1/21/19

Spectrum - NBC / Funky Revolution (Post #500)

Anyone who's done their homework on Public Enemy knows that the group's origins lie with Spectrum, a Long Island DJ crew which later rebranded itself as Spectrum City. The crew originally consisted of brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, who would go on to found the Bomb Squad, and Richard Griffin, who would become Professor Griff of Public Enemy security/dance troupe the S1Ws. Chuck D (then Chuckie D) linked up with Spectrum around 1979 and helped the crew land a Saturday-night radio show called the Spectrum Mixx Show on WBAU in the early '80s.

Eventually, the group began making music of its own, and in 1984, as Spectrum City, they released the Lies / Check Out the Radio single on the Vanguard label. This 12" vinyl also featured rapper Aaron Allen aka Butch Cassidy, who was like Chuck's hypeman before Flavor Flav. (Although Flav, then known as MC DJ Flavor, was in the picture at that time as well, he wasn't on this single.) You can read about all of this and much more in biographer Russell Myrie's Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin': The Authorized Story of Public Enemy, which I can't possibly recommend highly enough for anyone interested in the history of Long Island hip-hop.

However, what you won't read about in that biography (and will find little information about anywhere else, really) are two acetate recordings Spectrum did before they became Spectrum City: NBC and Funky Revolution. These releases were plated and mastered by the Sunshine Sound label, which did a number of acetates for disco and early rap projects from 1974-1982. Though Myrie's book mentions Spectrum putting out mixtapes around this time, it never mentions any acetate recordings. That being said, Keith Shocklee may have alluded to these when, in a 2017 interview with the Conversations with Bianca website, he said: "Most of the stuff we’d make in my mom’s basement, it’s called an acetate of a song. We had to mic the drummer and a bass player, it was so primitive. We recorded it all on to a 2-track tape, in one take."

NBC and Funky Revolution do fit the bill in terms of fidelity, but there seem to be more than just drums, bass and vocals on the records, as you'll hear. "NBC" features that network's familiar three-tone chimes as a sort of refrain for the group's funky jam session, along with some additional electronic noises that theoretically could just be harnesseed feedback or another kind of recording trick, if not a synth or other instrument. Regardless, one might say the free-form electro sounds foreshadow the dissonance that would be the Bomb Squad's calling card in later years. And though there are very few vocals on "NBC," Chuck D's distinct voice is immediately recognizable in the intro. The same goes for "Funky Revolution," on which Chuck kicks things off at the :25 mark, with "Check it out, you ready to funk, Butch?" to which Cassidy responds, "Hey, you know that, homeboy." From there, someone intones, "How about The Wizard?" to which Chuck adds "K-Jee 2-3," spelling out Keith Shocklee's old DJ handle, The Wizard K-Jee. After this, Chuck and Butch sing along with the record, calling out dance moves such as the moonwalk while referencing tunes like Edwin Starr's "War (What Is It Good For)." If this sounds totally unlike the hard-hitting Public Enemy we know and love, it's important to remember that this record comes from the days when Spectrum was primarily a party group and hip-hop was still very new, so Long Island listeners were much more accustomed to funk than rap. Nevertheless, at the 7:44 mark of "Funky Revolution," you begin to hear some vocals that are closer to rapping than singing. Still, this anti-disco, pro-funk rally is a far cry from the revolution that drove Public Enemy, which might explain the group's hesitancy to comment on these tracks. Of course, they could also just be entirely forgotten.

At any rate, absent any official remarks from Chuck, Butch, and the Shocklees, we can only look to what we know from the Discogs listings, as well as what I've been able to gather from Anthony Meijer, the person responsible for uploading these tracks to Soundcloud. He says, "Someone posted these acetates on ebay years ago (pre 2008 I think), way before everyone jumped on acetates and test pressings." The seller who auctioned off these acetates provided no info other than the names of the records, so Meijer is left guessing like the rest of us. One thing is certain, though: as two of the only four known songs released on record by Spectrum (City), these jams represent crtically important primary sources in the history of Public Enemy and by exension, Long Island hip-hop. To that point,  they certainly pre-date the earliest songs posted on this website heretofore and could in fact be among the first examples of rap recordings by a Long Island artist (I'm yet to find anything else pre-1984; Chuck D joined Spectrum in '79, and Sunshine Sound closed down in 1982, so these records would have to be from sometime between those years). Therefore, though I don't own the records, I am honored to be able to bring them to you with this, our 500th post.


A special thanks to Anthony Meijer for uploading these acetates to Soundcloud and for telling me how he came across them, and to everyone who has visited this website, shared a link to it, or commented on a post. Your continued interest, support and engagement are all deeply appreciated.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent overview mate, many thanks. I'd be great to hear some commentary from those involved in these acetates at some stage. I'll keep asking as well...

    ReplyDelete