This Friday night the clock turns backwards a few decades, as an amazing roster of seminal rap and hip-hop talent converges on our very own Martin Luther King, Jr. arena.
The Back In The Day Tour finds such pioneers of these distinctly American art forms as Big Daddy Kane, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five, The Force MDs, and The Fearless Four settling in for a long retro-tastic night of music and lyrics.
In a day and age where rap and hip-hop seem increasingly synonymous with misogyny, aggression, profanity and anti-social behavior, this throwback to a time when the genres were primarily known for communicating good vibes and positive-themed (if at times caustic) street wisdom should be a welcome find to those who long ago found they had little truck with the thug and crunk lifestyle epitomized by today’s urban superstars.
It was my distinct pleasure to speak directly with three internationally known founding fathers of hip-hop culture. The following are excerpts from those informal rap sessions.
MC Master Gee
As one of The Sugarhill Gang’s 3 frontmen, Master Gee holds the distinction of being part of the team which first exposed the world to the burgeoning rap and hip-scene in and around New York City. After performing an off-the-cuff audition in the backseat of famed disco producer Sylvia Robinson’s car on a busy street corner, the New Jersey native quickly co-wrote a humorous, surreal narrative, and a few days later he —along with fellow nascent “rappers” Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank— rhymed their way into the history books. The smash club and radio single “Rapper’s Delight” would eventually sell more than 8 million copies, shining a light on the newest African-American music form, and jumpstarting a following for syncopated wordplay across the globe.
Connect Savannah: Back when you cut “Rapper’s Delight,” what was the most you thought would ever come of it?
Master Gee: I thought it would probably be a Tri-State thing. You know, we’re from New Jersey, so, New York, Philly, Connecticut, I knew there were records that were big —my dad was a jazz recording engineer— but at the time there was no such thing as a rap industry or a hip-hop star. The mind set was so different back then. We’d play house parties. (laughs) Then we went into the studio, recorded the song and decided we’d just let the chips fall where they may.
Connect Savannah: That single was a worldwide smash. Did you guys get paid fairly?
Master Gee: It’s been a work in progress. Let’s just put it like that! It’s funny you called me today, because I was just watching a documentary on the History Channel, and Ben E. King made a statement that just killed me. He said no matter what happened with his royalties, people all over the world get to listen to his songs every day. No matter what they stole, they can never take that away from him. This is something I used to do in people’s basements when I was 16 for fun and to make a little extra pocket money. I was just expressin’ myself.
Connect Savannah: What are some of the most indelible memories from your career?
Master Gee: The first time we went to Europe. Think about this: those people had never seen another human being rap live in person! We’d been in the states dealing with screaming fans and girls goin’ crazy, and then we walk out for the first show in Amsterdam, and the place was completely quiet. They didn’t make a single noise. They were so blown away by the whole thing. After they got over the initial shock, they livened up, but at first, I thought we were bombing! By the end of the night, though, we tore it up. At that time I was 17. I had just gone into the 12th grade. I’d never been to Europe before. This has been my ticket to the world. It exposed me to so many different things and different people. It gave me another lease on life.
Connect Savannah: Have all 3 of the Sugarhill Gang remained friends?
Master Gee: Definitely. I had stepped away from the group for a while, and they toured as a duo for many, many moons. Then Wonder Mike and I reconnected, and now the two of us are out again. We’ve got a great show. We’re showin’ everybody how these hits are supposed to be done.
Connect Savannah: Played here before?
Master Gee: Years ago in the late ‘70s, we played the Civic Center opening up for Funkadelic on the Mothership Tour.
Connect Savannah: What keeps you going?
Master Gee: I want to perpetuate what we’re doing. It’s really important to make sure people know where this all started. Where it came from. What’s it’s truly about.
Connect Savannah: How long did it take to write and record “Rapper’s Delight?”
Master Gee: The music track was waiting on us. I wrote the master lyric the night before we went into the studio. It took 15 minutes to record. We did it in one take! (laughs) We just passed the mic like we used to do at parties, and took turns rapping. We were novices, so we thought we had to keep singing till the music stopped! That’s why it was so long. We only quit when the tape ran out. (laughs)
Though many remember turntablist Grandmaster Flash as the titular head of The Furious Five (to many, early rap’s greatest innovators), it was frontmen Melle Mel and Scorpio who stood out most in the group, with their literate, rhythmic take on urban life in classics like “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” and “The Message.” Their 1980 track “Freedom” went Top 20 on the U.S. R & B Charts, and helped jumpstart a musical revolution. Flash and Melle would eventually part ways, but he, Scorpio and the others continue to tour and keep the Furious Five name alive.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever done a show in Savannah before?
Scorpio: We haven’t been to Savannah in a long, long time, but it was a great market for us in the past. To be honest, the main thing I remember about Savannah is —no disrespect intended— the paper mill. (laughs) That smell was in the air, boy! You could always tell when you were pullin’ into Savannah. (laughs) It’s actually kind of a blessing, cause when you’re out on the road doin’ 80 or 90 shows in a row, everything starts to run together, and after all these years a lot of memories start to fade. You can’t always remember where you were, but I’ll always remember Savannah because of that smell. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: This bill is amazing.
Scorpio: We perform with a lot of these cats on a fairly regular basis. See, the music you’ll hear on this show comes from all over the world of hip-hop, but the media and the record labels want to push us all into one little pot no matter who were are, what we do, or what has happened in our careers. They just lump it all together and call it “old-school.” Promoters have a habit of packaging all these so-called old-school groups together instead of putting some new groups with some of the originators. That’s not because we can’t bring it right to ‘em onstage, though! But these young bands and managers fall in with all that propaganda. They start thinkin’ that we’re old and they’re young and that it won’t work to have us perform together. However, those folks out there that know their music and their history are aware that most old-school artists can bring it to anybody at anytime. See, like the songs says, all we rely on is 2 turntables and a microphone. We’re not all caught up in how much money is in our bank account and how flashy we can dress. That’s not what entertainment’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. Now, I definitely ain’t no hater. I listen to all of it, and 50 Cent is definitely my favorite.
Connect Savannah: A lot of guys brag about their cribs and cars, but the truth is the label charges half of that back to them!
Scorpio: That’s it. And, yo, it’s more than you will ever imagine. Right now the labels are banking on the propaganda machine to fool the public. They ain’t gonna let most folks learn what cats like you and I already know! Some of these guys might be on MTV and BET every day, so sitting in your living room, they look like stars. But you and I, we watch the charts, and they ain’t really got it goin’ on. It’s all a facade. Now, trust me. I understand that when you come from the inner city and you first get some money, the first thing you wanna do is show that you done good. That’s a part of the come up. That’s entertainment. But nobody’s bigger than the game! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Besides 50 Cent, what current hip-hop artists really move you?
Scorpio: In the end, I wish there was more cats saying something you can actually apply to your life. I like to get my drink on and throw my hands in the air and not worry about the content of the lyrics — just like anyone. But I also like to hear from somebody who’s speaking to the fact that they’ve been through the same kinds of things that I have. That’s why everybody loved Tupac so much. Because no matter what he might have done to upset you, he always dropped jewels. Today, 9 years after his death, he can still put out a new album each year and outsell most of the living people! He really was the chosen one. He said more in his time on earth than some cats said in a full lifetime.
Connect Savannah: Were you surprised when a lot of early hip-hop stars got cast aside in favor of thug and gangsta rap?
Scorpio: I have to admit it was very surprising, because when groups like NWA came out —and they were really the father figures of the whole gangsta thing, in my opinion— there was still plenty of other stuff available. You still had your KRS-One and your RUN-DMC and all that to balance it out. You had options. Right now, the hurtin’ thing about hip-hop is there are no options whatsoever. It’s so one-sided. Every artist sounds like all the others. It’s like, hey man. I know what you’re gonna say before you even say it. If I come on your block, you’re gonna shoot me. I know, I know. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Did you ever think you’d still be on the road in 2006?
Scorpio: Well, to be honest, I always thought we were gonna rock it till the wheels fell off. But, to do it in ‘79 and to still be doin’ it this hard in ‘06? The honest answer would be no. A lot of cats wonder why we still do it. Well, we do it because we love it. But economically, some folks just aren’t where they wanna be, you know what I mean? It’s like a job. Everybody should realize that we didn’t get the big paychecks. Corporate America was still fighting the growth of hip-hop. The big stars of today are reaping the benefits of all the groundwork we did and all the doors we knocked down. Worldwide. It’s arrogant of these young acts to think that they’re 100 percent responsible for their own success. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for the equal rights of people of all colors. Now, all of a sudden, a black guy comes along and gets a corporate job making 7 figures a year and thinks he did that on his own! (laughs) The fact that young rap and hip-hop acts can walk in and get decent deals, no matter how the labels look at the old-schoolers —or don’t look at us— each of those big checks proves that we were on the right track when nobody but us knew what it could become. It’s not about kissing our asses or bowing down to us. That’s not what I’m sayin’. But you gotta pay some kind of respect for those of us that broke it wide open. There’s a lot of groups out there today that hug you and love you to your face, and then step aside and ignore you when it counts.
Connect Savannah: How’s your show now?
Scorpio: This show features Grandmaster Melle Mel and myself. That’s the banner. We lay it down for the Furious Five, because that’s who we are. A lot of radio stations and clubs would shorten our name to just Grandmaster Flash, so a lot of people don’t even know who the Furious Five are, but Melle Mel and myself and the others were the MCs dropping the lyrics while Flash scratched the turntables. Some folks treat us like we’re The Pips and he’s Gladys Knight! (laughs) That confusion has hurt us a little, but we’re trying to build the name back up on that level. No disrespect to Flash, because he was a key to our sound and he’s my main guy, but it was the MCs who gave the songs their words.
Connect Savannah: What’s the most important aspect of this tour?
Scorpio: It’s important for people to know that even though we’re not on TV every day, if you love hip-hop, then this is something worth seeing. You’ll have a better understanding of the real, true reasons it was created. You’ll see the love all the originators have for each other. You know, people think we’re old, dead dinosaurs or somethin’, but we’re all still livin’ and breathin’! Sometimes I’m stopped at a red light and the people next to me are listening to rap, and they have absolutely no idea that they are a few feet away from one of the guys that literally, actually created the whole thing! You know? It’s me. I’m right here! I’m one of the first dudes that ever grabbed a mic. I helped start hip-hop, and they owe it to themselves to come out and see what we’re up to. I guarantee they will enjoy it. Most of all, I want people to know that 9 times out of 10 there will be absolutely no drama or fights at our shows. Our music doesn’t give off that kind of energy. You know, you’d really have to be out of your mind to hear “Rapper’s Delight” and get so riled up that you wanna fight or stab or shoot somebody! (laughs) I mean, listen to the words! You’d have to be a real nutcase.
Connect Savannah: Is there anything else?
Scorpio: Yeah. It’s about time Savannah heard our voices. I’m even looking forward to smellin’ that paper mill! (laughs)
Big Daddy Kane
Born Antonio Hardy, “The Kane,” ruled the hip-hop game for several years in the late ‘80s. A commanding presence on the scene, his lyrical approach to sensuality and his lover-man image paved the way for countless others that have come along in his wake. At the height of his fame, he recorded kitschy duets with both Barry White and Rudy Ray Moore (of “Dolemite” fame), while still maintaining a spiritually conscious, enlightened persona.
Connect Savannah: You’ve always seemed so much larger-than-life. At 37, do you feel like an elder statesman of hip-hop?
Big Daddy Kane: Well, I guess I just feel like someone that’s been doin’ it for a minute. I still have every bit as much fun as when I first started in music.
Connect Savannah: You laid pretty low for a while. Did you consider quitting music?
Big Daddy Kane: There was a point where I didn’t really wanna be involved in what the game had started to represent. You know, the whole gangsta thing was goin’ on, and I didn’t want to play a part in any of that. I wasn’t surprised that things moved in that direction. That’s just the way of the world. There comes a time when you put your Spiderman doll down for a G.I. Joe and your Barbie down for Dora The Explorer. Something new comes along and people wanna try it out. That’s cool. I’m happy to see anyone succeed at their art.
Connect Savannah: Do you have any plans to record a new CD anytime soon?
Big Daddy Kane: Not at the present moment. I’ve been doing a whole lot of touring lately, playing the old stuff with a bunch of new freestyles thrown in to keep it fresh. I want to leave people with an updated view of who Big Daddy Kane is.
Connect Savannah: What got you excited about jumping back into touring?
Big Daddy Kane: I never really stopped doing shows, ‘cause that’s been one of the main things I enjoy about this business — to be on stage and please an audience. I guess when the music industry decided to start calling hip-hop artists from the early and late ‘80s “old-school,” it created a new genre, where an older crowd can come and mingle with a younger crowd, have a good time and not feel out of place.
Connect Savannah: Why do you think this old-school marketing angle works?
Big Daddy Kane: The young white college kids are not being heavily influenced by the major label rap music anymore. They’re more interested in the “underground” hip-hop artists of today, like Common or Talib Kweli. Those groups were doing their research, studying artists like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and KRS-One. To see that a young white audience was more interested in that than what you been puttin’ in front of them was a wake-up call. Now, the labels are starting to pay attention again.
Connect Savannah: What are your crowds like today? Did they grow up with you?
Big Daddy Kane: It differs. It’s either black hip-hop fans that are 25 up to 40, or a younger white audience that’s between 18 and 25 that’s into the underground.
Connect Savannah: Tell me a little bit about this Back In The Day Tour.
Big Daddy Kane: I do a lot of package bills, and usually it’s me and Slick Rick and a few others like Public Enemy or KRS-One. The lineup for Savannah is different because it’s the first time everyone else has come from the era before me. These are the artists I came up listening to. I’m pretty much the baby of the crew.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever played Savannah before?
Big Daddy Kane: I played there in 1989 with De La Soul, Slick Rick and LL Cool J.
Connect Savannah: Do you remember anything in particular about the city?
Big Daddy Kane: I sure do. I remember stayin’ in that Hilton Hotel with the Confederate flag out front. I distinctly remember that. ç
The Back In The Day Tour hits the Savannah Civic Center Friday at 8 pm. Advance tickets are on sale now at the Box Office, or online at www.savannahcivic.com.