HIP HOP FORUM Interview: MC Sha-Rock, first female emcee in hip-hop culture and original member of the Funky Four

Interviewed by Madeleine Byrne
In this interview MC Sha-Rock takes us back to what it was like being there at the birth of hip-hop, being part of the first ever performance by a hip-hop group on Saturday Night Live, how she developed her distinctive style – so beloved by DMC of Run DMC and her role at the new Universal Hip Hop Museum being set up in the Bronx.

HHF: Thank you so much for talking with us at Hip Hop Forum,  MC Sha-Rock. It’s a great honor to speak with you – one of the most important pioneers in the hip-hop movement; the first female emcee in hip-hop and one of the inventors and founders of fly-girl and b-girl culture. Share with us now how it all started for you …

Sha-Rock: Well, at the whole onset of the hip-hop culture you had to start off as a b-girl as that was what was going on at the time. You had the music, the culture and the sounds of certain breakbeats that were playing so I started off as a b-girl first. Then I winded up getting a flyer for people who wanted to audition for a group; and at the time the group was not the Funky Four, but it was the Brothers Disco.  They were trying to form the Funky Four group. So I auditioned for the Brothers Disco in 1977-1978 and I became not only the first female emcee of hip-hop culture, but also the first female emcee in an all male group, so my activity started before as a b-girl and then I transitioned to an emcee as part of an all male group.

HHF: What was it like in the Bronx at that time?

Sha-Rock: The atmosphere was crazy cause you’re talking about the inception of the culture as we know it. You may hear people like DJ Kool Herc, who is the Father of Hip-Hop, you know he might say that hip-hop started in 1973, but to be honest with you if you’re talking about the people: the hardcore emcees who were rhyming to more than just one rhyme, I mean we were going for more than 16 bars, more than 18 bars (for us it started later). We’d rhyme until the next emcee who was part of your group would pick up where you left off.

For us in New York City we were creating an era, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were young kids, with little or no resources in the South Bronx where the radio wouldn’t play rap music. They really frowned on hip-hop music and the type of music we were listening to. We were breakdancing and going around to different parks and different school yards. The radio didn’t respect it at that time, so you’re talking about a culture that was building up from the b-girl and b-boy to the DJ – the way a DJ would cut a record, from Flash to Theodore to DJ Breakout and Baron …

There was so much going on at that time, with all the elements of hip-hop; it was like a phenomenon. But at the time we didn’t know what we were doing. All we knew was this is what we looked forward to on Friday and Saturday. We were able to get our street cred from just being out there in the parks and we were like celebrities in our own prospective area at that time.

So when you’re talking about 1979 when the world was then able to hear rap music, that was the era when rap music was no longer contained to the streets and the parks, it had then moved into the clubs into people’s households and bars, with the Sugarhill Gang or when we the Funky Four did the first record in 1979. We changed the game as to how hip-hop was portrayed by letting the world in and it was no longer contained in the Bronx, or Manhattan or New York.

HHF: You just mentioned DJ Kool Herc, I know you’ve talked about him before as being a really important person in terms of your development as a hip-hop artist.

Sha-Rock: Well, Herc would play the breakbeat, or DJ Breakout or Baron, or Grandmaster Flash would play the breakbeats of a song. Say James Brown had a song out they wouldn’t play the whole song, they’d just play the breakbeat and then you’d start b-boying and b-girling.

Herc played a significant role in hip-hop and also in b-boying and b-girling because he played the type of music that allowed the b-girls and the b-boys start breakdancing because you couldn’t do that in the clubs that played disco music.

Herc was the one who really allowed the b-boy and the b-girl to express themselves in a manner that respected that dance element of hip-hop culture. A lot of people don’t know who Herc is, but we do owe him much respect and much honor because he gave us that avenue, he gave us that vehicle for us to do what we loved and that was breakdancing and listening to the breakbeats.

HHF: So this audition to join the group that’d become the Funky Four was in 1977, right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, late 77, early 78. I auditioned and at the time, I don’t know if the Brothers Disco was looking for females, all I know is that I heard Melle Mel on tape. I never heard any other females who were out there, but I thought I could do just as good as the guys did because I was influenced by James Brown. I was influenced by Nikki Giovanni. I was influenced by Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson Five. So once I heard (other emcees) rhyming on tape I thought I could do the same, or even better – not knowing that I was about to make history and become the first female emcee of hip-hop culture.

HHF: And you were so young, you would have been a teenager at this time …

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I was like 16 years old just coming from junior high school to high school.

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HHF: Can you remember the first rhyme you wrote?

Sha-Rock: The first rhyme that I wrote was: ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped/For all you fly-guys I will hit the top.’  That rhyme has become synonymous (with me) and was on the t-shirt, ‘I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped’ that was photographed in 1980. That was one of the first rhymes that I wrote and always used to solidify who I am, and who I was at the time.

I was like a celebrity in my own area but I was humble as this was something I loved to do like the other guys who was out there with me at the time, the Funky Four. We were a group that set the standards. Lots of people have heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but the Funky Four were like the unsung heroes of hip-hop at that time.

We created a lot of different styles and contributions to the culture. We were the first rap group that was on national TV. We were from the streets; we weren’t a group that had been put together in 1979 like some other groups were. We were from the streets in New York City, together rocking in the parks and the schoolyards and the youth centers, even before we made a record.

HHF: Let’s talk then about the Funky Four and the line-up …

Sha-Rock: I was part of the original Funky Four. The original Funky Four consisted of myself, Raheim – who went over to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five later on –  K.K. Rockwell and then Keith Keith. We were the original Funky Four.

I winded up leaving the group for a month or two and then I came back to the group – I became the plus one more. During that time there was just two members they added Li’l Rodney C and Jazzy Jeff. Once I came back I became plus one more, but I was originally part of the first group.

HHF: Thinking about your music, I noticed in an interview you said that something special about the Funky Four the group’s ‘rhyming and harmonizing’. What do you mean by harmonizing?

Sha-Rock: Well, harmonizing back then was when we’d take (the tune) from a sitcom from TV, say you have ‘Gilligan’s Island’ you may have a commercial. Take a commercial or a sitcom and whatever the music was, we’d change it into a rap style and we’d harmonize, go back and forth and do chants and go back and forth in the group: not singing but harmonizing in a tune that maybe was on TV at that time.

For me, I used to rehearse my rhymes because when I said it I wanted people to be mesmerized by my voice. I wanted them to leave the party and say Sha-Rock is a dope emcee, I’m going to come back and see her again. What I would do was practise my delivery in the mirror and I would write my rhymes and say them in a way that people can understand but also relate to it, so they felt they were a part of my rhymes. They felt they were a part of me.

That was the whole idea back then to include the people who came to see you. You had to make them feel that they were a part of your life. They were part of your rhyme. They were part of hip-hop. That’s what I learned growing up as one of the pioneer emcees, it was never about me, it was never about the group, it was making sure that people who paid their two dollars or their three dollars to come see you, when they left, they said, I’m going to come back next week because I, Sha-Rock is the dopest emcee, or the Funky Four is the dopest group here in New York City.

It was about making sure the people who came to see you was included in what you were doing. It wasn’t about you. It was about them. It was about making sure they came back, because unfortunately unlike today we didn’t have the music, the songs all around us. Nowadays when you have rappers, or emcees their songs are being played on the radio, when they go on concert people know their songs; so they’re hyped, they’re dancing up and down, cause they know their songs. They have it easy now. They have the best of both worlds.

When I was starting out you had to prove yourself to your audience. You had to prove yourself to the hip-hop community because they were not playing our songs on the radio. So we were young entrepreneurs with little or no resources. How you got your street cred was being the best you could be for your audience. They were crucial. If you wasn’t making the cut, they wouldn’t come and see you. It wasn’t easy for us then, because we didn’t have that outlet of  radio playing our songs.

When they really did start playing hip-hop songs on the radio in 1979 it was only a select few that would get on the radio. They wouldn’t play two, or three rap songs at one time. As a hip-hop emcee you had to prove yourself on the street cause you didn’t have  the opportunity to get heard on the radio.

HHF: But maybe though you were also closer to the community because of this …

Sha-Rock: Absolutely, absolutely.

On the 14th February, 1981 The Funky Four plus one performed on Saturday Night Live – thereby making history as the first rap or hip-hop group to appear on US national television

Sha-Rock: When we did ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Deborah Harry of the legendary group, Blondie – could have chosen any of the rap groups in New York City because she was very aware of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but what she did was went she sought out us, simply because there was a female member in the group. She wanted the world to be able to see that – yes, you might have seen the Sugarhill Gang, but this (the Funky Four) was a group on the streets of New York City, one of the baddest groups in New York city – if not the baddest – but they also had a female. They wanted the world to see on a whole different level that this is a female that was rocking back in New York City and a pioneer.

I can commend her for this, because what she did was expose us to more than just the community or Tri-state area, she exposed us to the world. And we made history and we maybe didn’t know this until a decade later by becoming the first hip-hop group on TV,  and not just the first hip-hop group the first original hip-hop group that wasn’t only a rap group.

HHF: I watched the SNL video today, it’s a great performance. The DJ, was that the regular DJ you had for most of your performances?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, DJ Breakout.

HHF: Another Funky Four video I found is you guys doing ‘Rappin’ and Rockin’ The House’ shot at the Kitchen in 1980. That’s a beautiful performance, so sweet and controlled: perfect. Do you remember that show?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I do remember it. You see this is the thing. The Funky Four was the only group that were performing in those types of places (like the Kitchen in Manhattan). You’re talking about a whole new genre of music that we were breaking in that era. These were punk rockers, these were punk rockers who were listening to all different types of punk rocker songs and whatever. When we brought hip-hop to them, they were loving it because we were known for bringing a whole new style of music to punk rockers, they can incorporate and have fun at the same time. We was the first group to bring hip-hop to different genres of people, who would not normally listen to rap music.

We always wanted to perform for that genre of people, because they loved it. They felt it. They’d jump up and down and be mesmerized. It’s a good feeling when you know you’ve been accepted by other cultures and other genres of people who normally wouldn’t listen to this type of music. That was a good feeling we knew we were being accepted by this crowd of people, who would follow us all over the place. We’d pack out the Ritz, we’d pack out the Kitchen – all these venues in Soho,  downtown Manhattan.

In order to be good you needed to play in these venues and we’d go down there all the time, you know, go down to the Village.

HHF: Still many decades on, the music is still great. Let’s talk about ‘That’s the Joint’ which is probably your most famous track. Talk a little about the musicians who played with you.

Sha-Rock: Okay, so what we did, well this is what hip-hop is all about. Every song you hear – let’s just say ‘Rappers Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, that song is called ‘Good Times’ (by Chic) a song we were rapping to that song on the streets of New York prior to the Sugarhill Gang. That was the song that was part of the hip-hop community that every emcee was rocking to, what Sylvia Robinson did at Sugar Hill Records she heard the song, put the Sugarhill Gang together and put out the song and it became a hit.

Everyone who was part of Sugar Hill Records used the same band because ‘That’s the Joint’ was the hottest song out at the time – I’m talking about the original music – we took the song and made it a hip-hop song. A lot of times, a song that maybe an R&B artist did, and then a hip-hop person came along it ended up selling more records than the actual, original artist did.

Now the Sugarhill band was very good at imitating what the original artists did. They would change it a little bit, the beats to make it sound different. But the Sugarhill Band was a good band to make the music and make it sound exactly how we wanted, or a little better. The Sugarhill Band created all the music.

HHF: Talking about labels, you first released a record with Enjoy Records in 1979. As far as I understand it this was the record put out by a hip-hop group in the US ..

Sha-Rock: Yes, yes. Funky Four plus one. So we’re talking about Bobby Robinson he owned Enjoy Records, he asked around who is the hottest group in New York City? Now of course Grandmaster Flash was out, but he was told to go to the Funky Four plus one, so he approached our manager and said he wanted to do a record with us.

We used a friend of ours, by the name of Pumpkin who was a drummer (to play on the record).  The rhymes we used were rhymes we normally used on the street of New York, we used them every day. It only took us like an hour or so to do the record; simply because we already had our rhymes. Everybody in the group knew when to come after the next person.

And Pumpkin, what he did was he did the same thing on the drums and did it in one take. We didn’t have to go back and forth. Everything was done live in a little studio at the back of Bobby Robinson’s record shop; recorded in one take and boom! It was a hit. The Funky Four plus one ‘Rappin’ and rockin’ the house’ was the first longest-running rap record in the history of hip-hop.

HHF: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this time?

Sha-Rock: For me this was the golden period, the inception of hip-hop and set the standards of what hip-hop is supposed to be, or what Mc-ing and the elements. It was the blueprint of it all. For me I think and for a lot of emcees who were there you have the best of both worlds. You see how it was back then and see how it is now. I’m fortunate enough I have both; other women can’t speak on what it was like from the 70s, hooking up the equipment and carrying the crates, you know and not getting the money for what you did (cause that wasn’t an issue at that time).

It was just rocking for the love of your peers who are coming to see you.

When people say you should have made the money, look at what it is (as a business) today that doesn’t bother me because when I leave this world, the best thing that I got was the joy and the knowledge of what it was and what it should be and what I helped create as an emcee and as a pioneer and as a woman in the culture of hip-hop.

That’s my payola. I can talk about what it was and how it was and how it should be and what it’s meant to be.

HHF: In an interview you’ve talked about a ‘code of ethics’ in hip-hop culture, is that what you’re referring to now; hip-hop as a way of being, a way of living?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, I am. My thing is that a lot of times, people say the emcees of today, the rappers of today don’t respect the culture. They don’t do this and that. My thing is that we’re not here to judge the youth because unless you teach, unless you inform how do you blame them for not knowing anything? You have to give them options, you have to let them know. You have to inform. You have to educate and then you let them decide on how they’re going to move around. We as elders of hip-hop culture should never – how do I say it? – point fingers at the youth of today. Unless you out there educating and informing them as to what the culture was built on then you have something to say.

If you give them tools to work with, let them decide on how they’re going to move: until then you can’t judge them cause they know not what it was, or what it was meant to be. Not saying you have to conform to what it was, but if you have a general knowledge of what it is it makes you a better artist. Then all you have to do is adapt and incorporate to take it to  a whole another level, instead of staying in that one box. It gives you a better understanding of where you’re going and how you can have longevity.

HHF: Are you talking about knowledge of the different elements of hip-hop culture?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m talking about everything; I’m talking about graffiti, I’m talking about MC-ing; I’m talking about b-girls and b-boys, I’m talking about all elements. In order for you to understand what hip-hop was built on, the culture, it’s good to have an understanding of where it comes from. Even when you’re talking about breakdancing and all that stuff, all that was being done prior to hip-hop culture. What we did we just enhanced it to a whole another level. If you can expound on that and where it come from it can only make you a better artist, a better graf artist, make you a better b-girl, b-boy, emcee.

If you have the elements and the formation of everything and how it came into play. You can then have longevity in the game and adapt to what is going on now, or try to have that song or dance move or specific art-form that twenty, thirty or forty years down the line people can go back and remember your worth.

Or they can say a rhyme you did, or play a song on the radio whenever it is thirty, forty years down the line people can say:  ‘That’s my joint, that used to be my joint.’ If you are an artist, you want to make a song that will stand out many years from now, so if you can learn from other people and learn how you got to where you are: it’s a good thing to incorporate this knowledge of what it was before.

HHF: Now you featured in the classic movie, Beat Street from 1984 with two other female emcees (Debbie D and Lisa Lee) doing the track ‘Us Girls’ can you talk about how this came about?

Sha-Rock: At the time I was under contract at Sugarhill Records, Debbie D and Lisa Lee were not under contract, so they were holding an audition down at the Roxy, a club down at 18th street in New York so a lot of hip-hop people would go. It was really a skating-rink but they hold hip-hop functions. Harry Belafonte was holding auditions for Beat Street – so I’d gotten a flyer. Debbie D was a soloist and Lisa Lee was part of the Afrika Bambaataa camp. Me and Lisa was pretty tight, I was under contract to Sugar Hill Records but also part of the Funky Four group.

But we were going through a break-up with Sugar Hill Records, so I didn’t know if Sylvia (Robinson) would let me be part of the movie. There were many people trying to be part of the movie: one of the ladies there said us three girls are the best female emcees in New York City and we really want to be in the movie. So we got called down that Tuesday, we went to audition and Harry Belafonte said we want you to be in the movie, he said sign it here and we’ll let you know what’s going on. But I said I’m part of a record label, but the other girls are not so I might have a problem being in the movie if I have to sign, what do I need to do?

He said, who are you signed to? I gave him Sylvia Robinson’s information and said, can you call her and see whether or not she’ll allow me to do it? So I was nervous cause the rest of the girls , they weren’t under contract so I was thinking, man they’re going to get in the movie and I won’t be able to be in the movie. I guess Harry Belafonte worked it out with Sylvia Robinson, before I knew it he told me I could to it.

The agreement they made was that they would use the Furious Five and they were going to write the hook for Beat Street – so that’s how I was able to do it and that’s how the Furious Five got to do it, how Melle Mel was able to do the theme song, it was me putting Harry Belafonte putting him in touch with Sylvia Robinson.

HHF: Let’s now talk about your style, your delivery. As you know you’ve got some serious fans: say, DMC from Run DMC who has talked about the way he loved the way you used the ‘echo chamber’ on your voice and how hearing you ‘changed (his) life’.

Sha-Rock: Right, right …

HHF: While DJ Grand Wizard Theodore has celebrated you for the way were able to ‘tell a story that we can all visualise ..’ Thinking back, what were you most trying to achieve in terms of your style and content?

Sha-Rock: As I said before, and I want to give a shout-out to DMC for him to say that – as a multi-platinum selling artist and as guy … Most guys these days and back then would never give a female props, simply because you were in contest with the males and no male wanted to say a female was just as good, or better than them.

When he said that I was happy, but it’s a gift and a curse cause he’s saying I was better than a lot of males out there. For someone of his status to come out and say that was the ultimate. What he was saying was that I was the first to use the echo chamber, the echo chamber was an instrument that would repeat the word you said. If I said, ‘yes, yes y’all…’ It’d repeat what I said, ‘yes, yes y’all.’ My manager, Jazzy D would hit the echo chamber to make it precisely timed so everything would connect, sharp. So what DMC is talking about is when he heard my voice on a cassette tape, I guess he was going to school up in Manhattan, my voice used to be on tapes with the Funky Four and float around every borough of New York City.

So when it was time for him and Run to make their album, he told Davy D that he wanted to sound exactly like me using the echo chamber. I never knew this until he made a tape and wanted me to have it so I could get my props, as Sha-Rock from the Funky Four plus one to say that I inspired him when making the Tougher than Leather album to add on the echo chamber.

He’s basically talking about my delivery and my rhyme and how I used the echo chamber for my rhymes to be on point and take my rhyming skills to a whole different level.

HHF: DMC also liked the content about what you rhymed about too; he said loved the fact you rapped about everyday subjects that were relevant to young people: taking the subway, going to school, sneakers … everyday stuff, talking about your life.

Sha-Rock: Basically we talked about stuff in our era, we talked about basic teenager stuff and what was going on in your community, or your surroundings at that time. As a person,  you’d brag and you’d boast about you was an an emcee, or as a female, without being derogatory. You’d say stuff that was more like you’d like people say, hmm but it wasn’t too derogatory.

With the Funky Four we did tell stories, me I told stories about my everyday life. You’d brag on: you could do this, or do that, or I’m the best female in this town, I’m the best emcee. You’d basically be bragging on what you did, to show your audience that you were the best of the best, but still show the respect to the next person who was rhyming.

You’d be like, ‘They’re good, but I’m still the best.’ That’s what I used to rap about but at the same time being respectful to the next female, still saying, ‘I’m the best.’ People loved it back then because even though you were bragging about yourself, it was kind of true. You’d just boast about you as a person; that’s what emcees did, they’d tell a story and incorporate different aspects of their lives and put everything together.

HHF: Now just to finish, can you talk about your role as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum that’s being developed now. Can you talk to me about the Museum itself, I went online and saw the site (http://www.uhhm.org/): it’s going to be a virtual museum, but also have a site in the Bronx, is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yeah, it’s going to be in the Bronx, what we’re trying to do is have the Old Courthouse in the South Bronx, that is the location we’re trying to secure. It’s going to have a virtual element, people will be able to see people like Kurtis Blow talking like he is right there with them. You’re going to have material from artists back in the day and from today. The Bronx is where hip-hop started, but this museum is not just about the Bronx it’s about artists from all over the world. We want people to understand this, when the museum opens up it’s not only about the Bronx and New York City, it’s about the history of artists from everywhere.

The Bronx is the best place to have it, because it started there, but it’s the Universal Hip Hop Museum.

HHF: And what are you doing as the Chairperson of Women in Hip-Hop?

Sha-Rock: My basic duties is to preserve the history of women in hip-hop, so this is one of the things I’m very adamant about, I’m proud to be part of a project of this caliber because I think that a lot of men and women don’t understand that women have been at the forefront of hip-hop since the inception. A lot of people say women started in the 80s cause they just know Salt n Pepa, or MC Lyte or Roxanne Shanté. Those women have brought a lot to this culture and did a lot for the music industry and should be commended for leading the way and carrying on the hip-hop culture, but there have also been women at the front-line from day one.

It’s very important that when we have the history and culture of hip-hop that we preserve the history of women past, present and future. This is why I’m very adamant that we maintain all the history, from the Nicki Minajs to the Sha-Rocks; to the Roxanne  Shantés to the Iggy Azaleas, regardless of what people say these are people who still contribute with their music to hip-hop. It’s important for us to preserve the history for many years to come.

When you talk about it, and this is no disrespect to the guys, a lot of the time it’s like they were in it all by themselves moving this culture forward and that’s not true. The women were on the front-lines and they still have a role moving the culture forward. My job is to celebrate women, to celebrate all women around the world who have contributed to hip-hop culture and we will preserve their history in hip-hop; that’s what it’s all about.

HHF: I noticed in June this year there’s going to be an event in New York linked to this, ‘Women in Hip-Hop’ is that right?

Sha-Rock: Yes, I’m holding an event under the Universal Hip Hop Museum on June 3rd through to June 5th. The first night is going to be a celebration at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, in New York City on Friday night.

(For more information on the event and to buy tickets, go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-universal-hip-hop-museum-women-in-hip-hop-gala-tickets-21644045924)

We’re expecting women from around the world to come and support each other in hip-hop, whether you’re a b-girl, or a graf artist, or an emcee, or if hip-hop has touched your life in any way. Those three days are you for you to come to celebrate with us.

It’s not all the time we get this chance to do this, I’m very adamant that we need to be in the house together celebrating each other, as women. The first night is a celebration. The second day, June 4th is a forum, we have people like Angie Stone from the first female group from the South, the Sequence, she’s going to speak and perform. We’re going to have lots of different women who are going to come together and celebrate women. And we’re going to be looking for the new school as well, women in hip-hop today to come out and celebrate with us as well.

At the forum we’re going to have speakers come out and talk about the industry, the entertainment industry and their experiences. The third day we have a women in hip-hop picnic, where people will come out and celebrate in a park and we’ll have fun, cause that’s what hip-hop is about, having fun with no worries; no nothing and women coming together.

We will show the world that this needs to be done every year, for women in hip-hop: us getting together, making sure we celebrate each other in hip-hop. We are women from the front-line who carry hip-hop in our hearts to this day.

HHF: Total respect to you MC Sha-Rock for speaking with Hip Hop Forum today and wishing you well for all your work keeping hip-hop history and culture alive. Thank you for your time.

Sha-Rock: You’re welcome. Thank you.

To  learn more about MC Sha-Rock – including the book she wrote about her life in hip-hop, Luminary Icon – have a look at her official site http://mcsharockonline.com/

For information about the Universal Hip Hop Museum, go to http://www.uhhm.org/

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Zulu Nation, Bronx Based B-Boy/MC/Graffiti Artist Chief69 Talks To Hip Hop Forum

Interviewed by Madeleine Byrne
Chief69 is a Bronx based Bboy/Emcee/ Graffiti writer/educator of Puerto Rican descent, inspired by Rammellzee, Mr Wiggles, Keith Haring, KRS-One, Immortal Technique, Brother J (X Clan), Frosty Freeze, among others. Member of Zulu Nation and President of the Mecca chapter of The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew, Chief69 is keeping the spirit of the pioneers alive in his ‘positive and consciously imaginative works of art and performance pieces’.
Here in this extended three-part interview with Hip Hop Forum Chief69 takes us back to the beginnings of hip-hop culture in the Bronx, to then talk about the foundations, spiritual dimensions of b-boying. Towards the end, Chief69 gives his take on education/miseducation in the US and hip-hop politics. Thanks Chief69 for sharing some knowledge with us.

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HHF: Could you describe those very early days of b-boying, or rocking – back in the 70s?

Chief69: At that time you had a lot of different parties in the neighbourhood, in school yards, community centers, project housing centers. Usually it was in the evening, sometimes you had them sporadically in the afternoons and they (the parties) would pop up all over the Bronx, not just in one part of the Bronx, not just from one DJ and not just from one person. DJ Kool Herc was one of the first to play more of the funk sounds cause at that time people were playing more disco.

Back then at these parties it was people of all ages; if they were in the day-time, if they were in evening it was usually more an older crowd, like late teenagers or adults, but this was definitely a youth movement. You know this was the 70s so they were cutting out the funding to after-school programs, that’s why a lot of these kids were on the street; they were cutting out funding to teach them to play instruments so that’s why a lot of these kids made their own instruments, using turntables as instruments. They weren’t in bands, they couldn’t afford that. They couldn’t afford nice art supplies so they painted on the trains.

You would walk into one of these jams, if you got invited or if you stumbled upon it, you’d hear music in the neighborhood and you’ll just start walking near it and it was like, hey what’s going on, you know. You’d get closer and feel the vibration and you would feel the energy and it would make you want to dance, cause it’s feel good music, which is that whole funk, soul thing. Usually the DJs would bring their own friends to carry records; some of them later on would have friends who’d make announcements, they were the very early emcees. The DJs were always like the superstars of these events, the b-boys and b-girls weren’t the superstars unless they were really, really talented.

HHF: I can hear a great love for this era in your voice, what prompted this interest for you? Your dad introduced you to hip-hop …

Chief69: Yeah

HHF: What is it about this era that so impresses you?

Chief69: Well, yeah, I was born in 91, so I wasn’t around for none of this (laughs). However, I identify it as the original foundation and essence of the whole hip-hop movement. Those first ten years you could say before a hip-hop record was ever recorded before an emcee ever spoke words into a microphone … A lot of people forget there was at least a decade before in the culture. These were the formative years. Everyone was experimenting musically; everyone was experimenting artistically; everyone was experimenting with the dance; everyone was trying to figure out where they were going to take this and no-one knew.

The mid-late 70s at the same time you have a lot of other things in America going on, especially on the north-east coast: you had a lot of police brutality, you had salsa music coming out of the Bronx.

The heavy metal/punk scene was coming out of the East Coast. The Civil Rights movement carried on you had all these movements, like the Black Panther Party, The Young Lords. A lot of these people would mingle and interact with the hip-hop crowd.

Some of the hip-hop people, in those early years, in those formative years were politicised; a lot of them were not though, a lot of them just did this because it was fun. They weren’t going to school, they’d go to these jams, get high, drink. It was their childhood.

This was the time when a lot of New York and the Bronx was abandoned by government funding. Things were really rough, even compared to the 90s and the 80s in New York City which were also rough. This is why I like the era; it’s captivating in the lens of looking at it from a historical point of view. It’s just probably the most interesting time that we will never see again in New York’s history and probably human history.

HHF: You’ve talked about the way your work connects with your ‘ancestors’ – the pioneers – could you expand on that a little more. Why is this important for you?

Chief69: I think it’s important because a lot of them come from my neighborhood – a lot of them come from the same circumstances as me. I live in the hood. I don’t live in a very nice place in New York City on 5th Ave. I don’t shop at the Gucci store, I go to the corner-store (laughs) and buy my clothes from discount places; I’m like any other person out here. As far as my generation of millennials a lot of us grew as Hot 97 babies, we grew up in the whole bling-bling era when the music was leaving that New York sound and going down south. Even if I have a lot of passion for that New York sound, a lot of it is lost. When you look at the dance today, you don’t really see the foundations any more. You don’t see that New York Bronx style, when I dance I keep that alive. On the graffiti aspect, you don’t really see people coming back to the roots and making those connections, because graffiti is worldwide now and it’s become commercialised to a degree. The Bronx even to this day has always been the bastard child of the culture.

HHF: I know you have links to two groups: The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew – TBB (est. 1975) and the Zulu Nation (est 1973) … How are you continuing this legacy?

Chief69: Basically I got down with The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew and Zulu Nation in 2010-2011, as far as TBB, I’m the President of the TBB mecca chapter – which is a big honor that was bestowed upon me. We are international, we have members all over the world. Our crew is one of the first dance crews ever. We do performances, we do battles. We enter dance competitions. We have a lot of members who are into other elements, sometimes they are passionate about hip-hop, or they’re cool and down with the family.

It’s always been like that, ever since the beginning. Like a lot of the b-boys over the years would have like a little sister and the little sister might show them some dance moves and she would be a b-girl temporarily; or they might have a girlfriend and that girlfriend, or significant other, might learn the moves, or may take it seriously.

There hasn’t been a lot of b-girls in the formative years, however I heard of a whole b-girl crew in Queens. I heard of a few b-girls who were talented and a lot of the guys respected them but a lot of those stories are not being told because there was a large lack of female energy, always even to this day. Not to say it doesn’t exist, it does exist and there are definitely honorable women, but often when it comes to the music they have to sacrifice their individuality it seems. When it comes to the dance, competitions have a lot of politics. Recently though you see a lot of girls entering competitions all over the world and this is beautiful to see today.

HHF: Let’s focus in on the dance, you’ve talked about the foundations, what do you mean by that in terms of b-boying/b-girling?

Chief69: When we say hip-hop dance, we’re talking about b-boying/b-girling because it started in the Bronx, right. The dance started uptop, with what we call the Bo-oi-oing, it’s basically a hopping style of what we call top-rock, where you’re bouncing – you’re bouncing from side to side to the beat. It’s still a dance, it’s within the movement of top-rock, which is everything you do standing up. In the early years everybody would do it standing up with what we call uprocking, or top-rock. A lot of it consisted of steps, jumps, slides – mixing things, like a lot of the Puerto Ricans would mix salsa hip movements, Latin formal dance movements and mix that with funk party movements.

A lot of the early b-boys and DJs all had African roots and in the Caribbean islands. In all the islands – Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Trinidad … – there are many different dances that come from different parts of Africa where you have a drummer, a dancer. Usually the drummer follows the dancer and they’d call it different names from island to island, but basically those movements came into b-boying.

Alongside that a lot of the movements came from what people saw on TV, by the mid-to late 70s you had ‘Soul Train’ it introduced other moves of dancing that came from the West Coast, like locking from the Campbell Lockers and popping that came from the Electric Boogaloo. When people started seeing this by the mid-late 70s, by the 80s, you had a whole popping scene in New York City. You see in the 80s, if you look at the footage they mix b-boying with popping because it was popular at the time, but in the early days you didn’t have no-one like popping, in the 70s everyone was uprocking, or b-boying strictly and doing party movements.

HHF: Speaking generally, it seems like a language, where if you’re battling another guy you respond to what they do; is that true, it’s like a language of movements?

Chief69: It depends on the context. For example, if I’m in what we call a cypher … First, the term cypher, a lot of people don’t understand where it comes from, the term comes from The Nation of Gods and Earths, the 5 per centers, the term cypher is a circle you build a 360 degree circle, basically we’re exchanging knowledge, so whether it’s a DJ cypher, with a turntable set-up, the DJ will do their routine and then the next DJ will come in, so they’re having a conversation. If you have a dance cypher, you have a circle and we exchange our movements. Or I might dance however I feel, do a freestyle, or I might do a routine that I’ve been working on to impress the other dancers, or maybe I want to impress a female in the crowd, who’ll think oh wow, he’s an amazing dancer (laughs). There are many different ways of seeing it.

We might also have what we call battles, or call-outs where within the cypher someone might get offended, someone may feel like they have something to prove because they come from a different neighborhood, or they come from a different block. You live on 149th and they live on 148th, they’re going to battle you and represent their block and their friends are watching. Those really early years are often glorified as super-happy and friendly, but a lot of times it really wasn’t. In a lot of these battles people took it too seriously and they’d shoot stuff but you don’t hear that a lot.

The media tends to portray it as soft, like kids who are not violent are doing this, when a lot of these dances were created by the most violent people. They were created by thugs of the neighborhood. A lot of the early b-boys were stick up kids. When they weren’t dancing they’d go stick up some people; they weren’t going to school, they were getting high that’s the real stuff that was going on. Not everyone, but a lot of them were. They weren’t bad kids. They were dealing with the circumstances they were given. The dance, like the general culture was what they were exposed to. A lot of these people grew up to become like councillors, a lot of them grew up to become activists. A lot of them were later politicised, a lot of them were locked up.

Chief 11 19 15 ed w-1

HHF: You’ve talked about the ‘spiritual’ dimensions of what you do, you’ve talked about honoring your ancestors, remembering those who have passed. When you’re actually dancing do you feel like there is a spiritual component to what you do?

Chief69: I think it is definitely like a spiritual experience. I look at it this way, if I’m dancing to James Brown, right, or any other funk music especially if it’s a live band recording, I’m feeling that energy that somebody might have felt in the 70s in a concert arena, seeing this band five feet from them. I feel that energy. Some of these band members, most of the band members are not very well-known by dancers of hip-hop yet we sample this music all the time. A lot of people don’t know who the band members are, I think that’s kind of sad. But at least as dancers we get to appreciate them a little bit more than the emcees, or the graffiti writers, or maybe even a little bit more than the DJs. While the DJs are like playing with the music, we’re really taking it in, it’s making us jump. It’s making us dive, making us spin. We’re like losing ourselves in the rhythm. It’s definitely spiritual. It’s like when you see a basketball, or baseball game you get really enthusiastic about it, when Michael Jordan goes for a slam-dunk you get lost in the moment as a spectator, but you even get more lost as the person making the dunk (laughs).

That’s how the dance is for us. We’re not a spectator. The DJ is a spectator, even though they’re like a wizard, the DJ is like a wizard because they’re giving us the magic. They’re making a magical experience for us, but we’re the one in the magic. We’re in the moment. When we dance we get to forget our daily issues. We get to forget, hey maybe I’m poor. For this dance, maybe for these few hours, I’m rich. For these few hours, I’m Bruce Lee. For these few hours, I’m Superman in my neighborhood. Then when I leave the dance floor it’s back to 9-5, it’s back to reality. That’s why the dance is so special.

**

HHF: One comment you made in an interview that I found really interesting was that ‘hip-hop is linked to the idea of taking back public property’. You were talking about how in New York dancers often hustle on the street (in Manhattan, or wherever), but that comment seemed to me to have a broader political meaning as well. Could you explore this?

Chief69: It’s definitely political. Hip-hop from its inception if you look at the early jams, there were no permits. They had no permission from the city to connect their electricity to the light post in the neighborhood. They also sometimes had no permission to go into a school yard; they also had no permission to dance even in the early parties at popular venues in New York City they didn’t accept the b-boys and b-girls because disco was popular. They kicked us out as a people so this forced us to create underground spots. If people had a garage, they’d open up their garage for people to dance in. If you had street gangs in the 70s who had a clubhouse, then the clubhouse would be were the party was. A lot of those clubhouses were abandoned buildings where they weren’t paying rent (laughs) it was like a political statement you know.

If you look at the history of groups like the Savage Skulls, with the Young Lords they had altercations against police. The Young Lords took over the Statue of Liberty in the 70s twice and put a big Puerto Rican flag on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, which I think is an amazing action in itself. A lot of them were friends with b-boys and b-girls, I bet you they had hip-hop in their fire, in their essence.

HHF: Going back to your comment though, you were talking about people hustling on the street and then having trouble with police. Your comment interests me because it’s about reclaiming the streets, reclaiming the city and the way dance allows young people from poor neighborhoods to make money. Both of these idea have a political dimension.

Chief69: When it comes to people dancing in the street, or doing their artwork, if you’re from the environment where I’m from, the Bronx today, it’s no different politically from 40 years ago when hip-hop was starting. The Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States. The Bronx has a very high unemployment rate for people aged 18-25, that’s definitely my age range and the age range of most of the people who do this dance. A lot of the people who do this dance are drop-outs, it’s hard for them to get a job; a lot of them have records. If you look at the average person, a young man of color or a young woman of color – it’s usually young men though, it’s much easier to be positive and dance for money. The reason why the city doesn’t like it is because they say we block the street, so people can’t walk by, or we blast music too loud so it becomes a disturbance to businesses. Or they even say things like it’s ‘poor taste’. I’ve heard all kinds of things from cops and the system. We’ve had our speakers taken, this has been going on for years, the same way they confiscate narcotics when they catch people in the street with that. I get it it’s an illegal substance, they’re just doing their job.

But if we’re just dancing in the street, or doing artwork, they shouldn’t confiscate (our stuff) – it’s our property, but we never get it back. Some of the dancers hustle so they can feed their kids, you know.

HHF: Let’s now talk about knowledge, you’re also a teacher and see this as an important part of your role, right.

Chief69: Yes

HHF: You’ve said that the main issue facing young people is education, or more miseducation, can you talk about that more?

Chief69: When I’m speaking about this I’m talking about the United States. They teach you many different things – you can become an educated person however a lot of it is just memorizing information. In the American educational school system they don’t necessarily teach us the things that would help us become successful people. They used to teach music and mechanics and carpentry in New York City, they don’t teach any of that now.

One of the beautiful things in the hip-hop context though is I actually go to colleges and I speak. I speak about hip-hop culture; a lot of these colleges have courses on hip-hop and urban culture and what was going on in the 70s. These are things I’m thinking about every day and it’s reflected in my culture and my music, the dance and graffiti.

When I go to college I’m putting them on to .. well they could search it on Google but they wouldn’t know what to look up. They can read all the books in the world, but there are lots of things that are not in the books which I shared with you today. I think it’s always interesting to meet someone first-hand who is within something. You can learn martial arts if you wanted to if you practised the moves but you’re not going to get the philosophy that a teacher would sit down and give you. That’s part of the whole miseducation thing and education in general. A lot of people learn about hip-hop culture, they learn about Black culture, they learn about urban culture from an outside perspective. You have professors at colleges doing lectures on hip-hop who have never even visited the hood. They have never left their comfort zone, they’ve never come on a subway train in New York City; they’ve never seen a fight on the street; they’ve never had a 50 cent bag of chips and a 50 cent soda (laughs). A lot of those little things – this environment, this is part of hip-hop. There is a reason why this environment created this energy and why it still does.

A lot of people confuse hip-hop with the street culture and gangs, it was never about that. Those people eventually came into the conversation because hip-hop embraces everyone, which is the gift and the curse of this blessing. But back to the education thing, for someone like me it’s kind of special cause I graduated high school but I didn’t attend college but I get to speak at colleges and high schools all the time about what I do. I generally tell them this information and have these discussions for free, but it’s kind of cool for me to stab the schools back, you know. I slap them in the face cause I get some of their budget (laughs) but I’m educated to know often enough it’s stolen money anyway, because a lot of these colleges were formed upon plantations and plantation owners’ money. But they don’t often want to have those conversations, you know.

HHF: How does Zulu Nation fit in here?

Chief69: Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of Zulu Nation, was one of the first people to promote young inner city youth in the late 70s, the early 80s. He was having conversations with them and would say, hey do you want to come on tour with me? He’d take someone from the hood and they’d see the world. They might stop gangbanging because they’d see that there is a ghetto everywhere and they could get out of their issues. He may have taken someone who had been incarcerated and given them an opportunity to perform.

Zulu Nation created a lot of opportunities for people who then became politicised and given a global perspective on things. They could see that even though the Bronx is fairly horrible, it’s also horrible in India, in South-East Asia, there are a lot of people who are illiterate who deal with the same circumstances as us in the Bronx but they can’t even read. It could be worse. We don’t have to deal with bombs going off like in the Gaza Strip. Zulu Nation was the first group to do this, it politicised a lot of people.

HHF: Thanks for your time today, you’ve been really generous. I’ll let you have the final words …

Chief69: I would love to give a shout out to A Tribe Called Quest, for Phife Dawg who recently passed away – who was a member of Zulu Nation – my heart and the hearts of hip-hop go out to him and his family and to everyone else we recently lost: Sean Price, for example. We appreciate these people even if they’re not appreciated by mainstream America, or mainstream music industry worldwide. My last shout out is if you’re not from America and you’re a hip-hop head, you’re still special. A lot of people from America think that they’re better than everyone else, just because they were born here but I think that there is talent all over the world and it should be embraced.

You can find Chief69’s Newest Mixtape Release Below

http://chief69bx.bandcamp.com/album/all-city-bboy-mixtape-vol-2

 

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Hip Hop Forum Interview: Misterelle Part 1

misterelle2Interviewed by Madeleine Byrne

In the first of a three-part interview, talented Virginia MC Misterelle looks back on tracks in his catalogue. First up, ‘Are World’ (produced by Antagonist Dragonspit, and released back in 2013 on Misterelle’s Friday FUNclub mixtape).

‘Are World’ boosted Misterelle’s profile, while also garnering support from major industry players, such as All Def Digital (Russell Simmons’s multimedia company) and was included in Snoop Dogg’s Underground Heat, ultimately reaching the top ten.

Misterelle starts out by talking about the song’s unusual title ….

HHF: Let’s begin with the track name, ‘Are World’ it comes from your niece, right ..

M: Yeah, Jaqayla

HHF: What’s the significance of that title for you?

M: My niece, Jaqayla, she makes me a lot of artwork and stuff like this, when she was living with me. She is very smart and at that time she was like in third grade or something like that. She made me a poem called ‘Are World’ – spelled ‘A- R- E’ and in this poem she spoke about different animals in the world and plant life, she summed it up pretty nice. I thought it was very intricate. I was like, why are you spelling it like that and she was like I did it like that cause it looks pretty on paper, I guess. I was like, it does look better than ‘our world’. And then I was like, I’m going to make a song and I did the same thing she did in the poem, but I talked about my life and my world.

HHF: What you could say about the title is like, ‘Our world’ it belongs to us, we possess or own this world, but with ‘Are world’ it’s like the world is us. Does that make sense?

M: Right

HHF: Can you talk me through the lyrics, especially the second verse where it gets all broken up. That part of the track, the second verse, really impressed me when I heard it.

M: The first verse is how I was taught to believe the world is, by the OGs who brought me up. The first verse is me trying to project this way of living and then the second verse was more how I feel about those same things now. The first verse is how I was raised, and its 100 % factual. People don’t understand that in Richmond, my life was average… considering where I’m from – I’m from the North side of Richmond, Virginia. It was typical to grow up and be raised by people who have been in prison for ten years and then got out, and they raising you and we didn’t think it was anything different.

HHF: Is it kind of strange they’re people you respect and have relationships with, but also you know there’s this other world that they’re part of? Growing up in that environment do you have this kind of split going on all the time?

M: (pauses) It’s weird, like even now as an adult, you still can’t escape it really. You can kind of lay low and then hope that it don’t find you, but it never goes away. With the verses, it’s both sides of the coin: the first side is I’m with it, I don’t care what happen; police catch me, fuck it. The second verse is like, no… I don’t want to do that, it’s those contradictory things we all go through.

Television was the closest I got to the other side of the tracks, so the second verse I integrated a lot of things, like video games, M. Bison from Streetfighter and a lot of stuff everything we can relate to. In the first verse, not everybody can relate to this brute way of living; but the second verse I’m saying I was exposed to the same forms of entertainment on television and in fashion (as everybody else)like everybody wore Air force Ones and Jordans. But at the same time we were wearing Air force Ones and running from the police.

That’s the difference, we share the same things, but not the same experiences. It was like in the second verse I wanted to go more introspective. The first verse is exterior, this is what it looks like when you’re looking at it, like I’m not going anywhere near that but when you meet the person, which is me, you’re like, he’s not a rowdy person, he’s actually kind of together.

HHF: What I like about it is the way you’ve done it: the first verse is very factual – you’ve got ages, statements, it’s very straight and then in the second verse is much more psychological and complex. Also the sound of the sound of the production in the second verse is quite amazing It’s got this whole series of samples that come in, so what you’ve got there is an increased complexity, which is quite beautiful.

M: Right

HHF: What were you trying to achieve in terms of the sound?

M: I wanted it to sound very theatrical.

HHF: Okay

M: Cause Antagonist (producer Antagonist Dragonspit) and I never actually met in person, but we talked on the phone and talked about the state of hip-hop. He practically gave me the beat in good faith, like I can’t wait to hear what you do and when I sent it to him he was like, yeah pretty much what I thought you’d do …

People were really competing for the beat and I was like, no, you need to hand that over to me because I’m going to embody something with that. I’m not going just freestyle and all that I’m going to try and do something real with it, you know what I’m saying. He was like, you got it.

The sound quality, when you put the music to the lyrics and everything coincides, it’s basically like I just wanted to tell the narrative based on how the music sounds. The transition makes it heighten and then it comes down and then it climaxes again, it’s just like writing a musical score.

HHF: Totally. And there’s an amazing bass-line, I’m not sure if it’s a pure bass-line sample, or if he’s modified or changed the sound of it but it’s just extraordinary.

M: It is.

HHF: When you used that word theatrical, would it be appropriate then to think about it as if it were scenes in a play or something like this?

M: Like I can do it on Broadway or something and it’d make sense; cause the way I like to write I like to write from the memories burned in the back of my mind, the things that I remember most vividly. Most people like to write from a place that’s like, I’m going to get the ‘oohs and the ahhs’ and people are like, oh wow. I used to do that, that’s where I come from, you can hear traces of my ‘cleverness’ but at times I got to tell a narrative.

I didn’t want to do nothing fabricated. I wanted to make sure that people understood that this is my world, this is the world as I know it, the Richmond; for people from Richmond, Virginia this is what we are used to. Another person would look at it and go, ‘that’s horrific; that you were around machine-guns and all that stuff and we’re like, no it ain’t … That’s life.

It’s always kind of weird when cultures come together and we see you how other people live. They’re like I can’t imagine growing up like that, and we look at other people and we’re like I can’t imagine growing up like that (laughs).

What brings us together is the music and that’s why the music is important because when you tell that narrative and you do it from a true place, then somebody that has no way of knowing how this is like, they’re going to get walk-through that life as well and they’re like, okay if I was him, I probably would have felt the same.

 

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