Doug E. Fresh Interview
Riding in the back of Doug E. Fresh’s Escalade as he gives you a lift to Manhattan is an experience not to be trifled with. Which other rapper fields calls from Tom Cruise as you cruise up Lexington Avenue? But with over a quarter of a century in hip-hop, from his early days as a teenage sensation to his evolution to global superstar and elder statesman still out there rocking shows and putting it down, Doug has been all about drive and passion. Despite his seeds in the early 80′s, Doug was really the first of the mid-school rappers to master the live arena, combining showmanship with dope rhymes, ahead-of-his-time beatbox and classic songs to own the late 80′s. It might have been a while since he’s troubled your crate, but that’s because Doug is busy with real estate development, a brace of restaurants, DJ’ing at film premieres (that Tom Cruise phone call) and doing shows coast to coast. It don’t stop so he don’t stop. When someone’s got stories like Doug, it’s inevitable that you won’t get to ask all your questions in 45 minutes – we’re saving the ones about how he got down with Chill Will and Barry Bee for the next time…
What was your very first involvement in hip-hop?
The beginning of hip-hop for me? Very interesting question. My brother came into the house with tapes with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 and DJ Hollywood – a very important name that I did not hear. It was really those two, and then around the block there was a group called D & D Express. There was a guy in the group called Teddy D and he loved hip-hop. He used to be around the block – he was selling drugs at the time to be honest with you – but he has nephews and stuff that were in there doing hip-hop. I was walking to the store one day and I heard them playing music down in the basement and I went downstairs and they were playing with the turntable, playing with the echo chamber. I said, ‘Oh my god, I’ve gotta get into this.’ So I just went down there without even knowing them and got on the mic. I started talking, I started rhyming – it felt like I could rhyme on that beat. It was crazy. It was like, I knew that it was over for me once I walked in there. Then I started to get more into it at school. I started to have rhymes that I would write for poetry because I was into Langston Hughes. I won the Langston Hughes award so I started to just write poetry but I would also write rhymes and hear rhymes that people would pass around in school. In schools back then they had musical programs, and I had a teacher called Brother Lee. He played the trumpet, so we wanted to play the trumpet. I played percussion, but then all of a sudden the musical programs got cut. Then there was a group called Ray Von and Johnny Wa, out of Harlem, and there was a place called Harlem World, which was real. Another club called Celebrity Club, another called Randy’s Place. And they would have different parties in the cafeteria of these different elementary and high schools. We would go to them because that’s what it was about. There would be a flyer, with the names on it and we’d be like, ‘Yeah, we gotta go to this party.’ It would be different people in the crews that we knew who’d be billed. It was an incredible time, incredible.
Boodah Bliss Crew – Pass the Boo-Dah (Doug E’s first ever record)
MORE AFTER THE JUMP
So, who was in your first crew?
In my first crew were my boys named Damon and James. They were cousins, and they were like my brothers and we were rocking together. We used to love the Coldcrush so much we named ourselves the Cold Cash Crew, it was all about getting money all the time.
Were you Doug E. Fresh back then or did you have a different name?
I was Dougie Doug, I was Dougie D, I was Law-D. I was playing with all kinds of names – Dougie Doug the Prince of Love. I used to sit and just think of names – Christian D and the Criss Cross Crew. One day someone did a piece for me in school and I told ‘em to write ‘Dougie’s Fresh’. I came back and homeboy had written ‘Doug E Fresh’ on the wall in the school. And after that, my relationship with the females at school was real cool and playful and all of this other stuff so the name just stuck. Then the other thing that made my name stick was that I was always the kind of guy that would come up with something fresh, something new, something original, something that nobody else did. Like, I was always pushing the bar to the extreme, so that’s how I built up my reputation. I used to cut my school to go to other high schools and battle. Any MC that they saiud was good in that school, I’m battling him and that’s what also built up my reputation. And then doing block parties, doing as many shows as I could, getting my name out there.
Doug E. Fresh – The Original Human Beatbox
Were you beatboxing even then?
I was beatboxing walking home back and forth, but I never really took it to the fullest-ass thinking of ‘doing the beatbox’. And Barry Bee one day said, when we were practicing, ‘Yo, you should do the beatbox, you should really go hard with it.’ One day I said, alright, I’ll try it, and we were outside and inbetween listening to records and I did it and the place lost their mind. And then the word of Doug E. Fresh being the human beatbox just shot through the street like fire. Once it shot through the street it was known that I was that dude that known as the beatbox. I would rhyme, but the beatbox would separate me from the rest that much more. It made me even greater in a sense because it was an element of hip-hop that never really existed and I created it. I’m the beginning of my own style – there was no beginning beyond me when it comes to this. People have toyed around with it – I can never say people hadn’t done beats with their mouth – but I can say that the person who coined the phrase ‘the human beatbox’ and took it to the stage and took it in front of people and actually did the beatbox, was me. My rhyming skills was crazy, because I was an MC first, but when I took that beatbox thing, and I hit that, then the game was over. And that’s when you started to have other beatboxes that came out. Kurtis Blow was the producer of the Fat Boys, but he knows that I’m the original because when he was having a problem in Harlem, at 125th Street, because he didn’t have no turntables, he asked me if I wanted to get up and do the beatbox for him while he rhymed. I did the beatbox, and that was history right there.
Doug E. Fresh – Just Having Fun (Do the Beat Box)
When was the first time you got in the studio to record?
The first time I got in the studio might have been with Spoonie Gee, or Spoonie Gee’s brother Poochie. I used to go into Bobby Robinson’s record shop on 125th Street and I wanted to get on badly. One day I was at the shop and he said, ‘This guy Doug E. Fresh is a unique dude, he has a lot of talent and I want to do something with him.’ I kept waiting and waiting and waiting, and one day I got my shot. And when I got my shot I thought they was terrible because they wasn’t listening to me. They were trying to make me do what they wanted me to do. Spoonie Gee was the one that really jumped off and felt me. He lived across the street from me and every I seen him I would rhyme. I would do anything to grab this dude’s attention. I’d be with my friends and they’d be rhyming and some of them would be good, but I’d be serious about it. I was having practices and when my group didn’t want to practice I would be upset and tell them we should call it a day. I was just serious. Too serious to be so young. I felt passion about it, I felt like a high, extreme level of passion. I wasn’t playing no games. When guys was out there playing basketball, I’d play ball, but after a while I’d be like, ‘I’m going into the house to write this rhyme.’ Or I would walk around the block to find a stage to get on. I gotta find a talent show to get in. My passion was so extreme that I would not let anything stop me. Nothing was gonna stop me. Still to this day I feel that passion.
Who gave you the name ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’?
That was Chuck D and Hank Shocklee and everybody that I was on tour with. They thought that I was an exceptional performer. They always felt that I was able to connect with people in a much deeper way than the average artist. And I would share what I know with the artists because I have a very analytical approach to performing. I can break down whoever you think is the best or who you think is the worst. I can break ‘em all down. I can tell you why things worked, why they didn’t, what they needed to do, where they should have stood. I know it instinctively. Being called ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ means to me to do the best possible I can do in all circumstances. It don’t mean that someone can’t have a better night at a show than me, it means that I’m gonna give it 1000%.
How hard was it to keep that professionalism back in the days of Vintertainment and Enjoy, with all the bad contracts flying around?
It was ridiculous. I was on Streetwise records and they actually gave me the master to one of the first records that I ever recorded today. I did another one that was called ‘Pass the Boodah’ and that was with Spoonie Gee and DJ Spivey, as the Boodah Bless Crew, and that was my first actual recording. The record I did on Streetwise never came out because the guy that owned the label got indicted. Enjoy Records came about and Bobby Robinson was just trying to jerk me. Bobby jerks everybody and everybody knew it. Then I did a song on the soundtrack to ‘Beat Street’ and that came out, but inbetween those I had done a record with the guy Poochie but the record was wack to me because everybody was trying to tell me how to make the record.
P.C. Crew – Dougee Fresh Vs. The Beat Box
Was that the P.C. Crew record?
That was them, but that wasn’t what it was supposed to be called. After that I came out on Vintertainment, and then that guy tried to jerk me. He did jerk me. I was a reference vocal and he took it and mixed the record. I made the beat and he put a sound in there I didn’t like and he wouldn’t listen to me. I just said, ‘I’m outta here,’ and walked out and the next time I heard the song it was on the radio. I wasn’t happy about what he did but I was happy I had made a song and heard myself on the radio. After that, I said I’d take my money and make my own damn record because I’m tired of people trying to make my record the way they think my record should go. So I went into the studio and I made ‘The Show’ and ‘La-Di-Da-Di’ and they’re the first two records I put out that I produced myself with my manager. I did the pre-production at Teddy Riley’s house. Greg G from the Disco Four helped because he lent Teddy some equipment. When that record came out, it was explosive. I can’t even begin to tell you the impact of that damn record.
How did you hook up with Slick Rick?
I met him at an MC contest and said I liked his style. I mean, even without records, I was still doing shows. Records were never gonna break me because I always had the shows. So then I made the album, ‘Oh My God’, and when I made that, I did it from 0-8, I wanted to make it a different thing. I thought I had some interesting music on there because I was going through an interesting time. It was a little rough because Rick and I split up and we’d been such a success together I didn’t know how people would take it if I was just by myself. Would they like me? I just let out that album and said, this is what I got. ‘All the way to heaven’ is the first rap record to ever be dedicated to god, ‘Nuthin’ was a reggae beatbox record and I’m rhyming over the beatbox at the same time. ‘Play this only at night’ was the first rap record ever to be played on ‘The Quiet Storm’ [a late-night, slow-jam style of programming popularised by the late Melvin Lindsey in Washington] – some people considered it an instrumental because they didn’t know it had one rhyme at the end. ‘Lovin’ Ev’ry Minute of it’ was a party record with some Go-Go which was big in DC at the time. Plus, just for the record, my crew was the first crew to ever have two DJ’s who DJ’ed at the same time, simultaneously. I changed the mindset of the way people looked at that. And when I brought Slick Rick in, he was unique and the first of his style too. He has that London accent. That was the first real international collaboration.
Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew – Play This Only at Night (Truth Mix – The Whole Story)
How did the success of ‘The Show’ change your life?
It exposed me to a lot of things I’d never seen before. I was travelling, making money, having problems with my girlfriend. It was supposed to be a very joyful time but it was a very painful time for me. It was rough. You can have money, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna be happy. You’re on stage with Rick but offstage it’s funny. You’ve got to give Rick half of the publishing and half of the royalties but you know you were established before him. You wanna give him his just due, but what is his just due considering you were the guy who put it all together and paid for everything. It was a lot of heavy questions to deal with as a kid. I disagreed with all my manager’s decisions – I thought he was a white guy who was just not getting it. Rick thought I was cutting his throat. Man, talk about a headtrip – and I was 17. I’d made a million dollars when I was 17. I did ‘Top of the Pops’, that was mindblowing to me to get that kind of love. I was being thrown into multiple cultures. ‘The Show’ was big. It was big, big, big. It was huge! But there was so much jealousy, confusion and insecurity – from all of us. I can’t begin to tell nobody how this thing is.
One of Doug’s many investments…