Cassette Culture

with Stretch Armstrong

Kid Capri Live at The Building
New York City, 1990

I’m not sure which I enjoy more—discovering incredible music or sharing it with other people. Regardless, these two passions are what ultimately drove me to be a DJ in the first place. What would be the point in collecting all those great records without playing them out, loudly, in a dark room where everything but the music fades into the background?

Hearing records on a proper sound system transforms music. Add a crowd of open-minded people, and, when everything falls into place, the result can be the closest thing to a religious experience for this atheist. If I ever had a purpose in life, acquiring and exposing music has been it. Even as I started to DJ professionally, getting a few hundred dollars a night, the money was secondary. Remember that radio show that Bobbito and I did in the 90s? Well, we got paid a staggering zero dollars to do it, and we did so happily. Perhaps getting paid would have changed the dynamic of the show, making us beholden to an employer, but that’s besides the point.

In the age of the digital DJ, record shops have been replaced by the convenient but solitary online store (Beatport, iTunes and a handful of smaller specialist sites). Instead of shopping for the latest 12-inches or being awakened by the UPS man delivering boxes of promos, DJs just check their email inbox, or when a new track isn’t available, rip a file from Soundcloud at 128kbps. Most people couldn’t tell the difference and wouldn’t care if they could. A young DJ might have a hard time making sense of the daily routine of going to physical stores and label offices to pick up vinyl. It sure seems like a pain in the ass compared to the ease of downloading files at home.

They might have a harder time understanding that this routine was one of my greatest sources of pleasure.

Even if you were unknown to the store’s staff, record shopping was worthwhile for the experience. They were always filled with a rich collection of music-crazed individuals: serious collectors looking for special buys; neophytes building their libraries; producers dropping off boxes of self-pressed vinyl; prominent DJs buying what was not available on promo; and fanatics arguing about records or singing the praises of a particular new release. Stores were also where music could be listened to collectively and discussed, and where people’s reactions to records could be observed and then discussed.

The more time I spent in record stores, the richer I was for it. Of course, as I clocked in more and more days in particular spots, I gradually got treated increasingly like a regular which came with some great benefits. Promos that were given to stores in return for placement of “product” were reserved for the best customers. Before getting on the radio and receiving promos from labels, being able to buy them was an advantage. Since imports were limited in supply, they too were reserved. Over time, the employees of my favorite shops would get more and more familiar with my tastes and hold records that they thought I would want, stashing them until my next visit. But it wasn’t a one way street. Having props at a shop meant being able to spend hours there without anyone giving you the stink-eye.

My favorite store in the late 80s and very early 90s, the one I spent most time at, was Downtown Records, where I frequently must have appeared to be an employee, in the shop almost every day, helping customers who looked like they needed it and standing behind the turntables playing promos and imports on the store’s sound system. If I was mistaken for an employee, that was fine with me.

I have fond memories of Downtown Records. I remember how excited DJ Dmitry was when he proudly walked into the store some time in 1990 with a white label test-pressing of his first record, Deee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” He made a bee line straight to the back of the long store, reached over the turntables, where I was standing, and handed me the record, asking me to play the B-side, the deep “What Is Love,” which would be heard in every NYC club for months and months. The A-side would turn Dmitry, Lady Miss Kier and Towa-Tei into pop stars, yet “What Is Love” was one of those records that didn’t need to grow on you. It just took you on first listen in and that was that. Every person in the store gradually crowded the booth, followed by looks of frustration at the realization that this magnetic piece of wax wasn’t available.

Another memory was less uplifting. Pal Joey, who enjoyed the simultaneous recognition as both a deep house heavyweight and a respected hip-hop producer, came in one day to shop for 12-inches. This particular day happened to be when the store received its shipment of EPMD’s “Rampage” single. Dontay, Downtown Records’ hip-hop buyer, saw Joey and enthusiastically ran over to him with the record, happy to show him the B-side, “I’m Mad,” for which DJ Scratch sampled Pal Joey’s b-boy house smash “Hot Music,” one of a handful of club records that all hip-hop DJs would gladly play. But Joey didn’t share the excitement. He looked confused, then concerned and finally, mad. Apparently, neither EPMD’s people nor Def Jam had sought Joey’s approval, and he was pissed. That Joey had not sought the same approval from Wynton Marsalis for the sample in “Hot Music” didn’t seem to cross his mind, but this was also a year before labels began clearing samples. Being that Joey was in the hip-hop world, without the credit, he felt slighted.

One of my most prized promos that I was able to score through the good graces of Downtown Records was Madonna’s “Keep It Together,” an otherwise forgettable record that featured a remix (with bonus beats) by Mark the 45 King, who had inked some kind of label deal with the Queen of Pop’s label, Warner Brothers. While neither the original nor the remix popped for Madonna, those that knew about the naked bonus beats had this 12-inch on their want lists. That Marley Marl would sample these drums for LL Cool J’s “To Da Break of Dawn” only added to the mystery of the beat and desirability of the record. The icing was hearing Kid Capri use them regularly as a segue in his live DJ sets. He owned that record and made it one of his trademarks for all that time that nobody knew what that beat was.

Around the time this record dropped, a club just around the block from Downtown Records on West 26th Street in Manhattan became a short-lived hip-hop hotbed. Opening in 1989, The Building ran through a predictable racially-tainted trajectory, opening as a house music club, gradually injecting hip-hop into the mix, and just before its closing, becoming a full-fledged hip-hop club with DJs like Super DJ Clark Kent, Funkmaster Flex (then a Bronx DJ making a name for himself through guest spots on weekend mix-shows on WBLS and Kiss-FM) and a DJ I had heard of but never seen live. On the advice of Fab 5 Freddy, Patrick Moxey (founder of Ultra Records, who at the time was booking DJs at The Building) gave the green light to Kid Capri for the Powerhouse nights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. What ensued was an Uptown DJ spectacle that had yet to be experienced by the downtown crowd.

Until then, I had not seen a DJ use a mic, which was—and still is—usually a sign of a DJ’s shortcomings. But Kid’s use of turntables with a mic was powerful, even awe-inspiring. When he stepped into the booth, which had been moved from some twenty feet above the dance floor to almost on the floor, he owned the club. He commanded the attention of every single person in the building. His live performances—along with the mix tapes he was famous for—demonstrated that even without the platform of radio, a club DJ could exert serious influence. In very little time, Downtown New York knew who Kid Capri was.

Press play and read on!

Tale of the Tape

Kid Capri Live at The Building, New York City, 1990

This 90 minute recording falls right in the middle of peak time for Kid Capri’s set sometime in 1990. It starts with Kid warming up the crowd with some Keith Sweat, at :25 opening the mic to let everyone know “aw yeah, it’s the Kid Capri, c’mon!” followed by more uptown R&B flavor with “The Blues” by Tony! Toni! Tone! At 5:31, Kid ends the R&B warm-up by dropping the music and playing a sound fx transition, the sound of a jet engine, followed immediately with the intro to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” over which he re-introduces himself: “Ay yes it’s the Kid Capri… as we get on the smooth side of things right now, in the Powerhouse… would like to welcome Q-Tip to the place… as we do it like this!” The record drops in on time… and the party is on.

Kid Capri is a legend of hip-hop DJing, known for his relentless mic work

Kid gives a memorial R.I.P. shout out to Trouble T-Roy, whom Pete Rock & CL Smooth would immortalize in “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and then tells the crowd to “bus’ how this go down, back to back” just before the Little Feat drums from “Bonita Applebum” play naked, over which Kid mixes in the Hootie remix with its early use of The Isley Brother’s “Between the Sheets.”

At 11:14, Kid starts to bring in “Verbal Milk” by X-Clan, an album cut in which the vastly underrated Brother J flows impeccably over a a funk beat anchored by the ubiquitous “Impeach the President” drum break. Kid maintains that feel when he cuts and repeats the section of the dub of Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator” that also uses “Impeach the President.” Instead of bringing in the Kane vocal, Kid surprises the crowd with Masta Ace’s “Me & the Biz” at 15:32 and then then drops the instrumental The D.O.C.’s “It’s Getting’ Funky” at 18:30, letting it ride out for a minute before cutting it off to tell the crowd to “clap your hands to the beat, clap your hands to the beat, everybody, clap your hands to the beat… We go one, two, three…” And bam, he drops Poor Righteous Teacher’s “Rock Dis Funky Joint” and then, over the beat, tells the now-hyped up crowd to “say ho!”

At 23:20, while saying “Kid Capri drop it,” he abruptly brings in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Push It Along” from the top, letting the drums bang and reverberate throughout the Building, and then does a borough roll call, cleverly saving the always deep and boisterous Brooklyn for last. With the Brooklyn crowd now amped, he drops Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” and the crowd goes nuts. Harnessing the Brooklyn crowd’s energy, at 26:41 Kid dedicates the song to the borough and asks them to make noise, turning off the music so everyone can hear the roar. At 28:21 Kid engages in some more acapella interplay with the crowd before bringing in Nice-N-Smooth’s “More and More Hits,” followed by a New Jack Swing instrumental with the same Mary Jane Girls bass line from “All Night Long.”

Right on beat, Kid then drops the music and declares “Kid Capri is gonna make it…” his sentence finished by the next record “Funky for You,” also by Nice-N-Smooth, as the crowd loudly gives their approval. He cuts up the intro a few times, shouts out Powerhouse and brings in the vocal. At 33:40 Kid mixes in the go-go-infused Clark Kent remix of Troop’s “Spread My Wings.” After letting it play in full, Kid says “beh beh beh beh baseline!” and hits the crowd with EPMD’s monstrous “So What’cha Sayin’” and again, the crowd erupts.

1990 flyer (front) promotes The Building in New York City

Relying on surprise rather than mixing, he drops a pitched-up dub of Marley Marl & Craig G’s “Droppin’ Science,” followed by the instrumental of Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud’s “Do The James.” At 43:19 Kid exclaims “bass!” hitting the crowd with the bass line from the dub of Classical Two’s proto-new jack swing “Rap’s New Generation” and tells the crowd to make some noise. After bigging up the Bronx and letting everyone know that he’s going to go old school for a bit, he lets the record play a little more, and then drops the dub of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. for President,” followed by Schoolly D’s bombastic “P.S.K.” and at 45:20, the powerful instrumental of Public Enemy’s “P.E. No. 1,” over which Kid moves the crowd with some more call and response, injecting even more energy into the club.

1990 flyer (back) promotes PowerHouse’s DJ-driven events at The Building

At the 46 minute mark, Kid boasts “try to step to the Kid Capri, you know somethin’? You just might get shot!” as he brings in the little-known “That Gangsta Shit” by Mob Style. It’s an album cut, not loud enough to push the sound system, which Kid acknowledges by saying “well since that’s too low, maybe this is a little loud,” dropping the 45 King bonus beats from Madonna’s “Keep It Together.” The drums bang and Kid does his “do the bend and stretch” routine, soon to be sampled by Showbiz & AG on “Party Groove.” He seamlessly moves into “To Da Break of Dawn” by LL Cool J, who takes shots at Ice T, Kool Moe D and Hammer.

Balancing out all of that male-centric hip-hop, at 52:56 Kid Capri drops The Family Stand’s “Ghetto Heaven,” a breakbeat-infused R&B number from the U.K. that had a similar sound to the already-massive Soul II Soul. He keeps the U.K. flavor going with 45 King’s remix of Lisa Stansfield’s “Been Around the World” which has the original stripped down to its bare necessities—spare bass line, drum loop and strings. At the 57:52 mark, the needle jumps three times, and Kid picks up the tone arm to say “oops oops oops oops, y’all chill… man, wait a minute, hold up.” He pauses and the crowd reacts to the derailment. In no rush to fill in the silence with music, he tells the crowd with complete confidence, “y’all got to understand one thing… I can only rock y’all ass but only so much. And then after I fuck up, I can rock your ass some more like thiiiiiiiiiis…” under which he drops “Hold On” by En Vogue, instantly setting the party back on course lovely, turning lemons into lemonade.

Capri follows with “The Human Beat Box” by Doug E. Fresh, surprises with “Never Missin’ a Beat” by Everlast, rocks some more new jack swing with Wrecks-N-Effect, and then drops his all-time favorite record, “The 900 Number” by 45 King, which he cuts up and then answers with the original version of Biz Markie’s “Somethin’ for the Radio” and another Marley home wrecker, LL Cool J’s “Jinglin’ Baby” remix and “Illegal Search.” At 1:22:16 he plays the instrumental of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” followed by Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” and X-Clan’s “Funkin’ Lesson.”

At 1:28:32, Kid interrupts the music, saying “and yes y’all, I think it’s about time for some of this here…” He drops the tempo down significantly with a dancehall excursion, bringing in the bass line from Sly & Robbie’s heavy “Taxi” riddim, which had been running things in the dancehall world but also in hip-hop circles thanks in large part to Kool DJ Red Alert, who had been rinsing records like Foxy Brown’s “Sorry” and Tiger’s “Ram Dance Hall” on Friday and Saturday nights on 98.7 Kiss-FM. Kid could do that, change directions on a dime, with everyone gladly following him.

I saw Kid perform many times since then, but there was something special about The Building. Perhaps it was the mix of familiar downtown and Brooklyn faces mixed with the Uptown crowd that came to see Kid. Maybe it was the novelty of seeing Kid for the first time at The Building. Or maybe that space really had some kind of magic. Most of the time, recordings of DJ sets do not capture the spirit of the original experience, from the sound of the crowd, the expressions on faces, the way people are physically reacting in real time to the music and each other, but somehow, this recording of Kid Capri at The Building does a damn good job of evoking the essence of that night.

Years later, in 1996 or so, as Kid and I were reminiscing, I got the impression that he loved that club too. He told me he wanted to take over the space and be the first DJ to own a club in Manhattan. The very next day I happened to drive across 26th Street, only to see that the glorious structure that housed that club had been reduced to a pile of rubble, the sad fate of so many of our landmarks.

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Follow Stretch Armstrong on Twitter @StretchArmy.
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