Filed under: Features,Interviews,Killa Queens,Not Your Average,Rap Veterans,The 80's Files
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Photo: Talib Haqq
Spyder-D has quite the forgotten legacy. He was the first MC to release a record on his own label (“Big Apple Rappin'”, 1980), was sporting the pork-pie hat that inspired Run-DMC, helped “The Smurf” dance spread across America and stalked Vaughn Mason, all before 1985. He later had a song ripped-off by Kool Moe Dee, discovered Sparky-D and eventually became the manager of Power Play Studios in the 90’s.
Robbie: How did you first get introduced to rhyming?
Spyder-D: In Queens, we were kinda following what the guys in The Bronx and Manhattan were doing. A couple of people I knew had become DJ’s, one being Davey DMX – at the time was David Reeves, Jnr. We went to school together and I was playing trumpet in his band. This was the mid-70’s, but by ‘76, ‘77 the DJ scene was starting to knock bands off the scene. These guys started hijacking power from the light poles and throwing instant parties in parks and whatnot. The area of Queens I lived in, they had Liberty Park, Jamaica Park and then the park I lived closest at was Henderson Park. Once a DJ crew would roll-up and tap into the light pole to get their power, word would spread like wildfire. People would come, literally, from miles around to be at that park jam. That was my introduction to it, and I wasn’t into it at the time, but it was very intriguing. It attracted all of the ladies, so I was like, “Wow! There’s a lotta chicks rolling up here!” The DJ or the rappers, that was where all the chicks was flocking to, so that part of it appealed to me. Then when Sugarhill broke out with “Rapper’s Delight” they took it to another level. That’s when I said, “OK, I’ve got to get into this”. Being a recording artist of any kind was always appealing to me from growing-up and listening to the Jacksons and Parliament-Funkadelic. I’ll never forget, 60 Minutes did a piece on Peter Brown, showing how they did the multi-layer recording. That was it for me. Rapping was now a recorded music, and the combination of those two became a very powerful ingredient that made me say, “I’m going to do this”. I wrote my first rhymes in 1978.
Were you called Spyder-D at that point?
Spider was my nickname from playing basketball. I saw with the rappers, they had an initial in their name so I just added a “D” to it and that became my rap name.
Did you have a crew?
Originally the guy who played on most of my Summer League basketball teams was a guy named Clyde Barker. He was nicknamed Clyde after Walt “Clyde” Frazier who played for the New York Knicks. As we were back-court partners in playing basketball, he was also my rap partner. But Clyde wasn’t really serious about it. We used to get drunk off of Olde English 800 and freestyle. I wish to God I had those tapes from back then, ‘cos I’d be on the floor, crying laughing if I could hear myself back then. Back then, when everyone was fairly new, you could get away with saying any bullshit. As long as you said it on beat, you was cool! We were saying a bunch of drunk shit that really didn’t add up to anything, but we’d make it rhyme and we’d stay on beat. We’d get up the next day and everyone would be like, “Y’all were pretty good last night!” “I don’t even remember, dude. I was drunk!” The very first professional gig – if you can call it that, I got paid $25 – was at Boston University with the local DJ from around my way from Henderson Park, DJ Reggie Reg. Our neighborhood friend Brian Hodges went to the university, so he hired us to come out and play. Reggie Reg was an incredible DJ, he never got the recognition he deserved. We drove-up there, and it was pretty good! I was pretty much freestyling, because that’s mostly what MC’s did back then. You’d do your pre-written rhymes just to break the ice and get the jitters out, and then just go off the top of the head. I got pretty good at it, I could rhyme about what the girl in front of me was wearing or whatever. Other stuff I had did was church parties and little clubs for fun and for free, so that was my first paid gig. While rappers were learning to perfect their rapping craft, I started splitting my time between learning the art of rapping and learning the art of recording and producing.
What happened next?
After I had left college, I had come home and I was kinda depressed, because my little basketball dream was ended. I had got arrested in college, off the campus of Eastern Michigan University. When I got in trouble in college and basically dropped-out, my pops was not happy with me. He was a police officer, but the college experience wasn’t working for me.
What did you get arrested for?
Stealing. Other kids pop’s were sending them meal money, kids wasn’t really wanting for anything there. My pops had this hard line stance. “You’re on your own for the first time. Tough it out! Do it yourself”. That meant, “I’m gonna eat tonight, and I don’t have any money right now”. So I was shoplifting! I was stealing more than food, and I got busted and I dropped out. One day I’m sitting in my room and I was listening to WBLS 107.5 FM. Frankie Crocker – my all-time favorite radio – was playing this brand new record, which he was known to do. Frankie would take a chance on brand new records and break records. Frankie had actually done time in jail for payola. Frankie was a hero to me, whether he was taking payola or not. So he’s playing this record, and it reminded me a little bit of “Good Times” but it had a heavier bass tone to it and it was really infectious. At the end of the record, Frankie Crocker announces, “That was Vaughn Mason and Crew, ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll’”. When he said “crew” I automatically assumed it was a New York based group, because of that terminology. I’m sitting in my room, puffing on weed, and I‘m like, “Woooow! That record was hot!”. I made-up my mind, right then and there, I said to myself outloud – the weed had me going, “I’ma a meet those dudes and they’re gonna help me jump-start my career!”.
At the time, that seemed like a pipe dream. Once I found the record and saw the record was on Brunswick label, Brunswick label was based in New York so that made it simple. Me and Reggie Reg did a demo tape – without Clyde – off of “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”, we set an appointment and went up to Brunswick Records in midtown Manhattan and we met with Ray Daniels, who was the Executive Producer. He was the one who had signed Vaughn Mason to the deal. We played the tape to Ray and he was like, “Yeah, yeah. This is our music and you’re rapping over it. Big deal”. We got discouraged, so then I went, “OK, we still haven’t met Vaughn yet”, so I concocted a scheme. I knew a local cable producer, so I said, “Groups wanna promote their music. Let me get this guy to contact Brunswick Records and have him say he wants to have to tape a show with the group to promote their hit record”. They set it up and my cable producer guy told me where and what date. It was Martin Luther King birthday, January 15, 1980. That was the day I met Vaughn Mason. That jump started my career in more ways than one. After I met him, he started giving me lessons on production, and then finally Vaughn saw how persistent I was. I brought him a demo tape called “Nothing But A Party”, which became “Smerphies Dance”.
So you’re plan worked!
Born out of the haze of frustration, depression and good weed. [laughs] The determination I set out to meet him with, he recognized that, so he eventually took me under his wing. And he actually liked a couple of the ideas that I had. By the time he had heard my demo, I had tried all kinds of stuff before that. I’d had a live band play “Genius of Rap” for me and that got turned down. I was trying to learn how to do these things on the fly.
Had you approached Enjoy and Sugarhill?
Politically, Uptown had everything on lock. Some unknown cat from Queens wasn’t getting no love, and that had a lot to do with it. “Where are you from?”. “Queens”. “Shit, we don’t know you! You’re a nobody”. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, these guys were known already, before recorded music. But they didn’t know anything about the recording industry. They were rappers. I was trying to do both at the same time, and that’s what will always separate my legacy from most other rappers.
Plus their records didn’t reflect how they sounded live, if you compare the old party tapes.
What happened was, we grew-up watching Don Krishner’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special. You’re watching that kinda stuff, you want to grow-up to be a rock star or a soul star! Most of the earlier groups wore costumes – Melle Mel and them looked more like a rock group. That was where the genius of Russell Simmons came in, because Russell was the one that insisted upon you wearing regular street clothes so you would identify more with regular street cats. I posted a video of me in 1983 wearing that hat. Quiet as kept, that’s really where that image came from. That was my everyday attire. Russell told me to make that my image, and I said, “Russell, I understand what you’re saying, but I wear this hat, and I wear different colors of this hat, and I wear other hats!” So I basically ignored his advice. When his brother came along, he gave his brother the same advice and they eventually took it. If you look at those early Run-DMC pictures they weren’t wearing those hats, they were wearing Kangols. They were wearing Pumas and not Adidas. I wasn’t mad about it, I didn’t see whether that was gonna make or break me as an artist if I wore that same hat all the time. I was young and I didn’t always agree with Russell when he was my manager.
When Russell first decided to become my manager, it was my New York City debut, and I was opening for Nona Hendrix and Instant Funk. These are groups that wear costumes and outrageous gear, so I decided I wanted to come in there wearing a Spiderman costume. Russell wasn’t yet my manager, but he said, “You cannot wear that costume! You’re a B-Boy!”. I said, “Look man, the promoters already seen it, they love it. I can’t back out of it now”. I had a grey applejack hat on, and Russell said, “I tell you what. You keep the hat, you cock it backwards, and when you walk out on that stage, you walk out cocky as hell. When you get to the microphone, you stop, you look at everybody in the crowd and you then break into a B-Boy pose!”. Now he’s got me nervous as hell. This was Bonds, which was a former clothing store that they had gutted out and turned into a giant club. There were literally 4,000 people there that night. I walked out just like Russell said. I tipped my hat to the back and I folded my arms and broke into the B-Boy stance and the crowd went nuts and they put the needle down on “Smerphies Dance”. I got paid $300 to come out there and do one record. It was crazy.
What was the deal with Telestar Cassettes?
Telestar Cassettes was a unique name for a record company. Ironically, it was Ray Daniels who wanted to sign me – the same guy who turned me down at Brunswick. Brunswick were closing their doors, and they wanted to put out “Smerphies Dance” as their last song. I was like, “Why would I do that? We’ll never get paid!” As big as “Smerphies…” was, it would have been bigger on Brunswick label, but I wasn’t going to see a dime. I didn’t see a dime from Telestar anyway, so I should have let Brunswick put the record out! Ray ended-up helping me get the deal with Telestar. I thought it was a dumb name for a record label, but by this time I was very anxious to get the record out. I already had a rap written for that music, which was “Nothin’ But A Party”. Vaughn said, “You should rap about The Smurf!”, ‘cos that was the hot dance. I said, “But dances come and go so fast…” Sure enough, by the time the record came out, The Smurf was fading – in New York, anyway. They were already doing The Webo by then. But the music track was so hot the record hit in New York, and then The Smurf spread across the country as a dance from east to west, so it stayed a hit for a long time. But here’s what happens next – Vaughn Mason and Telestar start arguing over who had precedent over Spyder-D, the artist. So I didn’t record for anybody for two years. From 1983 to 1985, I was dormant as a recording artist and that really hurt my career. I was able to produce other acts and had a few hit records in that time, producing other people, until I signed with Profile Records.
What was the story behind “Big Apple Rappin’”?
A girlfriend of mine – we just wanted to get away from New York. I went back up to Easter Michigan, but I didn’t enroll in school. I started getting a little home-sick, so I started writing about New York. That was how I wrote “Big Apple Rappin’”. I started hearing all the horror stories about how none of the guys from Bronx and Manhattan, the original rappers, they weren’t getting paid royalties. I wanted to avoid that, so I said, “OK, I’m gonna find out how to press-up my own record, and do it that way”. Another part of my legacy that separates me from other rappers. I named the label Newtroit, ‘cos I was from New York but I was living near Detroit at the time. I met a drummer on campus, Rubin Pierce. He had a band called Frosty. I had a little minimum wage job, and I had just enough money to pay the studio. I said, “Look man, I can’t pay you guys, but you’ll get a lot of gigs”. He’s like, “Alright man. It’s rap – I wanna try this anyway”. It’s very new to them, he just wanted to be a part of it. So we went to this small studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near the University of Michigan. I hummed-out the parts to the band and they tracked their part in one very long ten-minute track, and then I laid my vocals down, pretty much in one take. Then I had the engineer splice in a little sound effects record I had found where they had this Jewish vendor from Delancy Street in New York. “$1.50 and 3!”, barking out his sales, which was so reminiscent of New York, so I had to have that little piece in the front of it. It was a very fun adventure producing that record.
I was still very green, but I had very good musicians, and they were able to interpret everything I said. I give credit to the bass player, Billy, who was actually ashamed to be on the record, ‘cos he didn’t think much of rap. He didn’t use his real name on the record! His name is actually Billy Wilson. He’s the president of the Motown Alumni Association. He’s introduced me to all those guys who I grew up listening to. I hummed the bassline to him, and I was heavily influenced by the Dazz Band, because that was one of the records Reggie Reg used to spin, and Billy gave his own funky Motown interpretation to it. My mother – God rest her soul – lent me the money to press-up the first thousand records, and we got good reviews. Nelson George gave me a nice write-up in Billboard magazine. So did Havelock Nelson. Tom Silverman, who didn’t yet have Tommy Boy Records, had Dance Music Report as his magazine, and they gave me a nice review. That lead to me cutting a deal with the pressing plant I was using. They had a sub-company called Larchmont Music, so we cut a distribution deal with them. That made me the first rapper to successfully start his own label. It wasn’t until later that I was looking back that I realized it.
How many copies did you sell?
I never found out what the final count was. By the time we cut the deal I think I had went through 4,000, and huge orders were coming in to the pressing plant. That was what made them want to do this distribution deal. Somebody’s still pressing that record! I’ve seen brand new copies of it, and I know these are not the labels that I used because they’re brand-spanking new! I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same guy who I cut the deal with. I haven’t seen him in 30 years. I’m about to have an attorney rack down all these people who are selling my music and I’m not getting paid for it, and it happens a lot! I’m probably owed close to a million dollars.
Spyder-D “Big Apple Rappin”
Spyder-D “Smerphies Dance”
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