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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant/Crown Heights, Sir Ibu cemented a place in rap folklore with a record called “Holy War (Live)”, which still stands as one of the rawest examples of beats and rhymes ever recorded, so much so that Ghostface recreated a portion of it on his own modern-day remake named “Mighty Healthy”. Beyond being an influential microphone god, it turns out that Ibu may also have been the first ever Conservative Rap Coalition member, as well as having an obscure connection to Australian culture. Salutes to BK Thoroughbred for connecting me with Brooklyn rap royalty and helping this interview happen…
Robbie: What sparked your interest in rhyming initially?
Sir Ibu: It was my cousin – I think it was back in ‘79. I heard him rapping, and I was like, “Wow! What is that?” So he told me what it was and then let me hear this record. I think it was by Spoonie Gee? I kinda liked that, so ever since then I just started writing. I just used to write about girls – all my raps were about girls. Girls this, girls that, just bragging about how I am with the girls. So then when I ran into Supreme – I would say was about ‘83, ‘84 – he told me, “Listen, you’re good. But you could be better if you changed your subject matter. Instead of talking about how good you are with girls, talk about how good you are on the microphone. How good you are with your lyrics and your music and your rhymes and your vocabulary. Just anything but girls!” I’m like, “Alright.” So I did it and I came back to him and I said, “How ‘bout this?” And he said, “That’s perfect! Do you wanna be part of my group?” I’m like, “Alright, let’s do it.” And that’s how I got with him and his sister. It’s interesting, ‘cos his sister – her name was Ice-T originally when we started – but Ice-T from the west coast started making a name for himself, so it was like, “Listen, you’ve gotta change your name.” So she changed it to Nefertiti.
At what point do you think you got ‘serious’ about making music?
I don’t think I was ever serious about getting into it – ‘serious’ meaning, “Let’s do this, let’s make money.” It was just more of an art form and I just wanted to get my music and voice out there. I just wanted to be heard. Just let the people enjoy what I do.
Were you influenced by that Harlem style that you’d heard from Spoonie Gee on your early rhymes?
Not really, it was what sounded good to me. I didn’t really mimic anyone or had a particular sound. What inspired me was just sounding different. If you listen to anything I’ve ever done and put it against any Brooklyn rapper or anybody else, you can tell the difference. I always wanted to be different and sound different. I made a conscious effort for it to be different, not to sound like any particular one or person.
What do you attribute your advanced vocab to in terms of your raps? Did you read a lot?
Just my schooling, my education. Just didn’t want to be an everyday, run-of-the-mill rapper.
How did the name Sir Ibu come about?
When I was younger, I used to call myself Mr. I, because I wanted to be addressed with some kind of level of respect, so I guess when I came to rap I just changed the “mister” to “sir.” I thought of all the phrases that someone would address a man with a level of respect, so I put a “sir” in front of Ibu.
Was Divine Force your first crew?
Yeah. Divine Force was already developed when I met Supreme, that was his group. One of his members had went away to college.
What were you doing as a group by the time that you joined? Focusing on shows or trying to get a deal?
Just local stuff in the neighborhood. You see, in Brooklyn at that time there was a thing called “block parties,” or “jams.” Jams were just regular teenagers who had equipment – turntables and music – and we would just find the nearest public outlet to plug it in and just play music. It would draw a crowd and everyone would just come out to dance and rap and battle.
At what stage did you start to shop for a deal?
Supreme and his sister was doing that already, they was doing some stuff with Russell Simmons and his people, but it never really panned out. Then I was on the train one day and I had on these yellow shoes, these Bally’s – ‘cos back then we wore these shoes called Bally’s, Bally’s of Switzerland. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. I happened to have on a yellow pair, and the whole outfit was kinda matching, so this guy walked past and he commented on them. He’s like, “Wow, I like the way you put that together.” I’m like, “Thanks,” and we started talking. Little did I know, he had an independent record label called Yamak-ka Records. So I told him, “Yeah, well I rap.” He’s like, “Really?” So I started rapping for him and he was like, “Wow, that’s incredible. Is you with a group?” So I told him about my group and we met, he liked us, he signed us, and that’s when we did our first record as a group, called “TV Guide.” It was produced by Teddy Riley, but really didn’t do great, because we were trying to do something different at the time. This was ‘86, and we were trying to come out the door with a record where my grandmother or my mother could listen to it and enjoy it. But being a new artist, first record in ‘86, that was a bad move, and it didn’t do too well. The industry were like, “Eh, they dress nice…” but they didn’t respect us as rappers, as MC’s.
That’s when I did “Holy War,” cos I was like, “Alright, it’s a war now against us and the music industry.” That’s what “Holy War” is about. It’s about me attacking the music industry. Melquan, the owner of the record company, he was like, “Listen – we put a lot of money into this ‘TV Guide’ thing and we lost money. How do we make it up and save your reputation at the same time?” So I was like, “Well I got an idea. Just take me, my DJ and some records. We’re gonna go in the studio, he’s gonna get on two turntables, he’s gonna just cut it up back and forth, live in the studio and press it and sell it.” He’s like, “You think that’ll work?” I said, “I know it’ll work. It’s hip-hop!” That’s why it’s called “Holy War (Live).” “Substitution” was the breakbeat, he just cut that up, back and forth. All those scratches you hear? That wasn’t pre-done. He was actually doing those scratches, cutting the beat back and forth while I just rapped. We did it in one take. The only thing we sampled was the beginning of the record when it comes on and you hear the hand clapping and people cheering. That was from Eddie Murphy’s Raw.
Was the response to that record immediate?
It took right away. It wasn’t huge commercially, but it was huge underground. Every rapper in the industry knew that record, they knew of us. Got a nice little underground fanbase. Rappers knew who that was, for example when I first met Busta Rhymes in a club one night I said, “Hey, how ya doin? I love your music.” He was like, “Thanks,” and then when I told him who I was he knelled to his knees and kinda bowed to me. He was like, “Yo man, it’s because of you I kept rapping! After Leaders of the New School I was like, ‘Fuck this rap shit!’ But when I heard ‘Holy War’ you inspired me and I kept doing it. I wanna thank you for that.” I was like, “Cool.” Same thing with Gang Starr, Premier’s been wanting to work with me for years. I read in this hip-hop book, they was asking him some of the artists that he hasn’t worked with that he would like to work with and he’s like, “Ibu is the number one dude I would wanna work with right now.” We tried to do some stuff but for some reason the way things were going in our lives we never really hooked up to actually do it.
That record really got some respect. As a matter of fact, there’s rappers that I haven’t even met, cos I’m not really into the scene anymore. For example, Kanye West took a sample of the record and used it on one of his records. He didn’t actually take the sample from my record, he took the sample that Ghostface did, that he took from the record [“shake that body, party that body” from “Mighty Healthy” was sampled for “New God Flow”]. Kanye looks up to Premier, it’s one of the people he relates to, so the connection is there. Rappers to this day don’t probably know me personally, but I’m sure if I met them and told them who I was, you would see the response. I’m not bragging or anything like that, but the record just had that impact, because nobody ever did that before.
Were you part of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths growing up? Because you’re dropping a lot of the terminology in your lyrics?
Yeah I was, growing up. That’s how I met Kane and Rakim. Kane had this record with Biz [“Just Rhymin’ With Biz”] when he first came out and I liked it, and back then my group didn’t really like anybody. We were really arrogant. But when I heard that record I went to my manager and I said, “Yo, try to get that guys number.” I called him, and he’s like, “Who’s this?” I said, “Ibu – ‘Holy War’.” He was like, “Listen, I’m glad you called, I always wanted to meet you. I’m doing this show tonight Uptown, why don’t you meet me there.” We’ve been friends ever since. Basically the same thing with Rakim. I met him at a show one night and I’m like, “Ey, I’m Ibu. I made that record ‘Holy War’.” Again, me and him been friends ever since. After I got signed with 4th & Broadway, after that that whole thing went south, me and Rakim even tried to do something together where he was going to produce me and shop me around, but that didn’t pan out.
This was after you did “I’m The Peacemaker”?
It was kinda like a follow-up, that’s what 4th & Broadway wanted. It wasn’t something that I particularly wanted to do, cos I wanted to stay hard just like “Holy War,” but they wanted something different and I couldn’t understand why, cos that’s not why they signed me. These guys signed me because of “Holy War” but yet you want this? “The Peacemaker”? Really? Seriously? I’m like, “Alright, whatever.” But they didn’t promote it right, they didn’t promote it well at all. After that I gave up on ‘em. They wanted me to do an album, and I was like, “Well I gave you guys two songs – ‘I’m The Peacemaker’ and ‘Ibu Gets Lyrical’ – you haven’t did much with that, but yet you want me to give you an album? You want me to give you thirteen more songs? Nah, I don’t think so.”
What were some of your favorite live shows?
The Apollo, the Beacon. Rooftop was another venue that we used to do a lot. It was a club up in the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. One of the shows that stands out was me, Kane, Rakim, King Sun, Jeru The Damaja, it was quite a few of us of the Five Percent. It was a benefit to raise money for homeless children, it was Father’s Day of ‘88 or ‘89. It was that Sunday we did a show at The Apollo Theatre to raise money for the kids. That was one of the shows that stood out for me, not only because of the cause, but it was just one of my better shows. Why? Because when they was calling me to go on stage I’d just arrived, so I actually came straight from the streets right on stage. I didn’t have time to go to a dressing room, I didn’t have time to talk to anyone, I didn’t have time to observe the audience – so none of those factors altered my mood or state for when I went on stage. It was just, “Your on,” and I just went into it. I think that worked best for me, as opposed to seeing other people perform; looking at the audience to see how they respond to them; conversations that I might get into backstage. Certain employees at the venue that might piss me off – or I piss them off – anything can happen. So by the time you get on stage, you’re feeling like whatever you’re feeling. This particular show I didn’t feel like anything, there was no room to feel. It was just, “Yo, you’ve gotta get on and perform.” That was one of my best shows, because I didn’t have all of those distractions and factors.
Going back to the b-side of “Holy War”, I always found “Something Different” bugged out with the first verse in ‘Australian style.’ What inspired that?
Benny Hill, basically. That whole British/Australian thing, it’s just something I wanted to do. [laughs]
Nice. I noticed you drift between both accents on there.
Yeah, it’s interesting cos a female friend of mine who’s from Australia heard it and said, “Some of your words are more British than Australian. Australian, we don’t really draw it out. British kinda draw it out.” She was trying to help me out. [Attempts different pronunciations of “Throw a shrimp on the barbie”] Plus I had a thing for Paul Hogan too, cos back then Paul Hogan was on the scene. Benny Hill is what got me interested, but the Australian thing came from watching Paul Hogan.
I saw a photo of your crew in Right On where you’re all rocking fly furs instead of the regular sweatsuit look.
We didn’t have the whole “urban” hip-hop wear, nah. Ours was more of a GQ, more mature look, which probably kinda hurt us when we put out “TV Guide” cos we dressed how they would expect us to look. But doing “Holy War” with purple Bally’s on, it was like, “Wow, really?” It was just totally different. That was a natural progression, it wasn’t a conscious thought, that’s just how we dressed. It wasn’t even an “on stage” dress; that was like a ‘round-the-way, everyday dress. It wasn’t like, “Let’s wear this on stage!” It was more like, “What do I wear tomorrow?”
So you were just wanting to look fly all the time?
Basically. We liked the whole GQ magazine, we liked the Bally’s, we liked the whole “slacks” look. Growing up, my dad always had a thing about men of a certain age and tennis shoes.
I agree completely.
He was like, “When a man gets to a certain age, if your profession doesn’t call for you to wear tennis shoes or basketball shoes then you should be wearing shoes.” I knew you probably would agree with that because my friend from Natalie from Australia…I had on a suit one day, but I had on some Adidas with the suit, and she looked at me and said, “Can you do me a favor? When we ever go out again, can you not wear those tennis shoes?” I’m like, “Why?” She’s like, “Because in Australia tennis shoes is for tennis! We just didn’t wear them like that. A nice pair of boat shoes would be appropriate.”
Agreed. Did you make anymore music after you left the 4th & Broadway situation?
After 4th & Broadway went south I got with a group and made music, but we didn’t actually get to do anything with it because two of the members were killed out in Ohio. It was a group called Marked For Death. In ‘98, ‘99 I got a call one night from Freedom Williams from C & C Music Factory. He said, “I’ve got this idea for a group called The Black Knights. There’s nine of us, it’s a whole medieval theme to it. What do you think?” There were four individuals including myself that I brought to the table, and he brought the other five and we put together this group called The Black Knights. A couple of CD’s were released but it didn’t go very far because at the same time the RZA had a group out called Black Knights, so we were going back and forth about who had the rights to it. Me, coming from the school I came from, I was like, “Why don’t we just battle for it?” Of course he didn’t want to do it because he knew we were superior MC’s to his group. All the dudes I had came from the school that him and I came from; his Black Knights were younger guys who came up under us so there was really no match. If anything, us going against the Wu would have been an equal match.
That’s interesting, the whole Wu-Tang element, because when I did the record “Holy War” the GZA contacted our record label and he wanted to be a part of it. Anybody who wanted to be a part of it, Melquan would have us come in and we would listen to him. We actually liked him a lot, so were like, “Let’s sign him, let’s bring him on.” Once he came aboard he was like, “Hey, I got a cousin too, his name is Raheem [the RZA], you might be interested in him.” So he came in and we liked him and said, “Let’s sign him too.” Then he’s like, “I’ve got another cousin, his name is Unique – Ason.”
Right. I knew Ol’ Dirty, cos he lived in my neighborhood, but i didn’t know they were related at the time. I remember when we used to go from block party to block party, battling, I used to take Ol’ Dirty with me to be my beatbox. A lotta people don’t know Ol’ Dirty was a beatbox before he was an MC, and he was the illest beatbox I ever heard in my life! You had Doug E. Fresh, you had Buffy from the Fat Boys, who else do we know?
Biz Markie, Just-Ice’s man DMX…
Ol’ Dirty put all of the to shame with his beatbox skills. He was that good. I used to take him from block party to block party to be my music because what happens sometimes when you go to a particular block, you use the DJ whoever equipment it was. They didn’t want you to use your DJ. If you’re battling their boy, they’re gonna do one of two things – they’re gonna put on some wack music for you or they’ll skip the record by having somebody bump the turntable to throw you off. So I was like, “You know what? I’ve got my own music.” I would give him a mic and that’s how we did it. That was an element a lot of people don’t even know.
I’ve got a tape where you do a live intro for “Holy War” for Red Alert. That must have been a big deal to be a guest on his show at the time.
That was interesting for me because he was one of the individuals who – when I did my first record – really didn’t appreciate it. He made really bad comments about it. So when I did “Holy War” he became a fan and wanted me to do the radio show, so I was kinda hyped and amped about that.
There was also that amazing session with you, Big Daddy Kane and Kings of Swing for Marley Marl.
The reason why we did the Marley Marl show was because we were promoting a show that we were doing. Remember I told you about the Father’s Day show? That show.
Are there any unreleased Sir Ibu records that we might hear in the future?
It exists, but I don’t have it in my possession. Whether I’m gonna release it? I don’t know. I really don’t the taste for it anymore. Here in America, I don’t have no interest to release anything here. But maybe if I was given the opportunity to release something in Australia or England…
Sir Ibu/Divine Force sampler, courtesy of Kevin Beacham.
The legacy of “Holy War (Live)” tributes:
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