WAX POETICS - MASTER OF CEREMONIES
Introducing the original crowd rocker Eddie Cheba
Let’s take a trip,
Back into the past,
When the rappers had no records,
And the DJs were fast.
When the great Kool Herc led the Hevalo pack,
And Hollywood and Cheba rocked the Diplomat…
“AJ Is Cool” –Kurtis Blow
The Fishtail Bar in the Bay Watch Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is right out back overlooking the beach. Dozens of families are crowded in several swimming pools trying to beat the heat. Overhead, the sound system is playing the dancehall reggae classic “Level the Vibes” by Half Pint. It is perhaps the most unlikely place to meet a former ghetto celeb and rap innovator.
Decked out in white-and-green shorts with a matching jersey is Eddie Cheba, a middle-aged man who many would find likeable. His easygoing personality mixed with his affable charm makes him the kind of guy you’d want to share a drink with and swap stories. But it’s the stories that this man with droopy eyes and a raspy voice would tell that could make you look at him cross-eyed while sipping your Long Island Iced Tea. That is unless you’re up on your hip-hop history.
Way before the bling era and rappers rubbing shoulders with the likes of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton in the Hamptons, and definitely before multimillion-dollar deals, ring tones, clothing lines, and sneaker endorsements, rap was the music of ghetto Black New York. That means you didn’t hear it too far beyond the infamous five boroughs.
Almost jumping out of his seat, Eddie Cheba says to me, “Most guys, back then, only got $175 or $150 with a sound system to play a gig. You know what I’m sayin’? We got $500 for an hour—without a sound system.” All the while, he’s tapping me on the shoulder in between sips of a Heineken. “And you’d be happy that you got that hour!” he says to me with the cockiness of a used-car salesman. “We’d do one hour over here, jump in our cars and head out to Queens or Hempstead, Long Island, and do an hour out there.”
That was in 1977, when the cost of living was different and so was the cost of the best DJ in New York.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Eddie Cheba, who, along with Melle Mel, Cowboy, Creole, Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, and DJ Hollywood, is one of the founding fathers of rap.
In his day, Cheba was a legend. At hot nightclubbing spots like Small’s Paradise, Charles Gallery, Hotel Diplomat, and Club 371, Cheba would shout into the mic: “Who makes it sweeter?” And the crowd of hundreds would shout back, “Cheba, Cheba, Cheba!”
He is credited with creating the old-school rhyme: “It’s on and on and on, on, and on like the hot butter on the what?” And if you were in the club and in the know, you knew to holler back “Popcorn!” “We had a book of ’em,” he tells me in reference to the call-and-response tactics that he and his friend, partner, and sometime rival DJ Hollywood came up with.
The call-and-response style (back then called “house rockin’ ”) that MCs and DJs like Busy Bee, Kid Capri, Doug E. Fresh, Kurtis Blow, and Biz Markie are notorious for can be traced back to the smooth style of guys like Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, and Eddie Cheba.
On this day, Eddie is in an upbeat mood, because Tuff City Records is rereleasing the only recording Eddie ever did, a disco rap workout called “Looking Good (Shake Your Body).” It was originally recorded for Tree Line Records in 1980 and backed by the owners of Club 371.
Cheba’s raspy-voiced, call-and-response style made a special impact out in Long Island on some college kids that called themselves Spectrum Sound—later known as Public Enemy.
“Eddie Cheba was as important to hip-hop/rap as Ike Turner was to rock and roll,” Chuck D of Public Enemy later tells me while on tour somewhere in Europe.
“Nowhere does he get his due credit for spreading it from the BX to [make it more] accessible [to] heads [outside of Harlem and the Bronx]. Cheba and Hollywood simply infiltrated the over-eighteen college adult bracket that simply hated on the art form. They put a bow tie on hip-hop at that time to get it through. Cheba commanded the audience with voice and a great sense of timing. These cats used rap to set up records like no other. His synergy with Easy G, his DJ, was simply…telepathic.”
An emphatic Kurtis Blow, a rap pioneer in his own right, tells me in a late-night phone interview, “Let’s not get it twisted, okay. Cheba was before DJ Hollywood. On that side of the family tree, we have Pete DJ Jones, who was the first real disco street DJ, with MCs JJ Disco the King, KC the Prince of Soul, and JT Hollywood—these guys were just announcers. The next level was the crowd response, which was Eddie Cheba’s thing; he was the master of the crowd response. He had routines, he had girls—the Cheba Girls—he had little routines, and he did it with a little rhythm, ya know: ‘Throw your hands in the air, everybody now, we don’t need no music, come on, y’all, say it, so just clap your hands everybody, and everybody body clap your hands! If you’re not too skinny or not too fat, everybody say, “And ya know that!” ’ Eddie was mad sick with the crowd response; he was a master!”
As I think back on other names that had rung out loud on the streets back then, I ask Eddie about:
Ron Plummer: “Ahh man, Plummer gave Pete Jones hell with those refrigerator-sized speakers.”
Maboya: “He used to play reggae. He was one of the first ones out there to play reggae. At that time, rap and reggae were not accepted—you’d play that stuff, and people would turn around and look at you.”
The Smith Brothers: “They were older than us; they had an older clientele, but their sound system was good.”
But it’s the name DJ Hollywood that Cheba’s name is almost synonymous with. For many, their names are almost linked together like salt and pepper, Butch and Sundance, or Martin and Lewis. Can’t have one without the other. They were uptown royalty when Cam’ron and Jim Jones were in Pampers.
Back Like Cadillacs and Brim Hats
Edward Sturgis was born and raised in Harlem’s Douglas Projects, home to such alums as Kenny Smith, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and fellow DJ Reggie Wells. Originally a music major, Eddie got involved with funk and soul bands, but soon grew tired of the instability that goes with being in a group. He soon found that his love for music could be expressed another way: with turntables and records.
“My sister’s boyfriend Thomas was one of the first people I ever saw really mix music in a smooth way. I mean, he knew how to keep the beat going, you know what I mean?” Eddie says to me while taking a drag from his cigarette. “I said to myself, ‘I wanna do that!’ ”
Soon, the Brandice High School student was spending hours a day practicing on his turntables. “I was completely locked into it,” he says. “My girlfriend, who is my wife now—a date for us back then was her sitting on my bed reading her books while I practiced.”
By 1974, he got so good at spinning records that he was able to quit his job at Bankers Trust and really concentrate on DJing. “The money was flowing in,” he says to me with a sly smile.
On the way down the path to being a ghetto celeb, he played in uptown’s hottest spots: Charles Gallery, Hotel Diplomat (which on some nights attracted a White audience and was called LeJardin), and Wilt’s Small’s Paradise. “In 1972, when Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali at the Garden, he came to Small’s Paradise after the fight to hang out,” Eddie says. “I have a picture of me and [Frazier] at Small’s.”
The Sound Systems in the Park
At the same time that Eddie was perfecting his craft in Harlem, there was a whole other scene jumping off in the Bronx. This crowd was younger, rougher, and rowdier.
“There were two different crowds,” says Kurtis Blow, whose classic recording “The Breaks” was the second 12-inch record to be certified gold. “Grandmaster Flash calls them the shoe people and the sneaker people.”
Blow, a Harlem native, is a student of both the R&B style of guys like Pete Jones and Hollywood, and the hard-core b-boy approach of the Kool Herc followers. With his deep, booming bass voice and crisp enunciation, Kurtis’s style was the perfect blend between Harlem’s smooth R&B chic and Bronx b-boy cool.
At the parties, guys like Cheba, Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, the Disco Twins, and the Smith Brothers would rock twenty-one-and-over crowds with songs like “Do It Anyway You Wanna,” “I Got My Mind Made Up,” “All Night Thing,” “Pipeline,” and “Soul Makossa.” Men came to the party wearing dress shoes, suits, and slacks, and women wore dresses.
Kool Herc, Flash, Breakout, Kool DJ AJ, Disco King Mario, Bambaataa, and others rocked the teenage b-boy crowds. Their crowds would come in packs of fifteen to twenty strong, wearing sneakers, jeans, hats, and silver chains. They couldn’t wait to hear their favorite DJ play obscurities like “Give It to Me,” “Champ,” “Mardi Gras,” “Synthetic Substitution,” “Hit or Miss,” and many other unknown records that were worshipped by this cult following.
The slight exception was in Harlem at the Renaissance Ballroom, or the “Renny” as it was called, where a promoter named Willie Gums had a thing called the “Rolls Royce Movement.” “That was Lovebug Starski’s thing right there,” says Kurtis Blow.
“It was the Sapphire Crew: Donald Dee and B Fats—that was their thing. That was hip-hop with class. They were young people, but they got dressed up for these parties. I think DJ Hollywood might’ve played there once.”
“Kool Herc and them played in the park. We were blessed to be able to play in clubs,” Eddie says to me. “If you think about it, anybody could play in a park. Little kids were in the park; there was no money playing in parks. Either the cops was coming to tell you to turn it down, or they were gonna unplug you from the light pole, or there was gonna be a shootout or something. I played in clubs where people drank champagne and came to have fun. Besides, the park was dangerous,” Eddie says while looking from side to side. “You got five niggas over there drinkin’, talkin’ ’bout fuckin’ you up. Would you wanna be there?”
The Man with the Golden Voice
Before anyone could claim the title of King of New York, there was the original King of Rap: DJ Hollywood. On the streets of New York in the ’70s, Wood (as he is sometimes called) was the quintessential man. He was the first DJ to play multiple spots in one night and collect a fee of $500 per appearance. According to Cheba, “Hollywood would call ahead to Club 371 [after playing at other spots around the city] and say, ‘I’m on my way, have my envelope ready.’ ”
He was a rap star before there were any records. The history of the mixtape game can be traced back to him. He used to sell eight-track tapes of his mixes for ten or fifteen bucks a pop way back in 1972. He sang, he rapped, he did vocal impressions, and crowd participation. On the rap tip in the ’70s, no one could touch him.
“Hollywood was ‘all city’; he could play anywhere he wanted in the city back then,” says Kurtis Blow. “Hollywood had a golden voice; he had a round and fat voice. He had tonality—tonality almost like a singer; he had singing routines where he would sing, ‘Got a word from the wise, just to tranquilize, your mind, your body, and soul. We got a brand new rhythm now, and we’re gonna let it take control. Come on, y’all, let’s do it. Let’s do it.’ That was Hollywood; he was the master at the crowd response, but his voice…” Kurtis pauses, excitedly looking for the right words, and when he finds them, he says, “His voice was golden like a god almost—that’s why I wanted to be an MC!
“If you went out to a club—you had to go to Club 371 to hear this cat,” an animated Kurtis Blow continues. “Hollywood was the talk of the town. Everybody was losing their minds; he had skits like, ‘Throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like ya just don’t care. And if you got on clean underwear, somebody say, Oh yeah!’ And the crowd would shout back: ‘Oh yeah!’ ” Hollywood had the golden voice, the chants, the rhythm. [He had] the first rhythmic rhymes I ever heard a cat say during the hip-hop days—we’re talking about the ’70s. I’m not talking about the ’60s or anything before that, because rap has been around for a long time. The first rhymes that I ever heard DJ Hollywood say were:
I’m bona fide, I’m solidified, and I’m qualified to do
I say anything your heart can stand
It all depends on you.
I’m listed in the Yellow Pages
All around the world
I got twenty-one years experience with loving sweet young girls…”
During an early morning phone interview, Hollywood relates the story of his discovery: “One day in 1975, I was at home playing records, and one of the records I pulled out was the Black Moses album. It was not popular at the time. So, there I was listening to this album, and I put on a song called ‘Good Love 6-9969.’ Isaac Hayes was singing this part that went, ‘I’m listed in the Yellow Pages, all around the world; I got thirty years experience in loving sweet young girls.’ That record stopped me dead in my tracks. You see, before that record, I had been doing nursery rhymes. But after that record, I was doing rhymes. And not only was I doing rhymes, but I was talking about love. This was another level.”
In a reflective mood, the onetime King of Rap recalls the next events. “I thought to myself, what if I take what he’s doing and put it with this? What would I get?” Hollywood asks. “I got fame, that’s what I got. I got more famous than I could ever imagine. Everybody bit that rhyme. I would go to jams and people would be saying that rhyme, and none of them, not one of them, knew where it came from. It blew my mind.”
“I knew of Hollywood, ’cause we were both from Harlem,” Eddie remembers. “Back in the day, when Hollywood would play at the Apollo Theater, the marquee would say: the Spinners, Black Ivory, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and DJ Hollywood. He was that large.”
But Eddie wanted the spotlight too.
“I was sitting in my room one day when I came up with my rhyme,” Eddie says. “I wrote it out in a notebook; it went: ‘About a while ago, and I want you to know, just who you been listening to. Just listen to me now, while I tell you how, who I am, and what I do. I’m five foot nine and a half, bowlegged as you ever wanna see. Just look up on the stage, baby doll, I’m talking about little old me. It’s Cheba, girl, and I’m so glad that you came around. So we can spend some time together, maybe even mess around.’ ”
Very quickly, like Hollywood’s rap, Eddie’s rap was eagerly consumed by other DJs, who had no knowledge of the rap’s origin either. ASCAP and BMI were not looking for rappers back then, and rappers were no more aware of ASCAP and BMI than they were about words like “publishing,” “writing credit,” “points,” and “royalties.” This was before rap records.
“Before Club 371,” says Hollywood, “I was playing at a spot called A Bunch of Grapes; this was on the east side of 125th Street. You see, back then, the only people that were hip to my shit were the hustlers that went to the after-hours spots. That’s where my rep started at, was with the hustlers.”
Every other rapper today fantasizes about knowing or being somehow connected with a notorious gangster; back in the day, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes—who controlled Harlem’s heroin trade during the mid-’70s—was that gangster.
Members of Nicky’s crew—wiseguys like Guy Fisher and Bats Ross—would frequent hip-hop spots like the Hevalo and check out Kool Herc and Coke La Rock. Hollywood played for some of the most notorious figures of the ’70s and ’80s, and chief among them was Fisher, who owned and operated the Apollo Theater as a legitimate front. It was at the Apollo that Hollywood gained his rep for providing entertainment between acts for some of the biggest stars of the era, and oftentimes he overshadowed them.
At the very mention of Fisher’s name, Eddie becomes visibly uncomfortable. “Yes, Wood worked for Guy Fisher and them; those were Nicky Barnes’s people. I didn’t want to have anything to do with those people,” he tells me. “Yeah sure, we did parties for them, but that was it! They were nice guys outside of their business, but I didn’t want to play for them that much.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because, see, Hollywood might show up to Club 371 at two, three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes he didn’t show up at all. You couldn’t do that kind of shit with people like that, because they would come and get you—and throw you in a bag or something.”
Havin’ Fun at Club 371
In 1975, a group of gentlemen called the Ten Good Guys noticed the impact that DJ Hollywood was making at the club A Bunch of Grapes, and they promptly recruited him for their Bronx disco, Club 371. Hollywood played at 371 for nearly three years when the owners decided to expand the club.
“Hollywood was packing ’em in; they had lines around the corner,” remembers Cheba. “They built a part two, which was called the House of Glass. They talked to Reggie Wells, and we made a deal, and they came to get me.”
It was at Club 371 that Eddie Cheba would meet Hollywood.
“It was Hollywood and his DJ, Junebug, downstairs, and me, Reggie Wells, and my DJ, EZ Gee, upstairs. I’m telling you, we had them people running up and down those steps all night long,” Eddie recalls. “My DJ, EZ Gee, played with me when it was time for me to rap; [that’s when] he’d take over. I used to rent out a loft so that we could practice our routines. God sent EZ Gee to me.
“Club 371 was one of the greatest clubs of all time in the Bronx, New York. It was the first Black-owned club in New York to gross over a million dollars in one year, and this was back in 1979, when they charged six or seven dollars to get in the door,” Eddie asserts. “They cleared a million dollars at the door—not to say how much they cleared under the table. This was one of the greatest clubs of all time: Eddie Cheba, Reggie Wells, Junebug, and DJ Hollywood at Club 371. That’s where all the fame and fortune came from.”
“Everybody came to Club 371,” Hollywood recalls. “If you came in from out of town, people would be like, you gotta go here—it was like no other!”
Any Club 371 regular will tell you that the original chant that Big Bank Hank from the Sugar Hill Gang used in “Rapper’s Delight” went: “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn, if you don’t tell then I won’t tell, but I know where you been!” KISS-FM (98.7) mix master Reggie Wells tells me the origin of the chant had something to do with the Courtesy in New Jersey and people sneaking around after the club let out.
The club did so well that the owners went to great lengths to take care of their DJs. Reggie Wells remembers the money being so good at 371 that “all of the DJs had Caddys back then.”
“Hollywood needed a car and didn’t have a license, so they bought him a Caddy and got him a license by sliding somebody at the DMV some money,” Eddie laughs while recalling the time. “They really took care of us.
“I had everything,” Eddie continues, reflecting on his heyday. “I shopped at A. J. Lester’s. I was walked into any club in the city—I always got in free. Champagne? I got bottles of it wherever I went. If I walked down 125th Street in Harlem, people would see me and walk up to me and want to shake my hand or ask me for an autograph. If I had someplace to go, I called a car service [Godfather’s, Touch of Class, and OJ’s] and they would be there to pick me up. I’d say wait here until I’m done, and they would. I used to sell my tapes for twenty dollars a pop. People would be reserving tapes weeks in advance. Godfather’s and OJ’s and them used to sell my tapes. They would have a customer in a car and would be playing my stuff, [and] the customer would be like, ‘Who’s that?’ They’d say, ‘That’s Eddie Cheba.’ I was one of the top DJs in the city.”
Like Butch and Sundance
“Me and Hollywood became really good friends,” Eddie states. “We worked together as well, but we were also friends. We used to go to after-hours spots all over the city together and sit, drink, and talk into early in the morning. We were close, man.”
Soon, a partnership was born. “At one point, they were called DJ-Eddie-Hollywood-Cheba,” laughs Kurtis Blow.
“Let me tell you how large I got,” Eddie says, as he leans back in his seat and exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke above his head. “One night, we were playing in Queens at the La Chalet on Hillside Ave. Anyway, these brothers were outside shooting at each other. I mean, it was a real shoot-out. Me and my crew, the Cheeba Crew, pulled up when all of this is going on. We were like, ‘Shit, we ain’t gettin’ out of the car!’ Somebody went inside and got on the mic and said, ‘Yo, y’all stop all that shit. Eddie Cheba is outside right now and he says he ain’t coming in until y’all stop that shit.’ Well, the next thing we know, they drop their guns and go inside.” Eddie says to me with an amazed look on his face, “These niggas stopped shooting at each other, because they wanted to hear us play.”
The partnership of Hollywood and Cheba made them the two most popular Black DJs in the city. And the best paid. “Hollywood had no problem asking for whatever he wanted,” Eddie remembers. “He could be really arrogant. He had no problem at all blowing people off. I mean, Wood was really arrogant. When we first started to play together, I was afraid to ask for more money. Wood would say, ‘Say you want $500.’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t know.’ Wood would say that he was getting $500, so I’d go in there and say I wanted $500 too.”
As close as the two were, they didn’t play everywhere together. Eddie played in midtown clubs such as the Pegasus, Captain Nemo’s, Nell Gwynn’s, Leviticus, the Tunnel, Cork and the Bottle, and the Executive Suite. But it was at Charles Gallery that Eddie started to earn his rep.
“Charles Gallery was on some other shit,” Hollywood recalls. “Those guys in there were announcers; they would get on the mic and announce the next record and shit like that. I came in there with my rappin’—they never heard anything like it before—they threw me out of there!”
Kurtis Blow described the Charles Huggins–owned Charles Gallery as a classy spot for the twenty-one-and-over crowd. Men and women were dressed to the nines. Kurtis—and his then manager Russell Simmons—first saw Eddie doing his thing there on a night called “Wild Wild Wednesdays.”
But Hollywood didn’t like those kinds of clubs. Nor did he like ghetto-type clubs such as Disco Fever. “The Fever was a fuckin’ drug store,” Eddie says. “You could get anything you wanted at the Fever. Drugs were all over the place. Hollywood did not play the Fever—and he was arrogant about it too.” Taking a drag from his cigarette, Eddie continues, “We used to say, ‘Yo, Wood, you need to play the Fever.’ He would brush it off and say, ‘Them niggas ain’t my kind of crowd.’ ” Hollywood’s crowd were places that catered to an older Black clientele such as the many clubs in the Bronx, Harlem, and Queens.
“Me, on the other hand, I liked playing anywhere,” Eddie tells me.
It was while playing in clubs in Queens that Hollywood and Cheba would bump into an eager young promoter who called himself Russell Rush. “Every time we played in Queens in some place like the Fantasia,” Eddie remembers, “Russell would be right outside waiting for us. He was a big fan of ours. He used to beg me; he’d be like, ‘Yo Cheba, I’m throwing a party at so-and-so place; could you stop by and do a little something?’ Hollywood would be very arrogant and would say things like, ‘Tell that nigga to go away.’ I couldn’t do that. I’d say, ‘Russell, I’m a little too expensive for what you’re trying to do. I’ll see what I can do.’ I couldn’t blow people off like Wood could.”
Out in Long Island, Hollywood and Cheba were the rap equivalent of the Beatles. According to Chuck D, “In 1979, the whole cowboy look [cowboy hats and boots] was in, and Hollywood and Cheba pimped that!”
One night, Eddie took Furious Five lead MC Melle Mel (now known as Mele Mel) with him to play a gig in Roosevelt. “When he brought Melle Mel with him, it was like two voices from heaven,” Chuck D says. “Back then, if you didn’t have a good voice, you couldn’t cut through inferior sound systems. These cats were flawless. Hearing them sold me on hip-hop as being a wonderful thing for my life.”
“The night I took Melle Mel with me out to Long Island, I dunno, he was more reserved than usual,” says Eddie. “I had to give the nigga the mic and say, ‘Here, do your thing.’ I knew the nigga was bad as a motherfucker. This was just before their record ‘Superrappin’’ came out.”
It was also during this time that he was introduced to a young man who was trying to make a name for himself on the rap scene.
“DJ Hollywood had a ‘disco son’ named DJ Smalls; we figured a way for me get my name out there was if I was the disco son of Eddie Cheba,” says Kurtis Blow. Although Kurtis—who would later be known as the King of Rap, his own career eclipsing that of both Hollywood’s and Eddie Cheba’s—is, to this day, still clearly a devoted fan.
At its root, hip-hop is a competitive art form, whether it’s MCs going head to head on the mic, or DJs crossing swords on turntables. “I was the one that did all of the battling,” Cheba tells me. “Hollywood would not battle anybody. I battled everybody. I didn’t give a fuck. Wood was not into battling. The only person he battled was Woody Wood from Queens. And me and Lovebug Starski had to push him to battle that nigga to do it.”
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Because that nigga was stealing everything that Wood was doing. Not only did he sound like Wood, but also he got his name from him and all of his rhymes too. I told [Hollywood], ‘Fuck that shit, you got to battle that nigga.’ The way Woody Wood was stealing from Hollywood was a damn shame.”
In any other business, imitation is considered to be a form of flattery, but in the rap game, even as far back as 1976, it was almost the equivalent of stealing a brother’s hubcaps.
“At one time, there were about thirty to forty me’s out there,” Hollywood says, sounding almost as irritated today about it as he was thirty years ago. “Everybody was saying the rhymes, and when it would come time to say my name, they would take mine out and put theirs in. Woody Wood was one of them people.”
“So you battled him?” I ask.
“Yeah, I stepped on him too,” Wood says as confidently as Muhammad Ali in 1975. “At that time, there wasn’t nobody that could get wit’ me. I was top dog back then. I had control of everything.”
The battle took place at the Hotel Diplomat. “It wasn’t really what you would call a battle,” Hollywood interjects. “He did his thing first, and then I did mine. No one could beat me with the crowd-response thing. Woody Wood was an imitator: his voice, his rhymes; he did his pronunciations just like me.”
“We were on top,” Eddie says coolly. “I had battled everyone. But as much as Wood didn’t like to battle, he’d always tell me: ‘Eddie, whatever you do, never battle me.’ I thought to myself, ‘What kind of shit is that for him to say?’ I had my own ego too, you know. Little did I know…”
One night, the two friends went head to head in a soundclash.
“I pulled out all stops this night at the Parkside Plaza. It was a battle for the title,” Eddie remembers. “Wood’s title was on the line. Wood did his thing, but even his people weren’t really feeling him on this night. And then I went on. I rocked the hell outta them people. At the end of the battle, even Wood’s people were cheering for me; you know, like his main man Captain Jack and all of them people. It took forty-five minutes for the judges to make a decision. And they came back and gave the trophy to Hollywood. And that’s when it hit me: No wonder he said to never battle him; it was because he had it set up for him to win regardless. Hell, the trophy already had his name inscribed on it!”
“Nah, nah, nah, nah, it didn’t quite go down like that, Mark,” Hollywood tells me in between laughing. “You see, it’s like this. I was the top dog, couldn’t nobody touch me back then. Eddie did all of the battles. One night, he kept going on and on saying, ‘I’m the king battler,’ and this and that. He must’ve forgot who I was. He made that happen.”
“Made what happen?” I ask.
“Yo, man, he wouldn’t listen. The shit was already done. I didn’t know it was done. I told him, ‘Okay, but whatever you do, never battle me.’ He wouldn’t listen.”
What Hollywood meant by it being “done” was that he got major love from all of the promoters back then; these were people that for many years had made good money from billing Hollywood all over the city. It was in their interest for Wood to emerge as the winner in any battle. Hollywood remembers the crowd response that night being about even, but to this day swears that he had no knowledge of the fix being in.
One Night at the Jamaica Armory
One day in October 1979, Eddie and his peers heard the sound that would forever alter the course of their lives: “Rapper’s Delight.”
“Hollywood and Starski, you would always hear them say ‘hip-hop-da-hippit-da-hibbit-to-da-hip-hip-a-hop, ya don’t stop’ and shit like that. They started it,” Eddie remembers. “I heard the song on the radio. I was mad when I first heard it. These people came from out of nowhere. We didn’t have the vision to see that records were the next level. We were making so much money from DJing that making records just wasn’t our thing. We couldn’t see it.”
What he didn’t know was that the first person that Sylvia Robinson approached to record “Rapper’s Delight” was Lovebug Starski. Then she went to DJ Hollywood to see about Eddie and him making the record.
“One night, and this was after ‘Rapper’s Delight’ had long been out and making money, Hollywood and I were at an after-hours spot called Poppa Dee’s in Harlem,” says Eddie. “It was on 130th between 7th and Lenox Ave. I mean, this was an exclusive spot. Only the hustlers could get in there—people with money. Anyway, so there we are drinking and talking and shit at like three o’clock in the morning when Hollywood turns to me and says, ‘Yeah man, she wanted me and you to do that record, but I turned her down.’ I must’ve looked at him and said, ‘What record are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Sylvia wanted us to do “Rapper’s Delight” first.’ I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to knock him out of his seat. If I had done that record, do you know what my life would be like today?”
“Rapper’s Delight” changed the direction of the rap movement forever. The days of guys running sections of the city or dominating the club scene were over. All you needed was a record to make a name.
It isn’t a stretch to believe that the Robinsons wanted Hollywood and Cheba for their landmark recording, especially when you consider that both of the groundbreaking rap recordings—the Fatback Band’s (a group for whom Hollywood used to open for at the Apollo Theater) “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” and the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”—stylistically bore a serious resemblance to Hollywood and Cheba. Although Big Bank Hank got his rhymes from Grandmaster Caz, his delivery was much closer to Hollywood’s than the Cold Crush Brothers’ lead MC.
One night at the Armory in Jamaica, Queens, the best DJs and MCs of that time got together for a jam. In some ways, it was the end of an era. To this day, cassette tapes of that night still circulate the streets. It was a star-studded affair; on the bill were DJ Divine and the Infinity Machine, Grandmaster Flash and his MCs Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, DJ Smalls, Eddie Cheba, and DJ Easy Gee.
As Hollywood and his protege DJ Smalls finished their set, Eddie and DJ Easy Gee took the stage. Warming up the crowd, Eddie started his routine: “Like Earl the Pearl has got the moves, ya see, Cheba Cheba has got the groove. Now ya heard the best, and you’re ready to go, with the baddest DJ of all disco…”
Easy Gee brought in MFSB’s classic “Love Is the Message,” cued up from the point where the sax and violins are building up to the point of climax. This was a record that guys like Hollywood, Eddie Cheba, Kool Kyle, and many others knew well. It was a staple of their act. In some ways, it was the main part. This was the song that showcased their skills the best. They could do their crowd participation thing, freestyle rhymes, and party chants; all of it came together best over that song.
“Get ready now. You might’ve heard on WBLS, tomorrow night we gonna take the sugar out the hill at Harlem World,” Cheba said that night, while still doing his intro. “Sugar Hill and Eddie Cheba tomorrow night. But first we have some unfinished business to take care of right here in Jamaica… We’re gonna run down a few of the things that we know we made famous…”
As the sax squealed and the organist rocked, Eddie went into one of the many routines that made him a legend at that time: “Go down, go down, go down, go down, owww, go down... Get up close on the freak and shake like Jones is at its peak. Ya say, ‘Who makes it sweeter?’ (Cheba, Cheba, Cheba)… You don’t care if I’m the one—’cause all you wanna do is have some fun…”
At least for that one night, it didn’t matter if there was a record selling in stores all over the country, because it was the guys on the stage that night who were the real stars. It could almost be said that “Rapper’s Delight” was what changed the relationship between DJ and MC. For years, it was the DJs that the crowds of thousands came out to see; now, because the MC’s rap could be heard on a record, the balance of power was about to change.
One by one, each crew went up onstage at the Armory that night and showcased for the crowd in Queens the reasons that they were better than any group of upstarts, especially ones from across the Hudson. These guys were the originators of a new phenomenon; they were kings of a subculture in a time of innocence. Every empire has its time in the sun, but the sun sets on every kingdom.
As we walk outside to the front of the hotel, Eddie tells me some funny stories about the club Disco Fever. If only I could print those stories. We sit on the steps and talk some more while I wait on my ride.
“I rocked the shit out of the Sugar Hill Gang that night at Harlem World,” he tells me. “I pulled out all stops; I made it difficult for them to come on after me. All they had was that one record—I had books and books of rhymes—they couldn’t fuck with me.”
In the mid-’80s, to everyone’s surprise, hip-hop started its ascent to becoming a dominant force in music. But Eddie was nowhere to be found.
“France was some shit,” he tells me. “I was the man over there.”
Sometime in the early ’80s, while he was the resident DJ at the club Broadway International, Eddie got the call that would change his life. He went over to France to compete in DJ competitions and spin at clubs. Judging by his descriptions of the clubs and the audiences, it sounds like he spun for the jet-set crowd. “These people drove Ferraris and wore tuxedos and expensive jewelry,” he said. Altogether, he stayed in France for eight years.
“I was a New York DJ in Paris. I was a rare commodity over there. They were so far behind what we were doing over here—I beat all of them. I did TV commercials; I spun at the biggest clubs in the country,” Eddie says. “I was a celebrity. I lived in a nice house and drove a custom-made Mercedes Benz.”
“So why did you leave?” I ask him.
Because,” he says as he frowns up his face, “I got bored over there. My daughter was growing up not knowing any of my family. I had done everything I could over there. I won the world competition; I spun at some of the chicest clubs. I got tired of it all.”
But coming back home to New York was not easy. By 1992, everything had changed. “Hollywood was over,” Eddie says, looking out at the clouds. “He was on 8th Avenue messing up. Kurtis was over; he was in L.A. Club 371 was over. Just about all of the clubs that I had spun at were over. And rap was different. I couldn’t relate to it anymore. I had been in France, I wore French clothes, and I had been living in a nice house. I couldn’t relate anymore.”
As my wife pulls up, we say our good-byes. I give him CDs of the Queens Armory Jam in 1979 and mixtapes from the boat rides that he, Hollywood, and Lovebug Starski had done together in the late ’90s.
“Eddie?” I ask him, “One more thing: did you know that J. B. Moore and Rocky Ford wanted you to do the ‘Christmas Rappin’’ record?”
“Yeah, I heard about that,” he says to me with a touch of regret. “If I had done that record, do you have any idea what my life would be like right now?”
Not that the man is starving: he owns a funeral business, as well as a limousine and DJ service. By no means is the man hard up for a dollar. But who among us couldn’t use a nice little royalty check every now and then?
Mark McCord aka Mark Skillz wrote about the the making of “Planet Rock” for Issue 21.
Eddie Cheba wants to send a special shout and a big fat “I love you” to all of the fans that supported him from 1972 until this day. He can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to Van Silk, Kurtis Blow, Chuck D, Dianne Washington, Reggie Wells, and DJ Hollywood.
illustration by James Blagden
Appeared in Wax Poetics issue: 24
Original date published: Aug 2007