Mr Magic interview, May 1988

guest post by Hannah Ford

Soul Underground was always passionately interested in the history of the music we loved, so it was a thrill to get an interview in May 1988 with Mr Magic. An unsung hero of old school and Golden Age hip hop, a central part of Marley Marl’s Juice Crew… but most of all, the man who forced mainstream radio to take this new music seriously. In fact, you could say that he was to rap what Alan Freed was to rock & roll.

“I am the official voice of hip hop”

mr magic at WBLS

This is normally the sort of claim to be treated with ridicule, but when the speaker is Mr Magic you have to sit up and take notice. In a musical culture with such a short history, Magic’s eight year career as a rap show DJ makes him a unique figure, and one who seems certain to last well into the future. But first. let’s go way back… “For me the whole rap thing started in ’79 when Kurtis Blow and Flash used to play in the parks. At that time disco was the music that pretty much everyone was listening to; nobody was really rapping”.

Magic’s first break came on WHBI, a small New York station where you paid for your own airtime. “In London it would be called a pirate; it wasn’t really a pirate but it fulfilled the same sort of need for programmes that the major stations would not carry. You could do pretty much anything as long as you paid your $75 an hour”.

“For me the whole rap thing started in ’79 when Kurtis Blow and Flash used to play in the parks. At that time disco was the music that pretty much everyone was listening to; nobody was really rapping”.

After playing on WHBI for 6 months Magic became aware that a definite rap scene was developing, with the radio station becoming a focal point for many of the emerging artists.

It took three years for Magic to convince a major New York station that it was crazy of them to ignore rap music and the huge audience it could reach. Finally, in late ’83 ‘The Mr Magic Rapattack’ started running every Friday and Saturday night on WBLS. It was there that he met up with a young scratch DJ by the name of Marlon Williams who impressed Magic with the range of his abilities. “Marlon’s strength was that he mixed disco and rap DJ styles: he could scratch, blend, edit, splice, anything! And so, in the early part of ’84 ‘Mr Magic and his Engineer Allstar Marley Marl’ established what was then a unique format for a rap show on a major station: conventional radio MCing from Magic and state of the art live mixing from Marley. Soon the show was pulling in huge audiences, and it seemed as if they could not put a foot wrong when, around Christmas time WBLS dropped the programme. As Magic says “this was a crushing blow to us. We were expecting the big payoff for all the work we had put in and instead we found ourselves out of a job”.

What Magic and Marley had come up against was the impenetrable wall of ignorance and prejudice that greeted rap music on both sides of the Atlantic. “The problem wasn’t that the show wasn’t commercial. It was simply that the people at the top in WBLS didn’t accept rap. It was really a problem of generations; it was basically very similar to the situation in the ‘50’s with rock and roll – it was the music of one particular generation, a music which their parents just couldn’t understand.”

Flashback to the summer of ’84 and a rap contest sponsored by Coca Cola (as featured in the film ‘Krush Groove’). “The big thing about that contest was that it was all free. Radio City Music Hall and Coke paid for everything”. Even more amazing to British sensibilities is that it was held in conjunction with the New York Police Department, with police distributing tickets into the community. “That contest brought a lot of new rappers out into the open. Kurtis Blow was top of the bill, but you could see the new generation of rappers coming through”. Some did better than others: UTFO were gonged offstage halfway through their rap! Also participating were Whodini, who very nearly gave Magic a hit record. “Jalil used to answer the telephones at WBLS and he wrote the rap ‘Magic’s Wand’ for me to perform – he had no intention of doing it himself. For one reason or another I couldn’t do it so I said to him “You wrote the lyrics, you do the record” The rest is history.

“The people at the top in WBLS didn’t accept rap. It was really a problem of generations; it was basically very similar to the situation in the ‘50’s with rock and roll – it was the music of one particular generation, a music which their parents just couldn’t understand.”

Whatever the reasons behind WBLS dropping Magic and Marley, it was to prove to be the first stage in the formation of the Juice Crew. Faced with the prospect of unemployment, they phoned round all of the rappers they knew, asking them to show their support for their new show back at WHBI by dropping in for interviews. Salvation came in the unlikely form of UTFO, who had just released ‘Beats and Rhymes’. They made the fatal mistake of dissing Magic by telling him that they wouldn’t be available for an interview on his show, and then promptly appearing on KISS. UTFO’s second mistake was to put “Roxanne Roxanne” on the B-side of “Beats and Rhymes”

“That’s where Shante comes in. She lived in Marlon’s neighbourhood, and around Christmas of ’84 they got together at his house to put down a track purely to dis UTFO – a payback”. This payback became “Roxanne’s Revenge”, a record that saw the light of day on Philadelphia’s Pop Art label, not exactly the most obvious outlet for a rap record. Magic explains: “We were broke, it was Christmas, most of the record companies were closed, and we knew it could be a hit. The people at Pop Art took the cassette I gave them and mastered the record off that cassette! Even worse, the cassette was actually a tape of me playing Marlon’s original tape on my show – if you listen real hard you can hear me talking on the fade-out!”

While all of this was going on WBLS saw a dramatic downturn in its fortunes, slumping from no. 3 to no. 19 in the audience ratings. “All of a sudden they gave us a call and asked us back” he smiles. Enough of the past. What of the future? “Personally I thought that the reggae style was going to be the next big sound because it seemed to be a natural evolution from hip hop. Instead, I’m hearing a lot of the new fast style rap – that’s really messed me up! It just goes to show that you never know where rap is going to go next. Whatever does happen to rap, I’m sure that it will survive: the generation that listens to it now will listen to it for the rest of their lives”.

Mention Eric B to Magic and his tone changes. “Eric B is what I’d call a sucker, a person who burns his bridges, who doesn’t remember where he came from. Eric started out as one of our security people. I don’t care what he tells you, that’s the truth. At one point he was sleeping on Marlon’s floor – how can you forget someone when you used to sleep in his house, and he produced your first single when you were nobody? He gets a deal with a major label and suddenly he’s forgotten us.

“Public Enemy? I think they are very talented but they are let down by Flavor Flav. He isn’t qualified to represent a group as talented as they are – he still acts like an asshole, and he’s holding them back. The other problem with Public Enemy is the violent image they project. I find that very worrying: I’ve got children now and I wouldn’t like my daughter to emulate them. I don’t want her growing up saying, ‘My Uzi weighs a ton.’ Those kind of lyrics are dangerous enough anywhere but more so in New York. One of the problems with what people call the ghetto is that very often there is no male image in the home, so kids grow up without a dominant man figure around. Without that sort of strong control kids can very easily be influenced. One of the great strengths of rap is that it can influence kids’ minds. It’s important to realise that when young people memorise every word of a rap it’s bound to affect them subconsciously. You should never underestimate the power of hip hop.

© Hannah Ford
Originally published in Soul Underground, May 1988