Part Time Rap Star, Full Time Drug Dealer
DJ Too Tuff, one of hip-hop’s most skilled DJs, ended up in a desperate world of hustling and crime—getting shot, pistol whipped and kidnapped, until a cancer diagnosis in prison provided an escape
Philadelphia’s DJ Too Tuff impressed the hip-hop world with his lightning-fast scratches for Tuff Crew, most famously on their 1988 hit “My Part Of Town.” When the group found themselves broke and without a record deal, Too Tuff turned to hustling to survive, all the while attempting to rebuild his music career. What followed was a treacherous journey through the malicious underbelly of urban life. The following is a portion of Too Tuff’s remarkable experiences in the Badlands of North Philly and beyond:
“I grew up in North Philly, in Kensington, in the Badlands. I was one of the only white kids in my neighborhood. My mom used to take me down to the record store when I was little, and I would buy one or two Sugarhill Gang records or Treacherous Three, Funky Four Plus One More, maybe The Sequence. That’s how I was first introduced to the Philly hip-hop scene at Funk-O-Mart, which was a store which used to specialize in DJ equipment and records. There was a show on TV called Graffiti Rock. Seeing Run and DMC and Jam-Master Jay in the back, actually cutting live? That was crazy to me.
I was playing football for St. Joe’s Prep, which is a Jesuit prep school I graduated from. It’s the best Philly high school, it was crazy expensive when I went there. I was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I saved up and bought some turntables. One of my friends that I used to play football with, his name was Yo-Yo. His real name was Anthony Ray, and he was murdered in 1997. That’s the person that taught me how to cut. I cut with my mixer on the left and both my turntables on the right, and Yo-Yo used to cut with both turntables on the left, so we used to just use one mixer and four turntables and just go back and forth in the middle of the park.
He put a bug in my ear about who Jazzy Jeff was, who Cash Money was, who Lightnin’ Rich was, because I had no idea about any of that stuff. Cash Money ‘Echo Scratch’ or DJ Spinbad cutting ‘Funky Scratch.’ Nobody was selling mixtapes, so you just had to come across it by having a copy of a copy, or maybe Power 99 might play it. Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff and Terminator X are the three DJs that I really tried to take a little piece of and model myself as a combination of all three.
We used to hang at a place around the way called the Boom Bop Barbershop. Used to have little splash party battles and used to have block parties on Memorial Day with Mega Force. Mega Force is a company in Philly that’ll come and set-up speakers and blow every house off of the block. In Philly, before the DJ came out, there were sound crews that used to run around with big-ass SWAT vans and they had speakers stacked in there at a place called The Plateau. That’s what Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince was talking about, ‘There’s a place called The Plateau, where everybody go.’ That’s how hip-hop in Philly started, out in the park.
There was a park called Hart Park and we all had keys to it, so we used to go and do breakdance battles, motherfuckers had linoleum out there on the ground, and me and Yo-Yo had big-ass speakers. At this time, breakdancing and graffiti had more of an influence than hip-hop, it was a total culture shock to people. Once we saw Beat Street, it was on! We would put an extension cord out in the front of the fuckin’ house or onto the basketball court and just play out there. We started going to dollar house parties, and Ice would come and rhyme at ‘em. At this point, my MC is MC Mechanism when we do parties in the street or DJ battles.
One time we’re out in the park and this dude pulls up in a limo and he says he’s putting together a rap group. It was Street City Rockers at the time — SCR Nation. The mayor of Philadelphia used to have an anti-graffiti network, and he would hire hip-hop groups to perform at anti-graffiti network parties to try to curb any kind of violence where they thought it was gonna be a gang thing. So the boy that drove up in the limo, that’s Tony Mitchell. He ended up being the CEO of Soo Def records, him and another gentleman named Calvin Fats, who had a bunch of money and was a hood legend. Him and Mitch basically supplied the money to take a chance on us. He just had an idea that he was wanted to find some young boys that could rap.
I was hungry as shit to be a DJ. Tuff Crew already had a DJ, his name was Shiver. I had to battle Shiver at parties we would do. Shiver couldn’t scratch for shit, but his dad owned a limousine company so we used to get limousine rides. His time was short-lived once I came on the scene. Once I became the official DJ for Tuff Crew I went the fuck off. I knew I wasn’t going to get to say anything, so in between the rhymes, wherever that eight bar break is? You better speak the fuck up. When I was with DJ Yo-Yo my name was DJ Spin, and before that it was Disco Joe. The first time that I performed with Tuff Crew at the New York vs. Philly battle, Tone Love named me ‘Too Tuff.’ When we made ‘Smooth Momentum,’ Ice [Dog] named me ‘The Detonator.’
Krown Rulers were from Camden, but Poo [MC Grand Poobah, not to be confused with the Puba from Brand Nubian and Masters of Ceremony] was my man. We ended up meeting at this show over at Skateland and we put him on the team and recorded ‘Kick The Ball.’ This was in ‘87. Warlock picked us up. Tuff Crew’s first album was called Phanjam and Krown Rulers was the ones that ended up with the fuckin’ hit off the album—‘Kick The Ball’—we used to feel like dickheads! Like, ‘Damn! Them niggas bust our ass on our own fuckin’ album!’ Our shit wasn’t co-produced by Ultramagnetic, that was new shit. ‘Kick The Ball’ was fuckin’ bangin’, dog!
So when we finally got our chance to do a solo album and we did Danger Zone, we were like, ‘This is our answer to that.’ Over a period of time, you develop an ego. There was times we used to feel underappreciated. When we came out [with ‘My Part Of Town’] it was like, ‘Bang!’ Shit was crazy.
We were still fuckin’ crazy hip-hop fans of everyone when we were coming out. Sometimes we would hear a song like ‘Bring The Noise’ and be like, ‘We should make a joint like a Public Enemy joint!’ We’d go sample some crazy James Brown, uptempo loop and throw some noises behind it, like the chimes on ‘It’s Mad.’ That was us paying homage, not biting their style. Between Phanjam and Danger Zone we had a real close relationship with Ultramagnetic. The influence that they gave us, and the equipment that they let us use and the way that they sampled shit and cut shit down and chopped shit up and put shit together — if there was no Ultramagenetic, there would never be a Tuff Crew.
Each person provided an element that was vital to the chemistry that created Tuff Crew. LA Kid made the beats, so I would feed him breakbeats. He taught me everything I know about making beats. Tone was the leader of Tuff Crew on stage at all times. He could command the crowd, motherfucker’s listened to Tone, he looked flashy. Ice [Dog] was the dopest nigga on the planet. Sneaky, off to the side, but when he come in that shit goes to a whole ‘nother level. Ice used to write a lot of the rhymes, the reason they sound so cohesive. When we did ‘Smooth Momentum,’ Ice wrote that whole rhyme and then broke the verses down. Then with me adding the cuts and being a white boy? That was a tremendous accomplishment at the time. I used to walk in and they’d be like, ‘That’s Too Tuff?’ ‘You motherfuckin’ right!’ I used to go kill that shit. I was the only white boy in there!
‘My Part Of Town,’ combined with the sales of the albums equaled around 3.5 million. We signed with William Morris agency, and they were booking us shows with Tone Loc and De La Soul down South and the money wasn’t coming back correctly. Mitch had a lot to do with the break-up as well, because he pitted us against each other. Making it available to us to have drum machines and a place to make music, enabled us to be what we were, and he probably took as much money as he wanted from those ventures, because we never really got everything that we should’ve been paid.
“We started to work on Still Dangerous [the fourth album] and that’s when the break-up happened because that’s when the contracts ran out. Tuff Crew’s contracts as individuals with Tony Mitchell were up as far as management were concerned, but the contract between Soo Def and Warlock called for one more Tuff Crew album. Tony Mitchell was in a bind because he was on the hook to Adam Levy from Warlock. Me and Tone Love left the group and we ended up doing a project called Danger Zone Mobb Squad. It was a single called ‘Flip’n Keeloz’ and the other side was ‘T.L. Back To Yell’ with Mad G on Sure Shot Records.
Ice Dog eventually resigned with Soo Def Records, cos Tony had a good relationship with Ice’s mom and if he could convince her she could convince Ice. Ice Dog and LA Kidd [Mitchell’s nephew] went back and did the last album as Tuff Crew. They were down a DJ and an MC, so they went and got some white boy to be the DJ. There was three or four different motherfuckers that they tried to get to replace me. Anybody could have been Tuff Crew at that point. As long as Ice Dog was there? That’s all they were worried about. Then they made Smooth K, who used to be a dancer for us, the second lead rapper! They put him in Tone’s spot, and then Smooth K was talking shit on the album. Tuff Crew was at war with each other!
By ‘94 the Tuff Crew had completely fallen apart. Tony Mitchell disappeared from the situation, and we haven’t seen him again since. He owed a lotta drug dealers money for taking money off of them to get the project funded initially and then he got behind the 8-ball with too many people so he decided it would be best to just make himself disappear. There was turmoil in the hood. They was like, ‘Damn, y’all are fuckin broke? What happened to y’all?’ It’s kinda fucked-up when you’re famous as shit in your own city and you’re broke. You’re album is playing on the radio in rotation—massively—and you’re struggling on the corner, selling crack.
I started to get locked-up at that time. I was on probation from a direct sale to the narcotics officers when I used to hustle on Fairhill and Somerset. I was one of the few white boys that had enough the heart to go and do that shit. That was a major drug corner, you couldn’t stick that up. That was made men—Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. I would go and grind everyday on the corner, because at this point down the way in North Philly, drug sales were booming. I would go to work from seven at night to midnight. I began to hustle crack, heroin, powder, weed, everything—on the block. When I say, ‘on the block,’ none of them drugs were mine. You would go to a corner and they would give you a shift, just like you would work a shift at Walmart. If you were five minutes late? Somebody already took your shift and you can go home.
When I would start my shift they would give me 48 bundles of heroin. In each bundle of heroin there was thirteen bags. I would sell $130 of dope from one bundle. I’d take $110 and give it to the boy, and I’d keep $20. But there was a caseworker who was above me; so when I come into work, I gotta to sell ten bundles of dope for free, for him. Ten bundles of dope go in an hour or less. Then for the next hour I would sell ten bundles of dope for me. I also had crack and I also had powder, that was all their shit. I would make between $400 and $1,200 on a given night. We used to work in all black with coal miner lights on our heads, and they had a wire that ran down our coats to our belt clip, where it had an on and off switch. In winter it would be dark by 4:30, so by 7 o’clock you’re working in pitch black shit.
There were a lot of narcotics officers around there that used to undercover buy, so we used to ask every customer, ‘How do you do your drugs? Do you shoot it or sniff it?’ If they said they sniff it, we’d say, ‘Alright, sniff a bag in front of me and then you can cop the rest.’ If they said, ‘I shoot it,’ we’d make them pull up their sleeves so we could see the track marks. The money was great, but that’s when I started to develop an addiction to chaos. Being in that situation and that area, you start to become immune to violence and addiction and ruthless behavior and robberies and stick-up boys.
I got shot on that corner. It was a dispute about $1,800. It was a neighborhood beef over some bulshit weed that I sold to one of my customers. It was ten pounds of weed but they said there was a pound and a half in duct tape and half a pound of seeds in there, so when he opened the weed it was like popcorn. So the boy wanted his money back. I went to the [other] boy and asked him for the money reasonably. He wouldn’t give me the money, so I asked him to give me two pounds of weed to replace it and he told me, ‘Bring the loot back.’ I called him back and said, ‘I ain’t bringing no loot back, dog, cos you owe me that.’ So he got mad. It was a good friend of mine, I worked with him for years. He knew that I had the money to pay him back, but it was the principal of the situation, because I felt like he gave me some shoddy shit.
One of my boys said, ‘Wakeem just drove by, he knows that you out here.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck! Whatever happens, happens.’ I get back to serving my customers, and about twenty minutes later he pops up with a fuckin’ Mac 10 machine gun joint. He was Dominican and he didn’t speak English too good, so everyone knew me as Too Tuff, but he knew who Tupac was, so he was like, ‘Tupac! You got my money Tupac?’ I’m like, ‘Tupac? My name ain’t no fuckin’ Tupac!’ So he just started shootin’! The first shot that he let off hit me in my thigh and came out through the other end of my leg, but it didn’t go through my pants. The slug of the bullet fell into my fuckin’ sneaker! I’m limping over there and I’m preparing to get six more bullets in my back, and when I looked back, I seen him over there tussling with the gun. The gun jammed!
We had a gun on the block, it was a sawn-off shotgun but the butt of the gun was gone, so when you shot it you had to hold it right away from your body otherwise it would hit you right in the face from the kick. I went and got the gun but I wasn’t gonna shoot him back. I’m not stupid enough to murder somebody, and neither was he. He could have shot me in the fuckin’ head. Then this dude pulls up on a white Ninja motorcycle and the boy jumps on the back of the bike and he says, ‘Next time I’ll kill you, Tupac!’ They drove away on the motorcycle, doing a wheelie. Recently, the boy that shot me, his sister set him up because he had five kilos of heroin. They overdosed him and dragged him under the railroad tracks in Philly and left him laying there. So he’s dead and his sister and them are locked-up for life.
The drug game was booming, and I ran into this person named Dino, and Dino had a whole lotta money. He said he wanted me to do a party for him. It was all kind of fish tanks and leather couches and gold chandeliers, bitches running around the house all crazy, everybody smoking weed. About a week after I did that party he asked if I wanted to work for him. I began cleaning his house, feeding the fish and walking the dogs. He would give me $250 a week. Then he was like, ‘I’ve got some other things I want you to do for me.’ He took me downstairs and he had about 300 pounds of weed. He was like, ‘I want you to take the weed, bag it up until everything’s one pound each. Take my car, take these ten pounds and go deliver to this person.’ After a month or two they hired my friend Terik to be the driver. We ran around doing the weed thing for a while and we made a whole lotta money out of that.
[Dino] bought me two cars and I was his right-hand man. He would send me to get on the airplane, go to various locations which were outta state, like in Phoenix, with an undisclosed amount of money on me. Pick up what I had to pick up and fly back on US Air or East/West Airlines to an undisclosed location in Philly, bag it up, go to the hotel with it, sleep overnight in the hotel with the weed, and the next day deliver it to everybody who he had in the little black book for his customers. Out of 300 pounds of weed, I would give 250 pounds out on credit, and for the rest of the month I would have to chase them around to get that money back. I was the collections dude with the strength behind me—he had a team of murderers that he would pay them a couple of dollars and they would be on some hitman shit.
I was still doing music, producing beats and scratching, but I had a full-time job, and that was drug dealer. Nobody ever fucked with me, because they knew that Dino had my back. I used to ride around with between $10,000 and $165,000 in my car at any given time during the week, and nobody ever stuck me up. He never let me have any time to myself, I was pretty much a hostage. I was very well paid and well dressed—I was a highly respected hostage.
I was his right-hand man, but he used to treat me like shit. He used to be kinda jealous, because people would still recognize me as Too Tuff. He would be sitting in the front of an Escalade and I would sit in the passenger seat and his customers and people he was dealing with would see me on the other side and be like, ‘Yo, Too Tuff! What’s up dog!’ and come and talk to me. He got mad at that and he eventually said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna buy a property and make you a studio.’ That sounded good to me, that way I could ease out of this drug shit and have a full-time studio to work at.
So he buys a property on Kensington Avenue. Philadelphia Police Department had ‘Operation Sunrise’ at the time, and they used to have a strike force that would just take over a fuckin’ corner and just shut it down, so he called the studio Sunrise Studios to mock the police. He invested so much money in equipment that within four or five days he had a whole professional studio. We did work there with Black Thought and M.A.R.S. Co-Op and a variety of people from the neighborhood. He hired an engineer to work downstairs and we actually put out an album, Sunrise Studio Presents. He gave me a studio that was on the second floor, but I never got to use it because I was always running around trying to collect money for him. I took eighteen crates of my records to that studio, because I was going to live there so I could do the weed shit and when I was done just stay there and make beats. He had told one of the interns to take all my records out my crates and put them all in alphabetical order. There was twelve years worth of records, I had doubles of everything, and the records just mysteriously disappeared!
All of this was basically to show me that I wasn’t shit. This was for him to one-up Too Tuff and show me that all it took was money to make himself a rapper. He had a mural of himself painted on the wall of the studio, he had a custom rug that had red and white letters that said ‘Sunrise Studios’ that cost $10,000. It was fuckin’ crazy. There was a group called the Wise Wale’s, and they came in and stuck the studio up while we wasn’t around and stole half of the drum machines out of there at gun-point. After that, we unloaded all of the equipment and took it back to 8th Street Music and sold all of it! It was $80,000 worth of recording equipment and he got back maybe $15,000 for it.
Six months after I started working for Dino, we’re bagging up at his house and there’s a knock on the door. I look out the peephole and say, ‘There’s fuckin’ three gas men out there in full uniform.’ I didn’t want to be the one to open the door and then get fuckin’ pistol whipped later on that night because they turned the gas off. So my buddy Terik opens the door and the fuckin’ gas men run in with Uzi’s and Mac 11’s—they were stick-up boys! Me and Dino and Terik ran out the front door! They had his wife hostage in there. We go and call the cops and there’s a hostage situation in the house, so there’s a million fuckin’ cops out there, a SWAT team and all types of other shit. The stick-up boys went out the back and climb over the fence. There was a big parking lot behind there and the cops were right here waiting for them.
They had twelve pounds of weed on them, so now the cops are like, ‘Who owns this house?’ Dino’s like, ‘I own it. We’re the ones that called you!’ So they’re like, ‘Put your hands behind your back! You’re being arrested for possession of marijuana!’ I go and bail him out and he says, ‘I’m going to go stay at The Comfort Inn, I want you to live at the house. I’ve already been contacted by the people that stuck us up. They want me to not press charges.’ One of the dudes had 25 years parole or something, so he would have gone to jail for the rest of his life for his third strike. Now I’m living at the house, and every morning there would different payment in the mailbox. Sometimes it was $1,000, sometimes it was $5,000, sometimes it was an ounce of coke, sometimes it was a roll of ecstasy tablets.
He was a real violent person. The people that he was closest with were the people he was the most abusive to, and I was the closest one to him other than his wife—and she used to get her fuckin’ ass whipped, and so did I! Mine wouldn’t be so severe, I would just get smacked in the face with a gun and then he would drive me to the hospital to get stitches. I put up with that shit because he wouldn’t allow me to fuckin’ quit. I started saving up money to have him killed. I used to listen to that Smif ‘N Wessun album and plot on murdering him. I actually had $10,000 saved up. I didn’t actually want him murdered, I just wanted him to leave me alone.
One of the Jamaican dudes that he used to have a connection with, he got into a little war with them about some missing money and the Jamaican dude came to me and he said, ‘You wanna work for me? You ain’t gotta work for him no more.’ So now I was working for Dino’s boss. But for me to get away from Dino and work for the Jamaicans, I had to act like I wasn’t doing anything. He would come and check up on me, send someone to my house and pull the coil wires out of the engine of my car so it wouldn’t start!
Before the World Trade Center got blown up, flying on an airplane with shit on you was a whole lot easier than it is now. My boy Andrew [one of the Jamaicans] was a great manager, he could have managed a Fortune 500 company. He would tell me, ‘You a white boy, all you ‘afta do is put a suit on. You ‘ave a haircut, you gonna ‘ave some USA Today paper in your hand, brand new clothes, them boy not even pay you no mind. You gonna have the weed on ya in two big bag, we gonna wrap it up nice. No dog gonna come to you, no police gonna come to you, you gonna walk straight through. Them not know if you politician, actor, state representative, businessman. We got people watching ya back where you come from and where you bring it to. Don’t worry ‘bout nuthin, everything gonna be official!’ I did that 27 times. Every time I did it, they gave me $3,800, and all I did was go on vacation for four days and bring weed on the way back. I’d spend money the whole time I was there so it was fuckin’ lovely.
I always knew that something could happen so I would go to happy hour, then I would go to the sauna, then I would go to the pool, then I would buy shit at the mall and have a good nights sleep, because if they lock me up I’m gonna be away for a long, long time! I’d go to the bar in the airport, get two Bloody Mary’s with a shot of Stoli vodka and I’d be halfway there. As far as the hand-to-hand stuff? I had moved into the management level. I was still a fuckin’ drug mule, but it was better than standing on the corner. A year later I bought a house and a car, everything was alright. Then the Jamaicans dudes that I was working for got arrested for taking cocaine to the United Kingdom. Now they wanted me to do that shit. Instead of taking money to Phoenix and bringing back drugs, they want me to take drugs to the United Kingdom and bring back money. I was like, ‘This is getting way too heavy.’
After I had stopped working with him for about four years, [Dino] came back around one day and said, ‘Yo, somebody said that you still have a connect in California? Get in the car!’ So he kidnapped me and drives to Phoenix, Arizona—this is a 2,000 mile drive—and it took about six days for us to get there. He would not let me out of that car. I wouldn’t show him the connect that the Jamaicans showed me—I’m not going to get myself assassinated! Then he tells me that he’s dying of lung cancer. He had started to develop an opiate addiction, because the doctors put him on oxycontin and percacet, and he wanted to come to Mexico to ride a fuckin’ horse! We go there and he rides a horse, and he bought all of this cowboy gear. Snakeskin cowboy boots for $2,000, he bought a cowboy hat for $800 and walked around Philly for a couple of weeks dressed like a cowboy! I guess he was trying to start a trend or something.
A couple of people told me that he was dead and they went and visited his tombstone. A couple of other people said, ‘He’s not dead! Are you crazy? He was just here the other day!’ Other people told me they saw him driving around in a shitty-ass Toyota 1.8. Somebody told me that he’s in the witness protection program and that the Feds have given him a new identity. Dino is now like the legend of Tupac! He could be alive in Aruba, or he’s dead. I’m just glad that he ain’t the fuck around me no more!
Some dude lent me his car, and in return I lent him two crates of my records. Come to find out the car that he gave me was a fuckin’ stolen car and the engine died! So he didn’t want to speak to me no more, but he had my records. There was this girl Heather that was into hip-hop before any white chicks were into hip-hop. She had a White Sox hat, and she took off part of the the “O” so that it said “Sex.” It was hot as shit. We told her to call him and she met him at this place called Silk City, which was a hip-hop club. I told her, ‘Go tell him that you’re going to give him some pussy.’ So we grabbed his ass and tried to put him in the fuckin’ trunk. He was struggling, so we had to fuck him up to get him to get in the fuckin’ trunk. He jumped out of the trunk and ran up the block.
I got charged with kidnapping, but I didn’t get found guilty. That same club was where I got charged with cracking the shit outta some boy in 2009 [for putting a beer on top of a pile of CDs that Too Tuff was selling] and was arrested for six months later. They locked me up for eleven months, and while I was in there they diagnosed me with thyroid cancer. I went through two cancer surgeries, and the prison system felt they didn’t want to pay for my chemotherapy treatment, so I hired some lawyers and they got my bail dropped from $35,000 to zero. They put in a motion to have me released so I could get my chemotherapy and I came home. I was lucky to have never been arrested while working on that drug corner, and I was lucky to have never been part of an indictment, because a lot of my friends ended up doing a lot of time. Some of them haven’t seen the light of day since 1996.
Ice Dog is a police officer in Philly now, Tone Love got a couple of little things going on in Germantown. LA Kid got married recently to Bunny from L’Trimm, so he lives in Indianapolis now. I’m the only one that really goes on the streets with the music and continually screams Tuff Crew. I do four to eight shows a month, I do a Tuff Crew greatest hits set all the time.
One thing is certain through all of this: hip-hop has been the savior of my life, through every triumph and every heartbreak. Every time that I was locked up, every time I was laying in a hospital bed, every time I ran out of money, hip-hop has always been there for me.
Hip-hop has been the constant, the lifeline to my whole entire existence. It’s what I fall back on for strength and forgiveness, what I use for motivation and for a victory march. Hip-hop: I can’t tell you anything more true than that.”
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DJ Too Tuff beat cancer and continues to perform and record in Philly to this day. He released some of his favorite post-Tuff Crew productions on the ‘DJ Too Tuff’s Lost Archives’ CD, with help from his friend DJ Z-Trip.
Connect with DJ Too Tuff on his Facebook page