Saturday, March 31, 2018


By JayQuan 3/31/18

By the end of 1979 there were no less than 20 rap records on the market. Rappers Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang dropped in September of 1979 and is widely credited as being the first ever rap recording (modern rap – not Pig Meat Markham, Cab Calloway & the like). King Tim The 3rd by legendary funk group The Fat Back Band dropped a few weeks earlier than The Sugar Hill Gang on the Polygram/Polydor distributed Spring Records. This is a story of impact. In an effort to discredit the Sugar Hill Gang (whose members Master Gee & Wonder Mike rapped with Phase 2 & Sound On Sound respectively in New Jersey before being discovered and assembled by Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson) many early fans of the rap genre will say that the Fat Back Band record was the “real” rap recording between the 2. In all honestly if real is using a beat that was heavily used in actual Hip Hop clubs and parties before rap records,then the Sugar Hill Gang (*with their replaying of Good Times – the undisputed summer anthem of 1979 by Chic) is a contender for the title. King Tim III, based on the mysterious guest Emcee of the same name on the Fat Back recording, contained the popular old school Dj/Rapper cadence of Dj’s like Jocko, Gary Byrd & Hank Span. These were “jive talking” Djs who spoke over records similar to the Jamaican style of “toasting” before rap records. As with many early rap records, borrowed segues like “hot butter on the popcorn”, “the highs in your eyes/the bass in your face/we’re the funk machines that rock the human race” and “slam dunk do the jerk/let me see your body work” were used in this recording.

Mickey & Sylvia
Even though Polydor was a powerful record label that distributed recordings by the likes of Con Funk Shun, James Brown and The Bar Kays at various points; they were not powerful enough to get this new “talking music” on the radio. Sylvia Robinson who was phenomenal as a musician, producer and recording artist on her own – penning the first big hit for Tina Turner, and scoring a gold selling top 20 hit under the name Sylvia Vanderpool with Love Is Strange (alongside her former musical instructor Mickey Baker) had that power and executed it perfectly. Sylvia Robinson began to open her own night clubs, learn the business of music publishing and create her own record labels shortly after the success of Love Is Strange. By the 1970’s Sylvia had established Soul/R&B labels All Platinum, Stang, Turbo and Vibration. These labels boasted the rosters of Sylvia herself, The Rimshots, The Moments (later Ray Goodman & Brown), The Whatnauts, Wood Brass & Steel, Donnie Elbert, George Kerr and the list goes on.

By the end of the 70’s Sylvia was having financial problems with her labels. In fact if you listen to her only recorded rap song It's Good To Be The Queen (an answer to Mel Brooks It's Good To Be The King), she actually gives an autobiographical account of how “it started back in ’79 my whole damn future was on the line”. Fate would solve Sylvia’s financial woes in the form of a birthday party for her niece at the legendary Hip Hop club Harlem World. Simultaneously rapping and Djing that night was the late great Lovebug Starski. This was Sylvia’s first time hearing rap music, and at that moment she knew that this music would restore her music empire, and more importantly keep her financial boat afloat. Starski would eventually be approached, recruited and recorded at 96 West St. in Englewood,New Jersey. As with most people at the time Starski didn’t believe that anyone would want to hear someone talking over someone else’s music, and he felt that he was making enough money Djing at  various New York Hip Hop hot spots, so he turned down the gig. Fate would intervene for Mrs. Robinson again when she walked into Crispy Crusts Pizza in Jersey and heard the late Big Bank Hank rapping along to a tape of a group that he was managing called The Cold Crush Brothers. One thing led to another and Sylvia ended up auditioning Michael Wright and Guy O' Brien and eventually she married the 3 of them, giving the world Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike & Master Gee – The Sugar Hill Gang. Sylvia, a heavy believer in numerology believed that 3 would be the magic number as far as group members, just as it had been for the Moments. The creation of the Sugar Hill Gang, her new label (titled Sugar Hill, after the affluent area of Harlem where she partied) and the Gang's debut single Rappers Delight changed the course of black music, then music in general and eventually popular culture.

Scorpio PKA Mr. Ness of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 told me that people had approached them for years with offers to sign them to recording contracts, but like the previously mentioned Starski, and other groups from the era before rap records, they didn’t think that it would work. One of those approachers was Bobby Robinson of Fire N' Fury and Enjoy! Records. Bobby had previous success with Frankie Lymon, Gladys Knight & The Pips and many other Soul groups. Mr. Robinson (no relation to Sylvia) owned a record store in Harlem and was hearing rap music all around him in the late 70s. His nephew Gabriel rapped, his son rapped and every “OJ” (a car service which was almost like the Uber of that time) that passed by was playing this “talking music”. Just like Sylvia, Bobby wanted to cash in on this new music before it fizzled out. Bobby asked his nephew Gabriel (later self-christened Spoonie G) who the best rappers were. Within a year of Sylvia releasing Rappers Delight and signing the first southern all-female rap group, Columbia South Carolina’s The Sequence; Bobby had signed and recorded The Funky 4 + 1, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, The Treacherous 3 (of which Kool Moe Dee was a member),Spoonie G and Kool Kyle The Starchild. The distinction between Sylvia’s signings
and those of Bobby Robinson is that the groups that Bobby signed were all from the Bronx (with the exception of Spoonie & The Treacherous 3), and part of the fraternity of artists who had established the genre via the chitlin’ circuit of performance venues such as The T Connection, Harlem World, The Disco Fever, Burger King Disco, The Hoe Avenue Boys Club etc.

Sylvia Robinson wanted it all. By the end of 1980 she had licensed every relevant rap record and released a compilation called The Great Rap Hits. Furthermore by 1982 she had bought the contracts of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, The Treacherous 3, The Funky 4+1 and Spoonie G from Bobby and signed them to Sugar Hill. What Spring/Polygram (and Bobby Robinson,Paul Winley & Peter Brown) lacked was the relationships with the network of independent distributors and radio people that Sylvia had developed in her Stang/Turbo/All Platinum/Vibration days. Her direct relationships with radio Dj’s like  Philadelphia’s Joe Butterball Tamburro of WDAS would prove invaluable in getting a 15 minute “talking record” (Rappers Delight) played on the airwaves all day every day for months. Where Bobby Robinson's Enjoy! may have been like the grittier Stax compared to Sylvia’s more polished Motown, it was Sylvia’s vision that separated  her from Bobby. Sylvia was the one who enlisted the “King of the Timbales” Tito Puente to play on the Sugar Hill Gangs
second single Sugar Hill Groove (B side to 8th Wonder). It was Mrs. Rob as she was affectionately called, that told Melle Mel of the Furious 5 to “put that child is born verse that you did for Bobby on the end of The Message”. More importantly it was Sylvia who kept pushing Ed Fletcher's AKA Duke Bootee’s (at the time) spoken word idea The Message to her stable of groups who wanted nothing to do with the slow and depressing 7 minute state of Black America in 1982.

There was no template for rap recordings before 1979 and Sugar Hill created the template.
Marketing many singles by an artist as opposed to full albums was an important Sugar Hill technique. Also using the record label logo as the record jacket instead of a picture cover was also a Sugar Hill staple. Rappers Delight contained a long version on one side, and a short version on the flip. 1979’s Funk You Up by The Sequence contained the same template. In all fairness, the template that still exists today of an instrumental flip side for rap singles began on Kurtis Blow’s 1980 single The Breaks on Polygram Mercury and Sylvia started following that template right around that time. Sugar Hill as a label is responsible for many firsts:

·         Rappers Delight – First platinum and later multi platinum rap recording

·         Sugar Hill Gang – First rap full album

·         Sequence – First all-female rap recording

·         Sequence & Sugar Hill Gang – First “posse cut” on Rappers Reprise

·         The Message – First socially conscious rap recording

·         The Message first rap song entered in the library of congress archives

·         Disco Dream by The Mean Machine – first bilingual rap record (released the same year as Spanglish by Terrible 2 on Enjoy Records)

·         Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel - First record with DJ scratching & cutting

·         First “rap revue” with all of the artists on the label touring nationally

There are actually more than that, but those are the most notable and they all impacted the genre and the industry. Mentions are certainly due to Profile records who signed many of the Enjoy! artists that Sylvia didn’t sign like the Masterdon Committee, The Disco 4 (of whom Bobby Robinsons son was a member) and the late great producer and drummer Pumpkin. Of course Profile also signed Run Dmc who changed the game on multiple levels. Def Jam, Tommy Boy, Sugarscoop, West End, Party Time, Jive Zomba, Select, Pop Art, Sunny View, Paul Winley Records,Sound Of New York and many others helped to push rap where it would ultimately go all before 1985. It is fashionable to say today that if XYZ didn’t do it, then someone else would have. But would they? Say what you want about Rappers Delight, but that’s the record. That’s the 15 minute record that you still remember every word of. That’s the record that your parents know. How many people can recite every lyric to King Tim III?

*The bass line to the Rappers Delight track was played by Chip Shearin. No punch ins, samplers or sequencers. He played the bass line for more than 15 minutes flawlessly.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Shot Heard 'Round The World - Run - DMC

The game was in a rut in 1983. I distinctly remember wondering if the art form that I so
loved was about to be proven a flash in the pan; as my parents’ generation, the
main stream music media, funk and R&B bands and just about everyone who wasn’t
part of my generation had predicted 4 years prior. Melle Mel was now Grandmaster Melle Mel and he had just dropped White Lines, which was a dope record. The Sugar Hill Gang had just dropped Kick It Live & The Word Is Out which lacked something. But the Sugar Hill Records sound was growing old. The magic of rap recordings like Planet Rock, The Message and Rappers Delight was seldom felt any more. Renegades Of Funk by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force was a hell of a record in ’83 and part of a sonically groundbreaking trilogy that included Planet Rock and Looking For The Perfect Beat respectively. But something new needed to happen. Mixed in with some of the rap recordings by legitimate rap artists, were parody recordings like Ya Mama by Wuf Ticket and quasi socially conscious songs like Is This The Future by The Fat Back Band (minus King Tim III). On the underground side of things were songs like The Challenge by Jeckyll & Hyde which continued the tradition in rap recordings of re creating a popular song- in this case Nasty Girl by Vanity 6. Yeah, it was time for something new. Even the electro funk pioneers Newcleus took a swipe at Sugar Hill Records era groups like The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 in their hit Jam On Revenge (Wikki Wikki).

The answer to what I needed to feed my insatiable thirst for good rap records came in 1983 as I walked along Faye St. in the Southside of Richmond, VA with my pretend cousin. As we walked along the street; likely playing one of the previously mentioned songs on our portable boom boxes, a friend of ours approached on his bike, playing  something that sounded otherworldly. It was a rap song, but the cadence of the Mc’s wasn’t the Hank Span old school “disco rap” cadence that many Mc’s still used. And the music. There was none.
Just drums. I inquired what the hell dude was playing and where he got it from. He replied its called Its Like That by (what I heard as) Run thee Mc. I inquired a few more times, as I thought that Run Thee Mc was a ridiculous name. You had to be Treacherous, Furious, Undefeated , Funky or Awesome. He spelled it out for me. “Run DMC – one guy is named Run and the other is DMC”. He said “but listen to their other song”, as he proceeded to play Sucker Mc’s. I was frozen. The cadence , the simplicity of the track and then after the first Mc hogs the mic for a few verses some scratching comes in, and I hear one of the best vocal performances that I’d heard up to that date. “Im DMC in the place to be, I go to St. Johns University”….I demanded a copy on the spot! Right in the middle of the street! So we put one box in front of the other and did the old school “dub” where you can hear air, traffic, people and every neighborhood dog barking in the recording. I recorded over whatever was on the tape that I was playing and listened to Run Thee Mc for the rest of the day. This inferior recording would have to do until I could get to The Album Den or Bohannons (local record stores). I could feel the baton passing. Everything that came before this record was now a different era. One of the past.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5
But I had not seen these guys yet, so their importance was only half known to me. I don’t remember if the first time that I saw them was on television (Graffiti Rock), a magazine (Right On) or what. But the attitude, the sneakers, the Adidas sweat suits and the hats were the icing on an already incredible cake. Now in all fairness, far too many people shit on the attire of The Soul Sonic Force, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and many of the pioneering rap groups as “dressing like the Village People”. Before those groups kicked in the door that made Run DMC possible, they dressed like Run & D eventually dressed. Mock necks, terry cloth Kangols, bombers and Adidas were not inventions of Run DMC. This is how New York B Boys dressed.
Because Grandmaster Flash & Afrika Bambaataa were the opening acts for The Clash, Deborah Harry, Cameo , The Commodores and Parliament Funkadelic they had to look the part. They were already frowned upon because they didn’t have a band, ignored by those musicians and had their sets sabotaged by them. According to many of the pioneers that I’ve spoken with from that era; they made an effort to dress differently than the audience.

So as far as fashion and image, Run DMC was the first group to really be able to be themselves and not dress that part. The fact that we had the same clothes in our closets that Run DMC wore on albums and television, did give certain segments of my generation; especially those outside of New York and the tri state area a bond with them that we did not have with previous rap groups. Run & D removed the super star element, even though they would ultimately become huge super stars.

Run DMC ushered in what I refer to as the “middle school” era or what some folks refer to as the New School. The backing bands were now gone (even though Orange Krush played drums  on Sucker Mc’s) and drum machines and turntables dominated the sound. This sound would last until ‘87 or so when affordable sampling technology became available, allowing one to infinitely loop whatever pieces of a composition that they desired (this became known as the Golden Era). Again, along with Run DMC’s greatness came perfect timing and the wisdom of Run’s older brother and manager Russell Simmons (who suggested that Run & D dress like their D.J. Jam Master Jay). The timing is important because Run & D weren’t the first rap group to rap over just drums. The entire first generation of Emcees before rap records had already done that. But they were the first to successfully do it on records. And they did it damn well! On March 27th, 1984 Run DMC released their self titled lp, which included Sucker Mc’s and It's Like That (their first single), Hard Times and Jam Master Jay (their second single) and 5 new songs. Their second single Hard Times/Jam Master Jay solidified what the first single birthed. Jam Master Jay; an ode to their D.J. of the same name (R.I.P.) was almost as mind blowing as their first single. Sal Abbatiello ; owner of Hip Hop club the Disco Fever told me that the night they debuted the song nobody danced because it was so un orthodoxed as a rap record. It really didn’t have a beat. Hollis Crew also known as Krush Groove 2 (Sucker Mc’s was Krush Groove 1) picked up where Sucker Mc’s left off and solidified Run & D as the leaders of the new school. Rock Box, which was one of the first songs to merge rock & rap (Treacherous 3s Body Rock was the very first) broke Run Dmc through to the mainstream audience mainly due to its video which was in constant MTV rotation. Jay’s Game was as instrumental track that allowed Jam Master Jay to showcase his turntable skills, while Wake Up and 30 Days were both tracks with heavy socially conscious messages.

Because of that timing that I spoke of earlier Run Dmc was the first rap group that kids wanted to emulate on an international level. The era before Run & D arrived too early for MTV and all of the other publicity that Run DMC would (deservingly) enjoy. Something new had to happen. Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers told me that the genre would have most likely died if not for Run DMC...... I agree.