“Of Breakbeats and B-Boys” by Michael Gonzales
“People despise it like terror. Today and tomorrow is the hip-hop era.”
Legendary hip-hop dj Grandmaster Dynamite first came to the states when he was a scrawny twelve-year-old whose government name was Arthur Isaacs. He was an orphan whose mother died in childbirth. “My father always said it was the Lord’s will, but a small part of me believed that he blamed me,” Dynamite confessed the first night we met, when my graff writing buddy C.C. 153 took me to the turntable genius’ home recording studio to hangout.
A fifth floor apartment, the spot was on 143rd and Broadway. Downstairs, Dominican crack dealers lingered as though slinging rock was legal. When he was twelve, his preacher daddy was struck by lightening walking home from Sunday services in parish of Mojo Pen and an orphaned Arthur was sent to the big city of golden sidewalks and towering buildings to live with buxom Aunt Beverly.
Sitting next to the window on Air Jamaica, young Arthur imagined a world where Leave It to Beaver built go-carts with Marcus Welby’s children and Ritchie Cunningham cheered from the sidelines.
Aunt Beverly was a beautiful woman whose wide booty swayed with the sass of Pam Grier on the silver screen. Living in the Bronx, where she had relocated in 1968, Aunt Beverly sewed gaudy wedding gowns and prom dresses in the garment district for a living.
The paper-bag brown-skinned woman loved Arthur as though he were her own son. A single woman, she spoiled her nephew with expensive gifts, and it was through her generous allowance that D. was able to buy his first mixer, turntables and speakers from Jesus Electronics on Fordham Road when he was fourteen.
The moment Arthur set-up the equipment, he slipped into the flow of stereo turntable science and aural astral planeing. Studying black vinyl science with the intensity of that Kung Fu dude on television, Arthur wasn’t satisfied until he was spinning well enough to call himself a grandmaster. Borrowing records from his aunt’s collection, he lifted the name “Dynamite” from the Sly & the Family album Life.
“From the time that boy came to the states, he was taking apart my radio and TV set,” Aunt Beverly told me one day. “But, I didn’t mind as long as he put them back together. Arthur just had a way with wires and electronics. I tell you he should have opened a fix-it shop.”
A few days after I met Dynamite, I started crashing on his stained couch instead of going home. Smoking weed all day and drinking into the night, we intoxicatingly rapped about music while he schooled me on stuff I had never heard of, music like Lee Scratch Perry and Steely Dan and Baby Huey.
A few weeks before Dynamite began recording his masterpiece God Sound, he recruited me to go record shopping with him at Music Factory in Times Square. We made a detour to Aunt Beverly’s crib for a fish and grits breakfast, and then hailed a shiny black gypsy cab to the city. Barreling down Broadway in the def OJ like Big Bank Hank, we passed salsa clubs and Zabar’s; bookstores and Chinese restaurants; gay bars and Gray’s Papaya; Jewish princesses and nodding dope fiends.
Lounging in the back seat, Dynamite silently studied the city. Marveling at the various shop windows and pre-war buildings that sprouted from the ground like concrete trees, he leaned back in the sticky car seat and hummed the Petula Clark’s song “Downtown.”
“That’s my favorite building,” he said, dirty fingernail pointing towards the Ansonia on 73rd and Broadway. “It’s supposed to be haunted.” Moments later, as the cab idled at a stop light in front Lincoln Center, Dynamite turned to me. “So what’s your story?” he asked, lighting a Newport.
“I don’t have much of a story,” I answered.
Dynamite glared at me as though I were lying. “Everybody has a story, so what’s yours? You not working for my enemies, are you?”
“What are you talking about man? You know me.”
“Not everybody is who they say they are,” Dynamite mumbled, and blew cigarette smoke out of the open window. Every now and then, the lanky Hispanic driver peeped into the rear-view mirror. “The only thing I know is that people are trying to steal my soul. Other producers would kill to know what breakbeats I use, how I construct beats, how I make my music in the lab like some kind of funky Dr. Jekyll creating a bubbling secret formula.”
Scratching my scraggly beard nervously, I glared at my new friend suspiciously. “I’m not really sure what to say about that?”
“I just want to know that I can trust you.” Dynamite’s right leg shook wildly as he flicked the cigarette butt into the street. “In my profession, it’s all about battling. I got to beat everybody to the beat. It’s me against every record producer on the planet, and I’m not trying to be tricked into telling my secrets.”
“That’s cool, man.”
“You know, one time I found a copy of the Heath Brother’s Marchin’ On in a junk shop over on Amsterdam.” I nodded. “So, what do you do?”
“Nothing much, really. I want to be a writer.”
“A songwriter?” he blurted accusingly.
What’s up with dude and paranoid shit, I wondered. “Naw, you know books, magazine stories, stuff like that.” He relaxed slightly and the paranoia started going away when Dynamite finally realized that I wasn’t trying to “steal his soul” for the competition.
“I haven’t done much of anything yet, but writings my shit.”
Suddenly the cab screeched to a halt, and Dynamite dug into his blue jeans pockets. Pulling out a bunch of crumbled bills, he anxiously handed the wrinkled cash to the driver.
Across the traffic jammed street, the Loews Astor Plaza was showing Moscow on the Hudson. Swinging open the taxi door, Dynamite didn’t wait for me to slide across the seat before he nearly broke his neck to get inside the record shop. Whatever stress Dynamite held onto, lifted like a helium balloon the moment he walked into the record-cluttered store.
“Can I help you?” barked the bulldog of a man behind the counter. Eyeballing me suspiciously, he was a balding fat dude sucking on a cold cigar standing in front of a wall covered with 8×10 pictures of LL Cool Jay, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force and The Treacherous Three.
“No sweat, Stan, he’s with me,” Dynamite screamed, making me feel somewhat important to be in his presence. I nervously nodded towards Stan, and smiled, but he merely glared as though he knew that I was an interloper in that wonderland of black vinyl and block rockin’ beats.
It struck me as funny that with a store full of b-boys in Adidas hats, suede coats, Puma sneakers and Cazel glasses, that the dj blared the cornball song “Like a Cannonball” by Menudo. Stopping in front of a wall lined with records, there was a sign that stated “Ultimate Breaks and Beats.”
Dynamite stood in front of the racks of black vinyl in generic sleeves as I drifted over the dirty white tiles and flipped through a stack of discounted disco records.
Instinctively, I knew it was best not to bother Dynamite as he searched through the stacks for whatever sounds blared inside his head. Depending on his ever-changing moods, Dynamite bought all kinds of records. One day it might be weird synth effects, hard funk horns or piano notes that dropped like chocolate rain; while on another it was all about killer Earl Palmer drums or the screech of a Stax guitar.
Unlike some dudes who stuck with the same kind of funk or soul, Dynamite could find a dope break on a Lawrence Welk record. “Sometime I just get a feeling from a record, either something about the cover or what label it might be on or, maybe I recognize a player from another record,” he explained as he searched through dusty stacks of salsa records.
Looking at the serious faces of the young customers digging for beats, it was suddenly obvious from Dynamite’s weeded lessons that rap music was where black music went after Sly Stone slid down his slippery slope, after Miles Davis left the corner, after Jimi Hendrix choked on his own vomit and the Mothership Connection crash-landed in Detroit.
Motown no longer meant dancing in the streets, because post-revolutionary folks just wanted to do the funky chicken to the drummer’s beat. The Soul Train had been derailed, and the outlaws were taking over the tracks. Funk not only moved, it re-grooved; Gamble & Huff’s disco blare might’ve been dead, but those Philly beats were eternal.
Three hours later, Dynamite and I were in a yellow cab headed back uptown. Holding on tight, Dynamite kept the bulging bag of newly bought discs in his lap. If the taxi had gotten into an accident, his first thought would have been to save the records.
Over the next few weeks as he bought more and more records in anticipation of recording his next album God Sound, I accompanied Dynamite on a few record shopping sprees throughout the city.
Carrying piles of cutout bin records to the cash register, I patiently waited for him to make his final selections before we returned to his cluttered studio. Back home, after rolling a thick blunt dipped in dust, Dynamite sat in the studio playing each record, making notations in a black diary referring to various sounds he heard in the music.
“Once you hear the right beat, it’s like the key to the door and when you get through that door, you can do whatever you like,” Dynamite explained. “There is a story in each note, but once the beat is chosen, I have control over the sound and the story and can tell it anyway I like.”
[author_info]Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, The Source, Rap Pages and Wax Poetics. He is a contributing writer for HYCIDE and a co-editor of the erotica journal Open. He has published fiction in various anthologies including Brown Sugar edited by Carol Taylor, Bronx Biannual edited by Miles Marshall Lewis and Darker Mask edited by Gary Phillips and Chris Chambers. Born and raised in New York City, he currently lives in Brooklyn where he listens to seventies funk and writes constantly. Gonzales is currently writing a Harlem crime novel.[/author_info]