Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spyder-D Interview, part 1: The Early Years

Spyder-D has had a long and varied career. Plus being a huge fan since long before high school, I knew before I went into this interview I was going to have a lot of questions and a lot to talk about. So in order not to cut any of the great stories or to hit you over the head with a TL;DR epic, I'm breaking this one up into segments. Ready? Here we go:

Let's start out at the beginning, with "Big Apple Rappin'" and even how you just got into rap in the first place…

Well, truthfully, I always saw rap as a vehicle. I grew up - and really, the death of Michael Jackson kinda brought out the fact in a lot of people… When Queen Latifah was giving her part of the sermon at the memorial, she talked about how kids would be in the basement, pretending to be the Jackson 5, and we weren't different from anybody else. My cousins and I used to get together and lip sync for our aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers at holiday time. We'd put a 45 on and lip-sync "Who's Loving You" by the Jackson 5 or a Blue Magic ballad. So we all fantasized about being recording artists when we got older. I was a basketball player, and when I messed up my knee - my knee was really bad - and realized that basketball was not gonna be my ticket, I got serious about recording. I was going to school for broadcasting. And I just thought, for a young black male who didn't know anything about recording, hip-hop was the quickest way to break into the industry.

So I remember in college, when Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers came out with "Bustin' Loose," I recorded all of it on quarter inch reel-to-reel. And one of my friends there let me use the Eastern Michigan University studio, and I'm sitting there trying to splice together Chuck Brown. I'm trying to splice the break together over and over again. I had no idea what the Hell I was doing! I knew nothing about cutting the tape on the beat - none of this stuff had I learned yet - so as I started splicing it back together, it was so off-beat, it was like what the Hell are you doing?!

So I took a different path than a lot of the Harlem and Bronx rappers, which is kinda why I started producing myself right from the beginning, and why I was the first rapper to start a label. Because my in-roads to the hip-hop game were really a means to a more deeper end than just being a rapper or hip-hop recording artist. And, you know, I grew into the culture. I guess you could say I'm a second generation rapper, where the Harlem and Bronx rappers were the originals and first generation. I learned as a second generation from listening to them, but the difference was that I studied more about the craft of making a record than I did about writing rhymes or being a rapper. That was just a way for me to break into the recording industry.

So, at the time, when I started to get into the recording industry - I'd say late '77, early '78 - I started really getting into it. There was a local DJ in Hollis Queens named DJ Reggie Reg, who never really got the notoriety. And he lives here in Atlanta now, and we were talking about this the other day. Because he's one of the best DJs I've ever seen. He used to do little battles with Davey D, Solo Sounds and Infinity Machine and all of those legendary DJ groups from the 70's, but he was a football player. He was a linebacker and that was kinda his thing. I made my very first demo in his basement. I did my very first professional gig with him at Boston University.

So I had a humble beginning in hip-hop. I started off drinking 32oz bottles of OE and getting drunk and saying whatever I could off the top of my head and making it rhyme. It's not easy, especially when you're drunk. So that was kind of my humble beginning. And I'm finishing my book, by the way, called So You Wanna Be a Rapper, and this is one of the points that I talk about that stands out when I think about me starting my career. One day, I was sitting on my room really distressed, because nothing was going right, and I just got through smoking some weed. And I was listening to WBLS and Frankie Crocker comes on. And Frankie Crocker was the man. You always wanted to catch Frankie, because you knew he was going to play something that nobody else had. And sure enough, Frankie throws on "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll," which at the time was an acetate plate that he had. The record hadn't even been signed to a deal yet. Somebody brought him a plate and he listened to it and said, let me throw this on, because that's what I'm known for: breaking records that nobody else had.

So that record came on and I was mesmerized. One, because it eerily sounded like "Good Times," but the tonality on the bass - and I'm a bass freak - the tonality on the bass that they used, which was like a moog type of bass, what I call a rolling bass. And it just intrigued me and I was like, oh man, that's hot. And I'm the kind of person that'll get a vision, and I'll follow through on it. So I said to myself right then and there, I gotta find out who made this cut, and hoped Frankie'd say who it was. And at the end of the cut he said that was Vaugn Mason and The Crew. So when he said that, my intuition told me that's gotta be a New York-based group, because that's a New York term: crew. As funky as they were, they could've been from the Midwest, but sure enough I went to stores trying to find that record. And they didn't have a deal yet, but they struck up a deal based on that one airplay, because everybody was in stores asking for that record. So it might've been two months before that record was actually in stores. But I finally saw it on the Brunswick label, and I'm like ok, the record company's in New York. Cool. I'm gonna find these cats.

So I went to the record company. Me and Reggie Reg brought them our demo. And Ray Daniels was the A&R at the Brunswick who had actually signed that record. They called him Mr. Ears because all he ever signed were hits; he had ears for hits. So, anyway, he turned down my demo, "you're rapping over our beats. So what? Big deal." I was really discouraged, because we made what I thought was a HOT demo.

So I'm one where, if the door is slammed in my face, I'm gonna figure out: is there a back door or a side door. I focused back on meeting Vaugn Mason, and so I had to devise a scheme. So my scheme was: I knew some people in Queens that know some people. So this one cable TV producer that I knew had his own cable TV show they shot once or twice a week on the west side on Manhattan. So I said, ok, this group just came out with a record, so they want exposure. So they're not gonna turn down an invitation to perform on a cable TV show. So I set it. I took the record to his house and said, call this record company and get these guys to come perform on your show.

We set up a date, and I'll never forget it: January 15th, 1980 was when I met Vaugn Mason. And I introduced myself, gave him the demo, and he was flattered. He thought it was nice, gave me his number, and after all of the disappointments I'd had up to that point, it was very encouraging. I'm talking to a bonafide, on his way to being platinum recording artist taking an interest in me. But at this point, it was actually after I had cut "Big Apple Rappin'" on my own.

I took a van to Detroit Michigan, went into an 8-track and took every dime I had. I didn't even pay the band. They were cool they were gonna be on the record. I don't understand if I was that ambitious or that stupid. Because people looked at me like, here's this 18 year-old kid, who the Hell does he think he is? He knows nothing about recording, but here he is booking studio time to produce a record that he's going to press and start his own label with. I was so naive and stupid that I didn't know I couldn't do that! The ignorance of youth can sometimes be your best asset. And I noticed that down the road, when I noticed in my recordings that I was becoming too formulaic, as opposed to when I first started in the business, didn't know what I was doing, and experimenting.

Because "Big Apple Rappin'" had actually gotten great reviews from music critics. Dance Music Magazine, Tom Silverman himself reviewed that song. All of the critics gave me pretty good reviews. But other than that, I didn't know what the Hell I was doing. And that's when I met Afrika Bambaataa, because Bambaataa had read the review in Dance Music Magazine or like I did when I used to go to record stores to get the names and numbers off of the label, Bambaataa actually called to make an appointment. And my office for Newtroit Records was actually our place on Jamaica Avenue. It was a commercial building, but we also lived there. I had just come home from Detroit, and my mom told me she had gotten a call from some people who wanted to sign to Newtroit Records, and lo and behold, it was Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay. And I knew who they were; she didn't. Mom, these guys are legends! So I was straight up with Bam. I told him we're just a little label, it was really a Ma and Pa operation - or in this case, a Son and Ma operation - and I have no idea what the Hell I'm doing. I wouldn't even ruin your career. But that was a mistake; I should've signed Bambaataa!

Because we had probably sold 10,000 copies of "Big Apple Rappin'" right away. But then I signed a deal with the pressing plant where they became our partner, and I found out they were selling records out the back door. I wasn't seeing any money.

So, eventually, Vaugn and I did "Smerphies Dance," and that was the one that broke me wide open. That was an absolute smash.

But you also did "Rollerskaterrap" between those two points with Delmar International?

Yeah, the Delmar thing was really funny. He was like this raspy-voiced uptown hustler, and I was fascinated by him, because he was an older cat. And I'm just now finding out that I was his first pressing. The other day, somebody showed me in Freddy Fresh's book - in fact, "Big Apple Rappin'" was on the cover. I was going back and forth between Detroit and New York, and it's a little fuzzy, because, you know, between the alcohol and the weed, all the stuff going on, and it was like thirty years ago! But I know for a fact that I met Vaugn Mason on January 15th, 1980, because that date is etched into my mind. One because I hit the number that day - the illegal numbers in New York, not the lotto. January 15th stood out because I dreamed that I was eating a bowl of cereal, and the date stamped on the quart of milk said January 15th. So when I woke up, I said yo, I'm going to play that number. And in those days, I didn't have much money… I had this much to get on the subway and go and meet Vaugn. So I put two dollars down on 115… actually, I put it on 151, because I wasn't so confident in myself. And I would've hit it for like $600 had I played 115.

So, anyway, I stepped to Delmar, because I figured he knew how to handle everything, because I didn't know what the Hell I was doing with Newtroit… not knowing that he didn't know what the Hell he was doing! The recording was horrible. I listen to that record now and I cringe. And my brother was laughing when I made it, like, yo, who is that singing in the background? Some wet cat? And I don't know where those girls are now, but I didn't have the heart to tell them then, but they can't sing! It's like, they were so bad, just thinking about this is funny!

So anyway, Vaugn got co-production credit on that because he came in and arranged the guitar for it. The guitar player I had for that record was named Jimmy. Jimmy was drunk as Hell. He used to sit in the studio, noddin' out, while Vaugn was trying to tell him where and how to play the line. He got mad and started yelling, who does this guy think he is? I was like, dude, he's platinum. He was like, so what?

But Delmar was an experience because he had no intentions of paying me. I saw Delmar after "Smerphies" came out, he actually came to PowerPlay Studios, like, "yo man, now that you're making hits, you don't know nobody." I was like, dude, I never even seen a statement from you! And he went and licensing deals off of that record with Aaron Fuchs and whoever else he could cut deals with… You know, once you get a hit record, all your other stuff becomes valuable again. And that's what he did. I don't want to talk about him too much because he's dead now, but he had the nerve to look me in the fact at PowerPlay and be like why don't I go to Delmar and deliver some more hit records?

But I kept working with Vaugn, and I think he respected me because I stuck with it and kept learning the craft. So we recorded a demo of what became "Smerphies Dance," but it wasn't called that. It had the same bassline and everything, It was called "Nothing But a Party" at the time, and he said, why don't you come down to my studio and we'll work on this song. He had just bought an 808, and he hadn't even opened it or turned it on, so he told me to go down in the basement, mess around with it, and have fun with it. It was all trial and error, but I ended up recording what was the beat for "Smerphies Dance." And that whole hand-clap thing was basically just because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing… but I liked what I heard.

And that's all you really have to do as a producer. People get down on Puffy because he doesn't really make music, but he's still a producer, because he's saying yay or nay. Whether he's programming the beats or whatever… because I used to criticize him for that, too. How's he gonna be a producer when he's sitting there with a phone in his ear. He's got producers working for him, and he's just telling them, yeah I like that, change this, move that. He's still a producer.

So I made the beat up and Vaugn liked it, but he wanted me to change the lyrics for "Nothing But a Party." He said, save that for another day. He wanted me to rap about the Smurf dance. I said, Vaugn, I'm not rapping about the Smurf dance! Dances are fads, and especially in New York, they come and go. We argued about that, over and over. But eventually, I started to write some lyrics about the dance.

A couple days later, we went to Atlantic City to cut the beat, they put a couple of variations in some of the lines. All I used to do was hum. I used to hum the lines out to the musicians and they would play them, and then I would either give them a little liberty to put their own little flair to it, or I'd tell them nah, that's too far away, go back to it. That's how I worked with all the bands on my early cuts, because obviously I wasn't programming back then, I was using live bands. On "Big Apple Rappin'" they played the tempo a little faster than I would've liked. That's another thing my brother used to tease me about, like, "you sound like you're running out of breath!" And I was producing my own vocals, and it was hard back then to be able to critique your own vocals, so I would lay my vocals in one take and be done with it. But those were the early records.

After we finished cutting, we had a big argument over the hook, "heads, shoulders, feet and toes…" I didn't want it in there, Vaugn wanted it. In fact, that was Vaugn's contribution to writing the song. But he and his partner, who was basically the drummer on "Bounce, Rock, Skate," were all supposed to be co-producers. It was my beat and my lyrics, but we ended up splitting the writers' credit three ways, which pissed me off. Because as naive as I was, I wasn't that naive!

But I said, ok, they're platinum producers, I'm gonna have to pay my dues. So they signed me to a production group, which gave them the rights to shop the record. So they took the record around and they were asking for too much money for back then! Brunswick was gonna sign the record, but Vaugn had already told me that they had robbed him. He signed a contract for 27 cents a 12", which was kinda low, but he sold millions. He sold a million plus "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll." So let's do the math, a million times 27 cents, that's $270,000. They gave him a check for $35,000. Can you believe that shit? Plus, they were getting ready to close their doors… we had heard the rumor. So I said, Vaugn, why don't we take it to Brunswick and he said, yeah, they'll probably sell half a million records, but you'll never see a dime!

Then they went Profile, and Profile was strugglin'. I think Jeckyll and Hyde's record saved them, because they ere running out of money. They had took like 30k to start their label and were running out of money, and then Jeckyll and Hyde had that "Genius Rap" and that saved Profile. So Vaugn took our record to Profile, but I think Vaugn was asking for anything between $7,500 and $10,000 for the single. And that was unheard of in that day for a 12" single. No record company was paying that much money up front. To give you an example, Profile paid $1,500 for "Sucker MCs" and "It's Like That." Fifteen hundred dollars, and that included rerecording it. That was the budget. Larry Smith had to take the 8-track and go into a bigger studio and rerecord it, mix it down, and hand over the master to Profile. And they had to do it within $1,500. So Vaugn and them asking for $7.500 was nuts!

So I'm starting to get discouraged again… like two months after we cut the record, we can't get a damn deal. And I find out later on why! So we finally settled on this company that Ray Daniels took us to. He took us to Roy Norman, probably because he was black. Roy Norman's claim to fame was, I'm the only distributing black label with his own distribution," blah blah blah. He had a record company called Telstar Cassettes, which I couldn't understand. I said, yo dude, I don't want to be on any record company called Telstar Cassettes! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life!

Dude, why are you making me relive all of these horrible memories? (Laughs)

We finally sold to Telstar Cassettes for $35,000, which we split three ways. Trust me, by the time we made that deal, I was so happy to have twelve hundred dollars in my pocket, it wasn't funny. I was ghetto fabulous at that point. So it had to be late November of 1982, when Telstar finally pressed up DJ copies, and I mean, everybody jumped on that record! They told me, Flash is playing the Hell out of it! JuneBug is playing the Hell out of it! All of the Uptown DJs were killing that record! But yet I hadn't heard it on the air yet, so I was still discouraged… plus, it wasn't in the stores. So, finally, Mr. Magic played the record one night… and it was the last record before he went off the air. And I'm sitting in my father's basement with the stereo I had bought with the money that we had sold the record for, and again I'm weeded up. And Magic's getting ready to go off, like 7 minutes to 12, and I'm like, yo, Magic's not gonna play this fuckin' record! And then all of a sudden as I'm about to turn it off, I heard that intro. I got on the phone real quick, I called my moms, I called my grandma; I said turn on WBLS right now, right now!

And after Magic played that record, it blew up. It just took off. Frankie Crocker… when Frankie Crocker played it, I was like, ok, I'm good. I am officially validated in the recording industry. Frankie Crocker is where all of this really started, when he played "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll." I had come full circle, and there was nothing you could tell me then. When he programmed my record into his show - in fact, he used to open his show with the instrumental. And at the end of the instrumental was where Vaugn and them let me put some of the lyrics from "Nothin' But a Party." That was the compromise for me making the song about the Smurf; I get my little verse off towards the end. So when he played that, you couldn't tell me nothing! Frankie Crocker played my record. And that was the start of the whole thing.

This is the end of part 1. Click here for when we talk about his hits with Profile Records, his battle with Kool Moe Dee, B-Boy Records, Sparky D, his new material and so much more.

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