Newcleus was at the center of the electro cosmos

by Adam Windmill

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Newcleus

Newcleus. All photos courtesy of Cozmo D.

 

In the early 1980s, hip-hop was going through a change. With advancements in electronic music-making technology too tempting to resist, a few pioneering artists started experimenting with drum machines, synthesizers, and sequencers to create an electronic hip-hop sound. Electronic music wasn’t new, but electronic hip-hop was.

Newcleus, with their trademark spacemen-with-attitude approach, funky atmospheric bass lines, and wikki-wikki scratch, played a big part in this change. Newcleus gave us a taste of the future, and, although not alone, they played a major part in introducing the world to electronic funk.

 

Originally published as “Digital Chemistry” in Wax Poetics Issue 27

 

The futuristic qualities of their music, along with their humor, gave them an appeal that reached far greater than their native New York. Not only did they achieve Billboard Top 40 successes at home with their first two singles, “Jam On Revenge” and “Jam On It,” but they also influenced a whole generation of future music makers.

Battling in Brooklyn throughout the ’70s, Cozmo D, the founding member of Newcleus, was at the spearhead of the growth of hip-hop there, yet he had a message he wanted to take to an even bigger place. Through his music, he wanted to change the world.

Newcleus

 

Is it true that the originally titled “Jam-On’s Revenge” only made it onto your demo because you had space to fill at the end of the tape? 

Cozmo D: That’s true! At the time, the four of us—myself, Bob “Chilly B” Crafton, Yvette “Lady E” Cenac, and Monique “Nique D” Crafton—were going by the name Positive Messenger. We were all deeply Christian, although in a much more spiritual than religious sense. We had gone on a mission of making music with a message. All of our songs were either about Christ, our spiritual beliefs, or about human and world conditions.

Of course, I was also DJing with my crew, Jam-On Productions. We’d been rockin’ the streets and parks in Brooklyn from the very early days of hip-hop but weren’t really feeling the majority of rap records released to that point; this was about ’81. One of my fellow DJs, Salvadore Smooth, kept nagging me about why we didn’t do any rap records. Finally, I decided to have some fun with Sal—instead of making a rap song, I made an anti-rap one [“Jam-On’s Revenge”].

So, by this point, you’d already been together for quite some time. How was Jam-On Productions originally formed? 

Well, the roots of Jam-On actually began with myself and my two first cousins, Nique and her little brother, Pete “Master Quadro” Angevin. In the spring of ’75, I’d been inspired by hearing a tape of a Coney Island DJ called Count JC—he’d been rocking the bass break to “Bra” by Cymande. From that point on, DJing was what I wanted to do. At high school, a couple of my friends had a little DJ system, and I would hang out with them at their crib. Sometimes, my cousins would come with me, and they caught the bug too. Eventually, we got our own little system and started DJing together in ’76.

When Nique left for college the following year, we got my long-term best friend, Dave “Dr. Freeze” St. Louis, to take her place. He’d been DJing with another long-term friend of ours, Al “T” McLaran—they’d been using the name Jam Brothers Incorporated. To make Freeze feel like an equal, we took on the name Jam-On Productions.

Nique got back from college and started going out with Chilly B, who, at that time, had his own DJ thing going on. That was also when I met Yvette—she joined as Lady E [later to become Cozmo’s wife]. At our largest point, we had six DJs and ten MCs. Our core, though, was always myself, Quadro, Freeze, MC Harmony, Nique D, Lady E, Master J, and DJ Kane.

Cozmo D on the keys. All photos courtesy of Cozmo D.

Cozmo D on the keys. All photos courtesy of Cozmo D.

 

In 1983, “Jam-On’s Revenge” caught the attention of Joe Webb at May Hew Records and was released as a 12-inch. Later that year, it was also released by Sunnyview Records. During this time, “Jam-On’s Revenge” by Positive Messenger turned into “Jam On Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)” by Newcleus. Could you talk me through these changes? 

Now this is a long story!

In 1980, with a cheap synthesizer and drum machine, I started trying to make my own music. I got Jam-On together, and we did a rap song called “Freak-City Rappin’.” Naturally, I thought it was a hit and set out on my first deal-shopping mission. None of the companies I visited would even listen to it until I went to Reflection Records. Only one person worked there—a guy by the name of Joe Webb. He listened to the tape, gave me some constructive criticism, and encouraged me to keep working at it. Soon afterwards, I borrowed enough money from Nique to purchase a Tascam Portastudio [one of the first multitrack cassette recorders]. She asked, in return, that I did some music with Bob Crafton [Chilly B]. Right from the start, musically, we went together like a hand and glove. Positive Messenger was born.

Two years later, right after we had recorded “Computer Age,” I felt we had a hit on our hands, and I was ready to try shopping for a deal again. I also felt I owed Joe Webb for being the only person who’d given me a shot earlier. It turned out that Reflection Records had folded. I checked to see if his name was in the phone book, and, sure enough, it was. I called him, and he invited me over to his house—he really dug “Computer Age,” but when “Jam-On’s Revenge” came on, he practically lost his mind!

We didn’t want to release “Jam-On’s Revenge” as Positive Messenger; the song was almost a betrayal of our mission. We wanted a good name that would depict our makeup as a group. We all lived together in the same house—it was almost like we were one family unit. Monique and I were first cousins—she was married to Bob, and I to Yvette. As the group represented the nucleus of three different families, Nucleus seemed like the perfect name. Joe Webb told us some crap about scientific integrity, so we changed the spelling to Newcleus.

Webb released it on his own label, May Hew Records—the title at that point was still the same, but a mistake by whoever did the label’s copy listed the song as “Jam-On Revenge.”

Jonathan Fearing, a club DJ that would spin on the weekends at WBLS, was the first to jump on the record. Soon it was making lots of noise in the city, and Joe Webb did a deal for it with Sunnyview Records. They brought in Fearing to edit the song so it would have an arrangement similar to the one he played on the radio. Sunnyview then released it—somehow in that rerelease they lost the hyphen between “Jam” and “On.” It’s been known as “Jam On Revenge” ever since.

Cozmo D and Chilly B of Newcleus

Cozmo and Chilly B. All photos courtesy of Cozmo D.

 

After the success of “Jam On Revenge,” you decided on “Jam On It” as your follow-up single. Was that an easy choice?

The plan was for “Computer Age” to be our second single, but, following the success of “Jam On Revenge,” Sunnyview requested we did a rap record instead. At first, we were resistant, but, as we’d already compromised with “Jam On Revenge,” we figured we’d go ahead and give the label what they wanted. I threw together a funky beat, adapted a bunch of rhymes from Jam-On’s park-rocking days, came up with a hook, and “Jam On It” was born.

“Jam On It” was huge, and Sunnyview said it was time we did an album. When I say huge, I mean huge. Everywhere we went, the record was on fire. It was crazy! We’d go from town to town and turn on the radio—“Jam On It” was always on. We had no intentions of being a rap group, you know. A lot of the stuff I wanted to put on the album [Jam On Revenge], I didn’t; the record company only wanted dance music.

“Where’s the Beat” was a song that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album.

“Where’s the Beat” wasn’t our song! At the time, that stupid Wendy’s commercial with that old lady going “Where’s the beef” was a big commercial. Joe Webb was like, “Hey, you guys need to do a record called ‘Where’s the Beat.’ ” Now, I like having fun, but I don’t like corny, and I didn’t want to do a stupid record. He got these guys, Dennis and Dave Williams, to do it. Webb finally talked me into laughing at the end. To this day, I regret even doing that; it gives it a sense of legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

You believed Joe Webb was looking after your interests?

Yeah, that’s the truth. Even though we weren’t making any money, he kept saying, “Oh, we’re in the red, we’re in the red.” I had a huge-ass record—I was touring and performing in front of thousands and thousands of people. I knew something must have been happening right.

Jonathan Fearing was mixing all your music. Why was he given so much control?

He was the first to pick up our record when it was still on May Hew—so he actually broke the record. They rewarded him by saying his touch is gold and gave him everything. The next thing we knew, he had complete control of our music—once it got in his hands.

Newcleus

(Clockwise from left) Paul “Fresh Kid” Webb (dancer), Denise “Neicey D” Roberts (backup singer), “Tracy G” Green (drummer), “Nikki D” Crafton (singer, keys), Bob “Chilly B” Crafton (keys, singer, bass, rap), Yvette “Lady E” Cenal (vocals, keys), Ben “Cozmo D” Cenal (vocals, keys), Hector “Slam” Rios (dancer), Otis “Lil’ O Me” Brown (dancer), circa 1984.

 

So you were being shut out musically by Fearing and financially by Webb?

Right! In our case, [Joe Webb] came at us with some contracts. I asked if I should take it to a lawyer; he said, “Nah, I’ll explain it to you.” We signed, and never saw the contracts again. We didn’t get any royalties—still haven’t! We did get paid on the road, but Webb probably took most of that money. They paid the dancers as much as they paid us. He was taxing us this way, that way. [laughs] He was getting us good!

I’ve read that “Why” was one of your favorite Positive Messenger songs, but you didn’t want it to go on an album.

We didn’t put “Why” on the first album because it didn’t fit: that was my decision. When MIDI came out, which was after the first album, I wanted to test it out; “Why” was the first thing I worked on. Joe Webb had a silent partner called Frank Fair—I think he put the bug in Joe’s ear for us to put “Why” on the second album. I wouldn’t have put it on: first, because it didn’t fit, again, and, second, because now I’d seen what Fearing was doing to our songs. Joe just kept working on me and working on me. At first, I said no, but we had some room to fill; there were a couple of songs [Sunnyview] wouldn’t let in. One was called “Get Looser.” I want to find a copy of that so much! Like “Jam On It,” “Get Looser” was something we did completely raw. It was like a wikki-wikki thing about us taking over a radio station and making fun of rap records. Sure, I’m biased, but I really feel “Get Looser” was five times the record “Jam On Revenge” was!

So Joe Webb is still working on me for “Why.” Eventually, I said okay, but under the condition that Fearing doesn’t touch it. “I give you my word, Ben,” Joe said to me. Sure enough, sure enough, shoot! Fearing had just come out of hospital and was too sick to go to the studio. He made Sunnyview put equipment in his apartment—he mixed “Why” there.

Sunnyview gave Fearing “Why” to mix right after he’d come out of hospital, even though he was still too ill to work in the studio?

That’s right, and you can hear it! He’s much better than that! You know when you listen to “Why” that something was wrong. He went right back from there, right back into hospital and died. It’s sad; I don’t wish that on anybody!

Towards the end, we were so disgusted. We realized we were getting ripped off and felt so helpless that we cut ourselves off.

Newcleus

 

How did you make your move into producing?

[Sunnyview owners] Adam Levy and Henry Stone said to us, “You can’t go out and be Newcleus, but you can go out and produce.” That was an outlet for us—what we wanted to do was music. Of course, we would rather perform it ourselves, but if our way to be free was to produce for other people, then that was great! The first track we produced was “Greedy Girls.” We did it on Sunnyview so people would know that it was Newcleus, but with other guys rapping. It got a nice write-up in Billboard, and everything was getting ready to happen. Recollection fails me, but it felt like only weeks after the record was released that Sunnyview went under. I always loved that track! It definitely told us we can do this: we can produce—we never looked back.

Joe Webb formed a new Newcleus and continued to put out records. Did his Newcleus still tour and perform your songs?

They would occasionally do a show here and there—every now and then I talk to Mike Skinner, who was in the original phony Newcleus; he told me Webb had this planned all along. Almost immediately after we left, he put them in the studio.

Nique D and Chilly B split up. Did that cause any conflict?

Yeah, when their whole thing went sour, it was pretty deep. A lot of personal things happened—things that had been hidden over the years came to the fore. When they split up, we split up.

Newcleus

 

Was that the end of Positive Messenger?

Newcleus was really the end of Positive Messenger. Our time and our energy went away from the positive and more towards making dance records, but that was definitely the end of Newcleus right there. It wasn’t until Rhino Records approached us in ’97 that we thought about being Newcleus again.

Rhino Records wanted to put together a best of Newcleus album?

Yeah, and they needed help. They also asked us if we could come up with a new Newcleus song. We did “Jam On This (Old School’s Back in Session).” It was the first time we’d got back together in ten years.

It wasn’t until this whole revival thing started happening that I realized so many people still held on to our music. I felt I needed an online presence, so [I] put up jamonproductions.com. I started recreating the records—I wanted to put them out the way we originally did them. We put them all together to make an album, Destination Earth—which I’ve started selling over the Net. I’m not getting rich; matter of fact, I’m just paying my bills, but I’m paying my bills doing what I love most in this world.

Newcleus, Chilly B

Chilly B and sons

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  1. These are the kinds of articles that make Wax Poetics great!! Who else acknowledges Newcleus, the stone cold electro funk pioneers whom’s altar gets worshipped consistently by aging breakdancers and pop lockers everywhere, and do a whole biography of them too? I’m almost at a loss for words. Loved it loved it loved it! This is the kind of music that got us thru the cold and jaded 80’s. Newcleus’s music put us right smack dab in the future, the forbidden zone that we were constantly reminded we would most likely NOT be a part of if you watched Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. Their music gave us a palette to come up with dance moves that were unregulated as well. Although I dug their humor, I was more enraptured with the “Computer Age (Push The Button)” kind of style that was a little more mature and ominously optimistic while staying on beat with the futuristic soundscapes. Just take it that I am writing for so many who don’t know about Wax Poetics or this article, but know and LOVE Newcleus and their legacy in fine & funky futuristic music that moves our bodies, souls, and spirits.

    – Ronald Poe VII

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