Superstar success and Hollywood accolades aside, Will Smith takes a moment to remind everyone that Hip-Hop was his first passion with a brief, quick-witted freestyle.
Superstar success and Hollywood accolades aside, Will Smith takes a moment to remind everyone that Hip-Hop was his first passion with a brief, quick-witted freestyle.
In this third part of my interview with Hip-Hop legend Tat Money, the Philly deejay continues his trip down memory lane and remembers working with Three Times Dope, on-air 80s radio battles between Steady B and Will Smith, plus being in the studio with KRS-One recording Steady’s 1988 album “Let The Hustlers Play” – check Part One and Part Two before reading on.
What was your connection with Three Times Dope?
“Woody Wood and Chuck Nice used to come down to see me when I was working at Funk-O-Mart. They would ask me what I could do to help them out with their music. I used to tell them to pass me their demo and whatever they had, because I’d actually told them to go up to the Pop Art offices and gave them the address and Woody used to tell me that Lawrence Goodman was never there. So I took the demo from them and we played it when we were driving up to New York one day, me, Steady and Lawrence in the Benz. We all liked it and Lawrence was talking about putting a crew together, the Hilltop Hustlers, so he was like, ‘Should I sign them?’ and me and Steady both gave him the say-so, like, ‘Yeah!’ Plus, Three Times Dope were from a different part of town and we figured we could shape them and really teach them how to make records. So that’s how they got down with the crew. Then obviously you had Cool C who was already tight with Steady.”
I asked Woody Wood this same question when I interviewed him earlier this year, but was there ever any friction from anyone involved with the original Hilltop Hustlers street crew when you all started putting records out under the name?
“Nah, not really. Quite honestly, it was a bit of a contradiction for me because I’m from Wynnefied and back in the day Wynnefield and Hilltop actually used to be rivals. There’s a bridge that separates the two areas and back in the 60s when Philly had its gang wars there used to be a big rivalry between Wynnefield and Hilltop that started. I mean, there used to be drive-bys and all of that in Philly back then. There’s actually a book out called “Black Mafia” which I’m reading right now which contains a lot of stories from back then that some of my older guys have told me about over the years that I knew nothing about. There was a lot of different gangs who used to do a lot of bad stuff in Philly. But to answer your question, no, there was no real friction as far as us using the Hilltop name was concerned.”
You’re credited as doing cuts on Three Times Dope’s classic 1988 single “From Da Giddy-Up” but weren’t you also involved in the production as well?
“I came in to the studio one day and was like, ‘We should use this loop. I’ve found this great loop.’ Steady was working on something and I put it on and kept playing it over and over on the turntable. Now at that time, Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” was huge so we were trying to get something that was kinda uptempo that could play alongside that. So Steady had heard me, but he kinda ignored me. Now, the way that we worked, I would find loops and play them on the turntable and Steady would be on the drum machine and he would sample them to use. I’d be like, ‘Get this kick right here’ or ‘Get this snare’ and stuff like that. Then we’d start formulating a track from there. We’d get everything together like that. That was how we worked back then, as a team. So Steady was on the drum machine this particular day when I was playing this loop, but he just kinda ignored me, so I was like ‘Whatever.’ Now, a lot of my stuff, my turntables and records, stayed at Lawrence’s place because we would be there every day in the studio. So, I come to the studio the next day, I’m walking up the drive-way to the back of Lawrence’s house and I hear this beat playing. I’m like, ‘What is this beat?!’ Then it hit me right before I opened the door and I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be f**kin’ kidding me? He sampled that s**t from yesterday!’ So when I walked in I had the crazy look on my face like ‘Are you serious?!’ and Steady and Lawrence were looking at me like they’d stole something but they didn’t want to admit it (laughs). Their faces said everything. But I was heated. Lawrence could see my anger and he tried to take control of the situation and was like, ‘Let’s find some cuts for this, man. Let’s make this a great track. We’re going to give this to Cool C, man.’ I’m looking at him thinking, ‘Find some cuts? You find some cuts!’ I already know what’s going to happen, that I’m not going to get any credit for the production even though it was my idea and I’m just going to be credited for doing the cuts. So anyway, I went and found some cuts because, ultimately, I’m competitive and I wanted to see the track take off and not just get left to the side. So I found a James Brown cut that I thought would really go with it and it was a perfect marriage. So I kind of got away from the anger of the situation because I was just so into the music. But instead of Cool C the record ended-up being used by Three Times Dope and EST really came with it on there…”
EST had such a distinctive voice and unique style that instantly made 3-D standout when they first started dropping music…
“I really worked hard alongside EST when they were putting that track together. Because the original loop was my idea I really felt like it was my record, so when EST got given that track to work with, he and I used to be on the phone for hours and he would just be rhyming to me. I’d be like, ‘Give me another one. Okay, I like that. Make sure that one gets used on the record…’ So I really helped him put those rhymes together for that track. I mean, I was already working with EST lyrically because I really thought he was a dope young emcee. We used to jump in my car and drive around the city and he would be like, ‘Oh s**t! I’m with Tat Money! This is crazy…’ because I was already out on record and popular and he was just starting out. I mean, we’d been working together on Three Times Dope’s other records like “Crushin’ & Bussin'” but once EST got to “From Da Giddy-Up” that was when he felt he’d really arrived.”
You mentioned earlier in the interview about problems between Steady B and the Fresh Prince. Do you remember a couple of on-air situations that happened between them on Philly radio?
“I sure do (laughs). I was there for every one of those situations. There’s actually still recordings of those incidents floating around thirty years later (laughs). In a nutshell, Steady just had this thing and he just kept going at the Fresh Prince. I don’t know if you could call it jealousy, but Steady just had this vibe about him that he did not like Will Smith. Steady would make little jabs and say things like, ‘I’m from Philly and I represent Philly one hundred percent.’ I mean, we would always have our Philly gear on and we had personalised Phillies jerseys made when we went to London for the first time in 1987. We had those made for the photo shoot for the “What’s My Name” album cover but they ended up using the pictures of us in sweatsuits. Anyway, we used to have the Philly gear on all the time. So what Steady was referring to was that Will would be wearing New York Yankees gear with the caps and everything. So Steady used to make light of that and would be like, ‘These guys are going around and they act like they’re from New York when they’re really from Philly but they don’t represent Philly.’ So Steady was saying things indirectly which Will caught wind of.”
Where did that rivalry originally come from in your opinion?
“Well, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were originally managed by Dana Goodman. Steady and I were managed by Lawrence Goodman along with Cool C and Three Times Dope. So obviously they’re brothers and let’s just say there was competition between them. Dana would say things like, ‘Well, Will is better than Steady’ and ‘Jeff is better than Tat.’ It was really fierce competition and that’s kinda where the problem between Will and Steady started from. Steady was always like, ‘Well, I was the first one here, so where are you guys coming from?!’ and there was always that friction. Dana was always kinda smug (laughs). Me? I didn’t feel that way. I’m cordial to everyone and I was kinda like, ‘Whatever’ (laughs).”
So what happened between Steady and the Fresh Prince on the radio?
“Both times it happened was on Mimi’s Rap Digest show. The first time it happened, we’d gone up to the radio station and Will showed up. Steady had already been on air saying all this stuff about Will and probably a couple of his people had told him what Steady had been saying. So now Will’s got a beef. “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” was just taking off so I guess Will was feeling pretty strong and confident at the time. So we’re up at the show and Will just pops in and it caught Steady by surprise like ‘What?!’ Will was like, ‘Steady, I hear you’ve been fat-mouthing and saying this and that about me. You wanna battle me? Let’s get to it right now.’ It really caught Steady off guard. We’d literally just finished recording the “What’s My Name” album and had gone up to the station to promote it. So Steady had all these songs written but wasn’t really prepared for a battle (laughs). So Steady started saying rhymes from songs that weren’t actually out yet, but the Fresh Prince had come prepared and his plan was to say some rhymes, crack a few jokes on Steady, make the people laugh and leave. Which is exactly what he did. But from listening back to the tape, I’d have to say that first time was really a stalemate and I couldn’t really say that anyone actually won. But the second time it happened…”
Was it a different story?
“The second time it happened when we were up at the station, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince had sold double platinum so Will was really on top of the world at that point. So he showed up at the station again with a rhyme ready and everything. Do you remember the song Jeff and Will had called “Numero Uno”? Will had an ill rhyme on there and he actually said the rhyme that ended up on that track in the battle against Steady that second time. Then at the end of it he started saying some things like, ‘Well, I’m about to be going on tour in Japan. Where are you going to be? You’re going to be at the Hilltop.’ I remember he said some other stuff like, ‘Well, basically Steady, I sold over two million records. What did you sell? Let’s say, two hundred thousand.’ People were laughing and basically it almost ended in a fight because Will said something about Steady’s girl or something and it had to be broken up and everyone got escorted out of the building (laughs).”
Speaking of battles, do you remember the battle Steady had with Mikey D?
“I was there (laughs). Mikey D was known at the time as a battle rapper and as you can see on the flyer it says Steady B Vs. Mikey D, so we were looking at it like, ‘Okay, I guess this is for publicity.’ I mean, Mikey came out with his freestyle stuff and we just went out there and did our show (laughs). We entertained the crowd. I mean, the freestyle stuff is cool, but it isn’t always going to go down well with a crowd. We went out there with our dancers, I had a solo set as a deejay, Steady had some popular records, so the crowd really dug what we were doing. It was at a skating rink out in New Jersey. Mikey’s a good friend of mine and I recently saw him and he reminded me of that battle and was like, ‘Man, the only reason you guys won was because you had a tight show.’ Lyrically, Mikey didn’t feel that Steady was better than him, and I get that part, but we didn’t go there to beat him verbally. We were paid to do a show, so we decided we would go there and do a proper show for everyone who’d paid to see that, get the crowd on our side and then everybody would be like ‘Who the hell is Mikey D?’ (laughs).
Steady’s 1988 album “Let The Hustlers Play” contained outside production from your then label-mate KRS-One. Was that something that happened organically or did Jive make the suggestion for you to work with the Blastmaster?
“It was suggested by Jive directly because KRS was just starting his production thing. I mean, we loved KRS-One back then as well and thought he was a really innovative artist and a great mind. I think Jive just wanted to try some different things with us, partly because Lawrence Goodman and the label really weren’t getting along. Lawrence was so used to running his own show with Pop Art, but it wasn’t that way anymore and he was signed to Jive as a label imprint, so when you’re in that situation you really have to listen to what the label are saying, particularly when they’re putting the money behind what you’re doing. So Lawrence had rubbed Jive the wrong way numerous times over the years, which Steady and I felt led to them not really backing us on certain things. I mean, we felt the “What’s My Name” album should have been gold, but we didn’t have any videos for the album. We did some creative things on that album and we felt it got overlooked. It didn’t get a lot of radio-play. We felt like we’d made some great records which could rock on the radio and that we’d be able to tour off of. But it didn’t happen. Instead Jive put their money into Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Kool Moe Dee, Schoolly D and other artists like that. Jive didn’t put their money into us as far as we saw. We felt like we were just along for the ride really and with good reason because when your label is beefin’ with your management, what do you think is going to happen?”
So there was a constant struggle between Jive and Lawrence Goodman?
“Let me give you one example. We were supposed to go to London to record the second album. Lawrence gave Jive hell over that. He was like, ‘Why would I go to London and have to pay all this money to do something I can do right here?’ I mean, from what I heard we were going to be over there for thirty days to get the album done. I think from the information I was given, including the studio time and everything else, it was going to cost about a thousand dollars a day for us to be there. So Lawrence didn’t want to go. But the way Jive worked was that they used to send all their artists to London to work in their studios there with Bryan ‘Chuck’ New and their engineers. Lawrence is telling the label that we’re an in-house operation and that we do everything ourselves but that he still wanted Jive to invest money in our project the same way. Anyway, Jive said we were going to London and he was arguing with them about it every step of the way, which really created a bad atmosphere and Steady and I were caught in the middle. I mean, Jive loved us, they just couldn’t stand Lawrence. It was like, ‘Well, you’re two good guys but too bad you’ve got that manager.'”
So what happened when you got to London?
“Well, we get to Heathrow, get to customs, Steady and I cleared customs, but Lawrence couldn’t make it through. I can see this picture in my head right now of all these lines at customs (laughs). I’d put all my stuff on the conveyor belt, it had all been checked through and they asked us all the questions about why we were coming to UK. I think we told them we were there on vacation or some bulls**t because we didn’t have work permits or anything. I mean, the Zomba / Jive people were downstairs waiting for us with signs and everything (laughs). So what happened was, they must have scanned Lawrence’s passport, and it came up that he had a police record or whatever. Now, I’m seventeen-years-old at this point, so I don’t really fully understand everything that’s going on but I’m trying to make sense of it all. I’d told my parents I was going to be in the UK for a month and they’d been telling everybody that I was going to be in London recording and working on music. I’m thinking this is going to be a great experience. Now, Steady and I have cleared customs, the agent dealing with Lawrence had asked who he was travelling with, he pointed us out and this agent comes over to us, tells us we can’t go through and we all end up in this interview room.”
At that point you must have been thinking that something was seriously wrong?
“So we’re all in this room and Lawrence is trying to not alarm us but also not make light of the situation at the same time as well. I do remember he made a joke though saying that we were under arrest but they just didn’t put handcuffs on you in the UK (laughs). I was like, ‘What?!‘ But then this customs guy came in and I remember he took Lawrence’s wallet, his phone book and then starts calling everybody in Lawrence’s phone book! He was calling Lawrence’s credit card company and really going through it. Lawrence was trying to make out it wasn’t his fault, but I’m thinking ‘Well, me and Steady got cleared so it must be a problem with you.’ Anyway, they had us sitting there for a long time and we were starving. So they ended up putting us on a bus to take us somewhere else to get some lunch. We got on this big ass bus and they took us to this detention centre place and I remember everybody in there had on these white outfits (laughs). We just had on our regular clothes and I remember everyone else in there was just looking at us. We were all in the kitchen and they pulled out these ice blocks of food, threw them in the oven and within minutes they were piping hot. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. I remember just how hot the food was because I went to take a bite of this little dinner that I had and burnt the s**t out of my mouth (laughs). So we ate our food, they put us back on the bus and took us back to the airport. By this time Lawrence is getting kinda uppity like, ‘I’m a grown man. This is some bulls**t.’ So the customs guy comes back and is like, ‘I don’t believe one thing you’ve said to me. I think you’re a liar.’ I couldn’t believe how this guy was talking to Lawrence because nobody talked to Lawrence like that (laughs). So this guy was like, ‘I can give you two options. You can either wait until tomorrow for me to try and verify everything you’ve told me or you can get on the first thing smokin’ back to Philadelphia.’ So Lawrence being Lawrence, he was like ‘I’m out of here.’ So we jumped on the next plane back to Philly after being stuck at the airport in London for about twelve hours. That was the worst, man. So we got back home, brushed ourselves off, and went straight into the studio to record “What’s My Name”. But Jive records were pissed! At that point, I was like ‘Yo, we’re really the step-kids of the label now.'”
So was their friction between Lawrence and Jive about you and Steady working with KRS?
“Nah, Lawrence was wide open to that situation. He actually brought it to us after being told about it by the label. When me and Steady heard about it we literally jumped at the opportunity. We we’re like, ‘KRS is the hottest thing going right now. Yes! Yes! Yes!'”
What do you remember from being in the studio with KRS?
“Basically, KRS ran everything through me, which was incredible. We just had that whole emcee / deejay relationship. I remember he just had so much energy and was like a kid in a candy store when we were in the studio. KRS was just so excited and brought so much energy to everything he was doing. We worked on three records together with KRS for the “Let The Hustlers Play” album, which were “Serious”, “Turn It Loose” and “The Undertaker”. The way those records were made, it wasn’t about having to concentrate on finding loops and things like that. KRS already had a whole bunch of loops ready and he basically just asked, ‘Which ones do you like?’ I remember KRS pulled me into the studio room and was like, ‘Do you want this one or that one?’ I told him which ones I wanted him to use and then he basically just made the beats right there on the spot. It was instant. I mean, that wasn’t how Steady and I were used to working because we were used to making all of our beats at home and then taking them to the studio to record. But the way those tracks with KRS were put together was definitely very spontaneous. I mean, KRS made the track for “Serious” right on the spot. I remember he had this other track which sounded like Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” which I didn’t like, so I told him to go with the Turtles loop and the “Serious” beat was born.”
Plus KRS did the “Ceereeus BDP Remix” for the “Serious” single release which took the track to another level…
“The other thing about that as well was that “Serious” was our first video. With the presence of KRS-One, he really pumped life into that “Let The Hustlers Play” project and also pumped life back into us, because at that point, our records really weren’t getting played in Philly. We weren’t getting played in our hometown. Lawrence rubbed a lot of people the wrong way so people started taking the position that they weren’t going to play anything that had anything to do with him. I got tired of being blackballed and being guilty by affiliation, so I started going up to radio stations myself to get our records played. I went up to Power in Philly and the first day I went up there we got “Serious” played that day and every day after that based on the relationships I was making. We ended up in the countdown because everyone was calling the station saying they wanted to hear the Steady B and KRS-One song (laughs). I mean, that really was a big deal back then to have done a song with KRS. It’s the equivalent today of someone doing a song with Jay-Z. People were going nuts for that record. So “Serious” definitely boosted our stock a lot at the time.”
Read Part Four of this interview here.
Steady B – “Serious – Ceereeus BDP Remix” (Jive / 1988)
A product of Philadelphia’s diverse Hip-Hop scene of the 1980s, turntable maestro Tat Money made his name as a local deejay before going on to achieve worldwide acclaim alongside fellow Illadelph resident Steady B, contributing both cuts and production to classic albums from the Philly emcee, including 1986’s “Bring The Beat Back” and its 1987 follow-up “What’s My Name” (which featured Tat’s timeless solo track “Rockin’ Music”).
An integral part of the infamous Hilltop Hustlers collective, which also counted Cool C and Three Times Dope as members, Tat Money stood alongside the likes of Jazzy Jeff, Cash Money and DJ Miz as yet another highly-skilled example of Philadelphia’s notoriously competitive deejay community.
With his contributions to Hip-Hop’s golden-age still remembered by many today, Tat has never stepped away from the turntables, currently performing alongside Special Ed, Chubb Rock, Kwame, Dana Dane and Monie Love as part of true-school crew The Alumni.
In the first part of this interview, the Philly legend discusses his early determination to master the craft of turntablism, famous family music connections and being introduced to a young Will Smith.
Were you already listening to a lot of music as a kid before you were introduced to Hip-Hop?
“Well, basically, the way my whole situation evolved I would have to say was through my parents, man. My parents used to have these parties at the house, like family gatherings, and they were really into that. Now, my pops is from Jamaica and my mother is from America. So I have a heavy influence as far as reggae goes. I mean, my dad had Bob Marley eight-track tapes (laughs). Back in the 70s I used to play those in the car. Now, at all these parties, I would act as the deejay, putting on all these old-school records like James Brown and Funkadelic. I would put on all these records and then go out and dance to them with my cousin. I’d get all those 45s, stack them up on the turntable, like ten of them, and then they’d play one after the other in the sequence that I wanted them to play in. It was just such a fun time back then. So that’s what actually sparked me to want to deejay…”
Just seeing the reaction that the music was getting from people?
“Yeah, it just really got me. Now, I got re-introduced to it by chance when I was around ten-years-old. A friend of mine lived around my cousin’s area as well and I was dating his sister as a young kid. So I walked in his house looking for her, we go into the basement area and her brother, who was like two years older than me, he was like, ‘Come here for a second.’ He’s playing songs and I’m like ‘What’s he doing?’ Now, this was around 1979 / 1980 and the two records he had on his turntables were Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “Superappin'” and Jimmy Spicer’s “Adventures Of Super Rhyme”. Those were the first two records I touched as far as Hip-Hop goes and that was my first awareness of the music. I’m listening to the guys on the records rapping and it was literally blowing my mind. I was like, ‘This is incredible!’ But this guy had the BSR turntables and I can’t even remember what mixer he had. Everything was brown and really old-school (laughs). But it was still two turntables and a mixer and I got on there and started playing around. I’ll never forget that moment. Then not long after that the trend started picking up and there were little deejay crews around my area. Actually, I should say in the city because originally we lived in the city and then we moved to the suburbs. But I would be in the city mostly every weekend and I’d see the guys I grew-up with and went to school with starting deejay crews….
What were some of those crews called?
“There was one called the Funk Boys who used to be around my old area and then there was one called T.F.D., which stood for Treacherous Funk Disco. They lived one street away from my old house in West Philly in an area called Wynnefield. Now, the Funk Boys were from 58th Street, which was around where Will Smith is from. Will lived about four or five blocks away from where I lived. But T.F.D. were only about a block away from where I lived, so obviously they were closer. I knew them, they knew me, so I basically started practicing with those guys. Seeing all these deejay crews popping up I knew it was what I wanted to do. So I’d go over to the basement that T.F.D. would use and they already had their whole set-up in there already. I didn’t have any turntables or nothing, but I wanted them so badly.”
Were T.F.D. playing a mix of music at that time or straight Hip-Hop-inspired sets with break-beats etc?
“They were playing more Hip-Hop and R&B. You’d hear all the stuff that was influencing the rap songs of the time. So you’d hear “Heartbeat” by Tanya Gardner and then you’d hear the Treacherous Three’s “Feel The Heartbeat” which had obviously used that. You’d hear all the party songs by people like Teena Marie and Earth, Wind & Fire with some Hip-Hop mixed in there. I mean, at that time, there wasn’t a slew of Hip-Hop records that had come out or that were popular. So you only had a few here and there. So the crews had to mix it up and throw in stuff from Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire and the songs that would get people up. But just being around those T.F.D. guys really helped me a lot. I mean, I was already into the music but I learned a lot more about actually putting records together. Then slowly but surely I brought a turntable, I brought a mixer and then I brought another turntable and started practicing some more. Then I started sneaking into parties (laughs). I was under-age at the time but I learned how to get in…”
Were these local house parties or events at actual venues?
“We were doing house party stuff but then there’d be an event every now and that would be at a local hall or something and I would sneak in. I was like fifteen-years-old at the time and you needed to be a little older to be able to get in. So I would just talk my way in at the door and I learned how to do that (laughs). Those were fun times.”
What was your first actual turntable set-up?
“I had a Technics SL-B101 which was a curve-arm turntable and an SL-B20 which was a straight-arm turntable. Then I had a big ol’ Gemini mixer that was huge and brown (laughs). I didn’t know any better at the time, but I heard that it had a great crossfader. That crossfader slid so easy like you’d poured grease down into it. I mean, you could blow it across (laughs). So what happened was, I really started to excel. I mean, I’m the type of person that when I get into something, I really throw myself into it and want to do everything I can to really master something. It’s just about proving to myself that I can do something.”
How much time would you spend practicing back then?
“At least six hours a day. As soon as I came home from school, I’d walk through the door, drop my books and go straight to my room to practice. I’d deejay from about 2:30pm until say 7pm, then I’d go eat dinner, then I’d go back and deejay some more. So I was definitely practicing for at least six hours a day. I used to have that Malcolm McLaren & World Famous Supreme Team record cover with the Technics 1200s on it up in front of me when I used to practice as inspiration (laughs).”
How much awareness did you have at that time of what else was happening across Philly as far as the city’s Hip-Hop scene was concerned?
“At that time it was very young. A lot of the songs that were coming out were made in New York obviously, but some of them were being made in Philly unbeknownst to us because there were different labels that people were coming out on and different studios that people liked to use. I knew nothing about the music industry at all so all I could do was read the labels that were on these records and try to understand from that what was going on. Not living in New York and being a young kid, I really didn’t know a lot about what was actually happening in the industry itself. But then I’d hear different things because I had an uncle who was in the music industry before me. His name was Frank Alstin and he was a singer and guitar player. Actually the first record I ever made was with him, we did a record called “Super Lover” on the label WMOT and my rapper at the time was on there as well, Meka. We did that song in 1985 and I was scratching on that record, cutting up ‘F-f-f-fresh’ which was popular at the time (laughs). So my uncle was the person who first took me to a studio which really introduced me to how things worked from that standpoint. So I had the love of music already from being a deejay and now I was going to the studio with him and he had already actually made records. He actually co-wrote “Who Can I Run To” by The Jones Girls. I can still remember the day he brought that record home when I was over at my grandmother’s house, which is where he was living at the time. He was so excited but the record didn’t really take off even though we all thought it was going to work. But then years later, Xscape covered it and I remember him calling me to tell me that he’d been asked for clearance to use the record. So I was telling him, ‘They’re a platinum selling group. You’re about to really get it…’ and sure enough the cheques started rolling in. But then sadly not long after that he died. That’s such a crazy story.”
So your uncle really introduced you to the business side of making music back then…
“He really gave me a lot of insight into the music business. I remember him introducing me to people like McFadden & Whitehead, Teddy Pendergrass who used to stay at his place sometimes to write songs. I just missed meeting the Jackson 5 when they were recording in Philly which would have been ridiculous back then. I remember my uncle was taking me to the studio as a surprise and we stopped off at a deli and bumped into McFadden & Whitehead. We were right by Sigma Studios and, although I didn’t know it, the Jackson 5 were in there working with Gamble & Huff. I remember, my uncle was having a conversation with Whitehead and they were talking real low so I couldn’t hear them even though I actually could. So my uncle was saying how we were going to the studio and I heard Whitehead say, ‘You’ve just missed the Jacksons, they’ve just left.’ I was sitting there like, ‘Arrrghhh’ (laughs).”
Where were you hoping your passion for deejay-ing was going to lead to back then?
“I always knew that I could do something with it, but exactly what I didn’t know. I wanted to be in the game real bad and I felt like I was so close to it that I could almost reach out and touch it. So it was frustrating in a sense even though I always felt like I could make it happen. So to make it happen, I got my myself a job in a local record store because I’d read that Mantronik had used to work in a record store when he was trying to get into the game. So I got myself a job at the best record store in town, which was Funk-O-Mart downtown. I went down there two times and brought a ton of records. It must have been about a hundred and fifty dollars worth of records. It was a whole lot of records. I could barely even carry them home (laughs). The second time I went in there the owner saw me and was like, ‘You know a lot about records. Do you want a job?’ and I said ‘Yes!’ It happened just like that which was exactly what I wanted to happen. So I started working there every day.”
That must have been a dream job?
“Yeah. I mean, I was running into a lot of like-minded people and different artists. I saw DMC there one time when the Fresh Fest came through Philly. Run didn’t make it down, which at the time I was disappointed by because I didn’t realise the power of DMC at that point. I mean, the whole group were incredible to me but Run was my man! But then overtime it actually shifted to DMC when I realised how he was just so chill with it (laughs). I bumped into Grandmaster Dee from Whodini who came down to the store and I remember him telling me about Rakim before Rakim was even popular. So I really put myself in the middle of it all working in that store. Before the internet, social networking and everything else you really had to keep your ear to the street to keep up with everything and by working at Funk-O-Mart I was really in the trenches and could see exactly what was selling, what people were asking for and what was happening on the street. I remember people would come in with tapes and play me songs they’d heard on the radio asking if we had it in the store and if we didn’t then I’d order it because overtime I was in put in charge of that side of things because I always knew what was going on. Working in Funk-O-Mart was major because I was able to learn so much more about different genres of music from soul and jazz to salsa and reggae, plus different artists like Bob James. I’d listen to all this different stuff and there were these Spanish cats who worked there who really put me up on all the different merengues etc. I even learnt how to speak Spanish from working there with them (laughs).”
So were you still just practicing your deejay skills in your bedroom at this point or where you performing in public?
“To answer your question, yes I was still a bedroom deejay at that point and I was practicing heavy, heavy, heavy. I would do a tape every now and then at that time, but I really didn’t feel that I wanted to let my talent out at that point because I still didn’t really know that I even had a talent. So I didn’t want to really showcase it in anyway and then have people say, ‘Well, you messed up there’ and things like that (laughs). So I wouldn’t really make a lot of tapes. I would just make a few for myself to listen to. Now, in Philly at that time, the way that people gauged whether you were a good deejay or not was how well you could cut up a few different records. One record was “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat”, another record was Hashim’s “Al-Naafiysh”, another was “Superappin'” and also “Good Times” by Chic. Now, if you could cut those records up and you could do it well, then you were considered a great deejay.”
So those records were some of the early staples of the Philly Hip-Hop deejay scene…
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. If you could chop those records up well, particularly the faster ones like “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat”, if you could really catch those records then people would validate you and start telling everyone else that you were a good deejay. So you always practiced with those records. Then you’d go back to the slower records like Masterdon Committee’s “Funkbox Party (Live)”. But those faster records, they were the true test of your talent. Plus, back then, if you made a mistake, there was no Serato or anything to cover your back. If your needle skipped people were going to hear it, so that was a big part of how people decided how good you were back then as well; how fast you could catch the record without the needle skipping (laughs). I mean, if people thought you could cut those records well, you would get booked for gigs off of that. Now, once people gave you that title of being a good deejay you wanted to keep that title, so that was why I was really careful about letting people hear what I was doing while I was practicing.”
Were you aware of other Hip-Hop deejays in Philly at that time?
“Yes I was. I mean, we had guys like Grandmaster Nell who was one of the big pioneers in Philly. He’s actually where Jazzy Jeff got a lot of his smoothness from as a deejay because Jeff was definitely watching what Nell was doing back then. Jeff was in a crew called the Network Crew and I used to hear about those guys. Now, this was around the time when Cash Money and I first became friends, although he wasn’t called Cash Money back then, he used to be called Lite Brite.”
So this is around the early-80s?
“Yeah, definitely around 83 / 84 because I was still in high-school at that point. I used to hear that Jazzy Jeff was the best deejay in Philly and then I’d hear his tapes and be like, ‘Man, is this all it takes to be the best?!’ I’m not downplaying what he was doing at the time, it was just that back then I felt I could do what he was doing as well. So it was just that spirit of competition. Now, remember, back then I still couldn’t get into a lot of the hotel events that they used to have where you needed to be over twenty-one to get in. Jeff and Cash are both four or five years older than me, so they were ahead of me at that time and had already been out there doing it. So I was just shooting for being great at what I did so I could be recognized. I actually partnered up with Jeff in the beginning and that’s actually how I got on and learnt who the different promoters were because Jeff was doing all these different parties at the time.”
Was he already rolling with the Fresh Prince at that point?
“Jeff was on his own at that time. Actually, I was at Jeff’s place when the Fresh Prince came over to his house for the very first time. I was in Jeff’s basement when he first came there. It’s probably something that neither one of them remember now, but we were all in the basement at Jeff’s mother’s house. Jeff was telling me that this emcee was coming over and he was like, ‘This guy’s so good! He’s dope!’ So Jeff is building it up and I’m hyped to see who this person is and then Will comes walking down the steps and I’m like, ‘You’re talking about this dude right here?’ I knew who he was because Will was from Wynnefield and was just around the corner from my parents’ house. I didn’t know him, but I knew of him. I’d actually seen Will in a battle prior to that and the battle hadn’t really gone in his favour because the dudes he was going up against were pretty hardcore (laughs).”
Who was the battle with?
“Well, the Fresh Prince was rolling with a crew called the Hypnotic Crew and the name of the crew they went up against was the Poison Clan. It was a tough battle, man. It was at this place called the Wynn Ballroom which was on the corner of my grandmother’s block and I remember not many people were there at the time because it was a day-time battle. But I got in there and my man Eric from Poison Clan was killing it. He was going at the Fresh Prince so hard, saying that he got his name from a fa**ot R&B artist and stuff like that. But he said it in a freestyle rhyme and the people there went crazy. Will had these parachute pants on and these boots and Eric started going at him about those as well, saying that he didn’t know if he was going to fly away and things like that (laughs). But that was a tough battle for Will and that’s why I remembered the name Fresh Prince. So when he came down the stairs into the basement, I was on Jeff’s turntables because I used to go over there to practice. I look up and I’m like, ‘Oh my god! This is the guy from the Wynn Ballroom. This is that Fresh Prince guy.’ So Will comes down the stairs, like ‘Oh my god! I’m over Jazzy Jeffrey’s house! My god!’ He’s all jolly and he had a Polo shirt on and I was like, ‘Polo? I can’t afford Polo! What kind of rich kid is this?!’ (Laughs). But we started talking and we’ve been friends ever since that day. We were always really cool. It was Will and Steady B that had the problem.”
Check Part Two of this interview here.
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