THE MR. SCHICK INTERVIEW
The Summer of 1981 was on fire musically. I often speak of the magic that surrounded the anthemic summer releases of the early 80s and the subsequent rap songs that would use the same musical backdrop, but insert that unmistakable youthful energy that no music until that point could. It's the same energy that The Sugar Hill Gang had inserted into Chic's Good Times two years previous with Rappers Delight. That energy would transform Tom Tom Club's already perfect 1981 classic Genius Of Love into It's Nasty by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5; an incredible recording that was part of the soundtrack to my first middle school dance as a 6th grader. That energy blew my 11 year old mind when Grace Jones dominated every urban dance floor, boom box and radio dial with Pull Up To My Bumper. A five man Bronx Crew calling themselves The Mean Machine would take Ms. Jones' Sly & Robbie produced track and transform it into a bilingual game changer. It's an honor to speak with Mr. Schick of The Mean Machine!
JayQuan: It's an honor to speak to you bro. Where were you born and raised, and what were your early music inspirations?
Mr. Schick: I was born and raised in the Bronx in 1957, and I moved to Puerto Rico for the second through fourth grades. Then I moved back to the Bronx, and I moved to South Carolina in 1982. I was inspired by Latin music in the streets and R&B. Gospel played a lot in my house, my mother was a Christian.
JQ: When did you first hear rap music and experience Hip Hop culture?
MS: I lived all over the Bronx - near Bronx River, Fordham Rd, Jerome Avenue, White Plains. I was a graf writer for 10 years before rap even appeared on record, but being in the Bronx I heard rap everywhere from it's inception.
JQ: That's interesting. Grandmaster Flash caused some controversy a few years ago when he suggested that graffiti isn't a part of Hip Hop culture, but instead was just something happening in impoverished neighborhoods at the same time as the other "elements".
MS: Well, of course graf was around long before any element of Hip Hop. It's possible that KRS ONE used to write. I've never met him, but that sounds like a graf name. I used to write Schick 1. But I would agree with Flash, it wasn't necessarily an element, but it was one of many things happening at the time of Hip Hop's beginning.
JQ: Where did the name Schick come from. Does it have any special meaning?
MS: I was walking around in our neighborhood corner store one day, and I was looking around to see if any name caught my eye. I saw Schick razor blades, and I went with that. I just added Mr. when I started rapping.
JQ: So how did you end up becoming an Emcee, and a member of The Mean Machine?
MS: Well, my parents moved from the Bronx to South Carolina and I chose to stay behind. I had my own job and apartment. I lost my job and as a result my apartment, and I was literally homeless. I had a cousin who lived a few blocks away and I stayed at his place for awhile, but he was married and his wife wasn't really digging me staying there, so he let me know in a nice way. I was sleeping in cars and abandoned buildings. Julio who was the leader of the Mean Machine lived right across the street from me. My Father owned a store and he used to ask the guys to come and play music in front of the store. I believe that my father saw it as a way to attract potential customers. I was looking for any way to stay warm and fed, so I asked the group if I could carry equipment, crates of records etc for them as a way to get a little bit of money. They agreed, and I would hang out at their rehearsals as a way to stay warm. One of the group members got locked up, and I knew all of his parts, so Julio's son (Cool Cliff) suggested that I become his replacement until they could find someone else.
JQ: So when you arrived to the group, it was Julio, Jimmy Mac and the DJ Mr. Nice. Was Cool Cliff part of the group yet?
MS: No he wasn't. Cliff was actually Julio's son, who was ten years old. We added him later. I believe that he passed at the age of 14. He was at a phone booth in front of a store talking to his girlfriend and some guys robbed the store. Cliff got hit by a stray bullet. That's the story that I heard.
But I started writing my own rhymes, and I felt like I wanted to do something different, and no one was rapping in Spanish so I started incorporating Spanish parts. I kept this to myself, and I only told my cousin who I mentioned previously because even though I could speak Spanish fluently I couldn't write it as well as he could, so I needed help with certain words. We used to do these remotes (shows at various locations sponsored by a radio station) for WKTU, and we were doing one at a beach. It may have been Brighton beach or Coney Island - I cant remember which.
JQ: Let me interrupt for a second. This was before you made your record correct?
MS: Yes, this was definitely before our record. Our record was released in 1981.
JQ: And you were actually doing shows with the group before Rappers Delight and the first rap records?
MS: Yes definitely.
JQ: Were you playing at any of the clubs like the Fever , Harlem World etc?
MS: I rapped at the Fever but not on an official show. But I've gotten on the mic at the Fever, just like in what guys call a cipher now. Nothing official at all. Julio was cool with The Harlem World Crew which was Charlie Rock, Son Of Sam, Jeckyll & Hyde and those guys. We were definitely in Harlem World. In fact I remember in the Dj booth there were these plastic back-lit letters that spelled out Mean Machine. I never knew why, and I never asked. I just assumed that it could have something to do with Julio and his affiliation with them. I always thought that was strange though.
JQ: My apologies. Just wanted to clarify the timeline. So before you even made a record you were doing these WKTU remotes...
MS: Yes, and we had one at this beach and there were what seemed like thousands of people there, mostly Black & Hispanic youth. But it was wild. When you're in your own neighborhood and you know your surroundings it's one thing, but we weren't, so it was a little wild. But we started performing and when it was my turn I started saying my Spanish rhymes. Jimmy & Julio looked at me like I was crazy for going off script. But the crowd went wild so it was cool. After the show was over they were giving us high fives and cheering us, because they weren't used to being represented like that. My position in the group became permanent at that time.
JQ: Wow. You were making history.
MS: Yes, and I just wanna say that there were many Latinos in Hip Hop from day one. I've seen people label me the first Latino MC. That's not my claim. I may have been the first recorded MC rapping in Spanish, but there were many Latino Mc's.
JQ: I remember people debating whether Spanglish by Spanish Fly (on Enjoy Records) dropped before Mean Machine. I know that they both dropped in '81..... So how did you guys get signed to Sugar Hill Records?
MS: Julio & Jimmy went to the label hoping to meet Sylvia. She wasn't around, and they were told to come back the next day. We went back, and we were going to originally leave a demo tape with them, but I knew that I had something special with the Spanish rhymes, and I didn't wanna leave a tape with them. What if someone stole my rhymes? So we had Mr. Nice mixing Pull Up To My Bumper by Grace Jones, and we rapped over that.
JQ: Wow, so that wasn't the labels idea. You came in the door with Pull Up .
MS: Yes, and that's how most of the groups on the label got their music. They already knew
what beat they wanted to rap over, and they brought it to Sylvia, and she had Jiggs Chase write arrangements and the band would record it. So we performed for them, I think it was Joe, Sylvia and someone else. The only person in the room who wasn't Black was Milton.
JQ: He was the money guy right?
MS: Yes he was. They liked our audition and they told us to come back the next week, and the contracts would be drawn up. When we returned the track was already done. We just had to lay vocals.
JQ: I know that Sylvia was an excellent producer and arranger and she had the ear for a hit. Was she in the studio, and how active was she in the recording process?
MS: She was there, and she was hands on, but not too much.
JQ: That was a well put together record. Especially at the end when you're doing your Spanish parts and the way that the percussion blends with it.
MS: Yes, that was Ed Fletcher (Duke Bootee). I actually saw him doing that. I remember that he couldn't get the sound that he wanted, so he took these 2 by 4 wooden planks into the hallway with a mic and beat them together for the sound he wanted.
JQ: When you guys toured with the Sugar Hill Revue how did you get along with your label mates?
MS: We got along well. We shared a bus with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and The Sequence. We had lots of fun.
JQ: On your first verse of Disco Dream you did this fast rap "soul shockin', body rockin, finger poppin, never stoppin',know what's coming never going, getting crazy never lazy, hypnotizing mesmerizin' money makin booty shakin', got the power never sour I'm expanding never landin, always smoking never choking, overtaking never breaking".....that was dope. Did you write that?
MS: Yes I did
JQ: Between The Treacherous 3 with the fast raps on New Rap Language and you with that verse, you inspired many of us who were Mc's. But of course your next verse with "wepa wepa". I didn't understand a word that you said except "American Latina".
MS: Wepa doesn't really have a meaning. It's an expression of excitement like oh yeah!
WEPA, WEPA Ahi namas
Les abri las puertas a este ritmo, si que tanto les facina
Se lo traje en español mi gente para America Latina
Si ustedes quieren gozar
Y de la vida disfrutar
Olviden los problemas Y empiezen a bailar
Tiren sus manos al aire yes...means throw your hands in the air y sigan con el Baile means dance your body like you just don’t care...
Como la sal y la pimienta que sazonan tu comida
Aqui esta Mean Machine para sazonar tu vida.
The thing is that I had so much more Spanish, but I had to chop it down to fit the song. I really wish that I could have said everything that I wrote. I will translate it real quick for you. I don't have it written down so bear with me. But it's basically: " I open the doors to this rhythm that fascinates you so, I bring it in Spanish to my people for Latin America. If you want to enjoy life, forget your problems and start dancing ". I was trying to give an intro to what I was doing, like when Wonder Mike said "what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat".
JQ: Wow I've been waiting 37 years to hear that translation (from you). Dope! I was looking forward to the next Mean Machine single. What happened?
MS: Sugar Hill had their hands in everything. When you first signed they wanted to trademark your name. That's what happened to the Moments (later Ray, Goodman & Brown) and The Sugar Hill Gang. But we came with our name and our own management. We were kinda frowned upon out of the gate because they wanted to be the manager,publisher and record label. When we saw our royalty statement, it said that we were in the hole. I knew that couldn't be right because our record was selling. I looked at the catalog number on the royalty statement and I know that our record # was SH 564. On the royalty statement it said SH 546. I looked up SH 546 and that was Super Wolf!
JQ: Wow, Super Wolf Can Do It . Lol. I begged my Mother to buy me that because as a kid I had to have every Sugar Hill Record. I know that you guys sold more than Super Wolf.
MS: Right. So the finances weren't right, and we were on the radio being interviewed by Frankie Crocker. He asked how it felt having one of the hottest records of the summer. Jimmy was the youngest in the group and
.he started talking about how the label wasn't paying us. Of course they heard it, and they sat us down. They froze us and left us there to fizzle out. We couldn't do anything. I moved to South Carolina and the other guys went on and made a few records on other labels.
JQ: Wow...I always wondered was there another Mean Machine because i've heard some New Yorkers refer to "The Mean Machine from Spanish Harlem".
MS: Yes, I heard much later on that there was another Mean Machine. We never heard of them back then though.
JQ: Its been an honor. With rap music being as big as it is many of the pioneers make claims of being the first to do something. But you truly set off something that is still felt and heard today. I heard a Cardi B remix recently, and there's a guy rapping in Spanish for the entire song, and I couldn't help but reminisce and reflect on Disco Dream.
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