but I’m home now so let’s drop the single and let the people know we’re back. But this has been going on for about fifteen months now and I told them flat-out either we’re going to do it or it’s over for good. I’ve got the studio right here at home so we don’t need to pay for studio time or anything like that, we can do it all right here. But it’s just not getting done, so regardless I’m going to keep moving how I’ve been moving. I’ve had quite a few deejay sponsors come along who’re backing me right now because they see what I’m doing and I’m moving right now.”
What’s your opinion on the current state of turntablism?
“I mean, to me everyone is doing the same thing. Everyone’s using their laptops now with Serato. I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with that but it’s just sounds like you’re using one turntable and just doing a lot of scratching. Where are the skills at? Where’s the technical part of being able to do something with that turntable? To me, it always used to be about how you used those turntables and that mixer. It’s moved away from that now and it’s need to get back to what that word turntablism really means. It used to be about the funk. It used to be exciting to watch someone on the turntables and see how nice they were. There are some people out there who’re slowly bringing it back.”
Has it surprised you being on social media and seeing how much people still remember the impact you made the first time around?
“Oh yeah, definitely. Coming home and seeing all the activity on Facebook with people sending me stuff from events that I didn’t even remember doing or pictures that I didn’t even remember taking, to me all that stuff is big.”
How would you sum-up the contributions you made to the golden-era of Hip-Hop as both a deejay and with Word Of Mouth?
“Back then we never even looked it at in terms of what contribution we were making. We were just in the scene doing what we did. Looking back on it now, it’s a decision the people have to make when it comes to how much of a contribution we made. Me personally, I can’t make that decision. That’s something the people have to decide.”
F0llow DJ Cheese on Twitter @KingKutDJCheese.
Footage of DJ Cheese’s 1986 DMC routine.
Brilliant documentary “World Supreme Hip Hop” telling the story of legendary New York / Philadelphia emcee / deejay duo Freshco & Miz – directed by Shawn “Freshco” Conrad himself and featuring appearances from Kool DJ Red Alert, DJ Enuff, Monie Love and DJ Wiz plus vintage footage of the pair’s respective 1989 New Music Seminar battle victories – check FreshcoAndMiz.Com for more info.
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1989 performance of De La Soul’s classic “Me, Myself And I” on The Arsenio Hall Show.
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Classic early-90s clip of the mighty Digital Underground performing their “No Nose Job” single on Yo! MTV Raps.