Cassette Culture with Stretch Armstrong
How The Latin Rascals Mastered the Megamix
I can still feel the excitement in my blood when I think about some of the first visits to record label offices, once I crossed that line from hobbyist to professional DJ. After playing in clubs for a year or so, and then getting on the radio, by 1990 I was given an open-door invitation to stop by the offices of the very record labels whose 12-inches I had purchased religiously for years with my hard-earned cash (and school book money): Profile, Nu Groove, Cold Chillin’, Big Beat, Tommy Boy, Sleeping Bag/Fresh, Def Jam, etc. Several of these first visits are etched in my memory, particularly the first time I went to Tuff City, at the time the home of The Cold Crush Brothers, The 45 King, Lakim Shabbazz, Spoonie G and others.
Arriving at Tuff City’s address, I surmised that despite being the first hip-hop indie to ink a deal with a major, it had not experienced the financial windfall that others had. Their offices were in a very modest midtown office building with virtually no staff, piles of vinyl stacked throughout haphazardly. But before reaching the actual office, I entered the elevator with another individual, a mild-mannered, slightly chubby guy with glasses who struck up a conversation with me after he noticed I was carrying a bag of 12-inch vinyl. He asked if I was going to Tuff City, and introduced himself as Ed Chisolm, the head of promotion for the label. Before we reached our floor, told me he was also a songwriter and had penned “Let The Music Play” and “Give Me Tonight” by Shannon. My polite response hid my disbelief. In my head, I was thinking “yeah, right!”
Shannon’s back-to-back hits were utterly massive! They dominated radio and clubs, crossed over into the mainstream, and appealed to the hip-hop, R&B and club crowds. The songs ushered in a sound that would initially be called Latin hip-hop, which evolved into freestyle, the uptempo cousin of 80s electro hip-hop. The genre typically borrowed a variant of the drum pattern laid down in Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.”
To become transfixed by either song did not require multiple listens. It was immediate. The gated kick drums, hitting below those arpeggiated synths, followed by the melodic chords repeated through a delay, and that staccato baseline just grabbed you and gave you that feeling, the one that makes you squint your eyes and move your neck, even before Shannon does her thing with her seductively restrained verses and explosive chorus.
After finishing my record run and returning to my apartment, I made a bee-line to my records and found the stack of red and gray-striped 12-inches that made up my collection of records released by Shannon’s label, Emergency. I pulled out my Shannon 12”s, and there it was, in black and white, below the song title of each song (Chris Barbosa — Ed Chisolm). At that naive age, I would have assumed that anyone who wrote two of the biggest songs from the first half of the 80s would be taking calls from Madonna in their penthouse recording studio overlooking Central Park.
It was an eye-opener, a reality check of sorts, that showed me that the music industry has a shiny veneer but is really made up of hard workers living from song to song. Some of these forgotten talents were masters of melody, while some were technical geniuses that took existing technologies and squeezed every ounce of creativity from them as humanly possible.
In fact, it would be impossible to talk about modern music without talking about technology. It’s the love affair between the two that has pushed music production forward, starting with the earliest mono tape decks, then multi-track recorders, the subsequent synthesizers, samplers, sequencers and eventually, software-based instruments and recording platforms. Throughout this history, developments in technology directly shaped the sounds of their time, just as, conversely, the imagination of producers and engineers guided the design and sonic aesthetics of the never-ending evolution of music technology.
I’m old enough to have witnessed first hand the majority of this history. I was drawn to music not just by what I was hearing (and then with MTV, seeing) but also by the machines used on stage and in the studio. As a teen, discovering cassette four track recorders and synthesizers, DJing with mixers and turntables, and then early drum machines and samplers, my musical interest expanded to include, more and more, music made by machines. Whether it was a synth that could emulate lush strings or create a sound that had no musical reference, but still sounded great, or a drum machine spitting out a relentless beat, each of these pieces of gear on their own possessed a kind of magic. They had futuristic or hi-tech names, like Emulator or DMX. They did things with sound that were previously unthinkable… and in many cases, unplanned.
Modern music’s path is littered with fantastic unintended results. I’m quite sure the good folks at Technics, when developing their series of direct-drive turntables, never envisioned what hip-hop DJs would do with them in the 80s, leading to a new musical language, turntablism. When Marley Marl sampled a drum from a record for the first time, in an instant changing the way music is made, he had no manual guiding him, nor did he have existing records to emulate, no pun intended.
Consider the beloved Roland TR-808: released in 1980, it was virtually obsolete by 1982, when it was used in “Planet Rock.” Another two years later—an eternity in technology—the sub-bass sound created by tuning the 808 kick all the way down became the signature sound of hip-hop, pumping out of New York from 1984 to 1986 (Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys), years after most producers deemed the machine unusable. Think about that: a machine (or rather its sound) that for a time could be found at a thrift shop or flea market became the most identifiable electronic musical instrument, perhaps in the history of music, with a lifespan of several decades and counting.
Arguably the greatest technological innovation in music was the use of magnetic tape to record audio, the first step towards the creation of the recording industry. It allowed music makers to record and re-record performances. Additionally, with the precision of a steady hand and razor blade, tape could be cut and spliced to edit and rearrange compositions. Before the advent of multi-track technology, master recordings were created by splicing together various pieces of tape from as many studio takes as were needed in a recording session, creating the illusion of a perfect performance.
In the 80s a very small group of young DJs and engineers took tape editing to places that the designers and manufacturers of tape machines could never have imagined, similar to what turntablists did with turntables. Unlike DJs, however, this group had virtually no predecessors to be mentored by. Almost out of thin air, Chep Nuñez, Albert Cabrera & Tony Moran (together as The Latin Rascals), and Omar Santana (a Latin Rascal affiliate) transformed tape editing from a passive, transparent engineering process into a prominent rhythmic element. These tape editors infused records from across the club music spectrum—including hip-hop, new wave, freestyle and R&B—with a sense of kinetic excitement, perfecting a technique that would inspire the digital cut-ups so common in contemporary dance and electronic music.
For a brief time in the early 80s, this elite cadre of tape editors were sought out by the best producers and labels to add their touch to records, getting prominent billing on label credits. “Edited by the Latin Rascals” would be a selling point, which is kind of wild, considering they weren’t remixing, adding keyboards or overdubbing drums, but were instead cutting up phrases and beats, extending sections, adding rapid-fire silence and deck stop effects.
This editing process was a combination of masterful technique and vision. To achieve these edits, sections that were to be used in the edit would be dubbed from a master tape to another tape deck, however many times necessary, and the new material would be cut up. Doing this now is as easy as moving a cursor to the edit point, but with tape, the technique was entirely tactile and manual.
The tape would be rocked back and forth over the tape head to find the precise edit point, which would be marked with a white pencil. The tape would then be released from the machine heads and then run through an editing block which would hold it in place and allow it to be sliced by a razor which would be guided by a perpendicular groove. This isolated piece would then be spliced together with another piece of tape and this process would be repeated over and over, resulting in the final “edit.”
Most of the records that were edited were produced with a sequencer on a fixed tempo grid, so an editor would have to make sure the tempo of his edits matched it. The start of a single bar would be marked on the tape and the distance to the next marked bar would be measured. Using a calculator, the distance in millimeters for 1/4 notes, 1/8 notes and 1/16 notes could be determined. This process, also known as “bullet editing,” was incredibly time-consuming and involved a great deal of imagination. Hearing a new edit, the way it distorted time, was thrilling. Watching these edits play on a reel-to-reel machine, with the myriad of taped-together sections flying by one after the other over the tape heads, was spectacular.
It make sense that the Latin Rascals would first meet at Downtown Records, at the time on Worth Street in Lower Manhattan. Sure, it was record store, but it was so much more, a virtual community center for anyone interested in the sounds of urban New York City. Inside you’d find aspiring artists, producers with demos, indie label guys looking to sell their wax, bedroom DJs looking for the latest releases and even known artists and DJs who benefitted from talking to fans for honest feedback. Downtown specialized in 12-inch vinyl which was, for the most part, one of just two ways to get the latest underground records.
Since most of these artists never went on to get album deals, to possess their music meant buying their record. The other way was, of course, taping these records off of radio mixshows or from your friend. In 1981, Tony Moran was an employee at Downtown and frequently was behind the store’s turntables playing new promos. Anthony Cabrera would come to the store and get his edit-filled mixes played. One day, the programming director from 92.3 WKTU, then known as Disco 92, was in the shop and heard one of these mixes and asked for a copy. In time, The Latin Rascals’ edits were being played on the station and soon after, they would have a daily lunchtime mixshow. As their star grew, they moved to 98.7 Kiss-FM.
Tale of the Tape
The Latin Rascals, Dec. 1985, Kiss-FM, NYC
This recording starts at a slow tempo, and at five seconds in, we immediately hear the Latin Rascals razor blade at work, chopping up the beat from Whodini’s “Friends,” alternating repetitions of the kick and snare and shortly after, doing the same with the synths, and finally at :26 repeating “Friends” just before cutting into Fat Boys’ “Jailhouse Rap,” slickly splicing Buffy’s beat box and some drum rolls, which then lead into the bass line at :37. After four bars of the Fat Boys’ instrumental, we hear their trademark “Stick ‘em…ha ha ha” which is followed by the Rascals mixing in in Kurtis Blow’s “AJ Scratch” on top of Buffy’s beat boxing for eight bars.
At :59 in, the Rascals chop up pieces from three records, including “Jailhouse Rap,” using a series of quarter note, eight note and triplet edits, culminating in a stuttered flurry that leads into the payoff—a series of edits of another huge hip-hop hit of the day, Run-DMC’s “Rock Box.” But instead of the original vocal version, we hear the dub from the 12-inch, embellished with a simple, shimmering synth line, courtesy of the Latin Rascals’ keyboard-playing friend Lil’ Sammy, who added yet another dimension to the dynamics of The Latin Rascals radio show.
After several bars of the “Rock Box” dub, the Rascals take Run’s “huh!” vocal and repeat it in a funky syncopated 16th note pattern and then throw in some pitched-down edits of the record’s hard rock guitar that finally segue into a flair of snare hits and the crunching 808 beat from “It’s Yours.” They chop up and mix it with drums from Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s “Fast Life,” speaking through T-La Rock’s voice by re-working his words, reminding us to “listen” but also dedicating what they’re doing to the listeners—“it’s yours.” Indeed, there is so much going on here, and more to come, that it makes sense to them to remind us to pay attention. But true to the spirit of hip-hop, we then hear them boasting by adding Jocelyn Brown’s line “we are one” from “Somebody Else’s Guy.”
At 2:25 they blend in another beat for two bars and then, using a line from Whodini’s anthemic “Five Minutes of Funk,” remind us that the goal here is fun: “get in the groove, and feel the sound,” repeated three times and followed by the intro piece to “Five Minutes of Funk” edited back and forth with another vocal piece until, at 2:44 we hear another 808 drum section. After two bars of yet another instrumental piece that ends in a quick pass of eight note edits, the Rascals engage in some more playful vocal overdubs, using acapella pieces from the S.O.S. Band’s “Just the Way You Like It,” Bambaataa’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (“beat this!”), Strafe’s “Set It Off” (“partaaay”) and Rockers Revenge “Walking On Sunshine” (“do it, do it”).
At 3:07, the Rascals bring in another favorite of theirs, the hard-as-hell electro banger “Automan” by Newcleus, and continue to repeat the previously heard acapella bits, but introducing additional ones: “get up!” from J.R. Funk & The Love Machine’s “Feel Good Party Time,” and “oww!” from Konk’s “Konk Party,” adding in layers of other current electro records, including “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” and “Funk Box Party” by Masterdon Committee (“it will make you go”). The edited section climaxes with an elongated scream from James Brown from the record “Unity” he did with Bambaataa.
The Rascals raise the level a notch at 3:28, again engaging in some clever word-play to dap themselves up, repeating lines from Pumpkin & The All-Stars’ “Here Comes That Beat” (“we are”) with Chic’s “good!” and then changing it up with “we are… out of control” (from Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1981), while underneath the groove from “Automan” gets the razor blade. At 3:37, the Rascals introducer a dizzying flurry of 16th note edits, interspersed with some quick vocal pieces, increasing the tempo, at 3:50 cutting in some reverse edits. Come 3:52 we hear the guitar stab and beat from Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” repeated into a roll, while the Rascals declare through vocal overdubs “and now…we rock ya” (from Nairobi’s “Funky Soul Makossa”), leading into yet another instrumental piece with the vocal sample “hot damn, here I am” overdubbed.
Following is a barrage of instrumental pieces, stuttered and peppered with a “stick ‘em!” vocal piece from the Fat Boys, the horn stab from “Scratchin’” by Magic Disco Machine and a small piece of Art of Noise’s “Beatbox,” crescendoing into more word-play, as the Rascals ask the listeners using Flea’s “Hard Rock,” “say who could it be… say what?… say who could it be… everybody,” to which they answer with a silky smooth “The Latin Rascals,” followed by a sinister laugh.
After another section of some beat edits, at 4:33 we hear the drum section of “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” also embellished with keys by Lil’ Sammy. In the background we hear more overdubbed samples. At 4:50, they break the beat down into the percussive intro to the Dominatrix record and let it play uninterrupted until 5:34 when we hear some more razor blade action as a series of edits takes us into the beat from another massive 808 anthem, Strafe’s “Set It Off,” also overdubbed with Lil’ Sammy’s organ synth, which fades out at 6:19, at which time we hear the bass line. With only a few simple edits and some flanging effect, the Rascals finally let a song play out almost in its entirety until 10:49 when a “hit it” abruptly shakes us out of our Strafe-induced groove.
After the vocal piece “alright alright” from Strafe, a drum roll leads into a edited repetition of a familiar orchestral burst which quickly reveals itself as the beginning of “Love Ride” by Nuance feat. Vicki Love, a funky R&B/club record with a rhythmic and sonic similarity to “Rock Box.” We hear Kiss-FM’s signature station ID—“ninety eight seven Kiss master mix”—and again, the Rascals let the song breathe, adding a minimal amount of edits. But at 13:15, the Rascals go back to work, cutting up “Love Ride” in places that have vocals, creating a sustained delay effect, then editing to create a drum roll which leads into a section of drum edits. The drums loop, over which the Rascals mix in “Automan” again. These two records mix in and out of each other for a while, and then at 16:53, on top of them, we hear a third record, “Seven Minutes of Funk,” which comes in and out. Yet another drum track is brought in on top of “Automan,” and at 17:18 we hear the acapella intro to “What Are We Gonna Do” by the Ultimate 3 MC’s.
At 21:18, Kiss-FM host Jerry Young takes a quick mic break, announcing the station, reiterating the record’s refrain “what are we gonna do about it?” and answering “well we’re going to enjoy it.” As soon as he’s done talking, we hear “Automan” yet again, mixed in with the Ultimate 3 MC’s. At 22.28, the Rascals start to blend in Doug E. Fresh’s “Original Human Beat Box,” and both records, layered, are chopped up into a roll that introduces Doug’s solo beat boxing. Razor-extended drums roll, at 24:34, into Doug’s “break it down” which the Rascals slice into 16th notes and gradually pitch down. They then hit us with some drum edits of UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” and then the vocals.
Under a mic break—Jerry Young wishing everyone a merry Christmas—we hear Captain Rock’s “Cosmic Blast” mixed over the UTFO drums, which plays out untouched until the record’s human beat box section (31:10), where the Rascals go to work, rearranging the beat box patter by slicing up the kick and snare pieces—one of the funkier editing sections of the show, restrained and fresh. Following is the Force M.D.’s “Forgive Me Girl,” extended and dubbed-out with some edits, followed by Nolan’s “Little Brother,” another proto-freestyle record, also peppered with some funky edits, particularly at 38:36 and also at 41:28, when the Rascals throw down some slick reverse tape edits. At 42:53 we hear the drums from Les Love & The Love Kids “Let’s Get It On,” continuing the combination of hard electro beats and sappy vocals. From 46:26 to 47:47 the Rascals chop elements from several records and then mix in the dub of an unidentified record .
At 49:05, a section of Man Parrish’s “Boogie Down Bronx” that features a synthesized whistle melody is mixed in, in key, and tempo is raised with what sounds like an original drum program by the Latin Rascals, overdubbed with several vocal pieces from various records—“that’s right” from Silver Convention’s “Get Up and Boogie,” “keep on pushing harder” from Rockers Revenge “Harder They Come,” “break!” from Arthur Baker’s “Breakers Revenge,” “don’t stop, don’t stop” from Tony Lee’s “Reach Up,” “party people” from “Planet Rock” “just feel it” from Hashim’s “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” and “uh” from Naorobi’s “Funky Soul Makossa.”
At 50:44 the Rascals loop up a piece from Hashim’s electro banger “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” and let Lil’ Sammy go to work on the keys again. There’s a brief interruption with a repeated piece of the line “one more shot” from C-Bank’s record with the same name, after which Lil’ Sammy continues his keyboard escapade while Man Parrish’s “Hip-Hop Be Bop” gets briefly blended in at 52:12, followed by the Dominatrix drums and then the analog sound bursts from “Funky Soul Makossa” by Nairobi. At 53:13, a flurry of 16th note edits of the snare from “Out of Touch” bring us into the Arthur Baker’s remix dub of the Hall & Oates’ hit, which the Rascals let breathe and then segue into the vocal version and finally, some more dubbed edits at 55:37, culminating in the Rascals eviscerating the drums at 58:09 and vocals at 58:36.
After mixing in and out of a few rhythmic instrumental pieces, we hear another monster blending in at 1:04:11—Shannon’s “Give Me Tonight.” Just when we expect to hear the chorus come in at 1:05:12, the Rascals apply razor to tape and go on a dub fest, repeating vocal sections, making Shannon sound ecstatic, and overdubbing different elements from other sections of the record in what sounds like controlled mayhem, before bringing the song back in from the top of the first verse. This extended version of “Give Me Tonight” ends abruptly with a kick drum processed with a massive reverb, almost sounding like a bomb, followed by “one two three four five six, do it!” from The Disco Four’s “Do It Do it,” and more beat box from Buffy of The Disco 3 aka Fat Boys in “Human Beat Box,” which gets sliced and diced lovely.
At 1:13:37, the Rascals perfectly blend Buffy’s beat box with the drums from Fantasy Three’s “It’s Your Rock” which gets layered with Greg Nice’s beat box section and the vocal version T-La Rock’s “It’s Yours” as well as parts of Kurtis Blow’s “AJ Scratch,” all sliced, rearranged and layered only like the Rascals could. At the 1:21:54 mark, “Five Minutes of Funk” gets dropped and immediately cut up into several new patterns until the bass line bumps. After a verse, more edits ensue, delay is applied to vocals and the result is an extended vocal dub.
The Latin Rascals’ influence on modern music does not get stated enough, their megamixes were the benchmark. A decade later, DJs would finally start to produce impressive long-form mixes using samplers, tuntables and 4-track audio recorders. Almost two decades later, digital platforms like ProTools and Ableton Live would really open things up. The tape edit club lost its exclusivity and both the cut-up and mash-up aesthetic became a part of our everyday musical vernacular. Many of today’s producers and DJs may not be aware of the Rascals’ influence, which is ok. The music knows.
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An incomplete list of the records used in this mix:
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force “Renegades of Funk”
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force “Planet Rock”
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force “Looking for the Perfect Beat”
Arthur Baker “Breakers Revenge”
C-Bank “One More Shot”
Captain Rock “Cosmic Blast”
Chic “Good Times”
Dominatrix “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight”
Doug E. Fresh “Original Human Beat Box”
Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde “Fast Life”
Fat Boys “Jailhouse Rap”
Fat Boys “Human Beat Box”
Fat Boys “Stick ‘Em”
Freeze “Pop Goes My Love”
Flea “Hard Rock”
Hall & Oates “Out of Touch”
Hashim “Al-Naafirsh” (The Soul)
Hashim “We’re Rocking the Planet”
J.R. Funk & The Love Machine’s “Feel Good Party Time”
James Brown & Afrika Bambaataa “Unity”
Jocelyn Brown “Somebody Else’s Guy”
Konk “Konk Party”
Kurtis Blow “AJ Scratch”
Les Love & The Love Kids “Let’s Get It On”
Loleatta Holloway “Crash Goes Love”
Man Parrish “Boogie Down Bronx”
Man Parrish “Hip-Hop Be Bop”
Masterdon Committee “Funk Box Party”
Nairobi “Funky Soul Makossa”
Nolan “Little Brother”
Nuance feat. Vicki Love “Love Ride”
Pressue Drop “Rock the House”
Pumpkin & The All -Stars “Here Comes That Beat”
Rockers Revenge “Harder They Come”
Rockers Revenge “Walking on Sunchine”
Run-DMC “Rock Box”
Run-DMC “Sucker MCs”
S.O.S. Band “Just the Way You Like It”
Shannon “Give Me Tonight”
Silver Convention “Get Up and Boogie”
Strafe “Set It Off”
T-La Rock & Jazzy Jay “It’s Yours”
Tony Lee “Reach Up”
UTFO “Rocanne Roxanne”
Ultimate 3 MC’s “What Are We Gonna Do About It”
Whodini “Seven Minutes of Funk”
Thank you to DJ Riz (@DJRizNYC) for his uncannily encyclopedic knowledge which saved me a lot of time detailing this mix.