This is the second installment of an ongoing series about my years as a white rocker dude who became a player in the Northwest hip-hop game during the eighties and nineties. You can read the first installment, about my recent reunion with Sir Mix-A-Lot, by going here.
Everything has to have a beginning. For me it came in 1980, in the town of Lakewood, Washington, working at a record store called Penny Lane.
This was not only my introduction to hip-hop, but also where my real journey in the music industry began. It would eventually take a long-haired, 20-something-year-old white rocker dude — whose own musical tastes ran much more to Alice Cooper than to Afrika Bambaataa — all the way to Hollywood working in the big time with the likes of Rick Rubin and Sir-Mix-A-Lot. That story will unfold in due course over the life cycle of this series, but for now our main focus remains those same humble beginnings back in 1980.
I had previously worked for Penny Lane Records right out of high school in the 1970s, and for an 18-year-old rockaholic like me, it was a great gig. A dream gig actually.
I mean, what was there not to like about getting paid for listening to records all day, and turning all my buddies in the neighborhood on to my favorite bands and artists of the time like Uriah Heep, Bowie, Mott The Hoople, and a little later down the line, people like Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Springsteen, and Patti Smith? The free records, the concert tickets, and the occasional backstage passes were also a damn nice little perk, thank you very much.
In retrospect, the pay probably wasn't all that great. At the time, though, I probably would've done it for free. Alas, in 1978, I quit Penny Lane for a year to manage a competing record store across town — which turned out to be an experience that is best left forgotten. In other words, it sucked.
So when Penny Lane owner Willie MacKay asked me back to manage his brand new store in Lakewood, I jumped at the chance.
With Lakewood being a town located 40 miles outside of Seattle, and just outside of Tacoma, I knew this would represent a change of geography — which for me was fine. What I wasn't quite as prepared for was the change in clientele.
1980's Lakewood was a military town, and largely remains one today. Penny Lane was conveniently located virtually next door to the area's two largest military bases — McChord AFB and the army installation at Fort Lewis. My boss Willie — who always had a nose for money — knew a potential goldmine when he saw one.
What I would learn just as quickly as his manager and buyer is that I would have to make certain adjustments. What amazes me to this day is just how adaptable I became, and just how radically it would alter the next fifteen years of my life and even beyond.
As a rather knowledgeable music fan, I was a bit of a Rockologist even back then. Name that tune in five notes? As long as it was within the realm of rock and roll, I could probably name it in two — along with the artist, the label, the producer and any other such geeky facts you'd care to mention. I was also an aspiring music journalist, plying my trade primarily in a weekly column for my neighborhood paper, The West Seattle Herald, for the hefty sum of ten bucks an article.
Where my knowledge base wasn't anywhere near as strong, however, was in the area of Black music. That was definitely my Achilles heel.
In fact, at the time, I didn't care much about Black music at all. To me, if anything 1980 represented the hangover following the late '70s disco boom, and as far as I was concerned it was good riddance to bad rubbish — at least musically speaking. Did I mention that I was also a bit of a music snob?
While I liked some of the R&B music that came from that period — Earth Wind & Fire springs most immediately to mind — I also found the vast majority of it to be disposable at best. To me, good R&B meant Marvin Gaye, Issac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield. Groups like Kool & The Gang or The Trammps, on the other hand, were like nails on a chalkboard to my oh-so-precious virgin ears.
Nonetheless, upon the realization that the customer base at the new record store was about seventy percent black, I best did whatever I could to adjust.
I played lots of records instore by artists like Rick James, Michael Jackson, and George Clinton (all artists whose music I generally liked), in between my own favorites at the time like The Clash, Pink Floyd and Springsteen. In the meantime, I boned up on my R&B knowledge by listening to the local Black station KFOX in my car, and by studying the Black music charts on Billboard (which I also ordered the store's music straight off of).
The rap thing, however, came completely out of left field.
Since our clientele was largely military, a lot of these guys also happened to be east coast transplants who came from cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. They also brought their local scenes and their personal tastes with them.
At the time, all I knew of rap was the Sugarhill Gang and "Rappers Delight." So when these guys started asking for records by artists with weird names like Grandmaster Flash and Soul Sonic Force, it was easy to ignore at first. After all, it was an even playing field back then — we didn't have the records, but neither did any of the other stores in town from Tower Records on down.
So I was never the least bit embarrassed when I had to say "Kurtis Who?" — and I had to say it often those first few months. At least ten times a day when it came to Kurtis Blow and his song, "The Breaks," in fact.
By this time, Penny Lane had instituted a policy with several local club DJ's where in exchange for promoting the store at their gigs, we gave them a discount and tossed them the occasional free promo copy. It was a win-win that turned out to be an important turning point both for Penny Lane and for my own credibility as a white rocker guy with a Black customer base. It was also one of Willie's more inspired ideas.
As the main representative of the store, this soon led to promotions which would necessitate my going out to the Black clubs, and eventually also led to my developing some very close friendships with a number of the DJs.
As much as the idea of being the only white guy in these all-Black clubs initially scared the crap out of me, I also had to admit that by this time the music was starting to get under my skin.
In fact, the way these Tacoma DJ's like Kooly Hy, Galaxy, and Jammin' Green scratched and mixed the records was something I soon became quite fascinated with. I had to somewhat begrudgingly admit that there was definitely an art to this, and that these guys really knew their shit in terms of music history. The best of them, in fact, were true musicologists who knew their Motown from their Mike Bloomfield. By this time, I was intrigued and then some.
After doing some research in Billboard, I soon realized that Penny Lane could also obtain these seemingly impossible-to-get rap records. What's more, it was ridiculously easy to do so. After placing a phone call to a New York based rap distributor called Tape King, we ordered our first batch of about 100 12" singles. I think they included titles by Grandmaster Flash, Trouble Funk, The Treacherous Three, and this one record called "Mirda Rock" by some guy named Reggie Griffin and his group Technofunk.
We sold the box out in less than a day.
As word got out that Penny Lane was carrying the hard-to-get rap records, the demand grew as well. Within six months, Penny Lane's three racks of 12" rap singles soon grew to an entire aisle, and then to two entire aisles. At any given time, we eventually carried an inventory of thousands of these 12" rap singles.
My own knowledge of the genre also grew exponentially. The most important thing I began to learn about was the independent labels which distributed the records.
Sugarhill had a blue label, and specialized in New York hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Enjoy and Profile both had red labels, and were also mainly about New York based artists like the Treacherous Three (Kool Moe Dee's earliest records). Tommy Boy had a white label and specialized in New York techno-funk acts like Soul Sonic Force and the Jonzun Crew. D.E.T.T. was the Washington D.C. "go-go" music label with acts like Trouble Funk, and so forth. Wow!
The records themselves often took on a life of their own, as was the case with Tom Tom Club's "Genius Of Love." When the Talking Heads offshoot band's funky tribute to the hip-hop scene became an unlikely hit, it spawned numerous rap knock-offs, of which the most notorious was Grandmaster Flash's "It's Nasty." For a time, Penny Lane stocked no less than ten different "Genius" records, and they sold so fast, we couldn't even keep them in stock.
As hip-hop's popularity — and Penny Lane's reputation as the go-to spot to get it — grew from the underground to the mainstream, so did my own celebrity within Tacoma's rap community. Customers began to come from neighboring cities like Portland and Seattle, and more than a few of our competitors (like Eucalyptus Records) were soon sent packing their bags.
One of those customers was a guy named Robert Newman, a hip-hop fan who was also editor of The Rocket, the Seattle music rag of note. Newman had also begun to take notice of the Tacoma hip-hop scene. He was already a fan of the music, and he eventually asked me to take him and a few other Rocket staffers out to check out the Tacoma scene firsthand.
So we all went out to see DJ Kooly Hy — who was at the time Tacoma's hottest hip-hop DJ — at some dive-ass bar in downtown Tacoma. The turnout might have been ten people at best (and we were six of them), but Kooly Hy put on a dazzling display of turntable wizardry for the Seattle folks that night. I was asked to write a feature article about him for The Rocket soon afterward. This would in turn lead to a ten year gig as The Rocket's resident rap writer/editor (about which we'll have more on in a future chapter of this series).
Then Whiz Kid arrived in Tacoma.
Tommy Boy Records, who had already struck gold with techno-funk jams like Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock" and Jonzun Crew's "Pack Jam," also had a moderate hit with "Play That Beat Mr. DJ" by G.L.O.B.E. and DJ Whiz Kid. The record was noteworthy mostly for the furious scratching of Whiz Kid, a New York DJ who was regarded as one of the best around for good reason. The cat definitely had skills.
As fate would have it, Whiz Kid (Harold McGuire) ended up in Tacoma when his military wife Betty (who had her own rap group called Sweet Trio), got orders for McChord AFB. Whiz soon became the center of Tacoma's rap scene — he did have a hit record on Tommy Boy after all — and we also became fast friends.
My friends at The Rocket soon contacted me to get Whiz to play a 50th issue celebration gig in Seattle, opening for Los Lobos of all bands. I drove him from T-Town to Sea-Town on a particularly nasty Northwest winter night. I also ended up writing several Rocket articles about him.
What few people realized about the guy who put on the blinding displays of scratching at those gigs though, was that he was also a very mild-mannered, and even semi-geeky guy. In fact, he spent many a Saturday afternoon at my house playing video games with my then-roommate, Pat.
I would later cross paths again with my friend Harold when I helped sign him to Nastymix Records in the early '90s. Sadly, my friend Harold, a.k.a. DJ Whiz Kid, never repeated the success of "Play That Beat Mr. DJ," and is also no longer with us. God rest your soul Harold. I love ya' bro'.
There is a lot I haven't covered about those early '80s years — like the time I got held up on Halloween night at Penny Lane in 1980. But there is also much to more yet to come in future chapters of this series.
Like the fact that how for the last few years I was at Penny Lane, I kept running into this obnoxious, yet oddly lovable British eccentric named Ray Watson who owned a record store called Music Menu in Seattle's mostly Black Rainier Valley neighborhood. And how Ray eventually made me an offer I couldn't refuse.