Filed under: Features,Interviews,Not Your Average,Philly
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Jonathan Shecter rose up from his humble beginnings rapping over Wild Cherry loops as a member of Big Men On Campus to starting The Source magazine, which was the definitive hip-hop bible for many years, setting the stage for other great publications that followed in the mid 90’s such as On The Go, ego trip and Stress. Shecky took some time out of his busy schedule as a Las Vegas party promoter to reminisce about the early years spent documenting the music he loved.
Robbie: How did your involvement in hip-hop start?
Jonathan Shecter: I’m just old enough to have heard “Rapper’s Delight” when it came out on vinyl. Somebody came into school and played the record on a plastic Fisher-Price turntable. I heard that beat, and I kinda recognized it, ‘cos I was already into disco at a very young age, and I was immediately intrigued. A couple of days later, I went to a record store in Philadelphia and asking if they had the record where the guy talks about a bottle of Kaopectate, and he was like, “Yeah, that’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’”. They gave me the vinyl and I bought it. I was hooked right away. I was consuming the radio in Philly at the time, which in the early ‘80s was Lady B. I would record each show on cassette and analyse it and try to figure out what each song was. I had some friends in New York, and they would bring down tapes from Red Alert and stuff like that. I would go to the record store all the time, and I would try to stay up on records from Sugarhill, Profile, Tommy Boy, Enjoy and later Def Jam. I was an avid consumer from day one.
The liner notes on albums were really important back then, in terms of helping to find new music.
The “Special Thanks”? That used to be the only information or reference point that you had. To get your name in there would be the greatest achievement ever. There were a few records where my name appeared in the “Special Thanks,” early on, and I was blown away. Philly in a lot of ways was kind of an extension of New York in terms of musical taste, but in some other ways we were different. It’s a very DJ-oriented city, and I was lucky get to be exposed, very early on, to Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money, and other DJ’s of that era. You could say that Philly was the first consumer market for hip-hop. Of course, later we had Schoolly-D and Three Times Dope and those kind of groups, but before that we were just basically consumers. We would get all the big concerts – I saw Fresh Fest 1 with Whodini and the Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. Then I saw LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Stetsasonic. Sometimes they would play really big arenas like the Philadelphia Spectrum, which held 30,000 people.
What inspired you to start rhyming?
The Beastie Boys were a huge influence on me. Licensed To Ill was a huge record, even before that – when they had their early singles – I was a fan of that, before I knew that they were white and Jewish. I didn’t know what they were. People thought they were Puerto-Rican, because they had these different voices. “Paul Revere” kinda changed the game, basically.
Why do you consider “Paul Revere” so important?
That was the record that broke them through. That was the record that basically made them popular, and also it was such an innovative song in the way that it was produced, with the reverse beat. To this day, I have tremendous respect for Rick Rubin – I think he’s one of the greatest producers of all time – and back then I thought he was a god. It probably was my number one inspiration to want be a rapper myself. As we know now, that didn’t turn out to be my greatest contribution to hip-hop culture. [laughs]
But it was a starting point.
I wanted to be attached to it, I loved it so much, and I had consumed so much of it. Pretty much every song that was ever pressed on vinyl or played on the radio throughout the 80’s – I knew it. There was a time when you could walk into a record store, and I knew literally every hip-hop song that was there.
Who was the other guy in Big Men On Campus?
That’s Kevvy-Kev, he was a high school friend of mine. He didn’t actually attend Harvard, but was in another college in Vermont. We had been trying to rap for a couple of years by that point, but it took until 1988 – which as we all know is the greatest year for hip-hop, not because of BMOC but for many other reasons – that we put out a record. Our record cover was getting shot by Glen E. Friedman, who was known back then for doing a lot of the Def Jam covers, and our manager at the time was Brett Ratner, who is now a Hollywood director with tremendous success. Back then he was a guy trying to get into the music biz. He had some family connections and he played a large role in BMOC. He put the deal together, got Glen E. Friedman to take our picture, he did a lot of things that opened doors for us back then.
What was the reaction to the single?
I think it was kinda tepid… luke warm. It didn’t really blow-up anywhere. There were some interesting times back then, we went on a little bit of a tour on the west coast, and came across a venue in Phoenix, Arizona. We walked in, we were scheduled to perform and there was another group performing in front of us. I heard this high, whining noise, and I had never heard a sound like that before. It was four black guys with crazy curly hair, and I was like, “What is this?” Turns out that was NWA performing “Dopeman”. I didn’t realize until months later who it was, it must have been within a few months of their first record. So we did a little touring, we got a little bit of the taste of what it’s like, but the record didn’t really catch on and I don’t think we were really prepared – or qualified – to have a career as rappers.
Had you recorded much material?
We had an album’s worth of songs recorded with different producers. Both of us were college students at the time, but that was also around the time when The Source started, so that pathway became more of what my focus became, rather than being a rapper. Around the time BMOC came out, I was doing a radio show on Harvard’s college radio station, WHRB, and The Source was created out of that show.
So The Source was started off as a newsletter to promote the show?
Correct. It was designed to promote our radio show locally, in Boston, which at that time had a non-existent rap scene. There were a few record stores, there were a few rap groups – Keithy EE The Guru and Ed OG & Da BULLDOGS were in Boston at that time – but there wasn’t a lot of hip-hop there, and it was very underground, so our radio show became really popular, really fast – locally. It wasn’t hard, anyone that would play hip-hop…there were a couple of other college rap shows that we were competing with. We took off, and Dave Mays – who went on to become the publisher of The Source – was my college roommate, and he had the idea to take down everyone’s name and address from the calls. We would get so many calls – like a radio show would, especially a popular one – and he started writing down everyone’s name and address. I was like, “Man, what are you doing? I don’t understand. Why are you doing this?” He would say, “This will be our mailing list and we’ll be able to promote our show.” I was like, “OK, if you want to take the time to do it? Great!” So pretty soon we had a few thousand names, and that mailing list of a few thousand hip-hop fans in Boston was the beginning of The Source. What was the first issue that you ever saw?
The “Decade Of Hip-Hop” issue.
That particular issue was created while we were seniors at Harvard, and that was my senior thesis. By that point I had become completely disinterested in school. I was just doing enough to get by, and all of us were completely focused on the magazine. It was coming up on the end of a decade, and I realised that I had heard “Rapper’s Delight” in 1980. I was like, “This is an important milestone! Somebody needs to mark this.” So I committed myself. It took months to put it together, interviewing so many people and putting those charts together. I’m kinda proud of that one, that was a good one.
When did you move from newsletter format to a magazine though?
At that time, our tag-line was “The Voice of the Rap Music Industry,” so our positioning at that point was more of a trade magazine, like a Billboard, where it was about the industry of rap music. That was our instinct in the beginning, because we had a rap show and we wanted to get records. As time went on, we started realizing that we should re-position the magazine in a broader way to appeal to the fans. When we got our newsstand distribution deal was when it really sunk in. We had already re-positioned ourselves with our new identity – “Hip-Hop Music, Culture and Politics.” A few issues after that we got our newsstand deal. I believe the first issue that was on the newsstand was Ice-T in New Jack City. We went from like 30,000 magazines to 80,000 or something. 50,000 more were going out there, it was a big step forward. We had to learn and grow with our distributor, but generally speaking, as soon as the magazine hit the shelves, people were buying them, because they were hungry for it.
Since the only other magazines would have been Word Up! type of magazines, right?
There was Right On!, Black Beat, Word Up! and Rap Masters.
Ha! Rap Masters used to have rap crosswords and posters.
[laughs] It was a cheesy as it gets. Like Biggie says: “Salt & Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine.” That’s what he’s talking about. That was fine, people wanted that, but there was nobody writing about the music in an intelligent way, with a critical voice. My inspiration at the time was Rolling Stone, SPIN and the Village Voice. I wanted to be like that. I would also read NME – that’s when I learned about Tim Westwood, ‘cos I would look at that chart and Tim Westwood would have records before we did! I remember he had “Essays On BDP-ism” listed as number one on his chart, and I was like, “What is this? It’s not on any album! I’ve never heard this!” Finally when I heard it, it was on some Jive compilation album.
NME was the first place I read interviews with guys like Just-Ice, which was crazy for back then. When did the rest of the Mind Squad get involved?
James Bernard became kind of my partner in that pretty early on, while we were still at Harvard. He was a Harvard law student, and he came in and took on everything culture related. He was into the music too, but I was more of the music expert and he had a lot to say. He was a black guy and he was very political and very aware – a sharp mind. He loved what we were doing, and understood that there was a political side to hip-hop. Right around the time Black Nationalism was really big, issues that Public Enemy and everyone from that era was talking about. He knew all about that. Also Cee Wild, who was a childhood friend of mine who also grew-up in Philly, came aboard right on that transition when we were coming from Cambridge to New York. That’s when we really started becoming a staff. By the end of the year of 1990, we were up and running in a small office with the beginnings of the Source Mind Squad, which includes Matty C, Cee Wild, Reef, James Bernard, Reggie Dennis and a few others.
Was this move prompted by your distribution deal?
That all happened while we were in New York. As we were able to, we expanded, but there was a core team early on of about five six or people, and then as it expanded it became seven or eight people and then ten, fifteen and twenty.
Were you selling ad space from the jump? How were you funding the operation?
It turns out that Dave was very good at selling ads. He was really good at it, and he was able to sell enough to keep us in business. We would work out deals where we would try to get paid in advance by labels for more space. They would get a discount if they would pay early, and that helped us keep the cash flow going. There were times when we couldn’t pay our bills, it definitely didn’t flow in the beginning. It had to be built like a real business.
You had that regular Tommy Boy ad on the back cover for a long time, that must have helped.
That’s true, Tommy Boy were a huge partner for us, they were very supportive. Tom Silverman and Monica Lynch were extremely supportive in the early days of The Source.
Did you have many subscribers?
We were building-up the subscription base. You would start to see those inserts in the magazine. We were learning about how the magazine industry worked. We were playing the game, learning what we could do to increase our circulation, to increase our advertising, to increase our subscriptions, and all those things were rising. But for the most part, The Source was a single-copy sales kind of a magazine. Most of our sales to date are on the newsstands, Subscriptions are part of it, but newsstands are bigger.
The Rap Bandit was a great creation.
The Rap Bandit was another friend of mine from Philly, and we loved doing that. That was my way to unwind after having to work every month to put together a whole issue. That was us having fun. Whatever would come up during the month, I would feed him lines. Then he started getting so much mail, it was amazing. I love the Rap Bandit.
Those were the golden days of promo items from the record labels as well. The Alkaholiks barf bad, Jeru The Damaja soap…
One of the things I think about a lot, and haven’t seen forever is “B.I.G. Mack,” when Puffy came out with the Craig Mack and Biggie one of the first promo items looked like a hamburger box, and you opened it and it had a CD in it. If anyone out here has that, I’d like to see it!
The advance tapes from record labels are like holy grails now. So much music that never came out.
I have a treasure-trove of cassettes from the ‘80s, and I’m in the process of encoding them and figure out the best way to put them out in the world, because it’s some incredible stuff. I have a lot of interviews from that era, I have a lot of music from that era, a lot of freestyles, some radio shows. Luckily cassettes still hold their data after 25 years! [laughs]
Shecky Green and Tim Westwood.
Part 2 covers the pressures of a growing readership, getting Illmatic six months early and creating the Hip-Hop Honeys.
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