Ronald Reagan, Grandmaster Flash and the Fate of Western Culture

To understand Hip Hop or rap, one must understand a bit about history and the context from which it sprung. Unlike Tupac it did not just spring from beneath a collard green leaf.

Sitting at a table with Edwin Star, who at that time had “Eye to Eye Contact” – the No. 1 disco record – we were on our way to London the following week. Frank Sinatra came through the more than ample speakers singing his new “disco hit”. At that point Lassie was most likely cutting disco tracks. Disco had been good to me. All those long percussion beats had paid a lot of electric bills and bought quite a few steaks in my home. But now I knew it had to be coming to an end. As with everything else, what had started as a black and gay music was now peaking for the people and mass consumers.

So here is where it gets interesting. I go to L.A. for a month or so to record Edwin’s new album. After that I leave for Europe, which was why I took the gig in the first place. When we get to London punk is all the rage… the Sex Pistols, Jon, Rotten, Wall of Voodoo, etc. Two of the guys in Edwin’s and were from the U.K. The keyboard player Phillip “Spike” Edney, who played with Queen for twenty years, and the sax player Andy Hamilton who played with George Michael and Duran Duran. We met tons of people. The Kings Road was happening every ‘Saturday. You might see Elton John or Frankie goes to Hollywood.

Being young and full of energy I made every scene I could. Edwin Star himself was still a star in the U.K. Fans there stayed with you for years like their local soccer team.

So I didn’t think any of these punk rockers could really play. They sounded to me to be 15% music and 85% posture. My first punk concert the kids in the audience were spitting on the band. That was because they liked them. I remarked that shit would never roll in the states. What I realized watching those kids was that you didn’t need to know music to be able to play or sing or have a band. The best of these bands I would meet later could play a little but, like the Ramones, what was important was that the instruments and the mike was a vehicle that gave voice to the voiceless. I would remark that I wonder what is going to happen when black kids realized this… So I came home and the first sign I saw in my friend’s record store was we have Rappers Delight. Not only did that record change popular music, but also it changed my life.

I wasn’t back in town a week when my main man and mentor, Jigs Chase, called me and said he had this gig up at All Platinum Records and he wanted me to audition for the house band. I figured cool and I go up there to get them fired and get our band hired. Jigs warned me he didn’t think it was going to shake out like that but he wanted me to audition anyway. I did the audition, got a three to five from the band, and did four years.

But I digress. My first session was Freedom for Flash and them; we cut the track. I put a down a conga beat and timbale track on it; everybody loved it. I stayed around to see Mel and them rap their parts. What I saw blew my mind!!! I didn’t know what they were doing but I did know what ever it was they had spent quite a bit of time working on it. Flash had little to no input on the recording process other than he had selected what he called the “break beat”. We had listened to a record he played in the club that was hot, copped the groove, done it better, added some more music and it went on to be their first big hit, Freedom. Next,... the magic of Lil Rodney C and the Funky Four Plus One and That’s the Joint.

I think I forgot to mention one of my favorite was when I was doing a Skip groove for the first female rap group Sequence’s “Funk You Up”. One of the members of that group, Angie B, went on to be the beautiful Angie Stone whose album “Mahogany Soul” is a modern classic. That girl Angie has babies by Rodney C who I feel was an unsung hero of the old school and D’Angelo. Not bad for a girl who couldn’t buy a back ground singing gig when we were both recording at Sugar Hill. I remember thinking to myself while Spoonie G was cutting vocals on a track we recorded from a record on his uncle’s label, Enjoy Records, which was in fact the first label to put out rap records. The owner, Bobby Robinson, a small timer, was in no way related to Joe and Sylvia.

Spoonie was cool as motherfucka… go back and listen to his records and look at the pictures of him. Smooth as a motherfucka. You could hear it in his rhymes and his voice. Let me say now, still Melle Mel is by far more the best rapper I have ever heard, saw or worked with. He just is… ask around. Ask anybody who knows. They will give Mel his props. He may not be their favorite rapper and Lil Wayne, everyone has his own taste, but there are few guys who everybody agrees on… Melle Mel, Nas, Tupak, Biggie, etc. After Spoonie I like the Rodney C 3. I liked Busy Bee who was like a low rent Keith Murray. His humor was never captured on records. Busy Bee was one funny motherfucka.

So these kids had gone a step further. Fuck the guitar. All they needed was a turntable and a microphone. At this time if you were a rapper you had to make your pilgrimage to the mecca of rap, Sugar Hill and Disco fever. The records were played at the fever but they were recorded at Sugar Hill and mastered at Frankford Wayne. There were other acts that made records with Sugar Hill but the acts that made an impact were the Sugar Hill Gang, Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five, Funk 4 + 1, Treacherous, Sequence, and Spoonie G. The fist Puerto Ricans I recorded for were the Mean Machine and the first white boys were the Cold Crush Crew. I don’t know what happened to the Cold Crush but I ran into the D.J. for the Mean Machine at a victory tour party years later. He was hanging with Michael Jackson and he looked like all of Michael’s boyfriends, Greek looking and not so innocent, cut up with muscles.

Back to rap which was now on the airways and across the county and the world for the first time. No body showed us how to do it; we just did it. Promoters had never seen anything like it. I remember the fist time I saw Flash rock the crowd without a band I knew musicians were in trouble. This happened in Mt. Vernon. Flash and the Furious Five were opening for us {the Sugar Hill Gang] and we were backstage talking to the usual suspects. Skip, being curious, went out to watch Flash and them. He promptly came backstage and informed us we better get out there and see this. “Flash is rocking the house and there isn’t any musicians on stage… shit, we going to be extinct.” And so be it the age of D.J. began.

Now certainly we are not, and never will be extinct. Where we come from, the instruments we play, the style, sound and rhythm of the music we create and play may morph, but as long as a baby shakes a rattle and babbles we will be around. Now all this shit wasn’t happening in a vacuum. Music and the music business was doing what it does, mass-producing and selling youthful exuberance and angst.

As I said, punk was happening all over Europe and it wasn’t long before Prince showed what the United States had wrought. But in the ghettos of the U.S. a voice had been given to the voiceless, and it was discovered that they had a lot to say and of course people wanted to hear it. What truly happened was that the naturalization and the distillation was removed. Producers began to let artists create the beats and words for themselves. This new breed of astute producer Sylvia was leading the way with. Arthur Baker, Puff Daddy, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, the list and myself continues. We took control of the mechanisms of production and understood that the new music was about beat and rhythm rather than melody and harmony.

Most of these rappers, though they loved music and musicians, could only play the radio. Miraculously enough or some of these dudes could play a little bit. The Beastie Boys come to mind before they had yet to hook up with Def Jam. Adam was just an assistant at Arthur Baker’s studio running around with his own little record called “Cookie Puss”. Then there was the kid from the White Boys that did “Jump”. J Cool … them and that record ever learned to play the guitar and made a couple records of his own.

Of course, though the first chapter was written in the South Bronx and recorded in New Jerusalem [N.J.], rap has reached every corner of the globe. Rap changed the face of popular music. As always, it was technology that played a role in this development. Recording technology became computerized and therefore smaller, faster and easier. EQ faders were replaced by pre-sets and recording tape with computer discs. The democratized sequence driven machines and sampling devices enabled non-musicians to cut tracks or as they called it, “make beats”.

Reductionist and minimalist in nature, rap first has the bare bones of R & B until people like myself, Pumpkin, Arthur Baker, and Doug DMX developed a trance like formula for music and I finally changed the limited lyrics for soul searching revelation of “The Message” which ushered in the next school and chapter in the genre.

All around newer music was being made by people like Kashief and the Mike Murray of the system who was our “roadie” for a while, not to mention Brian Eno, Lee (Scratch) Perry, Adrian Sherwood. We had the ears of the world and we were listening.

The Bowery was happening with groups like Blondie, Television, Pattie Smith and the Ramones. Down the street from C.B.G.B.’s was the tin Palace and David Murray or Anthony Braxton. Cheap drinks and good drugs were the mix that kept things rolling. Basquiat was getting his first shows and trying to play guitar at the Mud Club. Pharaoh Sanders was holding it down at the East in Brooklyn and Miles could still be found leaning on his Lamborghini that Roberta Flack bought him front of the Vanguard. The Milk Bar was the after hours joint for the fast crowd. The Stones, NY Dolls, Larry Levar and the boys were mixing club records at the Garage and all was not well… we acted like it was.

Enjoying our first success we listened to ourselves on the radio and bought our first Cadillac’s, Mercedes, Volvos, Audie’s. Escalades and SUVs hadn’t happened yet. Jeeps and urban guerilla vehicles were just popping up. In fashion, Steven Sprouse and Georgia Amani rolled. Disco had gotten fat and wasn’t dangerous any more. It will never die as they say, only morph into house or club or what ever.

So as you can see Hip Hop or rap just didn’t spring up from beneath a collard green leaf. A confluence of events confederated to lead this illegitimate bastard baby to the height of the Smithsonian History of American Recording and the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Hip Hop is studied at institutions such as Duke and Harvard.

So... between the old school, new school, next school, and no school so much and so many have come and gone that the Hip Hop encyclopedia has been developed. Duke Bootee happens to be in all of them, “Highly prolific rapper, writer, producer”. I did a lot of shit and have been watching the growth of the industry. Though they try to say rap started with Russell and them, it didn’t. The first rap tours left from the Sugar Hill lot. The records that Run and them listened to were ours.

I am intrigued by the rap that emerged out of the most unlikely communities, the unorthodox Jamaican rap of Shabba Ranks, or of course Slim Shady himself. They will always be a 50 Cent or Lil Wayne. Jay Z will smoke his cigar like the Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin of rap. Russell is selling money cards and Rick Rubin did some slamming shit on Johnny Cash. Rap is 35+ middle aged but somehow it is still viewed as dangerous and at least the root of most evil though teen angst and violence existed before rap. I remember when Rock n Roll was the root of all evil.

So this simple tasting taken from humble Jamaican roots of black youth and them just grew and is still growing unlike Jay Z, which is no longer dangerous. When rap is 100 it will still have fangs and sweat and drug testable fluids. I have thought about these things long and hard. I consider myself to be a Hip Hop expert and survivor. It is not often when one can examine one’s own musical DNA and find the under pinning of the most vibrant and potent contribution to pop culture in the last 50 years. Just think… one drop and it is Hip Hop.

The themes that have persisted in this genre [i.e. materialism, criminality, sexism, latent homosexuality and institutionalism] are so prevalent because these are simply the values from which Hip Hop was born and ethos upon which it sustains itself. I find rap mostly boring and repetitious, lacking the vibrancy that gave it birth. This is not to say that every generation and region doesn’t produce rappers like it just what makes the T.V. lacks imagination. It is too pasteurized and homogenized. I love Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator and his crew. Earl Sweatshirt, Frank the Ocean and Taco, but too many of these kids have drunk the Kool-Aid, and far too soon I might add. This voice has blown like the trade winds around the globe. What I find interesting is what bubbles under. What is too radical for MTV? That is where the future is.

Whether it is samba infused with rap from the favelas of Rio celebrating, fueled and paid for by the local drug lord, or sparse Anglican racist rap from East Berlin, is really not what I find to be important. What I like hearing is the un-encumbered voice of the young and now not so young. For too many years records made by older producers distilled and toned down what artists have to say. Rap gave the mike back to the artist. Most of rap’s finest producers were artists once themselves.

I can remember when I used to spend four months in Europe every year. Too often members of the press whom I knew would claim rap’s demise and death, but as I used to tell those guys from New Music Express, Un Cut and that ilk who were accustomed to far too much power in dictating who the record companies signed, “You didn’t create it so you can’t kill it. Rap is a music by, for and about the people.” The fact that raps is middle age and has not lost its edge or danger is a testament to the ferocity of the genre. It is black males themselves as the “X” factor. Tweety Bird is wearing a jailhouse jump suit and in perpetual lock up waiting for his case to come to trial. We like it raw too but unfortunately we know where Diddy ended up.

All I have ever tried to do is hold a mirror up to society. I am not a preacher or a politician. I am an artist. That is all I feel I am required to do. Rap does the same. Don’t hate the player… hate the game. As long as rap expresses youthful angst, anxiety and hope it will find its audience whether it comes from the South Bronx, L.A., Miami or Atlanta. The same conditions exist. The same hopes, fears, needs and wants continue to orchestrate the dreams of all young people. Hip Hop will find its voice. Though Sylvia Robinson may still be the most prolific female record producer, Missy Elliot might catch her.

Though I am not now or have I ever been political or a policy guy I don’t agree with myself half the time, but in other places rap can be distinctly political. In the United States materialism, sex and machismo are the special of not just today. What we are witnessing is the ultimate triumph of style over substance. These kids are part of the first generation that is being told “you are not going to do as well as your parents”. It’s not like their parents did so damn well. Is it any wonder they talk about immediate gratification? Weed, malt liquor, cognac and codeine fuel these linear streams of consciousness verses. For all time popular music has been about whistle-able melodies, danceable rhythms, sing-able hooks and resalable verses. Rap has challenged that formula.

Rap is about the break down. Dr. Dre knows it. Mo B knew it. What’s happening now is new and unpredictable. Quick cut videos and DJ cutting has created the record-skipping groove. It is not and will never be the same as a real played groove. Cutting and scratching is cool. I have worked with and along side the best DJs who ever lived… Grand Master Flash, DJ Cheese, Jam Master Jay… those boys knew what they were doing.

One might argue the merits of sampling as opposed to song writing. In fact rappers don’t even refer to their work as song writing; it is called “making beats and rhymes”. That may help to explain why the elements of simple song writing are often omitted from their so-called “songs”. That being said, it is rap that is capturing the parlance of the people. Rap creates the anthems and the dance fads. Any astute observer of pop culture must not only follow Jay Z and Snoop Dog, but Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweat Shirt and Melle Mel. Turn the sound down and see what the images of rap are really selling.

There is always hope somewhere in the unfettered voice of young people. They simply haven’t the sense to be pessimistic. Despite being abandoned by traditional notions of family they flourish. The fatherhood leadership crisis continues and young boys turn to men doing the best they can.

Rap has its own bastard children bred on samples, bred on the tired me first existentialist ethos of the ghetto. Marks think they’re pimps who rule their ignorant empires, thug lifers plead for commissary money while their sons occupy the cells of the gladiator schools. The fake wish they were rappers we see in most videos that talk about keeping it real, while they beat feet to L.A. and phony acting careers.

The payoff for a thug life is the penitentiary or the cemetery. You get 18 to 24 months on your feet and then spend football jersey numbers of years in prison.

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