A Conversation with Grandmaster Dee

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Photo courtesy of Grandmaster Dee

After rap’s initial introduction to wax a new wave of Hip-Hop artists took the genre to a more expansive landscape. Spearheaded by Run-DMC, this group of artists dubbed “The New School” included acts like LL Cool J, The Fat Boys, and Whodini. The latter stood out among its peers due to their adult contemporary sound. The smoother and more dance floor friendly tunes attracted black radio and older listeners that had previously eschewed rap.

Consisting of Jalil (emcee), Ecstasy (emcee), and (DJ) Grandmaster Dee this three-man band created Hip-Hop anthems that have been sampled and covered by a slew of different artists and continue to move crowds today. Friends, One Love, Five Minutes of Funk, Big Mouth, and Freaks Come Out at Night are just a few of the gems that cemented Whodini inside Hip-Hop’s pantheon.

The Real Hip-Hop had the great pleasure of speaking with Grandmaster Dee about Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary, his memories of the late, great John “Ecstasy” Fletcher, and the legacy of Whodini.

TRHH: Starting at the top, how did you start deejaying?

Grandmaster Dee: My freshman year of high school I moved from Brooklyn to a place called Roosevelt Island and my high school was right across the bridge in Manhattan. The name of my high school was Julia Richman High School. In my freshman year I was going there to play basketball. That was my dream to be an NBA basketball player. One day I went to lunch and I had a couple of my classmates with me and we went to eat lunch for like 20 minutes and we would go to a place called the Spark Room. It’s like a little lounge where you go in there and people would be playing cards and backgammon and they had the radio in there – a boom box. I heard them playing rap with the echo chambers and all that and I was like, “Yo, what is that?” It was the first time I heard rap and I heard, “Yes, yes y’all, you don’t stop/We like our sound, sound, loud, loud and clear, clear, clear.”

My boy was a rapper, he was from Harlem, his name was Ski-jump. He said, “That’s rap!” and he named the group. Matter of fact, I think it was Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde and then it was Afrika Bambaataa and them. After that day the next week they started giving parties at different high schools like Norman Thomas. A brother was in my class and I heard him already playing a beat on the table one day and we started kicking it and his name was Master Don, may he rest in peace. Master Don from a group called The Death Committee. After we connected he started explaining to me about the turntables and the next thing you know he invited me to his house. He had the two turntables and the mixer and just showed me the ropes on the turntables. I took it from there.

TRHH: How did you join Whodini?

Grandmaster Dee: Well, that came with later on down the line because when I started deejaying that was about 1977. So, I met Jalil at the radio station WHBI with Mr. Magic. I used to listen to Mr. Magic every Thursday, late night, 2:00 in the morning. What happened was they was promoting a Sugar Hill Gang concert, they had a big concert coming to the Armory in Manhattan – in Harlem. They had Sugar Hill, Grandmaster Flash, Funky 4 + 1, all the label mates that was on that show.

So, Magic told me to come down if I wanted to help him out and promote that show. I said, “Sure.” I went down to the station to get some posters and some flyers and I met Jalil at the station. We exchanged numbers and he said he was trying to put a group together. I said, “Alright.” I kept in touch with him. At that time, I’m already a DJ, so I had every kind of break record. Every break beat I had, so, I used to play beats for him over the phone a lot, too. That’s how we got together, we met at the radio station.

TRHH: From the first album to the second album Escape the sound of Whodini changed when Larry Smith came aboard. What did Larry Smith contribute to the Whodini sound?

Grandmaster Dee: Larry gave us a direction. Larry gave us real music, Larry didn’t give us samples. You gotta look back at that time, Larry did Run-DMC, he did Kurtis Blow, he did The Fat Boys, now he’s working with Whodini. He had to be a great producer. To me he was like the Quincy Jones of rap because he made Run-DMC sound like Run-DMC, he made Whodini sound like Whodini. That’s what the difference was and it was no samples.

TRHH: Do you think Larry Smith get the credit he deserves?

Grandmaster Dee: Nah, he don’t get credit at all, and that’s a shame. People know. I know when you learn about rap you always want to know who produced the tracks when you had great tracks. So, you know the producers name, but nobody says his name. It’s not fair.

TRHH: I never got the chance to see the Fresh Fest but my cousins did and I was so jealous. What are some of your favorite memories from the Fresh Fest?

Grandmaster Dee: Aw, man. My biggest memory was the first time going on tour and looking at it from the beginning stages, how are we gonna reach and sell this place out? It’s Hip-Hop, but it’s just breaking the grounds. Every city you would go to you heard your record on heavy rotation, so, that was a way of introducing rap to the people in these states. Because the difference about Whodini, we started touring first in Europe because we made the records in Europe. We started in Europe and had a head start.

By the time we came back to the States, we were polished and ready to go! Like I said, back in the days what made Whodini different was a lot of parents would say, “I don’t really like rap, but I like Whodini.” Because we were talking about something. We were talking about life. Friends, how many of us have them? One Love, Five Minutes of Funk, Freaks Come Out At Night, those are big records – especially R&B dance records.

TRHH: I did get to see you on the Raising Hell tour in 1986.  I heard that the group has issues with Run-DMC during the tour. What was the tour like and were there any issues between Whodini and Run-DMC?

Grandmaster Dee: Nah, it really wasn’t no issues. The problem was each group wanted to kick ass! You know when you’re on a tour it’s almost like a battle! Everybody says, “Oh, this one did good tonight,” or “that one did good.” Every once in a while, a record might slip up on you, jump. It could happen to me, it could happen to Jay, but that’s how you knew it was live. The turntables were live and if a record ever skipped on me I would take the record off and break it on stage and put another one on and start it back over.

TRHH: That’s dope. I believe on that tour you used the Dustbuster to scratch. How did you come up with your turntable routines?

Grandmaster Dee: Nah, I usually would scratch with the sneaker and in Japan I’d scratch with chop sticks. Me and Jalil talked about it because back in the days with Flash and Theodore they would do the speed, cutting, and tricks and all that, so, now that was only in New York. Now we have the chance to do it on the road, so, we said, yeah, let’s show America what it is to be scratching and doing tricks and spinning around. You had to put on a show!

If you came off weak people forgot about you. You always want to give somebody something to relate to and go home and talk about. So, that’s why we came up with the routine when they picked me up in the air and I’d be scratching the record like I don’t want to leave. He said, “Come on, times up, we gotta leave.” And I said, “No, I don’t wanna go!” and that’s when they picked me up and I scratched the record back and forth. The crowd would lose it.

TRHH: You got to rhyme on the song Funky Beat; whose idea was it for you to rap on that song?

Grandmaster Dee: Well, what happened was Jalil and Ecs was at the apartment in London when we were recording. I told Larry Smith, I said, “Larry, man, you did the Jam Master Jay record, I need to make a Grandmaster Dee record.” A lot of people never knew this, but I was a rapper before I was a DJ. So, I knew how to rhyme and stay on beat. Larry said, “Well, you start off with the beat and I’ll take it from there.” I was kind of homesick at the time because we were in London for a while. I went to the store and got me a 6 pack of Heineken. I came back and drunk two of them. I made the beat and then I noticed certain DJ’s when they were making records they couldn’t do it live because they had three or four different tracks scratching at the same time. So, I wanted to make sure when I do it live I can go, “Uh, uh uh” then I can jazz it up, so, I made it like that. Then I went up in there on the mic and said, “Funky beat, funky beat.” He sampled my voice, looped it, and kept it going.

Next thing you know I happened to go back to the United States and Larry called me and said, “Dee, wait ‘till you hear what I put in there!” I said, “What?” He said, “Wait ‘till you hear it! Any record that comes on before it or after it better be loud because it ain’t gonna mess with this!” And that’s when he came in with the keyboard sound and I said, “Oh my God!” That was it! I got on the mic and I thought about being on tour, the Fresh Fest. The first one I was cutting up “Good Time” right? So, I said, “Last Fresh Fest I was rocking Good Times/This Fresh Fest I’m bustin’ out rhymes.” I was scratching Good Times now I’m rhyming. Then I said, “When I’m on the set I take total control/I rock your mind, your feet, your body, your soul,” and I took it from there.

TRHH: What led to the group leaving Jive for MCA for the Bag-A-Trix album?

Grandmaster Dee: They wasn’t pushing the records out fast enough and they didn’t want to give up no advances and all that. It was a problem. It was time to move on.

TRHH: The groups’ last album Six was released on So So Def. What was it like working with Jermaine Dupri after essentially starting his career?

Grandmaster Dee: It was cool. We was happy that he reached out for us and gave us a shot. I felt like his hands were tied and they weren’t going to push the album. We had some good songs on there, but they just didn’t give it their all. It’s no love lost. We’re still cool, we’re still family, they just didn’t push the album.

TRHH: You continue to deejay on the road and deejaying has changed so much over the years. What’s your opinion of Serato and how it changed the game?

Grandmaster Dee: I love it! I love it. I tell people it’s the best thing to ever happen, because I don’t gotta carry crates no more. And if you did carry crates do you know what they would charge you to carry them on a plane? And then the people under the shoot might be taking some of your records. There’s no way you can lug those records unless you can drive to every show. If you use Serato your record ain’t gonna jump.

There is so much technology that they’ve got, every time you turn around there’s something new. They got the controllers, but I just love vinyl. I love turntables and mixer, because that’s where the art started from. I like the feel of the vinyl. I played a couple CD controllers but it’s nothing like that vinyl. I really feel they want to see that anyway because that’s Hip-Hop.

TRHH: Years ago, there were issues with you and Jalil regarding the Whodini trademark. Have you guys settled your differences?

Grandmaster Dee: Yeah, we’re cool. We’re good. We’re all good, man. Everybody goes through ups and downs. It’s a family thing, but you fix it. We good.

TRHH: Who lost Ecstasy in 2020, what are some of your favorite memories of your time with Ecstasy?

Grandmaster Dee: To me he had one of the greatest voices in Hip-Hop. He always had a fashion statement. Back when he first came with the hat and I remember he wore the boots on stage, with me coming from Brooklyn I was looking at him like he was crazy! I said, “You going on with them boots?” He said, “Yeah,” and that became in fashion. They looked for the shorts, the boots, and the hat. We were like the sex symbols of rap. They gave us that little title. We put the dressing into Hip-Hop if you ask me.

TRHH: Whodini has two gold albums, Back in Black and Open Sesame, and one platinum album with Escape. Do you believe that Whodini gets the respect it deserves in Hip-Hop?

Grandmaster Dee: Hell no. And it’s a shame. My mom is 94 years old and she even recognizes it when she sees all these award shows and not one person announces us, or gives us a shout out, or anything. I really felt when rap wasn’t being played on radio Whodini forced them to play it because we had good music. And it was original music.

TRHH: Why do you think the respect isn’t given?

Grandmaster Dee: I don’t know. I think it was something maybe happened back in the days or whatever with a few people. They just don’t reach out for us. I told the group way back in the days, you gotta show up to things. It’s better to be seen than heard. Once you’re not being seen they stop talking about you. I try to do as much as I can. Whenever they call I try to be a part of it.

TRHH: What’s your favorite Whodini song?

Grandmaster Dee: All of them.

TRHH: All of them?

Grandmaster Dee: Yes.

TRHH: In your opinion, what’s the best Whodini album?

Grandmaster Dee: Back in Black and I gotta say Escape.

TRHH: Did you see LL Cool J and Black Thought performing “Freaks Come Out at Night” on The FORCE Tour?

Grandmaster Dee: Yeah, I seen it. And I said, “Why the hell they ain’t call us?” I be doing it. I go on stage and do Freaks and Funky Beat. It made me want to run up there and say, “Yo, I can do it.” I’ve been talking to Jalil because I heard what LL said. You gotta get out the house. If you gotta just sit in a chair, let’s go! As long as the people see you. That’s all they wanna do is see you. We got too much of a legacy, and not only that, we got too much great music.

TRHH: Too many hits.

Grandmaster Dee: Yeah! It ain’t like we got one or two, we got a bunch!

TRHH: Yeah. I remember seeing y’all perform in Chicago about 20 years ago. They had y’all open the show and cut y’all time short. Jalil was like, “What about I’m a Ho? What about One Love? We got so many joints!”

Grandmaster Dee: [Laughs] I think I remember that.

TRHH: 50 years of Hip-Hop, did you foresee Hip-Hop being where it is today?

Grandmaster Dee: The way I looked at it, I saw it growing when we went to Europe first and people were getting familiar with it. And then when we got to Japan and they had paperback books on Hip-Hop and had our pictures in it. I’m looking at them like, “Yo, where you get this book from?” And they know where you’re from and everything. That’s when I knew we reached the world and this thing is gonna be big. But I never thought it would turn to where it’s at today. Back then there was no such thing as cursing on a record. They weren’t going to play it.

TRHH: What is Whodini’s legacy and contribution to the culture?

Grandmaster Dee: Shit, real music, like I said before. Real music and a class act. Like I said with the R&B, Whodini was the first with dancers, Whodini was the first dressing, and we were the first with choruses.

TRHH: You’re out there on the road performing; how can people come check out Grandmaster Dee? How can they find you?

Grandmaster Dee: You can check me on Instagram @grandmasterdee – Drew GMD Carter. On Facebook, the same thing, @GrandmasterDee. I’ll be on the Rock the Bells Cruise November 13-17.

Purchase the Whodini Discography:

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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