Sunday, March 7, 2010

Don't You Sit Back Down - Cheryl the Pearl interview

I doubt I have to tell many people reading my blog who Cheryl the Pearl is, but if you're not sure; she's one third of the classic rap group, The Sequence. The first rap act from the South, one of the very few rap groups to release a hip-hop record before 1980 (Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Lady B, The Sequence and King Tim III are pretty much it), and just one of the premiere female hip-hop groups of all time. Cheryl was also a solo artist and a song writer for other groups, but you can learn all about that below. ;)

When you guys formed The Sequence in South Carolina, had hip-hop really reached there yet at that time?

Our first sing that came out was "Funk You Up" in '79, almost the winter. It was October when we met Ms. Robinson. Before the Sugar Hill Gang, the only two people that we had heard were King Tim III and Lady B out of Philadelphia. The Sugar Hill Gang was doing a concert here in Columbia, South Carolina. And we got backstage passes. Well, a guy let us in, because we were supposed to have passes. They weren't there, but we got in anyway.

We got backstage and a guy named Nate Edmond told us to send him a cassette. And we were like, nah, we can't send no tape; we gotta do this in front of you now. He was like, well, we're getting ready to go on stage now, so you're gonna have to send me a tape. We were settin' to tell him, we're not sendin' no tape; and Ms. Robinson was sitting in a chair in the corner and she said, "I'll listen to you." We said, you would? She said, "yeah. What do you girls do?" We told her we write songs, we sing and we rap. She said, "ok, do what you do."

So we started singing and the songs at first kinda hit her, but didn't really hit her. And we were getting ready to walk out and watch the Gang on stage, and I don't know whether it was Angie or Gwen who said, "but we didn't do 'Funk You Up'." And she said, "well, come back in here and do it." So we came in and started singing, "we're gonna funk you, right on up, gonna funk you right on up. Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, sit back down!" She said, stop, don't sing no more."

She stopped the band from getting up on stage. She stopped everything. She got Doug, Skip and Keith LeBlanc to come into the dressing room. She said, "y'all gotta here this. Ok, y'all do it again for us, alright?" So we started singing and jamming right in the room there. They started playing and it became like a jam session really. So she said, "ok, which one of y'all want to rap first?" So Gwen came in with her rap, and then she said, "Ok, Cheryl, you go," and I came in. And then Angie came in and everybody came in. There wasn't really anybody on stage doin' it, because everybody came to the dressing room.

So the guys went out on stage and she said, "you go out there, too." So we were out there, standing on stage with the Gang while they performed "Rapper's Delight!" And so she saw that we weren't afraid, I think. And she said, "I'm gonna make you girls stars." Those were her exact words: I'm gonna make you stars.

So you guys were already performing the raps for "Funk You Up" and all back then, or had you been more just a singing group?

Well. We were just a singing group until the day before we knew we were going to a Sugar Hill concert!


Me and Angie were on the cheer-leading squad, so to write something quick was no thing. And Gwen was on the pep team, so she wasn't afraid to be in front of people as well. So we basically put the raps together earlier that day, just in case they asked us to rap. We didn't really know what rap really was, but to us it sounded like cheering, "dun, you can do it, dun da da da do it, oh, you got ta do it!" It was like how we cheered. So we were like, let's just write an eight-bar rap just in case somebody asks us to rap, 'cause it was a rap concert. And Ms. Robinson was the one that suggested we put the rap in the song.

And when Gwen came on, "my name is Gwen, but they call me Blondie," she just flipped like oh my god, I can't believe this is happening! She said, "you go Cheryl," and I started, "my name is Cheryl, and I'll tell you why, 'cause I got such sexy bedroom eyes." She said stop, and then Angie came in, "Angie B is what they say; I got chocolate hips and the milky way." She just smiled ear to ear as if to say, "I got my next group. I got three guys, and now I got three girls."

So on their way evening, she said, "I'm gonna call you around the middle of next week, Wednesday or Thursday, and your tickets will be at the airport Friday. And I need for y'all to get on the plane, come to Jersey, and do this particular song." We said ok! But then we had to go back home and convince our parents.

I was eighteen, Angie had just turned twenty, and Angie was seventeen. So we had to beg her mom to let her come out with us; we would look out for her, and if it didn't work out, we would all come back together. So they took a chance because Angie was still in school, but they didn't want her to miss her break if this was a break for us. So they agreed to let Angie come along, and our parents took us to the airport, put us on the plane, and the rest was history!

So, did you guys stay up in New Jersey, or were you flying back and forth for every record?

Well, in the beginning, we stayed there for a couple of weeks, just to really feel out everything. Ms. Robinson made living arrangements for us with one of her nieces, for as long as we wanted to stay up. 'Cause we brought clothes like we were never coming back anyway! But we got homesick. They ate out at restaurants every day and we were like, we want some cooked food - we need to go back home! She saw we were getting that look and said, "y'all wanna go back home?" We said yeah, can we go back home, and when you're ready for us, call us? And so she let us come back home.

Ok, we got discovered on Gwen's birthday. The day we heard "Funk You Up" on the radio was my birthday, November 19. And Angie's birthday, which was December 18, was when we were on the road with The Sugar Hill Gang. So everything went in like a sequence that particular year on '79. Gwen turned 20 on October 20, I turned 19 on November 19 and Angie turned 18 on December 18. So we really did have a combination there that was probably supposed to happen.

Did "Funk You Up" reach back to South Carolina? Did people know what you were doing, like, oh you guys are The Sequence now when you got back home?

No… we were home when we first heard it. Vanessa Pendergrass on WOIC broke the record for us here. But we still had problems with radio stations playing that particular record here, because we were saying "Funk you up," but I guess parents were hearing their kids saying something different, so they started attacking the radio stations. So after "Funk You Up," we had to be real careful with the lyrics, because it was important to get your record played. So "Funk You Up" broke in the clubs; it wasn't from the radio. And it was still a time when rap was really unacceptable. Nobody but the kids were catching on to it.

Well, and you guys on the cusp of some controversial lyrics at that time, too, in a topical way. Especially considering it was pre-"Message."

Yeah. Well, I would always try to write something that hopefully would help somebody if they were going through something. But Ms Robinson also wanted to keep it fun, so we often had to make it "let's just have fun." Like which one are you talking about?

Like on "Simon Says," you had that verse about the girl who gets pregnant and then her boyfriend leaves her.

Oh, ok! Yeah. "Get pumped, we'll take the pill. The guys wanna make love every day, but when you get pumped, they run away. Knowing it's something that you did, but he says, boo, it's not my kid." Yeah. I think, before the tables turned, we were getting ready to do some new music that was closer to what Mel was doing, putting out something to make people think. All of us being writers, we had our feel for it, and then things kinda changed when a lot of people started coming into it. Started making it hard to get in the studio and be creative like we wanted to. And then a whole bunch of other things were going on at the company that just stifled peoples' growth, and not allowing them to just do what they do.

Like when Sugar Hill started signing new artists?

Yeah, when they brought new artists in, some of the artists that had been there earlier would be kicked to the backbone. If you weren't coming to them with something that was hitting, it wasn't going anyway. It had to be hitting like when they came with "Rapper's Delight," then "Funk You Up," then "8th Wonder," then "Tear the Roof Off," then Flash and them's stuff, "Freedom." So it was just constant hits coming back to back. Sot hen it became a competition, because all of the groups would try to come to the table with the hottest stuff. And then The West Street Mob, that was Sylvia's son's group; and they were doing the singing and chants-type stuff. And Angie and myself were a part of that, too. We did "Let's Dance" for Joey.

Yeah, that's actually something I wanted to ask about. Because you're in the credits for a bunch of their songs, actually.

Yeah. I did a lot of writing back then. Not just for the Sequence, but the Sugar Hill Gang and the West Street Mob.

And so is that you pretty much whenever we heard female voices on one of their records, like "Mosquito" and all?

Probably me and Angie. We did most of the vocals for everything that was going on back then.

And who besides JR was the West Street Mob, exactly? There was Warren?

That was Warren, his best friend.

Was Kory O a member back then?

Kory came into the West Street Mob a little later down the line.

Back when they were still doing records, or later later?

Later. Maybe '85, '86.

And then I think there was DJ Scott or Scotty?

I just know Leland Roberts used to do a lot of the DJing around that time for Joey, and that was his brother. Oh, and Scotty! I remember. That was a friend also; that was one of Joey's friends.

Now, in 1985, you guys had a record called "Control." It says on the label it's for a compilation called Sugar Hill Stars Taking Over?

I don't know why they had that on that record. At that time was when the company was really going through something . That was supposed to be my first single as a solo artist. And they put it out for about three or four weeks before the company actually closed. And my "Control" came out before Janet Jackson's "Control." A lot of the people at Sugar Hill started working at… I think it was A&M Records, or whichever company Janet was under, and they took my music over there. And what I think is that they heard my song and they rewrote her song from what they heard I had done. And so her song, "Control! Den den de-de-ne-den, Den den, Control!" My song went, "Den den den, control! Taking control! Taking taking control, con troll." See, they took their thing and made it just a little bit different, but it was almost on the same thing. They changed the lyrics a little bit, and what they fitted with Janet was perfect. But Joe at that particular time said, "Cheryl, I think you have another hit," because they were sending out orders of 3, 4, 5 thousand copies to all the places. Orders were coming in for the record. But those records got lost because the company closed. And it was always in the air.

I held that song for five years before I recorded it. And I wish that I had held it longer, because I didn't know that it was gonna get caught in the mix of that when the company went down. And then when I heard her song, it just crushed my heart. I think her name was Iris or Irish Perkins, she was doing promotion work at Sugar Hill Records. And then when she went over to their company, she had gotten a bigger position over there, and she had all of our music with her. And that really scared me to think that they would take my music and get somebody else to recut my music. And then the Robinsons were in a position to fight for my rights. And I think if you look at that record, they had given me either 50 or 100% of the song.

The writing credits, right? Because the song itself is billed to the whole Sequence.

Yeah. I was the only one doing work on that song. At that time, too, Angie had gotten married to Rodney and they weren't really allowing them to make money in the company. But Gwen and I had to find a way to put music out there and continue on and hopefully they would let Angie come in and do what she needed to for us to still be a group. But it was a terrible time for a lot of people down there. People weren't putting their all into it because the company wasn't paying. In the beginning, the company was paying, and then all of a sudden, you would just have to like beg them for your money. And Rodney and all of them were from that city, so they knew maybe a little more than we knew coming into the game; but things just took a turn and they started getting really tight with the money. And they caused all of the groups to say, nope, I'm not doing this. So either way they were gonna crash, because the groups weren't willing to do their best work.

Did you have much recorded that didn't get released? I know there was the infamous fire at Sugar Hill, where a lot of stuff was lost.

There wasn't much that didn't come out, but yeah, that was a very old building when we were in it, really messed up real bad, shouldn't've been open. It was a fire waiting to happen, with so many wires and things that were loose, and certain rooms that they never even worked out of because they needed so much work. In the beginning they were fixing the building up, but then, I can't tell you exactly the business end, whether they were paying taxes or not paying taxes, but things just went crazy. So they stopped spending money and they stopped fixing it up. And one thing lead to another.

Sugar Hill certainly had a lot of well-known issues with paying some of the artists, and the Gang had a lot of public legal battles with them.

Well, right now I have a lawsuit going on with them as well. In fact, I'm waiting for my lawyer to call me back with a court date. Because there's a lot of music back then that a lot of people have sampled since then and they don't like to pay. Sugar Hill don't like to pay; they think our money is their money.

So, like, when a Sequence song appears on a compilation, or like that big Sequence CD set on Sequel Records comes out, do they pay you guys at all?

Nothing. People out there are still buying our music, and we get not one coin from it. That's what makes our history so messed up. So what my lawyer's trying to do is get my publishing rights back and my royalties that I'm not getting right now and have not gotten since we left the company. They never sent us a statement since '85, and then they sold to Castle Records, and they wasn't paying us. I'd see you know, a big ol' Story of Sugar Hill selling for 89-100 dollars, and they still said we were in the hole and came up with every excuse not to pay us. Then it went from Castle Records to Sanctuary, they wouldn't pay us. So everywhere out catalog has gone, nobody has said we need to pay these people.

Dr. Dre redid "Funk You Up," which was in the Friday movie. I think they sampled something from "8th Wonder" in one of Eddie Murphy's movies. And Jennifer Lopez sampled from "8th Wonder," too. Busta Rhymes… These are all big name artists that sold anywhere from 5 to 10 million copies of their album. When Dre did "Keep Their Heads Ringing," they cut our percentage down to 6% each, me and Gwen and Angie: 6, 6, 6; and everybody else took the majority of our song. And I thought they couldn't take anything from us without permission. How can you take 25% of our song and I never gave you permission to take it? Even the Robinsons shouldn't've had permission to give them that of our song.

So the court date is coming in the next couple of months. My lawyer said, :I think they're gonna wanna settle with you, Cheryl; I don't think they'll want to go to court.," Because the music I was doing back then with them, and the things that I have credit for, are the songs that people sample over and over again. And the sales on those things are really, really high. But right now, it's up in the air. When the day comes and it's over with, I'll just be glad. I always say, I never want something that belongs to anybody else, all I want is what I worked for. Whatever percentages that I worked for and we agreed upon is what I want - what is rightfully mine. And because they held on to our money, my times didn't have to be as hard as they were if they had paid us what we earned. I don't enjoy taking anybody to court, but I gotta live just like they're living. That's my work.

That ain't my best work, because I have new stuff coming, don't get me wrong. But that's a part of my history, the work I did then. I am 100 times better than the stuff I did then, so they are really in trouble!

So when Sugar Hill closed down, I know you did that record on Posse… Were you originally trying to stick together as a group, as Sequence, or…?

No, we had already broken up as a group then. Angie had gotten married and had her little girl, Diamond, at that time, and she had her family. And Gwen was out in Texas about to get married, too, and didn't have any interest in it at that time. So I ran into Donald D. Me and Donald had met from his coming to Sugar Hill. So when I ran into Donald in Harlem, he said, "Cheryl, what you doing?" And I said nothing right now. So he took me to Spring Records, and they agreed to do a single on me.

But what I asked was, before you put out anything on me, I need to hear the mix; I need to know what it sounds like before it goes out there. And what they did - he and his brother, B Fats, was just go in there and do everything the way they wanted and just let me hear the record. And I told them in the beginning, if you try to play me like Silly Willy, you're gonna just have a record. I'm gonna be gone. And that's what happened with that record. I never traveled with that record, I never received a coin from it. It was what it was and I left it at that.

So they never paid you for that either?

Never. All my classic work, never got paid! (Laughs) It's crazy, but it's life.

And then after that, I started doing some work up in Harlem with some kids that were really, really good. I was praying that even if they weren't still with me that they would still get their break, because they were really good artists. I would take them in the studios and teach them… I had friends that were producers that would work with them on their art. And trying to teach the kids to better protect themselves if they were coming into that field. They did some good work at that time! This one particular kid was from Far Rockaway, really took me to another place. I still don't hear anything out there to this day that was close to what this kid was doing then.

Was there ever a record out?

No, he didn't trust the industry! I don't know where he is, but he had an unbelievable talent. He would've been the next hot - if given the chance - to really do some great work. Maybe someday I'll find him. He was really unbelievable.

My new project, I'm working with some really talented rappers. Not just people talking about guns and killing, but people that's talking about something and make sense. So that's what I would like to get into: finding people that're saying and doing something a little bit better than what they're doing now.

When did you start recording and getting back into it again?

Well, when I came back to South Carolina, it was because my grandparents took sick. First my grandmother had throat cancer, and she passed. And then my grandfather had prostate cancer. And I came back taking care of them, and my two sisters at that time were heavily on the drugs, and there were five kids that had to be raised. At that time, my nieces were three or four - they're fifteen and sixteen now - and I just couldn't walk away from the kids. My mother at that time was sick herself, and I couldn't walk away from my family situation chasing after a dream.

So I took the time, sitting and raising them, to do my homework about an industry that had done me some damage. I don't want that to ever happen to me again. And my new music, I don't want that to be locked down under anybody. That type of stuff is never gonna happen to me again.

I write songs like people drink water. That's another thing that people don't know about me - I'm loaded!


And I don't just do one type of music. I don't just do rap or hip-hop, I write, sing, rap and produce, I do it all. And I'm an artist, so I'm very creative with whatever I decide to do. And the two singles that I'm gonna release in April or May - those are R&B songs.

I read an interview online with Blondie, where you two were doing something together?

Yeah. We were, and then something happened and we got separated. I haven't heard from her in a while. Her sister passed; I think that was the last time. She lives in North Carolina, and we were gonna do some new work. We couldn't wind up being in the same place at the same time, and that kinda messed things up; so I just decided that I'm gonna do my thing. Everybody doing their thing, I'm gonna do my thing, like James Brown says. And I work with Pow Wow, you know Zulu Nation? We've got some stuff that's unbelievable. The world's gonna get shook up; this man's got some 2030 stuff, and I don't think the world is even ready for him.

You can check out those new R&B songs she's talking about on Cheryl's myspace page. She's also got an official website for her label in the works,, so keep your eye on that as well.

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