Filed under: BK All Day,Brag Rap,Crates,Features,Interviews,The 80's Files
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
After he read my interview with Dante Ross, former Tommy Boy artist Uptown reached out to tell his side of the story: “A lot of people don’t know the reason why I was a one-hit wonder, so I just wanted to share that”. Turns out there was a lot more to his story than a great single from 1989 – Uptown grew-up with Maseo from De La Soul and used to kick rhymes with a young Christopher Wallace back in the days, and featured on both of the Buckshot LeFonque albums which DJ Premier recorded with Branford Marsalis.
Robbie: What age were you when you got the bug to start rhyming?
Uptown: I was about 10, 11 years old. I grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York – about three blocks from where Biggie Smalls lived. Me and a whole bunch of friends would go around in the neighborhood and do these little block parties. They would stop the street off, put a DJ out there and we would grab the mic. Biggie, Half-A-Mil, there’s a couple of us that was out there together in the neighborhood, used to go ‘round to all kind of block parties and do the shows. How I got my deal was, Mase from De La Soul actually grew-up in my neighborhood too, but in his early teens he moved to Amityvillle. I used to go out there and visit, even before they made their first record. He used to DJ their backyard parties and I used to battle everybody in the neighborhood. A couple of months go by and Mase comes to my house and he says, “Yo! I finally got it! I got a hit! My song is on the radio!” He gave me his first demo, it was not ready for sale yet, and it was “Plug Tunin”. I was like, “Oh my god! You can’t be serious! This is you?” Because “Plug Tunin’” was the number one jam at the time. He said, “Yeah. We’re doing a show in Virginia, we want you to come with us.” So I packed up my stuff immediately and go to the show with them in Virginia. While they’re doing their show, I met Dante Ross backstage ‘cos he was the A&R for Tommy Boy at the time. He heard me rhyme one time, and he was like, “Hey, I want you to come to our office, I like the way that you sound.” So I got signed to Tommy Boy with just a one-shot rhyme to Dante Ross!
What kind of deal did you sign with Tommy Boy?
They gave me an advance and I went shopping. The advance wasn’t like it is now – my advance was $2,000. It wasn’t no $100,000 advance, because my aim was making a record. I knew enough about the industry not to go in there wanting this big advance. I understood that whatever I take from them, I have to pay that back first. I said, ‘Just give me a couple of thousand for me to get the image I wanna project.’ And that’s it! I don’t need no car. I live in New York, I’m a train person. I’m a backpack rapper.
We went into the studio, even though I was good friends with Mase I wanted my own signature sound – I was more of a street rapper. I signed a five-year deal with Tommy Boy at the same time as De La Soul were their bread and butter, and Queen Latifah was also coming up at the time. I signed my deal when I was seventeen – I had to get my parents permission to sign. I didn’t know anything about publishing – I wrote all my own lyrics but everybody else got my publishing! That’s why me and Dante Ross and CJ Moore couldn’t be in the same room together [now] – because it would be holy war! Those guys got all the money from that cut, because they claimed all the publishing! But it’s my fault, because I didn’t know any better. At the time, Tommy Boy made it appear like it was a flop. “It’s not doing that great”, and they would never give it any promotion. I had to actually hit the street myself, booking my own shows in New York. I battled for World Supremacy – that was the year that Freshco and Miz won. I made it to the semi-finals – it was me, Serge from Ohio and Freshco. When we get into the final round, one of the associates of Tommy Boy comes up to me and says, “Freschco’s ‘4 At A Time’ is doing great right now, it would be real good if he won this contest.” I’m like, “What? What are you asking me to do?” While I’m talking to them, my time was running out. So I had to run on stage – if anyone has video tape of that final, you’ll see I run on stage and tried to come-up with something real quick – and then Freshco kinda capitalised on it, “Why was you takin’ so long, are you scared of me/I don’t think you was prepared for me!” He said some real slick shit and he won that title. I was like, “How in the world…?”. The New Music Seminar wrote a long article about it, ‘cos while everybody was doing those battle raps, I was actually doing speed raps, I was rhymin’ backwards – it was a big thing.
That was the same year where Miz won, but DJ Alladin also got kinda jibbed. Me and Alladin talked about it at one time, “We should get together and make a song,” but it never panned-out. At that time, when I battled for World Supremacy, Delicious Vinyl – the record company from LA – were like, “Are you Uptown from ‘Dope On Plastic’? You’re getting heavy rotation from airplay! You’re right behind Slick Rick ‘Children’s Story’ in Philly, you’re playing in LA every day in the Live At 5”. I’m like, “Tommy Boy ain’t tell me nothing!” One of the representatives from Delicious Vinyl spoke to Tommy Boy, and was like, “We’ll buy this guy’s contract out. If y’all got your hands filled and don’t really want to promote him, we’ll take him over here to LA”. Monica Lynch was the president at the time, she was like, “No”. They ended-up shelving me for the remainder of my contract with Tommy Boy.
So you weren’t able to record for another label?
That’s why there was no follow-up after “Dope On Plastic”. I asked them for a release, but they wouldn’t give it to me because Delicious Vinyl were ready to get a hold of me. Because De La Soul and Naughty By Nature were the number one people at that time, I was shelved for the five years. When I finally convinced them to give me a release, that’s when DJ Premier contacted me and said, ‘I’m doing this project with Brandford Marsalis, and it’s called Buckshot LeFonque. Why don’t you come to LA and see if you can do something for us?’ The first project was a very difficult rock ‘n roll type of beat, but I can rhyme over anything, so I made this song called “No Pain, No Gain,” which Salaam Remi did a remix to, and it turned-out to be a nice little street vibe. When Branford decided to make another Buckshot LeFonque album I made that song “Music Evolution”. It started selling so rapidly they named the whole album Music Evolution. That was one of his best known albums, as far as a fusion album. They still didn’t know it was me from Tommy Boy, ‘cos I didn’t want to use Uptown, ‘cos I was so mad at Tommy Boy I didn’t want them to get any kind of association with me. But then again, I wish I did use that name because that album did so well.
You called yourself 50 Styles for that project?
Right, The Unknown Soldier [laughs], only because I felt like the industry owed me. I had a hot single and I could have been really out there. The politics of the industry man, if you were not wise back in those days, that’s what will happen to you.
Did you ever consider working with Premier after the Buckshot projects?
The reason why I didn’t want to follow-up immediately behind it because that was a hip-hop/jazz project, and I was kinda thrown because I’m a street rapper, I’m not really a hip-hop/jazz artists, and at the time a lot of people were calling me wanting to do more Buckshot LeFonque type songs. I didn’t want that to be my mark now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful to Branford because he put me on to the game. He showed me how to get my own publishing rights – imagine that? A jazz artist comes to school somebody! He could have just gave me a little bit of money that he felt could have satisfied my greed at that point, but instead he taught me how to keep my money going. Wound up being on the soundtrack to Clockers and Men In Black.
Did you record other songs for Tommy Boy?
I would go overseas and get on a lot of songs, do a little hook here and there, but I would never say who I was. After “Dope On Plastic”, the second single was called “Let Me Be Me”. It was almost dissing Tommy Boy, so they decided not to release it. I don’t think they ever had an artist that go at their own label! Which I thought would have been a great marketing scheme, but they didn’t think so.
Ha! It’s original, that’s for sure. Do you have a copy of that song?
Actually, the original DJ for “Dope On Plastic” – his name is Charlie Rock – they call him DJ Stitches, he do a lotta production for people now. He has a lot of the stuff that we did in the studio in his archives somewhere. It was produced by the Stetsasonic drummer Bobby Simmons. I had also made the song using that cut “Save Our Souls,” and it was going so hard at Tommy Boy they were like, “Hell no! We aren’t making this a record!”
How did you start working with Stetsasonic?
They was on Tommy Boy too. I was so lyrical back then, and I was only 17 years-old, so everybody was like, “Oh my god! I wanna do something with this guy!” We used to hang out all the time, and him and Daddy-O used to throw a couple of beats at me. Even though I knew Mase and De La, I was more of a street rapper so I wasn’t going to follow that D.A.I.S.Y Age type rapping. Who better than the Stet drummer?
Did CJ Moore from Black By Demand program the beat for “Dope on Plastic”?
I was a guy who only took one take. As as the beat’s concerned, I do think CJ Moore had a lot to do with it. It was just me, CJ and Dante Ross in the studio. I spit my lyrics, and then I left. I didn’t know about publishing and whatever, so they put they name on it and they got paid, and I didn’t! I liked the beat, I jumped on it and did it in one take and the next thing I know I’m having a meeting and they were like, “We’re making this the first single.”
First time I heard “Dope On Plastic” I thought it was MC Shan, but with more complex lyrics.
Shan used to be one of my favourites. They used to say that, ‘cos I had that little kid voice.
How did you get the name Uptown?
That was from when i went out to Amityville with Ma$e. They used to call me Uptown only because I was travelling from Brooklyn to Amityville, Long Island, and the name kinda stuck.
Who’s idea was the shooting the single cover in the subway?
That was my idea, ‘cos I considered myself a backpack rapper. I would battle anybody at anytime. I wrote lyrics everyday, I freestyled everyday. My thing was “Have mic, will travel”. They had ideas of what my image could have been, but I’m a street dude and I want to let them know I’m out there in the streets, in the gutter. The subway was my way of showing that I’m really out there grinding in the streets, really doing that hardcore hip-hop shit. The baseball idea was because I’m a home-run hitter. I was also a fan of the movie The Warriors. Plus those signs – you know when you’re on the subway in Manhattan there’s always those signs with “Uptown” on it? I was like, “Oh, that’ll work!”.
Who were your lyrical inspirations when you were younger?
One time I had ran into Kool G Rap and I was excited to meet him. “I heard you nice, I wanna spit something for you”. So I started rhyming for this guy, and because I was so lyrical our styles were compared a lot. So I’m rapping to him, and Kool G was like, “Yeah, that’s nice – but let me show you how it’s done”. Then he goes and I’m like, “Oh shit!” That made me go back into my books like, “Hell no! If I ever run into Kool G again, I’ma have him fuckin’ shook!” It just took off from there.
Tell me about your battling days.
I was into street battles. I would go to local joints and battle the people that I felt were real hip-hop artists – not the made-up ones. At the [New Music Seminar] Battle for World Supremacy, you get two turns to rap. One of my gimmicks was, “Alright, I’m gonna give everybody they turn turns, and I’m only gonna rap once!” When I started taking people out with the one rap, it was like, “Oh shit! He’s not playing!” That same year Masta Ace was in there, Lord Finesse was in there. I beat one of the guys from The Dismasters [in the early rounds].
What is it about Brooklyn that sets it apart?
Back in the days, most of the people who had themselves well-grounded was in Queens. They could afford the DJ sets and the microphones and the studio time. Life for us in Brooklyn was grinding. We had to find the people who had studios, and because there were so many rappers you had to really make an impression for somebody to be like, ‘Yo, this guy is nice’. There were just certain people who set themselves aside. In my neighborhood, anybody who rapped, they would run to my house and ring my bell. If any stranger came in my neighborhood and rhyme, people would run to my house and get me! ‘There’s a dude outside – come out here and roast his ass!’ That was my excitement. When they see me walking up, they would go, ‘Oh shit! Here comes Uptown! It’s about to be on!’ It would be just a live show on the fuckin’ street corner. My peoples in my neighborhood loved it! They would go around looking for people I could battle! They made me a hard-working dude. They would set-up battles I had no idea of! People would invite me to a party, and I’m thinking it’s just a regular house party and when I get there: “There go Uptown right there! You said you gonna battle? There ya go!” “You told me it was a regular party – now I gotta battle this guy!”.
Who were some of the other Bed-Stuy groups at the time? Divine Sounds?
Without taking nothing from them, but they were the commercial people to us. Me and Biggie Smalls, we would bump heads a lot. He lived three blocks away from me – I was on Nostrand Ave and he lived closer to Clifton. My people knew his people and they were always trying to get us together, ‘cos they knew it would be a great fuckin’ show. Big was a cool dude. I have a homeboy right now, if he could find some of the cassette tapes that me, him and Big did in the crib, rhyming while we smoked a blunt and shit like that, he would probably be a millionaire. There was another MC called Half-A-Mil, he was a Brooklyn rapper too – we would just go to this guy named Dre’s house and get on all type of people’s beats. Especially when Leaders of the New School came out.
Were Junior Mafia and Lil’ Kim on the scene when you knew Biggie?
Yeah, they all from my neighborhood. All Junior Mafia – Chico Valdez, Lil’ Cease – we all grew-up together. Even Mark Pitts, that was help managing all the groups from Bad Boy, we actually went to Leguardia High School together.
It must have been crazy to have someone you used to run with being called the greatest of all time.
Even though he was big-time, he was known to come back in the neighborhood, sit down and chat with us when he didn’t have to. He used to make jokes at me, ‘cos he had first took a ear to the Buckshot LeFonque project. “Let me find out you a jazz rapper now? So now you don’t do parties? You do fuckin’ jazz?” We grew-up respecting each other – he knew the skills I had, I knew the skills he had. We just used to make fun of it. He was like, “Well I’m glad you took that route, now I can get all my money!” Just to know that he was still paying attention to the stuff that I did was an honor to me.
It seemed like he continued to study his craft even after all the success.
He was smarter than people gave him credit for. He kept his ear to the street, no matter how big he got. He would still come around and chill with us, to see what it was, still in the street. That’s why he was so good at what he done, because his lyrics came from the streets and he would go back to them same streets and hang. That’s why every time he came out with another song, the streets’ respect it because they knew he got it from the streets. It wasn’t some make-believe shit. Even when he was famous, he would come around the neighborhood and sit out there and drink a beer with us and just chill. That’s why he was unstoppable. He never left the street. Of course the streets can be dangerous for somebody who’s that famous now, but that didn’t stop him from coming around and still hanging with us. That gained him more respect than anybody! Why you think when he did pass, they wheeled his casket all around Brooklyn? We had real love for Big, that wasn’t for TV, that shit was real.
It made his pen game so sharp. If you wasn’t from the streets like he was, you couldn’t just come off the top of your head like that. He wasn’t a dude who wrote his lyrics down, he just went to the studio and spit it. The only time he had to write ‘em was when he had to submit ‘em for his copyright! He wasn’t a writer. You give him a beat, he go in the studio – he make a song in the studio – just saying what he felt. The only way that he was able to do that was because he was in the streets, knowing what to say and how to say it. Anybody who was not in the streets could not do that! They would have to go home and write something about it or ask somebody’s input. He didn’t have to do that because he was right there. He didn’t have to have no help.
Do you think he would have been where Jay-Z is today if he was still alive?
It would have been a lot of people that probably wouldn’t have made it in the industry if Biggie was still alive! Jay-Z wouldn’t have had a chance to be that popular. Don’t get me wrong, Jay-Z is nice too, but I don’t think he would have been as successful because he [would have] had to share that limelight. Even when Big did that thing with Bone Thugs, he flipped their style, but in a street way! I can only imagine as times would’ve changed, he only woulda got better and it would have been fearful for a lotta MC’s. Before he did pass, we were beginning to see what the commercialism was doing. That’s how Puff made they money, but it was getting to the point that I don’t think Big wanted to do that no more. That’s why he was coming out with his own label – Brooklyn Mint – he didn’t want that glamour, Versace look no more. He was Biggie Smalls, he was our Brooklyn street rapper! He was gonna go back to that, and unfortunately his passing came. If he’d have never got killed, they’d have heard some unbelievable shit from him. He was doing more beats with Premier after a while, it wasn’t no more happy radio stuff like the stuff with Ma$e. He was doing stuff like “Kick In The Door” so it was really getting ready to change, he was getting ready to get back on some hardcore, street shit, like Ready To Die, album one type shit. Puffy loves the glamour, but Big was getting his own label and it would’ve been very interesting to see what that turned out to be, ‘cos Biggie would’ve been in the street finding those rappers to sign, not those one’s that’s on TV. He would’ve had a very vicious label to compete – I sure wish it would’ve happened.
What about The Commission?
It was gonna be Big, Charli Baltimore, [Lil’] Kim, Cease – it was gonna be their answer to The Firm. It was gonna be some real hardcore rappers. “OK, y’all think you’re The Firm? Listen to The Commission!”. It would have been crazy. But at that time, that’s when all the drama was going on – now he had to start keeping his ears to the news, because there was so much rumors about this and that, so he ain’t really have enough time to put into The Commission because of all the stuff that was going on around him.
How did you feel about the remix albums that came out after he passed?
Puffy just trying to squeeze every dollar that he could. A friend of mine in the neighborhood, his name was Dre, if he coulda found some of the originals shit he did in his house, that woulda been so much better than all the remixes they put out – because that was hardcore, no rehearsal – just Big being Big. Unfortunately, that’s music that probably will never be heard.
So he still has the tapes but can’t find them?
The last time I spoke to him, I said, ‘What ever happened to all those old tapes when we used to be in your crib, chillin’?’ There was a spell that he had got incarcerated, and when he came home there was a lot of stuff that he couldn’t find, and that was some of the stuff he couldn’t find. I told him if you ever find those things that would be an instant money-maker! Lost fuckin’ tapes of Biggie Smalls? Please! People would just want to know what it sound like.
Uptown – “Dope On Plastic”
Uptown – “It’s My Turn”
Buckshot Lefonque – “No Pain, No Gain” (Remix)
Buckshot LeFonque – “Music Evolution”
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