The Stool Pigeon meets one of hip hop's unsung heroes, DJ Spanish Fly" />

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808 State Of Mind: Proto-Crunk Originator DJ Spanish Fly
The Quietus , January 25th, 2011 04:08

Phil Hebblethwaite, Editor of our big sister paper The Stool Pigeon meets one of hip hop's unsung heroes, DJ Spanish Fly

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Ever hear the one about the pioneer who had the imagination and did the hard work, yet never got the props or money? It's not exactly like that with DJ Spanish Fly, but you can't deny a man his hardcore and his story hasn't really been told — not outside of Memphis at least. He does get his shouts there, especially from the city's most successful hip hop group, Three 6 Mafia, who were making a clear point when they flew him out to their adopted home of Los Angeles to drop a verse on 'First 48' — a Memphis legends track from their 2008 album, Last 2 Walk.

It's the internet, however, that's truly forcing catch-up on this neglected originator. A series of raw and innovative mixtapes that DJ Spanish Fly cut in the late-80s and early-90s have found their way online in recent years and they're blowing people's minds. "The MP3 dorkosphere got Memphis on lock," one blogger writes, and it's about time. As the total absence of any Memphis artists from last year's VH1 Hip Hop Honors: The Dirty South proves, the largest city in Tennessee is being written out of the rap history books, despite being the home of crunk.

Ask DJ Spanish Fly to define the early Memphis sound and he'll say, "It was a wicked, 808, slow, dope groove," just like his own music. Add to that his scattergun, repetitive lyrics, heavy basslines and gangsta lean and you pretty much have a definition of early crunk. No one could claim that Spanish Fly invented the genre (he certainly doesn't), but he made a significant contribution to its formation, not least by introducing an essential track to Memphis — 'Drag Rap' by New York group The Showboys. It's from there that the triggerman beat is taken, which also became an absolute staple of New Orleans bounce.

There's more. He says here that the buck jump dance — later known as gangsta walking or jookin' — took shape in the club he first DJed at, Club No Name. Now, because of YouTube, jookin' has gone global and the incredible video for Janelle Monáe's breakout hit, 'Tightrope', featured three Memphis jookers.

DJ Spanish Fly, real name Antonio Kimbrough, still performs in Memphis and for years had a slot on the local hip hop radio station, Hot 107.1. You sense, though, that we're about to hear much more from the self-named “granddaddy” of Memphis rap (he's 40). Old songs like 'Smokin' Onion' and 'Going To Mr Z's' still sound potently original and continue to prick interest on the internet. Two Spanish Fly tracks, 'Uzi Tool' and 'Wassup Nigga', were finally made available through iTunes in 2009 (his first official releases after a long history of having his tapes dubbed, now file-shared) and there's since been talk of British label Lex Records putting out some newly recorded songs and, hopefully,a full album. So, expect plenty more “raw, stank-ass onion evil from Memphis” to come, as one guy online perfectly calls DJ Spanish Fly's supremely pungent flavour.

The 1986 track 'Drag Rap' by New York's Showboys became an influential song in Memphis. Tell us about it.

DJ Spanish Fly: It's a song I can remember. I was buying records back in the day and of course I'd pick up almost anything on Profile or Jive and at least listen to them. Often they had an 808 kick and that's what I was looking for. Songs with the 808 kick is songs that I really targeted and really wanted, and those songs you couldn't hear on the radio or nowhere. That was a song that I went to a record shop and picked up, gave it a listen and when it got to the part where the 808 came in I was like, “Wowwwww!” So I started putting it on my mixtapes and my mixtape was basically a DJ Spanish Fly mastermix production. I'd make a song back in my bedroom – like 'Smokin' Onion' – and put it at the beginning of the tape; sneak it in. Then I would grab songs that was not played on the radio; songs that weren't even heard of; songs that would just give me a chill in my heart when I heard the 808 kick; songs that just was dope. Showboys’ 'Drag Rap' was one, also Triple M Bass, LL Cool J, Scarface, Geto Boys, Ice-T... The triggerman song ['Drag Rap'] was dead and gone, really – it wasn't even discovered. It came out and it didn't hit in New York, but I put it on my mixtape and people started liking it. Back then I was editing with a cassette deck — we used to call it cutting. We had turntables but I used cassette decks and I looped the hell out of parts of that song, like, “Lock him in a trunk/Yeah, that should be fun,” or, “Ratta tatta tatta tatta tatta tatta BOOM!” Everybody would just go crazy. And now when the Showboys come to Memphis they always come find me and thank me, because I gave that song life.

The song travelled, especially to New Orleans...

SF: Yeah, it went to New Orleans. A lot of people from Memphis went to the Mardis Gras in New Orleans and the Freaknik in Atlanta and to St Louis, and they'd carry my mixtape with them on the road. People would hear them and be like, “Wow, that's that Memphis music,” and they'd start dubbing it. If you got your hands on a Spanish Fly, you'd need to dub it – that was the thing back in the day, because you couldn't buy them unless you were in Memphis, and even then you'd have to go to a little shop like Mr Z's, or you could catch them at the Club No Name for a dollar up in the front booth, or from some guy selling them out the trunk.

You did a song called 'Going To Mr Z's'. But it's not a record shop, right?

SF: No. Mr Z's is a car stereo shop, beepers, alarms... I went to get my music sold in there, just a few tapes, and then he kept ordering bigger and bigger and bigger. At first I didn't know he had stores out of town, and he was putting them there as well. [laughs] So I made a song just for him. It was a radio commercial originally: “I'm going to Mr Z's to get my beeper hooked up...” But he wanted it to be a long song that he could give away to his customers as appreciation for when they buy stuff.

How would you describe the Memphis sound in those early days? What made it Memphis?

SF: It was a wicked, 808, slow, dope groove. It was a dope beat... it was dope.

When you were doing your edits on your cassette deck, you were slowing songs down, looping them, extending them to sometimes seven or eight minutes. Is that what gave them that Memphis flavour?

SF: Right. Looping them and not necessarily slowing them down but making tracks that were 60bpm or even less. That's that Memphis sound. It's the 808 and the cowbell – that dope groove.

Take us back to the really early days – the mid-1980s – when you first started out.

SF: It started out as this little crew in the hood – in Clementine [south Memphis]. I was probably 15 or 16. We were called the True Blu Cru and it was me – the DJ – Mighty Rappin' Fishbone, who was originally from Chicago, and three others. But it was me and Mighty Rappin’ Fishbone who were really the active cats and we'd do things like sell blood [at blood banks] just so we could throw parties and get refreshments for the people.

In Memphis, we were the closest thing to New York. I was beatboxing, breakdancing, I had the fat laces in my Adidas, the big radio... Every time you saw me I had a radio, even on the school bus. Eventually the True Blu Cru entered a contest at this club, Club No Name. There was a rapping contest and a DJing contest. Mighty Rappin’ Fishbone was going in the rapping contest and I was going in the DJ contest, but the day of the show, and I mean the evening of the show, Mighty Rappin’ Fishbone went to jail for some drug stuff. He got busted.

I won the DJ contest. Then it came around and it was time for the rap contest. I had this rap I always said and I beatboxed behind it, so I entered and I won that, too. After that night the club asked me to be a DJ there. They had to have me, you know what I'm saying? [laughs] I was the mixer. DJ Spanish Fly was the New York dude in Memphis and everybody knew it.

Was Club No Name the first club in Memphis to play hip hop?

SF: Yes. Back then it was called rap music and rap music was only supposed to last about three years. Even I thought it wasn't going to last long. The TV was saying 'ban 2 Live Crew' – before they really got big – so me and [fellow pioneering Memphis DJ] Ray The J thought we'd have fun with this thing while we could. I put some 2 Live Crew songs on my mixtape – Ghetto Bass [1986] – and blew them up in Memphis, too. Anything DJ Spanish Fly put on his mixtape, you needed to be bumpin' it, trust me. If Spanish Fly picks it, play it. Just-Ice outta New York – I picked him. NWA, Schoolly D... Memphis was not up on them. The only thing Memphis was up on was Con Funk Shun, the Commodores, the Bar- Kays...

When I started playing songs in Club No Name, I would start fights. It was a big problem. Everybody loved me, but we had to figure out when Spanish Fly could come up and do his thing. This club was a dance club – not a rap club. My partner at the club would play Con Funk Shun and SOS Band earlier and then I would play rap songs and people would do the buck jump. It was called the buck jump because the music, in some kind of way, made these cats move in a certain way. It was really walking. If people buck-jumped to other DJs, they'd be told, “Look, y'all don't do this during my set. Wait till Spanish Fly comes up, then you can do the buck jump, because y'all are fuckin' up my dancefloor.” They'd say that in the microphone. When I came up, I'd be like, “Is everybody ready!? Is everybody ready to do the buck jump!?” And the music they'd buck jump to was always the music on my mixtape.

What happened next was the buck jump changed. It was a walk that people started doing in a line. Then people were going around behind each other, and they started adding other little pieces to it – they started twisting with it; twisting their necks. Each week or two, something would change about it. The dancefloor was about half the size of a basketball court and eventually people started going round in a circle. If you can imagine a hula hoop, it was like that, and there was another hula hoop outside that one, going around in the same direction. Sometimes there were as many as six, seven, eight, nine rows of people. We was packed. This dance is catching on! And no one knew anything about the buck-jump dance outside of Club No Name. Nobody knew! I'm serious, brother. It blew up and I wish we'd kept footage of this thing.

Man, listen, sometimes you actually could feel the wind coming from these kids. You would think they were on skates! They wasn't going that fast, but they was moving and you could actually feel the drag. Another thing: Memphis had concerts back then – bringing in the Fat Boys, Whodini, LL [Cool J], Dana Dane... all these cats I put on my mixtape. That meant we started getting them to come to the club in person. The owner would get a limo and he'd let me and the other cats ride in there, and we'd take them to the club – LL, the DOC, NWA, Ice Cube, Fresh Prince... we took them all to the club. And when they came, they'd wonder, “What is this dance!?” LL, especially. He'd remember now, I promise you. All of it created so much attention. The newspaper here did an article on me and they called it ‘Scratching For A Living’. What is this man doing!? [laughs]

The buck jump came to be called the gangsta walk, and then jookin'. How did that happen?

SF: The dance was the buck jump and my partner in the club and myself noticed that the cats that was doing it – the cats that originally started the buck jump, the real buck jumpers – they was dope boys; they were selling dope. They were the cats in the Fila jogging suits, but they were also the boys who was buying all of my mixtapes. They were the original ones who supported it from the beginning, and they were also the ones who named the dance the gangsta walk.

We was gangstas then. Everyone was gangstas. That wasn't meaning we were out killin' nobody – it was just a word. We would watch gangster movies all the time and say, “I'm a gangsta, okay, I'm a gangsta!” In this day and time, it's a little dangerous; it's out of hand. We didn't know what we were creating back then, but we created it and our dance was called the gangsta walk. And I made a song called 'Gangsta Walk'.

Tell us how the music eventually moved out of Memphis.

SF: I heard people say that [soon-to-be super-producer] Jazze Pha moved from Memphis to Atlanta and took the crunk sound with him to Lil Jon, who came out with the song 'I Like Dem Girlz', and Jazze Pha had a lot of production to do with that. People told me Jazze Pha, and maybe some others, went to Atlanta with the Memphis sound and they stole it and called it crunk music. But, trust me, I don't know how true that is.

You've spoken about your mastermix productions but there are other mixtapes online from the late 1980s and early 1990s, like I'm Da Nigga and A.B.C.D.E., which feature you producing and rapping – they're not megamixes of other artists...

SF: Right. What happened was that a lot of my own songs started taking off – songs that I'd sneak onto DJ Spanish Fly mastermix productions, like 'Smokin' Onion'. That kicked fast. I looped the beat from the Beastie Boys just to have a beat, because I didn't own a drum machine at the time. But I had a Juno-6 keyboard, which is a hardass, old-school synthesiser – wish I had one today – and I did the bassline on that. Once I did that right there, I had a white guy called Geoff play guitar on it.

We actually made a commercial from this track – a Club No Name commercial. We had a studio at Club No Name and the owner had a studio at his house. We made the commercial off just the Beastie Boys loop at the owner's house and then I took the track home and I was just vibing off the loop. So I started putting the bassline to it, recording cassette deck to cassette deck because I didn't have a four-track. All I had was cassette decks and a Juno keyboard. I took it to Geoff's house and he put that guitar on there. I was like, “Man, that's badass! You put The Twilight Zone on there!” He wasn't a hella-fine guitar player – a beginner – but I was like, “Wow!” Then when I got back home, I just wrote to it: “Smoke the weed, the onion...”, 'cos I was smoking a lot of weed back then.

“Onion” is a slang word for weed in Memphis!?

SF: That's what I named it. I named it 'Smokin' Onion' and everybody loved it. I could play that song right now and everybody would start dancing to it.

Different versions of that song seem to exist, all done by you.

SF: I had to move on from the radio station here in Memphis because I was on the air for five years, full-time. They wanted to play it, so I decided to go into the studio and make a radio version and an up-to-date version. I'll remind you that I made music with tape decks and each time I would record the bass, and the keyboards, and the vocals, I would lose quality. But I love the analogue sound. To me it's perfect – a real, live sound. DJ Paul [Three 6 Mafia] always wants me to get my records out the attic because he knows I got that old sound, and I got all my old tapes up there – a vault.

Man, they still sound fat – all them records that never hit, like 'Drag Rap'. [laughs] And Lord Tasheen! No one knows about Lord Tasheen yet. He's got some hard tracks. I swear he's there for an artist like Lil Wayne to awaken from the dead.

I want to ask you more about 'Drag Rap' and your take on it, 'Triggerman'. The original is an old gangster tale from New York, which the Showboys say is true, and what you've done with your version is sample it, rap over it and extend the story. Is that right?

SF: Yeah. I took 'Drag Rap' to be a retaliation song and I adopted it to something personal that was going on in my life. My cuz and I had to get a Lexus and take out Triggerman. We gotta take him out, and there's only one way we can do it.

You use a terrifying loop from 'Drag Rap' – “On your way back, bring me his son” – but your tale doesn't take place in New York, it takes place in Tennessee and Texas. It's a great bit of storytelling.

SF: Yeah, I opened up a whole can of worms.

Who is Triggerman, then?

SF: Triggerman is just a guy. Like I said, something happened in my personal life.

But you give the story a twist. You reveal that Triggerman used to be your right-hand man.

SF: That's right. And that's one thing about DJ Spanish Fly – DJ Spanish Fly can create a story. I've been doing it ever since I was little. And I put it all together – all the stuff with the skating rink and so on. Songs like 'Triggerman' and 'Smokin' Onion' are huge achievements that still sound fresh today. More, it seems like these tracks and your mixtapes have been very influential on the larger picture of hip hop – on the birth of crunk and so on.

Are you proud?

SF: I am. A lot of people tell me I should be richer and I just tell them I'm rich in soul and heart, because I know what I did and it wasn't really about the fame. It was about me having fun.

Do you think you've been given your props?

SF: I think it could be way better than what it is. It wouldn't hurt anybody. But the true, deep-down Memphis core really knows the background and they know I'm a legend and they do respect me here. And they know that I haven't been approved, or whatever.

Three 6 Mafia have mentioned your role in Memphis rap many times. What's your connection with them these days?

SF: I can call them up – I talked to them the day before yesterday – but the thing is they've got projects already lined up with Lil Wayne and Frayser Boy, and the Three 6 Mafia project. Their hands are kinda full. DJ Paul wants to get my album out – he definitely wants to do it – it's just they busy. That's the only way I can tell it – they busy. For real. But we have a great, wonderful connection. I got a connection with all the guys outta Memphis – 8Ball, Yo Gotti... – and they don't mind doing any favours for me. It's just a phone call away. I keep it like that and it's something that I try to let them know – that I am the granddaddy. A long time ago, I wouldn't even take the praise. Like I said, I was only having fun, but now since I been talking with Will [Lex Records], I've become more aware of things that I did. I'm one of the originators and it is what it is.