Get funky,make money & you don't stop - The Duke Bootee Interview
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
This one is a long time coming. In addition to being a percussionist on most Sugar hill releases, Duke Bootee is the man who conceived the idea for the Message, created the music & wrote the hook and all of the verses except Melle Mel's last verse (a child is born). The Message is the song that changed the game forever, but it is often credited to Grandmaster Flash, the Furious 5 or just Melle Mel. Duke Bootee also co wrote New York New York and he was a guest vocalist on The Message II (Survival) which was written by Melle Mel and Spoonie Gee. It is an honor to share the story of Ed Fletcher. JayQuan: Peace it’s an honor. How did you get into music and what instruments do you play? Duke Bootee: Well I took music lessons in school – percussion, the drums and xylophone. When I got to college I started playing in cover bands. I went to Philadelphia where Gamble & Huff were hot at the time. I played in a band with a college mate named Dennis Fortune. We wound up being signed to Buddah, and worked with Norman Harris & Bobby Eli who were doing’ all the hot Philadelphia International groups like the O Jays & Teddy Pendergrass. Well our record was never released; Buddah signed Gladys Knight, and stopped putting money into new acts. I went back to Jersey and joined a local band called Hot Pepper, which was the hottest local band at the time. We did weddings, after hours joints and stuff. Newark was a big organ town, and I started playing jazz with people like Charles Earland, Jack Mc Duff and Jimmy Mc Griff. My first big commercial gig was with Edwin Starr on a song called Eye To Eye Contact. I started getting gigs based on that, then I went to Europe with Edwin in like ’79 which was my first time going to England. I came back and went right to Sugar Hill.
JQ: So you got to Sugar Hill right after Rappers Delight. DB: Yeah I got the gig through Jiggs Chase, who I used to play jazz with back in the days. He was my mentor. All those Sugar hill Records will say Jigsaw Productions – that’s Jiggs Chase. He brought me in, an the first record that I played on was Freedom by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5. I played congas & timbales on that. Then I played on every Sugar Hill track after that. All the timbales, congas & vibes are me. JQ: What was the process when you cut at Sugar Hill? DB: It all depends. Like Flash would go to the Fever and hear what breaks were moving’ the crowd. He would show it to Sylvia and if she liked it we would take a part of it. Jiggs would put a little groove or musical interlude to it. The kids (rappers on the label) would bring their favorite songs and breaks in. We all came up in cover bands so we could play exactly like the original, and sometimes make it a little better. JQ: Yeah on Freedom you guys nailed it. It sounds just like Get Up And Dance by Freedom. DB: Yeah we prided ourselves on playing shit better than the original record. We would hone in on the part that got the crowds going, and dissect the whole record.
JQ: On your PolyGram records solo release you say in the liner notes that when The Robinson's found you, you were shining shoes. DB: Yeah shining shoes on 1st street!! JQ: So your fist charted hit was with Edwin Star? DB: Yeah it was a disco type hit. I had to make the jump touring to being a session musician and recording in the studio. You said that you were interested in Steve Jerome. He taught me how to engineer, he taught Jiggs also. When you were working with old timers like (Jack) Mc Duff, and you sat at the board to get your sound they would say, “don’t touch that”. Like you were gonna blow it up or somethin’. Steve Jerome would take time to show you the process if you were interested. Once we got our sounds on the board he refined them. He knew what mic to use with what vocal. The way they make records now is like instant records. Back then you had to use a certain mic for a certain voice, you had to know frequency and range. All of the musicians there wanted to learn how to record. We would tour with the Sugar Hill Gang and Sylvia would bring us off the road to cut. JQ: Let me go back. Who did you admire musically growing up? DB: I liked all kinds of music. My father was a big band fan. Basie, Duke Ellington and people from the 30s & 40s. I listened to Louie Jordan and all of it. I liked jazz, and by the time I got to high school my premiere idol was Miles Davis. That’s who you listened to and wanted to play with. Charles Lloyd and all the jazz people. Then there was Hendrix and the Beatles. The first show I ever saw was James Brown. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be on stage. We used to take the train from Jersey to the Apollo to see the shows there. Easter Sunday we would go
see the Motown revue. Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops that whole world was very captivating to me. But I liked musicals too, like Westside Story,Camelot and Oklahoma. I like country westerns too. JQ: And you are originally from Jersey? DB: Yes Elizabeth. I lived there until about 14 years ago when I bought a house in Plainfield. It was a middle class neighborhood growing up, but all neighborhoods change. It became more urban with shootings and things later on. JQ: Where did you get the nick name Duke Bootee? DB: That came from Mark Sadane who did 2 records for Warner Brothers. Since I was the percussionist I would bring the act out sometime. Mark noticed the anatomy of a certain type woman that I liked. This bass player brought this girl back stage and said, “that’s one of those Fletcher type of women”. Mark said, “yeah he must think that he is the Duke Of Bootee”. One of these girls that sang with us started singing “he’s the Duke Of Bootee”. That became my alter ego, and my emcee name. It was funny and I stuck with it.
JQ: I have heard a lot of stories about how the R&B groups used to sabotage your set when you played with the Sugar Hill gang.
DB: Yeah, like if you played with Cameo, their sound man would put a piece of tape on the board so that your volume couldn’t go above 4. They would turn theirs up to 7, so that when they came out they automatically sound more live. Or they wouldn’t let our drummer set up on the riser; they would put him on the floor. We opened for Rick James, George Clinton, Zapp, Slave everybody.
JQ: Le Blanc & Wimbish said that P Funk was the only group that respected rap from the beginning.
DB: Yeah that’s right. That’s who we wanted to be when we grew up anyway. We put our leather pants on before we went on stage. Them niggas got off the bus with their leather pants on in the summer time!!! They lived it 24-7. You gotta remember that before them people wore those sorry assed uniforms, and you didn’t know if they were musicians or bellhops!!! P -Funk came on with jeans and diapers. When you’re on tour you really don’t bother to even go see the other acts. After you see them one night how many times can you see the same act, but P Funk we watched every night!! Every night the funk was on stage – Dennis Chambers on drums, Gary Shider, it was just incredible to watch. Everybody respected the funk – Bernie Worell and cats like that you could learn from.
JQ: On the tours who did you play for besides Sugar Hill Gang? DB: Just Sequence. They usually came on first. They had a few tunes I loved playing like Funk You Up. That one worked well on stage. The other groups weren’t really big enough to go on the tours. The Funky 4 went a few times, but they took Break Out or one of their Dj's. I really liked them. Sha Rock was miles ahead of Sequence back then. Her style was cutting edge New York stuff. Rodney C was exciting too, and he doesn’t get credit. They were a hell of a group. JQ: Was Rappers Delight your first time hearing rap in that form ? DB: Well I was always into Reggae – old stuff like Big Youth. They had sound systems and the Dj's talked to the music, but the first time I heard the American style was Rappers Delight. JQ: As a musician did you respect rap when you first heard it ? DB: I didn’t respect it at first from an artistry point of view. It wasn't until I saw Flash & them. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, but I knew that whatever it was they worked hard on it, and they did it well. When they approached a song they didn’t just do a verse, and then pass it to the next guy to do a verse like the Gang – they split lines between each other and doubled up on some lines. They had an artistry about it that you had to take seriously. JQ: Did Sylvia seem to favor The Gang as her favorite group? DB: Sylvia’s favorite group was whoever was making’ her the most money at the time!!!! Who ever had the hot record was her favorite. Certain groups may have been easier to deal with than others. And she would pit one group against another to get hot. JQ: Do you mean like divide & conquer? DB: I don’t think it was that, I mean from a motivating point of view. I mean if you see a group and they all have cars you want to do what they did to get a car. One thing that the slick rappers would do like Mel & Scorpio, when we were cutting tracks they would ask us “what tracks do you think she is hot on”? Cause a track might be cut already and different groups tried to put their rhymes to it, and she would let whoever she was hot on have the track. Everybody was going’ to clubs and coming’ back suggesting stuff. Even Joey and Leland (Sylvia Robinsons' sons) would bring ideas based on records that were out. Sometimes the rappers would bring a track in and lose it because someone else put a better rhyme to it.
JQ: Yeah I noticed Furious 5's Step Off and Funky 4s King Heroin have the same music. Also Busy Bee’s Making Cash Money and Spoonie Gee's Spoonie's Back. DB: Yeah. In Jamaica that happens all the time. If a track is hot then everybody is cutting a version of it. JQ: Did you, Skip Mc Donald, Doug Wimbish and Keith Le Blanc work well together ? DB: Yes very well. If they didn’t go home and were stayin’ in Jersey overnight they would stay at my house. My wife has fed a lot of them, and we still have a warm relationship until this day because of all the time that we spent together. It’s like being in the Army with someone. I have worked with hundreds of musicians and they are the warmest and friendliest that I have ever worked with. JQ: Do you see working with them again in the future? DB: Anytime they call. Some people you just always make yourself accessible to. Whenever I go see them I cant leave without them callin’ me up on stage to do somethin’!!! That respect is still there because they were excellent musicians and they are just good people. JQ: We spoke earlier about Jiggs Chase. Was he just an arranger, or did he play instruments as well? DB: He plays keyboards, programs drums and was Sylvia’s right hand man. The process might be that Sylvia would call him up to the kitchen, 'cus back then she had a big mansion type house. And she had a huge kitchen. JQ: This was in Jersey? DB: Yeah Englewood. She would call him to the kitchen and she may have 3 or 4 beats or songs. She would send him down to the studio, and he would call Doug, Skip and Keith, and they would cut together. I would come in and overdub percussion. That was in the daytime. In the evening Sylvia would come down and work on vocals with whatever group that was gonna be on the track. JQ: For the period that the label was active, which was pretty much 1979 – 1985 you cats were busy considering the output from those years. DB: Well I fed my family quite well for a long time, and the experience of being in the studio 6 days a week for 12 hours plus a day….. That’s why so many people from the label went on to do such big things – like Chris Lord Alge who is one of the top recording engineers in the business. He started at Sugar hill. We had 2 studios- up the hill and down the hill. Steve Jerome taught Chris Lord Alge , and there was another guy named Eric. He went on to do all of Robert Palmers stuff like Simply Irresistible and all those. I used to see him in England and he was doin' big things. JQ: And you worked out of 2 studios. DB: Yeah up the hill was called Hugo & Luigi’s before the Robinson's purchased it. And they built one down by the offices that burned down a few years back. But you might start cutting up the hill, and have to go down the hill to finish. JQ: How far were these places from each other? DB: About 5 minutes. JQ: Im really glad to get this chance to talk to you because I have heard so many stories about The Message… DB:….well I will tell you the real deal!
JQ: Well I was told that you cats were getting blazed & listening to Brian Enos My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts for the vibe that became The Message that the world heard. But what is the genesis of The Message? DB: Musically I was always listening to some crazy shit. But we were recording one night, and I was always beating on stuff. I had gone out to get a drink of water, and I started beating on this water bottle. Everyone was so in tune that you couldn’t fart down there without everyone playing along. We got a groove going and it was really like a jungle track – real intense. Sylvia really liked it….but not much happened with it. JQ: Was it like a Last Poets type track?
DB: Almost, I guess you could say that. …but there was a progression, we all wanted to be players, then studio musicians and naturally working around producers we all wanted to get our production chops off. Well everybody was always jockeying to get next to Sylvia, cus if you could get her hot on a track you knew your shit was goin’ out. She would send you upstairs to Joe to cut some kind of deal and you would get some money. Being that Jiggs was her right hand, he knew if she was hot on something or not. If you look at the credits on The Message- its myself, Mel, Jiggs and Sylvia. The only people who wrote anything were Mel & myself. But in the course of how we did business there if you wanted something to go out, you cut her in. Jiggs got cut in cus he was my man, he brought me to the label and I made a lotta dollars because of him, so he should be cut in. He came to the house and told me that I needed to write something to it. I was sittin' at my mothers bar in the basement, and I said man its like a jungle sometimes. Then I said it makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under. He said that’s good keep goin' JQ: Hold on let me make sure im clear on this. This is still to the jungle beat? DB: Yeah, that’s where I got that idea for that line (its like a jungle). So I puffed on a spliff and we are down in the basement and ever so often a nigga might ride by and you hear a bottle get broken. So I said “broken glass everywhere”. He told me to keep goin’ and I did. JQ: So you wrote that whole song, hook and everything excluding Mel’s last verse right there on the spot ? DB: Yep, right at my mothers bar in the basement! At the time we had just toured with Zapp and I loved More Bounce. I also loved Genius Of Love by Tom Tom Club. I knew that I had to make something more commercial. I did the track, put a bass line to it and some of the basics, and I put the raps in. When Sylvia heard the vocals with the new music she was sold. She liked it much more than the jungle track because she heard the dance potential in the new one. So my vocals were just reference vocals for the rappers to learn the song. Flash & them were supposed to do it, but they didn’t like it , im sure you’ve heard that whole story. Sylvia kept sayin” Fletcher, I kinda like your voice on this, it's kinda different”. Rahiem had tried it earlier too, but for some reason she liked my voice on it.
They were mad because they had a party record that they wanted to do, I can’t remember what it was. If memory serves me correctly they got so mad that they walked out of the studio. They called the car service to pick them up and they left. Later Mel came to me and said “man I like that shit, and I have something from another record called Superrappin’ that will fit it perfectly. He said the child is born verse and blew my mind. I went back and told Sylvia and Jiggs to listen to it, and Sylvia said yeah put that right on the end. Im not sure if the rest of the guys had left or not. Scorpio might have still been there, 'cus he and Mel were real tight and hung out a lot, but we cut it and the rest was history. It sounded so good. Mel was smokin’ , as he always was when he stepped in front of the mic. Of course Mel did that last verse , then we chopped the rest of ‘em up and that was it. There was no doubt from the start that it was gonna do somethin’. When we were done mixing, it came out to 7:11 , and Sylvia was big into numerology and all that shit so she was excited. It went gold quick too. That was a big summer record.
JQ: So the first time that you heard the finished product, you knew that you had something different? DB: Well, I didn’t know anything yet. I didn’t know if it was a hit or not. But it was the first record that I ever did vocals on that wasn’t singing. All I knew was that she liked it , I had a lil money in my pocket, so I was cool. She had the contacts to get airplay immediately ,and the song was so different. Everybody was used to the boastin’ and throw your hands in the air, but this record was more ominous and threatening. It worked with a group like Flash & them because they had that threatening, street image and Sylvia knew that – she had a vision. See people think that they made that record so big, but what I’ve learned over the course of history is that things happen because all the parts of the formula are there. It has to be the right record, with the right group at the right time. There aren’t any other groups from that time that could have pulled that record off better than them. JQ: Musically what didn’t you play on it? DB: The guitar. Skip played the guitar. That was the first record we did that didn’t use the rhythm section of Doug, Keith & Skip. We used drum machines, and I came up with the beat and bass line. I was into what I would call trance music at the time; I didn’t want any change in the bass line. I did a lot of different things with that track, like I put all the percussion parts on a backwards tape. That’s why you hear all those inverted cymbal sounds. I was exploring a lot of different things, and doing a lot of experimenting. JQ: What kind of drum machine is that? DB: The DMX. JQ: Where did you learn to program drum machines? DB: From Keith and Jiggs. They were at the forefront of that. JQ: Was that the first record that you played the drum machine on? DB: Yeah, indeed. We had drum machines at home that we played around with like drumatix, but that was the first time on record. After we cut that record everything went nuts! We had cut a track that Doug , Skip and all of us came up with. It ended up being called Space Race. We were gonna use that for the Message II. JQ: Yeah Sugar Hill Gang did Space Race on their Livin' In The Fast Lane Lp. They used that beat again on a song called Be A Winner. DB: I didn’t know that they had actually done it. But we all came up with that as a follow up to the Message, but Sylvia had the idea to use the track that Reggie Griffith did which was Survival and also Scorpio. But I wasn’t feeling’ that the same way that I was feeling the Space Race track, its like our original idea for the Message II Survival got hijacked. I wrote some stuff, and Mel wrote some stuff, but I held back some because I wasn’t feeling it the same. Then New York New York was Reggie again on the music. I liked that lyric, because when the Message hit I said that if I was gonna get out of here it would have to be now. Arista Records had given me the money to do some stuff, and New York ,New York was going to be for my album.
I happened to say the hook around Sylvia and she liked it , and asked me do it. Our input wasn’t the same on New York New York and Message II as it was on the Message. Its funny, the first money that I got from a major label was Arista. They gave me some developmental money, and I did some stuff and played it for Clive Davis and he didn’t like it, and I eventually signed with Mercury. I was like the second rapper to get a six figure deal. When I left Sugar Hill I needed a lawyer, because my voice was on these records and I had no paper work. I got turned on to Steve Kopitko who was an excellent lawyer, and was just branching out on his own. Steve turned put me on with Mercury/Polygram. JQ: Yeah, liked your first single for Mercury – Livewire. DB: Yeah you and about 4 other people. That record got critical acclaim and that’s about it. When the critics called it sophisticated that was the kiss of death. I did a lot of production though, and I had some music in the movie Beat Street. In fact the first music that is played in the movie is something that I did. I got hooked up through Arthur Baker who was a good friend of mine. He got his start doing Planet Rock, and by the time that I left the industry he was producing Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross.
I met a lot of people hanging’ out with Arthur. Like I met Miles Davis at the Sun City sessions that Arthur was a part of. If you look at the footage from Sun City Arthur had me speaking outside down at the park. I was always a teacher and lecturer so speaking in front of people was never a big thing and Arthur knew that.
JQ: Looking at your solo release – Bust Me Out it looks like you kept the same family musically as your Sugar hill days. DB: When you’re playin’ with the baddest cats on the planet you don’t wanna change the formula. JQ: Who are your favorite 3 bands or solo artists from any genre? DB: Steely Dan, Miles Davis & Bob Marley. I can't leave out Hendrix and Prince so you gotta give me 5. A little known history of Prince is that Tony Sylvester of The Main Ingredient discovered Prince, and made a with him before I Wanna Be Your Lover. We ran into Tony and he was telling us how he had this guy that was gonna be so big, and he was in Minnesota and played every instrument. The record finally came out on some ol' funny label after Prince got big. But I would say that Prince is the most important popular musician of the last 50 years. JQ: Ok im gonna go back. Since you mentioned Miles Davis, and the last few musicians that I have interviewed rate him very highly as well – what is it about Miles that made him so great? DB: Look on his last lp called Do Bop. He has a song named after me, and he samples one of my songs in it. But one of my early teachers was James Mtume who had the group Mtume. Before that he was a jazz musician who I idolized. He played like I wanted to play. Whenever he made his little independent records and sold them outside of his gigs, I helped him sell them. Well he used to play with Miles, and I wanted a Miles gig. But I have 17 records by Miles Davis and he never replays the same things or imitates what he did before. He is the definition of prolific. He was also the coolest nigga on Earth to us.
At clubs Miles looked better than everybody else, his bitches looked better than everybody else’s, his car – everything. He was just the man. You would cherish every time you got a chance to be around him and hear him play. He was the man, and you got no higher than him. I got a chance to meet him when I was with James Mtume, and again with the Sun City project. But like Keith Leblanc told you, silence is a note as well and Miles mastered that along with knowing how to play with yourself and your band as well. JQ: Take me from Mercury as an artist, to starting the legendary Beauty & The Beat Records. DB: This guy named Maxx Kidd had all the Go Go labels and released records by Trouble Funk and all those guys; he knew Joe Robinson and he was an inspiration. But when we went to the new music seminar we saw all these guys who had their own companies. It was cool being musicians and producers ,but it was like wow how do these cats have their own companies? I met Adrian Sherwood from the UK, and he had his own label, and I said im going to England- if he can do it, then I am too!! The thing with the UK distributors is that they don’t do returns. If they order 500 records they pay for 500 records and they own them.
In America they might order 1000 and return 500 that didn’t sell. Over there they had all these independents that would cut one record and make enough to do the next one. It was an attitude that we didn’t know about, but the way its structured over there is more conducive to independent labels. So I went to the UK and learned from those guys and came back to Jersey. There was this guy that owned Vogel’s record stores named Jeff Sturman, and I wanted to cut a record. Well all the kids on the street were talking about this DJ Cheese , and how when he gave a party how good it was, so I said I have to see this DJ Cheese!! This guy who worked at Vogels took me to see him at his mothers house in the projects. He had his shit set up in the closet!! He blew my mind! He was in the 10th grade at the time, and I was used to workin’ with Flash and all those older guys, but he was better than all of ‘em!! They had just started doing the Dj competitions at the New Music Seminar, so I called Tom Silverman and got Cheese in and he killed ‘em. Then we took him to England and he won internationally. But let me back up…. I went to a talent show and these 2 guys came out and the girls went crazy. So I got with them. I was gonna get with this guy from Elizabeth named Vaughn who ended up being Cool V that was down with Biz Markie ( Vaughn is Biz's Dj & cousin).
JQ: Ok when you mentioned Vogel’s I thought about him because in Biz’s video for The Vapors Vaughn is at Vogel’s. DB: That’s a very true story, cus Vaughn was tryin' to get with us first, until I saw Cheese. Vaughn was from Elizabeth , and he was a neighborhood kid, who I was told was good. But once I saw Cheese I knew that he was the nigga. Cheese was a mother fucker and there’s just no other way to say it. I hooked him up with Word Of Mouth (the 2 guys from the previously mentioned talent show) and they made a few good records. JQ: So Cheese and Word Of Mouth weren’t together already. DB: No, I put them together. But Cheese was a phenomenon by himself!! He used to give these parties that were standing room only. Cheese had what you call a following. I ran a teenage club and I promoted parties and as long as Cheese was djing we were making money. We would make money till the fights broke out. But the Vapors was a true story. Biz used to come to those parties and I made everybody pay – even if you’re getting on the mic!!! Biz used to knock on by basement door begging for me to produce him. But I didn’t hear Biz I have to be honest, I was like what is this guy special ed? I really didn’t hear him (meaning not feeling his music). When he made the Vapors that’s when I started feeling him. In fact that’s my partner Jeff in the video. Vaughn lived four blocks from me and he came from a good family. Cool Vs father used to buy him equipment and drive him around in his van to his gigs. He was a good kid, and probably still is. I remember when they started making money he wasn’t spending it on stupid shit. I was glad to see his success with Biz. But Biz was one talent that I missed out on.
JQ: With Cheese and King Kut he was using parts of Jam Master Jay by Run DMC. Then Profile picked King Kut up for distribution. Was that just coincidence? DB: Here’s what happened. Cory Robbins from Profile called me and said that he was going to sue us. I was like: fuck it how long is the suit gonna last? Because unless they get an injunction we were selling records hand over fist. So Cory invited me to his office and said look how about if I buy the record from you? He made me a pretty good offer and that was it. JQ: Cheese's involvement on the Sun City project was through you and Arthur Baker? DB: Yeah. In fact I think that he was Djing at the Roxy the night that he came to the studio and did that song (Let Me See Your I.d.) JQ: Now Coast to Coast came out on Profile. Had Cory bought the group at this point? DB: Yeah they were signed to him then. That record sold moderately well, of all the rap records that I cut that was one of my favorites. JQ: You produced all that Beauty & The Beat stuff? DB: Yeah all of it. If you heard like a bass or something that was Doug Wimbish, but all those records were stripped down. They just had what I call the essentials. I wanted them to sound like the kids did ‘em at home. JQ: What kind of drum machine were you using, because those records had some big beats. My little crew was using the Boss Dr Rhythm and those toy , and we wondered how to get the big beats like you were putting out. DB:(laughs) I was using the DMX, but I was also experimenting with a lot of reverb and listening to a lot of Jamaican records. This kid named Scientist was mixing a lot of Jamaican records, and there is a record that I always talk about that changed the way we heard digital delay and that was D Train. They did Keep On and You’re The One For Me They were using digital delay on voices , percussion and everything in a way that fucked us up. They were using it in a way that it hadn’t been used before.
At a certain point American engineers would set the levels on the mixing board and just leave it. Jamaican dub engineers would use the board like another instrument. They would take a guitar part and pan it right and left. Americans would set the levels and run it. If you go back and listen to all those Beauty & The Beat records, in addition to a rhyme or vocal hook they had an audio hook as well. Like King Kut had the kingly theme from England. Or Coast To Coast had the Marines theme. All these melodies kids knew and I was working it on a subliminal level. JQ: You had the Latin Rascals on the edits right? DB: Yeah I was just about to talk about them. I got with them through Arthur Baker. These 2 young Puerto Rican cats stayed in the studio just cutting tape for these edits. They kind of looked up to me & Arthur in a way because we made music that they had grown up on. But they got real big after awhile and they were doin' work for everybody. JQ: You mentioned the stripped down method earlier. Do you think that Sugar Hill would have lasted longer if they had taken some of those instruments out around ’83 when Run DMC came out stripped down? DB: Sylvia was from a different era. She heard music and songs. She transitioned it from being just a breakdown, which most of those records were based on a breakdown, to something that people could accept. If Run and them had come earlier with that it probably wouldn’t have worked. A lot of the Sugar hill stuff got people ready to hear Run DMC and that era. I met Run when he was Joey – Kurtis Blows Dj and Russell’s little brother! JQ: Do you think that if Sylvia had stripped it down earlier the label would have survived longer, or was there too much drama and what not by that point? DB: I don’t think that would have saved the label. By that time their name had become synonymous with a certain way of doing business. And Russell Simmons proved to be a genius who was doing business on the up & up and of course everyone wants to go where the business is right. Russell used to promote parties way back. See we thought that you had to have Jewish or White representation. Russell was doing parties with Kurtis Blow, but nobody knew that he would become the Russell that he is today. He had a vision that wasn’t just chitlin’ circuit ,and he knew how to sell that shit to White people. It didn’t hurt that he was down with Rick Rubin either. Andre Harrell is another genius. I remember when I produced a few cuts on him as an artist (Dr Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde) he was just about to get his label deal.
Black Rob & Heavy D and all them would come by the studio. See he was into these kids from good families and stuff – Al B. Sure and all them. Man I didn’t give a fuck!!! I would get the record now,and worry about whether you are in jail later. (JayQuan is laughing) But he was right and I was wrong. You have to get the kids with street skills, but that have a more cultured background. See many of these kids were gonna be jailbirds anyway! They come from jailbird families. For many of them rap is just an interlude between them and jail, they go back to what their roots are. But he was right. One thing time and history does is tell you who is right or wrong.
JQ: I say that about Malcolm X all the time. I have a lot of debate footage where Malcolm would be wearin’ out these NAACP cats. Then years later when Malcolm is dead and these NAACP dudes are on their death beds, they start saying all the mistakes they made, and how Malcolm was right on so many things. That shit got me heated!! DB: I saw Malcolm X live when I was in the 7th grade. He was debating one of my father’s best friends, who was the regional president of the NAACP. His name was John Harvard. He was the most intelligent dude I had ever seen in my life, and Malcolm chewed him up!! And there was no denying it. Its like when you hear truth for the first time. Like I don’t wanna put Melle Mel on the same level as Malcolm X, but the first time that I heard Mel I was like damn. It was that same feeling. JQ: Yeah Mel was a mother fucker man. I tell him all the time that he is a musical prophet. DB: It’s the same thing when I first heard D’Angelo. I knew that this guy had something in him. There are just certain artists like that. When you hear the truth you know it, and it attracts people because there is so much bullshit out there. When people heard My Adidas they could relate to it more than King Of Rock and Walk This Way. Or when I heard Rakim. That dude changed the whole rhyme scheme. JQ: Yeah he took what Moe Dee and Melle Mel were doin’ to another level. DB: Yeah Moe Dee was an intelligent brother. I think that his mom was a teacher or something. The Treacherous 3 is a group that I thought big things would happen to, because they were just nice kids. They had the same thing as L.L.- they were just likable. I also thought that Busy Bee would get bigger. He was a funny nigga! It never translated to records but he could make you laugh. JQ: And he still is funny!! Back to the Beauty And The Beat catalog. The Z-3 Mcs were from Baltimore. That was a rarity for a non New York group at that time to get love from up top. How did you link up with them?
DB: One of my best friends was a guy named Thornton Daniels from Baltimore. Cheese & me gave a talent show down at a roller skating rink in Baltimore and these guys won. They were young, like 9th & 10th grade. They were very interesting and the beat box was phenomenal. JQ: That’s another record that I bought based on the record cover. When I saw beat box convention on the cover, and it was the same label as King Kut, I knew it couldn’t be bad. And it didn’t disappoint. Again it had that big beat to it. DB: Well I knew how to make a record based on all those that I did at Sugar Hill. We went to Frankford Wayne & Herbie Powers would master them. One thing I learned early on was being involved in every part of the process, from pre-production to cutting the tracks, mixing and taking it to the mastering lab. I don’t know if Keith & Doug told you, but we used to master shit beyond the limits. Like the mastering engineer would say “im telling you as a professional I don't wanna do this because it's too live (loud). I remember mastering engineers saying don’t ask for any money back when this record doesn’t play, 'cus you’re trying to cut it too deeply.
The thing was to get the record louder than what the mastering engineer wanted, but not to the point of distortion. You gotta remember your record is gonna be in the clubs and on the radio. You don’t want the record before and after yours to sound louder than yours. I used to get my mix right, then play it on one mono speaker in the studio to see what sounds cuts through. The bass was boomin’ but I always wanted some percussion effects in the high frequency range. JQ: A lot of people have used the intro to the Z-3 Mcs in their records. I know Erick Sermon sampled it, and a lotta UK guys cut it up. Do they get clearance? DB: Hell no they don’t clear it. JQ: Those records are valuable. I have seen sealed copies of King Kut go for close to 100 dollars. DB: (laughs) King Kut used to get so many returns. I used to put them on the street and the kids threw them like Frisbees. I used to get pissed off at the returns so I set them out with the garbage. Kids had a ball with them. JQ: One mans trash is another mans treasure. Cats tell me how they gave away their certified gold albums… DB: Man I got so much shit in the basement. You have to understand when you’re sittin' around broke looking at a gold record it means nothin’. You can’t eat it. It actually starts to piss you off. JQ: Where were the Point Blank Mcs from? DB: They were from Elizabeth NJ. They used to hang around Word Of Mouth; in fact they lived in the same projects. They had a little following. Some of them went on to do good things. One of them became a minister, and was doing outreach work in Africa. They were from the projects but they had other things going on. In fact my mother was a 3rd grade teacher and she taught one of them.
JQ: What did Z-3 end up doing? DB: They had illustrious careers in crime. They came up the rough side of the mountain. I know that at least one of them is dead. JQ: Ok how about the solo joint that you did called Broadway, which was on Beauty & The Beat? DB: One of my favorite joints of all times was Broadway by Dyke & The Blazers, and I always wanted to cut something on that. I spent a lot of time in New York, and I envisioned making a song about taking Broadway from the bottom of Manhattan all the way up to Harlem. JQ: Alright going back a bit, when you left Sugar hill going to Mercury did Sylvia give you her blessings? DB: Well giving me her blessings would be goin too far, but I never signed anything exclusive with them. One of my father’s friends had been one of Joe Robinson’s lawyers, and he told me that I might not get everything that I thought I was. So its not like I didn’t know who I was dealing with, I knew. Going in I planned on later parlaying that situation into something else like I did. JQ: And you are still cool with the Robinson's today right? DB: Yes, I talk to Sylvia, and you’re always cool with them until you go to court. When you go to court the cool is gone. JQ: So are you part of the class action suit against them? DB: No, but I may do something on my own later. JQ: I will ask you like I did Mel. Is it hard being around them being that you feel you are owed large amounts of monies, but still be cool with them ? DB: That’s part of the genius with of Joe & Sylvia. Now this is not true with Joey Jr. But Joe & Sylvia are like mother & father figures to a certain degree. You might not like what you mother & father are doing, but they are still your mother and father if that makes sense. That’s the hold that they had over all of us for a long time. Plus Sylvia just has ways – the woman is phenomenal! Did you know that you weren’t getting the right money? ..yes…and you knew that it was selling but you dealt with it the best way you could. Now the kids like Flash & them they honestly didn’t know what they were getting into, but like I said I knew. JQ: When The Message appears in movies like Happy Feet, and the numerous places that it appears in pop culture do you get a royalty? DB: I probably wont get anything from Joe & Sylvia, but I will get BMI (publishing company) money for it. You would have to track Joey Jr and Sylvia down to get your real money, and that’s why everybody ends up in court. I don’t know if Mel or anybody told you, but if you’re low on money you can go up there and get you maybe 4 or 5 thousand dollars. Over the course of 4 or so years it might add up to 30,000 thousand or whatever.
Now that ain’t what you’re supposed to get, but if you’re tight for cash you can go up and get a few thousand. There have been times that I went to her and said look I need some money for whatever, and she would find a way to get me 5 thousand or whatever I needed. Its not what I'm owed, but it's some money. That’s why you can put up with a lot of things. If you go to court you will eventually get something – but what are you gonna do before that shit?…in the meantime? JQ: Do you feel that Sylvia did a divide & conquer on the Furious 5? DB: You mean purposely ? JQ: Yes… DB: Well, I don’t put anything pass them. It could have been done that way. I remember Joe Robinson said to me “this record is gonna be too big. It's gonna cause a problem”. See when a record gets that big everybody wants to know where the money is. Because somebody is making some. You look at your own bank account and you know it ain't you. But there were times that I thought that she was playin’ up to Flash. Other times I thought she played to Mel & Scorpio. Sylvia was like a personal politician. She could play one part against the other to maintain control. She looks at the most essential element to make the group work. If she feels its Mel, then that’s who she pulls in. JQ: It seems like the successful people whether its Puffy, Russell, Sylvia, or Donald Trump have that stigma of being shrewd. It’s almost like a good guys finish last thing. DB: Joe Robinson once said ”you may as well do whatever you’re gonna do, because the artist is gonna swear that you robbed them either way”. Every artist at some point is gonna say that the producer is stealing their money. I have been in the situation. I have been sitting at a table and heard someone say so and so cut a record with Duke Bootee and he never paid them. Im like I never saw this person in my life!!! It's just part of the business. Like you said any one who is successful is gonna have enemies. JQ: Back to the records. I have a bizarre one here by Wooly Reasonable & The Yo Culture. DB: Yeah that singer was this kid from Hartford, he was a jazz singer and I can’t remember his name. But Doug & them are playing on it. I cut that here and sold it to Polygram for distribution in England. JQ: The name of your current book is the Yo Culture. What exactly is the Yo Culture?
DB: In urban areas the word yo is used in different ways, and then people started callin’ each other yo. And the Yo Culture is about these urban people, how they talk, how they live and think. The book is about it even more directly. It’s about a family of 7 kids by one mother, 4 different fathers and their struggles over a year. Its street literature – the mother is a crack head. You know how you ride down the street and you see a crack head walking around in a circle? Most of those women have families, and its like if you followed them home to see their family life. I taught in juvenile corrections and I saw some crazy stuff, and how the value system of kids is so different. People cursing out their parents – it’s a whole different culture. Adults my age say they have no values. I say they are just different values. JQ: Who is Tululah Moon? DB: She was from Hartford as well. She was a big legged, big titty girl who could sing her fat ass off!! JQ: Ok I'm glad that you said that because I definitely caught everything that you described. DB: Duane Mitchell who was Sugar Hill Gangs keyboard player, and did stuff for the O Jays and Levert was from Hartford, and he hooked me up with her. He said she is just your type - she has big legs and titties and can sing her ass off!!! And he was right on all of that!.
JQ: I'm gonna name some joints, and I want you to tell me something interesting about that track. Freedom: I usually didn’t stay to see or hear the vocals put over the tracks, especially after seeing the Gang do theirs. Not that they were boring, but it was a boring process. But seeing the Furious 5 blew my mind. The way they divided phrases, doubled up and did them in unison. And no one could do a party track like them. That’s a forgotten art – the party track. Rahiem had characters he would use. Mel was growling, Mr. Ness had some slick shit and Creole with his yes yes y'all. 8th Wonder: I remember Jiggs put this little piano in the track. I remember liking it a lot. That was a big record for them and it sold a lot more than many people know. I used to like to do that one live. Master Gee used to drive the girls crazy. He was an early sex symbol in rap, and I think that Mel and them were kinda jealous of it. He was cut a little bit back then, and this was before those guys got into fitness and pumped up. Flash to the Beat: I wasn’t involved in that one, but I remember tellin’ Flash when I saw him playin’ the beat box that he better hope that I didn’t get one, cus I would wear his ass out. When I got mine we went on the road and we had a contest one night before a show at a sound check. If memory serves me correctly I wore him out. Even some of the Furious 5 admitted it. But Flash actually exposed me to the beat box. Dance (Make Your Body Move) – Joey might have tried to do the vocoder on that. He didn’t play on anything, but he was involved in the song selection. Craig Derry, Sabrina Gillison & Cindy Mizelle sang on those West Street Mob Records. They were all talented people. Its Nasty: Yeah that was the cover of the Tom Tom Club song. I remember Willie Starjoe was a big baseball player from my generation – Flash & them didn’t know who he was. He brought his daughters to one of the concerts and came backstage afterwards. We thought he was gonna love the shit. But back then Furious had a raunchy act. I mean they used to grab their nuts and everything. That was a big deal back then. But he said that was the nastiest thing he ever saw, and he was mad he brought he daughters.
To show you how quick Mel was he said “do you know what the name of our song is, what kind of father are you?. If you kept up with what your daughters were doing you would know its called Its Nasty. And we are nasty”!! Furious were great live. I remember that they were the only rap act back then to use the whole stage. Rappers would get on and stand in one spot!!! I think that they learned from watching Funkadelic and Cameo and all the guys we opened up for. But they gave a real show. Disco Dream: Yeah Mean Machine. I think they were Puerto Rican some of them. They did the Grace Jones track. Last time I saw the DJ for that group was at Michael Jackson’s Victory tour after party. JQ: What are you doing today?
DB: Promoting my book The Yo Culture, and writing my new book Who Shot Duke Bootee, which is a post modern Hip Hop who done it. It’s a ghetto thriller about drugs, organ (body organs) theft and shootings. It's crazy. These books are what will be soon called Hip Hop literature. I always wanted to write ,and I finally have time. Im about to do some music again too. I am falling back in love with music again. At one point the music business wasn’t pushing my buttons anymore. JQ: Since you are 95% responsible for the record that sparked social lyrics in rap music, let me ask if you agree with Chuck Ds old analogy that rap is the Black communities CNN?
DB: For one segment yes. It represents the hopes and desires of one segment of the Black community. Rap has become regional. There is rap from different areas of the country. Rap for Whites, rap for Blacks, rap for middle class Blacks. Everything isn’t gold teeth and rims. The larger thing that makes possible is entrepreneurship. Like I know now that my book will sell. I didn’t have to wait for a White person. There is no critic or company that can convince me that there is no market for my stuff. Just like in the beginning with rap, people made their tapes and cab drivers rode around listening to them. Me & my best friend Humberto Fernandez whom I’ve known since I was 10 years old, put our own money together, and we will sell it ourselves. My definition of Hip Hop is get funky make money and you don’t stop. In fact you can call the interview that. If you have something that is live & vibrant put it out there and make some money from it. Then keep doing it. … **SPECIAL THANKS TO KEITH LE BLANC & HUMBERTO FERNANDEZ © 2007 Jay-Quan Dot Com No part may be copied or reproduced without authors consent.