Saturday, October 21, 2006

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

“...Why not you?”
-Wallace McCoy

Willie Dixon’s Uptown Bar and Grill has been a neighborhood mainstay for as long as anyone can remember. It’s been said that the Dixon family has owned it for at least 4 generations. People come and go in the neighborhood, but Willie’s remains.

On Tuesday nights they have an all you can eat crab feed that could knock your socks off with well drinks starting at $1.50. Wednesday and Thursday nights are cards and darts. If you’re lucky, you can catch old man Willie on the rare occasion when he comes out of retirement and kicks asses in a fierce game of Bid Whisk. The fried chicken and catfish are so good that if you get there after nine o’clock – you’re shit out of luck. Fridays and Saturdays are for karaoke. Locals line the walls and fill the bar stools waiting to watch friends and family entertain, and in some cases make total fools of themselves. But it’s all right if they do, because everybody knows everybody and knows things far worse about each other than who can or can’t sing.

It was on one of these Friday nights that the lives of two men would cross one another again and would forever seal the fates of both of them.

It was on this night that the crowd was entranced by the voice of a middle-aged light-skinned man with salt and pepper hair. Slight in build and short on teeth, the man sang in one of the smoothest falsettos anyone had heard in those parts in a long time. No one had sung like that in their neighborhood since LJ Reynolds of the Dramatics had dropped by in 1975 and sang Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones’ to a star-struck crowd. The man on stage this night sang a rendition of Eddie Holman’s 1960’s classic “Hey There Lonely Girl”. Note for note it was dead on the original.

At the end of the song the bar patrons dropped their drinks and gave the man a standing ovation. Humbled, the man silently nodded in thanks to the crowd. With a raspy voice stained with a shot of Hennessy and scarred by cigarette smoke the man thanked the crowd, “Thank you brothers and sisters. You make me feel so good inside, the Lord has blessed me this evening to be able to spend time with you, I hope you don’t mind if I sing another song for you. Do you mind if I take you back in time again?”

Enthusiastically the crowd yelled back ‘Yeah’ as the man turned to the deejay to request his next song. Just then the familiar drum roll of the Motown classic ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ by Smokey Robinson exploded through the speakers. Everyone was smiling as the man closed his eyes while slipping into his smooth falsetto. Everyone but one troubled man seated at the bar.

The Hennessy-stained voice sounded so eerily familiar to the man at the bar, that immediately upon hearing it he was jolted from his seat like it had been shook by an earthquake. Slowly he rose up from his bar stool to get a better look at the face of the owner of the Hennessy-stained voice. Bobbing and weaving side to side he was able to see his way through the crowd of heads while getting a better look at the man. Half way to the front he was stopped dead in his tracks by the man’s face. His heart sped up to a full gallop.

At that instant his body was overcome by feelings of shock and anger. He knew exactly who that man was. As he looked in the bar mirror at his own face and remembered how smooth his youthful and boyish- looking face had been some 22 years before, his fingers ran along the scar that stretched from his left eyebrow, to the bridge of his nose, under his right eye, across his high cheekbone to his right ear.

Somberly he recalled the events to himself that had disfigured him in his youth. His wounds had healed; yes, but some wounds never go away. Like the one in your heart from missing your best friend because you know he isn’t coming back. The warmth of a lonely tear caressed his cheek and dripped into his mouth, where the salt from the teardrop dissolved onto his tongue.

He knew the man as McCoy – McCoy Wallace, but at that time McCoy had been an angry Vietnam veteran home from the war with an axe to grind with the world. He was an alcoholic. A drug addict. An abusive father and husband, and was known to rob drug dealers.

He, Deon McLove, was an aspiring teen-aged rapper at the time that was on his way to becoming a neighborhood hero. Word back then was that Bobby Robinson from Enjoy Records wanted to sign him. His slim build and boyish face caught the attention of many girls in the area. He had a reputation for being a ‘pretty boy’, this, would help to earn him the wrath of the many jealous ‘hard rocks’ in the area, if not for his best friend Vincent Sotolongo.

Vincent or Vicente` as his mother liked to call him, was a stocky kid with a gap-toothed smile, and fists that were big and battle scarred. He always made it a point to rock a baseball hat slightly tilted to the side to show off his wavy hair. The two of them had been best friends since elementary school and were hard to separate.

The ghostly image across the room awakened a skeleton that had been hiding in the darkest closet of his mind for far too long.

As Deon became the top rapper in his neighborhood, Vincent would be his protection from the crab-asses around the way.

On a cool October night in 1982 they went to check Busy Bee out at the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club. Every rap crew and wannabe knucklehead from within a 15- block radius was there as well. When they got to the jam, the air in the gym was thick and filled with the smell of underarm funk and the pungent aroma of weed smoke. The room was dark except for the lone light that came from the little lamp on the deejay table.

Making their way through the crowd Deon and Vincent headed to the stage. Massive crews of steely-eyed 5 Percenters encircled the gym floor like competing warriors. Stepping through the crowd Deon accidentally bumped into a 5 Percenter wearing a dark hat with big white bold letters that read ‘B GOD’. As the man slowly exhaled the cigarette he was smoking, the cloud of smoke mushroomed above the gym floor. As B God turned to confront him, Vincent stepped between the two to counteract any hostility. Once they approached the ropes they checked out the Bronx’s best, Chief Rocker Busy Bee, who was rocking the crowd while his man, Kool DJ AJ was cutting “Cavern, Cavern” on the wheels of steel.

“Come on shout it out…shout it out, come on 1, 2, 3 uhhh, ya go bom with the bom da bang da bang boogie boogie then you shake your booty to the bang bang boogie. And then ya bom with the bom da bang da bang boogie boogie then ya shake ya booty to the bang bang boogie. I want y’all to say this with me, come on…I’m DJ Bust-a-nut where? (The crowd yelled) In your face and in your butt! At the Alps we work out, at the Alps we work out…

As AJ kept the beat going he would backspin on the thunderous cymbal crash repeating it over and over. Crash…and then cut into the beat using the cymbal c-c-c-c-c-c Crash! The low end of the bass-line vibrated the gym windows and sent the b-boys into a sweat-drenched frenzy.

Stepping out of the hot and funk-filled gym into the cool October night the two laughed about some of the girls they had seen that night. Feeling hungry they headed in the direction of a local liquor store for some snacks and a couple of bottles of Wild Irish Rose. On their way up the block they ran into a local drug dealer named Stevie Dash. Dash, was a brown- skinned skinny guy with a neck full of gold chains and a Caesar haircut. He wasn’t an especially dangerous guy for someone of his trade, but his nervous disposition kind of kept people at bay.

“Yo what it be like fellas?” Dash said as he greeted them both. The two young men explained to him that they were on the way to get a drink and then would be calling it a night. Dash told the pair that he had a tape of a jam that Deon had done two weeks before and that he’d give it to him. The two followed Dash to one his ‘spots’. Uneasy about going to a known drug spot, Deon and Vincent said that they would catch up with him the next day.

“Yo y’all dudes buggin’, ain’t nuttin’ gonna happen to y’all out here. I’ll be right back; all y’all gotta do is stand here just like this.” Dash said as he mockingly folded his arms into a b-boy stance. “Ain’t nobody gonna mess with y’all if y’all just standing here in a b-boy stance.” Dash convinced them.

Clearly uncomfortable about being out of their neighborhood and in front of a known dope spot, Vincent yelled out to Dash. “Yo hurry up in there! I don’t want to be out here all night mother fucker!”

As Dash ran up the stoop into the house he dismissively said, “Yo ski boss, I’ll be right back just chill, goddamnit!”

“Yo man, this nigga here is buggin’,” Deon said as he sucked his teeth and folded his arms. “I mean, I want my tape and shit, but damn, look what a nigga gotta go through for this shit. Standing in front of dope houses and shit…yo wasn’t this one of them spots Frank Matthews or somebody like that had back in the day?”
“Yo shut the fuck up man, you don’t know who’s listening out here.”
“I’m just sayin’ yo man, look at all this shit though.”

Out the corner of his eye he could see a dark figure lurking in the shadows. The figure would peek out periodically from behind a lamppost and then wander over to a house on the corner. Deon wasn’t sure of what he was seeing but he didn’t want to over-react either. The two men continued their conversation all the while Deon kept a lookout for the shadowy figure.

As he sat back down on the stoop Deon adjusted his hat and rubbed his head, when he remembered a new tape he copped, “Hey, I was checking out the Force MC’s the other night at Broadway International right, and they got this new kid on the cut for them named Dr. Shock. Word up man, this kid was nice.”

‘Yo I seen them kids at the Parrot they was all right.”

Just then both men saw the tiny amber glow of a cigarette drop in the dark. Jumping off of the stoop and on to their feet the men were prepared for whatever came their way. The figure that stepped out of the dark was a slim black man in his late 30’s. He wouldn’t have been worth the passing thought if not for the fact that he was wearing dark sunglasses in the middle of the night and an Army fatigue jacket and blue jeans that had seen better days.

The men instantly recognized him as McCoy Wallace a known stick up man and dope-fiend. In a Hennessy and cigarette-smoke stained voice McCoy asked them, “So what y’all doin’ out here?”

Both men shrugged their shoulders and nodded their heads as if to say nothing, but McCoy was having none of that.

“Come on what y’all got for me?” McCoy said while looking at both men with a steely gaze.

“Yo check this out man, we ain’t got nothing to do with nothing you looking for”, said Deon.

“Bullshit, y’all niggas wouldn’t be out here for nothing. Where’s that mother fucker Dash at?”

“Yo man we just hanging out here, why don’t you just move on, you fucking dope-fiend,” said Vincent.

This earned the consternation of the older man. Suddenly he pulled a banana knife out of his jacket pocket and stuck it up to Vincent’s face. “Y’all some suckers, give me the dope AND your money,” yelled the sweating dope fiend.

Deon pleaded with the man to stop, “Ay we got nothing to do with none of this shit, for real, we’re just out here waiting on my man.”

“Empty your pockets, turn them mother fuckers inside out”, commanded McCoy.

Both men emptied the contents of their pockets onto the street: they had a total of $45 between them, two packs of Newport’s and a pair of dice.

“So where y’all hiding the dope?” McCoy quizzed them with the knife still pointed at Vincent’s face.

Scared the two young men protested that they had nothing to do with drugs and that they wanted to leave.

McCoy looked both men in their eyes and with glassy eyes said, “Y’all niggas think ya fooling somebody, but that ain’t working here. Not tonight. See, I seen y’all out here before and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t belong here.”

A feeling of desperation rushed over the two men; instinctively they lunged at the man going for the hand with the knife. McCoy, a former combat veteran stepped back and kicked at Deon and caught Vincent in the throat as he continued to lunge forward. A gush of blood leaped out of Vincent’s neck splashing all over McCoy and Deon. Stunned, Deon paused to look at his friend; it was at that second that McCoy swung the blade in Deon’s direction slashing the young man across the left eyebrow to his right ear.

Crashing to the ground with a deep burning sensation across his face Deon let out a scream that could’ve awakened the dead. Suddenly, a resident across the street started to go for her window. McCoy hearing the stirring around him kicked Deon in the ribs with the force of a bucking horse.

Between the stinging of the cut on his face and the throbbing pain in his ribs he gasped, “Damn man, what the fuck, why me?”

McCoy dropped down to one knee droplets of blood were dripping from the blade on to the concrete like slow running water from a faucet, looking him dead in the face with rose-colored blood shot eyes and with that gravely voice as low as a whisper he said, “Why not you?”

And with that he walked into the cool midnight and disappeared like a shadow on the sun.

The morning headlines in the New York Post read:


Queens, NY – One man was killed and another slashed in a violent attack near a known drug spot on 178th and Jackson Ave.

Vincent Sotolongo, 19 of Flushing, was found dead in a puddle of blood, the apparent victim of a throat slashing. Also found at the scene was Deon McLove, also 19 and of Flushing, was found a few feet away with a severe slash to the face. Though his injuries are serious he is expected to survive.

A witness who chooses to remain anonymous gave police a description of the alleged perpetrator and an arrest is imminent.

Residents reported hearing an argument at about 1:30 a.m. and then heard a loud scuffle ensue before they heard the sound of “loud footsteps running away from the scene.”

The Sotolongo killing stayed in the papers for the next few weeks.



No member of the McCoy family was present at the trial. His wife of 9 years released this statement through her pastor:

To the Sotolongo and McLove families,

My family and I deeply regret your loss. The man that committed these acts was not the same man I knew before the war. The man I knew before the war was kind and loving and cared about humanity. The man that came home from the war is distant, abusive – both physically and verbally. I hardly know the man that came home from Vietnam, as he would not open up to me, my pastor or any other member of our family.

Once again I deeply regret your loss, my family and I deeply grieve for you.

Yours truly,
Ellen Wallace

The judge handed down a sentence of 10 to 20 years to be served at the Danemora Correctional Facility. To the astonishment of the Sotolongo family he could be paroled in 15 years.

Adjusting to prison life was not hard for McCoy Wallace as he had done two tours of duty in Vietnam and had been a guest at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, the notorious prison camp in Vietnam that broke the soul of many American soldiers.

What was difficult for Wallace to adjust to was not seeing his kid’s everyday. Though, emotionally distant from them, there was still a part of him, the loving, caring father buried somewhere deep inside of him that needed to see his children. The first few years of his incarceration he cried himself to sleep at night.

Seven years into his sentence Wallace decided to make peace with his inner-demons and Vietnam. He joined a Christians Men Group in Danemora and became an active participant in the group.

As he came to grips with his inner struggle; the images of the atrocities in Vietnam, the images of the faces of Sotolongo and McLove that fateful night, Wallace McCoy got down on his knees daily and begged the Lord for forgiveness.

Very often he would hold pep talks in his cell for other recovering addicts and vets; as he had become an encouraging force to both groups. He continually advised them to stay away from drugs and all other forms of foolishness that they could engage in behind bars. He constantly told them, “Look man, if you shuffle…you deal.”

He would accompany many of them to the prison psychiatrist’s office to discuss their problems. It was during one of these visits that the psychiatrist asked to see Wallace privately. Closing the door and taking a seat the psychiatrist looked at Wallace and said, “So McCoy how long have you been here?”

“I’d say it’s been 15 years now, sir.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about you, and your progress and I want you to know that I have noticed how far you have come. I wanted to tell you to your face that when it’s time for you to go before the board, I’m going to recommend your release. Now, you better not disappoint me McCoy, I don’t believe you belong here anymore. I find it highly unlikely that you’ll re-offend again. Do you understand?”

In shock McCoy said he understood.

The doctor continued, “McCoy when you leave here I want you to do me one favor.”

“What’s that?” McCoy answered.

“McCoy I want you to promise me that you’ll never come back to this place or any other places like this again. Okay?”

McCoy still in shock nodded in agreement and shook the doctor’s hand. Upon exiting the doctor’s office the euphoria of the moment was swept away when the faces of Sotolongo and McLove flashed in his head. Leaning against the wall to catch his balance, he quietly said a prayer to himself begging the Lord to forgive him for his sins.

When the prison gates were opened the beaming sun blinded him. It was the first time in years that he had smelled air that didn’t have a hint of prison funk. No one greeted him as he left the institution and entered into a new world.

Life for Deon McLove hadn’t fared well. As a youth he was known as a nice kid, but because of his pretty boy looks he was known to be arrogant and cocky. The slash across his face that McCoy had made left both a physical and emotional scar on his psyche. Whereas he was once good-looking and cocky, he was now disfigured and extremely insecure. The rap career he had worked hard to attain disintegrated before his eyes like dust in the wind. He worked two dead-end jobs 6 days a week that barely kept his head above water. Friends and family over the years silently remarked among one another about how much Deon drank. His insecurity about his looks made approaching women very difficult for him so he would often seek the company of prostitutes.

On this night at Willie’s just as he had recognized McCoy Wallace, one of his favorite companions came walking through the door. Her name was Exxxtacy Love; a hustler by trade, she was a stripper, a hair-stylist, massage therapist, mixtape distributor, internet model and escort. Caramel brown and stunningly sexy with arched eyebrows and full lips she carried herself with the confidant demeanor that only a pro could have. With carefully color co-ordinated manicured fingernails and toes, there wasn’t anything about her that was out of place. The tattoos on her arms made the loudest statements about her. On her left arm in big bold letters was her name ‘EXXXTACY LOVE’. On the right shoulder it said ‘Shut Up Bitch’. Inscribed on her neck: ‘The Path I’ve Chosen’.

Walking up on him and planting a light kiss on his cheek, she greeted him with a honey-inflected “Hey baby what’s up?” as she gently maneuvered his arm in the direction of the bar. As she seated herself on the bar stool she opened up her purse to at once drop her cell phone in and take a small mirror out. Looking at herself in the mirror and primping her hair and lips without looking in his direction she said, “Baby, buy me drink.”

Throwing five dollars on the bar he told her to get whatever she wanted as he re-located McCoy in the bar mirror. Grabbing his hat off the counter he pulled it down real low to hide his face.

“So where are we going tonight, baby?” Exxxtacy asked.

Briefly distracted from stalking his prey he said, “I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere.”

Exxxtacy let it all hang out, “Well why not? Shit, I had a lot to do tonight, there was other shit I could’ve been doing instead of coming out here to see your drunk ass.”

“Hey not right now, I got something else to do at the moment,” Deon said as he focused back in on his prey.

Without missing a beat Exxxtacy whirled around on the bar stool and snatched her cell phone out of her purse, flipping it open while walking away saying, “Yeah girl this mark-ass, trick-ass bitch think I got time for games and shit…”

Deon dismissed Exxxtacy and focused in on McCoy. He watched him as he laughed it up with his buddies. Drinking. Laughing. It looked like he had been living well. While Vincent was a decomposed lump of bones 6 feet in the ground.

The jukebox was serenading the crowd with the sweet sounds of R Kelly’s hit ‘Happy People’. Couples young and old danced in the small area, spinning and twirling each other around. He eyed Wallace at a table with a group of friends eating fish and telling loud stories. He decided to wait for him outside. He grabbed an empty bottle of MGD off the bar and headed into the night air. Once outside his heart raced around his chest. He looked around the corner to see if anyone was looking. No one was there. He silently waited in the shadows for McCoy to come outside. Hours passed by before McCoy would leave. In the shadows he wrestled with his conscious. He had never done anything like this before.

When McCoy stepped in to the night air after a night of merriment he had no idea of the fate that awaited him. Smiling to himself while looking for his keys he looked up the block for his car. Walking in the direction of a lone Honda Civic parked under a tree, Deon followed McCoy in the shadows.

When McCoy made it to within feet of his car he heard the loud music from a passing car, and a voice say, “There goes that mother fucker right there, bitch stop the fuckin’ car!”

Turning in the direction of the voice he saw a short, caramel- skinned woman jump out of a shiny black Toyota Camry that came to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. He vaguely recognized the young woman from earlier in the evening. Had it not been for the fact that she was walking really fast and in his general direction, he would’ve dismissed her and minded his own business, but he sensed some type of threat was about to occur.

“Every mother fuckin’ time I see your ass, it’s always some bullshit!” Exxxtacy shouted.

In a panic Deon frantically reached down to his ankle for his holstered .45 caliber gun. As he lifted the gun out of its holster and straightened his body up to take aim, Wallace saw the shadow of the young man that the loud mouth woman was shouting at.

“Ay yo!” The figure said stepping out of the shadow and into the light.

Squinting at first to focus in on the person, McCoy didn’t easily recognize the young man until he got a little closer and saw the scar across his face.

“Oh no!” he said as he was caught in the bulls eye of the barrel.

Throwing himself over the car Wallace slid across the hood as the first shot cracked through the silence of the midnight air. The first shot grazed his back, the second shot missed; the third shot hit him in the ankle. There was a second of silence and then a fourth shot rang out.

Desperately he crawled to the rear passenger tire in an effort to somehow shield himself from the bullets. Looking in the direction of the shooter from underneath the car he saw the young man sprawled out on the asphalt. Somebody shot him.

With his heart pumping a ferocious mix of fear and anger, Deon reached for the gun he dropped after being blasted by one of the people in the car. Fumbling around for his weapon he noticed a bloody faced Exxxtacy Love. One of his shots missed Wallace and hit Exxxtacy in the face. Somebody in the car fired at Deon striking him in the shoulder.

The street was a mass of mayhem. The screeching tires of the shiny black Toyota couldn’t muffle the screams of the injured young woman.

Slowly limping his way to Deon, Wallace scrambled for the gun angrily kicking it away from him. By the laws he learned in the street and his tours in Vietnam, he had every reason to blast this punk’s head all over the sidewalk. Reaching for the gun he felt the cold steel in his sweaty palms. Raising the gun up he had Deon’s face in the crosshair. Every instinct told him to pull the trigger, to end this here and now on this street corner, and disappear to some foreign country somewhere. But regret kicked in. The memory of what he had done before and the promise he made to himself to never cross that line again took precedence over anything he learned on the street. Looking from side to side he took a couple of steps and dropped the gun into the sewer. With his back turned he said, “If you know what’s best for you young blood, you better get in the wind.”

He stared back over his shoulder at the angry young man whose eyes were a blaze of fire while remembering that night. “I’ll never be able to undo the wrong I did to you, and we’ll never be even…but…”

His words were broken by the distant sound of the oncoming police cars.

“Fuck you you fuckin’ piece of shit!”

“Listen to me”, McCoy said quietly while looking in the direction of the sirens, ‘you can spend the rest of your life being mad at me if you wanna. But if you want what’s left of your life to be spent with even an iota of peace – at some point, get the fuck off your ass and into the wind, like I’m about to do.”

As the seconds went by the sirens went from being distant sounds to being a matter of seconds away.

When the patrol cars pulled up the corner was empty. The officers knew they were at the right place because there were puddles of blood all over the asphalt.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

VH1 Does It Again

Last years show has a slight edge over this years, the stand out performance for me was the Afrika Bambaataa tribute. Erykah Badu, Fat Joe, Q Tip, The Roots, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins all paid tribute to Afrika Bam and that shit was funky! My only problem with the Bam tribute was the absence of the Soul Sonic Force. Yes, Bam was the visionary of the group, but, ah, the lyrics were written by GLOBE, Pow Wow and Biggs, who were the actual MC's on the records. I gotta reach out to GLOBE and find out what happened.

Speaking of which, what the fuck happened to Tracy Morgan? Did you see duke on stage last night? How in the hell did that shit happen? That dude looked fruitier than a box of Fruit Loops. He walked out on stage looking extremely gay... Did you see that shit?

And Lil Kim what the fuck happened to her? She used to be a real cute girl. Somebody give her her nose back!

The Rakim tribute was hot.

On a different note why is it that the Beastie Boys not only look old but rhyme the same exact way after all of these years and no one not a one person says anything about them sounding old school?

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Sons of Sly

Anyone who came of age in the 80’s will tell you that the music that pre-dominated Black radio back then was funk. Hearing a rap record on the radio at that time was a treat. And you best believe that everyone from the on air personality to the program director detested the airing of the song.

In the 1980's Michael Jackson was the most popular thing in music. His fame eclipsed that of Elvis and the Beatles. He was like a 500 ton elephant sitting on the recording industry.

But the world of funk was dominated by two forces: Rick James and Prince. Both men were undisputedly funky and although they were rivals, their common influence was
Sly and the Family Stone.

Prince Rogers Nelson had his own sound.
He took a whole heaping of Sly, a fistful of James Brown, a chunk of Parliament-Funkadelic and a dash of Jimi Hendrix and created what can only be called the ‘Minneapolis’ sound. With his androgynous looks and all around eccentricity he started a movement whose true believers included: The Time, Vanity 6 (later to be called Appollonia 6), Sheena Easton, Sheila E, Ready for the World and many others.

Artistically the man was on island all to himself. Though most of his albums stayed on the charts his commercial endeavors were mostly enjoyed by his die-hard fans.

In the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’ the question is asked: “Are you a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan?” It’s a straight forward question, because depending on which group you liked or identified with it said something about who you were. But you couldn’t be both; you were either one or the other.

The 80’s equivalent of that argument (before hip hop took over) was you were either a Rick James fan or a Prince fan. You could love them both, and many did and still do, but more than likely you were feeling one more than the other.

From my own personal observations Prince fans tended to be just as eccentric as he was. This was the era where it was pretty common to see dudes wearing long Jheri Curls, eye liner and rocking long leather boots. I couldn’t get down like that. I liked some of his records but I wasn’t about to be walking around looking like that.

So I dug the other guys music more…

Born the son of a numbers running, Mob connected mother James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. was born in Buffalo, NY in 1948. According to published reports as a teenager he was shy and reserved. But young James’ quietness shielded a burning determination that would drive him to the top of the charts. But it was a long, hard windy road to the pinnacle of fame whose heights he’d bask in before falling off into a pit of drug abuse and a five year stretch in prison.

According to published reports when young James Johnson popped up in Toronto, Canada sometime in the mid 1960’s his name was Ricky James Matthews, how he came up with that name is not known, but a good guess would be that it was probably to keep the law off his tracks. You see, young Ricky was a wanted man; he was wanted by the FBI for being AWOL from the Navy. Friends and colleagues from that time say that James was a talented and charismatic performer who was heavily influenced by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

In the mid 70’s Ricky James Matthews changed his name to Rick James and single handedly saved Motown from the brink of extinction. It was also at Motown that James, whose influences were rock, jazz, salsa and funk – but more so rock, was introduced to a young white female singer who loved the hell out of Rhythm and Blues. It is said that they were an odd pairing, but a good pairing. Her name was Teena Marie.

Being a young New Yorker transplanted to the West Coast I was enthralled with the emerging sound from the NY streets: Hip-hop. I had neither the auditory attention nor musical taste for anything that didn’t match the break-beat style that predominated New York rap at that time.

That was until I fully got to dig Rick James.

“Standing on the Top”, “Mary Jane’, ‘Cold Blooded’, ‘Dance with Me’, ‘17’, ‘Pimp Simp’, ‘Ghetto Life’ and many others captured my imagination.

The first concert I ever went to was at the now gone Circle Star Theatre in San Mateo, Ca. I had to beg and plead with my mother for 2 weeks to allow me to go.
“Mark, do you know what kind of people go to Rick James concerts?”
“Nah, what?”
“Pimps, prostitutes and gangsters!”
“So”, I said, ‘they ain’t gonna bother me!”
“Well, who are you gonna go with cause I’m not taking you?”

There was no doubt about that, because there was no way on God’s green Earth or in the hell below, that I was going to go see Rick James with my moms, that was out of the question. I wanted to go with my home boys: Mark and Rodney.

“What, the three of you at a Rick James concert?” My mother yelled.
“Yeah, well, Damina’s going too.” I said.
“Oh hell no!” she said, ‘you’re right the pimps and gangsters won’t want you guys – they’ll want her!”

She had a point there.

Damina, my home boy Mark’s older sister, who was 19 years old at the time, had men all over the Bay Area falling over each other trying to get with her. Gangsters included. But to her credit she didn’t let any of them dudes play her out.

We sat in the front row at the Circle Star Theatre that night. I don’t know how Rodney’s mother pulled that one off, but she did. After the Mary Jane Girls did their set, the Stone City Band did theirs.

At the end of their set the lights were dimmed and Rick James was introduced. Rick came strolling down the aisle in a white outfit sporting a captain’s hat, wearing dark shades while holding his guitar in one hand and smoking a joint with the other. Rick was cool.

I felt Rick’s brand of funk more than I could Prince’s. Rick, if you close your eyes and listen to his songs comes off like a p-i-m-p in a lot of his records. From the sound of things he smoked a lot of good herb, snorted the best cocaine and regularly took 4 or 5 girls to bed a night. To my teenage ears… that dude was God.

On the other hand I could hardly understand what in the hell Prince was talking about in most of his songs. I knew the dude was deep but…sleeping with your sister? Come on hops, you gots to come better than that. And all of these years later I still don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about on “When Doves Cry”, which is one of my favorite recordings from the man, that and “Lady Cab Driver”, but I don’t know what in the hell he’s singing about.

Rick James was much more straight forward: ‘Give it to me Baby”, ‘Super Freak’, ‘I Love you 69 Times’ – real pimp shit. And that's pimp spelled the way Black folks say it 'p-e-e-i-i-i-m-p'.

Speaking of pimps, yes, their were plenty of pimps, prostitutes, players, gangsters and all kinds of other underworld types at the Circle Star that night. The pungent smell of marijuana hung over the theatre like a rain cloud.

Damina bought her best friend Perdita with her that night and we ended up trailing the groups back to some hotel somewhere in San Mateo. We were hoping to meet Rick, instead we met Monty of the Stone City Band, who just so happened to be hanging out at Denny’s.

Rick James’ bodyguard and brother, a short, bald- headed dude with a red rag tied around his head threatened to beat anyone down who went near Rick. Let’s put it like this: We must’ve gotten pretty close that night, because as I turned a corner down a lone corridor in the hotel, the bodyguard jumped to attention and yelled: ‘Hey lil nigga!”

I took off running down the hall yelling “Yo, the big dude is coming, the big dude is coming!"

Nowadays Rick James has been become notorious for a phrase, one which I think will live on just as long as his music: "I'm Rick James, bitch!"

Monday, October 02, 2006


Movies impact us in different ways. They make us cry, they make us think and they make us cheer. Every once in a while a movie will come along and it will capture current attitudes and energies in a way that, more or less, crystallizes a movement so to speak.

There have been thousands of films made about the lives and souls of Black folks. There have been stories told about brothers in everything from the slave ships to rocket ships.

I remember when I was a little boy in the early 70’s and Kung Fu movies were the rage. I recall looking at the screen and seeing a bunch of Chinese folks practicing moves in Shaolin temples. Seeing images like that made me (and many others) think that all Chinese people knew Kung Fu. As a little boy I used to walk up to Chinese people on the street and yell ‘Hiiiii-ya!’ As I was jumping in the air doing a karate kick.

That was the power of films like ‘Master Killer’ and the ‘Five Deadly Venoms.’ I bet I wasn’t the only young brother at that time who took up karate because he wanted to learn how to defy gravity like the “Kid With the Golden Arms.”

I don’t believe that art makes anyone do anything, be it a rap song, rock song, book, movie or whatever. But art does articulate certain energies that awaken people to things going on around them, and entice them to want to join in.

For instance, when I was a little boy there was a movie called ‘Super Fly’ which starred the late
Ron O’Neil. From what I understand, before ‘Super Fly’ came out brothers were into the civil rights movement and were about getting their acts together. That was until O’Neil popped up on screen as the ‘Mac-a-lack drivin’, coke- sniffin’, fine white woman-fuckin’, fur coat wearin’, big time money makin’, cocaine dealer Priest.

“Brothers weren’t the same after that”; my pops and his friends tell me.

‘Super Fly’ wasn’t the only movie to have that kind of effect; there have been others in more recent times.

But back to ‘Super Fly’; let’s start there.

Tale of a Pusher Man: Super Fly

According to published reports and interviews Ron O’Neil was a classically trained stage actor. He had all of the chops to make it as a first-class artist. But the trouble was - work wasn’t plentiful.

And then he was offered the role that would change his life.

What should’ve been his shining moment soon dissolved into a curse. You see the character he was portraying was a cocaine dealer named Priest who wanted to get out of the game. He wanted to do one last number (as he called it) and then retire young and rich with a million dollars under the mattress.

Only one problem for our hero: Very few drug dealers ever see retirement. His partner Eddie, played by the late actor Carl Lee, didn’t share the same dreams.

“Nigga, what you gonna do besides what you doin’ now, besides pimp, and to be honest with you I don’t think you got the heart for that…” Somewhere in that same monologue Eddie would say the words that would be echoed by New Jack crack dealers some twenty years later …”Why do you think they call it dope?”

Our hero’s problems aside Ron O’Neil had some bigger problems knocking on his door: the NAACP. They wanted to boycott his ass.

Before crack, heroin and the people that dealt it was the scourge of the Black community. Needles were everywhere as were junkies with arms that looked like railroad tracks. So a movie about a Black drug dealer in Harlem was not going to be a good look.

In his own defense O’Neil countered: “The heroin pusher is the scourge of the black community. But we’re talking about coke, which is basically a white drug. Since coke is not physically addictive, people do not steal and rob to get it. There are no coke junkies.”

That’s what they didn’t know back then.

So back to the Civil Rights movement, folks had been protesting and getting hit upside the head for equal access into the society for so long that they couldn’t take it anymore. On the film front, Black folks wanted to see images that truthfully portrayed us. No one wanted to see Sambo, Rochester and brothers with mops and buckets any more. They wanted to see some real brothers.

Melvin Van Peebles. ‘Sweet Sweetback and his Baaaadaaaassss Song’ premiered in 1971. So many people were elated to see a film where a brother not only got to kick some ass but got to get some ass on film too.

Say what you want about the movie but it is a pivotal point in Black cinema.

Super Fly’ opened and was heralded by brothers on street corners, nightclubs and pool halls as being the equivalent of the return of Sweet Daddy Grace. Brothers flocked to get long fur coats with hats to match, and had Rolls Royce grills installed on the front of their cars. I bet more than a few went out and got themselves a white woman too.

According to the civil rights crowd, brothers forgot about the movement. They threw away their dashikis for sharkskin suits and multi-colored shirts and jump suits. And of course, white women.

Many a brother whose hair is more salt than pepper now, looks back on that moment in time as an event that changed our culture. Never mind the fact that drug dealers and pimps had been dressing the same way for years in Black communities all over the country. Frank Lucas, Frank Matthews, Nicky Barnes and many others were ghetto celebs at a time when the phrase wasn’t popular.

The World is Yours: Scarface

There is nothing new about cocaine it has been around for a long time. The 70’s and early 80’s have been called the ‘champagne and cocaine’ era. Only the ‘beautiful people’ did it.

When the film
‘Scarface’ debuted in 1983 it was a blockbuster. Some of everybody loved it. Here’s the story: Cuban immigrant lands on these shores in search of the mythical American dream. The criminal past he seems to have had back in his homeland has been bought here with him. He wants to be rich like a Rockefeller. His ‘balls- out- go- for- mine’ attitude and determination elicits ‘Amen brother-like’ responses from brothers from all the way in New York to LA.

Monologues like: “…I only got two things in this world: my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody, man…” Or this one: “Who put this thing together? Me, that’s who. Who do I trust? Who do I trust? Me, that’s who…” Were recited on street corners in Black neighborhoods everywhere. There was something about the protagonists ‘fuck you I’m a get mine’ that resonated with brothers all over. It was the perfect primer for the oncoming plague called crack.

Long established rules of the street were thrown by the wayside when crack hit the scene. At one time cocaine dealers weren’t known for violence; after all they catered to a more upstanding clientele. Crack cocaine was made cheap, no longer did you have to be a member of the beautiful one’s to get high. For 20 dollars or less, you could get as high as apple pie in the sky.

But with it being cheap came the violence.

Crack also made people paranoid. No one trusted anyone anymore. Unlike heroin or cocaine dealers, crack was dealt by people as young as 15. So there it was 1985, 1986 when crack hit the streets, BMW’s, Ferrari’s and Benz’s were all over and being driven by teenagers. Teens, who by the way had wholeheartedly absorbed the Tony Montana mantra: Fuck you the world is mine.

As a result semi-automatic weapons and drive by shootings became more and more the norm.

Psychopaths on the Warpath: Colors

Crips and Bloods originated in Los Angeles in the early 70’s. The only other big city that had a gang problem that matched LA’s was Chicago.

That was until the late 80’s.

Crack and the crime that came with it was in every city throughout the country by 1987. At the same time gang violence in LA was at an all time high. It was like a mini-Vietnam.

One of the fathers of the crack movement was an ill literate tennis pro named Freeway Ricky Ross. He supplied cocaine to dealers all over LA. At some point he got into his head that he needed to expand his business and set up shop in other states.

Taking a page from the ‘Freeway Rick’ book gang members did the same thing: they expanded their turfs to other states. Later DJ Quik would remark in his classic recording “Just Like Compton” about how Bloods and Crips were in places like Denver and have “never even seen the ‘Shaw.”

At the same time that that was happening a movie called ‘Colors’ hit the big screen. ‘Colors’ told the story that the rest of America had only seen in: 30 news clips. After it came out, Crips and Bloods were everywhere. They were turning up in cities that up to that point hadn’t had a gang problem.

When Are You Too Old To Be A B-Boy?

I got the biggest kick out of watching everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure ‘The Flavor of Love” this weekend.

I won’t lie I am of that small minority of people who thinks that Ms. New York a/k/a
Tiffany Patterson is a cute girl. For real she is. At least last season she was. Granted her attitude makes her unattractive.

Now me, personally, I don’t like anybody to over talk me in conversation. And as far as talkin’ about people’s moms and shit -- that ain't cool.

But you know, other than that, ya boy would slide her the bozack real quick. She would get it and so would Deelishis, Beautiful and Bootz, oh, please believe that ya man would be on some Lex Steele type shit.

The thing that I found interesting was the relationship between Flav-zell and New York’s Moms who is a total MIWWF (Mom I Wouldn’t Wanna Fuck). If they do end up hookin’ up, somebody should keep a camera crew on hand for weekends and holidays. Dust will fly, clocks will get smashed and weaves/wigs will get burnt up.

To tell the truth, I felt for both Flav and New York’s Moms. I felt for Flav because I’ve kind of been in his shoes before.

When you get to be over 30 years of age people look at hip-hoppers real funny. Questions are asked like: “When are you going to stop wearing baggy pants?” “Why are you still saying “Yo” at your age?” “When are you going to stop wearing your hat like that?” “Why do you still walk that way?” In other words folks are looking for you to act and look more like a ‘grown up’.

Nothing disturbs me more than those types of questions. Never mind the fact that I have been on my own since I was 19. Never mind the fact that I have never done drugs or have seen the inside of a jail cell. Never mind the fact that for all of my adult life I have always held down a job.

What happens when you get to be an over- 30 hip-hopper is you get locked into a little box, a stereotype: Only listens to rap music, only drinks malt liquor or Hennessey and has no education or skills beyond hip-hop.

Tell you what, I ain’t called Mark ‘Skillz’ for nuttin’. And as far as my musical tastes go they run a wide range from rock (the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Living Color, Hendrix, the Police) to soft rock (Elton John, Andy Gibb, Billy Joel) to jazz (Coltrane, Donald Byrd and the Crusaders) to reggae, afro beat and a whole lot of other stuff. And just for the record: Henny and any type of Malt Liquor repulse me, give me a glass of red wine and I’m straight. Besides hard liquor will make you look 10 years older than you really are.

The responses you get once people get to really know you is something like, “Oh, you’re different”, to “no way”. Like a hip hop cat couldn't possibly know anything beyond hip-hop and the hood.

Gimme a break.

A while back I was watching “Waiting to Exhale”, I sat there looking at the characters that the actors were portraying and said to myself, ‘Damn, how come I can’t be like them?”

Don’t get it twisted I like who I am, but I sat there wondering to myself about how the life decisions I made a very long time ago affected my life today. I’ve never been comfortable wearing a suit and tie everyday.

A long time ago my dad taught me that a Black man has to know how to walk both sides of Black culture: the street and work. You talk one way at work and another on the street. I’m glad he taught me that because it’s been key to my survival for the last 20 years. I’ve never had the ambition to be in corporate management, that shit is not in my DNA. And more importantly, I have never been comfortable in corporate settings. That's just not who I am.

Which brings to me what New York’s moms was talking about: “When is he going to start acting like a man? Who wants to be seen in public with a man wearing a big clock?” Show me the man…”

In her defense, I can say that I would be a little concerned about my 26 year-old daughter dating a 47 year- old man like Flavor. But I don’t have any daughters (thank God), I have nuttin’ but sons. Come to think about it, Flav is probably her mother’s age.

By 47 years of age there are certain things that are expected of you: mastery of professional type talk, success and a more mature presentation. Of which Flavor only has one of the criteria met. But don’t get it twisted, home chick and her daughter are on some gold-diggin’ shit for real.

“Tiffany”, her moms said to her with concern, ‘You want a man that’s wealthy and successful and who loves Jesus and knows how to treat a woman.”

Let’s start with this: As a parent I can feel where she’s coming from because you want the best for your children. But on the real, once your kids are grown there ain’t but so much you can really do but protest. But why is her moms so repulsed by the very sight of Flavor?

Believe it or not, it ain't so much about the way he looks.

I can tell you for my own personal experience that Flavor Flav is one of the coolest cats, and he is more mature than he lets on. What you see on screen is him, but what gets lost or not seen at all is the sensitive, thoughtful, insightful guy that William Drayton really is. Yes, he is a class clown, no doubt or argument about that from me. But to have such a reaction to him (for those that don’t know Flav and NY’s Moms almost came to blows) isn’t called for.

I suspect that Moms has been with quite a few Flav-esqe type characters in her life. And judging by the way she treats her man, Alex (I dunno about you but furniture would’ve been moving if she would’ve come at me like she did him) she’s been in quite a few physically abusive relationships. I say that because usually, women of that age get to a point where they want to be the controlling/manipulative one in a relationship and they know that they can’t do it with an Ike Turner type, so they get a dude who’s basically glad to be fuckin’.

But back to Flavor, I think he spoke for all of us old school hip-hop cats when he said to NY’s moms: “If you give me a chance, I’ll show you something else [other than the clock-wearin’, ‘Yeaaaah boyeeeee’ yellin’ immature thug that you perceive me to be].