"Who Was the First?"

"I am the champion of hip hop - hands down, undisputed. I'm the undisputed heavyweight champion of hip hop. When it's all said and done, all of the things that have been achieved, all of the numbers...If you take all of the things that i have achieved and we all bring all of our achievements in a truck, I'm going to have the biggest, longest, fattest, widest truck you've ever seen. We are going to have to deal with those facts. There is nobody that can fuck with me with what I do, which is getting busy. We are going across the board as an entrepreneur, innovator, motivator. Who was the first? Who traveled to Europe first? The first, the first, the first, the first. I was the first! I was the first on the jet. I was the first running the marathon. I was the first donating millions of dollars. I was the first. I was the first with the ten million records sold. I was the first with the label. I was the first with the renegotiations. Fuck a Forbes list, I was on the cover of Forbes. And so, that right there, that young motherfucker coming up...there is going to be someone that will pass me but as long as I am on the court they are not going to be badder than me because there is too much catching up to do. So, my thing is not to compete. My thing is to give birth to the next one. But there is not one motherfucker that's here now where we can in the room and see who is going to outwork me. That is not going to happen, not right now. Maybe if i slow down, but to this day no one can fuck with me when it comes to getting busy and working."

Sean John Combs, 2010 

 

"Ernie Anastos Made It. Is he Greek?"

One afternoon in October 2006 I met Zach Galifianakis for some day drinking at the Subway Inn on 60th St. and Lexington Ave. Even though Comedy Central had cancelled his show Dog Bites Man earlier in the week, he didn’t reschedule or cancel the interview.

We chatted for about thirty minutes, just enough time for two rounds of beers. He drank Stella. Since it was 2006, I guess I had Brooklyn Lager or Guinness.

The upcoming midterm elections, which ultimately served as a referendum on the Bush presidency, were on his mind. We also discussed his fear of flying, gentrification in New York City, the tabloids, Michael Bay’s TransFormers movie, and how present-day America mirrored the last days of Rome. It’s a really fun interview! Of course, the story—a one-page magazine profile—got killed.

The funniest part of the interview happened after the interview with us bullshitting outside the bar about how we were both feeling the booze.

Me: “What are your plans for the rest of the afternoon?”

Zach: “I’m late for a doctor’s appointment.”

 

Out Cold was my introduction to your work. [Laughs] No, seriously. During college I worked in Disney’s marketing department. I remember the publicist working that movie was so mad at you.

I was on Conan O’Brien and said, ‘A lot of actors come on TV and tell you their movie is really good and then you go see it and you’re disappointed.’ I looked directly at the camera and they did a close-up and I said, ‘Out Cold is the best movie you’ll ever see in your life.’ But it was so tongue and cheek that the audience knew I was making fun of it. She got upset about it. I would much rather go see an actor in a film that’s like that than if I saw some blowhard actor go on TV and lie saying, ‘It’s good.’ The audience is too smart. They don’t fall for that shit. Actors are always talking bad about the movies they’re in when they’re not being interviewed. You got to be truthful about it. You can’t be a jerk about it though because people worked hard on it. It’s funny to be deprecating about, I thought. The audience liked it but she wasn’t too into it. I’m not saying anything bad about her. But you know publicists — I can’t stand those people. You know that world. It’s crazy. I don’t have a personal publicist.

Do you like promoting stuff?

Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s self serving to talk about yourself. I get really bent out of shape when I get on an airplane and I see everybody reading Us Weekly and People magazine. I’m like, ‘There’s a goddamn war going on you fucking idiots.’ It’s like they’re reading their high school yearbooks they’ll never get into. Not that I’m not one at all, but I have a real disdain for celebrities. They’re given way too much clout in this society. It’s crazy. Honestly, who gives a fuck about a lot of this stuff?

Have you ever been in Us Weekly?

Oh God no.

Do you feel like you have to be on all the time?

I’m not on a lot. If I’m in a good mood I’ll be. But no, I don’t feel like I have to be on. I’ve done interviews where people were like, ‘Well, that’s not funny at all.’ Well, I’m not on stage. Sometimes if I’m in the mood I will be.

There’s the stereotype of the tragic clown.

That’s the same thing as saying everyone in hip hop is from the streets. It’s a stereotype. Sometimes it’s true. I come from a very happy family with loving parents. I have some things but who doesn’t? Some people paint and some people go save the world and some people make people laugh.

What are you working on now?

Nothing. I just did some movies though. I did this movie that Sean Penn directed, called Into the Wild. I think it’s going to be pretty good. And, I did this odd little movie called The Visionaries. I don’t have any work. I’m just wandering around New York aimlessly.

What do you do?

I do shows a lot. I write on napkins during the day. I have a farm in North Carolina and that’s really where I want to be but I have to find another job. I kind of want to be down there but I need to find another acting gig. I won’t pick anything.

You should have auditioned for Transformers.

That’s the Michael Bay movie? That looks like a good commercial. I saw the preview for that. Did you see the preview? It puts a little of reality. It references the Mars Probe. You know what I’m talking about? That’s weird that he’s making that kind of connection with the Transformers, which was made way before the Mars Probe. When I saw his name on it, I was like, I am not going to see that piece of trash.

What do you read on the airplane?

I’ve got this huge fear of flying now. I used to read all the time. But I’ve gotten so bent out of shape about flying. When I flew here from Seattle the other day, out of just being nervous my arm knocked the food off the tray. It was a little turbulence and I went nuts. What I started doing was drinking whiskey to calm my nerves but the whiskey makes me cry so I’ll be openly weeping on a flight. But I’d rather do that than be scared. I’m never really fearful of anything but being enclosed in a high, high, high…I was reading an article in The Economist that commercial flights in Baghdad [descend] straight down because [otherwise] they will shoot it down. My fear is turbulence based. If it’s smooth, my mind relaxes. If it’s bumpy I get bent out of shape.

Didn’t you used to live in New York?

Yeah.

Prefer LA or New York?

I’m kind of over big cities. I would rather do the rural thing for a while. I don’t miss Los Angeles at all. I live by the beach so its nice. People’s priorities are just screwed up there. It’s hard for women. When you’re a kid you dream of being in the entertainment business and then you’re in it and it’s like, ‘This is what it is?’ There are times I really do love Los Angeles but it’s a boring city. You’re always in a bubble. You’re in a car or you’re in your house. Here, you’re always rubbing shoulders with people. All you have to do in this town to be entertained is walk up and down. This is a pretty entertaining neighborhood. I live on the Upper West Side now. I’m not crazy about it but it’s the only place I can find without looking too hard.

Why not East Village or Williamsburg?

Nah, I’ve done that already.


Why not Astoria? You’re Greek. You’d fit right in.

I would love to.

I grew up there.

Do you know Uncle George’s? I love that place. Yeah, you are Greek. I lived in Williamsburg, Park Slope, Lower East Side, West Village…

The gentrification in LES is crazy.

Yeah, I know. I lived on Ludlow for four years and had a two bedroom for $500. It literally was a crack house. It’s not the same city, that’s for sure. There are too many chain stores and it’s going to keep going. What are they going to do, make the whole city a mall? How many Sbarro’s do we need? I remember when Ray’s moved to Ludlow and there was a big protest.

Do you want another one?

I’m drinking Stella.

How did you get the idea for Dog Bites Man?

Local news was such a joke when we were doing Dog Bites Man. The thing to do was get stoned and watch the local news. There was this great teaser commercial and it said, ‘These cereals claim to be crispy in milk. When we come back, we put them to the test.’ There was a three minute story about what cereals stay crispy in milk. It was followed by a story on weapons of mass destruction. Another thing I love to do is watch Entertainment Tonight and watch Mary Hart. Her face is unbelievable to me. It’s inhuman how she moves her face. ‘When we come back, we’ll see how these celebrities faired in high heels on the boat ramp.’ But local news is the best. Goddamnit, I love watching it.

This was before Anchorman?

Oh God yes. I knew an intern that worked in a station in North Carolina and he said the anchor was so coked up. That’s so funny. That must be miserable to be stuck in local news. New York is the big time though. Sue Simmons, Ernie Anastos made it. Is he Greek?

You know it.

Thanks, Ernie. Sue Simmons and Chuck Scarborough. I like them both a lot. He seems like he should be on the national level.

Did you see the Bill Clinton interview on Fox News last Sunday?

I thought it was wonderful. Why the Democrats aren’t coming out and saying more stuff like that is beyond me. Clinton admitted he made mistakes. ‘At least I tried.’ That’s not to say Bush isn’t trying. But prior to 9/11 he wasn’t trying. That’s the problem. That memo came out, ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States.’ Condoleezza Rice is just a jerk. She’s a jerk. It just is so pathetic that she’s so self-interested in doing the job for the administration. I think she’s probably a good woman.

And the media came out afterwards and played it like Clinton was crazy.

That’s the big liberal media. That is such a lie. There is no liberal media. Do you think GE, who are nuclear contractors, are going to have a liberal agenda? The only person who says something is Keith Olbermann. He’s amazing.

Do you read papers?

I read the Times and a little of the Post.

Did you read the Daily News today?

I did.

Did you read the Op/Ed?

I emailed the guy. Goodwin. I typed it and my girlfriend sent it. That’s so weird you bring that up.

Nah, I read it every day and I’ve noticed how much more conservative the News has become.

There are articles that get ignored because the news comes out so fast. There was an article in the Washington Post about how all the jobs given out in Iraq, one of the questions in the screenings to the applicants was, ‘Who did you vote for?’ They were checking their loyalty to the Bush administration. When you are going to be that moronic and you’re going to do it based on that, shit’s going to be fucked up. Everything is based on loyalty: ‘Will you back me up.’ Ah, it was a good run, this country.

Are you optimistic about November?

I was. Yesterday I was. Today I’m not. I change because I think what’s happened was the media was like, ‘The Democrats are going to win.’ Republicans will get out and vote. If those idiot Bible thumpers are fearful, they will get out and vote. I still think there was voting fraud in Ohio.

Did you read that Rolling Stone article [about potential voter fraud in Ohio]?

Yeah. It was the first mainstream…My friend is John Kerry’s right hand man. He went to high school with him. I called him, ‘Does Kerry know about this?’ ‘Oh, he doesn’t want to seem ungrateful.’ What are you talking about? How’s that for funny? It’s just sad and crazy.

Did you read that chart in GQ this month about Nixon vs. Gore?

Gore’s smart. I’ve thought about this. Here’s what should happen: He should sit out the Democratic primary. He should not really bother and just see what’s happening. If he’s going to do it, he should enter it late. I think people would really vote for that guy. He’s a little bit above shaking hands in New Hampshire. If he goes to the convention, the Democratic Party could be, We want this guy. What do you think about Barack Obama?

Too soon. [Writer’s note: Whoops!]

Well, Bobby Kennedy ran really soon. Hillary Clinton might pick him as her running mate. There’s no way America will vote her in. The Democratic Party will. If it’s just her and Biden, Kerry, Evan Byah may run…The problem is with Democrats is you have to have a southerner because Southern Democrats are more conservative. The way the country is nowadays, there is no way a guy from Massachusetts is going to win. Kerry might have still won. He did have a southern Vice President running with him. Have you seen that video of [Edwards] combing his hair for two minutes? It’s really telling. That’s what it is now. TV, image, looks. Kucinich. What he was saying made sense but look at him. Among the younger generation, where is this voice. The comedians are doing it. Janeane Garofolo, Al Franken, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart are saying stuff. Jeannine was saying stuff when it was really unpopular to say. I was at this peace rally and Joan Baez was there and there were people who didn’t know who she was. You have to get someone to speak for the younger generation.

MTV once filled that role. Remember Choose or Lose? But nowadays it’s filled with Abercrombie and Fitch model types and more…

That will go away eventually. I think there will be another movement. It’s crazy people waste so much time on it, but you can really use MySpace to link people together. Hopefully, I can do that when I get my revolution started. I had a meeting with the head of MTV once and I was in her office. Britney Spears was on the television behind her. She caught me looking at it. So, she looked at it, looked back at me and she goes, ‘I know I’m going to hell for this. I’m perfectly aware of what I’m doing.’ I think the nerds will take over again. After 9/11 people were saying, ‘We’ll never do another OJ type story.’ It’s only gotten worse.

It’s only gotten worse.

It’s comfort food. I know drug companies after 9/11. There was this unbelievable commercial for an anti-depressant that aired right after 9/11. It was just people talking in a camera and one woman said, ‘The images just keep repeating over and over in my mind.’ The drug company was completely exploiting 9/11. This country, you know, how everyone is like, ‘I’m proud…’ It used to be a great country. When your father came here, and my grandparents came here, and the Greeks before them, I’m sure there was something great about this country. It’s become so greedy now. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses. I have to buy this to keep up with them. Until this country realizes this and wakes up, it’s the fall of Rome. Thank you. (Laughs. Sips beer.) I’m so sorry. I apologize for going on. I’m not very good at interviews. I would rather talk about the demise of the world.

Every comedian I knew in college was the most judgmental…

They’re a weird breed. Comedians are sometimes a little bit passionate and self centered and out of their minds. Comedians can be hard to deal with.  

Do you still play the piano at shows?

If there’s one there. It’s become too much of a crutch…When you first start you don’t pick and choose [roles]. I picked Tru Calling because it was a drama and they were shooting in Vancouver. Now, I can say ‘No.’ I just said ‘No’ to the guy who did Sex and the City and now he’s doing a male Sex and the City. I read it and it’s just not me. It was Marty. I think they would all wear Banana Republic. I’m sure that they’re going to be those type of guys. If the script has the word ‘Dude’ in it, I stop reading it now, unlike Out Cold. Now, I can be a little pickier. Back then…My last job was as a bus boy when I was 26. You take roles, and then you have to figure out, I have to do stuff that makes me happy. Tru Calling was terrible. It was a lot of fun to do but it was made for 14 year old girls. I don’t have a TV—well, it doesn’t work. I’m never at home. I love watching football. I go to a sports bar and sit there in the corner and watch it. I don’t know any players names.

Are you a Carolina fan?

Panthers, God no. I went to a Panthers game once and it was so embarrassing to see the amount of rednecks in one area. Not all of the South are mouth breathing…there are a lot of great, smart people in the South except when you put them in a football stadium drunk it’s quite embarrassing. My friend called me and said, ‘At first, I was ashamed to be from North Carolina. Then, it was, I was ashamed to be from the South. And as I left, it was, I’m ashamed to be a human being.’ When I went to a Panthers game, I went with my father and some family friends. And this one guy, a family friend, was so drunk that he was talking about how he eats a girl out. I was in the car, and had to sit and listen to this with my father. He was talking about this in front of his father, me, my father and a couple of his friends. His two friends were laughing. I was so embarrassed. Do you like football?

Yeah, I like the Redskins.

Why?

I was a front runner when I was four. They won the Super Bowl in, like, 1984.

(Laughs) What’s their record this season?

1-2.

When I watch football, I don’t really have a team, so I want it to be close. If a team is up seven, I want the other team to score. Did you watch the Notre Dame game on Saturday?

Yeah, but I left at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

It was unbelievable.

I think college football is the best team sport.

I agree.

 

Questlove, Scott Storch and OJ

Outtake from "All Falls Down" (XXL, March 2010)

 

Questlove: "One time Scott took us out to dinner with OJ Simpson. That was really weird. We were working on The Tipping Point. We made a song that Freeway wound up taking and the song that wound up being “Lighter’s Up.” Tariq wanted to write to “Lighter’s Up” so while he was writing, he was like, 'Let’s get something to eat.'

Scott was like, 'I have to make a stop at a dinner party, birthday party.'

I was like, 'Cool.' We met up with Busta and he came along.

We get to this restaurant and it feels like the Bada Bing. It’s like this exclusive Italian restaurant in Miami. Frankie Avalon was playing in the background, and four tables were set up to look like the Last Supper. One of the nephews of one of the guys pointed at me and was like, 'Come here, you are a man of respect, you have to sit with the big dogs. I seen you on Chappelle.' No one else knows who I am.

I didn’t inspect every person there and there are like forty people there. I looked to my left and was like, ‘Holy shit, it’s OJ.’

I tell Scott, ‘You didn’t tell us we were going to dinner with OJ Simpson.’

He’s like, ‘There are surprises every day. I didn’t know. He’s just on the guest list.’

I’m like, 'How is this your life'.

He’s like, ‘Hey man, its been a long time since St. Albans Street’ in Philadelphia.'

Ten drinks later, OJ says to me and Busta, ‘Yeah, Bob Dylan wrote this song about this boxer named Hurricane Carter and how he wasn’t guilty. I want the rappers to make me one. That’s some bullshit.’ If he had two more drinks he would have almost confessed or something.

That was the most surreal night of my life. I was in awe of the situation. I think Scott was enjoying the fact that I was a fish out of water. OJ Simpson. [Laughs] 

The Five Footer

Spoke to Phife Dawg during the summer of 2005 for a Q-Tip feature in XXL magazine. The transcript of that interview is below.  

I don’t have much else to say except that A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite rap group of all time, and that’s been the case since 1991.

One more thing: All of my friends in sixth grade wanted to be either Michael Jordan or Q-Tip. For me, it was an easy decision: Mike could fly, but Q-Tip was best friends with Phife.

 

Phife Dawg

You and Tip go back to pre-K, right?

I’ve known dude since we were like two, three years old.

 

Was he different from other kids growing up?

I don’t think he was too much different than anyone else in grade school. He played baseball, football, basketball just like every other kid. I think the difference came in high school and going into adulthood. That’s when I saw the differences.

 

What were the differences?

He was never a follower. He always created his own lane no matter what whether it was his style of dress or the way he wore his hair. If everybody was wearing Timberlands, he would probably wear moccasins. If people were wearing jerseys, he would wear a dashiki. Lyrically, I think he is one of the best lyricists ever in the game. He’s definitely never followed one path to that. I think the title Abstract Poetic is perfect for him.

 

You’ve previously stated that Tip wrote your rhymes on the first album. What was the musical chemistry like once you started writing your rhymes?

As far as him writing my rhymes on the first album, that was because I was never at the studio. Also, I had a different outlook on how things should be, lyrically. Being that I was representing a group, I couldn’t say what I wanted to say all the times. He felt like he needed to structure it a certain way. It wasn’t like I couldn’t write my own rhymes. He chose to do that on the first album because he wanted TCQ to represent a certain way of life. Whereas, I’m in these streets so I’m real straight forward with what I got to say. I’ll go from A-B-C, Tip will go from A-Z and then to F just to get back to B. That’s why we call him the Abstract Poetic. If you compare Low End Theory to Peoples Instinctive Travels, you’ll see how straight forward the album is compared to People’s. People’s was over a lot of people’s heads. Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders were very straight forward—one reason was because I was in the studio handling my business. People thought I couldn’t write my rhymes. Nah it wasn’t like that. I was actually the first person rhyming in the group. However, Q-Tip went to school with the Jungle Brothers and Brother J from X-Clan and the JB’s uncle was Red Alert so it was about being at the right place at the right time. So by the time we got on, he obviously was the front man of the group. I really didn’t have a problem with that because I think Q-Tip is genius when it comes to this music shit. We set up off of each other because we were friends for so long. We always loved music. There was the block parties back in the day. WBLS used to play all the old school joints like the Ohio Players, The O’Jays. We knew everybody’s songs, word for word and he would know what I was thinking before I said it and vice versa. Ali was like the referee in all of that. There was never a problem bouncing off each other musically because we did that with jokes and doing everything else in life.

 

Beats, Rhymes & Life was a bit more somber than the first three albums. Why?

The chemistry was gone by then dog. We were having issues with the label. They were acting like we didn’t count. I felt like management at the time were into favoritism with one member, which wasn’t cool. Media might look at Q-Tip like the front man, and I didn’t have a problem with that as long as the rest of the group knew and appreciated what I brought to the table.

That is when the chemistry started really breaking down. Not to mention Q-Tip became Muslim right before Beats, Rhymes and Life came out. Now the media started to compare us and that really put a border between us. They tried to make me out to be the black sheep or the lost child. That was one of the reasons why the chemistry did break down. That was why it didn’t have that bright chemistry. I just felt like we really couldn’t work together anymore. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t just my fault. It was the label too. They would call him instead of calling me and Ali. We would have a show and the manager would call him and not call me and Ali. What if we want to do the show?

 

If the chemistry wasn’t there, why go ahead with The Love Movement?

That is one of the best questions anybody has ever asked me for the simple fact that I don’t know why we did it. Other than knowing that we owed Jive one more album. As you know, that was 1998 and now in 2005, we still owe them one more album. As you know, time heals all wounds—or at least I hope it does. If we ever get together and do this album, I hope we’re not doing it just to get off the label. If we do the album, the chemistry needs to be hot, which I think it will be because we have been doing shows and everything has been cool.

 

Was it tense making that album?

It definitely felt like a job. I really did not want to be there. I really didn’t want to be there during Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement. At the time, I felt like I had no reason to be there, which was probably idiotic of me. But that’s how I felt at the time. Living in Atlanta, I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to New York for because this album is pretty much being forced.’ But you live and you learn.

 

Did adding Consequence cause problems?

For me, it did to a certain extent and not because Consequence was there. Consequence was supposed to come out with his album. He was Tip’s artist but me and him were close. When Tip wasn’t there we would hang out and play basketball, play video games. That was my boy—still is. It wasn’t a beef between me and Consequence. The beef came because I felt, This guy is a new artist. Since we were doing a Tribe album, I had no problem with him being on three songs and getting his shine on so the rest of the world can scratch their heads and say he’s nice. But he was on six, seven songs. I know everybody was going to look at it like 'This ain’t no real Tribe album. Who’s that new kid.' I think Tip over did it by having him on all those songs. I thought about it and I could be wrong but I felt like that was his way of etching me out. We had a conversation about it and he said it wasn’t so but I don’t think you can blame me for seeing that way. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.

 

What started those Tribe Called Quest reunion rumors?

Phife started those rumors. When we first broke up, I didn’t think Tribe Called Quest would ever get back together to do shows, albums, anything. For one, I didn’t see myself wanting to do it, I can’t speak for the rest of them. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out because people would ask questions about us. If EPMD can get back and do an album then anything can happen.

 

Unlike EPMD, none of you guys ever robbed each other's home or whatever happened with them

Yeah, none of that. Their beef was incredible. That was my favorite group. Then after Jam Master Jay passed away I said to myself, ‘Damn we need to do this.’ Then out of nowhere I started the rumor, ‘Yo we’re getting back together.’ I felt like we needed to. We had to. Without JMJ there is no more Run DMC. What we have left is Tribe, De La as far as trios. I felt like people were asking for it, we need to give it to them. I felt like it was a must. So we started doing shows last August, our first show was in San Diego. We did at least 13, 14 shows and it was all love. Every show was a great reaction. The biggest reaction was surprisingly enough, Atlanta—Atlanta is real fickle. A club could be the jumping club for two months and that’s it. Atlanta is just funny like that. Our show was sold out. We decided to do the show last minute. The reaction we got for every song we did showed me that people want Tribe. I’ve heard people say, different CEO’s & managers say, ‘F Tribe, they’re not relevant to today’s crowd.’ And maybe we’re not but all we have to do is put out an album, whether it’s on Jive or independently and support it. If we do 30 shows in the US and 20 shows overseas, then we’d kill it. Atlanta showed me that. Hopefully it will get done but in the meantime I’m going to support Q-Tip.

 

On "Ghostwriting"

I don’t think you’ve ever called yourself the best. Wayne says “Best rapper alive” in almost every verse. Jay-Z has said it. Why don’t you do it?

I once said, “Niggas is this and that. I’m just the best.” But Pun told me to say that. He was like, ‘You got to say that. Fuck that.’ It was on Fat Joe’s record, “John Blaze.” Me and Pun were in the studio having a ball and I’m writing my rhyme and Pun leans over and says, “Just say, ‘Niggas is this and that. I’m just the best.’ Just say that.” He was not letting me go without saying that. 

When Shia LaBeouf Met Cage

One of my favorite interviews was a long sit-down with the rapper Cage for a feature in Spin magazine. A Spin feature was a big look for an indy artist and Cage was nervous beforehand. “I was stressed,” he said early on during our chat. “It’s like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ [My publicist] was like, ‘It’s just a day in your life.’ I go, ‘Well, normally, I wouldn’t have a writer hanging out with me so nix that.’ I even called Shia. He gave me some advice.”

Shia was the actor, occasional freestyle rapper, and possible performance artist Shia LaBeouf.

What did Shia say?

“Just be yourself — kind of. Know what you don’t want out there — kind of. Not really any good advice on how to deal with the situation though.”

At the time in spring 2009 Shia hoped to produce and star in a Cage biopic. It’s not currently listed on Shia’s IMDb page, and, if I’m guessing, I don’t think it’ll ever get made, which is a shame because in an industry filled with fucked-up origin stories, Cage might have the most fucked-up of all origin stories. That one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood was fixated on spending his industry capital on a grim saga about the guy who made “Agent Orange” was just amazing.

Below you’ll find excerpts from my interview with Cage about his friendship/partnership with Shia, followed by the entire transcript of my phone interview with Shia LaBeouf.

 

Cage Interview

TG: How did you guys meet?

Cage: When he got in contact with me, I didn’t know who he was. I read the e-mail and then threw it in the trash. I thought it was another film student. I got e-mails from a lot of NYU kids who were like, ‘I’m doing my thesis on you’ and I had gotten a lot of documentary requests, which I had no interest in doing. Later that night, I was hanging out with a bunch of people and we were talking about film school, editing and how I wished I went to film school. Then I go, I got this email from this kid and I went into my trash. Luckily, I hadn’t deleted my trash and I took it out and as soon as I read it, this girl flips out and talks about Even Steven and so we went on IMDb and I was like, ‘Yeah, Constantine, Holes.’ So we talked and his idea was that he wanted to make a movie about me. OK, whatever. ‘I want to make a documentary about you so I can pitch it.’ And so we talked and then we didn’t meet until San Francisco, which was the first time I ever sold a show out in my life. There was about 600 people there and he started shooting and followed me around a bunch of shows, which is interesting because he will never be able to do that again just walking through the crowd. I don’t know, that dude can sell you a pack of gum and get you excited about a pack of gum. He’s good at selling something and getting you excited. I never met anyone who had that much passion about something. I was just sold on that. I was sold on how amped he was to do it. I just kind of thought that he saw something that I didn’t so it was, ‘OK, cool.’ I remember going to the Guide to Recognizing Your Saints premiere in New York and Sting’s wife was one of the producers. It was my first premiere. Everyone talks, it’s fucking weird. He was there with his mom, his whole team, Team Shia. Sting’s wife gets up and starts talking and goes, ‘Can you believe it’s been five long years and our baby is done?’ Then the realization hit because we were in our first six months. It was like, ‘This is going to take a long fucking time.’ Originally, we had talked about making this cool art indie flick, rated R, this crazy movie. Next thing I know, he’s doing Disturbia and TransFormers. We had a deal on the table for $5 million. That was in the first year and a half, it was like, ‘Holy shit this was real.’ This completely celebratory mindset and we were amped. When he got Transformers, he goes, ‘Trust me, we are going to walk away from this.’ It was really, really hard to imagine it even happening and then you find out you got a deal, and it’s happening, and I’m going to pull away from this because I got big shit to do so just trust me. So I said, ‘OK.’ I trusted you this far along so I put it in his hands. Next thing, I know, he’s huge. Then there was, ‘This shit isn’t happening. It’s over.’ Not to mention, initially I wasn’t supposed to talk about it and he mentioned it in Vanity Fair. Then it was ‘Fuck, why did you say anything?’ Then it became, ‘When is the movie coming out?’ And that is all everyone wants to talk about. It’s like, ‘Look, it’s not happening.’ I got really tired talking about it. After I started working on the record, I tried to push it out of my head even though it’s impossible. We started working and talking about the project more and it wasn’t until Depart From Me that we sat down and started planning how we are going to do this and his involvement in my project how we can kind of create some sort of demand for it or hype for it. When he threw up CC’s on SNL both times and then the friendship developing which was the most unlikely. When I met him, I thought he was some charming 18-year-old kid. It was like, ‘The kid from Even Steven is playing Cage?’ Now, it’s like, I can totally see it.

He gave you the Hollywood sell-job?

I was expecting the whole Hollywood sale. I was expecting this Hollywood douche bag but I met this frighteningly down to Earth dude. I know people with a fraction of his fame that have egos. So that was a big part of it too. Talking and getting the calls at 3 a.m. and giving him carte blanche to ask me anything whenever. He calls at 3 in the morning because its LA and you don’t realize its another time zone in LA and I would get calls at 3 a.m. about really fucked up shit. Tell me about when your father held a shotgun to you when you were a baby. I would get up and leave the room and talk about my past, weird weird weird weird. Then I got to the point where I always had people in my life to talk to, people who could relate or had gone through something similar and could throw me a story that would throw me at ease. If you had an acid trip and had a bad trip and needed someone to talk you through it, who else but someone who has gone through it. Maybe the pain was still the same. This created a new problem for me, which was how do I not feed into this? How do I have this elephant in the room and pretend that it isn’t there? The same time wondering if it’s ever going to happen. I think around the same time I started feeling like it wasn’t happening that is when he stepped up with the whole new game plan. I think putting it out there publicly that we are working together pulls more attention to the story and there is tons of big talent that has expressed interest in being part [of it]. Even in the beginning there were the naysayers as well. People on his side were like, ‘What are you doing?’ When he put the documentary together it was easier because it was like, ‘I’m doing a movie on this guy.’ It’s almost like we’re writing the third act now, which is all strange. It’s really weird man. It’s definitely changed a lot of relationships that I’ve had. There were friendships, acquaintances that start to look at you different. I had girlfriends in the past that when you bring them around someone famous, they get a little star struck and they make you look foolish, like a fucking asshole.

Seeing Shia so juiced up about a project got me excited. It made me feel like there is some life left to live in this business. It also made me think of other things like writing being my first love and music my second love. There are so many different avenues you can go through writing. It made me open my eyes up and made me so much more conscious. I had to keep my side of the street clean because the last thing I wanted was someone on his team saying, ‘This guy is out of control you have to sever ties with this guy.’ What we were laughing about was that I was trying to keep my side of the street clean and this dude was getting arrested every month. Everything was pretty much miniscule except for the car crash. That dude is going through multiple hand surgeries.

 

Shia LaBeouf Interview

TG: Why are you now taking a more visible role in Cage’s career?

Shia: Chris called me up to ask if there were any cool music video directors to help him out. I didn’t know anybody. I asked my agent but I didn’t hear word back because I guess it wasn’t priority. I said, ‘What if I directed it?’ He was cool with it. It’s Chris’s concept. We just had to pick a good DP and a cool color palette. It was just all Chris. It wasn’t really like I was director-guy. I’m not trying to shit on my efforts but it was all Chris.

What attracted you to his story?

I’m a fan of his music. His pain rings true as opposed to some conjured bullshit. It’s really visceral like listening to a documentary. His stories are fun to listen to. I like that sound. I also like a bunch of other sounds. I feel close to the story because of personal things in my life. I like movies that have similar themes. I just thought that the idea of the underdog cockroach who nobody had any business rooting for winning — that’s the best story ever told. My storylines are not that shitty overcome story but the person who had no business doing it [like] Raging Bull. Raging Bull doesn’t end on a high note. He was a winner for a while, he was champ for a while. That dude has no business being in that position yet you root for him. You have no reason to root for him, he’s a sick dude. You have empathy for him. You understand him. I think that Chris has similar Jake LaMotta themes in my mind. When I think about Chris, I also think about guys like Jake LaMotta. He makes me think about my own shit also. He makes me feel better about myself. It’s like a circus act, you can point at it. With all the teen angst I was going through at the time, that was the music I liked listening to.

Is there a certain Cage song that hits home?

A couple but for different reasons. I like certain verses, not sure about a specific song, it’s like asking ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ I like all of Hell’s Winter. I don’t get tired of them. I love the new album too. He’s really growing as an artist. I also have to say “Agent Orange.” Literally, if I never met the dude, it’s the song I would want to hear at a concert just because there is so much attached to it in my mind, just the whole fucking idea of him [writing] this at Burger King on a fucking napkin. It’s just really colorful for me. I really love that song.

I’m sure people on your team — manager, agent, publicist — are concerned that a Cage biography is not a commercial project.

Sure. That’s why I got no help when I asked for music video directors. They’ll probably read this and be like, ‘Shia, what the hell.’ I get it. Why would you put energy into something you’re not profiting from? I was like, ‘Lets go ask Spike Jonze.’ I had all these crazy ideas.

What was the response when you pitched this movie?

If that was the next thing on my plate, that movie would be in production. It’s not on my plate because we’re still in the midst of writing the script and finding the right people to get involved. There’s no rush on it. There’s no ending yet. It’s strange to be in the midst of the story line. The movie could have no music at all. It would be up until [Cage got involved with] music. The movie could end with him getting a job at Burger King like that’s the most triumphant thing to happen to him thus far. These small little successes. Fuck, it’s hard to walk in and be like, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’ At least it hasn’t been done before now. Things changed in my life and things are changing in his life. We are becoming different entities. It’s just different than it was when we first started up. When I first went on tour with him, Transformers hadn’t come out yet. Disturbia hadn’t come out yet. I was a TV actor, some of his friends knew me from Even Steven. We made a 30-minute pitch film, turned it in to Endeavor, they got excited and then nothing happened. There is no money. I’m talking to business people about why my favorite rapper deserves a movie on some kid/fan shit. I got this home video I made. But up until recently, only a couple of people in my immediate friends and family were gung ho about it. Now it’s becoming easier to digest, especially with this video. Before, people would ask me, ‘Can we look this guy up on the internet?’ and the videos I knew on the internet were nothing that would sell them on it. I couldn’t show that to financiers and be like, ‘Do you want to invest in this?’ It’s a long process to make a movie. It’s becoming more commercial. It’s becoming more of a viable concept and idea for people. The longer that I talk about it, the more the audience invests in it the more it becomes an actualized idea.

He seems anxious to get some deal done. Is it tough convincing him that the next offer isn’t actually the best offer?

Here’s the thing: It’s hard to say no to Oliver Stone. It’s hard to say no to Steven Spielberg. Those are geniuses. You can’t even think about it. There’s no question. Are you ridiculous? You’re 22 years old and this legend asks you to come and play ball. Are you fucking crazy? But when it comes to after that, the only project that I am personally invested in, emotionally, is this. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever tried to construct by myself, build piece by piece. To take something that I was passionate about since early childhood and try to make it something that appeals to a mass audience or a audience for a number of reasons. It’s just a passion project. Any actor or director that I ever had any respect for was always passionate about their projects. It’s sort of, I think, a requisite for being an artist. You have to find something. My life has been a crazy whirlwind. I’ve been riding a wave. It’s not like you pick and choose which movie you want to do when dudes like those guys call you. You do not question it because for a person like me who is a fucking rookie and still learning what I’m doing, you have to work with the best people alive. You do the right move at the right time and right now, I’m making a movie with Oliver Stone. I don’t know what I’m doing next. Who knows?

 

 

Johnny J

* A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of XXL magazine *

MOURN YOU ‘TIL I JOIN YOU

The troubled life and tragic death of 2Pac’s favorite producer, Johnny J

One night in June 2008, the rap producer Johnny J went on a double date at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard with his friend, the independent film producer Earnie Hooks. The table ordered a bottle of wine.  But Johnny, who had his troubles with alcohol, drank only a little more than a glass. “We didn’t even finish the whole bottle,” Hooks remembers. Johnny was in a good mood that night, and before departing, he left two glasses of wine on the table in memory of his friend Tupac Shakur. He then drove off in his Range Rover with his wife. 

Later that night, Johnny J was arrested for drunk driving, his third DUI, and pleaded no contest to the felony charge; California’s limit is 0.08, one of the nation’s lowest.

On October 3, 2008, with his release from prison only two months away, Johnny J died from injuries sustained after he fell at least 14 feet at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. The state’s coroner’s report ruled Johnny’s death a suicide, listing the official cause of death as “multiple blunt head and chest trauma. He left behind a wife, Capucine, and three children.

Johnny J was a pioneer of the West Coast sound, 2Pac’s favorite producer and the producer of Pac’s magnum opus, the four-million-selling 1996 double album All Eyez on Me. But his death went little noticed in the public sphere—and remains, for some, a source of mystery. His wife has said that in the moments before Johnny killed himself, he called her to tell her he was going to commit suicide. That isn’t sufficient for some of his older friends.

“Family members are asking me to do an investigation on his death because they don’t think it was a suicide,” says Jackson’s first manager, “Fila” Al Davis.

“I’m still convinced that it wasn’t a suicide,” adds the DJ and rapper King Scratch, a friend from high school. “It’s almost like a Tupac and Biggie type thing—no one knows.”

***

Born Johnny Lee Jackson Jr., Johnny J grew up on 103rd and Budlong in South Central, Los Angeles, the oldest of three children. His father, John Sr., was a mechanic by trade who worked for the naval shipyards and now works for the U.S. Defense Department; his mom Lidia taught at a bilingual school. Johnny was spoiled as a kid. His family bought him a drum machine, built a home studio, and even made a break-dancing floor out of tile for him to practice on. His first car was a yellow Camaro.

Johnny attended Washington Preparatory High School at a time when hip hop was exploding on the West Coast; artists such as Yo-Yo, WC and Sir Jinx of Da Lench Mob were schoolmates. His big break happened soon after graduation when he produced “Knockin’ Boots” for his friend from Washington Prep, a rapper named Candell “Candyman” Manson. The song went platinum and reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in summer 1990, pushing Candyman’s debut album, Ain’t No Shame in My Game, into gold status.

Such achievements proved tough to match. “After the success of Candyman, there were time periods where the music business was a roller-coaster ride,” Johnny said in a 2006 interview with Fatal Hussein on the hip-hop website pjbutta.com “I kinda survived through it and stayed true to the streets and kept doing demos…That kept me alive, kept me going.” In February 1994, he released a solo album, I Gotta Be Me, that tanked. A few months earlier, however, he’d met the man who would change his life.

In late 1993, Big Syke, a member of 2Pac’s group Thug Life introduced Johnny to ‘Pac. They quickly gelled, recording “Pour Out a Little Liquor,” for the Above the Rim soundtrack, and “Death Around the Corner,” which would appear on Me Against the World. The partnership was briefly derailed when Tupac was sent to prison in February 1995. But after his release in October 1995, the pair reunited at Can-Am Studios in L.A where they knocked out seven, sometimes eight tracks a day. “Tupac felt very secure with him in the studio,” says the producer Ronnie King, who played keyboards at those fabled sessions.

2Pac and Johnny J recorder more than a hundred songs together—11 of them, including “How Do U Want It” and “All About U” ended up on All Eyez on Me; the rest composed the bulk of 2Pac’s posthumous work. Tupac’s stepbrother, Mopreme Shakur, says the two bonded partly because both were workaholics. “Pac had a lot of energy, and so did Johnny,” he says. “’Pac loved it. Whatever Pac requested, Johnny could do. If ‘Pac said, ‘I want a slow, sad beat with strings, bass and guitar strings,’ Johnny could hook something up. It was a perfect fit.”

Not everything was so perfect, though. Just as Johnny was becoming one of the most successful producers in the music industry, his personal life began falling apart.

***

Around 1994, Johnny grew estranged from many of his close friends and family. Some blame his wife, Capucine Jackson, for creating the rift. “I think she didn’t want us around. Why? I don’t know,” says King Scratch. “He had all his numbers changed. All of his real homeboys and family, he kicked them to the curb.”

XXL spoke to Capucine Jackson during the summer of 2009. After a 30-minute conversation during which she asked most of the questions, she declined an interview. At the time, Jackson was rumored to be working on a book and documentary. Neither has materialized. Capucine, who recently launched a gospel singing career under the name Coppe Cantrell, did not respond to queries following our first conversation.  

Much of Johnny’s anger, at least toward his family, was rooted in the discovery that he was adopted. Throughout his life, rumors had swirled because of his skin complexion: He didn’t look like either of his adoptive parents, who are African-American and Mexican, respectively. When Johnny finally learned the truth, from a male cousin, he was irate. Johnny was in his mid-20s. The Jacksons never planned on telling him.

“No one knew,” says his sister Nickie Jackson. “It was mainly because of the situation with his [adoptive] parents, and my father didn’t want Johnny to be hurt.”

Born in Juarez, Mexico, Johnny was adopted by the Jackson family when he was one week old. He once told his former publicist Phyllis Pollack that he was sold for $40. But there were even more difficult circumstances surrounding his adoption. “This came out of Johnny’s [adoptive] mother’s mouth,” says Fila Al, “his sister, brother, father, they were like, ‘Let me tell you what the real deal is.’ They said, ‘Johnny’s mother and father, they were brother and sister over in Mexico.’ So the Jacksons cared enough to take him from that situation.” In 2009, XXL independently confirmed this with a family member. But in June 2011, Nickie denied it. “I don’t think so,” she said after a short pause. “I heard that too. When Johnny passed, that question was asked, and my mom said, ‘No, they were not brother and sister.’”

Nickie said she would double-check with their mother, Lidia. She called back the next day. “I spoke to my mom, and she said that they were not brother and sister,” she said. “His father was also his uncle. It was [his birth mother’s] sister’s husband. It was a brother-in-law.”

After the revelation, Johnny’s relationship with his adoptive family worsened. He would still drop by the house, but sometimes he’d leave curse-filled messages on their voice mail. At other times, he just ignored them. “I saw him once and was like, ‘Hey Johnny,’” says his cousin Kimberly Davidson. “He was like, ‘Who are you? Do I know you?’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He totally erased us out of his mind.”

Earnie Hooks adds: “Johnny always said that if anything ever happened to him, not to invite [his family] to the funeral.”

Johnny was also upset over his career. Obviously, Tupac’s death, in 1996, was a terrible blow. And in the years following, the rap legend’s aura cast a long shadow over Johnny’s work—in terms of both individuation and expectations. “It felt like I was standing next to ‘Pac when I was in the room with Johnny,” says Inglewood rapper Shade Sheist. “When I was in there with him, I felt I was 2Pac and that it would be a smash hit just because it was Johnny J on production.”

Johnny founded his own label, Klock Work Entertainment, in 1997. But by the end of the decade, the West Coast’s influence had faded and Jackson’s sample-heavy, post-G-funk sound was dated. “We were trying to bridge a little of the West Coast production with the down-South style, but it didn’t take off,” says Ronnie King. “I think Johnny had a sound that he loved. He wanted to keep the integrity of that sound alive. I think he did it a lot for ‘Pac.”

Johnny did production work for Tatyana Ali and Lil’ Eazy E, but both of their albums were eventually shelved. In early 2007, he formed Streetlife/Klock Work Records with Pablito Vasquez and former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. Once that situation imploded, Johnny grew withdrawn. “He felt like a lot of people took advantage of his generosity and coolness,” says his longtime engineer Ian Boxill. “He didn’t know who to trust.”

***

In prison, Johnny was housed in the Trustee Dorm with approximately 80 other inmates and worked in the laundry room. There were certain codes he had to follow, such as not using the upstairs toilet because it was for Mexican-mafia-affiliated gang members—the notorious racial tension in Los Angeles between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans is exacerbated in prison. “Dee,” a man who claims to have been in the Trustee Dorm, says that, while Johnny avoided problems with gangs, he was depressed. “He would lay in bed and zone out,” Dee says. “I was like, ‘Let’s play cards, let’s hang out, eat something.’ But he was stressing.” Johnny still communicated with the outside world, even calling his engineer Ian Boxill on September 13, the anniversary of Pac’s death.


According to the coroner’s report, Johnny was the only inmate working on the second tier on the afternoon of October 3, 2008. He asked a supervisor for permission to make a phone call from a prisoner personnel office. This is reportedly when Johnny called Capucine and told her he was going to kill himself. She called the prison to warn someone, she says. After Johnny hung up, two custody assistants witnessed him leave the office, walk to the balcony, climb the metal rails and jump.

The coroner’s report stated that there was no indication of foul play. Still, speculation ran rampant. The most popular theory was that the was murdered by Mexican gang members. “My opinion is that he was murdered because he was Mexican and was around Blacks all his life,” says an old friend, Scotty D. “In county jail, you have to choose. You can’t just roll with the brothers if you are Mexican.”

Dee, from Trustee Dorm, says Johnny wasn’t murdered. “Hell, no,” he says. “He committed suicide.” Further complicating matters, the Jackson family was initially told that Johnny hung himself.

Johnny’s funeral was another ordeal. A shouting match ensued between the Jackson family and Capucine Jackson’s family after a member of her family called Jackson an orphan. The feud even carried over into the comments section of a Johnny J post made on the hip-hop blog Cocaine Blunts.

Johnny’s family has yet to recover. Nickie cries when she talks about him. “It’s just so hard,” she says. “People that weren’t in our family didn’t know him the way we knew him. We shared a bedroom together—me, him and my little brother. I never had anyone close to me die. It’s so hard to get over it. It’s been almost three years, and I still can’t get over it. It never stopped my parents’ love for him. I had to be the one who called my parents and tell them that Johnny was dead. We didn’t care that he was adopted. It hurts so much to know that he’s not here.”

 

 

 

 

Hardbody Harrison

The first professional wrestling feature I ever wrote was about a guy who hardly ever won a match. A jobber in World Championship Wrestling, Harrison Norris (p/k/a Hardbody Harrison) never held a major title or wrested on pay per view. His claim to fame (if you can call it that) was when Kevin Sullivan threw him into a swimming pool on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. 

During the summer of 2005, soon after I quit The Source to freelance full-time, I saw that Harrison was arrested for sex trafficking and peonage. I knew it could be a crazy story. At the time I was writing mostly about rap for rap magazines, but was desperate to get into sports and true crime. Hardbody Harrison, I thought, could be my big break. Then GQ declined the pitch, and so did Rolling Stone. I tabled the story for a few years. 

When I was hired as senior editor at KING magazine in January 2007, Hardbody Harrison was one of the first stories I pitched the editor in chief. He immediately approved the story. I visited Atlanta for the trial in November 2007, and returned the following spring to read court transcripts and visit Harrison’s wife. (It’s funny how media has changed—budget was no issue.) She declined to speak on the record, but showed me the barn where Harrison trained his female wrestlers, which turned out to be vital for the story. 

Please read my article on Hardbody Harrison, perhaps the baddest bad guy in the history of professional wrestling.

 

* A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of KING Magazine *

 

HARD TIMES 

Former wrestler Hardbody Harrison promised damaged women riches and stardom if they worked hard in the squared circle. All he asked in return was sex and prostitution

 

As his black 2002 GMC Denali SUV – the one with the “HARDBDY” vanity plate – was being searched, Hardbody Harrison decided to break the tension with a joke. “It isn’t illegal to possess any of that stuff,” he said to the police officers. He was referring to the open suitcase in the trunk, which contained a 12-inch double-sided dildo, a leather strap-on, a black and gold strap-on, two battery-operated dildos, ladies undergarments, lubricant, a bag of flavored condoms, four white letter envelopes with money, three spiral notebooks logging transactions, and a pair of fur-lined handcuffs. The burly 5-foot-9 man with the goatee and blond cornrows then delivered the punch line. “I can’t get in trouble for [that] unless my wife found out.”

Had there not been an unrelated disturbance earlier that evening at Citi Trends Fashion – basically a low-rent TJ Maxx – Hardbody’s pleasure chest might have remained unlocked. But on August 18, 2004, in Smyrna, Georgia’s Belmont Hills Shopping Center, his operation started unfolding. When police arrived on the scene, a woman ran out of Citi Trends toward them screaming that she was being held against her will. Jessica Hamrick, one of Hardbody’s “team leaders,” grabbed her wrist and pulled her away.

“When we walked in the store, [Hardbody] was paying for all their clothes,” says Lt. Keith Zganz, formerly of the Smyrna Police Department. “We knew something was up. This wasn’t big brother going out to buy clothes for little sister or anything. It appeared there was something not quite right about what was going on in there.”

The seven women accompanying Norris — dressed seductively, but with ranking military insignia pinned to their dresses — gave rehearsed identical statements. Later, however, their stories would change. “We separated him from the women so that we could get honest testimony from them,” says Sergeant Robert Harvey. “You could tell these ladies were absolutely scared to death of him.”

Norris was arrested on three counts of false imprisonment, and throughout the detainment, he was defiant. He had $800 in 10’s, 5’s and singles inside his pockets and fanny pack, and bragged that he would be out of jail in no time, which turned out to be true. He was freed on $55,000 bond the next day. But following this ridiculous scene—a harem, a professional wrestler, and a pile of dildos—things went south for Hardbody. “I didn’t hear anything from the FBI until a couple of days later when they decided to go federal with it,” Sgt. Harvey says. “Then, they spun a story that was hard to believe. But it was all true.”

***

The scheme was diabolical. Hardbody approached women, most of them poor, often homeless and addicted to drugs. He’d then promise them fame and fortune in the world of professional wrestling. He would feed them, clothe them, house them, pay for their nails and makeup, even post their bond should it come to that, and, during the day, train them in the private gymnasium – a barn, really – built behind his Cartersville, Georgia home.

Nights were a different story. That’s when Norris and his dolled-up “soldiers” made the 45-minute drive southeast to Atlanta and hit what were called, “Mexican clubs.” At these skuzzy dives, the women danced with patrons for $5 and did a whole lot more for up to $200. Of course, Hardbody, or HB as he liked to be called, took a cut.

Day and night, their movements were limited, and “team leaders,” prostitutes who kept tabs on the new girls, always escorted them. Even the bathroom had a sign-in sheet. “It was like a movie,” said an observer of Norris’ federal trial.

Harrison Norris Jr. is a 42 year-old former platoon and motor sergeant in the United States Army. He enlisted after graduating from Catholic High School in Pensacola, Florida, saw action in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and received an honorable discharge in 1995. At which point Hardbody, so named for his impressive physique, immediately tried out for the National Football League. He didn’t make the cut, but found success as a Toughman competitor. He nicknamed his fists, “The Pork Chop” and “The Biscuit Cutter.”

Norris also pursued professional wrestling with World Championship Wrestling, the Time Warner-owned promotion that eventually folded in March 2001. At some point, he accumulated what looked like an entourage—groupies, basically. “I told him, ‘What are you doing? Pimping?’” says Jody Hamilton, owner of the now-defunct WCW Power Plant training facility. “He looked at me kind of funny and said, ‘Oh, I would never do anything like that.’”

He passed the grueling tryout at the WCW Power Plant and was renowned for his almost superhuman cardiovascular capacity. He also became a mentor of sorts to younger wrestlers. “I owe that guy a lot,” says C.W. Anderson. “He taught me about actual in-ring work, how to sell [getting hit] and how to get into better shape.”

Still, it didn’t lead to much exposure on the flagship program, WCW Monday Nitro. Loudmouthed and opinionated, Hardbody often clashed with his peers and superiors. “His mouth got him in trouble all the time,” says Allen Funk, who wrestled as “Kwee Wee” in WCW in the late 1990s with Hardbody. “He was an awesome worker and always made [his opponent] look good, but he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.” His silly ring outfit (one-legged tights), early 90’s look (a flat top fade with his name and a self-portrait shaved into the back) and inability to improvise in the ring, didn’t help, and Hardbody Harrison never elevated above being a “jobber,” the guy squashed by the superstars.

But his reputation backstage hinted at a more sinister side hustle – a domineering, compulsive agitator with a violent temper and warped sense of right and wrong. “This was a guy who was prone to committing professional suicide on a daily basis,” says Lash LeRoux. In pro wrestling, there’s a term called “heat,” which is the ability to make people hate you. “Hardbody was known for being a ‘heat seeker.’ Any situation you threw him in, he could find some way to turn it negative.” The most infamous of which happened in early 1998, when Jeh Jeh Pruitt, a young reporter for the Fox affiliate in Birmingham visited the Power Plant to tape a segment. During a sparring session, Hardbody clotheslined Pruitt in the face breaking his nose in two places. “The last thing I remember [Hardbody] saying, after I’ve turned over and there is blood all over the place is, ‘You’re getting blood all over the mat. Get up and go to the bathroom,’” says Pruitt, who says he now suffers from sleep apnea and had a second surgery on the nose in October 2007. “I don’t think he felt bad about it.”

Needless to say, Norris’ contract was not renewed. And in February 2000, he, along with two other wrestlers, sued WCW for racial discrimination. It was widely considered a reach since the company was in absolute disarray when the suit was filed. “There were tons of [wrestlers] who were used very poorly,” says Bryan Alvarez, editor of the wrestling website Figure Four Weekly. “I watched every single [WCW] show and would sit there and go, ‘Why aren’t they using this person better.’ Never thought that about Hardbody.” Eventually, almost a dozen wrestlers joined the case and WCW settled out of court. Norris reportedly received over a million dollars.

Hardbody had other gigs after WCW. He was the Kimbo Slice-like breakout star on the FX network’s Toughman program, and was even interviewed by Sports Illustrated for their November 26, 2001 issue. He also got his independent promotion, StarSouth Champion Wrestling Alliance, running, and trained wrestlers, most of who were female.

***

Michelle Achuff, a 6-foot tall 20-year-old with olive skin corresponding to her Sicilian descent, was walking to her job at a Waffle House when Hardbody Harrison pulled over in a navy Cadillac asking if she needed a ride. He told her about SCWA, and they met the next night at a boxing show to discuss working together. He later showed Achuff videos from WCW and told her that since she was already bigger and taller than Chyna, the former WWE superstar, who in 2002 was considered the standard in the business, she could be a top female wrestler. It was a hell of a sales pitch, but there was a catch.

“He said, ‘If you want to come and train, you have to stay here and work for me as an escort to make money because you can’t have a real job,’” she says. “Being, young and stupid, I said, ‘O.K. No problem.’” Achuff then entered a cult-like atmosphere, in which Hardbody, “The General,” led these women by intimidation and mind control. Tactics included encouraging teamwork, setting goals—“Everyone felt great because we were losing weight, looking good and fitting into smaller clothes,” Achuff remembers—while also reminding them of their destitute past. (At Norris’ sentencing, U.S. District Judge Jack Camp told him, “Quite frankly, you seem to have a better understanding of psychology than most psychologists I’ve known.”)

“He had a God complex,” Achuff says, who had soon become one of Norris’ “team leaders.” “I came to love him. Other girls came to love him. A couple of them were off the street and grateful to him for taking them off drugs. Every time a new girl came in, he was like, ‘I’m going to make you love me.’ And he would, in his own way.”

Hardbody’s way was brutal. Women were initiated into the troop with forced orgies called “cut parties.” Hardbody took them seriously, often meticulously choreographing the action like a porn director, and turned vicious when someone refused orders—one woman was sexually assaulted with dildos after rebuffing Hardbody. They also performed manual labor on the property such as laying sod, hauling trees and having sex with Hardbody in his room, “The General’s Quarters.” He called that “HB Training.”

Wrestling training, however, ate up most of the day. The women jumped rope and did sit-ups, diamond push-ups, squats, mountain climbers and jumping jacks. They also learned basic wrestling moves such as back bumps, forward rolls and running the ropes, which with repetition became painful. “Some girls said they didn’t want to do it. Then Hardbody would say, ‘Get up there and do it.’ And they did it,” remembers Shannon Dumas, a wrestler who helped train the women. “Hardbody would say ‘Jump’ and they would say, ‘How high?’”

During that time, Norris had no traceable income and claimed to be living off the settlement money. He didn’t file tax returns for 2002 and 2003. It was later revealed that SCWA was not registered with the state of Georgia and never turned a profit. Still, the independent wrestling organization put on events featuring a semi-respectable roster of former WWE and WCW stars. “He was a promoter and a good one,” says Frank Aldridge, owner of WWA4 Pro Wrestling School in Atlanta. “He was a very pushy guy…like a New York City stockbroker. You could lose your ass with them, but still, [he] had the balls to call you up and talk you into the next deal. He could talk you into stuff. He had an inner power and I think it frightened people, though it shouldn’t have.” 

One show in Florida was particularly memorable. Upon arriving at the hotel, Hardbody announced that there were two rooms for the male wrestlers. Their wives and the female wrestlers would sleep in his king size bed. Some refused, others didn’t. “Some of the wives left their husbands for him,” says Debra Dumas, whose then fiancé, Shannon, appeared on the card.

“We were doing promotion at this bar in Florida, and this wrestler got a call from his wife,” Shannon Dumas remembers. “She told him that she was breaking up with him and working for Hardbody. What it meant was that she was being a prostitute.”

That woman eventually left Hardbody, while others pulled daring escapes. One woman ran into a friend’s car during a trip to Wal-Mart. And in the early morning hours of August 2, 2005, another woman cut through the window of Norris’ bathroom. Three weeks later, the FBI raided the house.

***

It didn’t take a federal investigation to start rumors about Hardbody Harrison. “While I was in WCW, all the talk going around was that he was involved with stuff like this,” says C.W. Anderson. “We were told, ‘If you need anything, go to Hardbody.’” It was a flaunted lifestyle. He and his flock of women were spotted at a lawyer’s office, a Bartow County council meeting and at a funeral.

Norris was first arrested, for pimping, in Fulton County in 2001 so it wasn’t surprising that he continued recruiting women after the 2004 arrest in Smyrna. “He was so prideful and arrogant that it wouldn’t allow him to stop,” says Sgt. Harvey. “The Feds were watching him and it literally kept going on and on.” It was a shock, however, when Norris acted as his own attorney at his trial in November 2007. (Two people interviewed for this story cracked the same joke: “He had a fool for a client.”)

On Wednesday, November 14, Norris entered the courtroom accompanied by his standby council. With his straggly, bushy beard, Hardbody resembled Tom Hanks in Castaway. The outline of his huge triceps muscle was visible through his orange prison jumpsuit. There was a rolling clothing rack near the prosecution holding a black leather jacket, red negligees, red and black leather mini skirts, and a pair of thigh high black boots with 5-inch heels.

Watching Hardbody cross-examine his victims was disturbing, as he remained a heat seeker during the proceedings. “How many sexual encounters have you had?”

“None of your damn business,” snapped the woman with the neck tattoo. 

The day ended with one of Hardbody’s witnesses, Robert Sean Terry, an SCWA wrestler known as Robbie Russo, on the witness stand. He was asked about the suitcase in the Denali. “No, I’ve never seen that in the wrestling ring,” he said, while holding up a still-packaged dildo.

On November 21, the day before Thanksgiving, Harrison Norris Jr. was convicted on 24 counts, including forced labor, sexual trafficking, peonage (essentially debt bondage), aggravated sexual assault, witness tampering and obstruction. His co-conspirators, Aimee Allen, the highest-ranking team leader, and Cedric Jackson, a pimp nicknamed “Detroit,” pleaded out and received 34 months and 5 years, respectively. Norris was prosecuted under the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 and sentenced to life in prison.

Norris plans to appeal the case. Among his complaints are that he was not granted a speedy trial or supplied with the witnesses’ criminal history.

So far, life in prison seems to be taking its toll. “They deny me a lot of my rights,” Hardbody writes me in a letter. He tells of having gained 12 lbs. and keeping busy by pumping out 800 push-ups daily. He would not, however, consent to an interview. “It’s business,” he wrote in a follow-up letter. “Would you give up free information before you feed your family?” Hardbody claims that he has several serious offers from production and publishing companies to sell his story and that SCWA is negotiating with a local television network.

In the two letters, Norris exhibits either the mind of a shrewd self-promoting businessman or a desperate convict suffering from severe delusions of grandeur: He compares himself to Jesus and says that his story can “change history as we know it.”

***

On Highway 411, about two miles down the road from Hardbody Harrison’s Cartersville home where his wife lives with one of his three children, there’s a Huddle House, a 24-hour chain-style diner. It’s the type of place where a notice in the window reads, “Bring in your church bulletin and receive 10% of your meal.”  “KKK” is scratched into the tiles above a urinal in the men’s room.

I meet Hardbody’s wife, Audrey, a pale middle-aged woman, in her driveway. We had chatted briefly at the trial and she seems like a quiet woman, exhausted from this ordeal. She had told authorities that she knew of Hardbody’s 2001 and 2004 arrests, saw no signs of abuse or prostitution, and was not aware if he had sex with the other women. Like her husband, Ms. Norris declined to be interviewed, citing the pending deals.

But she takes me back behind the home, to the barn where the girls trained. It’s dusty and dark inside since the electricity has been turned off.  The walls are covered with Hardbody’s newspaper clippings and photos of the women wrestling. There’s a lone jump rope on the floor, neglected exercise equipment everywhere and, of course, the wrestling ring in the center. An American flag is posted on the door. Next to it is a sign: “Caution: Beatings Occur Around the Clock.”

 

 

That Time I Asked Maya Angelou About 2Pac

From my oral history of 2Pac’s acting career (Vibe Magazine, October/November 2011) 

 

What do you remember about 2Pac during Poetic Justice?  

I listened to him. I heard him cursing and using such vulgarity. I passed by and he saw me and he didn’t stop, which was unusual. Usually, young men and women, white and black and others, when I pass by, they kind of pull their voices in and hold up for a little while. He didn’t. Then the next day he didn’t. Then the following day, he was in a big row with another young man about his age. All the extras began to run. I think they were afraid of the possibility of a random shooting. I went up to one of them and told him, I want to speak to you, please. He calmed down enough for me to ask him, “Do you know how important you are? When was the last time anybody told you or reminded you that our people stood on auction blocks so that you could live today? Somebody in your background decided they would stay alive despite this. They laid in the filthy hatches of slave ships to stay alive so that they would have some descendants. And here you are. You’re more valuable than you can imagine.” I talked to him and he calmed down. Later, when he wept and I wiped his face with my hands because I didn’t have a napkin or handkerchief. Then we turned back to our location. I went to my trailer and Janet Jackson came and said, “Dr. Angelou, I can’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur.” I said, “Who is that?” I didn’t know six pack or eight pack or ten pack. I didn’t know. In my age group and my interests at the time, I’d never encountered the name. After I did so, I began to look into what he was doing and I think that because a number of people thought that in order to be funny and relevant and to be listened to, you had to use profanity. The meaning of his poetry is really revolutionary and once I listened to that, it made me have a different look at his work—even after that experience in the park in Los Angeles, to look at that differently. I later met his mother and she thanked me and said, “You may have saved my son’s life that day. Thank you.” She said that he called her and told her everything I had said to him.

Did you ever talk to him again?
No, I did listen to his recordings. I saw what he was about. The rebel with the cause can hide behind all sorts of disguises. But Tupac Shakur was a rebel with a cause. He was a revolutionary. 

"Who Am I to Judge? I'm Just Flex"

Who did you interview? Funkmaster Flex

When did it take place? Over three days in March 2006

Where did the story run? Nowhere. Planned as a profile for Vibe’s September issue, the story got killed after a new EIC took over the magazine.

Why are you publishing this now? Profiles of Hot 97 personalities are popular these days. I want in on that.

Money Quote? “I’ve never said this: I like the car business better than I like the music business.”

Anything Else? “You ever hear a person say they want to live forever? Over the last couple of years, I realized that I don’t want to live forever because the best part of my life with music has passed me and that day will never come again.”

 

 

Do you like Marbury?

I think Stephon is talented. The only thing I give Stephon in defense is that he’s never had the right coach.

 

He’s been in the league for ten years. Not one coach?

They’ve never understood him. Even with Larry Brown, those aren’t really his players if he wants to get it popping. I went to Pace University. I was always in honors and high honors. I was always an honors student. My girlfriend at the time was high honors so I was trying to compete. I went to Pace University and majored in Sociology because I wanted to be a social worker. I thought I would be able to talk to people but I’ve learned it isn’t as easy as I thought it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but going to college was definitely what helped me get into the music business or just doing music. It also helped me understand that it’s a business. While other rappers or DJ’s are smoking weed all night or drinking, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that for them, but to do business, you can’t get up and conduct business as effectively as someone who is not smoking weed and has a college education. If you mix college education with a little bit of street smarts, it goes a lot a long way. Who’s the guy with the television show?

 

The guy with the television show? That narrows it down.

Donald Trump is a smart person with street smarts. Puffy, Master P, smart guys. It’s a combo. You have to know when someone is bullshitting you too, and school doesn’t teach you that.

 

What made you not want to be a social worker?

I was still going to school for it but I got a job carrying records for a guy named Chuck Chillout. I was carrying records for him. I worked at Kiss FM, I worked at WBLS first. When I worked at BLS, I gave up school and felt like I was going to pursue the radio thing. By pursuing that, I kind of gave up on going to school. I also wanted to be a chef. When I went for social work at Pace, I stopped that for two years but before I started working on the radio, I went to New York Tech for culinary. I wanted to go to the Culinary Institute in Westchester. I wanted to own a restaurant. I was fascinated with being an apprentice and learning from some of the best chefs. To me, the cooking business is a combination of education and street smarts because you can be the best cook in the world but how will you let people know where your restaurant is and what restaurant is about. That brings up marketing. There is not really a blueprint for having a hot restaurant it can break in different type of ways. That was what fascinated me too because I felt like if I could do the job, I could create the marketing. That’s something I always wanted to do, learn how to market. Kid Capri and Clark Kent were DJ’s I looked up to when I was coming through. Kid Capri had tapes and was selling his tapes at Brook Burger. In 1990, Clark Kent was the biggest club DJ and Kid Capri was the biggest mix tape DJ. He was a mix tape DJ but could really play the clubs. I paid attention to marketing from then and I knew that’s what I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like them. I never had a doubt in my mind that I would go further than they did, only because I think I had a different outlook of the game. I was doing something I loved but I saw a lot of DJ’s not take it into business. They didn’t have to. Some people just wanted to have fun and make a few dollars. Some people just want to have a three-year run where they are in the music business and then go back to a career. I’m 38 now. I feel like I was in my 20’s and didn’t think I had time that if I did this and if this didn’t go 100% I could do something else. That was always my drive like, ‘If I leave culinary, I got to make this work.’ I like doing it. I like DJing. I played a lot of clubs. In college, I played more house parties. In college, I figured I should get to the Black Student Union and do parties. I was always a good talker. I don’t have anyone that manages me or an agent, I do it myself. DJing was always important to me. I always wanted to be big. I always wanted people to just say, ‘Hey, there goes that guy. He’s a DJ.’ I knew radio was the key. I never had a doubt in my mind. I was always looking outside in. BLS already had Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, a host of big DJ's. Capri made his mark a little bit but when you think of the heritage of that station, you think of Mr. Magic and Marley Marl. Kiss Fm is Red Alert’s station no matter what. I knew that my career couldn’t be on either of those two stations. I had to be at another station. I had to have my own avenue. Hot 97 wasn’t looking for a hip-hop DJ. I was playing some nights. Kiss had Friday night and Hot had Saturday night at this club. I was playing on KISS FM night because that’s where I was working so I was filling in and doing stuff. Louie Vega quit on Saturday night and a few people I knew told me that they would call me about Saturday night. Hot 97 came down; they didn’t offer me a job but they wanted to see how I played. I made a tape, Stretch and Bobbito made a tape and Ed Lover and Dr. Dre made a tape and a guy named Eddie B. Slick made a tape. They gave me the job. I got hired there in 1992. It was still a house station. I used to play dance records in my mix. It was considered the Street Party or Street Jam but it was still played for their audience. They never gave me directions, but I figured out that I better include some of the regular stuff they played on the station. That was a great time in my life. Playing music and the first couple of years before the politics and the fake friends set in.

 

But judging from what you told me, you already knew it was the music business.

I think that at that point I didn’t understand…I was more trying to understand the DJ business. I think I didn’t get, I didn’t gravitate to understanding the whole pie. I definitely, I didn’t know it…When I saw Kid Capri on Def Jam Comedy Jam and I was going out of state and noticing that people were putting on the flyer, ‘Kid Capri from Def Comedy Jam’ and not from BLS, I realized I had to get on TV. Kid Capri had the blueprint. I don’t think Kid Capri planned the blueprint, I think the blueprint fell into what he was doing. Getting on TV…This is my body shop, we’re heading to. This is where I tape my ESPN show. I feel like even now, everyone wants to be on BET and MTV; you can’t only be on those networks. There’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do that. For me, I think I’ve just been down that road a lot. It’s a good road, but I’m onto something. MTV helped get into the Viacom system, which helped get me onto Spike TV. And even Spike TV, I love Spike TV but….

 

There hasn’t been that much written about you growing up.

People are always think that because of my success…Everyone has a little setbacks. But because of my success, people think that I’ve never made any mistakes. I was always a conscious young man, conscious bad scared. I never knew what I was going to be in life. My father worked for a film company called Movie Lab and my mother was the head nurse at a hospital. I grew up in the Northeast Bronx, where it was heavy West Indian. I’m born here but my parents are West Indian. The music was always around me. I think maybe now, I can remember things today because I cleaned out my basement in these last three weeks. There were so many key records I remember, and people I remember and people that passed away…I just got a letter today from a guy in jail that I remember his garage, I used to DJ in. He wasn’t asking for much, I guess his friend has a demo. But remembering that garage, I remember that point in my life where I really wanted to DJ. Back then, you just wanted to have a crew, and some hot MC’s. Back then, the Cold Crush Brothers were the ultimate of cool. They were so cool; it was almost corny for them to make records. And all their rhymes were about how fly they were. Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash, those guys weren’t cool. You didn’t want to dress like them or be like them. You wanted to dress like the Cold Crush. It was like an immediate understanding that… If you went to a battle or a show in the 80s and the Cold Crush Brothers were in the crowd and you saw a big group like Kurtis Blow or Flash shout them out like they were overseeing the party. ‘Shout to the Cold Crush Brothers.’ It immediately gives you perspective like, We’re successful, we made it with records but those are the real street dudes. Like Lord Finesse was for a long time. He didn’t get his reputations off none of those records. He didn’t battle you, Lord Finesse would get on if the mic was open and everybody else was freestyling and no one would get on after him. It was understood that no one would get on after Lord Finesse, until he used to say, ‘I’m going to bring my man, Big L.’ Then it was understood that he was passing the torch to Big L. I’ve lived through every era of hip hop. Rapper’s Delight, man. I grew up in a skating rink in the Bronx that I would give up my right arm to DJ in. I wasn’t allowed to go into the street so I would be DJing and mixing at my window and kids would…I had a big tree in front of my house and my dad made a brick stoop like you could hop on and sit on. All the kids in the neighborhood would sit there in front of my house. They would always talk about who was at the club last night or Flash. They didn’t want to rhyme and they didn’t want to DJ but they loved going to it. (He gets really quiet when he says something he thinks is important.) EMC bit JDL. ‘Ahh yeah.’ That was all JDL. I was listening to a song a week ago, ‘One two, one two and I say, Party people you’re dreams have now been fulfilled.’ It was an old Funky Four plus One record, and I didn’t consider it biting but for me to hear, it’s fascinating to listen to some of those records now. They were so natural. I learned recently that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were so big because they had the Casanovas, which were a gang, backing them. They were able to get all the clubs. That was the difference between Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, he had the muscle. It wasn’t that he looked for the muscle, the muscle looked for him. To me it was amazing because it was like crack on the block. Whoever has the most strength. Thirty years later, the difference between one DJ and the other was this. The Furious Five were muscular, when you were coming up you were scared of them. You felt like they could fight. I read a magazine and started asking questions and found out that those guys used to push them around. I heard that they would pull up in a U-Haul truck and roll up forty deep. There are no windows, no air in that bitch. To see it now, it’s incredible. I never knew why this guy and not the other. I never understood politics. Grandmaster Flash and Crash Crew had the same people. Theirs was called “Freedom.’ Crash Crew was like ‘We don’t want to be left behind/ We just want to blow your mind/ Just one more time.’ And that was the hot street record like ‘The Benjamin’s.’ But on the radio, you only heard the Grandmaster Flash version. You never heard the other version on the radio unless it was like the late night mix shows and those didn’t start until 84, so this is years after the song was in its prime. Sugar Hill Gang were in charge of the radio. They were paying Mr. Magic, I don’t care if you print it. I was like Wow. It was amazing for how things went. I loved DJing and mixing. I thought it was so cool to see the Kangol’s. I remember I started making tapes in high school, Our Savior Lutheran High School. I went to a Catholic High School before that. My parents were Catholic and I changed religions to Lutheran because of a girl friend in Junior High.

 

What? What did your parents say?

They weren’t mad at first. They were like, ‘Let him breath. Let’s see how he’s going to move.’ I never changed back but I started going to Catholic Church again. Her father was a pastor.

 

And that was the only way you could date her?

No but when they bring it up…She never pressured me but she was smart about it. They were along in helping me. I was an alter boy in high school. I thought it was cool to assist the pastor. Red Alert was…Zulus were very big in the DJ. Red Alert was like a master. It could be Jazzy Jay on the set and it would ‘Shout to Red Alert. Red Alert make your body work.’ He was a DJ but it was a cool saying, like ‘Yes, yes yall you don’t stop.’ This kid in high school asked me to make him a tape. And this guy was like the coolest kid in class and I was a fucking nerd. He had a bag of tapes and was going through it and he said, ‘Oh that’s Red Alert going berserk, you can have that.’ This is when he was once a month so people used to tape it. I started looking for it. I couldn’t break dance. I wanted to be hip hop. I didn’t know what was going to further, how I was going to make it.

 

Did you try to rap?

I tried to write but I wasn’t clever enough. I didn’t have enough life experiences because I was inside too much. As a kid, I didn’t see. My knowledge of music was a car going by, I was usually at my window. That’s why kids started coming by because I was cutting by my window.

 

How did you get your first records and tables?
I used to get $4 a day lunch money so if I saved my lunch money Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I could go buy two songs. This is like 10th grade.

 

You grew up working class, middle class?

Depends what you consider it. My dad probably made $40,000 and my mom made $70000. They were always striving for more. They were right. There was key things in my life that would have never made my career pop. My parents got divorced when I was in 11th grade. Imagine from 9th-11th grade I was always practicing DJing and now I’m in the 12th grade, live with my mom and allowed to stay out late. I was trying to gravitate to DJs and MCs. You only had one shot to DJ. Oh, you DJ? Go ahead, get on. I never considered myself nice. It was all about how fly you could cut the beat while the guy was rapping. Because I came from another neighborhood, my style of cutting was different, so I was a mixture of old school and new school. I was first with the West Indian part of town and now I was with American kids. I had a collection of records from my mom. I was always…Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, their DJ was called Scratch on Galaxy. I don’t know if I learned about marketing or I understand it. Jam Master Jay, when he first came through people thought he was wack because he wasn’t fast and wasn’t sharp. He was coming out of an era that was about flash and skills and fast and clean. Jam Master Jay and Flash were once at an equal level when they walked in a club and it was ‘Ahh.’ Flash came from the speed and Jam Master was I got hot records and a big MC. I always loved him because he always had hard records. There was niggas that was nice but would have pretty boy scratches. Flash was pretty and hard, while Jam Master was just hard so he got more attention. He was the rubbing the right…You ever heard, ‘Here we go, here we go…’ There’s a point where he lets it go, ‘I’ve got the big D’s’ and it was like and there was a rule not come on when your MC was rhyming. I knew DJ’s where the needle would jump and they would still catch before it. I know the rhyme because I remember the tape, he goes, ‘To me, wack DJ’s are a thing of the past, the past, the past.’ It was understood that when the needle jumped, the MC had to jump on wherever it came and the DJ would get in on the one. You would be fucked up for a half a bar but you would then bring it back. Jam Master would cut these big beats with long breaks and other DJ’s were like, ‘Ugh.’ But he had the beard, the hat, the coolness, the elbow, he had all the marketing. It wasn’t really about the MC’s being big. Grandmaster D who DJed for Whodini, they were just as super huge at one time as Run DMC but he didn’t get that look because he didn’t have that feel. Jam Master Jay wanted to be a DJ so he wanted to scratch hard on the record. That was the first time I realized that I was watching people who were complaining like, ‘Oh Flash wants to battle Jam Master Jay and…’ I was never a fast DJ, my speed came after I was blown. To really keep it real, I became faster and the guys who were faster than me fell off like Clark Kent, DJ Scratch. They were faster, spin it back. I know I’m talking a lot of DJ shit. There was a period when spinning it back was considered corny, it was called Needle Dropping so you had to needle drop and spin forward and catch it. That was considered corny. I always maintained two different eras. I always loved the Chuck Chillout, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore but I always paid attention to the Kid Capri, Clark Kent and DJ Scratch’s. I always knew that the Grand Master Flash way of doing things wouldn’t have sounded 100% good on the radio but if I could have a piece of that element and incorporate what’s in style then I would get a lot of attention. I didn’t come from a powerful part of the Bronx that was known for hip hop and Chuck Chillout had a great personality so my thing in the 90’s was that I could cut and play the right record. DJ’s who could cut usually liked to play what sounds good getting cut, not what the crowd wanted. Kid Capri and Clark Kent were good at that too.

 

Talk to me about when Hot 97 went all hip hop.

We were at a crossroads for like a year. I had big ratings on Friday but the dance DJ had big ratings on Saturday. A consultant came in and said, ‘You got to get rid of one.’ We did both live, he ended up getting good money and going to KTU. I ended  up getting Saturday nights. I was doing Friday nights from 12-2. They gave me a slot that was guaranteed to lose. The program director didn’t want me to win. The GM was on his back to get hip hop on the station and he put in a place where he thought I would lose, 12-2. It was a slot that had techno, house, and any garbage show that was ever on. This guy was the Godfather, the big boss. He wasn’t sour when he got fired though, he was a man about it. I used to work at KISS when it was the big station, the number 1 station. People were calling me ‘nigger’ when they were calling me up and not playing their records. I always made it a history lesson, like alright we’re going to the clubs. My name Funkmaster Flex came because I liked Grandmaster Flash…On Hot 97, EPMD, Das EFX and everyone was visually an image. OK, Madonna was a Z100 Artist. What I had learned early, Das EFX and EPMD, I’m never going to own those artists because they’ve been on BLS and KISS for years. So I was big into new artists like Onyx, Jeru, Black Moon so that I could create the history. I could be like, ‘I saw them last night,’ or ‘Premier gave me this.’ Did you listen to Stretch and Bobbito on KCR?


Yeah.

If that station would have went along to what that show was and played those records during the day, that would have been a huge station. It would have burned out faster but it would have been a hit movement. If you take with what’s working in a two hour slot…This is the only difference between me and Stretch, my radio station – and I know his was a college station and couldn’t do it –  supported my movement and started taking the records from my show and started putting them on during the day. Red Alert was breaking a ton of records but KISS wasn’t playing them during the day. They weren’t getting the life that they should get. That was so strange to me, that the radio station was supporting what was going on at night.

 

It was really just right place, right time?

It was totally right place, right time. I’ll never say it was about I was the man in the clubs and when it was time to reach out… The clubs was packed because of the music. To listen to the hot shit getting thrown on. There were DJ’s that were still stuck on the Das EFX’s. I knew I couldn’t be the undisputed king until I had my own club. I was the man on the radio but until I get in those trenches and get in there every week…Kids saw me on TV, but I needed the Tunnel. Hot 97 was louder than KISS FM. So if you would punch in on your dial and Flex is on and it’s louder, you think he’s fucking bigger but it’s not, its smoke and mirrors. I always knew why I had these advantages. I was on a station that was 60% white, 20% Spanish and 20% Black and that’s why I never wanted to work for KISS and BLS because I wanted a diverse audience. I always wanted that.

 

I listened to your show on Friday nights, but the first time I heard about you was when Rosie Perez name dropped you on the Letterman Show. That was like fall 93, right after he moved there from NBC. I was watching that episode.

That was big for me. She said, ‘I go to the Palladium on Funkmaster Flex night.’ She was just shouting me out. I was still very underground then so she was fighting to stay street. We never had dialogue. We’ve walked past each other in clubs. She didn’t know me so I knew what she was doing. She was trying to look street. Letterman saying that was…I got to meet him. They get pissed because of how often I played. I got Howard too saying, ‘I listen to Funkmaster Flex every night when I have sex.’ He shit on me a couple of times. I was the only dog in town. My skills didn’t come until…Right place, right time and then picking the right records was good but the Tunnel solidified me as a Hip Hop DJ. Playing four hours, flipping records, playing records at the right moment, setting the tone of the club. It proved that I had what it takes. There was fog, smoke, so much street slang. I wasn’t doing it for the money. 2000, I thought about it because I was getting older. Irv Gotti was once outside in the rain with Mic Geronimo pushing ‘The Shit is Real.’  He gave it to me, and I went upstairs, this is when I was on at 10 o’clock and I played it. I’m a beast when it comes to competition. A career I haven’t been able to understand was Ron G. What I call successful, is different from other people. What basketball was to me and you in high school, where we played once a week was what DJing was to them. I knew this DJ who used to DJ with these MCs in the Bronx, DJ Charlie Chan. He’s now working at Coke. Coke a Cola. He’s so past it. Pepsi is a company that spends money on anything and everything but Coke doesn’t need to spend money on hip hop, it’s their brand. For him to do the person to do that. I know another DJ that now owns a pharmacy.

 

How do you feel that these guys have moved on and you’re still doing it?

It was a great part of his life. When I was young, rolling skating was real big. There were certain type of moves, there were certain ways you dressed. That was my first thirst of attention. I wanted to be that guy. But there was one guy even cooler, the DJ. He was the fucking man. This is like 79, 80. I went to a roller rink twice a week and this was a step up. I think that hip hop and we call it hip hop but things change. There is no Stretch and Bobbito. There is no show like Stretch and Bobbito anymore. I remember Tribe Called Quest going up there and freestyling, ahh man.

 

That time is gone. (Producer interrupts us now and starts talking about setting the list up for next Tuesday when LL is coming up to the show.)

They were replacing Naughty. There was a time when Treach wanted to fight me. They were wondering why I wasn’t playing their records anymore. But shit like Onyx was taking off. I used to think these people were my friends. I really did. We were in the same struggle together. I played in a club once with Redman and Biggie, before they had a deal. I remember Biggie got booed. Jeru, Black Moon, they weren’t really doing it bigger than the other rappers, it was just the time they came. I lived every era. I lived Rapper’s Delight, Hammer, EPMD, Run DMC, Whodini, Young MC, the pop shit when it got nuts, House of Pain. 1990 was a time where stars were coming and it wasn’t a bunch of money and the guy came. I love Puff, but 94, 95, it was who had more money. Who had the glitter and the shine to be a celebrity. Remember, Jay-Z was coming out at that time and he couldn’t get a fucking break. His videos didn’t cost as much as Puff’s, his backing wasn’t, he was a street rapper doing his thing. 1990 man, I went to Leaders of the New School’s first show. It was an Elektra Records showcase. Pete Rock was playing the music. Leaders were coming on, everyone was like, ‘Ehhh.’ Charlie Brown was like, ‘Let my shit come on first. If my shit is wack, I’ll get the fuck up out of here.’ They did their songs and it was crazy. Leaders of the New School were all Cold Crush Brothers. And they never fronted about it. Since I was from the Bronx, I gravitated to it and I thought it was incredible. I was still down with Chuck who was into, PE’s album was dying, and NWA had lost its bite. I loved that movement man and I was the only one playing. Nobody else was fucking with Onyx. Do you remember the Box?

 

Of course.

Do you remember, ‘When I pop the trunk, hit the deck.’

 

‘John Wayne couldn’t even stand the reign of the tec.’ Yeah, the Beatnuts.

(Laughs) That was some hard shit. That record broke on there. The Box used to set my phones off. I was like ‘What the fuck is this Beatnuts record. I need it.’ When I first played it, the phones were going crazy. It didn’t work in the club but, it was hard. Black Moon. I used to do A&R at Profile Records. I had a tape of House of Pain, I brought it in and they passed. They had good records. Their movement though…In 1990, rappers weren’t jealous of other rappers. No generic, no bullshit. ‘Yo that shit is hot. That shit you got on your album is hot.’ I used to watch it all night. I saw every era. It was a little bit of weed. It wasn’t the get high coke era like the 80’s where rappers like Kurtis Blow were bugging the fuck out. I don’t care if you put that in there. Well you know, a lot of niggas don’t say what it is and what it was. They still love the game but I couldn’t be Kurtis Blow and not have money. That’s an ultimate hustle, for Kurtis Blow, that shouldn’t happen. I would’ve opened up a school for hip hop and teach classes.

 

It’s so funny how you were the main proponent of this music that so-called purists adore, and now those same people who listened to you break these records think you’re the devil.

They hate me. They wanted me to be finished like the way they’re finished. The Bad Boy era came and I was the first person to play Craig Mack. Nobody knew what that record. This was a street record with a lot of money behind it. It wasn’t a wack record. Craig Mack was in a group with EPMD called Easy and True. EPMD’s old DJ got in an argument with the group and left the group - the guy before K La Boss. The one before that got into beef, left the group, gave the label two other rappers. I remember that kid, to me he was retro. I was like, I’m busting this record. This nigga is lucky to be breathing. Premier chopping up that R Kelly record so early in the game to make “Unbelievable” was unheard of. He made it cool to take a record on the radio, chop it and make it a hit. That movement was coming but even Premier, the purist of them all, was doing songs with Big and was feeling the movement. A lot of guys were shitting on Puff…Puff in Daddy’s House was a night club and we saw him jumping around and grabbing the mic so to them he was a party promoter. So Black Moon and Lords of the Underground were seeing him come through and they were like, ‘This is a fucking party promoter.’ “Nah B, he loves hip hop.’ My first encounter with Puffy. I was supposed to play in this club and Capri and Clark were killing this club. They had their DJ skills at level 10, not cutting but just thinking what they were going to play next. I was never jealous of them, I always admired them. I was always watching and watching and watching. I could always pick the record they would play. I could always gauge the reaction. I was like, ‘But this record is bigger.’ I remember telling Puff that I wanted to play in the club and he was screaming at me, ‘Yo motherfucker, I’m saying you’re not in here next week. Stop fucking bugging me, you’re fucking annoying.’ He was right. I was annoying and he was the man. And that’s what meant in business, when the man shit on you, they shit on you. I never held it against him. The night that I played there, in 1991, at the Red Zone, the party was called Daddy’s House and I killed it. Puffy sent me a bottle of Moet. He said ‘The crowd loves you.’ I came there every week for ten weeks in a row. I knew what records were played in the room so I was like, ‘I’m going to throw on Nobody Beats the Biz,’ only because I studied the room. Puff didn’t think I was better than those guys but that I was a good number three. And I agree, I wasn’t as good as them. I had to learn how to be a commercial DJ, I had to learn how to be a hood DJ for the street motherfucker in Harlem who don’t want R&B. ‘Yeah, Harlem, shout to all my niggas getting money, busting their gat.’ That’s what it was like back then. It was mostly S&S and Ron G. Hamptons was Boris. He played clubs in the city but was the big Hamptons DJ. I had to hold a lot of titles. At one point, I was the big Hamptons DJ, hood DJ, radio DJ, club DJ. I was the only African American DJ that was playing in the white clubs. I always knew what it entailed. I piggybacked something. Puffy couldn’t be in every place at every time. People used to say, ‘Why is Flex playing Bad Boy Records?’ I was a big Bad Boy supporter. Pay Flex $2500 and he’ll come here and get it popping. Puff was endorsing me and I was endorsing him. I never not embraced the music. I think that’s why I was one of the few DJ’s to last. Ne-Yo and Bow Wow, I understand it. It might not be my personal preference when I’m driving in my car but I know why its successful and I know why it sounds good. R&B is at its height right now. There are like ten R&B artists doing well. It struggled for like seven, eight years but now it’s back. Rap is Jay-Z, Puffy, Ludacris these are all smart guys. Dame Dash to a point because he let the split rattle him. These guys, I  learned a lot from watching Puffy. I wanted to be big nationally and couldn’t leave the radio. I was like, if I could have a hit record and video then people could see me in other states. I’ve always understood it so I was like, let me make an album. My first album went gold, and I wound up doing five gold albums. There was always something in me that I wanted to be like Jam Master Jay. Having those gold albums were important. In 2005, I put out a gold DVD that I packaged as an album. Reinvention man. These kids have to have something new, you’ve got to reinvent. My space is reinvention. How do I reinvent the movement. Jay-Z man, everything is hood. Basketball, sneakers, clothing, president of rap label. That’s still hood. To the corporate world, it’s here’s a rapper running a label. Puffy, he has the cologne, the comedy show. Mase, and all that was great, they just happened to be the rappers that was in the system when the money was pouring. I could have made my mother sell records. That’s not what Puffy is most influential for. He’s most influential for seeing a movement and doing it. I love Biggie, but Big L or Lord Finesse on that type of a movement, I think would have been big as well. Biggie had the longevity because as you can see after he made all those lyrics, I don’t know if Big L or Lord Finesse had that in them. But Puff gave Big the song mentality. Biggie was just writing 60 bar verses and Puff was writing in the hooks. I’m not saying just, its two people met up at the right time and it worked. The biggest part about success is you could be Funk Flex 2006, I could take 15 different roads to be more successful – I better pick the right one. All those roads won’t make me successful until I’m fucking 60 years old. That’s the key. Jay-Z, Puffy, Russell, they all have that key. Russell could be the biggest risk taker…Phat Farm, I could do Def Jam Comedy, I could still be the guy at the label. Russell had a rap record and he even bust a verse. He said, ‘What’s up, my name’s Russell Rush/ And I came to play the cold rock stuff.’ Jazzy Jay did the beat. He could have went either fucking way. Entrepreneur, that’s the hardest thing to do.

 

Don’t you think that some people are entrepreneurs and some just aren’t built for it?

You know why it doesn’t work? They hold onto wanting to be famous for too long. They want to be in the limelight. Erick Sermon, very good business man. He had Redman, Das EFX, the label deals, production but he wanted to be famous too long. Dr Jeckyll did it early, stop rapping, start Uptown Records sign Christopher Williams, Heavy D. The blueprint was always there. Granted some people don’t want to do that but what the fuck else are you going to do? You can’t write music, lines, hooks, R&B niggas. People don’t want Dru Hill anymore, they want Ne-Yo. Ne-Yo is young, living the lifestyle. Nokio is talented, he’s gets it. The Thong Song ruined Sisqo. Once you have a doll coming out, that’s it. A company called me about a doll, forget it.

 

Snoop had a doll.

He better be careful. He should be careful. He doesn’t talk about it though. People ought to find out what’s good for them, because kids can see when you’re not into something. I don’t think Puff wasn’t into acting in a play. I don’t think he was into it. I think he thought that’s what he should do. That’s cool though, the marathon was great. Jay-Z man. I’ll tell you who is a really good entrepreneur, it’s Cam’Ron. He’s got tapes, clothes, videos, the movement.

 

Do you still like to mix?

Only on the radio. 10 o clock is my mixing. Some artists come into the business with the entrepreneur way of thinking and that hurts the music. I’m a very big 50 Cent fan but I think 50 missed some of the enjoying things of…I think he likes to tour but he likes money. He likes clothing but I think he likes money. Yo, Mos Def and Talib Kweli man, they just want to tear the bitch down. They make money too but I think tearing it down is more important than the money. 50 and Mos Def both tear shit down but I can tell the difference with what’s on their minds and maybe what I think doesn’t matter. I think 50 entrepreneur mentally really fast and missed going into a nightclub and tearing it down. Not because one of your rappers was performing that night or not because you passed by and it was packed. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that.

 

Are you still into the music?

Not like ten years ago.

 

Is it just getting older?

I think there’s only two movements right now, G Unit and Dip Set.

 

What about the South?

I’m talking about my home. I need more movements than that to get excited. I think the South is a great movement but its not our movement. It would be if we saw the rappers in the clubs. Rappers is getting lazy. They don’t want to freestyle on the radio, they don’t want to freestyle on the tapes. It’s lazy man, lazy. G Unit is going to be remembered though for their artist driven mix tapes. They were so hood man, so ghetto. There were times where I thought they were on a corner in Queens with a mic. I think Dip Set has that movement as well but you always get this lull. There was Rakim and Kane putting  out those bad albums for a minute and then the new shit. When G Unit was coming through, I was like It’s going to happen again. It was different than Puff’s movement because I think Puff spawned Roc-A-Fella. Puff spawned Death Row, that 2Pac movement. They weren’t flash, they became flash. G Unit spawned things but people look at the top too much. You can be number 2,3,4,5,6,7, or 8 and it’s okay. Rappers want to be on the top. They are only preparing for the number 1 spot. Get in and grind and be like #10 for a time.

 

What do you think about Kanye West? Is he too pop to be considered a movement?

I’m glad you brought Kanye up because I misjudged him in the beginning. I said some mean things about him on the radio. I said that he was gassed and cocky. I saw him doing an interview in Canada and they bleeped the girl ‘white girl’ and his whole thing was like, ‘Why did you take the word out.’ I thought that he had a point. For Canada, that was definitely off the wall what he said. I saw him on something on BET, where he was like, ‘I’m confident with what I do.’ I’ve never had him on my show.

 

Why not?

We’ve never gotten along. I’ve reached out though, because I want him on the show. He was like, ‘I consider myself the Jay-Z, the DMX’s’ and I was like, ‘Fucking what? You consider yourself what? How about I don’t consider you that?’ Who am I to judge? I’m just Flex. I thought his cockiness stemmed from money and talent but I think it really stemmed from frustration about not getting his chance. I think he’s talented. I think he’s teetering on the fence of wanting to keep it real, but he wants to buy jewelry and spend money. I think he’s fighting it.

 

I can’t remember the last great rapper to come out. Kanye?

Kanye. His lyrics. I think we’ve missed a few great ones. I think we missed Mos Def. I think we missed a few that we let pass because they came during the glitter and glam and they didn’t get their just due. Ms. Fat Booty is tough. Talib not as much. Fugees was that. They just happened to sell 12 million. They were doing underground shit and it just caught on.

 

Let me put this scene out for you. August 1999. I’m in a car going to a club at like 1 AM and I hear you play Simon Says. I bugged the fuck out because I didn’t think you would ever play that record.

Busta came to my office and played me that record. He was like, ‘I have nothing to do with it, I don’t know where that’s coming out.’ I was a huge Organized Konfusion fan too so. People get me with that, if you’re retro and struggling trying to do it again and you have a hot record, I’m in your corner all day. I love that record.

 

It was so weird because I thought Flex is…

A commercial nigga (Laughs)

 

That Rawkus movement was something that should’ve got off the ground.

Jaret is going to come back. They are going to look at what mistakes they made. He’s very good at analyzing the moment. I think he’s going to be like Russell. Russell really wanted Run DMC at his label and he wanted them at Def Jam. That story in Krush Groove was true. Def Jam wasn’t even around yet. Rawkus was a good movement too because it was very 90’s hip hop. No money, no glitter, let’s go. Mos Def was on Geffen. Mos Def and Talib weren’t big enough to do Black Star. They should’ve gotten big first. Q-Tip was supposed to be successful. A Tribe Called Quest not making records is…His new album was supposed to be called Live At the Renaissance? That’s some real hip hop. I did a tour with them and just played 90s hip hop. I played for like an hour. I still think Q-Tip should have done Tribe. I don’t think Q-Tip could be successful if Tribe isn’t successful. It was nothing beating you in the head too long. I liked “Breathe and Stop.” I think the image Q-Tip took on was, ‘I’m not with that old shit no more.’ I’m growing to like Black Eyed Peas. That record with Talib and Q-Tip is a good record.

 

I heard that you were scared of flying?

Yeah, but it was hurting my marketing. The buses cost money and I have to keep it moving. KRS-One hasn’t flown since the early 90’s. KRS does the boat to go overseas. I talk plane stories with everyone. I was coming from Toronto and the light dimmed black and it felt the air was swollen and the plane was fighting. I can’t get on another Toronto flight. I can’t get another Canada flight. I have trouble just during take off. I know once I’m stabilized, the plane is under control. You should fly Continental. They have new planes. They don’t buy used. They keep mad workers. If I ever have to fly something else, I would fly Northwest. I fly out of Jersey. I’m a nut with it. I’ve gotten off planes before. I was supposed to DJ a charity benefit for Alonzo Mourning and I couldn’t explain it to him. What bothers you?

 

I’m very claustrophobic. I don’t like riding in cars even. Then there is the height thing. Then there is the fact that I have no control.

My stomach bothers me. I have to do first flight out and then first flight back in. Or I have to come in at seven and leave at five. I don’t like night flying.

 

I like night flying better.

I have to fly though because my best ideas come while flying because I’m never in one place for so long with a pen and paper. You ever see those people on the plane that sleep from take off to landing?

 

I fucking hate them.

I hate turbulence. Overseas, b, accidents happen once a month. They don’t tell us about this shit.

 

Sum up real quick what companies you have.

Baurtwell is my customization company. That is really my main business, which really does everything. I have a designing and endorsement deal with Ford, an endorsement and marketing deal with Castro Syntec, I have an endorsement deal with Turtle Wax, I have an endorsement deal with JL Audio, I have a toy deal with Hot Wheels, I’m sponsored by a tire company, Creal (???), so its on my cars. I’m on ESPN. Def Jam Mobile, I have a mobile deal with them. I have a deal with Yahoo, a content deal, they air my old episodes.

 

What about the marketing companies you have?

The marketing companies are really just doing the products I’m endorsed to. Franchise Automotive Marketing.

 

What about Big Dog Record Pool?

Eh, once vinyl lost it’s edge, we’re down to twenty members. I gave it to my friend and he’s running it the best he can.

 

Dope on Plastics?

That was really just a company that was when I did my albums so you could see the little logo. It still exists when I do albums. I also have Joy George, which is my film company that all my TV shows go through.

 

DJing?
I’m just on Hot 97. I’m local.

 

Any new albums?

DVD’s now. Koch. I have a deal with Koch for Car Show DVD’s. I just did a deal with Sony for  a DVD that will be graffiti, sneakers and automotive stuff.

 

Did you bug out the first time you went gold?

The first one didn’t go gold until later. The second one went gold first because we didn’t put a clean version out of it. I didn’t know how big it was when it was happening. My first album sold 20,000 copies the first week and people from BMG were calling me congratulating me. I didn’t know the album came out that day because I was so into the DJing. My manager at the time, Jessica Rosenblum was more into the album thing and then the second week I did another 20. I didn’t know anything about that end of the business so I wasn’t that interested. My second album did 60,000 the first week and Russell Simmons sent my flowers. “Ill Bomb” was an important record. Me and LL needed to be in the streets. Doing that record, he was like, ‘You better be right on this.’ We kind of understood that we had to push each other. He had the second verse before the first and I was like, This is hard. It took a while for people to take that record seriously but it was a turning point of getting back to the streets. The Tunnel was all new songs. The third, I was going to make it the last. I was kind of cocky, thinking I was king of the hill. That fourth one did 850,000. I think that sold the most. I’m about 3000 short of a gold DVD now. To do that with a DVD…Showing versatility. The albums, some DJ’s take it for granted. Magic Mike had like four, five gold albums. Clue had one platinum, one gold. He loves making records. He loves being in the studio.

 

Let’s revisit that sports analogy you were telling me in the car.

I don’t like certain teams, but I like certain athletes. I like Shaq, but not just for his play. I like him for all the things he’s done with his career. I like LeBron, not so much for his play. If I could say, the most impressive move about LeBron was firing his agent and going with not just a friend, but a friend he put through school. That’s who’s handling his career now. I think that was the best way for him to take control of his destiny. I like Allen Iverson but I like for not being too much of a stickler with the whole dress code thing. People expected him to be rebellious but he shocked everybody by being smooth and I thank he needed an excuse to refine his career anyway so why not say that the NBA made me do it instead of appearing soft by changing up his flow. I wish they would show that footage of him shaking and baking Jordan more. I like the Bus. He’s in TV now. He’s not that big of a talker though. Who has him now? ABC? I think Madden is great at marketing. He knew when to give up coaching. Some people don’t know how to make that move. Al Michaels is like a tag a long guy. The video games are one thing, but he wouldn’t have had that if he wasn’t so good at marketing. The guy who used to run the Box is now at MTV2 I think. Someone bought it, I think it was another video network and they buried it…

 

[Somehow, The Source magazine comes up]

I don’t think there is room for a tabloid in hip hop. This isn’t rock n’ roll. They never really attacked me but they were attacking people I knew who couldn’t defend themselves like Angie. I just took it upon myself. They were like, ‘We weren’t talking about.’ But I couldn’t stand by because [Ray and Dave] were attacking people around me. I remember Dave Mays was the only with a magazine saying Hip hop matters. He was young, he was white and he knew the music. That was more important than me holding up. This is a guy coming from Harvard saying hip hop matters. People have forgotten this and were extra hard on him, me included. I don’t know what it’s like to have something for twenty one years and then someone tells you it’s not yours anymore. You’re going to have withdrawals. You are going to wake up in the middle of the night. It’s not like being fired from a radio station. One day, Hot 97 is going to fire me or we’re going to part ways; that’s inevitable. If you own something it’s different. I wouldn’t think that someone would come to my house and tell me I don’t own it anymore.

 

Stuff they were talking about though, the payola, you’ve been accused of it…

Always. Every day. There are a lot of rappers who…I’ve gone through different series with certain artists. Like when I told you I was making my transition from EPMD to Naughty to Black Moon to the Bad Boy shift. But before the Bad Boy shift, it was really Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang didn’t get to their full height before Bad Boy. They got snuffed a little and cut short because the glitter came, which is Puff. After Puff, of course is Jay-Z. I am the only constant thing, there’s not been one radio DJ on for every step of this. The first time I’ve ever mixed on the radio was 1988 for KISS FM. I have not left the radio since, maybe for two or three months in between changing station. Imagine, 1988-2006. Have you ever done an article where an artist says that was a bad album I made?

 

They have an excuse for everything.

So then you go, ‘Flex used to drop bombs on my shit. Now he’s all about 50. 50’s paying him.’ I play too many nightclubs to take money for records. In a nightclub, you can’t bribe a guy to dance on the dance floor. I can’t have a record that I play on the radio that I won’t play in the clubs. Yeah, maybe I picked a few records that I put the bomb on that didn’t turn out to be a national hit. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and the one thing that I learned is that if you DJ clubs you don’t have to take money. Red Alert was real specific about that with me. He never said payola, but he said, ‘If you earn your money, you’ll never have to do anything you would be ashamed of.’ I knew what he meant, and I’m sure he’s said that to a lot of people. I’ve always made between $2,000-$10,000 in my career in clubs. I can’t speak for all DJ’s because this didn’t come out of thin air. It’s been proven that there are people that take money and maybe still doing it now.

 

Do you think payola still exists?

I think there are people that still do it. There are like 500,000 DJ’s in the United States, so someone is doing it. When you get on the radio, there is a point where you are more popular then the money you earn. There was a long period of time when I was living in a basement apartment paying $500 a month. I had a BMW parked outside because I needed it for the image. It took me a long time to save and get it. I had no money saved in the bank and that made me depressed for a little while. But everyone’s period is longer. Maybe mine was for six months; maybe another kid’s is for six years. And I didn’t get high or smoke; imagine a guy who gets high has to figure out how to get to the next place in life. Then you have kids with independent labels offering you money. Some people do give into the temptation. But the one thing that I always saw was that I saw DJ firsthand taking money. When I was next to him, I thought it was cool that he had that attitude like, ‘You got to give me something, B. Nothing’s for free.’ When he was off the radio, the same people that I thought were scared of him or respected him were like, ‘Your man’s finished.’ ‘But I saw you go to dinner with him.’ They didn’t care. They wanted me to tell him that he’s finished. My ego’s too big for that. So my thing was always, I’m going to learn to do other things. I’m going to put out albums. I’m going to do everything I need to do to earn money. When I first got on the radio, I was making $200 a show. 1994-95, you would think I was set for life, outside looking in. This was at Hot 97. But the one thing, I learned was if you do the clubs…I can easily speak for me and I teach my guys that. It’s a combination of yes, there are people who have taken money if the past and its people accusing because no rapper wants to say he had a bad single or a bad album. I told you, I thought I was lazy on the 3rd album. That reality helps you understand yourself as a whole. How come artists who only have one album out never accused me of payola? How come artists on their second album never accuse me of payola? When they get to that third or fourth album, so what the other two albums, I was playing because I was in the same place you were? That makes you sleep good at night to not question yourself. I know because I’ve reinvented myself a few times. I know when a rapper isn’t reinventing himself. I can see it in you. I see it in your career. If I tell you, ‘It’s aight.’ It’s either, ‘You’re hating,’ or ‘It’s because of 50.’ Whatever new rapper is out, I was supposed to take money from 50, Puffy and Jay-Z. Those dudes don’t need money on top of their records. There’s never an independent kid who has never gotten spins say, ‘Flex took my money and played my record.’ Why has there not been one person to say that.

 

How about KRS-One?

KRS-One comes to me and has this Temple of Hip Hop, which is supposed to also launch his temple of hip hop. I do marketing. I’ve done marketing for Snoop, Mariah, Jennifer Lopez’s perfume, Allen Iverson’s Reebok sneakers. People think that my marketing has to do with people albums. This stuff that I market, I don’t have to play and nobody asked me to play. I market in 40 markets. I’m only on the radio in one market. If you pay me to do a project, who is playing it in the other nine markets. There’s LA, Detroit, DC, Virginia. KRS’s claim to fame is that he said, ‘I paid Flex forty thousand dollars and he never played my record.’ I never said I was going to play your record. You’re putting out a soundtrack that you want me to promote. You wanted me to put posters up and wrap up my van, and that’s what I did. It had nothing to do with playing records. KRS called and was like, ‘Hey can you play that record.’ I was like, ‘Nah, Kris, I don’t really like that record.’ I would assume he would want me to be honest. But it’s also KRS-One so what would KRS-One say if I didn’t take the project. ‘He takes everyone else’s projects but not mine. He’s into these younger niggas and doesn’t respect where I come from.’ KRS has never once before he said that about me. He’s never called me about it, talked to me about it or said anything about. So I was like, ‘You’re absolutely right. You paid me to do something and the record didn’t play because I wasn’t supposed to play your record. That’s not what you asked me to do. You asked me to promote your soundtrack. You asked me to put up posters. You asked me to do something nationally. It would be different if I only worked in New York. My company, which I’m proud of, I can put posters up in DC, Virginia, Baltimore and that’s a hard thing to do. I had to do it ten times better than other people because people were looking at me not to do it right. Same thing with customizing a car. If I didn’t customize a car right, people would be like, ‘Oh he thinks just because he’s Flex, he can do anything.’ Same thing with the marketing company. At the end of the day, people want to know if their product is being promoted. He’s the only one who has said this.

 

But don’t you see why the marketing company can be seen as a conflict of interests?

I can see it, and I think that there are people that have done it wrong in the past and that’s where it comes from. People who know me or know what I’m about know that that’s not my thing. I’m not just a DJ who plays records, I’m an opinionated DJ. I’m a guy who goes on the radio and says that something is trash or hot. You lose being so opinionated if you are taking money. Then your opinion don’t matter. I’m very opinionated. I like to say if I like or I don’t like something and there is only way to keep doing that, to fly straight. I do think that there are people who misjudge those things. It’s easy to wonder, Why is Flex playing a certain record. But you can say that about anything. What if my cousin was a rapper and he was successful, then it would be, Because he’s a family member, that’s why he plays the record. You can go a lot of different ways. Because a guy gives me $40,000 to customize his car, I’m going to play his record a lot? I’m into cars that has nothing to do with his record. I’m doing a car for LL, and I’m playing one of his records.

 

How about the record pool? That would answer how you play records in other markets, while you are only DJing in New York.

I don’t think so. The record pool doesn’t report to a major base. There are people who will say, ‘I have records in the pool.’ But there are a lot of pools. There isn’t a master list that people follow. I distribute it to DJ, the DJ’s give their feedback and, a lot of companies ask me for their sheets. So you see what a DJ gives back. Record pool DJ’s, he wants the records, he pays for it. Sometimes a feedback sheet isn’t on his mind and he really doesn’t care. The amount of feedback sheets you got to get to make someone play a record, the radio is more of a thing to look at than a record pool.

 

Have people every offered you money to play records?

Yeah, people are always offering me money to play records. People have offered me cars. The new thing is, since people know I’m into cars, they’ll offer me an old Camaro. I think with anything, some people do it out of naïve, without really knowing. Some people start their conversation, ‘You think maybe I can possibly,’ or ‘What does it cost? I’ve been around the block. I know what it is.’ Sometimes, that offends me because then you’re saying that the bomb or me in the club means nothing. My line is always, ‘As a man do you feel funny that you have to speak for your music and start with paying me? Is there something you feel your music is lacking?’ And that usually gets us on the equal playing ground. ‘Oh, I heard that you were,’ That relationship usually doesn’t go any further. By offering me money, you’re insulting the bomb and my skills so now I’m going to question your skills. If your skills aren’t up to par, why do you feel like you have to pay me? People offer me watches. Some people…Payola is just the extreme. A lot of people want to get you on the phone. To some people, getting an answer about their record is just as important as you playing it.

 

Explain that.

Okay. Here’s a record, and it could be a record promotions guys, We’re thinking about making this a single. What do you think? What do your pit bulls think? What do you think people across the country will think? If you have a record, before you shoot a $500,000 video, before you put a million into marketing, you go, Let me ask Flex or another key DJ’s what this is. Some people like to get you a watch, so when you call them, you give them this answer. What you become then is their A&R. They will then go to their boss and not say they got their answer from me, but be like, ‘Let’s not go with this. Let’s go with this record.’ There has never been a record executive who has taken me out to dinner or taken me out or taken me out to dinner.

 

Are most of the people that offer you money, independent labels?

Out of state, out of town. If I’m in Florida or Memphis, I’m like a gold mine to them. If this guy goes back to where all the big record companies are and he plays my record, I could get a deal. I’ve played people’s records I don’t like. There are people who I don’t get along with or at one time didn’t and now we’ve fixed it since then. I didn’t get along with Snoop, but when ‘B Please,’ came out I didn’t front. Me, Ice Cube and Mack 10 had a huge beef. They said in Rap Pages, I guess because I was commenting on ‘Bow Down’ I was like, Aint nobody bowing down to that. We created this. It was just my opinion. Mack 10 was talking tough but I DJed Mack 10’s wedding. We spoke and had real talk. There have been times when me and Jay-Z had issues. 2Pac never liked me. I think he felt that I took Biggie’s side. I’m only hurting myself if I’m not playing a hot record.

 

Have you ever taken money and played a record in return?

There is no one who can come forward that said they paid me for a record.

 

What do you think about Elliot Spitzer’s inquiries?

People try to say governor or…He’s still looking at something that for years…There was a radio DJ in the 50’s and I always forget his name. He was convicted in court. Dick Clark took his style from him. Honestly, he was probably a good dude that thought there were made people before him that did it that this is what you’re supposed to do. They put him in the Rock n roll hall of fame. He lost everything and it wasn’t over payola it was because he had a black guy and white girl dancing on his show. They were just happy to be enjoying this thing called rock and roll. Elliot Spitzer really does have reason to look at this. He’s not creating this out of thin air. There are practices going on that shouldn’t be going on. I know radio people will get mad at me, but I’m not against what he’s doing. He’s sniffing out situations that he feels are illegal and there are some illegal practices going on in entertainment. It’s a stepping stone for him. A police captain isn’t going on a major sting because he wants to clean up the block, he wants to move up. In the process of a guy moving up, he’s cleaning something up. It’s a win both ways. I don’t think he’s doing the wrong thing, I think he’ doing the right thing. It’s unfortunate that I’ve read some of the articles and some of the quotes and some of these people getting fired that are thirty years old and when they came up as interns they thought, This is something I’m supposed to do. They are looking at if the five guys before me didn’t get hit, why am I getting hit. You’re going to take the heat, because you are involved in it.

 

How did you feel that you and Enuff were named in the inquiry?

I was never named in the inquiry; the Source magazine said my name because I’m a team player. To defend myself, I would have to dump my guy under the bus. ‘Nah, I didn’t get named, but he did.’ So they knew what type of guy I am, so we’re going to print it and he’s not going to run around and say no. My name has never come up in any inquiry.

 

But Enuff’s has?

Enuff’s name has, for a car service, which he did take. If somebody sends you a car service and you’re DJing a Sony party and they send you a car service then it gets back as, ‘Oh, this was him taking it for this or that.’ That’s more knowing who you are dealing with and know why they are sending you something. I’m a little bit more fortunate. I’m into cars and have ten of them lying around so maybe I can get to the party quicker than Enuff can. Yes, I think Spitzer was right to name him because he saw something he felt he needed to name. He never doesn’t give anyone an opportunity to defend it. He’s not convicting anyone. He’s putting the email out there. As a man, if you did something wrong and you can’t defend but if you can, Enuff is one of the guys who could.

 

Was it a lapse in judgment that he did take it?

I don’t think Enuff has been enough situations to figure out the dirt that labels do. A guy at the label is going, this guy has to get to the party on time, I want him to feel good, ok I’ll send it. He goes to his boss and goes, I need a car service for DJ Enuff, he plays all our records he takes care of us.’ Enuff didn’t know that that email was sent, nobody sees that email. That is where you have to be, Where is this car coming from. I would have caught onto that but I’ve been around the block. I’ve been around several blocks. Enuff’s been on the radio for like what, four years. I would have been caught four years in with that because I wouldn’t have been able to decipher that. Maybe he should have been more cautious since Spitzer was on the prowl.

 

On September 24, 2002, there was an article in the Daily News that said the NYPD was not going to investigate you for payola. After that, did you think the issue was dead?

Nah, because I thought that was a smoke screen. What could the NYPD investigate to find out what’s going on? I thought it was more to put it out there to look for him, but we’re going to keep it moving. How do you know I’m clean? You don’t know I’m clean. I don’t doubt though that the police department and other people have tried to offer me money to play records, to see if I take it. I always believed that.

 

How did you feel when Michael Saunders was fired from Power?

I’m going to be so honest because you are giving me an avenue to tear him apart but if I got to be real honest. I think he did what the Clear Channel machine wanted him to do. There’s something that’s not being said about radio stations, its never been printed and no one goes into it. The check don’t get written to the program director. The checks get written to the corporations that own the radio station. Even with the guys who were fired recently, they never print that part. There is no personal gain; the money does not go to the program directors. Why would a guy…what are you hustling for? Because someone is telling you to hustle. A TV set? That’s not what happened to Michael Saunders. Michael Saunders is like, telling people, spend with Clear Channel. He’s not getting that You could only be doing that if the guy before you was doing that. There used to be conventions where people got lap dances from girls in their room for the night in exchange for playing the record, it’s never said. You have to read into that and decipher that. I didn’t just go to a convention and dream this up, this has been happening because I heard DJ’s before me talk about this. Even when I started in 88, this is nothing compared to what was going on in the 60’s and 70’s. This is a bad habit passed down. There are going to be people saying, its easy for Flex to talk about because he makes money doing other things. I always knew I would have to make money doing other things. If I did not amok money doing other things, I would have to take payola. I’d be 38 years old, a radio DJ making less than $40,000, how the hell would I be living? Going back to Michael Saunders, I’ll tell you what people don’t realize about the radio business. I learned early on, that if you become important to an 18-34 demographic, which is the most sought after demographic for just about every company, I can always be on the radio. I always knew that I wouldn’t have to do that. I think Michael Saunders just didn’t think out his career.

 

Do you think it’s good for New York City to have two hip hop stations?

I think it’s good. I think it separates the men from the boys. It separates who’s going to compete and who’s not. I thrive on competition. I think it’s great. #1 and #2 doesn’t really matter in a sense. Who’s voice means the voice matters most? Corporately we get caught up in that, but that’s really what it is. Some personalities and DJ’s matter and some don’t. Some don’t want to matter, some want to fly under the radio. I knew after seeing Howard that I want to fly above the radar. It’s a harder fall when you do fall but when you’re riding up there, it’s a good feeling. If you feel you’re going to get shit on if you lose, you work harder.

 

How did you feel when the new ratings came that said Cherry Martinez was beating you?

Hell no. That’s what she’s saying. She’s been saying that for two years. She has never beaten me in the book once. She is a good person. I remember when she was a PD. I burned her once. I was supposed to do something for her radio station once and I didn’t do it. She was in Boston. I think I’ve apologized since.

 

What happened?

I went to Jammin, a competitor. The program director was a guy that I met and I liked the way he was getting down. I started it, being mean to her. But I was being mean, in a way where I wanted to compete. I was looking at the book, saying this person’s wack, they’re wack and she was one of the people I said was wack. But I always say people are wack. I think, if you want it, come get it. Let’s not teeter around. Let’s decide who’s going to be king of the hill. Let’s not question it. She thinks that if she says that, then maybe people will believe it. If I attack that, then I will be bringing attention to her. Me and Ed Lover do the same thing. Me and Ed go fierce sometime but me and him are cool.

 

The first time the station’s war of words became public was when Nas went on the air dissing you after Summer Jam.

Nas was upset with me. He was upset with everybody. That’s another situation where he started this conversation about Hot 97 and Angie and I heard about it when I was still at Summer Jam. So I said something about him at the end of the night.

 

What did you say?

Oh he’s back stage and doesn’t want to come out. He was going at my team. Then he started going in on me. Fuck Cam. Fuck Nore. Fuck Flex. Don’t let Flex’s album be bigger than your album. I had a situation with Steph.

 

Did that come from Nas saying that on her show, or was there tension before then?

I love Steph. I can say it now. I never touched Steph. I pushed Steph to get out of my way, but I would never touch Steph. I was Steph’s biggest fan, I went to DC heard her on the radio and told my boss about it. I don’t think Steph was being malicious. I think she was in the moment and didn’t care how it would come through. Coming by the station and…I came out my job. I would never hit or punch a girl, that’s not my thing. We’ve made up since. She knows how I felt. I know she felt. I think she knew I understood the whole radio end of it. I was more like, ‘Why are you here.’

 

Why was she there?

I never found out. Oh, I think her gym was down the block, which was an unfortunate situation. She took it to a whole nother level. I don’t want to say the wrong thing but karma is something. I believe is karma. I can understand if you want to make a name off me, but it doesn’t happen for a reason. Have you heard her on the radio since? I think she felt like it was worth. I’m ruining this relationship with Flex if it does for me what I think it’s going to do for me. That made me more upset. That was what, 2002, and the kid is still here.

 

Did you call her those names? Broke ass bitch, ungrateful bitch, slut, whore, stupid fucking whore, dumb bitch.

I didn’t call her that. That’s not me. Why would I call her those things? I did call her ungrateful. I did call her that. She got fired from Hot 97 because she was late. We’re all late. You catch the boss in a bad move, the boss it going to be a problem. She wasn’t later than other people. Two days back to back she was late. The next day, the boss happened to see it and he fired her. She was written up for it before, everyone was written up. She took it as it was everybody’s fault. Hot 97 is like…I was there when it was nothing. I was there at the right place and right time. But the people who got there afterwards, got there when it was a well oiled machine and it could really help your career. She had an opportunity to be at a good machine and she blamed everybody else when she got fired. I really liked her. And it hurt my feelings. People were like, You liked her. You thought she was all that. She said some nasty things about Angie about Tracy. I never thought she would do those things. I think she did it because she felt that’s what she needed to do to be successful in radio.

 

So you never called her those names?

I never called her those names. I said she was ungrateful. I did throw money at her though. Money, I threw.

 

Did you choke her?

Didn’t choke her.

 

Did you punch her?

Never would. Didn’t do that.

 

All you did was throw money at her? And you plead guilty on harassment just on that?

Because you can take that as harassment. That’s harassment. I walked by the doorway and pushed her.

 

Was it a violent push?

She’s bigger than me. What if she knocked me out there? What would have niggas said? My career would have been over after that. In all fairness, I don’t think she told those things. I think it was the people that were with her at the precinct, whether they were there or not.

 

Her bosses?

A little bit. She never said that to me but I think I know her good enough. Steph’s not a liar. Steph wants to compete. She would never say that about herself. She would never play that damsel in distress.

 

How much money did you throw at her?

A couple of grand.

 

A couple of grand?

Yeah.

 

Were you having a bad day when it happened?
Nah. It was more words like; I walked past her and was like, ‘Why don’t you just bounce? Why don’t you just get out of here? Nobody wants you down here?’ Her response was real nasty and negative.

 

What did she say?

Curses, it was like whatever. She actually went into stance. I didn’t move because I knew what it was after that. I was like, (makes gesture that he’s pushing her). She was like, ‘I’m glad you did that because of my lawyer, my this, my that.’ I was like, ‘Why don’t we just settle the case now since that’s what you’re about.’ And I threw money at her. I was going for the theatrics. I was going for the movie thing. You go through things when you’re upset. I think the thing that really made me angry and throw money at her was her response.

 

What was it?

It was just loud and obnoxious. Her whole attitude. That part I haven’t thought about that much.

 

What was the response from people afterwards? Weren’t people saying that you hate women? It was alleged that you said all those things about her.

I would say it was half and half. I tell you something that disturbed me. The amount of guys that were thinking that I did do something like that and think it was cool, I was surprised by that. I understand why it was such a big deal afterwards because there are a lot of men out here doing that. It would have been different if I had a history of something. The only thing that got me through that was I was a guy who hasn’t been getting into those type of situations. Usually, the people who do that are return offenders. That was my first and only incident.

 

Around that time though, that child support case was made public.

There was a lot of that. I don’t really want to talk about that.

 

The end result was 35 hours of community service?

Yeah.

 

Did you do it?

I did.

 

Did your lawyers tell you to plead guilty to harassment?

Ehh, I think I did deserve that harassment charge. I really do. Harassment could be getting into a strong argument so I would look silly trying to say that that didn’t happen.

 

Another thing in the complaint that was interesting was that it was suggested that Hot 97 higher ups told DJs to be antagonistic to Power 105.1 on and off the air?

Nah, I think that was more them. That was their whole claim to fame. They were really trying to put across, ‘They’re real, we’re not.’ I don’t think that we gave off that energy and I was the only one was vocal. I like to compete the most, and they like to compete to. Nas going down there and voicing his opinion wasn’t the worse thing. If that’s the way he felt, we hear you. Nas has been on my show since.

 

How did you guys reconcile?

I understood where he was coming from.

 

Even when he said people should snatch your chain?

I got to remember when I was being theatrical, so I got to understand when other people are being theatrical. He knew I would not be somewhere where people could take my chain. I’m always with people. I’m in a club, if I’m doing an event, I have security. He wanted to be real street. It was more, I understand what you did, let’s keep it moving.

 

Does Hot 97 get a bad rap?

I don’t think people are picking on it. No matter what radio station that happened at, it would be written about. I think if two rock n roll people had a fight; it would be just as big. If Britney Spears got into a fight with Jessica Simpson outside of Z 100 it would be just as big. Gun play or not. The music is kind of violent. With the music being violent, sometimes when people are being theatrical on a record…I don’t think Game or 50 didn’t want to hurt anybody. The people that were hurt were loose members of the crew. Those two guys, if it happened in the Bronx, no one would care. I don’t think so. I think its when you’re the only hip hop station doing artists, you’re bound to have something happen. We’ve been on since 92 and there are like four, five situations.

 

People accused the station of trying to play up the beefs. What was your policy towards dis records?

I don’t play the dis records. I think the last one was, I played “Piggy Bank” once and I took everyone’s opinion. I spoke to Jadakiss for a quote, Ja for a quote and Joe for a quote. I didn’t play the Jay-Z/Cam beef and some artists might get mad at me if I don’t. I just feel like I don’t need to.  I don’t disrespect the jocks for playing them but if I was on the radio for only three, four years I probably would play them. I feel like I’m the biggest DJ that exists, I’m not going to play them. I don’t need to pay them to sustain. I feel like there’s a difference if a young DJ plays it and I play it. I kind of want to keep that responsibility for a minute. Some of those records have been real mean.

 

What do you think is the biggest positive of your time at Hot 97?

I think the station and hip hop movements have produced a lot of good things. An artist like Jay-Z coming along and Hot 97 playing it when he wasn’t on a big label was a good thing. That was good for the music. I think MTV News spreads beefs a lot. When I say spreads it, I don’t think they do if for rating, they are a popular place where kids go and report it as it is but they had the Cam video, which I think incites things. Rappers do it to themselves but I don’t think they care.

 

Do you the new jocks at the station look at you for advice?

I think I’m grown up enough now to know that sometimes I don’t have the warmest personality and I’m not the friendliest person sometimes. I’ve softened up as I’ve gotten older. I think that…I told Enuff recently…I could never really separate competition from friendship; to me it was never, I couldn’t be someone’s friend and compete against them. Michael Jordan could compete against someone and then take them out for dinner. Whether the person liked me or disliked me, I had to put it in my brain that there’s competition in the art of war. Even people that I’ve worked with that are on my team. Only in the last year or two I’ve been able to get past that. Maybe because there is no competition, there is competition where people are against me in the radio but I don’t think anyone has my energy. I don’t think anybody can compete with me in a day of who’s going to work harder or stronger, air personality wise.

 

Are you talking about Enuff? There were rumors that you guys had a feud.

It was kind of my fault. Enuff replaced Red Alert. I think I had a certain love for Red Alert that I wouldn’t have gotten along with whoever replaced him at Hot 97. It was easier for me to blame Enuff than to see maybe it was time for Red to be on at a different time slot. I told him recently. It was easier to blame Enuff than to blame Red Alert.

 

You guys have talked about this?

I brought it up to talk to him about it. I think he had an inking that that was happening. I wasn’t very warm to him and never embraced him. What my standard of what DJing and business should be vs. everyone’s standards is different and who am I to judge.

 

Do people think that you pay too much attention to the business and not enough to the music?

Yeah, I think sometimes the business end of it is always on my mind. I will listen to a demo. It’s hard to define what a demo is. Jay-Z, Puff, Cam’Ron, had to have a demo at some time. They all had to shop a song. I do listen. If an unknown artist gives me a CD, I do have a tendency to not really listen to it in comparison to a Cam or someone in his camp. In my mind, I’m like ‘This is Cam’s guy and he’s probably talented and they could be successful.’ It’s almost like unassuming the judgment of the major artist and letting them do the A&R work.

 

You still love spinning though, right?

I love playing the clubs. Now, I kind of play X Bar, last winter I was at two clubs that have closed since. I do guest spots. I think now that my favorite roller rink is closed, I might start on Sunday night again. When I was young in the 80’s the Skate Key was where I saw mixing for the first time close up and saw the power of records. People used to break dance o the side and there was a lot of hip hop elements.

 

How did you get along with Peter Gatien?

He was cool. He was always a hard worker, had a lot of clubs. I think a lot of people thought I was part owner of the Tunnel. I was really a worker. I want to tell this story about the Tunnel. A hip hop club always lasts for only a couple for months or a year. The police aren’t the only ones who will shut you down. Sometimes you will make too much money and the owner starts to feel funny if it gets too busy. Clubs struggling, promoters not making money, owners making a little money from the bar. Then you have those weeks where owners are making a lot of bar money, promoters are making good money. You can only sell so many drinks in a night. Now the promoters making more money because he is putting more people in the club or he is charging more at the door. I always knew…I did a salary cap and I can say again because I’m not a promoter anymore and I’m never going to talk to a club owner again. What I did was I would say, I want this amount of money per week, whether or not you’re crowded or not. On the real big nights, I would make the same amount of money. I knew that if I could find an owner that liked money, he’ll make sure the door stays open. I played there for eight years and that owner never shut that door. I knew that if the door never got shut and that place was always crowded, I would be the biggest DJ in New York. All the owners used to think it was about luring me away with bigger money; it was about keeping the door open.

 

What’s the most you ever gotten for a gig? DJing.

I got a hundred once. I’ve always been in between the 8 and 10 thousand dollar range. Not in a club that only holds a thousand people though.

 

Did you ever try to produce records?

Not really. Sometimes my name was mentioned in a couple of remixes. I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t have a good enough feel. I couldn’t get the original song out of my head.

 

Do you feel like the music has been corrupted? You’ve made most of your money from your business skills and marketing…

Not from spinning those records.

 

But spinning those records got you there. Does the corruption in the music industry leave a bad taste in your mouth?

It’s been a long time since, I’m trying to pick a rapper or musician, I think Wu-Tang might be one of the last groups that would have made those records for nothing. Even for a while when it became something. RZA always knew his business. I think the guys did it because they loved it. I think as it came into the later years and the show money and later years dwindled, they got more upset that they didn’t do what they needed done in the music business. I think when an artist is making a demo in his neighborhood at 17, he’s thinking about his sneaker deal, his endorsement deal, bringing his crew up and getting them a label situation because of what he’s seeing. That means that a guy isn’t thinking about making the best record.

 

Every new rapper I interview talks about just rapping to get a label deal.

Disgusting. It’s going to get away from that again. It’s going to get back to we used to do. Every DJ is not meant to make a DJ album. I made a DJ album to go album. I’m honest, my album wasn’t better than In Control by Marley Marl. You got to always go within your zone.

 

Have you made a lot of mistakes along the way?

I wish I was more aggressive in my career early. I think because of success, I sacrificed some things in my life. I only went to two years of college. It was important to my mom, she still brings it up. My wife graduated college. I was hoping that when I’m 80 years old and I’m rich, I want to go back. I think school was a sacrifice. I think if my mother and father had a different type of relationship, I would be more of a family person. If I didn’t pursue music so strong.

 

Have you lost out on friendships?

Yeah, I think I’ve lost out on a lot of friendships. The automotive business gave me sanity because meeting people who are into cars…It’s been a long time since I met people who didn’t want anything from me. I think I was in a point of my life where I really needed that. That made me feel better about going to work everyday and being on the radio. If I was still just on the radio after thirteen years doing 7-12, I’d be depressed. I’d probably commit suicide. I mean this is a kiddie job. I’ve come a long way from just making $200 a show and I’m up in the quarter mill section but that’s still thirteen years of my life watching a guy like Puffy really murder it out here. If I didn’t make money in the automotive world or being a business man…Being successful in business makes you have self worth. Imagine people getting up and going to work at seven, getting off at 12 and just talk on the radio.

 

But I bet that’s all you wanted just twenty years ago?

Yeah but imagine when its not what you want anymore and you can’t stop. You can’t say I want to get up tomorrow and go work for the Burlington Coat Factory.

 

Do you see yourself stopping soon?

No. I think… (long pause). I’ve never said this. I like the car business better than I like the music business. I like the car show and the toys better than DJing on the radio.

 

I knew that from the other day. I was going to bring it up if you didn’t.

What, you were going to break me down before we parted?

 

Yeah. On Thursday, we met up at eleven and we didn’t talk about music until I brought it up. You rather talk about Jason Giambi’s car than the Jay-Z/Cam beef.

I think so. I don’t know. On Sunday’s I mix in my basement a lot. I just recently straightened out my collection. I didn’t take too long but I set up this great system. When I’m down there in the basement, I’m not playing records from the last ten years. I’m playing early 90’s-1995. You ever hear a person say they want to live forever? Over the last couple of years, I realized that I don’t want to live forever because the best part of my life with music has passed me and that day will never come again. The first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” The first time I heard mixing on the radio. The first time I went to a jam. The first time I went to a party. The first time I filled in for Chuck Chillout on the radio. The first time I had my own radio show. The first time I came in at 7 and not at 10. The one thing I can say about the car business is, yes I may like that more now but all that I’ve done in the car business hasn’t made me feel better than those moments. If I’m not going to relive it, why do I want to live forever? If those are the best times in memory? I love those things but I with cars, I’ve never met so many good people. I’ve never met anyone good in the music business. When I say good, I mean, anyone who I would want to take home to meet my mom. My whole goal of being popular, I wanted to be the only DJ to get big enough that I don’t need the record business. That’s because I’ve watched it take the life out of a couple people. What do you think happens when a rapper goes gold, then he sells 50,000 units. He loses his house and his cars or he gets his stuff taken because he can’t pay his taxes. There are no fucking nice stories after you can’t afford something. No one comes over to you like, ‘Let me lend you a hundred grand to keep you afloat.’ You see Hot 97, BET, MTV, how many times do you turn on the TV and see what happens to a guy after he lost his record deal because his album didn’t sell. After my fifth gold, I don’t want that to happen. I want to go out on top. With everything I do, I want to go out on top. When I sense that my heart isn’t in something anymore, fuck it I’m not going to do it. The music business is like Uncle Sam, you can never see who’s behind it. And there’s a salary cap. I’m looking at Jay-Z, he’s like I’m only going to make this amount of money doing this. I’m going to own the Nets. I’m going to get a clothing line. I’m going to become the president of a label. I’m going to do all this, just like Puffy. Those guys inspire me. I love Dame Dash and he is one of the smartest guys ever in the business. He lets being in the spotlight hinder his business. 50 sold more records; Jay-Z is still on top. They can both live. Clue sold more records, but I’m still on top. That’s what it is. It’s like anything. It’s all the same. How long are you going to go hold that position? That’s what people don’t get. The music business, I hope…Sometimes I meet a new rapper, and just look at them and think, Are you going to be the one to change this? I thought Fab was going to change it. He never moved from being that mixtape, having fun, talented. He still is but I think he is more influential than he knows. I think young rappers would follow him if he was a great leader. 

Shaquille O'Neal's rap career

 

Sometime in the late spring of 1993 towards the end of eighth grade, my class went on a field trip to…well, I can’t remember where we went that day. The bus ride is a different story though, I can tell you all about that. My friends all huddled in the back around a Walkman taking turns listening to a song that had premiered the night before on Hot 97: “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock?)” by Fu-Schnickens featuring Shaquille O’Neal. By now Shaq’s opening half bar is deeply burrowed in hip-hop lore (okay, I’m hyperbolizing)

I’m the hooper, the hyper, protected by Viper

From there it got even better. He dissed Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner, spun a Mary Poppins line into a fantastic boast, and even quoted Rakim. It wasn’t the first rap verse I had memorized, but it’s one of the few I can still recite a cappella. 

The oral history of Shaquille O’Neal’s rap career is a special story for me. It was my first big freelance assignment after quitting The Source, my first time working on a feature length non-profile, and the first time I was ever profoundly disappointed, borderline depressed, after publication. Though assigned at 3,000 words, the story ran at 1,950 as part of KING’s “America Package,” an A-Z primer on what makes the country great. The oral history ran under the letter “B” for “Basketball,” or as I put it to my editor, “B” for “Buried, Buried In A Freaking Package!”

At least this story has a happy ending. A few years later, I noticed that Clark Kent’s tidbit about Kobe Bryant rapping on Shaq’s “3X Dope” wasn’t anywhere on the Internet, and we all know that if it’s not on the Internet, it doesn’t really exist am I right? (Which is one of the reasons I’m publishing this story all these years later.) So, I pitched Grantland a narrative on Kobe Bryant’s rap career, and it turned out to be the most popular story so far of my career.

Enjoy my “Director’s Cut” of the oral history of Shaq’s rap career. Read it below or check it out in the Archive section.

Thomas

 

* A version of this article appeared in December 2005 issue of KING magazine *

KILLER CROSSOVER

Iverson may have the platinum chains, but Shaquille O’Neal has the plaque. KING documents the rap career of the only athlete to ever scan a million units sold.

He may as well have been on the free throw line, because Shaquille O’Neal didn’t have a clue. There he was in Orlando, recording his debut album, Shaq Diesel, and the 7-foot center didn’t know punch-ins from personal fouls.

His first single, “What’s Up, Doc?” was the surprise hit of spring 1993, but that was different; that was easy. The song was already recorded by the Fu-Schnickens and all Shaq had to do was spit a verse, make sure the facts were straight (“Now who’s the first pick? Me, word is bond / And not a Christian Laettner, not Alonzo Mourning”) and let his presence take care of the rest. That, like flushing an alley-oop from Scott Skiles, was second nature to him.

Artists who have recorded with Shaq will talk about his ability to come off the top of the head; Peter Gunz even thinks he’s “one of the top five best freestylers ever.” But actually linking three 16s, with a hook and a concept was a different story. Sensing this, producer Erick Sermon kicked the Fu-Schnickens and some Jive executives out of the studio. Two hours later, “Shoot, Pass, Slam,” was done. Not long after, so was “I’m Outstanding.”

The hits, for lack of a better term, kept on coming.

Chapter I: Can We Rock?

Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal was born on March 6, 1972, in Newark, New Jersey. Before moving to Germany at the age of 12, Shaq became captivated by hip-hop. He listened to records by Run-DMC, and was a casual observer of the culture. That is, until he put pen to paper.

Mark Stevens (Shaq’s first cousin, CEO of Deja34 Records) When we were little kids Shaq would write raps on a piece of paper and then perform in front of the mirror. Later, in college, the music would motivate him to play basketball harder. Before a game he would be listening to rap and be like, “I’m going to get 50 tonight.”

Jeff Sledge (director of A&R at Jive Records) Shaq was that era’s LeBron. He mentioned in an article, I think in USA Today, that one of his favorite groups was the Fu-Schnickens. Them and Das-EFX were his two favorite groups; we just moved faster than Sylvia Rhone. Fu-Schnickens was our group, so we engineered for them to meet. They clicked. Shaq was going on The Arsenio Hall Show and said, “I want to rap with my favorite group.” They came out, did “What’s Up Doc?” and it went really well. That set things in motion.

Chip-Fu (artist, Shaq Diesel) We decided to put him on a song, “What’s Up Doc?” The song was already finished and we were about to release it; we flew to Florida for him to record his verse. After Jive heard the finished product, they flipped over it.

Sledge Of course we knew it was a hit, it had a Bugs Bunny chorus. Once that blew, we decided to make an album.

Jeff Fenster (senior VP of A&R at Jive Records): The key thing for us was that Shaq was definitely committed to putting the time and the work in to create an album. A lot of people in his position might make a record but not put in the time and effort to make a competitive record and Shaq was very clear that he was going to take this seriously, and he did. We knew we were going to sell some records regardless because Shaq was so hot at the time, but we knew it was a challenge to make a record that was actually a good record.

Sledge: We went down to Orlando. It was myself and the Fu-Schnickens. The Fu-Schnickens were helping him write. Me, being the A&R person, I was thinking about what type of records dude should make, but more importantly, what kind of sound he should have. I called Tribe, and Ali and Phife were into doing it. Phife was a sports fan so he was excited to meet Shaq. Also, he had a good relationship with the Fu-Schnickens because of “La Schmoove.” Ali had produced some stuff for the Fu-Schnickens so it was kind of like all in house. I also called Erick Sermon. EPMD had just broken up and he was still trying to feel his way around as a solo artist. He had just produced “Hittin’ Switches” and that had a big, big sound. This is a big guy, he needs a big sound

Phife (artist, Shaq Diesel) Jeff Sledge knew I was a basketball head and approached me about [working with Shaq]. Being that I already was a fan of his—LSU and Orlando Magic—it was  no brainer for me. I was on “Where Ya At,” and Ali produced “Giggin On Em” and I co-wrote that. I pretty much wrote most of the verse. He added certain things he wanted as well. It was truly a collaboration. It was his first album so he needed some tutoring with things like breath control. He’s a big kid. When we went to his house in Orlando he had all the actual arcade games.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad (producer as Dr. “?”, Shaq Diesel) The first time I met Shaq was at his crib. He was young but smart. He knew exactly what he wanted to do but still knew how to have fun. When it came to hitting the studio, he was real serious. He had his rhyme pad and was ready to go. Some of his rhymes he wrote on the spot. We were down there for maybe three days. It was like a small mini vacation because it was Orlando. I went to Universal Studios to see what that was like.

Sledge We put out “Skillz” then “I’m Outstanding” then “Shoot Pass Slam.” It came out in October 1993. The publicity was crazy. The fact he was making a rap record got crazy pub. It was in Time, USA Today and places like that, The Source. Once they heard it, it wasn’t half bad. Diesel sold 1.1 million. He was like, “I can’t believe I went platinum.” It blew his mind, and ours too.

Ken Bailey (Shaq’s first cousin, executive producer Respect) By the second album we started to understand the business a little more. The Fu-Schnickens were going through their own problems at that time too.

Chip-Fu Jive saw that our friendship was getting stronger and they tried to sever it. A friend of mine told me that Jive was saying that we were trying to take control. We weren’t trying to control him.

Sledge They really had it in their mind that they were going to be executive producing the project. They didn’t have that type of position in the game to demand that type of shit.

Released in November 1994, Shaq-Fu: Da Return, featured Method Mad, RZA, Keith Murray, Redman, Erick Sermon, Warren G, but sold 550,000 copies, half of his debut.

Keith Murray (artist, Shaq-Fu: Da Return) At first I didn’t take him seriously. I just thought it would be cool to make a record with him because it’s Shaq, the eighth wonder of the world. Then I started listening and I was like, ‘Shaq is the man.’

RZA (producer, Shaq-Fu: Da Return): I remember Funkmaster Flex, first time he played “No Hooks” was like, ‘What does Shaq think he’s doing rhyming in between the RZA and Meth?” He killed it though.

Funkmaster Flex (DJ, Hot 97 FM) I don’t remember that one well. I might have said something. How did that record go? [Writer raps the chorus] That one I didn’t like. Now I know. I didn’t love that one.

Sledge On the second album the videos were “No Hook” and “Biological Didn’t Bother.” I think that’s it. This one did like exactly half of what the first one did. It went gold. The first one did like 1.1 million and this one was like 550,000. I think with him being an athlete there was a novelty factor to it and on the second one, the novelty factor went down. On the first thing, I think some people bought it because they thought it might be a collector’s item. On the next one, the people had kind of moved on and they were buying Biggie albums and Nas albums. I remember we were on a plane going to Philly to work with Warren G and I told him, “Having a platinum album and a gold album is more than most rappers get. Everything form here on out is just playing with the house money. Guys who do it for a living don’t even go platinum.” My advice to him was that we basically already won the lottery. I told him at that point that he shouldn’t make any more records because the sales were going to keep dropping.

Bailey When Shaq left Jive he still owed them money. He didn’t understand how with a platinum and gold album he still owed the record company money. He was like, “This is not the type of deal I need to be in.”

Sledge I remember when he got his first royalty check he was like, “What is this recouping shit?” He wanted to do a label deal, but Jive generally doesn’t do those type of deals with anybody. We parted on good terms.

 

Chapter II: Whose World Is This?

After leaving Jive, Shaq formed a deal with Rob Kahane at Trauma Records, which was distributed by Interscope. Shaq then began work on his third studio album, You Can’t Stop the Reign, a star-studded affair packed with cameos by The Notorious B.I.G., Rakim and Jay-Z. It was the most critically acclaimed effort of his career. 

Peter Gunz (artist, TWISM Records) Interscope wanted Tariq to help Shaquille out with hooks, critiquing his flows. Tariq called me one day and asked me to fly out. Once I got there, I told Shaq that I had to get back because I was on probation. Shaq got my probation officer on the phone and told him, “He’s working at my record company now.” He signed some sneakers and that was it. I only brought an outfit for the weekend because I thought I would only help him out with one song. Shaq pulled out a stack of hundreds the size of a cinder block and told me to go shopping.

Bailey [Tariq and Peter] taught Shaq how to make popular music. But Frank Edwards, God rest his soul, worked his ass off to get Biggie, Nas, Mobb Deep on the album. When Biggie came to the house it was like seeing a kid looking at his idol. Shaq looked up to Biggie.

Lil Cease (artist) Big was looking to him like, “You’re a big motherfucker.” We went out to his crib in Orlando. He took us on a tour of the whole spot, kicked it, met his family, and met his wife. We was just chilling. As soon as we got out there, him and Big got to work. We was sitting in there vibing and they were listening to the beat. I smoke and you couldn’t smoke out there so I used to take breaks and go outside. You couldn’t smoke in his crib. C’mon he is a professional ball player, he can’t have certain shit around you like that. We respect his business. We weren’t going to disrespect the dude like that.  

Ken Bailey: When it was time for Biggie to lay vocals, it was nothing to him. It took like an hour and a half. He sat in the room for just 30, 40 minutes just listening to the track and then he came back like, ‘I’m ready.’ He came in, laid his vocals and that was it. Then it was back to hanging out at the house. It was like a three day trip. I got the funniest story about Cease. He was on a Jet Ski, flung off it and damn near drowned. My girlfriend had to jump in and save his life. He didn’t know how to swim. He was like 19, but it was hilarious. To see Biggie’s big ass sitting on the dock laughing at his boy was the funniest picture.  

Lil Cease That was the first time I went jet skiing. We tried to make a turn and all of us fell off that shit. I lost my mind because I didn’t know how to swim. I was scared to death. I didn’t like that shit at all.

Peter Gunz Flex still plays “You Can’t Stop the Reign” and drops bombs on it every other night. 

Funkmaster Flex That record with Biggie is tough. I even like it without Biggie on it. There is a version without Biggie on it. I think the 12 inch didn’t have Biggie. That record is tough.

Lil Cease Big had wrote a rhyme for Shaq, but it was something too much for Shaq to say. It was some hard shit. It was some gangster shit. Shaq was like, “I can’t. I’m a ballplayer, I can’t say that type of shit.”

Peter Gunz Shaq really writes his own stuff. When I tell people that, they say, “That’s bullshit.” All I had to do was critique his flow.

Lord Tariq (artist) Most of the rhymes, he wrote. Me and Pete did the majority of the fill-ins, the stuff he had to tighten up and didn’t have the time to. He came in, learned it and spit it like he wrote it.

Sauce Money (artist, Respect) I was there sort of as a coach. Shaq wrote his own lyrics so I was just really there for moral support. We worked on hooks together and different rhyme schemes. He’s a talented brother. To his credit, to play basketball full time and to do that you would think he would be looking for people to put the work in for him but he definitely pushed his own pen. 

Kay Slay (Director of A&R, Deja34 Records) Last summer, Cam’Ron was in Miami. We told him to come through. Cam came in the studio and was like, “Yo, what is Shaq doing with a pen and pad?” I was like, “He’s writing his rhymes.” People just don’t believe it.

While recording You Can’t Stop the Reign in the summer of 1996, Shaq signed with the Lost Angeles Lakers. He quickly hooked up with a West Coast icon and adapted the sound of his new surroundings. 

Peter Gunz We went to L.A. and got a record with DJ Quik; Shaq came up with the hook.

Tom Sturges (former VP & GM of TWISM Records) “I like playing on the West Side / Even though I miss playing on the East Side.” We were getting 90 spins a week on Power 99 and 100.3 The Beat [in L.A.]. “Straight Playin’” was big.

Peter Gunz I was talking to Jay-Z one day and he said that was Shaquille’s best record ever. He told me, “You know Shaquille’s best record is that record he did with DJ Quik.”

Sturges That whole album was genius, but we couldn’t sell more than 200,000 unfortunately. So we got out of the Trauma deal and did a new JV with A&M. TWISM/A&M put out a second album [with the new deal] called Respect.

Clark Kent (producer, Respect) That Loon joint, “Heat It Up,” was a hit record, but the record company stopped that. The morning after I mixed the record, I took it to The Beat and they added it.

Loon (artist, Respect) On Soul Train, Shaq performed that jam but it wasn’t with me. I turned on Soul Train and it said, “Shaq featuring Loon” and then he came out with not even a good stunt double. I ain’t mad at it. I chalk it up as an industry glitch.

Bailey They changed the song at the last minute. They used someone else to replace Loon and lip-synch the lyrics. It was me. I knew all the raps anyway.

Cus (engineer, Respect) Clark called me and asked, “Do you want to go to L.A. and mix Shaq’s record?” This is in May 1998. They went out to Utah, and came back real fast [Writer’s Note: The Lakers were swept, 4-0, by the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Western Conference Finals.] Kobe Bryant rhymes on Respect. “3X Dope” is the one with Kobe. Go back and listen to that song. There is a third person with Shaq and Sonja Blade; it’s Kobe. From what I understand, they couldn’t get him cleared so they just never wrote that he was on it. Really, who can prove that it was him?

Clark Kent Kobe was out of his mind. He thought that he was nice. The conversations we had about making records were hilarious. He was like, “Yo, because lyrically…” He was like a Ras Kass-type rapper, or at least the thought he was.

Bailey When Phil Jackson came into the picture with the Lakers, he [told Shaq], “I need you to take a break from that and focus on this.” That’s when he decided to step back and focus only on basketball.

 

Chapter III: The Return of the King

Shaq followed Jackson’s advice, took a step back from rap and led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships (2000-2002). He recorded another album, Shaquille O’Neal Presents his Supafriends Vol. 1, which is unreleased. During the 2004 NBA playoffs, DJ Sickamore released Drop Another Day #34 with a freestyle from Shaq. It led to one of the more confusing rap battles in hip-hop history. 

DJ Sickamore (mixtape DJ, Drop Another Day #34) I got the song from an old man in a trench coat on a side street. I didn’t even know at the time that he was dissing Mad Skillz. I didn’t know until later.

Skillz (artist) My man told me, “Come listen to this Sickamore mixtape. I think this nigga Shaquille is talking about you.” I’m like, “Shaquille who?” To this day, I have no idea what I said to tick him off that bad.

Lord Tariq  I think Skillz came to Orlando. Whether he worked with Shaq, I don’t know.

Bailey I’ve been there for every single one of Shaq’s sessions and I ain’t ever seen Skillz write a verse for him.

Skillz I never wrote anything for Shaq. If I did, he would have sold a lot more records

Peter Gunz I want to say that Skillz said something about Shaq being wack.

Lord Tariq Skillz was talking a lot of shit. Corey told me all about it.

Corey Gunz (artist) I don’t recall from where it stemmed from or where it all started but I know he said some things that Shaquille didn’t like.

Skillz Maybe the Supafriendz thing. In a song that never really dropped, I said, “I’m from the R-I-C / Anybody saying Supafriendz is lying if they don’t know me.” That was [directed at] local cats from my city. Anyhow, I did an answer to Shaq, which was “The Champ is Here.” Then he put out an answer, so I did a whole CD. Off that mixtape, Skillz vs. Shaq, I might have made over $20,000.

DJ Vlad (mixtape DJ, Hot in Here Part 5) I told Shaq, “Do you want to respond on this?” He sent me a CD with a couple of freestyles. The Kobe disses got on ESPN. We were supposed to do something with MTV but I think his lawyers told him to lay low.

Bailey Shaq killed him

Kay Slay Mad Skillz is a great lyricist and so is Shaq. I would say it was a draw.

Funkmaster Flex Who battled Skillz? Shaq? I didn’t know that. Mad Skillz? I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. Mad Skillz said something slick about me on a record anyway. He said something slick.

DJ Vlad I think that one line about Skillz being a valet parker killed it. Shaq called me saying, “Thanks for helping me win my first hip-hop battle.”

Skillz You’re kidding me, right? The day Shaq beats me in a battle, is the day he’ll be able to fit in a fucking Ford Fiat.

Following the battle, Shaq retreated from the music industry.

Peter Gunz Shaquille really kind of retired from rap. You will never get another rap album from Shaquille. Ever time I bring it up, he says, “I’m retired. It’s over.” He will do a song with you but as far as doing another album, he says he’s done. I think it was the politics. I think he got tired of hearing he wasn’t a rapper. You can quote me on this, I don’t care, and he said, “There is not enough money in rap.” Not enough money in hip hop for him to put up with the politics.

Corey Gunz Music is in his blood. Every time I see him, he plays me stuff he made. He stays in the studio.

Kay Slay He’s never going to move on from hip hop. This man is hip hop to the fullest.

Ron Artest (athlete, rapper) It doesn’t get any more hip hop than Shaq’s albums. He kind of led the rebirth of hip hop because hip hop had turned to R&B and Shaq wasn’t trying to take it that route. Shaq is a pioneer.

Flex I spoke to Shaq one day about sports guys who make rap records, and he said, ‘Just remember, I’m the best one out here that did this sports thing on the mic.’ He was right. He was saying it jokingly but he was right.

WC (artist, Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriendz. Vol. 1) Shaq had bangers. He had actual bangers. I’m not saying those other cats couldn’t rap but Shaq had bangers.

Skillz He’s probably the most successful ball player turned rapper but that doesn’t say much. They were all ass, all of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spike Lee Interview, May 2004

Even the best of Spike Lee's films are short on subtlety and gloriously self-indulgent. Yet warts and all, I love all of them except for Girl 6 (1996) and She Hate Me (2004). Having seen fewer movies in recent years, I’ve avoided two potential stinkers: Miracle at St. Anna (2008) and 2012’s Red Hook Summer.

At times, She Hate Me plays like a male sexual fantasy—one of film’s many, many storylines revolves around a stud knocking up a gaggle of hot lesbians for cash. Lee addressed the film’s sexual politics during our interview. He also discussed the Dixie Chicks/Clear Channel controversy, Halliburton, Soul Plane, R. Kelly’s post-sex tape comeback, Kobe Bryant’s legal problems and Janet Jackson’s nip slip. It is all very 2004. Hopefully, it’s still a good read.

(Originally published as a 750 word Q&A in The Source magazine’s August 2004 issue.)

May 12 2004

After receiving this assignment, I went straight to Blockbuster to rent Mo Better Blues, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Crooklyn and Girl 6 since I hadn’t seen them in years. They didn’t carry them.

I know. I’m not the only filmmaker affected but they go by strictly Hollywood releases. She’s Gotta Have It has never come out on DVD. We’re working on that. We’re also working on a 10-year anniversary of Malcolm X on DVD.

10 years? It came out 12 years ago.

Yeah, we’re working on it for the 15th year anniversary. They probably only have two or three copies per store of 25th Hour, so it’s a little unfortunate. You probably had to go to Kim’s Video.

I went to three Blockbusters to get all of them.

Well, I’m glad you put in that effort. It’s sad though. Their stuff is mostly current. They don’t have a vast catalogue of older films.

Does it bother you that independent, low-budget films have sort of vanished from rental stores?

That’s the way it is. My films don’t get into a thousand or two thousand theaters so I am really on the fringes of Hollywood. Blockbuster orders their films based on what they do into theaters. To break it down, how many record companies are there now? Clear Channel almost owns all of the radio stations in America. That’s why the playlists are the same. One guy is programming music for millions of people. Two companies are going to own the whole world, that’s what it’s coming to. If you’re a studio, you have to deal with Blockbuster. They are the only game in town.

Most people don’t know about the Clear Channel monopoly.

One of the first things George Bush did when he came in office was he deregulated. There was a lot of deregulation in business. Before, nobody could own that many radio stations and this guy was one of the biggest contributors to his campaign—they are golfing buddies. So when the Dixie Chicks say they are ashamed about being from the same state as President Bush, what happens? Clear Channel organizes a boycott on all the Country Western stations and they start these Dixie Chicks CD-burning rallies and pull their records from the playlists. It’s dangerous.

So then, this film has pretty good timing.

We hope so. We hope so. This is an election year. The convention will be here in August and we open on July 30.

The convention will shut down New York.

You saw how they are going to have the whole area around Madison Square Garden on lockdown? You won’t be able to get within blocks of the Garden. It’s going to be crazy Gestapo.

People complained about Giuliani. This is a whole other level of political gangsters.

[Laughs] It’s gangsterism.

You’ve touched on corporate culture and money before like in He Got Game. It always seems to be this theme of money corrupting the pure.

I think there is a way to be an honorable upright corporate citizen, be on the up-and-up and not rip people off. It that means, you got to make one less billion and don't have to lay people off…The whole thing now is cut the work force to the bone and maximize profits, no matter what you have to do. You got to lie, cheat, steal, cook the books, sell your momma on 42nd Street, anything. That’s what you got to do because you have to deliver the bottom line. And what’s amazing is that a lot of these guys have graduated from Harvard Business School. When people ask me what She Hate Me is about and I want to give them the short version, I say, It’s an examination of the moral, ethical and maybe cultural decline of America. Here you have this whistle blower, John Henry Armstrong, who is appalled by the actions of his bosses and because he blows the whistle, the squeeze is pulled on him. Because his financial situation is in dire straits, he is forced to compromise his scruples and morals for money.

There’s that one line in the movie, ‘We are all a bunch of hypocrites.’

And that’s what I love about this film because I feel like if people come to this film, which I hope they do, everybody can recognize this. It’s not just about a guy being a VP at a pharmaceutical company, everybody, no matter who you are, you are faced with the decision to make a choice and the choice you have to make goes against your morals and standards. But because there might be a raise or some perks to it, they put that aside and do what they have to do. But you always have to deal with the repercussions of what you do. Now, if you asked Martha Stewart to rethink what she did, of course so. How much was she trying to save $50,000?

That’s nothing to her.

She buys chairs and vases for $50,000.

Did they go after her as an example?

Yeah, they wanted her. But that is the whole thing. That’s why in this film we have the perp walks. It’s all publicity to restore confidence in the American investor in Wall Street. So they wake up whatever the guys name was at Adelphia and they drag him out at 6 a.m. in his pajamas. Now what TV crew is going to be there at 6 a.m.? You know they were tipped off. So a lot of these perp walks are just for show. People think that all people on Wall Street are crooks. Ken Lay hasn’t spent one day in jail yet? Why? Well, maybe because he was one of Bush’s golfing buddies. Halliburton. Who was the president of Halliburton? Dick Cheney. How did Halliburton get that contract for Iraq without a bid for $8 billion? The motherfucking vice president was the president of Halliburton. And then you read every day about how they are ripping off the American government. They are ripping them off for the price of gas—crooks! So these things, I think people can look at this film and connect it to stuff that is in the newspapers. It’s all really dealing with stuff that is in the air now.

There was that one scene in 25th Hour where Monty says, ‘Send those Enron assholes to jail for life.’ That line got a pretty big roar in my theater.

That scene was in the book but it wasn’t in the script that I read. I went back, read the book and then went to Dave [screenwriter David Benioff] like, ‘Where is this scene Dave? It’s great! How come it’s not in the script?’ ‘Disney doesn’t want it. They think it will make Monty Brogan too negative of a character.’ ‘Fuck that, we’re putting it back in.’ So we expanded and put in all the 9/11 stuff. We wanted this film to take place after 9/11 and reflect post-9/11 New York City.

Did Barry Pepper’s character in 25th Hour inspire the idea for She Hate Me? He kind of represented that loathsome Wall Street asshole.  

No, She Hates Me comes out of the In Clone, Martha Steward, Enron, Tyco and Adelphia stuff—these people who worship at the alter of money. There is a key line in the song that plays over the end credits, ‘Is God your money or is money your God?’ Because if money is your God, you can do anything. You have no morals and no scruples. If money is your God, you will do whatever it takes to get that money. You will have your momma out in the street hoing on Forty Doo Wop. We used to call 42nd Street, Forty Doo Wop.

Isn’t it ironic though that you are making that point in this film but you are working for the studios, who, like these corporations, are all about profit?

That’s really the irony. But Sony Classics really cares about film as an art form and they were the only ones that wanted to do it. They were getting ready to go to Cannes and the next day I called them up and said I got a script. We had lunch at Tao, I gave them the script and they read the script on the way to Cannes. Then they said, Let’s do it. This film barely got made—barely.

Your lead, Anthony Mackie is a young guy, kind of an unknown. He was great in 8 Mile. You worked with so many recent Oscar winners right when they were starting out: Denzel, Halle Berry, Adrien Brody…

I didn’t pluck Denzel but here are the people: Do the Right Thing was Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez’s first film; Jungle Fever was Halle Berry’s first film; Clockers was Mekhi Phifer’s first film. We’ve been able to work with some really talented people. I think being a director is like being a GM for a sports team. The great teams have a good blend of your seasoned, grizzled veterans and youth. I felt that it was always good to have some roles for some young people. There is a ton of talent out there but what there isn’t a ton of is opportunity. We always try to have a couple of springboards in the script so if people are up to the task…There have been others who have had that opportunity but they slept on it and you haven’t heard from them or they didn’t blow up like these other people who realized the opportunity.

[Writer’s Note: Okay, where the hell is the obvious follow-up question?]

I remember when Summer of Sam was cast, people were shocked that Adrien Brody got the lead. All he had was like five minutes in The Thin Red Line.

Here’s the thing about it: He was telling everybody he was the lead actor, but Terrence Malick…[Laughs]

Most of his performance wound up on the cutting room floor.

He was telling us and everyone on the set that he was the star in the movie.

After Denzel and Halle won Best Actor and Best Actress at the 2002 Academy Awards, you said that the importance of their victories was overrated. Do you still believe that?

Yeah, because when they won, I was reading these articles that said it was a watershed moment and that the climate had changed in Hollywood towards African-American talent. I knew that was bullshit. People were just caught up in the euphoria of the moment. People were also elated for Denzel because they know he was robbed for Malcolm X, The Hurricane and Philadelphia. But caught up in that euphoria, I think people really lost reality. They thought these two awards were symbolic that we were going to be delivered and Hollywood was finally going to recognize who we are. But it might be another forty years. What people don’t realize is that Halle and Denzel won these awards but the people who make the decisions, the people I call the Gatekeepers, have not changed. There is not one person of color in a Hollywood studio that could green light a picture. I got all the love for Denzel and Halle but the real victory is going to come when we get in those positions of the Gatekeepers. Because if we do and if I’m a Gatekeeper at MGM, I’m going to say, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not making this motherfucking film Soul Plane. We’re not doing that.’ The original title was N.W.A. Niggaz With Airplanes. Hydraulics on the plane. The plane has rims. And people said we made shit up with Bamboozled.

Has anything changed since Bamboozled?

Not at all, c’mon. African-Americans say, ‘Look what Hollywood is doing to us.’ The reason why we could say that is because these scripts were being written and directed by white filmmakers. But today, we’re doing it. It is people of color writing and directing these films. The studios can say, ‘Look, we’re not writing them, just putting up the money.’ And then, ‘We wouldn’t make them if the films weren’t making so much money.’ They are poised on the success of Soul Plane and gearing up to do the sequel.

It’s opening Memorial Day Weekend, which is a huge weekend.

Oh, they’re spending money on this and it’s going to make money. I’m not even talking about the actors because they do what they gotta do. If any of the actors read this, my beef is not with you, it’s with the studio. I understand you got to do what you got to do but we are reverting back to the 30’s and 40’s with imagery. I feel this is really coonery and buffoonery at the utmost.

Do you think that’s worse now that 15 years ago?

I think so.

When Clockers came out, you said you wanted it to be “the nail in the coffin for hood movies.”

That was a very naïve statement on my part. At that time, we were just in a rash of hip-hop shoot ‘em up drug films in the ghetto. I always kid John Singleton about creating that monster.

What about New Jack City? That came out before Boyz N the Hood.

Nah, I think Boyz N the Hood had a greater effect. I also kid my cousin Malcolm Lee for being Dr. Frankenstein with the romantic comedies because he made The Best Man. But when you’re a filmmaker, you’re just trying to do the best you can do. I was naïve when I said, ‘If we’re successful with Clockers, this will put the final nail in the coffin of this hip-hop, drug, shoot ‘em up so and so.’ And here we are how many years later?

Nine years.

Still going on. But the shit hasn’t evolved and the films back then were better. They have not done it better. If you look at Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, what films better than those have come out in that genre?

Belly [Laughs]

[Laughs] They’re still making them.

I had to watch Belly a few months ago before interviewing DMX.

Did you see his new film?

Yeah.

How was it?

It looked good.

The guy who shot that also shot She Hate Me. He also shot Requiem for a Dream and Pi.

Is Aronofsky ever going to make another film? It’s been four years since Requiem.

He’s trying.

Back to She Hate Me. There were some scenes where it seemed like you were speaking through your characters. Do you do that often?
Not all the time.

John Turturro’s character…

Oh, that was me. John Turturro was talking about how all these rappers have a.k.a.’s. Who is that guy that has Murder Inc.?

Irv Gotti.

I don’t understand what he said. ‘People have such negativity about the word murder. I don't understand why people would put negative connotations on the word murder. Because of that, we’re not going to be Murder Inc. We’ll just be The Inc.’ He don't understand? Murder Inc., he didn’t make that up. That was real. Why did they call them Murder Inc? Because they killed motherfuckers. They were murderers. They just didn’t pick the name out of a hat. Maybe it was the way I read it, but he had this disbelief that people were upset with Murder Inc. as the name of his company.

Do you still listen to hip-hop?

I love hip-hop but I don't like gangster rap. I can’t get with that, sorry. Bitch, ho, suck my dick, Cristal, my rims, my platinum…

In Chris Rock’s latest stand-up special he said, ‘I love rap, but I’m tired of defending it.’

How can you defend, ‘til the sweat drips from my balls?’

Lil Jon was on our cover a few months ago.

Let me ask you a question: as a human being, you shouldn’t grow? You should definitely grow as an artist. If your subject matter is the same on your first album as you rap on album’s one, two, three, four or five, the shit is stagnant. You’ve got to grow, and you can’t grow if you don’t fucking read. I love Russell Simmons but my beef with him was for a while in interviews he’d always say, ‘I never read a book in my life.’ I used to say, ‘Russell, even if that’s true, why would you say that shit?’ He doesn’t say it anymore. How many young kids saw that and said, ‘If Russell never read a book, shit, it worked for him.’ Did you guys cover what happened at Spellman College?

Kind of.

[Writer’s Note: Off the record conversation about The Source. I do not remember the details.] I think the public, the consumers who buy records and movies have to be more demanding of the artists and the companies. If you are a woman and you see a video that is insulting to your womanhood, you have the right to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not buying that artist’s records.’ It is your right. If I’ve done a film that you feel was insulting, it is your right to say, ‘Fuck Spike.’ Me? I can’t buy another R. Kelly record. I have a nine-year-old daughter. And I believed him until he said it wasn’t him and due to some Industrial Light and Magic special effects they put his head on his brother’s body. That’s when I bought the DVD from in front of The Wiz for $10 and that shit was him. I’m sorry, some people can separate the artist from their personal life but when I saw that video, I saw somebody’s daughter. I know for a while Black radio was like, ‘I’m appalled by R. Kelly, we’re not playing it.’

And then ‘Ignition’ came out.

Yeah. [Laughs]. Once he came out with ‘Step’ it didn’t matter.

One of my co-workers wouldn’t let anyone in the office play R. Kelly after the scandal broke. But he played the new album front-to-back.

[Laughs] Once this thing comes out, they will probably make this decision about Michael Jackson, Kobe…People probably made their decision about Janet. She probably thought that would help her record sales, but in hindsight, it might have hurt her. That’s another thing. What I would like to see artists do is get back to the work. Let’s really concentrate on the work vs. how we are going to sell the work. It’s crazy. I feel like they were looking at what Madonna and Britney did like, ‘Okay, they did that, that lowered the bar. What’s going to be the next thing underneath the bar?’ So they cooked up this crazy scheme to flash a nipple.

You think it was planned?

I don't know who did but that shit wasn’t an accident. Someone is going to do something crazier than that like whip their dick out. What about the work? Put the energy in the work and let the work sell itself. There have to be some boundaries to how we are going to sell out work.

The Kobe thing is so crazy.

I was telling my wife Tonya that I don't think Kobe is going to come back to the Lakers and he might come to New York. She was like, ‘Why should the Knicks get him?’ There will be a lot of people like, ‘Fuck it. I don't care what he did, that motherfucker can play and he can play for the Knicks too.’ It’s just complicated.

If he’s not convicted.

Well, if he’s found guilty, he’s playing for no one. He’ll be playing for the hoosegow.

Didn’t Jim Dolan ship Sprewell out because of ‘character issues?’

That would be a thing. He shouldn't have said that because he said we wanted character people. What is he going to say about Kobe?

Sorry to break the news to you man, but I think Kobe will stay with the Lakers.

[Laughs]. They came back and won those last two games. [Game 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals.]


What do you think about the playoff schedules?
I think those games are spread out too far. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that NASCAR has better ratings than the NBA. The play is not as good as it used to be.

Most guards have shaky jumpers.

And you know why? They don’t show jumpers on Sportscenter. What do they show on Sportscenter? Dunks.

Even thought the Nets swept them, are you happy the Knicks made the playoffs?

I agree with Isiah that we had to get there. We made the playoffs, that was a goal. Everybody would like to see the season end better than it did.

I know we only have a few more minutes. Let me get back to She Hate Me. Do you fear a backlash from the lesbian community?

No. I’m not going to rule it out. I mean, you always have the fringe, the 'Feminazis." Hopefully there isn’t a large contingent but there are lesbians who think that any lesbian who is within 10-feet of penis isn’t a lesbian.

This film is almost like a male’s sexual fantasy.

I know we have been accused of that but I really don't think that because of the way it is constructed. This wasn’t his idea, it was brought to him by his ex-fiancée and she’s one that’s driving it. She wanted that 10% cut.

Any cuts made to get the R rating?

There were some cuts but they were not that severe. We are very happy with the MPAA. Other films were back and forth.


Summer of Sam?

Oh yeah. [Laughs] I think it’s well documented that the MPAA is more lenient on violence then they are on sex though. You can shoot somebody in the head and it’s an R. Look at Private Ryan and what Steven did in that opening sequence. That is the greatest representation of war is hell ever—that should be an X? That was great filmmaking. That’s what war is. If you show two consenting adults making love, it’s X-rated.

Well, we are a violent society.

We were founded on violence.

Couple more quick ones: John Singleton just did 2 Fast 2 Furious. Would you ever do a blockbuster action film?

If I liked the story. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a sequel.

What happened with Ali?

I wanted to do Ali. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t meant to be. The powers that be said, No Lee.

Michael Mann did Ali. Spielberg did Amistad. Does it bother you that white men are directing these epic films about the Black experience?

It’s always been like that. Amistad was Steven Spielberg’s film. It was his script. Ali was something I thought I was going to do. Will and Columbia Pictures just weren’t feeling me.

Are you doing the Jackie Robinson film next?

Nah, now it looks like Robert Redford is going to do that. His company is producing it and he’ll play Branch Rickey. Rachel Robinson owns the rights.

What about the Joe Louis film?
That, I have the rights to. I’m hoping to get that made with Vin Diesel playing Joe Louis.

What happened with Rent?

That never happened. Miramax and Harvey Weinstein fucked things up.

So that won’t get made?
Not by me.

Is Joe Louis next?
Don’t know yet.

Do you watch Chappelle’s Show?

Oh yeah. I want him to be in my next film.

Why don’t you act in your films anymore?

Really no need to. We got better actors. Let me concentrate on behind the camera.

 

Welcome to my very own cutting room floor

Thanks for visiting my site. If we’ve never met, I’m a New York City-based feature writer obsessed with sports, true crime, rap music and people with…complicated stories. Instead of using it as a dumping ground for 3,000 word blathering (which I’m told, you can get paid for these days), I’m going to use it for something kind of different: as a cutting-room floor of sorts. This is where I’ll publish full transcripts of interviews, funny anecdotes about what happens while I’m reporting, and extras that don’t make it into my pieces.

I may also publish “director’s cuts” of some of my favorite stories, which I guess is potentially interesting blathering. If you’re unfamiliar with my work, I’d suggest starting with the selections on the homepage before working your way through the feature archive. And at the end of it all, please let me know what you think! I’m happy to chat over Twitter or e-mail.

Thanks!

Thomas