During the early to mid ’70s, visionaries like Kool DJ Herc introduced new ideas to the way music was played. Like some other music-loving ‘bredren and sistren’ along with myself, Kool DJ Herc was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Following the footsteps of Jamaicans that came before him, he relocated to the Bronx, NYC and took root. With a sound system like no other, there was always a party when Herc spun records. Folks from all city boroughs showed up, and brought their friends. Most of them had never experienced anything like Herc’s thunder in the clubs or at ‘block parties,’ where he was a hometown favorite. There’ll be more on these unique, social gatherings a little later. Kool DJ Herc was one of those cats that was thinking outside the box for a long time, and inspired other DJs to follow suit. Everywhere Herc touched down, he left a distinctive mark imprinted in the minds, bodies, and souls of music lovers in and around the vicinity.
Afrika Bambaataa was homegrown in the Bronx. He is best-known for taking the radical, independent factions of the Hip-Hop lifestyle and organizing it all into an urban music society…and for being the first rapper, ever. In 1984, he worked on the song “Unity” with the recently departed Godfather of Soul, James Brown. (We’re gonna miss ya, ‘Soul Brother #1.’) By mixing block parties with DJs and break-dancers, he synergized all the varying entities of Hip-Hop through his Zulu Nation. The Zulus educated inner-city youth about their history and empowered them to be productive citizens. His ears were open to all types of music as he became a catalyst for blending rhythmic styles from Africa with Funk, Go-Go, Jazz, Reggae, Rock, Salsa and Soca for the first time in music history.
Bambaataa’s affiliations included the Rock Steady Crew and Double Dutch Girls. There was also a spray-painting graffiti artist who parlayed his love for ‘visual art’ into being the host of a popular show that engaged the minds of America’s Black and White youth. It ended up changing Rap music history all over the world. Now with a ‘retired’ can of spray paint, Yo MTV Raps’ Fab 5 Freddy was also a key player in the classic film, “New Jack City.” There’ll be more on that captured moment in time a little later, after we finish up with Afrika Bambaataa (& friends), and dig further into the chapter: there’s some real meat in thar! That’s what’s up.
Afrika Bambaataa became a major music producer in his own right. He spent a lot of time logged in at Tommy Boy Records between 1982 and 2017. While there, he produced a huge hit for the New York club and radio scene, 1982’s “Funky Sensation.” To me, that song defined a new era of music for both myself and the City of New York. “Funky Sensation” helped to establish a path that many dance music producers followed, well into the new millennium. Another historical Rap label that Bambaataa put some time in with was Profile Records.
Profile was the home of a trio that made music history: Run-DMC and the late Jam Master Jay. Their chronicles defined the next wave of Hip-Hop and fashion by way of brimmed Fedoras, leather pants, blues jeans, and unlaced, Adidas sneakers. During the winter, they sported snorkels with fur around the hood. In New York winters of the 70s, we sported hats like Kangols (still popular) and ‘Robin Hoods'(with side feathers) on the dome. Some folks liked toboggins and ski caps for their ‘masking’ feature. Brooklyn later picked up a pseudonym–Crooklyn. Our 70s fashion also consisted of colorful silk shirts (Versace predecessors), polyester pants with stitched pleats running down the sides called Swedish Knits, and bell-bottom blue jeans with zippers at the foot.
Squares (L-7’s) wore no name ‘rejects,’ but our popular footwear included Converse All-Stars, red, black and green Pro Keds, Pumas (my favorite were rust-colored), PONY’s, and shell-toe Adidas. We had interesting acronyms for the latter two brands. “I could tell you, but…” you know the story. Looking back now, I notice that Adidas kept the same body style longer than the Ford Explorer did! My New York winter-wear included snorkels, sheepskins, leathers, ‘Maxie’ and ‘Cortefiel’ coats with soft fur on the collar; they were the rage. People got stuck up (ganked) for them, too. I once witnessed someone grab a friend’s hat right off his head – as the train doors closed (this guy was quick!)
Some of my ‘classic’ garments are still intact: a black Robin Hood hat with a now-wilted side feather, a colorful, winged (big collar) polyester shirt with a Disco theme on the front, my sky-blue high school graduation three-piece suit, ‘Mack’ full-length Maxie coat (it looked good; mom made it), and black Cortefiel coat are all stashed somewhere around Area 51. Don’t ask me what I’m going to do with them, but my coats still have fur around the collar. Does “E.T.W.” (Extra Terrestrial Wear) sound catchy to you? Let’s check in with ‘Rush’ (Phat Farms), ‘P-D’ (Sean John), ‘J to the Z’ and ‘Double D’ (RocaWear), ‘Fiddy’ (G-Unit), and WTC (Wu Wear) for the final answer.
I’m being told to nix the trip down memory lane and stick to the script, so it’s back to the original ‘bad boys’ of 80s Rap. Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay opened up Pandora’s box with their classic hit “Rock Box.” I got a premonition of what was around the corner for Rock and Rap early on: sampled ‘guitar crunches’ fused with ‘dem phat Hip-Hop beats, boyee!’ Then the crystal ball revealed something else to me – up jumped Def Jam Recordings, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, all using overdriven guitar sounds riding along with the big, deep 808 beat that caused car trunks (and the inside of your body) to vibrate.
Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay un-laced their Adidas and went on to re-make Rock group Aerosmith’s classic “Walk This Way,” then invited the original rockers to get in on it. Along the way, Run-DMC sold a ‘few million’ records. In the background was one Russell Simmons, pushing buttons on his remote control. Then he got a cellphone. But before groups like Run-DMC made it to the game, there was one of the first major league rappers–Afrika Bambaataa. Oh yeah; along with his group The Soulsonic Force, Bambaataa fired off a ground-breaking shot remembered as being ‘most strategically launched’ from the annals of New York’s urban jungle.
When the classic “Planet Rock” hit Billboard’s charts (it hit the year 1982 in a BIG way too), the song considerably changed music history. It used a similar robotic, vocoder-like sound as the one found in Kraftwerk’s smash “Trans-Europe Express.” “Planet Rock” was a smorgasbord of cool electronic sounds and Hip-Hop beats. Meshed together with samples from other records, it captured the attention of music lovers caught dancing to the non-stop, funky sensation of this incredible new beat. Afrika Bambaataa’s Electro-Funk style went on to influence the sound of music styles like Dance, Electronic, House, and Techno. If a sound system exists anywhere in the galaxy, I predict that “Planet Rock” will rock it. In the meantime, you can listen out for this classic hit on Internet radio, satellite radio, broadcast radio, clubs and dance parties everywhere. ‘Nuff said–next!
Creative minds of legendary pioneers such as Russell “Rush” Simmons, Eddie Cheeba, Spoonie G, Lovebug Starski, The Juice Crew, Marley Marl, MC Shan and D.J. Hollywood are also among those credited as being key leaders in the surge that brought Rap music and Hip-Hop culture to mainstream society. Many people may think the Sugar Hill Gang was one of a few initiating forces in Rap, but there were actually many other hot acts out there grinding to earn their dues
–like those affiliated with Rush Productions. Rush was building a name for itself as a music promotion company to be noticed. I’ll expound upon the meteoric rise of the dynamic institution which followed this event shortly thereafter.
With affiliations everywhere and credits that include the timely debut of Hip-Hop players like Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Scott La Rock, DJ Red Alert, and countless other faces hidden in the trenches, Rush was on a mission to conquer the world. The first-generation of Rap and Hip-Hop spawned a godfather, Russell Simmons, in addition to all these other creative talents. Collectively and in unison, they helped to centralize the cultural origins and sound of this music for an evolving world. The second-generation leaders of this new movement would include Russell’s little brother Joseph, who along with Darryl McDaniels and the late Jason Mizell, made up Run-DMC: the first artists of their kind to go platinum by selling a million Rap records on Profile Records. This was just the beginning; Def Jam Recordings was on the way.
Now let’s connect the dots with Sugar Hill: Back in 1957, a group called Mickey & Sylvia recorded a Bo Diddley song, “Love Is Strange.” Guitarist Mickey Baker and a vocalist named Sylvia Vanderpool established themselves in the music market as a potential hit-making duo. In 1964, Sylvia married a man named Joe Robinson. Their union led to the formation of a legacy that wouldn’t play itself fully out until the Rap craze hit. In 1973, Sylvia rolled the dice and released a huge hit, “Pillow Talk.” This song established a format that would be followed straight into the Disco heydays. Originally written for Al Green, his pass became Sylvia’s score when it tallied up a #1 R&B and #3 Pop hit. “Pillow Talk” was a sexy song that featured lots of heavy breathing, whispers, sighs and moans. It’s reminiscent of Donna Summer’s classic hit, “Love to Love You Baby.”
Sylvia Robinson synergized her abilities as a singer, musician, producer, and record executive to take her whole game to another level. As a key player at All Platinum Records, she had a hand in Shirley & Company’s 1975 hit “Shame Shame Shame.” This became a top dance song, and hit #12 on the Pop charts. By 1979, Englewood, New Jersey’s Sugar Hill Gang busted a big move by releasing a classic, “Rapper’s Delight.” In the background were Sylvia, Joe, and their Sugar Hill Record label. Passing their genes on to son Joey, Sugar Hill’s West Street Mob went on to release hits like “Ooh Baby” and “Sing A Simple Song/Another Muther For Ya.” Other aces in the deck included groups called The Sequence and The Funky 4+1. They scored a few hits with “Funk You Up,” “Simon Says,” and “That’s the Joint,” which used a nice sample from my girl Cheryl Lynn’s song “Got To Be Real.” We’ll be taking her song apart and putting it back together again in another chapter of this book series, “What Is A Song.”
Using finance money from Roulette Records chief Morris Levy (you can find out more about this guy in the book “Hit Men”–a highly-recommended favorite of mine. “I could tell you more, but…” You know the drill. As Sugar Hill grew, so did its artist roster, with the addition of Grandmaster Flash and his collective unit, The Furious Five. Although the Sugar Hill owners paid up a big balance and purchased the remaining interest in their company by the early 80’s, things began to sour for them: a deal with MCA Records died and a fire toasted their legendary studio. The label eventually shut it doors by 1986.
Almost 10 years later, retail-friendly Rhino Records picked up the Sugar Hill catalog and resuscitated the masters in the same way that they’ve done with many other lost or obscure masters. Through creative re-packaging, Rhino went on to revitalize the music (and some careers) of artists that were probably still waiting on royalties from the previous owners of their master recordings. The Sugar Hill Gang, West Street Mob and Sequence all have been released on various Sugar Hill compilations. An interesting occurrence after the Sugar Hill assault was the massive availability of the sequencer, drum machine, synthesizer, sampler and MIDI around the early 80s.
‘Creatives’ and ‘infamists’ among the likes of Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, The Bomb Squad and producer Marley Marl locked themselves up in ‘Big Apple laboratories’ coming up with the next lethal mix of sound. When released, Def Jam and the ‘Sound of Marl’ quickly put music listeners into a ‘yoke’ as concoctions they whipped up became highly potent chemicals on the proverbial ‘periodic music table of elements’ upon hitting the airwaves; through radio station, mobile and club DJs. I cannot over-emphasize it enough: ‘BIG UPS’ to these guys! After the creative synergy of vocalists, musicians and producers, DJs are credited as being one of the most direct pipelines to exciting new music. You should take note that “DJ” makes up the initials of Def Jam. Now let’s keep the record playing; teacher’s not through with today’s lesson yet…
Independent labels like Profile, Sugar Hill, Priority, 4th. & Broadway and Tommy Boy scooped up young, talented Hip-Hop artists. Major labels like Columbia, Epic, MCA, Mercury and Warner Brothers got an early jump on the game as they formed alliances with Rap labels and artists. Moves like these were executed through street-savvy labels like Def Jam. It grew into the premier, multi-faceted music conglomerate of the century. Started in a college dorm room, Def Jam is now managed from a corporate boardroom, and worth hundreds of millions.
Founder Russell Simmons parted from his share of the company in 1999, after the Universal Music Group made him a $100 million offer that he couldn’t refuse. We’re not talking pesos here, folks! Let’s breeze through a few landmark events regarding Def Jam Recordings: In 1983, the company was founded by Russell, who was called “Rush” when he was business partners with one Rick Rubin. Before this form of osmosis occurred, Simmons ‘did the business’ behind pioneers like Kurtis Blow, the first Rap artist with a major record deal. He signed on with Mercury Records; it was a part of the PolyGram distribution machine. The label went on to forge a long-lasting relationship with Kurtis Blow, Russell ‘Rush’ Simmons, and his growing company.
In spring of 1984, I began a two season internship with Def Jam’s distributor. By fall quarter, I was a college rep. During Def Jam’s first decade, I marketed and promoted every record released through the pipeline. This included music by the distributor’s affiliated Epic label. Epic was born to CBS Records (a division of CBS, Inc.) during the early 50s. It was a cute little Classical/Jazz label and grew to be a strong, healthy major label with many active body parts (Rock, R&B, Country). Epic picked up other siblings. One of them was T-Neck Records. An influential Soul/R&B/Funk collective of the 50s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and beyond the new millennium terrain, The Isley Brothers ran a music empire tucked inside this fully-functional sibling unit’s clothes. And bank account–let’s call it a budget.
Another sibling was Portrait Records. By the 80’s, Portrait had sold millions of records by major stars like Cyndi Lauper, Sade and Stanley Clarke. Since Epic was the oldest kid, it acquired a firm place in history as the foundation that supported the throne of none other than the King of Pop music, Michael Jackson. As a matter of fact, the former lead singer of Motown’s Jackson Five actively participated (along with wildly colorful CBS Records group president Walter Yetnikoff) in the disbursement of CBS’ unwanted offspring (CBS Records, Inc.) to the Sony Corporation in 1988. By 2004, Sony Music Entertainment had consolidated its monster Columbia and Epic labels, then merged with another major record label: BMG. On the Internet, iTunes was selling millions of digital downloads. But that’s a story for later. Stay tuned.
Def Jam product began flowing through shortly after I jumped in the big game to see if I could swim. I witnessed the music of many groundbreaking artists ‘rushed’ through the system. Notable executives like Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles entered the fold, as promoters like Wes Johnson and Johnnie Walker locked down efforts to turn the airwaves into ‘Def Jam radio.’ Def Jam became one of the hottest commodities in distribution by the other major label within a major label.
This record company made its mark by using a red trademark on the product it manufactured. Columbia Records was the big brother of Def Jam: the hottest Rap label in the Hip-Hop market. Def Jam had million-selling acts like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, and later arrivals like DMX, then Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. Columbia, also known as “Big Red,” was owned by music giant CBS Records. By 1991, CBS Records was purchased by the Sony Corporation for some $2 billion that I’ll say came out of the ‘petty cash fund’ (they had OLD money, and plenty of it). CBS Records later became Sony Music Entertainment. If you haven’t guessed already (where’ve you been?), here’s a prediction: you’ll read about more adventures with ‘the firm’ as we move along.
Between all of this ‘promoting’ (as a college rep), I managed getting an introduction to Russell Simmons at a Jack The Rapper convention in Atlanta by Columbia’s national director of Black music promotion, Miss Mike Bernardo, who is such a sweet lady. At this time, she was next in line to the vice-president of Columbia’s national promotion department: Vernon Slaughter and Mike Bernardo were responsible for the overall performance of Columbia’s Black radio and club promotion department. Vernon later became one of Atlanta’s top power brokers. He was LaFace Record’s first general manager, personally signing artists like Toni Braxton to the label. He later became a key player at a law firm headed up by powerhouse entertainment lawyer Joel Katz, and was the legal muscle behind many artist deals, movie soundtracks and no telling what else!
As vice-president and national director respectively, Vernon and Mike implemented the national strategies set forth by Columbia. The staff consisted of dozens of regional promotion people strategically placed in key American cities. Throughout my career at the label Vernon, Mike, and the promotion people I knew showed me plenty of love, and were first-class players in the game, too. Not long after Def Jam’s arrival, I became an account service rep, then a Black music marketing rep for Sony’s southeast regional branch in Atlanta. I doubt if there was any connection. Anyway, Def Jam left Sony for PolyGram in 1994 (also the year that I parted company with Sony and launched a recording studio); that same year, PolyGram purchased 50% of Sony’s holdings in Def Jam.
By 1996, PolyGram bought another 10%, and in 1998 the Universal Music Group (UMG) acquired PolyGram Group Distribution (PGD) to become the world’s biggest record label. After a series of major operational changes, longtime staffers Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles severed ties with Def Jam, which by now had grown to include other hot labels like Atlanta-based Def Jam South (headed up by The Geto Boys’ Mr. Scarface), Disturbing Tha Peace (Ludacris), Def Soul, Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Roc-A-Fella. Though DMX’s product was released through Def Jam, his Ruff Ryders crew got a label deal with Interscope. In the post Cohen/Liles era, former LaFace/Arista big-wig L.A. Reid re-appeared at the helm of the big ship. Then, multi-platinum rapper Jay-Z became the new chief of Def Jam (now part of Island Def Jam Music Group), proving that he too, could do what Rap music guru Russell Simmons’ legendary rapper Kurtis Blow said he wanted to do: ‘Rule The World.’
The future of Def Jam included plans for more affiliations with labels like Atlanta’s Slip-N-Slide Records (Ying Yang Twins). Atlanta was now a city on the move, and Simmons made it a frequent stop on his international itinerary. From Rush Productions and Kurtis Blow to Def Jam, OBR and Rush Associated Labels, to Rush Communications and Phat Farms, the Visa ‘Rush Card,’ a beautiful model-wife and kids, to astronomic amounts of future cash flow, Russell Simmons demonstrated his ability to serve as the Rap game’s foremost guiding hand…and ‘head of the household,’ too. He was the proverbial captain of a ship, navigating through those often-bumpy waters of the constantly shifting Rap/Hip-Hop industry. Def Jam Recordings became an extraordinary multimedia company because of a determined visionary’s ability to reach out and touch people– through the power of Rap music and the Hip-Hop culture. Simply put, none of these entities could be spoken of without mention of the great and powerful, “Mr. Rush.”