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The story of Sugar Hill Records is regarded as one of the most pivotal legacies in hip-hop history. Headed by Sylvia Robinson, the label was home to “Rappers Delight” and “The Message,” both named recently by Rolling Stone as the two greatest hip-hop songs ever recorded. Along with those behemoths, the label also signed some of the old school’s most versatile and gifted artists, including the Crash Crew. Recently celebrating their 36th anniversary as a group, at S.O.B.’s as part of the Hip-Hop Legends series, they performed their hits “On the Radio” and “High Powered Rap,” effectively rocking the party like they’ve been doing for decades. We spoke to the Crew (sans members EK Mike C and Mixmaster Mike) about the early days of hip-hop, life on Sugar Hill, and being shouted out on tracks by Jay-Z and hip-hop’s biggest stars.
Congrats on the big 36th anniversary!
Reggie Reg: It was 1977 if the math is correct. We were 14-years-old.
How did the crew first form?
Reggie Reg: Disco Dave and his brother Mixmaster Mike who were Disc-Jockeys in the communities. They were doing a lot of parties for their peers who were 21 and 22. We were only like 14, so Dave and them and Shubee were the older gentlemen and we would help them bring the equipment to the Lincoln Projects just to be around them. We were intrigued with them, they were into martial arts movies, and at 3:00 we were all watching karate movies and calling ourselves the Poison Clan.
Barry Bistro: We used to carry equipment for Mike and Dave because back then they would spin before people would rap. We’d carry equipment so we could get in for free and dance with the girls. Then rapping came up, we became Mike and Dave and the Crash Crew and we went from there.
Being that you were all so close to the dawn of hip-hop in the 70s, how did you feel in 1979 when rapping was finally appearing in the commercial market? Did you have reservations about releasing a single?
Reggie Reg: No, we definitiely wanted to record. We were already doing the song as a routine in 1978. Then in 1979 when vinyl happened when King Tim III and the Fatback Band came out, we were on the corner and said we got to make a record to stay competitive. Sugar Hill had just come out with a record, Spoonie-Gee had just come out with a record, Kurtis Blow had just come out with “Christmas Rapping,” and we were exactly the eighth record in rap’s existence.
That was “High Powered Rap?”
Disco Dave: Right. I remember, everybody used to come up to my house, everybody wrote a rhyme, we brought all the stuff together to set-up in the living room and we kind of put the record together right there. That whole cut was done for like $200.00 because my brother used to work in the recording studio, and we weren’t even mixing back then. We were splicing it together.
Reggie Reg: And what happened if somebody messed up?
Disco Dave: We had to start all over again. But, we got it in two takes.
Shubee: We were only there for two hours. A 13 minute song done in two takes.
I think what stands out about that record is how well you mixed melodies within the rap performances. How did what came to be known as “the vicious Crash Crew Sound” develop?
G-Man: Mike and Dave were perfectionists so we had to practice. After school you came home, you did whatever you had to do by a certain time, but after that you had to practice.
Reggie Reg: We would love to go to Mike and Dave’s. We would go into two-man teams.
G-Man: Historically speaking, I wasn’t one of the original MCs. I initially was a friend of a friend of Dave’s named Mace G. who used to build speakers for the crew. When he got with Dave and Mike, I used to tag along. At a certain point and time, some of the original MCs left, but I said a rhyme for Dave who said it was alright and when the group got back together [original member] Fly Guy didn’t come back and I tried to fit in as best I could.
But “High Powered Rap” didn’t come out under the name Crash Crew…
Reggie Reg: It came out as Force of the Five MCs.
What lead to the name chance?
Barry Bistro: It’s real complicated. The Crash Crew was the name of everybody. It was Mike and Dave and the Crash Crew, who was everybody else. Then, there were people who were part of the Crash Crew who weren’t MCs, so we came up with Force of the Five MCs as part of the Crash Crew. It was just different factions. But Force of the Five was dropped.
Who thought of the name Crash Crew?
Reggie Reg: That would be me.
Disco Dave: I recall we had hardhats at one point.
G-Man: You had the mixtape with the car-crash sound.
Barry Bistro: And that was because every block in Harlem had rappers and they all had crew names. It’s funny because the Bronx gets credited for creating rap, but simultaneously it was happening in Harlem. But because Herc and Bambaataa were famous, they get all the credit. They were the first one to cut up records.
Reggie Reg: Well, the first tape we heard, was from the Bronx. We’re talking 1973 to 1977. We used to go to the Renaissance and only pay 50 cents to get in.
Shubee: The first party we went to was St. Anne’s and we had this little tape recorder and were trying to suck up Flash’s rocking the beatbox. That was ’77. But early Harlem hip-hop came after the Bronx.
Reggie Reg: That was in ’73 and ’75 was when Harlem first got it.
Barry Bistro: But everybody was DJing.
Reggie Reg: We were underage and partying and made a record for the girls. It wasn’t about the money or the yachts…
Barry Bistro: It wasn’t about the girls, it was because it was fun.
Reggie Reg: I stand corrected, it’s because it was fun.
LSD: And it kept us out of trouble. To this day, none of us ever got arrested or got caught up in drugs or gangs or anything. We appreciate Mike and Dave letting us come into their house like a club. We had our own crew. We didn’t go around attacking or robbing people, we just had fun.
Shubee: And on the record when we say “the Poison Clan,” this was the Poison Clan, which came from The Five Deadly Venoms. Before Wu-Tang Clan got it, we had it first because we would come 40 deep. But they gave us props. We were the first to put it on the record.
Reggie Reg: We got so many AKAs. Also, the name is an acronym for “Cool Romantic Amazing Super Heroes…”
Barry Bistro: Reggie made that up because he’s into comic books.
Reggie Reg: I still believe that I am the black Silver Surfer.
Shubee: And then we joined the Sugar Hill organization.
Barry Bistro: Worst mistake of our lives.
G-Man: I will go on record and say that was the worst mistake we ever made. Had we stayed with Mike and Dave we not only would have controlled our own destiny, but…
Reggie Reg: We would have been at home. We would have been a family. But Sugar Hill is what we did and we can’t go back in time because if I go back in time again as the black Silver Surfer, I would change a lot of things and Obama wouldn’t be President today. We need to have Obama as President, so we will continue.
As a Crew you spent the remainder of your years on Sugar Hill who put out your singles, and eventually a compilation of singles after the fact, but never a full-length album. Was an album ever in the cards?
Reggie Reg: With Sugar Hill, we jumped into that frying pan and began working on singles. We never finished working on an album. We started it, but due to creative flow, there were a lot of chefs in the kitchen.
Barry Bistro: There was creative conflict. We had no direction. It was chaos and I don’t think anybody from Sugar Hill was really in our corner.
Reggie Reg: We were underage, our mothers had to come and sign for that contract.
Barry Bistro: The competition was fierce.
Reggie Reg: We did share a studio with the first hispanic hip-hop group Mean Machine. And we continued to make classics. But being 18-years-old in Harlem in 1980, we weren’t thinking about music, we were thinking about “ghetto hits” because that’s what “High Powered Rap” was. But, it happened to go to the midwest and west coast because it got out of Mike and Dave’s hands.
Disco Dave: It was bootlegged. We got invited to do shows in places where I’d ask “How’d you get the record out there?” They bootlegged it.
Reggie Reg: But what Sugar Hill did was make us worldwide. After “We Want to Rock” we did “Breaking Bells” and then “On the Radio” which did 48 weeks on urban radio. At the same time, Sugar Hill is the first company coming out in hip-hop and they weren’t doing everything in terms of paying taxes and now had the federal government looking at them. Sugar Hill got closed down but we never finished the album. At the same time, you had members who were reaching manhood. We’re about to be 21 and had to start thinking about careers now.
Barry Bistro: Rap was evolving and it was lightning quick.
G-Man: The sound of music was changing.
Shubee: Bottom line, contract problems. Sugar Hill didn’t want to pay us. That was about it.
Reggie Reg: At 21, 22 you had to make decisions in life and Sugar Hill wasn’t a good future to do, especially with the IRS closing them up in 1985.
And then later there were your mid-90s records like “Champagne Flights.”
G-Man: “Crash is Back.”
Reggie Reg: That’s when half of the group wasn’t part of it. We tried to do a second edition of Crash Crew. We came in ’79, we went out in ’84. Now, we’re about 35 and we still hear hip-hop and still getting recognized as parties, so we decided to do another record. So, we got this guy Curtis Hamilton who wanted to be like Mike and Dave who knew Rob Base. Anyway, we get down with Curt and he had Teddy Reily, who isn’t in Guy yet AND he has DJ Red Alert. So, it’s three members now because the other members had gone on to wives and careers, so we did “High Powered Rap 2.”
Barry Bistro: I was on that record. I was on “Crash is Back.” I’ve never heard of “Champagne Flights.”
Reggie Reg: Let me explain. We did the song with Reily, and then a few years later we came back hardcore and that was the year we did “Champagne Flights.”
G-Man: By 1986 we were done. I became a cop in 1986.
Barry Bistro: And it was just swings in the dark after that.
LSD: At the time that Crash Crew were signed, they were signed with a lot of groups. By the time Sugar Hill blew up and signed Flash, everybody wanted to make a record. They signed a lot of groups to get them under contract so that they could control the rap market at that time and didn’t have to worry about a Crash Crew signing to somebody else.
G-Man: It was a lot like they were removing [us] from competing with the three acts they wanted to carry, so everybody took a backseat to the acts they wanted to carry.
But those records you did make on Sugar Hill will live forever and have been referenced and invoked in songs by everyone from the Beastie Boys to De La Soul to Jay-Z.
Barry Bistro: That was Disco Dave’s part that Jay-Z used for “Girls Girls Girls.”
Did any of those artists ask your permission first or have any contact with you afterwards?
Reggie Reg: Nope, they went straight to Sugar Hill.
Barry Bistro: But I’m fine with them not reaching out. It’s just great to hear them do it.