Diggers discover Delaware’s Golden Age of Hip-Hop
Words and Photos by Gentle Jones
Delaware’s music scene has always had its local legends, but national recognition has been elusive for most. Though names like Clifford Brown and George Thorogood continue to ring bells, the First State has never had a homegrown hip-hop star or breakout hit record. This may change as DJs from around the world are increasingly buzzing over Delaware’s “Golden Age” hip-hop artists. Jeff DeSimoni, aka Sureshot LaRock, was born and raised in the Washington, DC metropolitan area yet owns one of the world’s most extensive collections of Delaware hip-hop records. Sureshot is not only an avid collector of hip-hop classics, he’s also released a few himself, one with El-P of Definitive Jux and 3 others with his crew Diggers With Gratitude. Sureshot wants to share the sounds of Delaware with the world and hopes to dig up unreleased gems from Delaware’s Golden Age to press up on his own DWG imprint.
How did you get involved with collecting records?
Like most people outside of the NYC area, I was first introduced to hip-hop through Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", but it wasn't until I heard Run DMC's "Sucker MC's" that I caught the bug. I was only ten or eleven. Before that point, all my spare change would go toward candy and Star Wars action figures. After hearing the song, it became all about whatever wax I could afford. I haven't looked back since.
What is the allure of vinyl?
It's a staple of hip-hop culture. While third, fourth, and fifth generation cassette dubs of live shows spread the word during hip-hop's formative years, the DJs were spinning wax. It was the breaks that guys like Herc, Bam, Flash, Theodore, and countless others spun that created the backdrop first for b-boys and, soon after, MCs to do their thing.
Aesthetically speaking, the packaging is larger and more appealing. Holding a record just feels good. And it sounds better.
How many records have you released yourself?
I've released four records. One as an MC back in the early 90s [with El Producto of Def Jux] and the other three as part of a collective known as Diggers With Gratitude (Chr!s, Raredave, DJ Shaker, and myself). I'm proudest of the records we've released as DWG.
What is the first Delaware record you came across?
3rd Dynasty's "Gots Ta Get Funky" on Tomorrow's Gold Records.
How did these Delaware records gain international recognition?
Record diggers are eager to share their discoveries with the rest of the world, but not without throwing an obstacle or two in the way.
For instance, England's DJ Ivory broke 3rd Dynasty's "Gots Ta Get Funky" on his "Hear No Evil - Volume 2" mix (2003). The only problem was the CD didn't include the names for any of the records he spun. It was a throwback to the days of Old School hip-hop when DJs would scrub the labels off their records to hide their identities from competing disc jockeys. After all, the DJ that got the paid was the DJ that got the party jumping. So why, after countless years of digging, should others benefit from their hard work simply by copying artists and song titles off their labels? This well-intentioned, Old School approach ended up being a brilliant move by Ivory as it set off a whirlwind of hype and international intrigue with people scrambling to discover the unknown records he included on his mixes.
Japan's DJ Koco broke Cage 1's "Straight From Cage!" on his "Who Got the Flava?" mix (2003). As a matter of fact, he also dropped 3rd Dynasty's "It's Curtains" (from the "Project X" compilation) on his "Back to the Lab" CD (2005).
How did it make you feel the first time you heard “Gots Ta Get Funky”?
I lost my mind! Along with Old School hip-hop (1979 to 1982), my favorite era is the Golden Age (1987 to 1990 or so). Most people know artists from the Golden Age as they were signed to major labels -- Eric B & Rakim, BDP, Public Enemy, members of the Juice Crew and Native Tongues, etc. And these artists created amazing songs. But once I completed their discographies, I yearned for more.
Enter locally-circulated, independently-owned record labels. Outside of a five or ten-mile radius from an artist's block, these records generally fell on deaf ears. Independent labels simply didn't have the resources to gain widespread distribution. Many created a small local buzz, but faded quickly.
As a purveyor of fine hip-hop, these slabs of vinyl are gold in 2008. It allows the ageing b-boy in all of us to rediscover our youth... to experience music recorded years ago as if they were new releases. The quality of music which is by-and-large no longer being released.
3rd Dynasty's record reminded me why I fell in love with hip-hop in the first place.
The goal of Diggers with Gratitude is to elicit that feeling in others. To discover these records, share them with the rest of the world, and expose artists who, for a variety of reasons, didn't receive the recognition they deserved.
What Delaware records have you collected?
Disco Beave – From the Projects (1988)
Someone described the record as "Ultramagnetic MCs meets Eric B & Rakim". While I can't entirely agree with the comparison, the record is amazing. It's worth tracking down for the picture cover alone! I can count, on one hand, the number of times I discovered a record that actually made me yell out loud when I placed the needle in the groove. This is one of those cases. "From the Projects" is a barn-burning, neck-snapping face melter ten times over.
Project X – Armed and Dangerous (1990)
I was originally turned onto this record after learning 3rd Dynasty (Grand G) had two other cuts on the compilation. That alone made it a must-have. You can't help but love the Freddy Krueger-looking Mickey Mouse sweatshirt Todd-1 is wearing on the cover! One of the best Golden Age independent label compilations put out... Period. Not only do the 3rd Dynasty cuts live up to the hype, but cuts by Fred Gee & DJ F-3, MC Iziah, and Intellectuals of Rhyme (I.O.R.) are solid efforts as well.
Cage1 – Straight from Cage! (1991)
I first heard a two-minute snippet of "Straight from Cage!" on a Japanese mixtape and was blown away. I had to find the record at all costs! It took awhile, but I finally managed to score a copy. The MCs spit wicked, lyrical howitzers over amazingly layered Bomb Squad-style production. The flip side, "Poets Giving Criticism", is just as strong. It's probably in my all-time top 10 independent hip-hop records.
The Outfit – Beauty of the Week (1995)
I picked this record up in the dollar bin of a record shop in Richmond, VA. The picture of a "Jet" magazine "Beauty of the Week" on the label certainly didn't hurt. A solid mid-90s record. Competent rhymes laid over head-nodding beats. Definitely worth tracking down and you shouldn't have to break the bank to get it. Radio-version notwithstanding, you may want to think twice before playing "Beauty of the Week" in front of the kids.
Are there any other Delaware records you might own?
Sure -- Sons of Sam, Silk & Satin, Doc D & Cut Wiz, Intellectuals of Rhyme, and a few others. There were also numerous releases on cassette that, regrettably, never saw the light of day on wax. Sons of Sam was my most recent find. However, Disco Beave's "From the Projects" is my newest "discovery". Finding the Disco Beave record really started me down the path of putting two and two together. He was talking about Wilmington, the Bucket, and Riverside and I thought, "Wow! This was from Delaware?! Wait, so was the 3rd Dynasty/Grand G/Project X stuff! And the Cage 1! and Doc D!"
How would you compare these records to what was contemporary at that time?
They all capture the vibrancy and creativity of hip-hop during the Golden Age. They're easily on-par with, and in many cases of a higher caliber, than their peers. Delaware hip-hop has gone global, but there's a larger story to be told. We, as Diggers With Gratitude, hope to play a big role in bringing recognition to Delaware for their criminally slept-on contribution to hip-hop.
Who is the target market for the records DWG presses?
People who feel uninspired and disenfranchised by most of the stuff that passes for hip-hop these days. Listen to the radio... It almost all sounds the same now - unimaginative rhymes laid over obsessively chopped-up and repetitive tracks. Hip-hop has lost its way. Remember African medallions? Or when MCs actually spit battle rhymes? Whatever happened to rocking clever lyrics over stripped-down drums and a funky/jazzy/soulful loop? And don't get me started on a DJs scratching on choruses.
That's our target market. People scratching their heads at the current state of hip-hop who want to be reminded why they fell in love with the music in the first place. And don't get it twisted, Diggers With Gratitude releases aren't only lost classics excavated from the Golden Age. Good music is good music, no matter when it was created. Our job is to find that music and share it with the masses. We like to think we know what our target market likes because we are our target market.
Now don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that everything coming out now is bad. There are some artists that continue to bring honesty, creativity, and passion to their music. The problem is they're hard to find. Ironically (and sadly) enough, these artists of today will likely end up being the locally-circulated, small niche independent records that we dig for twenty years from now.
What process did you go about to secure the materials for the 3 prior DWG records?
Each time has been different. Luckily, the artists on our first three releases [Phil Most Chill, Godfather Don, and Unique] have owned their material. The hard part is tracking them down and convincing them that people really do want to hear their music.
As it stands, we have a number of different projects on our plate right now... Enough to continue well into 2009. And each promises to continue the amazing string of critically acclaimed releases DWG has put together. Wait 'til you see what we have in store!