Filed under: Bomb Squad Stay Winning,In The Trenches,Interviews,Print Work,Steady Bootleggin',Strong Island
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Long Island was the proverbial underdog in the mid-80s. While The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens all wrestled for rap dominance, Strong Island residents would journey into the city to check out shows before returning home to deliver their own twist on what they’d witnessed. It turns out that, somewhat removed from whatever trends were dominating the music that particular month, L.I. would prove to produce some of the most original hip-hop of all time. Boasting EPMD, De La Soul and Rakim amongst it’s residents, it was also the birthplace for the unstoppable force that the world would come to know as Public Enemy. Keith Shocklee from The Bomb Squad breaks down their founding days for part one of a two part feature.
Robbie: Was Spectrum City a mobile sound system in the early days?
Keith Shocklee: We started out as Spectrum City DJ’s. We used to DJ all the parties where we were from – which is Roosevelt, Long Island. We used to DJ the high school parties, people used to have us do thier house parties. This is mid-70s, goin’ all up to the later part of the 70s. We just started playing regular club music – at that time it was more like soul music. The hip-hop scene was still in it’s incubator stage, where the hip-hop scene became more MC-oriented, so you’re talking about coming in from around ’73, ’74, when we started out at a spot called Roosevelt Youth Center. Roosevelt Youth Center was kinda crazy! Now I’m going way back to where we originally started. Roosevelt Youth Center, what we did was the community thing, everybody come there, hang out. They had karate classes, dojo classes, arts and crafts – different things just to keep us off the streets, from just whylin’ out. One of my neighbors – Krandle Newton – put together inside of this youth center, along with my brother and this other guy Ujima, just a little radio station. Because at the time, cats used to come to the park and set-up their column speakers with a turntable and just play music for people in the park. They took that concept, ‘cos I was real young, and turned it into a little make-shift radio station in the youth center. We played music and was teaching the kids in there how to be a broadcast DJ. My man Krandle had some communication skills, because he went to a engineering school, Ujima knew some things, my brother wanted to get into the music thing. From then, we just played the music within the station and we had people come and talk over the mic, just like a real radio jock. So the kids coming to the station thought we was a real station. We had our own little call letters just like a regular radio station. Back then we had WBLS and WWRL, which was the call letters for real commercial radio stations, so we called ourself – within the youth center – was WRYC. The ‘W’ is the call letter for all the radio stations and the ‘RYC’ was Roosevelt Youth Center. We just imitated what the major radio stations was doing.
From then, to make funds for the youth center, we used to throw parties in the basement. Charge like a $1.50, $2.00. That’s when the DJ thing started to take on a life of it’s own. I was really young, I used to go and hang out with my brother ‘cos I was really curious about what was goin’ on. My brother was one of the main cats, then Krandle branched off and got into different things from his school. He just sort of fell-off from the scene and then me and my brother started to get more heavy involved with it.
At what stages did you start playing breaks?
Towards the ’77, ’78 era, when guys like Flash and ’em would be up in The Bronx, Busy Bee and all ’em be at the Ampitheatre. Kool Herc and ’em, they started playing the breaks, and Flash was playing more of the break parts of either rock records soul/R&B records, and then the MC started to come into play. The Master of Ceremonies, the guy that talks to the crowd to get the crowd excited. Then within that, they used to say a couple of rhymes. We used to call them nursery school rhymes. Then guys like DJ Hollywood started to come up with the crowd sayings, Luvbug Starski and them. You had a lotta R&B records and rock records, and we took the breaks parts of it because the rest of the records, they was singing through it. So in order for an MC to say what he needed to say, they started playing the breaks parts of it. We used to go the parties up in The Bronx, up in Harlem. Watch these cats, used to hear about ’em. My cousin lived in The Bronx, ’round the corner from Flash and all ’em, used to take about Flash and this and that, we was like ‘Alright, alright, we’ll go see him’. We was amazed. So now we started adapting this thing with the breaks in our records as we did our sets. Mind you, it was me, my brother and then Griff, and then it was me and Griff. We used to call ourselves The KG’s – Keith and Griff. That was our main little set, from the end of ’76 to ’78. Chuck wasn’t around at the time, because we didn’t know who Chuck was. We never really had an MC with us. We used to talk on the mic, but we was mobile jocks and we did a lotta mobile parties. To get to a club to be in a club, you had to be one of the club DJ’s. Back then, you had club DJ’s and mobile DJ’s. Most of the mobile DJ’s didn’t really do clubs, because all the clubs were sewn-up by all the regular DJ cats. Whether it was the white DJ’s, the black DJ’s, they had that sewn so they were in their own world. Plus I was too young to get into the clubs! We was teenagers! So we developed a crazy mobile sound system.
That was big part of it, of course. Trying to blow anyone else away with customised stacks.
Yeah, we customized our own stacks. My brother used to work with this company that made speakers, it was crazy. The company was one of the leading manufacturers of the Revox 24-inch tape machine, which studios started using to record. So they had a little spot out on Long Island, and right next to them was Ultrasonic Recording Studios, which Brass Construction and all those kind of cats back then used to record at. What they used to do was make sound speakers for nightclubs and mobile jocks. My brother was a salesman, then at the same time he used to put together the speakers. This is ’79. They knew we was mobile jocks, ‘cos by that time Griff had left us and gone to into the service…Chuck was just coming into focus, and while Hank was working there they used to make these crazy speakers and they used to let us use them to test them out. We used to do the parties at my high school, in the gym, and me and Hank were sound nuts! We always wanted to try to fill up the gym – they used to give us so much stuff – and make it sound good. I remember one party we had did at the gym, and I didn’t know Chuck at the time. We used to listen to Mr. Magic and Hank Love and WHBI and stuff like that, and Chuck made a point of time, because him and his boys had just heard this record called ‘Dance To The Drummers Beat’, which had just come out. That might’ve been around ’78. Chuck said on hi sway to the party at the gym they heard it for the first time,a nd me and Hank was record hogs! We had every record that came out – every breakbeat record, every new record – it was crazy back then! And Chuck said at the gym ‘Keith, when you played that record I lost my mind! Because when I heard it on the radio, I was like this record is so bad I didn’t think I’d ever hear it again!’ Until he got the the high school party and heard me rockin’ it! At the time I had two copies, and if you had two copies of something that’s when you knew the record was bangin’! One copy was, ‘The record was OK, aight we’ll rock it a little bit, we don’t need to rock it back and forth’, but two copies was you’re gonna rock it for a minute! There’s a whole science to the two copy thing, because with the two copies records – we never had two copies of a lotta records because as DJ’s, and liking music, we didn’t like to burn-out certain records, and we don’t think some records need to be cut back-to-back at that time, all the time. At the same time as playing the breaks, we had to play records that the ladies liked to sing along to. That’s when the Spectrum City started to take form. Chuck joined us in summer ’79. Chuck joined us by fluke! We used to throw our own little parties, and we used to call ourselves Spectrum. Griff wasn’t around, it was just me and Hank. Whether it was at a VFW hall, whatever place we could get to rent.
The skating rinks came just a little bit later, when Chuck got in the picture. When skating rinks came, you’re talking about 2,000 people in the spot. By that time we had a whole crew that used to rock with us, and we used to have everybody working. At that time, everybody used to come with us because they wanted to get into the parties for free. Hank found Chuck when he was putting up parties for hese parties we was doin’. Chuck saw Hank and said ‘Yo, man. Your flyers is sorta wack. I can do better flyers’. Hank was like ‘Man, who are you talking to?! The flyers is wack?!’ He said, ‘Yo man, lemme do one of your flyers’. Hank said ‘Alright’. On the side tip, he said ‘You know I rap, too’, so got Hank’s ears, because me and Hank was not rappers. We talked on the mic a little bit, we wasn’t real MC’s. When we used to do parties we used to have a guest MC. Now the craziness was, sometimes – because we grew up and used to do a lot of stuff at my school – Eddie Murphy [used to do it]. I went to school with Eddie. Eddie used to come through every now and then and get on the mic, and while I’m playing these break records, Eddie used to get on the mic and tell jokes and say stupid stuff! It was pretty hot though! Eddie was getting’ his comedy up. He was doin’ little stuff like Carolines and all these little comedy spots. Then when he used to come to the high school parties to hang out, he used to get on the mic and say ‘Can you dig it with the wigget? Do the dog! Roff roff!’ and that was some of the Bill Cosby lines. Eddie was a great impersonator, he used to do Cosby, Ali…as we was growing up, it was crazy. And Eddie was great at doing a lot of talent shows around, he used to crush everybody doing talent shows, him and his partner at that time, as we was growing up.
So we never really had an MC. It was all music, then some breaks. Then the breaks got heavy, and then when we got to Chuck, that became my MC. From then, from us being Spectrum, we added the Spectrum City to it. Chuck, because he was a graphic design artist, he was starting to do little comic books about us! He would sit around and draw stuff, make-up things, it was getting crazy. Now we’re becoming one of the biggest DJ’s on Long Island. Long Island got no props from the five boroughs, because we didn’t exist. Yeah, we was ‘suberbs’, we was ‘rich kids’ out here. ‘Long Island? All the way out there?’ Going into the 80’s, Chuck is with us, I’m just graduating from high school, Chuck is at Adelphi, now we doin’ DJ parties from the colleges to the high school to somebody’s backyard party. Just tearin’ it down, and then all of a sudden people are like, ‘Yo, y’all a little too expensive!’ ‘But we’re good’ ‘Yeah, y’all are good but you’re too expensive’. So we started to slow down on the backyard parties ‘cos we got tired of ‘You wanna give us $25? Yo man, we’re doin’ colleges and getting’ paid, man!’ We come out of colleges like $300 for a show. If it was really crazy, we’d get 400, 500! It started to trickle, so we really got into, ‘You know what? We’re gonna really just throw our own parties’, and that’s when the roller rinks…we was full blown as Spectrum City, because we had these two other cats that was with us – Butch Cassidy and Sundance. We had a whole crew, and everybody had they own nickname, because back then you gotta have a DJ name. I was called The Wizard KG; Chuck D, we used to call him Chuckie D, Hank was always Hank Shocklee, and we had a light man. We used to bring our own lights, because mobile jocking back then, we had to bring everything. We always thought about the next step. We hated goin’ to a party, especially at a big place, and there’d be DJ’s there but there’s no lights! They just dim the regular lights! So it’s like you’re not puttin’ on a show. What we wanted to do was give you an atmosphere that you was inside a nightclub. We got into the lights thing from the Starship Discovery, that used to be on 42nd street in Manhattan. They had the world’s greatest light show, back in the 70’s. Some mobile jocks would try to come close to duplicating it, but you’d never, because they light show was computerized. They had a kid working it, but it was computerized, it was nuts! We used to bring a disco ball, we used to figure out how to hang it, and if we couldn’t hang a disco ball we was like ‘OK, we can’t hang it’. The work was bananas we used to go through! We had search lights, police beacon lights, crazy spot lights, strobe lights! It was nuts. Sometimes we would even bring a fog machine, because you had other cats doin’ stuff! We had to get creative with that, and at that time all that was so new to the public, they was like ‘Wow! I felt like I was at the Starship Discovery or Studio 54‘…which we could never get into to. [laughs]
You’re set-up time must’ve been two or three hours!
Set-up time was about two hours. We had to get there late. But then we had a lotta people with us, and I had to get everybody on point on what needed to be done, who needed to hook-up what. We was even to the point of, ‘Don’t cross the wires’. You’ll notice when we did the Public Enemy records, we was so much into detail I had to make sure all our speaker wires had the same equal length. Me and Hank was into that. We had another guy that taught us – my man Dan Markham – because he went engineering school. We used to make our own soldering plugs, we used to make our own wires. The reason why we had them of equal length was because we wanted an even distribution of sound goin’ to the speakers. A lotta people don’t know stupid stuff like that, but it helps, man. We always wanted our sound system to sound like you had on headphones, so we had speakers in all four corners of a spot that was big, so we had a lotta speaker wire. It wasn’t like the way people set-up now – they throw two speakers at you and rock. Back then, we had to compete with big DJ cats like King Charles! These guys would come in with ten sub-reflex cabinets of Cerwin Vegas. They used to hang tweeters in the middle of the dance floor so you could get the sizzle while you were in the middle. The JBL bullets! Which was $90 a tweeter, back then! $90 a tweeter, they had like six of them! You had mobile guys that was comin’ in with sound systems that was equivalent to the nightclubs! So we had to be on point with that. That’s where we was really detailed into how we sounded, what we used, and wanted to make somebody that if you hired us for a night, we had one step better. Our stuff sounded like you can go to the Palladium, and you feel the bass.
It was a whole movement, because all the DJ’s, even if you go through the history – Flash, when he started with Pete “DJ” Jones, Kool Herc and them used to do DJ sets, everybody had these sound systems that just stopped your heart. For mobile jocks, if you didn’t have a sound system like that, you wasn’t a mobile DJ! It was like ‘Get off the set! Get outta here!’ They took it serious then! This is what we did, and we was doin’ that on Long Island. You had a couple of guys on Long Island doin’ it, they can say whatever they want to, but they ain’t do it to the point that we had. We had it crazy. We learned from them, the Jamacain cats. King Charles loved the Cerwin Vegas. The Disco Twins, that I still hang around with, on the dance floor the bass would stop your heart! Now if you did dub step music on their sound system, we had that back then, it would be crazy. And they had those dub step sound system on a mobile level, which was very difficult to do because you always had to set-up and break down. That was hard, even for us to achieve. That’s why we developed that whole Spectrum City thing. We had Wizard KG – was me, Chuckie D, president Hank Shocklee, John Delight who worked our light show, my other cat that relieved me was DJ Bobby La Rock. We had a rap group that was with us – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We used to travel like that all the time, plus I used to bring half the hood with me ‘cos they wanted to get into the parties free. [laughs] So I was one of the cats that kept to the streets. I kept all the thug cats with us, and they was like my security.
In case of any trouble makers…
Sometimes we’re in the spot, or if we’re doing a DJ battle, these other cats got their people…they wanna try something, we was like ‘I got my crew. Whassup?’ We had the DJ battles, but out DJ battles was different back then. Scratching was in, cutting and all tablism was in, but not to where it is now. It got crazy now when they had the DJ Battle at the New Music Seminar and the DMC Championship DJ battles. But we used to battle with who had the loudest sound system. Who can out-drown the next man. So our battles was – somebody got a little crappy sound system, thinking he good and he’s loud, and we turn ours up and ours just shake the whole spot! So you can’t hear him, you gotta cut your set off. That’s a DJ battle. You had to cut your whole set off, and if you didn’t shut your whole set off, sometimes the crew that would be with me would just whyl’ out and they would just go and pull the plug and knock over the speakers! That’s how crazy that DJ set was!
When Chuck got into Delphi, his graphic arts led him to do a little comic strip for the school newspaper, and the comic strip was about us! We was going through adventurous things in the hood and stomping-out drug dealers! It was crazy.
Was that called ‘Tales From The Skind’?
Yeah, because it was called ‘Spectrum Kind’, so Chuck just smashed the words together and called it ‘Tales of the Skind’. We was like super heroes. That was almost like the birthplace of Public Enemy. We always try to do things that connect the dots. Chuck drew all the logos, everything. He was great at that. That’s where we had the upper-hand on people because putting your flyers together back then was about how you look. You had to go to the print shop, and if you wanted your stuff fly? You had to pay for that! That was money, for them to draw up your stuff the way you liked it. Chuck did it for us! So all we had to do was just pay for pressing, paper size, what kinda colors we want..that kinda stuff. I ain’t know you knew about ‘Tales of the Spectrum’…you’re bringing back memories! That’s why the Public Enemy situation you see all the characters, ‘cos we was always into characters, because we always watched a lotta cartoons at the time, lotta TV. Read comic books…so Spectrum City became super heroes – stamping out the deeds of the evil-doers. It was pretty funny though. When Chuck got to BAU, that was Adelphi radio station, that was the beginnings of what we do.
When Flav used to call up until he a little got a spot on there.
Yeah. The mobile jock work got a little hectic, got a little expensive as time went on. We had so much equipment we had to rent trucks, grabbing people to always wanted to come. After high school, people started to get into their own lives. College started to hit people in the head – ‘Well, I’m outta high school, I can’t be hangin’ out with y’all. I gotta figure out what I want to do with my life!’ At the time I was still trying to figure out what the hell I was gonna do with my life. ‘I’m just gonna rock it until the wheels fall off!’ [laughs] When Chuck got to Adelphi, we hooked-up with Bill Stephany. I was the main guy that would do all the beats for the local acts. I was the seven day a week track maker, DJ – ‘cos at that time we had a nightclub out at Suffolk County, we was on the air at BAU, we had our mix shows on Saturdays. I used to make the mix tapes the week before we had to do that show, because I had to wait for record pool pick-up. Back then, they was strict on the feedback and ‘What are you doin’ with these records? Are you just getting’ records because you’re in a record pool?’ Sometimes they checked-up on you and sometimes they didn’t. It was a lotta cats in the record pool that nobody checked up on, wasn’t doin’ no work, wasn’t doin’ feedback. They was just getting records to get records. We was getting records and doin’ parties. What I tried to do was wait for record pool pick-up, do the feedback and at least by next record pool I can rock it on the air, get the feedback from the people if they liked it or not and send that back to the record labels. I was pretty accurate with what was hot and what was not.
There was a time when DJ Mello D came to the situation, which was Terminator X. He became my reliever for the parties. He was more heavy into the scratch, and not the blend. I was more into the blend. When we would do mobile parties he would set-up his turntables, I would set-up my turntables, so we used to have four turntables rocking. Because we were so meticulous in what we did, it sounded like we had two turntables. If I’m doing a blend or cutting-up a break beat on one turntable, just goin’ real crazy, he’s doin’ scratches on top of it, throwing other parts of other records while I’m doin’ that, so he was almost like a sampler at times. So when I decide to switch off, he’ll take over, and when he wanted to get off I’d take over. We used to do this at live parties and people used to be crazy amazed. I was one of the first ones around my area, when everyone was rockin’ the beatbox – ‘cos when Flash brought out the beat box, everybody wanted to get a beat box. We went one better. We picked-up the Roland CR-8000 with the Roland TB-303 Bassline. I was the only cat rockin’ the beat box and bassline around this area. Nobody understood that. When that came into play at the beginning of ’80, everybody thought I was rocking some new break beat records! I used to mix it in just like I was doing records. That was the start of the craziness that we was getting’ into. It was so nuts, man. I used to plug-in all kinds of basslines, and I had my presets and my pattern and my book set-up – ‘cos everytime I made a bassline I had to write the notes down, because they didn’t store very well. If the battery power went out on it and it was saved in the memory? You was done. That was a wrap! So we had to figure out a way how to save it. I had two of ’em. I broke the first one! Then had to go buy another one. [laughs]
So I’d be playing my break beats and I’d be hitting my drum machine to the point where everything was right – the levels, the whole nine – nobody would know, then all of a sudden I’d throw my infamous ‘Bahdahdahdahdh! Boom tudda bah!’ Then all of a sudden I come up with a bassline. I came up with the infamous bassline that crushed everybody around my way, and it was so hot that Chuck, this other crew that we had called The Townhouse Three – which later became Son of Bazerk – we made up this joint called ‘The N41′, and the bassline was so sick, this became almost an anthem around where we lived at. Because the N41 bus started from Freeport, which where The Townhouse Three was, ran through Roosavelt, which we lived at, ran through Uniondale, which the Leaders of the New School lived at – it was one big bus line – and ended in Hempstead, where our studio was at the time. So this one bus connected the three hottest towns together. We called it ‘N41′ because everybody when we was growing up had to ride that bus. Everybody. You could not be in our way and not ride that bus. That’s why we had everybody on that little infamous break record. That became the anthem of the radio station. That was our hottest record that we did back then – we call it a record, but back then it was our hottest demo we ever made for the radio station.
Spectrum City – ‘Check Out The Radio’
Son of Bazerk – ‘N-41′
Spectrum City – ‘Lies’
Continue to Part 2
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