Hitman Howie Tee, Fresh Gordon, and the 80s Producers That Connected Hip-Hop
The world of Rap was once a small, interconnected community. Why aren’t those connectors spoken of more often?
That name ring a bell? Maybe if you watched RD20 more than five times like I did, you caught DJ Clark Kent mention him. Outside of that, unless you were deep into Rap in the mid-80s, you may not know the name.
Which is sad. We would not have the Rap world that we have today without many of these producer/connectors of the 80s. And we not talking no “unsung” shit either. More like a lack of respect for the foundation…while living in the penthouse.
Let’s try to rectify that. Let’s quickly look at a bygone era, an era that’s just as important to understand now as it was then.
Maybe that’ll make you wonder why. We’ll see.
If you wanted to get involved in Silicon Valley, you wouldn’t just jump in all Willy Nilly.
In your mind, it would be important to know not just the valuation of modern companies, as impressive as the numbers may be. No. You would study the deals that were made for companies at least back to the early 2000s. Most tech savvy entrepreneurs already know that stuff. They keep that info close like baseball fans keep RBI stats.
Knowing how we arrived in the billion dollar deal world is important for the person who is looking to get that same billion. The tech savvy entrepreneur would know the VCs, know the Y Connector deals, all that. It would help he or she know what they’re worth.
Not so with rap.
The “you still taking deals…after what they did to our Lauryn Hills” line comes to mind.
Rap fans…which most rappers remain even after years in the BUSINESS continue to do the same thing — live in the moment, thinking that it will not end — but it always does.
By luck, chance, hard work, or some combination of all three, the rapper rises above the fray and takes a place among the people that they once admired. They finally are able to buy the things that they saw their idols buy and go to the places they once longed to go.
Then it’s over and they’re forgotten.
Makes sense for the person that just puts out that one hot hit, the one that’s been rapping for a year, the one trying to follow trends.
It makes absolutely no sense for the people who laid the foundation to be forgotten.
The internet! The internet!
The internet is the catch all phrase for all-things technology. That technology and change all revolves around the personal computer.
The personal computer was once a novelty machine for playing games, typing up papers, or you could take BASIC courses where you programmed the computer to solve simple math equations, count, things like that. But now the personal computer is an integral part of all industries.
For this writing, we’re only dealing with Rap and what the personal computer has done for/to rap.
In 2017 (as we love to say) there is a rapper on every corner and in between those corners are producers. Producers might not equal rappers in number but there are enough of them with signature IDs to realize there are tons. They come and go just as quick as rappers.
You can get a laptop for under $500 on a Friday, cop Fruity Loops…oops, FL Studio online for free, find out the popular plug-ins, stay in that night studying YouTube tutorials, make beats all day on Saturday, upload your favorite ones to SoundCloud on Sunday, and emerge on Monday as a seasoned producer.
But it used to be so much more difficult.
You know who became rappers?
People who couldn’t afford DJ equipment.
According to myth, that’s how it was up until the Blackout of ‘77 — a moment that was dramatized in the Netflix show, The Get Down. After that, legend has it, DJs were a dime a dozen. That’s how, it’s said, the Bronx went from three or four popular crews to several. I don’t know how valid that story is, but it’s the story.
What I do know is, the cost of entry into being a DJ was high. You needed turntables, a mixer, speakers, a record collection — then you needed people: someone to help carry the records, someone to help you set up, you better have security, and lastly…lastly you needed some rappers, plural.
A decade later when the drum machine gave way to the sampler and the DJ became the producer, rappers were trying to get on. The person who had the equipment and the know-how was god.
But many were minor gods — gods of their neighborhood. Thing is, those neighborhoods were the incubators of what would become major gods. DJ/Producer Marley Marl transcends that but he fits the bill. If we were to make a family tree of Queensbridge Rappers, Marley Marl would be that root.
Aside from the fact that Marley Marl was a Rap Radio pioneer, the six degrees of separation from him is simple due to the caliber of MCs (from several eras) that came out of that 3,142 unit complex — MC Shan to Roxanne Shante to Nas — that’s actually two degrees.
The same could be said of Paul C up until his murder in 89. Queens artists Super Lover Cee & Casanova Rud, Organized Konfusion, and most notably Large Professor all worked and learned from Paul C. This is how Large Professor spoke of his tutelage.
He took me out of that tape deck era. He was like, “This is the SP-1200, this is the machine you want to rock with.” He had one at his disposal at his home. One day I went over his home and he sat me down and he was like, “what do you want to do?” I’m like, “I want to take this record and I want to hook this up and I want to hook that up.”
Like Gino Sorcinelli points out, that was the first stage for many producers of that era — making pause tapes. You’ll hear several rappers talk about how they had the ideas on what songs they wanted to sample but lacked the technical acumen. If you know anything about those early samplers, it wasn’t no sitting down and figuring it out overnight type business. If you ain’t have one in your home, it would be impossible to log the amount of hours needed to be a top producer.
The summer of 94 I decided I wanted to transform my love and knowledge of beats into production. Before I left school, my brother Bashir Allah had procured a sampler — I believe an ASR 10.
Our whole crew got in on it. Even old school B-Boy Wakeel Allah recorded a verse or two. I went back to Denver determined to make beats. Thing is…I had no sampler. Only person I knew that did was our brother Sadiq Fard. He also had an Ensoniq model.
I probably clocked a total of four hours all summer on that machine, three of which was spent trying to figure out how to make the damn thing work. Again, we’re talking 1994. Can you imagine trying to learn to make beats on a step sampler in 87?
That’s why having a producer in your neighborhood who had equipment and could make your musical dreams a reality was important. We mentioned a couple of people in Queens, Paul C and Marley Marl and what he did for Queensbridge.
45 King (who made a little song called “Stan” that you may know among countless other hits) breathed life into Irvington, NJ and all the surrounding areas birthing the Flavor Unit. His equipment was in the basement and the destination spot for everyone looking to get a deal.
Meanwhile over in BK, the famous, much smaller (than Queensbridge), 1,705-unit Marcy Projects, we have the same type deal. Perhaps we would have heard more about him if there weren’t a Rap generation between him and one of the most successful rappers to ever do it:
There was a time when Jaz-O was considered the man.
I ain’t like “Hawaiian Sophie” so I had no incentive to investigate his album. But you ain’t arrive at a single/video/album back in ‘89 unless you had already put in work.
Three years prior Jaz had released “HP Gets Busy” on Get Live Records (not sure if it’s the same, Texas Get Live Records or not). He was already known as the man in Marcy and his protege was making a name for himself but I just heard the song for the first time like two days ago. Not sure if it was popular when it was released. Now it’s mostly known because of the protege who had a guest spot — yeah, you know who that is.
That’s right, Jay-Z.
And, even though Dart_Adams posted it a few years back, I just recently heard THIS artifact. According to the YouTube description, the recording is from 1988. We have Jaz-O, the young Jay-Z chilling with the Shirt King Legends, Nike and Phade at Fresh Gordon’s.
I know Fresh Gordon because in 85, we were back in Rap desert Denver and my older brother Ade and I began researching and ordering music. We ordered 12" or albums based on record labels, shot outs on other records, or placement on the rap charts.
Had Choice MC’s been in the record bin we would have bought it based on the album cover alone:
But it wasn’t. We bought Choice MC’s “Beat of the Street/Gordy’s Groove” for two reasons: the Mayberry themed “Gordy’s Groove” had charted, AND it was a Tommy Boy Records release. It had to be good.
And it was. But it was “Beat of the Street” that we preferred — it was harder. The production was handled by Fresh Gordon (he even raps, one of the first producer/rappers in this writer’s estimation).
Apparently, Fresh Gordon…not Choice MCs had the record deal because a year later he dropped “Fresh Commandments/My Fila” sans the other Choice MCs. It’s also apparent that Fresh Gordon had clout with the record label.
In 87, Jaz-O as The Jaz had a single, “I’m in Love,” produced by Fresh Gordon and released on Tommy Boy. It must have been a single deal because according to that YouTube video description and Jaz-O interviews, when he did sign, it was for a large contract with EMI but at the point of this YouTube recording that hadn’t happened yet.
So back to Fresh Gordon’s apartment. They’re shooting the shit, five deep, maybe listening to beats, possibly eating or smoking a joint when things change up.
Enter: Big Daddy Kane.
For all of those who need context, in 1988, Big Daddy Kane was possibly the hottest rapper at the time. This is back when the strongest competition was Rakim (a year removed from Paid in Full) and Kane had dropped Long Live The Kane that featured joints like “Raw” & “Long Live The Kane.”
He was the man.
Kane dropping by Fresh Gordon’s shows Gordon’s stature. The fact that Jaz-O was trying to impress Kane, shows Kane’s clout. Although that YouTube description says Kane was more impressed with Jay-Z, the facts show that may be revisionist.
Jaz-O signed a deal and Jay-Z was yet again a guest rapper. Reasonable Doubt didn’t come out until almost a decade later.
What is clear is Jay-Z was impressive. DJ Clark Kent recalls in that aforementioned RD20 documentary that he was introduced to Jay-Z by Fresh Gordon, one would imagine in a similar set up where everyone was hanging out at Gordon’s.
Fresh Gordon is also associated with a long-forgotten rapper who was huge for a year or so. I’m talking about Father MC who had one of the popular Rap songs of 1990 (there weren’t a lot the fall of that year), “Treat Them Like They Want to be Treated.”
Again, the rap world was a small world. Father MC landed his Uptown deal with a song, “I’ll Do 4 U” which was given to him by his friend, CJ Moore who did engineering work with…Paul C.
Father MC is now known because Jodeci were background singers for him and the executive producer on the album was an ambitious intern, the man then known as Puff Daddy.
Father didn’t just have a single deal, he had an album deal and Fresh Gordon is listed as doing production on one of the tracks and is also credited as an engineer. Another popular producer from south of Atlantic Avenue has similar credits on that album, we’re talking about Howie Tee.
“Howie Tee keeps a nine by his side…”
“And if you keep frontin’ I’ma show you why.”
That might just be the first time I heard a gun referenced in a rap song and I was baffled, by why he would need a 9mm, who “Teed Off” Howie Tee, and why that damn 12" was so hard.
You may have seen the Full Force Unsung or you may listened to Bowlegged Lou on Combat Jack, if you’ve done either of the two, you know how much of a…well…force…Full Force was.
But if you’re not from New York or have never been you may hear ‘Brooklyn’ and think it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone. Nah. Fam. When Brooklynites say “it’s a planet…” believe em.
The distance between Bed Stuy and East Flatbush may only be four miles but trust me when I say it’s a world apart.
First of all, historically, Bed Stuy has been primarily Black folk from the US, while East Flatbush has been home to our brothas and sistas who were taken off the boat earlier in the Caribbean.
Second of all, the styles of homes are different — Bed Stuy is full of brownstones and big ass projects while I would estimate that a majority of East Flatbush homes were built from the 50s on.
Lastly, ain’t no subways in East Flatbush — ya ass gotta catch a Dollar Van…I guess you can do Über or Lyft now but historically…Dollar Van.
It’s a different world.
So when UTFO hit the scene with “Roxanne, Roxanne” East Flatbush had their own champ. The brains behind that were Full Force and an honorary part of their crew, Howie Tee.
These were all neighborhood relationships. I’on’t know where you grew up or what era but if you’re from those early days of Hip-Hop, if someone was doing what you were doing within a five mile radius — be it b-boying, writing, or rapping — you knew them.
Full Force were from a musical family trying to get a record deal. UTFO started out as a dance crew. And Howie Tee was a DJ for a local act, the Sure Shock Four and later a part of CDIII.
Full Force already recorded “Hanging Out,” which was the A-Side release. A B-Side was needed so Kangol Kid went to Howie Tee who had a Roland TR-808, a record playing on the radio, and ideas.
One of those ideas was to have a different beat for each rapper. He and Kangol Kid programmed some beats and Kangol Kid took it in to record. That B-side was “Roxanne, Roxanne” and was arguably one of the most popular songs of the winter of 84 (and still may hold the record as having the most spin off records).
But Howie Tee ain’t get a credit on that. Instead, Kangol Kid put the word in for Full Force who were chief marketers and who had their own spin off of “Roxanne, Roxanne” with the artist to be known as The Real Roxanne. They needed a DJ for her and that became Howie Tee.
Man, shot out to Vinyl Esquire and their Wax Facts interview with Howie Tee. Their interview answered so many questions that I had and Howie Tee is humble and honest about the role that he played. Good answers always lead to more questions for me…and I have a ton.
Most importantly for this writing, what was the motivating force behind Howie Tee building his basement studio? In that Wax Facts interview he speaks about his brother purchasing his turntables and Gemini mixer, he talks about saving as much money as he could, be it change from running chores or lunch money, to buy records.
That’s what DJs did. But what made Howie Tee purchase that 808? According to Chubb Rock, Howie Tee’s cousin, he already had equipment:
The first drum machine that he ever had — for those that know drum machines and the history was a Roland 303. It had a bassline unit called Drumatix and he created that whole record with it. He traded up to a 808 and gave me the 303 with the Drumatix. Chubb Rock
He could have stopped there, most producers did. But not Howie Tee. After working with Full Force, why did he take a step in the direction of recording and purchase a Tascam 388?
Because of his work with The Real Roxanne, Full Force, and Chubb Rock, a sista who lived across the street from him suggested he work with her cousin. Up until that point, her cousin, who Howie Tee knew as little Eddie, had been writing rhymes but had no beats. She thought they would be a perfect match.
And they were.
Little Eddie became Special Ed and Howie Tee went on to produce and mix every song on Ed’s debut, Youngest in Charge…in his basement. You see, that Tascam 388, known as the Studio 8, is an eight track board/reel to reel. That was almost enough to record a full Rap record at the time…unless you were the Bomb Squad (but that’s a different post).
Howie Tee produced, recorded, and mixed almost every song from that same basement (and later garage) except for the most popular song that he only was partially credited for. Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
Originally produced by Dr. Freeze of BBD “Poison” fame, the song wasn’t quite working so it was brought to him by “I’m Dreamin’” producer Stanley Brown…who lived around the corner from Howie Tee.
Howie Tee changed the drums up, mixed it down, and converted it from a party jam to the smooth, break-out hit that people came to know and love. He, however, never received credit or points on the song for the New Jack City soundtrack. If Color Me Badd’s manager, Cassandra Mills, hadn’t witnessed the whole thing, he may not have received any credit at all.
Howie Tee went on to produce/record/remix artists from Madonna to Raven-Symone (when she was six, Black, & cute), from Patra to Maxxi Priest. All of that from the starting place of being a self-proclaimed “local” DJ.
There’s several factors behind most people’s ignorance of the producers of the 80s. Aside from the fact that a large swath of avid Rap fans grew up in a world of 24–7 total coverage of the industry, people like Howie Tee and Fresh Gordon come from a generation that was about the work. They would have to have an IG, a YouTube tutorial page, and a Facebook fan page if they were out nowadays.
And not just that. The industry as we know it now didn’t exist. There were no hubs of Rap in Miami and Los Angeles. Rappers weren’t enlisting every big name producer and going on recording retreats to Hawaii. That kind of money wasn’t circulating then. An artist could be two successful albums in and still living at home.
But most importantly, it was a more personal time. The general public may have not known people like Fresh Gordon, Howie Tee, or Paul C (and countless others), hell I’m still learning, but when artists worked together, more often than not, they knew each other. If you listen to people talk about the nightlife in New York City in that era, they always speak fondly of how you could go to someplace like the Latin Quarters and see (and celebrate) everyone in the industry — not behind VIP ropes but there, partying in the crowd. They were like a family.
If you were into Hip-Hop back then, that’s how you felt as well. Artists…and producers were relatable. Raps were about things we did, they bragged about things we could buy, and producers made beats from songs that we grew up to. Maybe that’s why their virtual obscurity annoys me.
Or perhaps it’s because of the fact that that we once relied on our own to make our art. That if we were going to record an album, our cousin’s basement studio was good enough. Or maybe it’s because people like Fresh Gordon and Howie Tee had the foresight to invest in their profession to the point of buying equipment (Like the Tascam 388) that costs $8,000 (modern) dollars.
Maybe it’s the fact that we didn’t take that to the next stage of owning our own studios and growing the industry ourselves. Perhaps people seeing Dr. Dre fawn over a mixing board in the HBO doc Defiant Ones will inspire them to aspire for the same thing. I don’t know. What I do know is for the Rap financial pie to be so big we need more slices.
That’s why I think it’s important to look back to these producers and this time. The Hip-Hop community, while competitive, always realized that a win for me is a win for you. They worked together and for the most part, controlled the product from production to mixing.
And we should care. There would be no billion dollar industry without these people. If we don’t learn and celebrate them, someone else will tell their story or worst, someone will write them out of it.
This is why I write.