Record label, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," Sugarhill Records, 1981. Inscribed To my buddy Micheal, Grandmaster Flash
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum holds parties
in their beautiful garden on Friday nights during the summer, each one of which features a guest DJ. I was talking to someone there and suggested — half jokingly — that I thought I would make a good guest DJ since I had what was, to my knowledge, the best collection of rap and dance 12 inch records of any middle-aged white guy in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
Now, this claim may or may not actually be true, but the Cooper-Hewitt decided to put me to the test. As you may have heard
, they asked me to be the DJ for the after party at the National Design Awards
, coming up on October 18th.
So, this past weekend, I went down in the basement and brought up three heavy boxes of records that hadn't seen the light of day in more than 20 years. And I wondered: would they still work?
When I first moved to New York City in the summer of 1980, I picked up a new habit. I started going to nightclubs, and I started buying records. Like any self-respecting 70s-era college student, I already owned a serious collection of LPs that I had dragged with me from one dorm room to another. But this was something new. I still bought, say, the latest Elvis Costello or the new Talking Heads, but my real passion was searching for some song I had heard on Friday night at Danceteria
like "Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)" by Spandau Ballet (well before they entered their treacly "True" phase). Or "Holy Ghost" by the Bar-Kays (featuring the stupendous drum break that was sampled to anchor "Pump Up the Volume" by MAARS). Or "Alice, I Want You Just for Me!" with its insistent exclamatory punctuation, by Full Force, who also recorded under the name Cult Jam when they backed up Lisa Lisa on the irresistibly sing-songy "Head to Toe." Or "Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys, or "We Don't Need this Fascist Groove Thing," by Heaven 17, or "Da Butt" by Experience Unlimited (lyrics by Spike Lee!).
But what came to obsess me was what today we'd call old school hip-hop
, but what I then just called rap. "What are all those light blue records?" a visitor to our teeny apartment once asked, indicating the line of identically-clad Sugarhill discs that I had lined up on my shelf back in 1984. Yes, like most of white America, I'd started with "Rappers Delight" by the group that launched Sylvia Robinson's label, the Sugarhill Gang, but soon it was on to Sequence ("Funk You Up"), the Funky Four Plus 1 ("That's the Joint"), Mean Machine ("Disco Dream," which I won by being the first "Name It and Claim It" caller to Frankie Crocker's show on WBLS), and of course, the performers that defined the movement, Grandmaster Flash
and the Furious Five. And in early 80s New York, it was more than records. We saw Flash perform live three different times; his 1981 studio release "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" didn't come anywhere near replicating the experience of watching the virtuoso cut to the beat in real time. But records were what I had, and, like Shrevie
(1982), boy, did I love my records.
It wasn't the looks. Part of what made my collection remarkable was how...well, ugly it was. This was not a fertile field for record cover designers. I found a few exceptions in those boxes in my basement: Pedro Bell's ghetto psychedelia for "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton, Peter Saville's now-legendary sleeve for Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and Maira Kalman's debut as an illustrator on M&Co.'s cover for David Byrne's EP Three Big Songs
(remixed from his score for Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel
). But most of the covers — Sugarhill's rainbow-hued tornado, Enjoy's illegible silver-on-red graffiti, West End's pink/maroon/orange/beige(!) skyline — are as seemingly disposable as the music they contained. For the most part, this was silly, danceable music dominated by exhortations to throw your hands in the air, etc. Flash's later collaborations with Furious Five member Melle Mel, "The Message" and "White Lines," were true Reagan-era protest songs that suggested the harder, darker strains that would overtake the genre in the mid-eighties with the rise of Run DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, and, of course, Public Enemy
. I didn't like this as much, and my mania subsided at about the time I got a cd player.
I never really worked as a professional DJ back then. I just had a fairly big record collection and would be asked to lug my boxes to friends' parties and play songs so people could dance. A few times, strangers asked me to play records at their parties and I'd get paid for that, although not much. See, actually having the records
counted for something in those days, as did knowing the difference between, say, the "Party Version" of Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and the "Club Version." (184 seconds.) I remember someone at a party offering me $150 dollars for my copy of "Hey Fellas" by those pioneers of DC go-go music, Trouble Funk. He said he'd been looking for it everywhere. I didn't sell it, of course: I was jealously guarding my private corner on the Trouble Funk market. So that record's been down in my basement with the rest of them for twenty years. Like all the others, it still works.
Of course, today you can download a dozen different versions of "Hey Fellas."
My corner on the Trouble Funk market is, I guess, worthless. The boxes, however, are as heavy as ever. See you at the Cooper-Hewitt.Update:
For the curious, here's the playlist from the National Design Awards after party. Many, many thanks to my boothmate DJ Chroma, a.k.a. Kevin Smith
, whose mad skills made up for my lack of same. And thanks to everyone who danced!
Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine (Live in Augusta, Georgia) / James Brown
Genius of Love / Tom Tom Club
Double Dutch Bus / Frankie Smith
Me No Pop I / Coati Mundi
Da Butt / E.U.
Hey Fellas / Trouble Funk
We Need Some Money / Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers
That's the Joint / Funky Four Plus 1
Eighth Wonder / Sugarhill Gang
Push It / Salt N Pepa
The Breaks / Kurtis Blow
White Lines (Don't Do It) / Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel
The Message / Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Kiss / Prince and the Revolution
Let It Whip / Dazz Band
The Groove Line / Heat Wave
Shake Your Body Down to the Ground / Jacksons
Straight Up / Paula Abdul
Atomic Dog / George Clinton
Alice, I Want You Just for Me! / Full Force
Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On) / Spandau Ballet
In the Name of Love / Thompson Twins
Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go / Soft Cell
She Blinded Me with Science / Thomas Dolby
Soul Makossa / Manu DiBango
Jam Hot / Johnny Dynell and New York 88
Car Wash / Rose Royce
We Are Family / Sister Sledge
Don't Leave Me This Way / Thelma Houston
Never Can Say Goodbye / Gloria Gaynor