Setting the record straight in the story about what really happened behind the making of videos, records, etc.
[Precariously perched on my haunches, legs crossed into the future, feet and ankles trimming my sails.]
One cannot tell the story of my life without including the first chapter in the history of rap and Hip Hop. Though I only spent four years at Sugar Hill they were not only productive but also eventful. I traveled the road with the Rappers Convention, the first rap national world tour. While working for Joe and Sylvia Robinson I did it all from percussionist to bag man. What I was able to learn in what I call my Harvard of the music business was who is who and what is what. This may sound simple enough but show business is a carnival of mirrors. Everything is never what it seems.
So I am ready to talk about what I have seen and what I know because them that’s saying don’t know, and those of us that know ain’t been saying! Don’t get me wrong. There is shit I will never discuss. That is because it is better left unsaid, but everything else is up for discussion. Lives were made and destroyed, fortunes were made and lost.
When I first stepped to Sylvia Robinson I brashly and confidently told her, “If you give me the chance I will make you more than any one person that ever walked through your door.” She gave me that chance and I made good on my claim. Along the way I was able to interact with some of the most interesting and talented people on the planet. Keep in mind Sylvia Robinson was active in the music business some forty years and was the most prolific female record producer in the history of rap music.
Joe and Sylvia Robinson were a phenomenal couple. If you speak to the wives of any of us that spent considerable time at Sugar Hill they will tell you that Sylvia could get us to do things we wouldn’t do for anyone else. I quit Sugar Hill more than once. One time after I heard her voice, “Fletcher, just go out there one last time”. She didn’t even have to tell me she had sent Harvey and the bus by my house to pick me up. Needless to say I went and it wasn’t the last time.
There is no way to over credit the musicians who made up the Sugar Hill house band were then and are still now simply the best man for man, right now in our fifties and sixties we will kick the Roots in the ass. The array of talent that came through Sugar Hill was phenomenal. Some are on their way up and some on the way down.
Sylvia respected talent, intelligence, loyalty and family. I believe in me she saw all that. I might have been the only person on the lot with a college and graduate degrees. When I auditioned for the job as a percussionist with the band with the idea of getting the job and bringing in my band I was quickly told by Skip (the best band leader I have ever worked with), “Brother, we are giving you three to five”. At that moment I quit one band and joined another, the best one I have ever been in the Sugar Hill Band. Now we were able to bring our keyboard player in Gary Henry because he is undeniably one of the most talented people on earth. Jigs, who bought me up, took three of us from our band. No one else, as bad as they were, made the cut.
Most of us are captains of our times. The terms we get to live are sometimes just a matter of timing and place. Had I lived before Thomas Edison invented the recording device I couldn’t have 31 chart hit records. With that in mind I think that for most of history musicians never heard how they sounded. So here I was at the right place – New Jersey and New York – at the right time – 1965-1988. I also spent considerable time in London and some time in Paris.
My roots are jazz, rock, folk, country, R&B and what ever I heard in my father’s house, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington (though my ole man was a Basie man), Fletcher Henderson, Louie Jordan, Dinah Washington, and Esther Philips. At my grandfather’s tavern I heard whatever people played in the jukebox (Lloyd Price, Etta James, Nat King Cole, Fat’s Domino, and Little Anthony & the Imperials).
I used to get quarters from the female patrons of my grandfather and his brother Otha’s establishment, stand in front of the jukebox and listen to Etta. When I met her later and told her this story, she laughed one of the nastiest laughs I ever heard and just gave me a hug. They were all there that night. I was playing with Dr. John at the Lone Star. Everybody was there, from Dustin Hoffman to John Belushi and Bill Murray to Fat Head Newman, Etta James, and Robert Palmer.
I never wanted to be a rapper despite the fact that I was the second rapper signed to a six-figure deal at a major label. I always wanted to be one of the “cats”, somebody who first and foremost could play. Practicing and playing were a given. Like one of the cats who was on the bandstand… backstage… out front leaning on a nice car dressed in clothes from all over the world, with a bag not from any mall, shoes from London, and coat from Amsterdam… shaking hands with all the cool people. That was the life that called me.
First I toured with local bands, made it to the top of the local scene… the Xavions, Hot Pepper (the best local band ever), to finally signing a deal with Buddha Records in Philadelphia when it was hot with Gamble & Huff, Tom Bell, Linda Creed and Bunny Ziegler whom I would work with later at Sugar Hill. We were working with Norman Harris and Bobby Eli. Then it was the top of the local jazz set with a guy named Leo Johnson. With him we backed up people like Johnny Lytell, Joe Thomas. Our own band Fresh was playing with every gay act in NJ-NY as well as doing the cabaret scene with two of the girls with Sweet Honey & the Rock.
I was staying busy. As per Leo Johnson, the next step was out of town and on the road with Charles Earland, the loudest organ player on the earth. Charles could play and for 7 or 8 months we did the last of the jazzy chitin’ circuit… Key Club in Newark, Lawson’s in Harrisburg, I don’t remember the club in Philadelphia, Walls Mozambique in Detroit, and finally the Parisian Room in Los Angeles. Those clubs were filled with ole jazz heads that knew the changes to every song so you better not fuck up.
… THIS COMES BEFORE DR. JOHN BIT…
Navigating these top shelf local establishments required more than just musical skills. Having spent so much time in my grandfather’s place I could deal with it. Understand there is no flourishing in these places. The money isn’t good enough. You could make a decent living if you had some kind of recording contract, were frugal and paid your band a pittance.
That being said, I got out of that scene as soon as possible. You traveled in station wagons and stayed in second-third tier hotels. Now the benefit is that you played 5 sets a night and sometimes a matinee on Sunday too so your chops were the best they would ever be. Concerts and recordings are not the same. There is something to be said about music that pays its own way; no grant from the government or private funding source. No artist-in-residence but art that is paid for by money coming out of people’s pockets. Capitalist art. Pop art has never been a curse to me. What is wrong with being popular? Though on one hand, my friends may have been surprised that I use my talents in such a decidedly commercial way, they were never surprised at my frugalness (which I got from my dad) and my love of nice things (which I got from my mother).
For a while you love hearing yourself all over the radio. When you are a musician you may think this is your record. When you are the front man or recording act you may think it is your record. When you are the producer you may think it is your record. When you are the A&R guy – or the president of the record company – you may think it is your record. When you are the manufacturer, you know whose record it is.
So here we are at a point again where nearly all of the manufacturers are white. What does this mean? I don’t know but I feel it is worth a comment. That is how I started and this is still the United States. The energy and angst are not only teenaged. I am sixty-two, Melle Mel is fifty something, Nas is forty. Hopefully the focus will shift from naïve materialism, sex exploitation, violence, latent homosexuality and existentialism. As it ages, rap will change and it has. What is it that nearly all hustlers, players and fast lifers crave at some point? It is a normal life.
As it morphs and changed location, the stories and images of the artist changed. I remember De La Sol’s. These kids had moved with their parents out of Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Newark to places like Roosevelt, Long Island, and Mt. Vernon. I didn’t leave Elizabeth until I was forty.
The stories now are about everything… (Gangstaterism, romance, skateboarding, loss of fatherhood, being a father...). I saw a video Nas did on a song with his father. He has done some great work. I know he’s a jazz musician named O Lou Dara who plays okay trumpet but makes good records. That is what is important. The microphone and the beat, like Marshall McCluen says, “the medium is truly the message”.
I have never wanted to be anything. I just wanted to do shit. I wanted to play music so when I was playing music for a living I was a musician. I never really wanted to rap but I was the second rapper signed to a major label deal so while was making rap records I was a rapper. I wanted to do that so while I was producing records and making a good living I was a record producer. I wanted to have a studio and my own label and for a while I did that, created Beauty & the Beats Records with eight acts and sold some records. I got tired of that and it was too much work for the gamble.
The music business is so demanding I had threatened to do what on every job I have ever had. I am known to say, “I’ll fire this job.” Finally when all I wanted was a normal life I went and started teaching. It’s now some twenty-five years later, and I am still teaching. I have only missed one class in ten years. When I wanted to try my hand at writing, I wrote three novels; one of which has been published. So I guess when I write I am a writer. I plan on spending some time publishing the other two.
So… I have been a good son, husband, father and grandfather. I’ve had the big heart attack, open-heart double by-pass surgery, been on life support and am still here. I like to say I am living on borrowed time but as long as my credit is good with the Lord I’ll be here carrying on trying to figure out what I want to do. I have finally found where I want to be.
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