Legendary Producer Keith Shocklee on Being Part of Hip-Hop’s Pre-History

Hiphop50-keith-shocklee.jpgVox Media's 2022 Code Conference - Day 2 - Credit: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images
Hiphop50-keith-shocklee.jpgVox Media's 2022 Code Conference - Day 2 - Credit: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

Throughout our hourlong conversation on the roof of mid-town Manhattan’s Starchild Rooftop, legendary rap producer Keith Shocklee veers through his encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop history. Shocklee was around hip-hop before the culture had even coined itself. He’s most popular for being a part of Public Enemy’s six-man Bomb Squad production team with his brother Hank Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Gary G-Wiz, and Chuck D. He says that their trademark sound, in part inspired by the rock bands in the Lower East Side during the late Seventies, was a direct affront to those who demeaned hip-hop as “noise.” They was telling us we wasn’t doing real music. I heard it all,” he says. “My mom’s [was] like, ‘This is loud, what is this? It’s not music, it’s just loud.’ So my brother said, ‘Oh okay, if you think this is loud, we going to make loud music.’”

Their famed “wall of sound” technique, where they layered loops, breakbeats, and other samples, was a consequence of their experience as DJs since the mid-70s. Shocklee helped serves as the soundtrack to Chuck D’s boisterous social commentary on records like “Fight The Power,” backing his booming voice with rambunctious, immersive soundscapes that fuel the urgency of his messaging.

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Today, he’s DJing all over the world and running his Spectrum City Records. As the 50th anniversary of the creation of hip-hop nears, we caught up with Shocklee who had plenty of wisdom to share about how far the genre has come.

Park Jams and the early days of Hip-Hop

“Around here, you only could do it in the summertime. We went down to the park and played whenever we wanted to, even though [we had no] permits. Hip-Hop started in ‘73. DJs was going down to the park before that. It was a sound system culture, then it became more of a DJ culture. The sound system culture started in Brooklyn before the Bronx was doing anything. Well, we didn’t have a term for records. We just played whatever was hot. Disco, funk, soul, whatever was hot and funky was just what you played in the park.”

“And then the disco came out. “The four-on-the-floor started to become popular late ’75, ’76, when that whole culture became “we want to party.” Nobody had rhyme or reason. Nobody understood what this was turning into. You just wanted to have a house party out in the streets.”

“A lot of the Brooklyn cats had the big sound systems that sounded like nightclubs because some of them had houses. Some of the apartment buildings would have a rec center or a open area where people would have their little parties down there. Us on Long Island, oh we had cribs. We had the basics, the garage. And it was fun, man.”

The early origins of DJing

“I started DJing when there was no headphone cue. You had to back cue and line it up, then figure how long would the next record [would] play. And then as one channel went down, the other channel went up. You kind of knew when the next song is coming and you knew when to come in.”

“Turntables coming out of the ’60s and early ’70s [had] belt drives. And the belt drive took a quarter of a turn before it caught the 33 and the third or 45, so you want it to be at full speed when it comes. You hear the record by ear, no headphones, ear in the needle, and you listen. So you turn it back a quarter of a turn, and by the time the belt drive picked up full speed, it took a quarter of a turn, depending upon how good your turntable was.”

“Disco records made it easier to mix because you had a four-on-the-floor and a constant beat. When you’re playing jazz, funk, soul, you’re in different timing. It was kind of hard to do a blend. Everybody had different stories about how they got into [DJing] from my era because it wasn’t a thing. You just bought the top records, and then some cats would play for their family, barbecues the parents would have. [They’d say] ‘Hey, play [us] records because you know what to play, you know what we like.'”

On The Bronx

“The Bronx did carry a certain vibe with [grafitti] because they had a lot of train yards. And between that and the b-boy culture of dancing, I give that to the Bronx. That, and the concept of stretching the best part of the song or the breakdown of the song goes to Kool Herc. To me, Flash and Bambataa and them perfected it because they was the godfathers of it.”

“Growing up, you didn’t go to the Bronx if you’re not from around there. The difference was, there were a lot of people that lived on Long Island that had relatives in the Bronx. My moms lived in Harlem, her brothers and them lived in the Bronx, so we had that connection between the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. So when the culture started to become closer, this is when the rap crews was coming together. A lot of the rap crews was coming out of the Bronx. But everybody had a territory, and if you was lucky enough to go into a territory and nobody fucked with you [from] the other side, then you was good.”

Grand Master Flash and the quick mix

“My cousin used to tell me like, ‘Yo man, we got this guy named Kid Flash (Grandmaster’s original name),’ because he mixed so fast. He said, “Yo, he’s got 13 turntables.” I was like, ‘Ain’t nobody mixing with 13 turntables.’ “But his excitement of how Flash was going back and forth with records made it seem [like he had] 13 turntables, because you’re going from one record to the next [quickly]. He was the inventor of the quick mix.”

On the early perception of MCs 

“There was MCs before Keith Cowboy. You can go back to Frankie Crocker, Eddie OJ, Gary Bird. They used to be on a small radio station called WWRL. They was rhyming on the mic then. You can go back to cats like Wolfman Jack, a white dude, he’s rhyming on the mic. Alan Fried and all them back in the ’50s, they rhyming on the mic.”

“And the term MC comes from Master of Ceremony. You watch an award show back in the ’70s, you had the Master of Ceremonies. There’s certain things that people can lay claim to, but then there’s certain things that people can’t lay claim to, because I just think a certain aspect of hip-hop, when you’re going to say, “I was the first one” … From the DJs, they are the first ones. But as far as being an MC? That’s hard to say, man. And as we go back in time, they was doing the same thing in the ’20s and ’30s. So as a culture and an environment, yeah, we had it different. You could see the Nicholas Brothers damn near break-dancing, and they was a tap dance team. So you had that. You had people doing windmills back in those days. So it was like, ‘How do we phrase that if we want to really get down?'”

“Cats was getting signed late ’70, then by the ’80s it just went bananas. My first rap record I heard was King Tim III from Queens. It was done by the Fatback Band, featuring Personality Jock King Tim III. Nobody used the term rapper.”

“People was calling themselves MCs, in the streets, at the parties, around ’76. Flash gave Cowboy credit for that. Yes, [he deserves credit] for putting it in the street term. DJ Hollywood was doing it at parties and even doing parties in the Apollo. Before that there was Love Bug Starsky and Eddie Cheever. Those cats was actually doing MCing before they started to become rappers. Because you didn’t want a rapper, you wanted an MC to motivate the crowd.”

“When me, Hank and Griff was DJing we never had an MC, we just played music. But we would give people the mic, let them do their thing, I was the main DJ. I would give everybody the mic and all of a sudden the volume goes down [and they rapped].”

On early Hip-Hop radio

“You only heard [hip-hop radio] at like 12 AM. We was intrigued and sitting up all night waiting to hear Mr. Magic on WHBI. Going to school in the morning, your eyes are bleeding because you’ve been up all night listening [laughs].”

“Sometimes [MCs] didn’t want to be so street with [their lyrics]. The way we’re getting away with music now, in the beginning, you didn’t get away with none of that shit because you had radio dictating, and people was afraid of it being ‘race music.’ Like, ‘Hey, we got them colored boys playing race music.’ It was that kind of zone where you didn’t want to offend the radio station.”

“It was a lot different for us than for everybody else. It was one of those things where we got lucky with having [our own] radio station (WDAU). We had one night a week and then we stretched it to two nights a week. Our parties was bigger because of the radio station, and that kind of gave us our in. Having a radio station in ’82-’83 when there [were] only three stations playing rap music, and two of them were college stations: Medgar Evans, I think it was Hank Glove, DNL over there, and WHBI was a pay-for-radio station.”

The early days of Public Enemy

“Chuck never wanted to make a record. It took two years before he decided to go. I would do beats for local artists, and we’d put them on the radio. Chuck will tell you, ‘Yo man, we was doing stuff that people was doing now back in early days, like bringing drum machines, getting down with our DJ sets.’ Now it’s normal, in ’82 it wasn’t. It was like, ‘what’s that right there?’ It was a beatbox. ‘What do you mean a beatbox? What you all going do with it?’ Then we had the beatbox and bassline, so it sounded like I’m doing beats. And it sound like we’re making records or remakes of records, and Chuck is rhyming on top of it, live. So that’s what we was doing on Long Island. Anybody on Long Island that grew up with us will tell you we was doing it there.”

On artificial intelligence

“Right now we hate it. But in the future might be the best thing. You never know. We said the same shit about hip-hop. One thing about hip-hop culture: they know how to reinvent. Right now, I don’t like it because it’s infringing on your IP. But who knows how things are going to be evolved. It’s very early. They just got to get the rules right, and once they get the rules right, who knows? It’s like an alternate you, but there are a lot of things to that. I’m the kind of person that embraces technology. Chuck will tell you, ‘Yo man, we was doing stuff that people was doing now back in early days, like bringing drum machines, getting down with our DJ sets.'”

On innovation in music

“There are some people that don’t want to be innovative with the music. They want it to be the way it is, but I don’t live by that code because when hip hop came in and started taking away all the R&B music and bands, we was like, yeah, we the new thing coming in. Now we’re older and the young ones is coming in. Everybody’s like, “No, this is space music. What the fuck?” or “It’s not real hip hop. Like they was telling us we wasn’t doing real music. I heard it all. My moms [was] like, “This is loud, what is this? It’s not music, it’s just loud.” So my brother said, “Oh okay, if you think this is loud, we going to make loud music.” And that’s why our record was noisy. Because the older generation said it was noisy and irritating. And that was the nice records. That was before we got to putting noise in the shit.”

Being influenced by rock & roll

“My brother’s a genius when it comes to concepts. I just follow behind him. We were rock-based, and we had a show on the jazz radio station during the early hip-hop. You had [rock acts like] Twisted Sister and all of them. We all hang but we didn’t know who each other was. But we all used to go to the same music stores. This was late seventies before everybody knew what everybody was going to do what they did.”

“[In the early 80s we were] going back and forth to Manhattan regularly, because we coming to Dance Interior, and [we were] hanging out with the punk rock bands. It was a point where punk rock bands and hip hop were like the bastard children of music. We had that strong connection and that’s where it all started.”

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