Filed under: Features,Interviews,Philly Jawns,The 80's Files,Video Clips
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Philly’s Tuff Crew were the result of throwing Public Enemy, Ultramgnetic and Schoolly-D into a blender. Hard rhymes and abrasive beats left no doubt that these northside b-boys were repping their town to the fullest. Best known for the catchy “My Part of Town”, their second and third albums still hold up today as a fine representation of the just how well Philadelphia was able to translate the sound of New York hip-hop into it’s own unique sound, while also giving a nod towards the Bass scene of Miami. I caught up with DJ Too Tuff a couple of weeks back while he was in prime form, and he spoke fondly of the formative years of the inner city rap scene before the familiar creep of gentrification and new money “cleaned up” the streets of the area that was once referred to as the “Dangerzone”.
Robbie: What set you off to become a DJ?
DJ Too Tuff: My inspirations as a DJ was definitely Jazzy Jeff, Cash Money, Lightnin’ Rich – these were all Philly DJ’s who paved the way as far as the cuttin’ scene. Also my mom used to take me down to the record store when I was little, and I would buy one or two Sugarhill Gang records or Treacherous Three, Funky Four Plus One More, maybe The Sequence. That’s how I was first introduced to the Philly hip-hop scene at Funk-O-Mart, which was a store which used to specialize in DJ equipment and records. There were two record stores in Philly, the other one was Armand’s.
When did you start to DJ in public?
I was playing football for St. Joe’s Prep, which is a Jesuit prep school I graduated from. It’s the best Philly high school, it was crazy expensive when I went there. Hip-hop as a culture was just beginning to form. There was a show on TV called Graffiti Rock. Seeing Run and DMC and Jam-Master Jay in the back, actually cutting live? That was crazy to me. I was playing football and I was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I saved up and bought some turntables. One of my friends that I used to play football with, his name was Yo-Yo. His real name was Anthony Ray, and he was murdered in 1997. That’s my brother – that’s the person that taught me how to cut. In his face he looked like Evander Holyfield. He was built and he was left-handed, so when we’d play football he used to throw with his left hand. I cut with my mixer on the left and both my turntables on the right, and Yo-Yo used to cut with both turntables on the left, so we used to just use one mixer and four turntables and just go back and forth in the middle of the park. He put a bug in my ear about who Jazzy Jeff was, who Cash Money was, who Lightnin’ Rich was, because I had no idea about any of that stuff. We used to put cassette tapes back together with fuckin’ scotch tape when they would pop. Cash Money “Echo Scratch” or DJ Spinbad cutting “Funky Scratch.” Nobody was selling mixtapes, so you just had to come across it by having a copy of a copy, or maybe Power 99 might play it. Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff and Terminator X are the three DJ’s that I really tried to take a little piece of and model myself as a combination of all three.
Can you describe those early days in north Philly?
There was a park called Hart park and we all had keys to it, so we used to go and do breakdance battles, motherfuckers had linoleum out there on the ground, and me and Yo-Yo had big-ass speakers and there were a couple of other DJ’s in Philly that used to do block parties. At this time, breakdancing and graffiti had more of an influence than hip-hop, it was a total culture shock to people. Once we saw Beat Street, it was on! We would put an extension cord out in the front of the fuckin’ house or onto the basketball court and just play out there. We started going to dollar house parties, and Ice would come and rhyme at ‘em. We used to hang at a place round the way called the Boom Bop Barbershop. Used to have little splash party battles and used to have block parties on Memorial Day with Mega Force. Mega Force is a company in Philly that’ll come and set-up speakers and blow every house off of the block. In Philly, before the DJ came out, there were sound crews that used to run around with big-ass SWAT vans and they had speakers stacked in there at a place called The Plateau. That’s what Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince was talking about, “There’s a place called The Plateau, where everybody go.” That’s how hip-hop in Philly started, out in the park.
How did you meet the other member of Tuff Crew?
One time we’re out in the park, breakdancing and wylin’, smoking weed and shit, and this dude pulls up in a limo and he says he’s putting together a rap group. He had Tone Love with him, but we didn’t know Tone Love because we seen these motherfuckers for the first time! It was Street City Rockers at the time – SCR Nation. The mayor of Philadelphia used to have an Anti-Graffiti Network, and he would hire hip-hop groups to perform at Anti-Graffiti Network parties to try to curb any kind of violence where they thought it was gonna be a gang thing. So the boy that drove up in the limo, that’s Tony Mitchell. He ended up being the CEO of Soo Def records, him and another gentleman named Calvin Fats, who had a bunch of money and he was a hood legend. Him and Mitch, the underboss, “The Godfather Mitch got things all hemmed up” – you hear it on “My Part of Town” – they basically supplied the money to take a chance on us, Tuff Crew. He just had an idea that he was wanted to find some young boys that could rap. He used to manage Al B. Sure, he was one of Mohammed Ali’s consultants, he was a hustler. We had issues with him over the years but if it wasn’t for Mitch we would never had the opportunity to even meet each other.
A week later he came back, and he took us to this studio and his nephew, who was LA Kid, was there then. Now it’s Tony Mitchell, Tone Love and LA Kid when we go to meet them at 57th and Girard. They had some equipment up there, some sampling drum machines and shit like that. Ice was one of the members of Tuff Crew already at that point, and I’m on the sidelines. At this point, my MC is MC Mechanism, so when we do parties in the street or DJ battles, I usually have MC Mechanism rhyming for me, and then we started to do songs later on. I was introduced to sampling drum machines, records deals and how to do a show and getting picked up in limos. I blinked my eyes and I was DJ Too Tuff overnight, ‘cos I grew up with Ice. Ice was like, “I know this boy, he’s nice. A white boy.” I was there originally when Tony came, but he didn’t know I was a DJ. All the focus was on Ice, because Ice was baddest rhymer out. That nigga is still fire to this day! Ice is a fuckin’ beast, a monster.
Tuff Crew already had a DJ, his name was Shiver. On the first record that Tuff Crew put out there was a song called, “Philly Style,” and on the song it said, “Sh-sh-shiver!” I had to battle Shiver at parties we would do. Shiver couldn’t scratch for shit, but his dad owned a limousine company so we used to get limousine rides and shit, so his time was short-lived once I came on the scene. I was hungry as shit to be a DJ, and I had the opportunity to DJ for fuckin’ Tuff Crew? My neighborhood idols? I was getting on board as a top notch free agent. Once I became the official DJ for Tuff Crew I went the fuck off. I knew I wasn’t going to get to say anything, so in between the rhymes, wherever that eight bar break is? You better speak the fuck up. Sometimes Mitch used to be like, “You’re the DJ, go in the back. We’re about to take a picture of the MC’s” and Ice would be like, “Fuck that! Get in the picture!” Ice had a lotta influence on me becoming the DJ of Tuff Crew.
What happened next?
Tuff Crew’s first album was called Phanjam and featured the Krown Rulers and had a single that was co-produced by Tuff Crew and Ced Gee from Ultramagnetic. Krown Ruler’s were from Camden, but Poo was my man. We ended up meeting at this show over at Skateland and we put him on the team and recorded “Kick The Ball.” This is in ‘87. Warlock picked us up. It was different to leave Philly and sign with a major independent in New York, and be introduced to people who you hearing on records, like UTFO or Red Alert or Rakim. We were still fuckin’ crazy hip-hop fans of everyone when we were coming out. Sometimes we would hear a song like “Bring The Noise” and be like, “We should make a joint like Public Enemy joint,” and we’d go sample some crazy James Brown, uptempo loop and throw some noises behind it, like chimes on “It’s Mad.” That was us paying homage to Public Enemy, not biting their style. You can hear the influence of Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic in the Tuff Crew album. Those were my roots. That’s where my creativity and the way I make beats and cut came from a combination of starting out in Philly but then being introduced to New York, where everything is 5,000 million times more magnified.
Before Dirty South music came out, we were like kings in Miami. Luke Skyywalker brought us down on the Move Somethin’ tour with 2 Live Crew, Shy-D, Tone Loc, De La Soul, Rob Base and EZ Rock, EPMD. We did this baseball stadium in the middle of Miami, and in the middle of “My Part of Town” they started shooting in the crowd and they pulled us off stage. We ended up being on the 11 o’clock news that night. After we started doing Tuff Crew, Ice used to come out on the streets and battle niggas at Splash parties and shit like that. Ice was the battle boy with Mechanism and me cuttin’. He also had the equipment and speakers and all that shit. Overnight I was at the Spectrum, and I’m seeing Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Steady B and Schoolly D. Cutmaster DC, Salt ‘N Pepa, LL was there, it was a Philly vs. New York battle. We battled a crew named L.T.D. Crew from New York.
Did you beat them?
It wasn’t so much of a battle, they just put one New York group on and one Philly group on. but since it was LL Cool J and Steady B, they hyped it up to be like that. We crushed them, ‘cos it was “My Parta Town.” See, when we did the Phanjam album and Krown Rulers was the one’s that ended up with the fuckin’ hit off the album – “Kick The Ball” – we used to feel like dickheads! Like, “Damn! Them niggas bust our as on our own fuckin’ album!” Our shit wasn’t co-produced by Ultramagnetic, that was new shit. “Kick The Ball” was fuckin’ bangin’, dog! So when we finally got our chance to do a solo album and we did Dangerzone, we were like, “This is our answer to that.” Over a period of time, you develop an ego. There was times we used to feel under-appreciated. The Philly group always plays the underdog, so we felt right at home being the underdogs in Philly hip-hop. When we came out [with “My Part of Town”] it was like “Bang!” Shit was crazy.
There was a huge progression between the early material and Dangerzone.
We took a major step because we were mad as shit. Between Phanjam and Dangerzone we had a real close relationship with Ultramagnetic. The influence that they gave us, and the equipment that they let us use and the way that they sampled shit and cut shit down and chopped shit up and put shit together – if there was no Ultramagenetic, there would never be a Tuff Crew.
How did you meet them?
My manager Mitch started putting shows together, after our records started doing well. Lady B used to play our shit all day long, we go way back. She always showed us love. He would put Tuff Crew on as the opener for shows here in Philly – he brought Ultramagnetic here, he brought MC Lyte here, he brought Big Daddy Kane here, he brought Biz here. A lot of it was Mitch making it available to us to have drum machines and a place to make music, so he enabled us to be what we were, and he probably took as much money as he wanted from those ventures because we never really got everything that we should’ve been paid. “My Parta Town,” combined with the sales of the albums equaled 3.5 million. We signed with William Morris Agency, and they were booking us shows with Tone Loc and De La Soul down south and the money wasn’t coming back correctly. Mitch had a lot to do with the break-up as well, because he pitted us against each other. There was a slight revolution in Tuff Crew because shit wasn’t going the way it was, and it put a stop to the whole fuckin’ movement.
If it’s not all four people, then it’s not Tuff Crew. It’s some different shit. Each person provided an element that was vital to the chemistry that created Tuff Crew. LA Kid made the beats – that nigga’s a beast on the fuckin’ beats – so I would feed him breakbeats. He taught me everything I know about making beats. Tone was the leader of Tuff Crew on stage, at all times. He could command the crowd, motherfucker’s listened to Tone. He looked flashy – Tone was the boss. Tone was the face of Tuff Crew. Ice was the dopest nigga on the planet. Sneaky, off to the side, but when he come in that shit goes to a whole ‘nother level. Ice used to write a lot of the rhymes, the reason they sound so cohesive. When we did “Smooth Momentum”? Ice wrote that whole rhyme and then broke the verses down. Ice was fuckin’ boss, dog. Then with me adding the cuts and being a white boy? That was a tremendous accomplishment at the time. I used to walk in and they’d be like, “That’s Too Tuff?” “You motherfuckin’ right!” I used to go kill that shit. I was the only white boy in there! There wasn’t no white dudes doin’ fuckin’ hip-hop!
What did Monty G do?
Monty was in a group called The Big Boys. After my manager put Tuff Crew and Krown Rulers together, he started to develop a few other groups. Vaughn Love released a single on Soo Def, we did the Krown Rulers album. Mechanism came on the team and became a semi-member of Tuff Crew, because that was my original MC so I had to bring Mech on board. He did a guest verse on Back To Wreck Shop, on the song “Go On And Go Off.”
How did “Hittin’ Hard Balls” for the One Voice compilation happen?
“Hittin’ Hard Balls” was one of my fuckin’ favorite songs, dog. Since Ruffhouse was blowing up and had a lot of money to blow, and they were like six blocks from where we grew up doing breakdancing, so we used to go down there on the regular and they asked us to do a song for them. That’s a slept on Tuff Crew classic that motherfucker’s don’t really know about.
What was the Tuff Crew’s relationship with the Hilltop Hustlers?
We were always at war with Hilltop. Even though we ain’t really have nothing against them, that was the only other little posse in Philly making noise at the time. We had a friendly competition with Three Times Dope all the time, ‘cos “My Part of Town” and “From The Giddy Up” came out at the same time, so we were doing shows together. That shit was nice, dog, ‘cos they used to keep us on our fuckin’ toes. Chuck Nice is a beast on the drum machine, and ES[T] used to kill it!
Your solo DJ songs were some of the highlights of the albums for me.
That was my time to shine. I scratched all over Phanjam, but I didn’t have much to do with making the beats because I didn’t have any equipment, but when we signed with Warlock we went and bought the equipment we needed. We had an SP-12 and a real Roland 808 drum machine and a four track cassette tape joint, that’s how we made all the Tuff Crew joints. We would go into a big- ass studio, which was $110 an hour, and we would re-record everything right off the drum machine. You did at home as pre-production to get your ideas straight, then when you went in the big studio? The lights was on, motherfucker! You’ve gotta already know your shit, because we already did it a thousand times in pre-production. The mastering is the best part, you can get to sit there and tell ‘em what type of echos to put on Ice’s voice or put a little reverb on the cuts in the mix a professional engineer does. That’s fuckin’ great, dog.
How did you get the name Deuce Ace Detonator?
Tone Love named me Too Tuff – when I was with DJ Yo-Yo my name was DJ Spin, and before that it was Disco Joe, because I didn’t know what to name myself. The first time that I performed with Tuff Crew at the New York vs. Philly battle, Tone named me Too Tuff. I was like, “That sounds hot,” and they made me a graffiti shirt. When we made “Smooth Momentum,” Ice named me The Detonator. Blowin’ shit up, drop the bomb. Deuce is two/too, and Ace is the best card you can get, so it’s a double redundancy on Too Tuff. Too Tuff squared or some shit.
Why did the crew fall apart after the third album?
Tuff Crew’s contracts as individuals with Tony Mitchell were up as far as management were concerned, but the contract between Soo Def and Warlock called for one more Tuff Crew album. We started to work on Still Dangerous and that’s when the break-up happened because that’s when the contracts ran out. Me and Tone Love left the group and we ended up doing a project called Dangerzone Mobb Sqwad. It was a single called “Flippin’ Kilos” and the other side was “Back To Yell” with Mac G. Fats backed us on that jawn, and Ice Dog and LA Kidd went back and did the last album as Tuff Crew. They were down a DJ and an MC, so they went and got some white boy to be in as DJ. There was three or four different motherfuckers that they tried to get to replace me. Anybody could have been Tuff Crew at that point. As long as Ice Dog was there? That’s all they were worried about. Then they made Smooth K – who used to be a dancer for us – the second lead rapper! They put him in Tone’s spot, and then Smooth K was talking shit on the album. Tuff Crew was at war with each other!
When Tuff Crew was breaking up, I was Tim Dog’s DJ for four months. There was a gentleman named David Suckle, he was an agent. He knew, through dealing with Tony Mitchell, that the contracts had ran out. He propositioned me and Ice Dog to leave Tuff Crew and sign with a management company that he had which had Tim Dog, Blackstreet, basketball player Sheldon Jones and somebody who used to play for the Supersonics. I was officially appointed Tim Dog’s DJ and then we started to do some shit in the studio, but nothing that ended up on his album.
After the Tuff Crew broke up, you won Unsigned Hype in The Source with MC Mechanism. How did that come about?
That material is on the album DJ Too Tuff’s Lost Archives. Shout out to Z-Trip for helping us put it together. We won Unsigned Hype in August of 1994 with a song called “Untouchable.” Before that, we had two songs called “With The Quickness” and “Straight From The Heart.” Mechanism was the undefeated champion on Lady B’s Street Beat show, proceeding ‘94. Mech won that shit eleven weeks straight and they retired him as undefeated champion. I would do stuff on the side with Mech, since I had the drum machines now. He was my first artist and he felt left behind when I went with Tuff Crew, so I had to go get him and put him on our shit. We used to play ball everyday, we all grew up together – Mechanism, me and Ice Dog. I was locked-up and had cancer a couple of years ago. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, while I was fighting a case for attempted aggrevated assault at a club in Philly. It was a curse and a blessing. I ended up getting found “not guilty”, and I got my cancer taken care of, which I didn’t even know I had! Without a thyroid it makes it really difficult to metabolise your food, so you tend to become lethargic and you gain weight. It also has alot to do with your mental health, so sometimes you can become seriously bipolar.
What’s the rest of the crew up to now?
Ice Dog is a police officer in Philly, Tone Love got a couple of little things going on in Germantown. LA Kid got married recently to the chick Bunny from L’Trimm, so he lives in Indianapolis now. I’m the only one that really goes on the streets with the music and continually screams Tuff Crew. I do four to eight shows a month, I do a Tuff Crew greatest hits set all the time.
Tuff Crew – “What You Don’t Know”
Tuff Crew – Live At Miami Baseball Stadium, 1988
Tuff Crew – “Hittin’ Hard Balls”
Tuff Crew – “Deuce, Ace, Housin'”
Tuff Crew – “Behold The Detonator”
DJ Too Tuff Mind featuring MC Mechanism – “Mind Over Matter [Two Track Mix]”
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