An excerpt from the book Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train
"A Beat Like This Might Tempt Me"
by Ericka Blount Danois
Excerpted with permission from Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train (Backbeat Books).
This is not Michael Jackson, and this is not “Thriller”!
—from “King of Rock,” by Run-D.M.C.
By 1979, the music industry was changing fast, and Soul Train and Don Cornelius were struggling to keep up. On July 12, 1979, Comiskey Park became the receptacle for rock and roll fans’ revulsion, as the end of the disco era was inaugurated with mass burnings of disco albums in the park; the event became popularly characterized as “the night disco died.” Led by shock jock Steve Dahl, tens of thousands of disco records were blown up on the field between games of the doubleheader. Part of the backlash against disco stemmed from the presumption of gay culture associated with the music, but also grew from what some thought about the music itself—too mechanical and simplistic.
Black pop, led by superstars Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, exploded—and Houston and Jackson, both now on mainstream labels, became the forbearers of crossover success. Prince and Madonna were showcasing a new sexual freedom. A new blue-eyed soul invasion led by artists like Boy George and Hall and Oates were giving a new face to race-based soul sounds. The conglomeration of radio companies led to the segregation of radio and the new radio format became Top 40.
In the next year, President Ronald Reagan would ride in like the grim reaper and cut federally funded programs for the poor, dismantle tax incentives for investing in the arts, and fire air traffic control strikers, which helped to weaken the power of unions. With a commitment to big business over social programs, government expected individuals to pull themselves up and out. The less the government aided people through welfare strategies to provide food and housing, the more likely the poor were to become dependent was the philosophy. The income gap between rich and poor widened, budget deficits increased, and a recession was inevitable. The black poor became more isolated. By 1982, the unemployment rate among black men had soared to twice the level among whites, passing 21 percent in 1983. Amidst the misery, in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, a musical cultural renaissance was happening. Dubbed “hip-hop” it impressed with colorful graffiti, captivated with “b-boying,” and had people dancing to a new creative style of deejaying, where “turntablists” reconfigured breakbeats so the rhythms were continuous. The last element, rapping, happened largely over gritty funk and soul samples from disco, R&B, and soul icons like James Brown. Though hip-hop was the antithesis of disco—disco music was sampled without irony.
It wouldn’t be long before someone thought to package it for a national television audience.
A young, mixed-race ex–Wall Street junior investment banker, a New York kid named Michael Holman, had been a fan of Soul Train, Hullabaloo, and Shindig! as much for the music as the dancing and fashion culture.
In a Soul Train format, Holman created a pilot for a hip-hop dance show and called it Graffiti Rock. The show took a much more heavy-handed, didactic approach than Cornelius’s “live and let live” approach to showcasing culture. But it was the only approach Holman could use to explain this new curiosity to the mainstream.
Holman had long been giving artists a venue to expose their work. He cocreated graffiti art events, which helped to establish a then-obscure graffiti artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Holman helped to nurture another graffiti artist named Fab Five Freddy (who modeled his early art after Andy Warhol) and Puerto Rican political graffiti artist Lee Quinones. Quinones’s quote from one of his pieces, “Graffiti is art and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me,” would be used in the Harry Belafonte–produced, Stan Lathan–directed hip-hop movie Beat Street, released in 1984.
Holman worked with the b-boying group, the NYC Breakers, and became the manager for the Rock Steady Crew. Before that, he had worked with the b-boying dancing crew International Break Masters. He would be one of the first to record hip-hop culture in print, writing one of the first profiles on deejay and godfather of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Soulsonic Force for the East Village Eye newspaper.
Bambaataa, who grew up in the Bronx River Housing Projects and was raised by an activist mother, was the perfect representative for hip-hop’s beginnings. Through his mother, he bore witness to the black liberation movement. Despite her influence, he ended up becoming a warlord for the gang the Black Spades. The Black Spades cleared out drug dealers, assisted with community health programs, and fought, often to the death, with other gang members for turf. When Bambaataa won a trip to Africa as a prize for a school essay competition, it changed his consciousness, as he saw the solidarity of the Zulu. He came back to the States, and along with Jamaican-born deejay Kool Herc and Brooklyn-born Kool DJ Dee, began hosting hip-hop parties and organizing block parties around the South Bronx.
Holman would introduce former manager of the Sex Pistols and British musician, Malcolm McLaren, to this strange new world, along with RCA executive Rory Johnston, when Bambaataa invited him to a block party at the Bronx River Projects. Holman picked up Malcolm and Rory at Malcolm’s hotel room at the Le Parker Meridien Hotel in Midtown at 119 W. 56th Street. They flagged down a gypsy cab driven by a Puerto Rican woman at 57th Street and Sixth Avenue. When Holman, McLaren, and Johnston got out of the cab and walked toward the Bronx River Projects, the first thing that struck them was that all of the streetlights had been shot out. Fights were breaking out left and right. Lights from project windows cast eerie zig-zags on the concrete. Funky beats wafted through at a frenzied pace as Bambaataa and another deejay, Jazzy Jay, spun records. McLaren was scared.
But he couldn’t deny the infectious energy around him. Bambaataa was playing the Monkee’s “Mary Mary,” mixing it with Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Just Begun,” while hundreds of junior high kids—kids who weren’t old enough for the downtown clubs—danced. He would switch from the live version of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”—mixing the beats, segueing into the theme song of the television show I Dream of Jeannie. Among his many talents, he was a turntable artist—who would find the backbeat or chorus or a riff to use to merge into another song, mixing it manually until it became a collage—often extending the songs until it became another sound altogether. Everything was acceptable as long as it had a groove. It was the summer of 1982.When McLaren saw all that was going on, he started talking about showcasing it at The Roxy in Manhattan. Holman thought much bigger. He wanted to take it to television.
Holman talked to a few investment bankers from Paine Webber who had invested in New Edition’s first record label, Streetwise Records owned by Arthur Baker, and they immediately believed in the idea of Graffiti Rock. Holman wanted to hire New York radio deejay Mr. Magic to work on the show, and Debbie Mazur, a dancer who was part of the downtown club scene, to dance on the show. Afrika Bambaataa would serve as the music consultant.
On the pilot, the show’s title appeared in colorful graffiti bubble letters, as a sparse crowd danced on the risers. Kool Moe Dee, from the group the Treacherous Three, dressed in white and gray leather and a Kangol cap, and Special K, dressed in burgundy leather from head to toe, rapped during the introduction about the merits of the show that the audience was about to see. Right after they finished, Holman magically appeared between the two of them, dressed in a black shearling vest and Cazal sunglasses with the lenses out. He started rapping with a jerky lack of rhythm: “Party people in the place to be—this is a crazy fresh show called Graffiti Rock…now you know why the show is number one, ’cause we are all about having fun.”
The show started out with a jaw-dropping display of breaking by the New York City Breakers. Before commercial breaks and during breaks between acts, a slang term written in graffiti appeared on the screen along with a definition. The slang term fresh was defined as the “hippest, newest, most together, most unique.” Two teenage dancers, a boy and a girl, were interviewed specifically about their fashion—the girl sported a Le Coq Sportif shirt and Adidas with fat laces, while the teenage boy explained his Kangol and Cazals. The dancers, wearing name belts and chains, Sasson jeans, Izod and Le Coq Sportif shirts, and sweat suits moved in b-boy and b-girl style, popping and moving their bodies effortlessly, doing the wave to the latest club 12-inch single hits—“Let Me Love You,” by the Force MDs, and “Hey! DJ,” by the World’s Famous Supreme Team. Run-D.M.C. performed “Sucker M.C.’s” live and then battled Kool Moe Dee and Special K in a contrived rhyme fest.
Holman took the show to the National Association of Producers of Television Entertainment Conference in Las Vegas. Some showed interest, but most of them had no idea what they were seeing. Many of them didn’t see the difference between his show and Soul Train. Others thought hip-hop was a passing fad. One producer for a New York station promised to put it on the air if they were paid in cash $10,000 under the table per episode. Holman refused.
The same year that Holman was turned down for Graffiti Rock, in 1984, he and the New York City Breakers appeared on Soul Train on May 5. Cornelius, who had been leery of allowing his dancers to participate in breaking on the show would devote a portion of a segment devoted to honor Dionne Warwick to the NYC Breakers as the Soul Train dancers gathered around them in a circle of amazement, watching them uprock, glide, and head spin.
Cornelius looked worried as they prepared to make magic on the floor in just black bodysuits and Puma sneakers.
“Let me get everybody’s name before you break the place up!” Cornelius said, his voice hot with frustration. As they spun on their hands, performed windmills, backspins, head spins, and the wave effortlessly, the Soul Train dancers stood around them in a circle of awe and clapped. After the breakers performed, Cornelius talked to Holman about his work with the movie Beat Street, with Harry Belafonte and Stan Lathan, and the coming-of-age teen-angst film, Sixteen Candles. He and the NYC Breakers had cameos in both.
Graffiti Rock didn’t see the light of day—at least not beyond that first pilot episode. The similarities to Soul Train were striking—even the tone followed the same Soul Train format, with the camera zooming in and out on the dancers and back to the performers on an elevated stage, breaks for interviewing guests and dancers, and a focus as much on educating as it was on entertaining. Though it didn’t succeed on the airwaves, it would pave the way for Yo! MTV Raps as a successful vehicle that featured hip-hop exclusively. There would be fiercer competition for Soul Train—music videos and BET and MTV, shows like Video Soul—that were coming to take over in the dawning of the niche market.
Though Cornelius may have been a skeptic, Soul Train was one of the first shows to give b-boying this space and time. He was a trailblazer, if not a reluctant convert to hip-hop’s brash attitude.
In the winter of 1979, Curtis Walker, who would become famous by his sobriquet, Kurtis Blow, was gripping a pen nervously. He was about to become the first rapper to sign a major-label deal with Mercury Records. Two former Billboard magazine writers, Rocky Ford and J. B. Moore, had recorded his demo with money saved from Moore’s first novel. Curtis’s demo had been shopped to twenty-two different record labels, and without reservation everyone proclaimed that they hated the song. Even black executives at major labels like Atlantic and Columbia were befuddled by the demo. Cory Robbins, an A&R representative for Panorama Records, would be one of the few that liked it, and offered them $10,000 for the single and the request to retain half of their publishing royalties. They agreed to the deal reluctantly. Then something strange happened.
Though Kurtis had lived in Harlem all of his life, his fandom would begin overseas. John Stainze, an A&R director at Mercury in London, loved the record and offered them a contract that would allow them to keep their publishing. All of a sudden, Kurtis became an international sensation, all the while sitting in a tiny apartment in Harlem.
By December of that year, Kurtis’s debut rap song “Christmas Rap” was blasting through boomboxes and climbing over barred Harlem project windows. The deal he signed was only for two records, and only if the first record sold more than 30,000 copies and the second sold more than 100,000 copies would he get the chance to do an entire album. Few believed the record would sell, especially the executives at the label. The first single sold 370,000.
The next single was “The Breaks,” an infectiously comedic take on life’s disappointments, with a hard-driving original funk beat: “If your woman steps out with another man…and she runs off with him to Japan/And the IRS says they want to chat and you can’t explain why you claimed your cat…”
It would be the hottest song of the summer of 1980 and would become the first certified Gold rap song. The 12-inch version became the second 12-inch record in music history to reach Gold status behind the duet with Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, entitled “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” The single was on Streisand’s Wet album and Summers’s On the Radio: Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 & 2. (The third 12-inch single to go Gold was Madonna’s “Angel/Into the Groove.”) Mercury signed them for a four-album deal. Kurtis, at twenty-one years old, was becoming accepted in the upper echelon of the music industry. He was suddenly thrust into the best clubs, onto the cover of magazines, and performing with top disco artists who still commanded huge audiences, including The Village People and Donna Summer.
If any rapper were to be the first to be thrust into the mainstream, Kurtis was the perfect poster boy—articulate, young, good looking, clean cut, and charismatic. He was a born hustler, driving a cab, working at the liquor store, working as a party promoter for Russell Simmons, and going to college at City College of New York, studying communications. Underneath his clean-cut image was a past marked with drug abuse, gang life, and poor choices. After getting jumped by a gang in high school, for protection he joined a gang called the Peace Makers. It was a temporary plan, so he wouldn’t get beat up again, but when his brother became the leader, he became the warlord for the Manhattan division of the gang. When his brother eventually went to jail, that was the impetus for him to stop gangbanging. Once Kurtis signed his first label deal, he didn’t rap about his delinquent past—those days dried up like ink. He would rather, he told everyone who would listen, “celebrate the positives in life, not backtrack to how life was like in Harlem.”
Kurtis had already honed his stage presence by rapping in parks, ballrooms, churches, and gyms around New York City, learning how to rock the crowd at clubs like the Disco Fever in the Bronx and the Hotel Diplomat Ballroom in downtown Manhattan. He created skits to warm up the crowd and get them engaged through call-and-response, the way his idol Cab Calloway did. To Kurtis, it was important that the few rappers who had made it to the big stage did well. He knew that all eyes were on him.
Rap’s biggest vocal opponents were mainstays in the black middle class—seemingly a reminder of the lifestyle they would long rather forget. It would be college radio stations that would put hip-hop on the map. Stations like Columbia University’s WKCR-FM featured The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, which featured unsigned hip-hop artists freestyling. Some artists sent in demo tapes that were played on the air, while major commercial radio was still hosting “No Rap Workdays,” where stations promised listeners that rap wouldn’t be played from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon.
The Sugarhill Gang made history with the party rap “Rapper’s Delight”—the year before Kurtis signed his major-label deal. The cut was a playful ode to street corner braggadocio and lighthearted partying: “Ya see, I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a “T”/Ya see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali and I dress so viciously.”
The record would go down as the first rap tune in history (though it wasn’t—the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” is largely considered to be the first, but “Rapper’s Delight” was the first commercial hit). “Rapper’s Delight” was performed over a thumping bass line boosted from Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” There was an eight-bar limit in using the line. Rodgers and Edwards would sue the group for using their song without their permission, which ended in a settlement that actually set a precedent for how similar disputes were handled in the years to come. Rodgers’s and Edwards’s names would be added as cowriters.
Sugar Hill Records was started by Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson (who sang as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia) and her husband Joe Robinson, a numbers runner from Harlem. The label received financial funding from Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, who had ties to the Genovese crime family. Artists like Sequence, the Treacherous Three, Funky Four Plus One, and Grandmaster Flash would put not just the label but also hip-hop on the map.
The group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was convinced to come to Sugar Hill Records after the success of “Rapper’s Delight,” and scored with their 1982 hit, “The Message.” Groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, Sequence, and Afrika Bambaataa were making noise underground, but hadn’t reached the international appeal that Kurtis did right off the bat.
Beverly Paige, the head of publicity at Mercury, was booking Kurtis for audiences who didn’t have any idea about rap. Shows like Top of the Pops in London (which rarely played R&B, let alone rap) and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert were the kind of shows that Kurtis performed on early in his career.
Paige would book Kurtis for Soul Train and American Bandstand on the same weekend in September 1980. He and Paige were more excited about being on Soul Train than Bandstand. When Paige called Kurtis and told him they got Soul Train, he knew that in order to be on the show, he had arrived.
When he stepped onto the set, he was anxious to meet the dancers and nervous about meeting the iconic Don Cornelius, an intimidating musical father figure to him. He relaxed temporarily when he was in the makeup room and he saw Irene Cara and knew for sure that he made it. He said to himself, “I’m a star.”
But he lost his enthusiasm when he found that the tradition for Soul Train was for artists to lip-sync. His whole performance was dependent upon audience participation, call-and-response, feeling and responding to the energy of the crowd—it was the foundation of the art. He would never stoop so low.
“Look, let me have a live mic—just put this on the B side and play the instrumental,” he asked, showing Cornelius the single as he stood outside of Cornelius’s office.
“No, you have to lip-sync—that’s our policy,” Cornelius answered without looking up from his desk.
Then Kurtis raised his voice several octaves.
“Oh no, this ain’t hip-hop! This ain’t real performance! You mean to tell me all these years y’all been in here LIP-SYNCING? People ain’t been singing live on SOUL TRAIN?! What kind of shit is this? James Brown was lip-syncing?!”
Cornelius came out of his office and looked at him.
“Look, this is rap—it has to be live,” Kurtis tried to explain calmly. “I have to connect with the audience.”
“Okay, whatever,” Cornelius dismissed him and let them do a run-through with the B side.
Standing by himself without any of his deejays, Kurtis was dressed in a blazer, his carved chest exposed, a gold medallion bouncing off it. Onstage he had the crowd chanting back at him, “That’s the breaks!! That’s the breaks!!!” Every time he asked, the crowd delivered. Still, he was nervous. Known around New York for his breaking skills, his live show wasn’t complete without splits and acrobatics, but on Soul Train, he was nervous and danced conservatively in between rapping.
Even with his comparatively reserved performance, the crowd was into him and cheered when he finished. He had achieved another first—becoming the first hip-hop artist to rap live on Soul Train.
Before Cornelius began his interview with Kurtis, he leaned over and told Kurtis into the mic, “I don’t really understand what you guys are talking about, but everybody seems to love it.” Kurtis attempted a weak smile, but he was clearly crest-fallen. He couldn’t believe the godfather of black show business just insulted his music. “It doesn’t make sense to old guys like me. I mean I don’t understand why they love it so much. But that ain’t my job—my job is to deal with it,” Cornelius went on, oblivious to Kurtis’s reaction.
After Kurtis’s performance on Soul Train, his celebrity sky-rocketed. He couldn’t walk down the street without getting asked for his autograph. He needed a crew of people with him when he went out in public. “Before, I could walk down 125th Street and shake a couple of hands, but after Soul Train everybody wanted an autograph,” he remembered.
Kurtis was the answer to the cynicism surrounding hip-hop. Soul Train had presented and packaged it to the mainstream. That next year, he opened for the Commodores and Bob Marley at Madison Square Garden, a few months before Marley’s death in May of 1981. Marley would shake his hand and tell him he liked what he was doing. That same year he would star in a Sprite commercial.
In 1982, Paige booked Kurtis to open for the British punk rock group the Clash at Pier 84, a floating stage next to the Intrepid, in New York City. Rock and rap were still distant cousins (Kurtis would later feature Bob Dylan as a guest on his single “Street Rock”), related by a rebellious spirit. But many rock purists didn’t understand or accept hip-hop.
The Clash was an intimidating group and often drew a crowd that was difficult to open for—many newbies were barraged with bottles and beer cans. Gregory Isaacs was infamously booed. Many top-rated artists didn’t make it opening for them unscathed by empty bottles.
Kurtis had a different idea. As an emcee he had grown used to pumping up a crowd, prepping them with anticipation.
“Are you ready to hear the Clash?” he asked the impatient crowd.
“AAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” they screamed.
“Well, ladies and gentleman—my name is Kurtis Blow, and the Clash asked me to come out and sing one song for you. Can I sing one song?”
“RAHHHHHHH!!!!” they roared as he launched smoothly into “The Breaks.”
After “The Breaks” he asked: “Are you ready for the Clash? “If you’re ready, say HOOOOO!!”
“HOOOOOO!” they answered. “Everybody scream!” “AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” He had them in the palm of his
hand. Or so he thought. He heard a surge of booing coming from the ground.
“Okay, one more song and then the Clash will come out,” Kurtis played this game with them for another thirty-five minutes. He did this for three nights and had everybody up in the stands dancing and didn’t get beer bottles thrown at him. The Clash ended up taking him on tour doing thirty shows around America, introducing hip-hop to a hardcore rock ’n’ roll crowd.
Sylvia Robinson had gained fame with her sexually charged hit song “Pillow Talk,” a song she had written and performed on Soul Train in 1976. After her performance she became close friends with Cornelius. When she, along with her husband, Joe, put together the Sugarhill Gang, she called Cornelius to see if they could perform on the show.
When the group came to Soul Train, all of a sudden the ever-cool, hip Cornelius was struggling to fit in. He was awkward, trying to make jokes with these new brash pioneers, and he was drowning.
The episode aired in May of 1981. The group performed “Rapper’s Delight,” which when released sold 50,000 copies per day, rose to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart and No. 36 on the Billboard 100. In Europe, Israel, and South Africa it went to No. 5.
The Sugarhill Gang was honored to be on the show. In the dressing room, Cornelius came in and made sure they were comfortable. Within two days time, they were going to perform for tapings of American Bandstand, Solid Gold, and Soul Train. A grueling schedule, but all they could do was wonder whether Damita Jo Freeman would somehow be coming back to the show that day. And where was Pat Davis with her slanted eyes and aloof, mysterious attitude? They were trying to pay attention as Cornelius interviewed them after their performance of “Rapper’s Delight,” but they were looking at all of the dancers they recognized.
After they performed “8th Wonder,” their second hit, where they were dressed in blazers, ties, prep-boy sweaters, and Master Gee was shirtless with a blue suit and a white bow tie around his neck, Cornelius came onstage with his three-piece suit on and starts off jokingly, “Alright Hill…Sugar.”
Master Gee begins to give an answer to Cornelius’s question about what “this rap thing is all about.”
“A rapper is a cat who rhythmically raps under any given beat.”
“You did it in discos back East?” Cornelius asks.
“Anywhere we could.”
“Anywhere.” They all laugh. Cornelius is bemused, if not clueless—as is most of the world about rap. It shows in his awkward questions and nervous laugh. He asks, “Have you found that the idea of rapping has spread here in the United States?”
“We toured Europe and South America, and the response was just as good as it is here,” Master Gee answers.
“How has it changed your life,” Cornelius asks Wonder Mike.
“It took me to places I never thought I’d go. I found myself in different worlds, trying to speak the language of the people.”
“You guys seem educated,” Cornelius says, surprised. Master Gee retorts, “What did you expect?” Master Gee’s response is edited out of the segment.
Run-D.M.C., the rap group from Hollis, Queens, composed of Joey “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and their deejay, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, would come together in 1981 and become the most influential group in hip-hop’s history. They became the first hip-hop act to perform on American Bandstand; their album, King of Rock, went Gold, and MTV played their video, Rock Box. Hip-hop had officially reached the mainstream. But after they had appeared on Soul Train in June of 1984, they described Cornelius to Lee Bailey on his syndicated radio show, Radioscope, as “the uncle that invites you to his house and complains about you putting your feet on the coffee table.” They received a much warmer reception from Dick Clark.
On October 25, 1986, Run-D.M.C. fresh off of a tour in England, performed “Hit It Run” from their Raising Hell album. McDaniels dressed in their customary black leather jackets and pants and Adidas sneakers and Jam Master Jay rocking the turntable behind them, and deejay Hurricane (then Run-D.M.C.’s bodyguard) standing onstage mean mugging with his arms folded. The crowd—many dressed in conservative ’80s suits and ties—jumped up and down madly during the whole performance, waving their arms, screaming in ecstatic celebration, while they rhymed back and forth bouncing off of each other’s words like an old married couple: “I leave all suckers in the dust, those dumb muthafuckas can’t mess with us/Beats flow from Joe and never stop, better get yourself together, let’s rock, HIT IT RUN!”
The group had out-cooled the coolest man in show business—Cornelius was left speechless. The dancers wouldn’t stop screaming.
“Welcome to the Run-D.M.C. show, okay!” Cornelius says. “It’s called popularity, huh?”
“Something like that,” Run says.
Cornelius was equally flustered when rap pioneers Eric B. & Rakim came on for their first national television debut and performed “I Know You Got Soul,” which featured the line, “Grab the mic like I’m on Soul Train!!” The Soul Train dancers screamed in unison when Rakim got to the line and were so hyped that they were jumping up and down the whole time they were onstage.
Cornelius came out to another awkward interview. “Rakim, you don’t smile too much.”
“I ain’t no joke,” Rakim answers, a line from the group’s second single, released on his Paid in Full album. Cornelius laughed. Rakim didn’t.
“Yeah, I gathered that,” Cornelius says. “I see Eric smiles,” he said, trying hard to relate, turning to Eric. “What’s the matter with your brother, he don’t smile?”
“It’s a strong positive image. That’s our image, Eric B. and Rakim,” Eric answers.
“I don’t like the way Rakim is looking at me,” Cornelius says to a deadpan expression from Rakim. Then he tries to save face: “You fellas have a lot of charisma. It is something about the way you play and Rak-eem has a low pitch that’s unusual for me. We’d like you to come back, and you don’t have to smile a lot. I don’t smile a lot either, and I ain’t no joke. Let’s hear it for Eric B. and Rak-eeem!” Cornelius says, turning to the audience and mispronouncing Rakim’s name.
He was no less awkward with progressive rappers. When Arrested Development, an Afrocentric, alternative hip-hop group came on in December 1992, they were taken aback by the women dancing in skimpy clothes.
“We have this whole grassroots movement, these women have their dresses up to here,” said Speech, Arrested Development’s lead vocalist, pointing to his thigh as he started to tell Cornelius, who was moving around, overseeing the set, towering over him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Cornelius!” said Speech. Don finally looked down at him.
“We have a different type of thing,” Speech started again. “We have our own dancers.”
“Oh, you want the dancers off?” Cornelius asks nonplussed. “Get the bitches off the stage!”
When the sex symbol of rap—a dark, handsome, six foot one emcee named Big Daddy Kane—came on Soul Train, he also insisted that he wouldn’t lip-sync. Kane was a big fan of the show and was so inspired by it that when he broke his arm in a motorcycle accident, he insisted on going on tour with his arm in a sling because he saw Al Green perform on Soul Train with a broken arm. He compromised with Cornelius, telling him that he would record the vocals in the studio with no reverb, much louder than the track to make it sound like it was being performed live. He even recorded the ad-libs, “Put your hands in the air!” and “Somebody say HO!!!!”
When the people in the studio heard it, they called in Cornelius.
“So, brother Kane, are you going to remember all of this?” he asked slowly.
“I’ve got it, this is what I do onstage every night for this song.”
“Well, impress me.”
Kane performed splits, stepped into his two dancer’s hands and jumped down into a split, then switched sides to do another split.
The group, Public Enemy, performing “Rebel Without a Pause,” came onboard—along with an eighteen-year-old LL Cool J wearing his customary thick gold rope chains and a Kangol, Whodini, and Eric B. & Rakim—one weekend, as they shot two episodes. It was October of 1987, and Soul Train was a stop along the Def Jam tour that included all of them. At the time, radio stations weren’t playing Public Enemy, and they had been banned from Soul Train because Flavor Flav had jumped onstage during a taping of another performance. But Cornelius came to understand what the group was about and invited them to perform in October to promote their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. At the end of their performance of “Rebel Without a Pause,” Cornelius responded with, “That was scary!” The second time they appeared later that year in December, Flavor in a moment of clarity asked for a moment of silence for Redd Foxx and Miles Davis to realize the magnitude of the contributions of these icons. Cornelius gave him the time. Soul Train would be the promotional vehicle that would catapult them to become a national sensation. By 1991, when they appeared again to perform “Can’t Truss It” and “Shut ’Em Down” from the Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back, Cornelius had become a convert to the group. “I don’t know much about rap, but Public Enemy, I like them,” Chuck D remembered Cornelius telling them, “Even crazy ass Flavor.” “We relished in that,” said Chuck about getting validation from Cornelius.
The Beastie Boys were made up of three white emcees—Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz—and originally formed as a hardcore punk band and came to be a hip-hop trio in 1983. They released their first album, Licensed to Ill, in 1986 on Rick Rubin’s (their former deejay) Def Jam Records, and appeared on Soul Train on March 7, 1987. They took over the show, slam dancing into the audience of Soul Train dancers.
It was clear that the Soul Train where Cornelius called all the shots and artists felt honored to be in his presence and on the show was something of the past. Soul Train wasn’t ahead of the curve anymore, and it was starting to show. But Cornelius had a new idea that would prove to be more lucrative than the weekly show.
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