Thursday, October 26, 2006

Confessions Of A Teenage Hip Hop Addict

When was the last time you spent a whole week’s wages on records? I used to do it all the time. OK, so I’m talking about back when I was a paperboy, and my wages weren’t all that, but still - £7.00 was a lot of money to a 12/13-year-old to blow all at once, especially on just one record. You see, the music I was into was hip hop/ electro, the obsession started in 1984 and, with the exception of Morgan Khan’s life-saving Streetsounds ‘Electro’ compilations, if you wanted to pick up the latest tracks, you had to buy the import releases from the States.

There were two ways of doing this. The first was that you could send off for mail order catalogues from shops like Bluebird Records, who would post you photocopied update lists on a monthly basis (remember this is all pre-internet) which you would send back with your choices marked and a cheque. And considering when you ticked the box you wanted that record immediately, the wait, sometimes anything up to two weeks, was absolute agony. Every day after placing an order, an early morning ring on the doorbell would send me flying down the stairs, ever hopeful that it would be the postie clutching a brown card 12” sized package with my name on it. I even used to come home from school at lunchtime to see if it had come in the second post.

Buying music this way also came with risks. Often the choices you were making weren’t considered choices, based on the fact that you had heard the track and knew it was a blinder. There wasn’t even a decent magazine for reference around at the time – Hip Hop Connection didn’t start until 1989, though Blues and Soul did cover the genre. DJ-wise, you were reliant on the mighty John Peel* who was always guaranteed to play at least two or three songs on a good night. I can remember trying to pick up pirate radio stations, and hearing all the talk of booster aerials and Robbie Vincent on LBC. Dave Pearce and Westwood (of course) were also representing, but living where I lived, it wasn’t possible to pick up their shows. Most of the time you were guessing and relying on your instincts to pick a good ‘un, as there were always new artists coming onto the scene, and part of the game was trying to get hold of something that none of your mates had ever heard before. There was great kudos to be had from discovering something brand new, but you always faced the possibility that you'd purchased a dud. After the agonising wait, came the crushing disappointment when the needle dropped and you heard a wack beat or some lame scratches and weak rhymes, or even worse – you’d been mailed a Fat Boys record by mistake.

One way to avoid this disappointment was to head to the capital and get into the record shops where you could sample the wares before you parted with your cash. I was lucky as my Dad often attended the British Film Institute offices in Soho, not far from Greek Street, in which was located the mighty Groove Records (RIP), a church of sorts for people like me. I was often the only teenage white kid in the whole shop (unless accompanied by a friend), and would have found the whole experience hugely intimidating if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was on a mission and solely concerned with accessing the music. I’d head straight for the ‘Just In’ section or whatever it was called, where all the freshest slabs of vinyl were racked. Rows of records in (mostly) plain white card sleeves, so all the information was on the labels and you’d end up studying them for ages looking for clues. A cool label logo (I still get a rush when I see the purple spray paint label logo of Pop Art), a known producer or writing credit, the immortal words ‘Cuts by…’, guaranteeing there would be scratching, and all the exotic label locations mentioning places you’d never been but wished you had – Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia… Once the guys behind the counter realised you weren’t after “that one by Whistle with the Inspector Gadget tune in it”, they were pretty helpful and would often give you inside tips on the hottest tracks in that week, and let you listen to stuff if they weren’t too busy. I’ll never forget the buzz of being in that shop, hearing the tunes blasting out of the massive speakers, knowing I would be heading home with some fresh new vinyl in a bag and feeling that little bit closer to the music that I loved.

Kid Frost - Terminator (Vocal Mix)

If you read all of that, here is your reward in the form of a few of my Groove Records highlights, kicking off with Kid Frost’s ‘Terminator’. In this instance, I had already heard it, as the track featured on ‘Electro 9’, released in 1985. It was an immediate favourite for me, and getting hold of the original 12” on a rare trip to London represented a massive triumph. I can remember checking out the label before I purchased it and seeing that it was produced by Dave Storrs, who had produced early Ice-T tracks and ‘Itchiban Scratch’ by Ice’s DJ Chris ‘The Glove’ Taylor, a track I had loved since hearing it on ‘Electro 7’. The version of ‘Terminator’ on ‘Electro 9’ was abbreviated, and here I was about to purchase the full 6-minute version, freshly sealed in shrink wrap, and with the tiny green import sticker on the back that was the record’s badge of authenticity. It’s a killer track, with Kid Frost’s menacing delivery, vocodered in parts, and an atmospheric backdrop, which sounds a bit like a John Carpenter horror soundtrack, with storm effects, rolling drums and a measured bassline.

Z-3 MC's - Triple Threat (Radio Mix)

I didn’t buy this one, my mate Lee did, but I was there with him at the time, which would have been late 1985, or possibly early ‘86. I can remember him picking it out purely because of the cover. For once, the record didn’t have a plain white sleeve, it had a black and white picture sleeve featuring pictures of the Z-3 MC’s, three skinny black kids from Baltimore, crouching by a giant ghetto blaster and just generally hanging out. It also had the immortal word ‘Beat Box Convention’ which hinted that the record might well feature human beat box, something that me and all my mates were totally obsessed with. Purchased for the cover alone the record could still have been a let down, but on getting back to Lee’s house and playing it for the first time, we weren’t disappointed. Heavy, heavy beats, urgent rapping, razor sharp cuts from DJ Cheese, a King Tut keyboard riff and some awesome beat box combined to make this a sensational purchase. I can remember he let me tape it on the spot, which was rare as normally everything had to be traded for something, a track for a track or whatever, often on the understanding that you couldn’t then let someone else tape it off you. It wasn’t unusual for fights to break out when somebody found out their record had been dealt without their consent.

Public Enemy - Public Enemy # 1

It was at Groove Records in 1987 that I managed to pick up a promo of Public Enemy’s debut 12” ‘Public Enemy # 1’ (the 12” label had the gun target logo printed onto it), which was so hot off the press I don’t even think the UK radio DJ’s had been able to get their hands on it. I just happened to be in the shop when they received a shipment, the box was opened, and the record was immediately whacked on the turntable. It opened with Terminator X’s distinctive scratch on the crazy moog riff from Fred Wesley and the JB's 'Blow Your Head', then Flavor Flav whined his intro, the tuffest of beats dropped and I heard Chuck D deliver a rhyme for the first time. Everyone who was in the shop went straight to the counter, clamouring to get their hands on a copy. I was among them, but was sure I would be passed over and I didn't want to end up crying in public, especially not in Groove Records. Luckily there was one for me too – I like to think it was because they recognised me, but it’s more likely that my £7 was as good as anyone else’s. I can’t find any mention of this white label release anywhere, but I know it existed as I used to have it.

Search ebay for old school hip hop/electro vinyl
Lots of links to great old school hip hop websites here
Full listing for all Streetsounds Hip Hop/Electro albums at Vinyl Vulture
Hip Hop timeline at
Public Enemy official website
Kid Frost at Wikipedia

*As a footnote to this piece, I must make mention of the fact that yesterday marked two years since John Peel died. He was inspirational in my life on many levels, but particularly as the only Radio One DJ who played and enjoyed hip hop music during the formative years. I would smuggle my Mum and Dad’s radio/cassette player into my bedroom and sit up waiting for the two or three import hip hop tracks he would play every night. Often I would end up falling asleep and miss out on a track or two, and have to face the humiliation the following day at school when asked, “Did you get the tracks off Peely last night?”. I’ve still got a few of the old tapes, all painstakingly re-edited on a tape-to-tape to get rid of John’s chit chat – I can’t tell you how much I regret that now. I’d love to still have his random musings and sardonic quips, though I guess he’d be happier that I kept the music in preference to his ramblings. I still miss him, and even though I know there are plenty of great DJ’s on the radio playing brilliant music, for me, and most people who grew up listening to John, it will never be the same.

John Peel tribute site at Radio 1
Brilliant website with an archive of past Peel shows to download here