Monday, April 03, 2006

Bass, How Low Can You Go – The Story Of Sugarhill House Band Bassist Doug Wimbish

By JayQuan

As a pre teen in the early 80’s, I stayed glued to the component set listening to someone playing incredible bass on joints like Freedom by The Furious 5 and Grandmaster Flash, 8th Wonder by The Sugar Hill Gang, Monster Jam By Spoonie Gee with Sequence and especially Flash To The Beat by Grandmaster Flash. It’s an honor to speak to that “someone” some 25 years later. This is the story of the journeyman bassist Doug Wimbish……

JayQuan: It’s an honor. Tell me how and when you got into music, and what the first instrument was that you played.

Doug Wimbish: Well I first got into music in 1968 or so. I have an older brother and sister who were turning me on to stuff like The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Motown, Stax and the Philly sound. I also have some Caribbean background. What really triggered things was when I went to the Bahamas to visit my Grandmother, and I have an Uncle who played guitar. I would sit on the porch and watch him play. He and 3 of my other Uncles used to tell people in the Bahamas that I was Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5, so that they could get into nightclubs and drink for free. It worked and that was one thing that triggered the reality of me wanting to be a musician. I started playing a 4-string guitar in my high school band in 1970. Basically we played talent shows at Bloomfield high school in Bloomfield Connecticut. From then on I became an active musician.

JQ: Do you remember the name of the first band that you were in?

DW: Wow that’s a good question. It’s been so long that I don’t remember. It was probably named after the guitar player whose name was Lash. It was probably Lash and the something…….. It’s been so long that I can’t remember hardly any of the names of those bands. One that I do remember was Third World (not the Reggae band) which eventually became Wood, Brass & Steel. That was in 1974,and when the Reggae band came out we already had the name, but they beat us to the punch. When we went to All Platinum Records (one of Sylvia & Joe Robinsons pre Sugarhill labels) we inherited the name Wood Brass and Steel. The label owned the name. When Skip Mc Donald first went to All Platinum they recorded a song under the name Wood Brass and Steel. Before that they were called the Ohio Hustlers. They were like a subsidiary of the Ohio Players.

JQ : What was the first Wood Brass & Steel Lp called?

DW: It was self titled, and the first single was Welcome To The Party.

JQ: Was that the album that had a picture of a boat on the front cover?

DW: Yep….that was like ’76 or so.

JQ: How were you promoted back then, were you considered underground compared to funk groups like Funkadelic and the Barkays?

DW: Yes because Cameo and Funkadelic were on Polygram and Casablanca. They had a machine behind them. Joe & Sylvia’s label was truly independent. They had their operation and
it worked for them at the time, but it was dysfunctional. That’s why Russell Simmons and people like that were able to come in an do what they did, because Joe & Sylvia wanted to stay independent. It was interesting because there was no promotion on those records. It was Joe Robinson calling up whoever he knew like Frankie Crocker in New York, Jim Gates in East St Louis, Mr. Magic who had his own show & Butterball in Philly. He had a network of people that he dealt with. The promotion was all in house. Everything at All Platinum was self-sufficient. You had an upstairs and downstairs recording studio; you had an office with about 6 desks with people on the phones doing promotions. They did everything – cut plates, they had their own p.r. people. At one point you could do everything right there. Even the accountants were in house. When it got real big , then they would send it out.

JQ: So the physical building is the same place that became Sugarhill Records.

DW: Yes, nothing changed, until that building burned down a few years ago.

JQ: Bring me up to date from All Platinum to Sugarhill…

DW: I had been gone from All Platinum for a couple of years and I was in New Haven Connecticut playing at a club called Leo’s Welfare Disco. The place was right next door to the welfare office. You could get in with food stamps. Their motto was “3 dollars or a black eye to get in”. Basically I remember hearing Rappers Delight come on and I said that’s an All Platinum record !!! I knew that record was cut at All Platinum. They had a certain sound that they produced at that time. There was a lot of up to date stuff happening at the time, and All Platinum was still stuck in the 60s. As a studio musician, you knew by listening what came from Philly International, Motown, All Platinum or whatever. Right around that time Sylvia Robinson had been calling my moms house for a few weeks looking for me, and I wasn’t taking her calls. I finally took the call, and by then all that was left of the core band was myself & Skip (Mc Donald). We recruited Keith Le Blanc as a drummer, Dwayne Mitchell as a keyboard player and Craig Derry was always in the fold. Jiggs (Chase) came in October of ’79 with Ed Fletcher. Jiggs came in just to arrange, he wasn’t playing on anything. Ed Fletcher came in to play, but he thought that he was gonna take over. He came in with intentions on bringing his band in to replace us. After hearing us play he said that he wanted to get down with us, instead of replacing us. He brought in Gary Henry who was a classically trained pianist. Then we had Winston Dixon who was our roadie, but was like a hype man – he rode a unicycle. When we went out touring with the Sugarhill Gang that was the main band - myself, Skip, Winston Dixon, Craig Derry & Dwayne Mitchell. Later on Gary Henry and Ed Fletcher came along.

JQ: It was Positive Force who played on the actual Rappers Delight record right?

DW: Absolutely!! They were from Harrisburg, PA and they had that record We Got The Funk. I did not play on Rappers Delight.

JQ: But once Sugarhill Gang started touring you played it live right?

DW: Yes. Myself, Keith & Skip were the studio band, and when Sugarhill Gang really blew up, we would be in the studio during the week and on weekends we would do gigs with the Sugarhill Gang. We started going on tours for months at a time, and we had to find other musicians to cut songs in the studio. No one wanted to use them, not that they weren’t good, but no one felt comfortable using them until Reggie Griffin came. He was a one-man show – he did it all. He came along with George Kerr who produced The Escorts and The Moments.

JQ: I have seen his name on records by the Whatnauts as well.

DW: Yes you will see his name and Bernard Alexander’s name. Bernard Alexander and Skip Mc Donald are the same person.

JQ: Did you hear rap music prior to the release of Rappers Delight?

DW: Yes, just being in New York. …..Block parties, Dj Hollywood at the Apollo. I also knew of Harlem World & Disco Fever.

JQ: What did you think of Rappers Delight when you first heard it?

DW: I thought it was cheesy as hell. This was way before sampling, and it was the first time someone took someone else’s shit and put something else on top of it like that, but that’s my musician ear. When I turn that off, and just listen as a basic listener, I knew that it was gonna change everything. At the time when Rappers Delight came out P Funk had just dropped Knee Deep. P Funk was raisin’ hell and Rappers Delight came out right then. Sugarhill Gang opened for Parliament, and that’s when I met Dennis Chambers and Rodney Ski Curtis and the whole Baltimore connection along with George (Clinton). It was a real interesting time. The funk was in absolute rare form, and here comes this record outta nowhere – this 15 minute song. We would play the 3-minute intro, go into Rappers Delight and that was the whole gig. It was so cheesy that I liked it. Positive Force did a great job on that, it was dope.

JQ: What made you go back to work with the Robinsons after they formed Sugarhill Records?

DW: She charmed us well. Sylvia always liked Skip & me. Even back in the All Platinum days she would tell us that we were the most talented in the band. Sylvia & me were always cool and we also had a West Indian connection, because we both had family from the Islands.

JQ: How about business wise?

DW: That’s where it takes a twist. They had a way of running stuff that was like just give a person enough to make ‘em happy. Like they would take a group out to dinner, send ‘em away with a little dough in their pockets, record ‘em and it was gonna be a hit comin out. All of ‘em had hits – Funky 4, Crash Crew, Sequence, Flash & The Furious 5, Sugarhill Gang, Spoonie Gee. They gave ‘em the dance, leased ‘em a few cars and gave them stuff that they always wanted. As long as they didn’t have any access to their money. Soon as you pissed ‘em off they would cut you off and ice you. You wouldn’t even know what you did. Skip & me knew though, and we would just sit back & watch it.

JQ: Im gonna name some songs, and I want you to tell me if you played on them, and any interesting story associated with the song.

Freedom by GM Flash & The Furious 5
– That was the first song that we cut on Flash, and yes I played on that. I remember Flash taking the bus over the George Washington bridge to West Street to the studio. I can also remember them saying “Mrs. Rob we will just be happy if we can make 100.00 a night”. That was a great experience because you knew when Flash & The Furious 5 came that the real shit was here!! When they came it really made Sugarhill Records solid & complete. Shit went up about 15 notches when they came. First it was Sugarhill Gang then Sequence then the Furious 5. Furious 5 are the blue print for all the shit going right now.

Sugarhill Groove, Bad News, Here I Am and all the joints on Sugarhill Gangs first Lp – I played on everything but Rappers Delight on that Lp. You know Sugarhill Groove was nothin’ but Catch A Groove. We replayed it.

That’s The Joint by Funky 4 + 1
– Absolutely I played on that. That song personally helped rap be more creative, and was responsible for writers from the Village Voice noticing the Funky 4. It also helped them get hooked up with Blondie, which led to them doin’ Sat. Night Live. Robert Kristenoff from Village Voice loved that record. He said forget the words listen to the instrumental and the bassline!!

The Message
– Definitely. That melody line I came up with, even thought I don’t get credited with it. That was an interesting time. That was the song that turned everything upside down!! We worked on that record. Everything stopped when we started on that song. When Sylvia smelled a hit all other recordings stop, and everyone had to wait till that song was done. Me Skip and Ed Fletcher (Duke Bootee) were all listening to “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” by Brian Eno and smoking weed. That’s where that song came from. That real tripped out trancy sound had never been done in R&B, pop or any other music.

JQ: Did the band get a chance to ever play that one live?

DW: Nope. When we became Tackhead later on I would invite Mel out to perform it with us. Mel & me had a special connection because of the Miami Vice song that we both got robbed on. I think the first time that we did it was at the Kat Club in 1985 in front of Mick Jagger, Nile Rogers and a cast of others. Reggie Griffin was on keyboards and Ed Fletcher was there.

8Th Wonder by Sugarhill Gang – Yeah I played on that. Cheryl The Pearl from Sequence wrote it. She wrote everything except maybe some pieces that Wonder Mike wrote. Cheryl was the wonder girl. People don’t know that. Sequence was fizzling out , and I think that Sylvia was mad at Angie B , so she had ways of manipulating people , by putting others in certain situations. Cheryl had talent !!!! Within a year of coming to Sugarhill she was a songwriter. Angie was the voice, Blondie was the look , and Cheryl was the lil chubby girl on the side not getting any play , but her talent came out.

Disco Dream by Mean Machine
– Yeah , that shit was dope. We did “Pull Up To The Bumper”. I think Chris Lord Alge was on the boards for that one. He is the engineer on Green Days stuff, along with tons of others. He got his first engineering job because of me & Skip telling Joe Robinson to put him on. Chris Lord Alge & Tom Lord Alge – great musicians and engineers!!

Show Down Furious 5 meets Sugarhill Gang – That record came about because of twiddle dee and twiddle dum (Maurice Star & Michael Jonzun). I call them that ‘cus they always were running theirs mouths, and thought that they could out play anyone, until me & Skip lit ‘em up a few times. That was a horrible sounding record that they did at their house. We had to re do it, and I added my bass to the record. They were quite entertaining to be around – Maurice was more vocal and Michael was the quiet one. Sugarhill would bring in other people to stir things up. The only one that was really good was Reggie Griffin; everybody else’s stuff was real cheesy. I give them credit Maurice was a great producer.
Scorpio By Grandmaster Flash & The F5 – That was done by Reggie Griffin SOLELY. He did everything on that. They put Scorp. on it ‘cus he was the mysterious one in the group, he really was like a hype man that got everyone pumped up, so that was them giving him some shine. He was the freaky dude; he was down with Waterbed Kev and all them. He was such a mystical dude and Mrs. Rob. liked that. He played a major part because he brought a look and attitude to the group that Flash needed.

New York New York Flash & the Furious 5 – That was Reggie Griffin again, I just copied his bassline, but he played all the other instruments.

The Lover In You – Sugarhill Gang – That was Pete Wingfield from England. Sylvia had ties with other writers, like she had Bette Midler come in and do a Moments song. But Pete Wingfield is the same one who did “Its Good To Be The Queen” by Sylvia.

Making Cash Money / Spoonie Is Back – Busy Bee / Spoonie Gee
– Yeah with the Funky President beat. Busy finally got some dap on that. He never really got his, but he was a connector for a lotta groups. But yeah I played on that. Man we were cutting so much back then, that I forgot a lotta these songs.

Monster Jam Sequence & Spoonie Gee
- Yeah, you know that was me. They threw the instrumental to Monster jam on the back of one of West Street Mob’s records, but they didn’t touch it. Joey Robinson Jr had negative 10,000 bits of talent along with Warren Moore. Sabrina, the girl in their group was talented, and could throw a football. She was a tomboy that they transformed into an artist, but she had talent. One of my funniest Sugarhill moments was when we were down south somewhere opening for Peabo Bryson. We couldn’t wait for Joey to take the stage; it would have been his first time performing in front of an audience. It was HILARIOUS. He couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time, but he was the heir to the Sugarhill thrown. They were a manufactured band. We did all their recordings.

Its Nasty
– I love that song it was dope. That record was dope. You couldn’t fuck with us at the time. You had Chris Lord Alge on the boards. That was the Tom Tom Club song. We had a clap machine, and we did a party track where you heard us in the background with the party vibe. If you look at the back of the Message Lp it says thanks to Willie. Willie was a DMX drum machine that we just bought.

JQ: What did you think of what Bobby Robinson was doing at Enjoy! Records?

DW: I don’t know if you noticed but somethin’ happened with Bobby & Joe Robinson. In fact that’s how Treacherous 3, Funky 4, Furious 5 & Spoonie Gee came to Sugarhill. Joe acquired rights to all those artists. …..oh yeah I did White Lines too, that’s the last of the records that I did that was a hit there. I was there right when the MCA merger was happening. We had just done Vice, which I got robbed on. They were starving for money at the time, and Russell Simmons was blowin’ stuff up. The Miami Vice thing blew WAAAAY up. I did EVERYTHING on the Vice song there is no other musician on there but ME. Mel & me did that song SOLELY. They didn’t even give me proper writers credits. They gave writer credit to Leland (their son) that’s when I had to get a lawyer and a gun!!! Leland was nowhere near the studio when it was being recorded. Joe & them were slick they would put your record out, and already have the paper work done, so by the time that you hear it you’re scramblin’ tryin’ to prove that you’re a writer, but they filed the paperwork already. They gave my writers to Leland as a graduation present!! That was the straw that broke the camels back; man that album was the biggest selling album that year.

JQ: Who are the members of Tackhead?

DW: The original Sugarhill rhythm section – myself Keith & Skip and we met Adrian Sherwood thru Tom Silverman at the New Music Seminar in the summer of ’84. We had just left Sugarhill. Keith did Malcolm X (No Sell Out) with Reggie Griffin. We hooked up with Tom Silverman and wrote Let Me Love you for the Force Mds, and we did their whole first album. We also did Unity with Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown. We cut 8 different parts and released them as separate songs. That was the first time that was done. We changed history in a lotta different ways. We just got left out of everybody’s mouth.

JQ: Yall’s story sounds a lot like the Funk Brothers from Motown!!!

DW: Yeah, but at least they got paid somethin’. You know what pissed me off is this book Hip Hop Ya Don’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Our name is not mentioned once in there NOT ONCE !! I hope im not dead before people realize what I have done.

JQ:….These people don’t know man, that’s why I do what I do…. these program directors at BET and MTV are in their early 20s……

DW: If you wanna do a solid for me & my grand children get this story out there, and in peoples faces, ‘cus we have been left out, intentionally. At one time me Skip & Keith were on more turntables than any other self-contained band IN THE WORLD!!! And we got NO FUC*ING RECOGNITION!!! I don’t want my daughter to have to tell my grand kids what their grandfather did.

JQ: When someone samples this stuff, do you get a royalty?

DW: We don’t get a dime, they scammed us. They would give you writers, but the label owned the publishing, which is a conflict of interest!!!

JQ: Did you play on the Wayne & Charlie Record?

DW: Of course, Wayne used to stay at my house, he opened shows for us.

JQ: How did you get down with Living Colour?

DW: I met Vernon Reid through Ed Fletcher when he was doin his solo Record for Polygram. He was playing guitar on it also. Vernon hung out with me & Skip and we had a big loft. Vernon was a massive Tackhead fan, and he wanted to sit in with us at gigs. He would be there before us with his guitar! Living Colour was formed by Vernon around 85 or so. In ’86 I met Vernon again at an audition for Mick Jagger for his album “Primative Cool”. I had to audition against 45 other bass players from Ny, LA & London and I got the gig. I joined Living Colour in 1991. If Vernon had gotten that gig with Mick maybe there wouldn’t have been a Living Colour. If he had gotten it, he would have been ready to park the band.

JQ: Do you still record with Tackhead?

DW: Yes we have a new record called Tackhead Sound Crash comin’ this Spring on Virgin Emi, it’s our best record ever. Bernard Fowler is on board with us now also.

JQ: Thanks for your time Bro !!!! It's an honor !!!

© 2006 JayQuan Dot Com / 5 Mic Media As told to JayQuan January 2006

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