Monday, March 15, 2010

Be What You Be - Pow Wow Interview (Soulsonic part 1)

So Cheryl the Pearl, who of course I just recently spoke to, put me in touch with Pow Wow of The Mighty Zulu Nation and The Soulsonic Force. An old school legend like that really doesn't need an introduction... It's Pow Wow! Just read. There's some serious history below.

Well, I started at an early age, man, with a brother named Darryl D, bless his soul, and another brother named Eldorado Mike. Bless his soul also; they both passed on. And they took me to my very first hip-hop party; it was Kool Herc. And it just so happened that we all were from the same neighborhood in the South Bronx. I grew up on 168th St and Fulton Ave. And I don't know if you're familiar with Kool Herc's B-boys, Clark Kent and the Nigger Twins, Keith and Kevin. We were all raised up together, I mean before any hip-hop music and all that. I got into it, watching them dancing and all.

What year would that have been?

Whoa. I'm talking, like, '74, man, or '73. Eleven or twelve years old; I was a baby. And I had family that lived in Bronx Water Projects. And at that time, a lot of street gangs stayed in the Bronx. And I came from a street gang called The Black Pearls and The Saigons over on Watson Avenue. And the Black Spades had beat them up. And the guys that beat them up were from Bronx River Projects where I had family; I wound up going over there. And linking up with them guys, they were very unified. I liked the way they were operating. And then Bambaataa started DJing, and we started a B-boy group called The Zulu Kings. And basically, from there it just went from B-boying to MCing to music.

Was there a clear point where you switched from B-boying to MCing?

Oh yeah, well you know what? A lot of cats don't know this, man, but they weren't calling it B-boying. They were called Boi-oing kids. And Boi-oing kids went to B-boying, and B-boys went to break dancers; and MCing went from MCing to rapping. And we were boi-oing kids, man; that's what we were.

When it started, there were about seven of us. The Zulu Kings. And that became then the Zulu Nation, and then the mighty Zulu Nation and then the Universal Zulu Nation! But when it started, it was the gang the Black Spades. We started a group called The Organization and that became the Zulu Nation. It's a blessing. Because back in the days, like 37 years, all those crews… they don't even exist no more. But we have a worldwide following; and that's amazing to me.

So, when you hooked up with Bambaataa, did Biggs and G.L.O.B.E. come around the same time, or were they already down?

Well, Biggs was always there. Biggs was raised in Bronx River. Bigg was day 1 and I came on day 2. How G.L.O.B.E. came about was, I could teach G.L.O.B.E. how to dance; 'cause at the time, me and my friend Marcus were the baddest break dancers out in the Bronx. We were the best. And I used to teach people how to dance, like KK Rockwell from the Funky Four, even DJ Breakout. And I met G.L.O.B.E. from my younger sister. And once G.L.O.B.E. found out who he was, I took him under my wing. And one morning, we was going to school, he came to my house and said he wanted to be an MC. And he came with this rhyme, man, called "People, People" that just blew me away. So we started workin', writing stuff, by that summer. He was ready and me and G.L.O.B.E. just took it to the next level in rap, man, you know? Started doing a thing called MC poppin', that was triplets and fourfipolets and stuff like that wasn't even thinking about double-up and triple-up raps. So we started that, and we called it MC poppin'.

And then as time went on, we did a record with Paul Winley called "Zulu Nation Throwdown part 1," and it was so crazy because the drummer on the record was really a bass player. The music we had was like, to me, circus music. It wasn't it. And then the good Lord decided to bless us with "Planet Rock." That's the most sampled record in history. Every year, another two or three hits come out and I hear that beat. Kraftwerk don't know what they did!

Well, when did you guys decide that, from the Zulu Kings and all, that you three and Bambaataa were going to be The Soulsonic Force, more as a music group?

Oh well, there was a whole bunch of us. I think there was about eight of us at one time. But cats didn't want to come to practice, and only comin' to parties when they wanna come and stuff like that. Like originally Mr. Biggs was an MC, but he wasn't really into it like me and G.L.O.B.E. And my first partner, Love Kid Hutch, used to be down us. He used to be down with Busy Bee Starski. Used to be Starski and Hutch, but they broke up. But Hutch wound up going with Disco King Mario, bless his soul, and The Chuck City Crew; and after that, we came our way. The rest is history. And he left and went the way he wanted to go, instead of coming to practice like I said, like me, Biggs and G.L.O.B.E. was doing.

They cut they own selves off. I'm a team player, that's how I get down. If the team wins, then I'm gonna win. But if I think I can leave and then come back three or four days later and the format's done changed up on your ass, and you're wondering wow, what happened? Why nobody told me? Because you were not there. You gotta go to work every day, and that was our work. Me and G.L.O.B.E. sat down and ate it, breathed it, and got to the point where we ran out of fucking words to rhyme, man!

So it wound up just being us three that stuck it out. 'Cause me and G.L.O.B.E. were more in the hip-hop area than the Bronx River was. See, where we came from, we were hip-hop, with The L Brothers, DJ Smokey and the Smokeatron, he was from Grand Avenue. And a lot of guys, they don't take about him. I'll get back to what we were saying, but DJ Smokey, and his brother Roscoe and the Smokeatron, they were the baddest motherfuckers out at the time, man. I mean, Flash couldn't touch them, Kool Herc couldn't touch them. Nobody was touchin' Smokey. And a lot of cats will not speak on him, which they should, because he is also a pioneer of hip-hop music.

And what happened to him?

I heard he moved out of state. I heard he moved before hip-hop music turned big. I guess he cut it loose and went about his life, but DJ Smokey and his brother Roscoe, let me tell you, they threw the baddest parties. You wanted to see some guys that could dance? Man, it was a show! There's a movie theatre we had over on 174th St in the Bronx River called The Dover movie theatre that had a place you could give parties - it's a church now - but he made that spot very popular. He used to throw block parties mostly on Grand Avenue. And this guy here, I wanna let the world know about him; he definitely deserves his props, man, because he was there in the beginning. And a lot of guys don't that brother his recognition, which is sad; and I'ma give it to him every time all the time.

But as far as Bronx River, Bambaataa, he was the man. Because back then I went to every DJ you could view; I was at every party. Even Grandmaster Caz, who was a DJ called Casanova Fly… his first hop-hop was a place called The Eightball Room over on University Avenue. That's how much I'm into hip-hop; I am hip-hop. If there was a party, I was there, trust me.

A lot of DJs, like Hollywood or even Flash... you'd know what they were playing. Like ok, now it's "Got To Be Real," next it'll be "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." And those are great, but everything I've heard from Bambaataa, it seemed like he was always playing different stuff, and you never knew what he'd pull out next.

A lot of guys, when they called themselves DJs, were trying to be mostly like Frankie Crocker, that disco shit. And Kool Herc, he played beats, he was the man that took it to the streets. But to me, a sure enough hip-hop DJ was Bambaataa. When he showed up, it was magic. And when you were a B-boy you'd hear all these break beats coming at you like, "oh shit; what is this? What is that?" I consider him to be the real first, stone cold hip-hop DJ. He played a little bit of disco, but the man kept it funky. Man, anybody at any age… I mean, parties we threw, sometimes peoples' mothers would come. And your uncles would come, your aunts. He would please everybody and everybody had a good time. And a lot of DJs cannot do that, no way. I've seen them" it's either this, or it's that. Bambaataa has it all. He is the master of records. Like Bambaataa was the first to play The Flaming Emeralds, things like that these cats were not up on. But believe me, Bambaataa has a stash that is so awesome, these guys heads' would spin!

As a matter of fact, last summer, Soulsonic Force… every year, every Wednesday and Thursday they give shows in the park here. And we finally got our chance to go up in there. Soulsonic went one day, then Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert went the next week. Man, listen. Bambaataa rocked that park so hard with not one MC! He didn't need none. The music did all that man's talking. The trees fell; he brought the park down. That man is music. If you take music away from Bambaataa, that's like taking somebody's eyes out their skull and asking them to cross a busy highway. Soulsonic has never done a show where we didn't bring the house down; that's just automatic.

Speaking of your shows, one thing I wanted to ask about was your costumes. One thing you were also known for was having those wild costumes; when did you start bringing them into your shows?

Well, Afrika Bambaataa was always into Parliament Funkadelic. We liked the way they did their shit, because everybody put their own image. We didn't want to be like Flash, the Funky Four and everybody else. That's why you notice there's a Furious Five, the Crash Crew, the Saigon Crew… everybody was this Crew or this Number. We decided to be different, like we always are. 'Cause in Bronx River, we got our own shit goin' on. And we came up with the name Soulsonic Force, and we became Mr. Biggs, Pow Wow and G.L.OB.E.; and we wanted to identify our own selves. That's why everybody had their costumes - G.L.O.B.E. represented the map; he had a costume with all these colors. I was Pow Wow the Indian, and Mr. Biggs was a warrior and Bambaataa wanted to be a barbarian. Everybody had their own thing, and we didn't want to dress like everybody else in leather suits or dressed like The Temptations. We weren't doing songs like that, with little commercial jingles. We was just flowin'.

Put it like this: there's a trend setter and a master of the trend. And we would rather be the trend setters. We used to be wild. We used to paint up, awesome shit, just having fun, being ourselves.

Well, yeah, I think that's the problem a lot of old school MCs run into when they make comebacks… They started out trendsetters, coming up with new things and being unique. But then when they comeback, suddenly they're dressing like the kids, getting whatever guest producers they think are hot today and wind up chasing the trends.

There you go. That's the key to it right there, brother. That's the fuckin' key; you opened Pandora's Box, man. That's the key to it, John: come out and be your fuckin' self. Be like when you was hungry in your fuckin' house, sittin' at your kitchen table, in your bedroom, or while you're on the toilet takin' a shit, thinkin' about what the fuck I'ma say at this party Friday that's not gonna sound like Melle Mel or Kidd Creole or Rahiem or KK Rockwell or nobody. I gotta sound like Pow Wow; I gotta do Pow Wow. And that's what I liked about us: we weren't trying to follow no image or be like nobody.

So it seems like, maybe because of that, it took Soulsonic a little longer to find a regular label home than a lot of other groups who settled into one right away. Like you went from Winley and eventually to Tommy Boy… I think you guys went to Sugar Hill, though you didn't actually wind up signing with them?

Well, the cut we did with Sugar Hill Records, I believe to this day would kick ass, man. It was called "The Rhythm of Life." It never jumped off; it never happened. We gave a party at Audubon Ball Room for us and Grandmaster Flash; but they didn't come. But Tommy Boy was there, and me and G.L.O.B.E. and Jazzy Jay did our thing. And they wanted to holler at us, man… and history was made.

Was that song you did for Sugar Hill with the Sugar Hill Band as well?

Exactly. Oh, they was bad, man, they was funky. We did a cut called "Who Do You Think You're Funkin' With" with Melle Mel that they did the music for, and another one called "What Time Is It?" We had Busy Bee Starski, Little Rodney C, Melle Mel, Soulsonic and my nephew Lamont. It was like a freestyle kinda thing; and Skip, Doug and Keith were bad, man. They're some bad motherfuckers!

Do you have that unreleased recording, "The Rhythm of Life?" Like could you still release that?

Oh, you know what? I doubt it because Sylvia Robinson I guess would own the music rights to it, and we would have to go and get permission and the whole scenario. But that was a bad motherfucker, man; that was a bad record. I was blessed to meet Ms Robinson through Cheryl the Pearl, and she sure looked like a cool lady to me. I mean socially… business-wise, I don't know! She pulled some numbers on some; and we didn't go with her, thank god! But as a human being, she's a sweet lady to me.

Was Tommy Boy better about that? Were they more on the level?

Hell no! They were all fucking crooks. Tommy Boy, Arthur Baker, John Robie, they were all fucking crooks! We're getting at them right now for that back money. They were all crooks. But at the end of the day, God gets the last word. So don't deal with me, deal with the man.

But you still did a record for them with G.L.O.B.E. called "Celebrate! (Everybody)."

Yeah, we did two. We did one called "You Made a Mistake; You Didn't Let Us In," and "Celebrate." And I was kinda pissed off with "Celebrate" because the first track we had for that was so hard! And they switched it. I was like, oh man, y'all done fucked the music up. Just leave well enough alone! I did not like the music for "Celebrate." "You Made a Mistake?" Eh, that was alright. That was just something we were in there fucking around with and they wound up keeping it.

And G.L.O.B.E. did a couple other records… G.L.O.B.E. is the man; I'll put him up against anybody. You get who you wanna get! Put them both up on that stage side by side, and he won't just beat them, he will annihilate them! He's a bad man with that mic, trust me. I'm not sayin' that 'cause he's my brother. Even if I didn't know him, I'd be saying the same thing. The boy is awesome; he IS the mic. G.L.O.B.E. is the mic.

I'd love to hear that original version of "Celebrate" some day.

Well, hopefully. Because I have a collection, man. I collect everything. I got some fly ass tapes and CDs that guys would kill for. But I'm gonna wait 'till I'm more on top of my shit, and then I'm gonna release some serious shit on cats, man. I got shit from before there was even records, but when you hear this shit you'll be like, oh man, these guys were having a ball! That type of thing… everybody was putting it down, man. I thank God I got my hands on it.

Then later on, there was The Lost Generation album…

Oh here you go! I'm ready for that 'cause everybody comes at me with that one. At that time, I had got released from prison in 1989. And I was doing my homework. I happened to come across a music book one day, and saw how I didn't get paid for the music. So instead of me going back and sitting back down and not doing nothing about it. I said, I'm gonna back off of everything, take my ass to the library and start reading some books! So when I was doing that, Biggs and G.L.O.B.E. wanted to do Lost Generation and I said me, I'm not doing that. I'm not fucking with Tommy Boy no more; they owe us money. There's a bigger picture; and at the end of the day you'll see what I'm talking about. That's why I was never on that album, because I refused to sign a contract with these fucking crooks and get dicked again. And that's what happened; they got fucked! So I avoided all that. I'm glad I didn't go that route. I'm glad I did what I did and learned what I learned; not just for me, but for the group also. And they're very appreciative of it, too.

And one album I wanted to ask you about, you probably don't get a lot of questions about: the Christmas Rappin' album by The Grand Rapmasters.

That was a project we did with Mike and Amad Henderson. That was a project they had put together. But I had done an original track on there called "Christmas To a Go-Go." Amad's brother John Henderson was dealing with public broadcasting. And they had a couple projects they wanted us to do. One was to remake the Christmas songs. And me and G.L.O.B.E. went on further and did a sex education rap about venereal diseases and stuff like that. It was for PBS; I done forgot the name of that one. I gotta do my homework on that one, because nobody ever asked me about that one. You're the first. We did the disease record because at that time the AIDS was really killin' us, you know? And then that's how the Christmas album came about.

Cheryl the Pearl told me that she was working with you now. How did that connection come about?

Little Rodney C, of the Funky Four, used to be down with this guy named DJ Steve, was the Awesome Two. That's who he used to MC with. And when he went to Sugar Hill, he introduced me to Cheryl the Pearl. See, I love to write. That's my first love; I'm a writer. I was telling him I could write songs at the time, and he told me, Pow Wow, I got the great combination for you. And that's been a relationship that's gonna last for a lifetime.

When was that?

What is this, 2010? Let's say 25 years ago. My youngest son was a baby; he's 25 now.

So this would've been after "Planet Rock" and all that, right?

Oh exactly. This was after "Planet Rock." And me and Cheryl started linking up, and we've been doing our thing since. We've got the connection now that we're ready to jump off try to put the realness back into the game. We've got some really, really hot stuff man. Cheryl, she's unique. She's got that down-home soul feel about her, and if you ever get to meet her, you will see an aura that's just like Heaven sent, man. She's an angel.

So tell us about some of the music you're planning to put out together now.

Man, listen! One of my favorite ones in called "Phuck It Up." The ceilings gonna fall when they hear this one. It's so much. I got something really serious; it's called "Feel Me." That's really deep. I could tell you titles 'till titles come home! As a matter of fact, Cheryl just hit me with twenty new titles. And one of the new titles, if we pull this off, I think is gonna be as big as "Planet Rock." It'll never go nowhere. It will never die. Like they say, "Rock & Roll Is Here To Say?" It'll never die. Cheryl is just brilliant, she's just fucking brilliant.

And how are you guys doing with distribution now? Because obviously the music industry's changing…

You know what? I love it! I love it because we cut out the middle man, we cut out the distribution people, cut out the record labels. We cut all these cats out our pocket. You just come and download and send that money to our account. You know how much you're saving? You don't have to promote shit; the music promotes itself. You don't have to pay that shit no more, the middle man is done. Record companies are done. You can start your own goddamn label. The matrix is something else, and I love it! I'm happy for the change.

It's bigger than what you think, man. We're taking it home. These are some songs you can relate to. If you got a heart, some soul and some fucking morals, you can relate. And everybody I know has at least one of the three, so we're good. Taking it back to basics, that's it. Not talking about, "I fucked your girl, I got the glock and it's like that," blah blah blah. Get the fuck out of here! Them niggers don't have the slightest idea what it's like when a bullet comes so close, you feel the heat of the motherfucker. They don't know about that. And if they did know about it, they wouldn't recommend it. We have some hardcore artists, too; don't get me wrong. But for me speaking personally, I'm not going that route. You know what Kool & the Gang said? "Music is the message I sing with universal love for one and all." That sums it up right there for me; that's what it's about. So here we come again, rollin' down the mountainside like a ball of fuckin' thunder, man.

So listen, I wanna put a shout out when you put this out there[I did my best with these names! Apologies in advance for what I'm sure are many errors and possibly a couple omissions about to follow:]. I wanna shout out the man Bambaataa, G.L.O.B.E., Mr. Bigg, Jazzy Jay, Cutman LG, Amad Henderson, my brother Sundance, and most of all to my brother Marcus, who was the A1 B-boy on the planet; nobody could touch my man, he was the best. My man KO, Ace 1 Gutta, My brother Freddy, Shaqueena, Keenan, Cody, Killer, Kay, the rest of my grandkids, the original D-Nice from The Hill Crew, matter of fact the whole Hill Crew, Westwood Projects, Washington Projects, Bronx River Projects, Capital Hill Projects, to my man Star out there in Brooklyn, Coney Island, Zulu Crew, Michelle - I love you forever, my daughter, my sister Luanda, Joanne, my nephew Anthony, Michael Glover, Danny Glover, my girl Yvette, Kabuki - may she get better, Roscoe… I'm trying to put this all up in there, because I don't hardly do these interviews like this. Cheryl the Pearl, Niecy, Leesy, Mo, Brandon, Harvey, Momma Pearl, Shirley, Carlos - bless your soul, Panther, my boy Crazy Mike, Comanche, Wanda, Simone, Cheyenne, Campy, Cool C, Crazy Phil, Outlaw, Nicky Benson, Smitty.

April 26th is the release date for Cheryl the Pearl's first two joints. She and Pow Wow were working on putting together the release party when we talked, so if you're in the NY area, look out for that announcement. Oh, and if you noticed the "Soulsonic part 1" in the title; that's right. There's a part 2 very soon to follow! ;)


  1. Very interesting read. Those unreleased joints with melle Mel sound intriguing!

  2. GREAT interview, Werner!