Let’s take a trip,
Back into the past,
When the rappers had no records,
And the DJs were fast.
When the great Kool Herc led the Hevalo pack,
And Hollywood and Cheba rocked the Diplomat…
“AJ Is Cool” –Kurtis Blow
The Fishtail Bar in the Bay Watch Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is right out back overlooking the beach. Dozens of families are crowded in several swimming pools trying to beat the heat. Overhead, the sound system is playing the dancehall reggae classic “Level the Vibes” by Half Pint. It is perhaps the most unlikely place to meet a former ghetto celeb and rap innovator.
Decked out in white-and-green shorts with a matching jersey is Eddie Cheba, a middle-aged man who many would find likable. His easygoing personality mixed with his affable charm makes him the kind of guy you’d want to share a drink with and swap stories. But it’s the stories that this man with droopy eyes and a raspy voice would tell that could make you look at him cross-eyed while sipping your Long Island Iced Tea. That is unless you’re up on your hip-hop history.
Way before the bling era and rappers rubbing shoulders with the likes of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton in the Hamptons, and definitely before multimillion-dollar deals, ring tones, clothing lines, and sneaker endorsements, rap was the music of ghetto Black New York. That means you didn’t hear it too far beyond the infamous five boroughs.
Almost jumping out of his seat, Eddie Cheba says to me, “Most guys, back then, only got $175 or $150 with a sound system to play a gig. You know what I’m sayin’? We got $500 for an hour—without a sound system.” All the while, he’s tapping me on the shoulder in between sips of a Heineken. “And you’d be happy that you got that hour!” he says to me with the cockiness of a used-car salesman. “We’d do one hour over here, jump in our cars and head out to Queens or Hempstead, Long Island, and do an hour out there.”
That was in 1977, when the cost of living was different and so was the cost of the best DJ in New York.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Eddie Cheba, who, along with Melle Mel, Cowboy, Creole, Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim, and DJ Hollywood, is one of the founding fathers of rap.
In his day, Cheba was a legend. At hot nightclubbing spots like Small’s Paradise, Charles Gallery, Hotel Diplomat, and Club 371, Cheba would shout into the mic: “Who makes it sweeter?” And the crowd of hundreds would shout back, “Cheba, Cheba, Cheba!”
He is credited with creating the old-school rhyme: “It’s on and on and on, on, and on like the hot butter on the what?” And if you were in the club and in the know, you knew to holler back “Popcorn!” “We had a book of ’em,” he tells me in reference to the call-and-response tactics that he and his friend, partner, and sometime rival DJ Hollywood came up with.
The call-and-response style (back then called “house rockin’ ”) that MCs and DJs like Busy Bee, Kid Capri, Doug E. Fresh, Kurtis Blow, and Biz Markie are notorious for can be traced back to the smooth style of guys like Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, and Eddie Cheba.
On this day, Eddie is in an upbeat mood, because Tuff City Records is rereleasing the only recording Eddie ever did, a disco rap workout called “Looking Good (Shake Your Body).” It was originally recorded for Tree Line Records in 1980 and backed by the owners of Club 371.
Cheba’s raspy-voiced, call-and-response style made a special impact out in Long Island on some college kids that called themselves Spectrum Sound—later known as Public Enemy.
“Eddie Cheba was as important to hip-hop/rap as Ike Turner was to rock and roll,” Chuck D of Public Enemy later tells me while on tour somewhere in Europe. “Nowhere does he get his due credit for spreading it from the BX [the Bronx] to [make it more] accessible" outside of Harlem and the Bronx. Cheba and Hollywood simply infiltrated the over-eighteen college adult bracket that simply hated on the art form. They put a bow tie on hip-hop at that time to get it through. Cheba commanded the audience with voice and a great sense of timing. These cats used rap to set up records like no other. His synergy with Easy G, his DJ, was simply…telepathic.”
An emphatic Kurtis Blow, a rap pioneer in his own right, tells me in a late-night phone interview, “Let’s not get it twisted, okay. Cheba was before DJ Hollywood. On that side of the family tree, we have Pete DJ Jones, who was the first real disco street DJ, with MCs JJ the Disco King, KC the Prince of Soul, and JT Hollywood—these guys were just announcers. The next level was the crowd response, which was Eddie Cheba’s thing; he was the master of the crowd response. He had routines, he had girls—the Cheba Girls—he had little routines, and he did it with a little rhythm, ya know: ‘Throw your hands in the air, everybody now, we don’t need no music, come on, y’all, say it, so just clap your hands everybody, and everybody body clap your hands! If you’re not too skinny or not too fat, everybody say, “And ya know that!” ’ Eddie was mad sick with the crowd response; he was a master!”
As I think back on other names that had rung out loud on the streets back then, I ask Eddie about:
Ron Plummer: “Ahh man, Plummer gave Pete Jones hell with those refrigerator-sized speakers.”
Maboya: “He used to play reggae. He was one of the first ones out there to play reggae. At that time, rap and reggae were not accepted—you’d play that stuff, and people would turn around and look at you.”
The Smith Brothers: “They were older than us; they had an older clientele, but their sound system was good.”
But it’s the name DJ Hollywood that Cheba’s name is almost synonymous with. For many, their names are almost linked together like salt and pepper, Butch and Sundance, or Martin and Lewis. Can’t have one without the other. They were uptown royalty when Cam’ron and Jim Jones were in Pampers.
In a reflective mood, the onetime King of Rap recalls the next events. “I thought to myself, what if I take what he’s doing and put it with this? What would I get?” Hollywood asks. “I got fame, that’s what I got. I got more famous than I could ever imagine. Everybody bit that rhyme. I would go to jams and people would be saying that rhyme, and none of them, not one of them, knew where it came from. It blew my mind.”
“I knew of Hollywood, ’cause we were both from Harlem,” Eddie remembers. “Back in the day, when Hollywood would play at the Apollo Theater, the marquee would say: the Spinners, Black Ivory, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and DJ Hollywood. He was that large.”
But Eddie wanted the spotlight too.
“I was sitting in my room one day when I came up with my rhyme,” Eddie says. “I wrote it out in a notebook; it went: ‘About a while ago, and I want you to know, just who you been listening to. Just listen to me now, while I tell you how, who I am, and what I do. I’m five foot nine and a half, bowlegged as you ever wanna see. Just look up on the stage, baby doll, I’m talking about little old me. It’s Cheba, girl, and I’m so glad that you came around. So we can spend some time together, maybe even mess around.’ ”
Very quickly, like Hollywood’s rap, Eddie’s rap was eagerly consumed by other DJs, who had no knowledge of the rap’s origin either. ASCAP and BMI were not looking for rappers back then, and rappers were no more aware of ASCAP and BMI than they were about words like “publishing,” “writing credit,” “points,” and “royalties.” This was before rap records.
“Before Club 371,” says Hollywood, “I was playing at a spot called A Bunch of Grapes; this was on the east side of 125th Street. You see, back then, the only people that were hip to my shit were the hustlers that went to the after-hours spots. That’s where my rep started at, was with the hustlers.”
Every other rapper today fantasizes about knowing or being somehow connected with a notorious gangster; back in the day, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes—who controlled Harlem’s heroin trade during the mid-’70s—was that gangster. Members of Nicky’s crew—wiseguys like Guy Fisher and Bats Ross—would frequent hip-hop spots like the Hevalo and check out Kool Herc and Coke La Rock. Hollywood played for some of the most notorious figures of the ’70s and ’80s, and chief among them was Fisher, who owned and operated the Apollo Theater as a legitimate front. It was at the Apollo that Hollywood gained his rep for providing entertainment between acts for some of the biggest stars of the era, and oftentimes he overshadowed them.
At the very mention of Fisher’s name, Eddie becomes visibly uncomfortable. “Yes, Wood worked for Guy Fisher and them; those were Nicky Barnes’s people. I didn’t want to have anything to do with those people,” he tells me. “Yeah sure, we did parties for them, but that was it! They were nice guys outside of their business, but I didn’t want to play for them that much.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because, see, Hollywood might show up to Club 371 at two, three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes he didn’t show up at all. You couldn’t do that kind of shit with people like that, because they would come and get you—and throw you in a bag or something.”
The club did so well that the owners went to great lengths to take care of their DJs. Reggie Wells remembers the money being so good at 371 that “all of the DJs had Caddys back then.”
“Hollywood needed a car and didn’t have a license, so they bought him a Caddy and got him a license by sliding somebody at the DMV some money,” Eddie laughs while recalling the time. “They really took care of us.
“I had everything,” Eddie continues, reflecting on his heyday. “I shopped at A. J. Lester’s. I was walked into any club in the city—I always got in free. Champagne? I got bottles of it wherever I went. If I walked down 125th Street in Harlem, people would see me and walk up to me and want to shake my hand or ask me for an autograph. If I had someplace to go, I called a car service [Godfather’s, Touch of Class, and OJ’s] and they would be there to pick me up. I’d say wait here until I’m done, and they would. I used to sell my tapes for twenty dollars a pop. People would be reserving tapes weeks in advance. Godfather’s and OJ’s and them used to sell my tapes. They would have a customer in a car and would be playing my stuff, [and] the customer would be like, ‘Who’s that?’ They’d say, ‘That’s Eddie Cheba.’ I was one of the top DJs in the city.”