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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Hardknocks delivered something unique when they dropped the School of Hard Knocks album in 1992. It stood-out both musically and lyrically as a sophisticated blend of hardcore rhymes and groove-heavy beats that sounded nothing like any other record of the era. Then they promptly vanished…leaving a lot of unanswered questions for rap fanatics who knew little about the crew itself, save for their earlier incarnation as 3 Da Hard Way. While I’d always assumed that The Spearchuckas, who were credited as the producers, were in fact Hardhead and Stoneface, it turns out I was wrong. When I had the chance to speak to J-1, who was half of the Spearchucka team, I jumped at the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks regarding this outstanding album.
Robbie: How did you start out?
J-1: I’ve been involved in music ever since I was 9 or 10. I played drums, my father played drums, played bass guitar…my family was musically involved. As far as hip-hop is concerned, I was in New York deejaying from 1978 all the way until about five years ago. I grew-up in Long Island. We did all those block parties. The C.B.S. crew. I moved to Atlanta in 1984. I started meeting people and this guy Mike California knew Henry Lee, who was from Noon Time Music. He helped us get started. Now he does Jazzy Pha and Ciara and that kind of stuff.
How did you meet up with Hardhead and Stoneface?
Me, Noonie, this guy Zulu – the other Spearchucka – his father was a record collector, and he pretty much followed his dad. He got the records and I found the parts, that’s how we worked. My ears found the parts from the music but he pretty much found a lot of the samples and loops that you hear – the unique ones. That’s the stuff that he provided us with. I listened and found the parts and put everything together. We were working with a couple of people, and then Zulu knew Hardhead and Stoneface and he brought them in. Hardhead did a couple of verse of some stuff and we started recording him. We were all from New York and we moved to Atlanta. Not togther, but we ran around in the same circles and that’s how we hooked-up.
Back when they were calling themselves 3 Da Hard Way?
Exactly. It was Zulu, Hardhead and Stoneface. We did about nine or ten songs and we put out the little EP with three songs on there, and it went pretty well, and then we got the deal with Wild Pitch, which I didn’t wanna do. I thought we were gonna blow-up. We actually had a deal with a local company here that had national distribution here and some label called Acid Jazz were gonna do the distribution in Europe. I really wanted to do that but everybody wanted to do the Wild Pitch thing.
Why was that?
I just didn’t like the guy. When I met the guy, I just didn’t like him. We took a chance with some of the stuff that we did, because we didn’t put any hard beats…we really were relying on the message and everything. But I knew if it went right it would kick off. Then he came in and said, ‘You’ve gotta do this, that and the other’. I didn’t like the way he was talking, but he was offering money and everybody wanted to go with him.
Had you already recorded the album at this stage?
Yeah, actually! There was a cut on the EP called ‘Ladies’ that was a huge underground hit. People were paying $700 for that EP. Half of the music [on the album] was like that. I have to credit Stu [Fine] for one thing – he heard ‘Dirty Cop…’ and a couple of the other songs, and he was like, ‘You need to take these songs off the album and you need to give me five more like this’. That changed the whole scope of the album, it really gave it the direction that it had. We had done ‘Hands of A Stranger’, ‘Dirty Cop Named Harry’, ‘Strictly From The Bronx’ and ‘Young Guns’. Then we had a bunch of other songs that were different, they like more like ‘Ladies’ I would say. They didn’t get used.
‘Hands of A Stranger’ was like nothing else that was out right then.
That song moved everybody. We’d provide him with the music first, then he’d do his little thing then we’d add or change direction or whatever.
‘Road To The Precinct’ was another stand-out to me.
That song was played on a Fender Rhodes. We had drums, bass guitar…we actually did that song! That was my son saying, ‘When I grow up, I wanna be a cop!’
What kind of gear did you use?
My had an MPC, an SP-1200. We had an Akai [S] 900 sampler, and that’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of live play overs on that stuff too. ‘Ghetto Love’ and ‘Road To The Precinct’ had live saxophone. ‘Dirty Cop…’ there a whole over play – it was guitar but it was on a piano. None of that was on Bill Wither’s record, I had the guy pretty much play the whole song. Whenever we had musicians we’d just let them play, but then we’d actually sample it and then put it back into the track. For instance, on ‘Dirty Cop…’ he played the melody part and then he pretty much played the whole time and when he finished playing we isolated it and started listening to certain sounds we wanted to hear, and then pick those out and out it together and make it four bars, and then drop it into the track.
You remade the songs from the first EP, right?
Yeah. We didn’t really do much different with ‘em, one of them’s a little longer but we just really re-recoded the vocals.
Did you guys handle the remixes for the two singles?
That was all done at the same time as the songs were done. They were alternative mixes.
What about the radio promo EP?
I never knew anything about it. Here in the States it was nothing. It was moving on the college circuit, it was moving in Canada, I heard a little bit about Europe, but that was all in between when Stu Fine and MC Serch got that big deal with EMI.
What was the reaction like when the album first dropped?
Wild Pitch was divide and conquer. That was the demise of our group. We didn’t have a manager per-say, but we were acting as a group as a spokesperson. Hardhead didn’t understand that you never talk to those people. You get what you want through someone and them doing what you want them to do, but you don’t talk directly to those people, ‘cos once they realize they can talk to you they don’t talk to anybody else. And that’s kinda what happened. The songs that everybody liked were the songs that we wanted to release. We really wanted to release ‘Thoughts Of A Negro’ or ‘Runaway Child’ because ‘Hands of A Stranger’ and ‘Nigga For Hire’ all meant something but it was some real hard stuff at that time. ‘Runaway Child’ had a nice beat, it was kinda calm. What I was thinking was we need to ease into the thing and then hit ‘em with the other stuff. Even ‘Blow To The Head’ – great song. You want someone to listen? Put ‘Blow To The Head’ on. He was really hittin’ it on that song. But that was all Wild Pitch.You should have saw the video for ‘Dirty Cop Named Harry’ – the first one was ridiculous compared to what they made. Everybody made such a stink and somebody else said something about it, it was just ridiculous. Do know GURU? Gangstarr, those guys? I actually wanted to get Premier to remix or kinda help do something with some of the songs also, but it just didn’t go that way. It was because they got a hold of Hardhead and he signed the papers. Once they got a hold of him, he went away from us and that’s when everything wet wrong.
So they were telling him, ‘You don’t need those guys’?
Everybody said, ‘Don’t release that record. Don’t do the ‘Nigga For Hire’ video’. Everybody said, ‘They can’t do it if you don’t do it. I don’t care what they say…they can’t do it’. But they flew him up there, they had wardrobe and he went and he did it. Once that happened, that was it. That started causing all the trouble.
So what happened to Hardhead after he split with you guys?
I don’t know where he went. He was on The Source Tour with Biz – Biz was deejaying – and The Beatnuts and a couple of other groups, and he got off the bus and never got back on the bus. Nobody could find him for a long time. That was a hard thing for me, ‘cos I put a lotta time…it was like work-studio-work-studio, we all put a lot of blood and sweat into that thing, and it just felt like it was right! And when it didn’t go right, it just kind of crushed me. Hardhead disappeared, the studio started going a little crazy and I just walked away from it.
What happened to Stoneface when Hardhead vanished?
They were together the whole time. I think he got in some trouble. He’s around, he’s OK but he wasn’t deejayed in forever. I didn’t hear from him for a year or two after everything went south.
What did you do after Hardhead left?
We had another group called the Urban Beatniks. I thought they were fantastic. I wish I could get a hold of the tapes of those guys. It was very similar to Hardhead but it had even more of an edge to it. That was some good stuff, man. One of the guys names were Dean Mustafa and the other guys name was called Powerful. They were like Large Professor, but they were like Hardhead. I thought they’d do well, too. One of them was from Boston and one of them was a local from Atlanta. That’s when everything started going crazy. Hardhead disappeared, people were spending money and it got too crazy for me. It was a year or two before Noonie got back on the scene and started doing parties again. By that time – I’m the Vice President of the company I work for right now – I had kids and they were getting older. I just couldn’t afford to take a chance and not have money coming in to take care of my family. That was a tough decision and I still think about that pretty much all the time.
Did you ever hear from Hardhead again?
About five or six years later. Him and Zulu were at my house about a month ago, and we had a meeting and were talking about possibly trying to do something. But for me, it has to be relevant and it has to be better than what we already did. My question to them was, ‘It’s a new day. Do you understand what’s going on now? The president’s cool, but fuck the presidency, because it’s the same thing as it’s always been. Is your head around what’s going on in the world now? Can you write a song better than ‘Blow To The Head’? That’s where it went, and afterwards I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think it can be done’. Hardhead came in, he had on a suit jacket and some shoes [laughs] It just felt like it was not gonna be relevant. I know what we used to do – you couldn’t fins that stuff anywhere. You had to break the beats out and break the snare drum out and we had to take this little guitar lick from here…we had to do that ourselves. Now they have stuff that separates it all! I wouldn’t do something just because all of a sudden we found out that this album that we did was a classic and we need to take advantage of whatever’s going on – I wouldn’t just put out anything just because of that.
Hard Knocks – ‘Blow To The Head’
Hard Knocks – ‘Road To The Precinct’
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