Newcleus, out of Brooklyn, lay claim to the title "First Hip-Hop Band," meaning they were the first to play their own instruments while incorporating rapping and drum machines. When they toured on the Fresh Fest1 with Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Kurtis Blow and The Fat Boys, Newcleus were the only act that played live instruments.
Cozmo and his musical partner Chilly B, who passed away in 2010, were on the scene in the '70s when hip-hop was park jams, block parties and battles. In this interview, he talks about what it was really like back in the day, how hip-hop evolved, and the story behind "Jam On It."
Cozmo D: I had an 808, which was the drums, a Sequential Circuits Pro One, which we used for the bassline, a Roland TB-303, which played the arpeggiates, and for the chords I used a Roland RS-09.
Songfacts: How did you build it?
Cozmo: Well, the bassline always came first, so I came up with the bassline and then the beat to go with the bassline. Then the sequence, the chords, and the string line and the bell line.
Songfacts: Tell me about the lyrics.
Cozmo: I did the music in 1984, but most of the rhymes are from the '70s from when we used to rock at the parks. I used to say those rhymes when we doing park jams and block parties and stuff like that - I used to rock the crowd with those rhymes.
The whole reason for doing "Jam On It" was the record company, as a follow-up to "Jam On Revenge," wanted us to do a rap record, so I said "OK, sure." I wasn't an MC, I was a DJ, but I used to say rhymes back in the day, so once I got the beat and I liked the beat and felt like the beat was right, I broke out my rhyme book and adjusted some rhymes to it, and that's where most of the rhymes came from.
Now, for Chilly B's rhymes, he was supposed to write his own, but he said he couldn't come up with any, so I wrote new rhymes for him. So most of Chilly B's rhymes were new, and I wrote those as well.
Songfacts: When you're talking about DJing back in the '70s, you think of Grandmaster Flash, and he's using breakbeats and two turntables. What were you doing?
Cozmo: Yeah, I was using two turntables and breakbeats and all sorts of other things we used to rock in the parks in Brooklyn in the '70s. Everything that Flash was doing we were doing, we just weren't scratching - they had a scratching style that they did - but otherwise, we were doing the same thing. We started in '76.
Songfacts: That's way back early on. What was the scene really like back then in the '70s?
Cozmo: It was amazing, because back then, we used to rock in the parks. We started DJing in '76, and we started rocking in the parks in '77, but there were other DJs who had been doing it since the early '70s. They would set up in the parks, and people would come out and dance. It would go on all night sometimes because back then the cops would just let you do it. So by the time we started doing it, it was a pretty regular thing in the summertime, especially on the weekends. By '79 when it peaked, you would hear some rumbling in the distance and you'd just go to where the rumbling was and you'd find people jamming in the park somewhere. It was an amazing time, man.
Songfacts: What records were you using for your breaks?
Cozmo: Oh, loads of them. In Brooklyn, we played a lot more disco and a lot more funk than they did in the Bronx, so they always tried to tell us we weren't doing hip-hop, which was fine. But we were rocking the parks! The #1 Brooklyn cut was "Love Is The Message" by MSFB, but we played all sorts of stuff. "We Got Our Own Thing" by C.J. & Company was another big one. "Nautilus" by Bob James, "Mardi Gras" by Bob James. There were records like Freedom's "Get Up And Dance," "Rock Creek Park" by the Blackbyrds. Tons of them.
Songfacts: What were some of the other differences between the Brooklyn crews and the Bronx crews?
Cozmo: Well, the Bronx was a smaller area. This was going on all over Brooklyn and Queens as well, but the styles were different. They scratched more in the Bronx. By the late '70s we were scratching in Brooklyn as well, but the first time I heard scratching was in the Bronx.
For the MC crews, it was different. In Brooklyn, we played more funk and more disco because we had larger crowds and more mixed crowds. We didn't have the B-Boys that they had in the Bronx. What we had was Uprock crews and Uprock crews wanted to hear stuff like "It's Just Begun" by Jimmy Castor and "The Mexican" by Babe Ruth. Stuff like that with breakbeats but more funky stuff. Whereas the breaks they played in the Bronx were more drum-oriented and percussion-oriented. In Brooklyn, it was more bassline and funk-oriented.
Cozmo D and Chilly B in the studio
Songfacts: You said "mixed crowds." What do you mean by that?
Cozmo: I meant that we had family crowds, so your moms would be out there, a lot more girls, so you had to play the stuff the girls wanted to hear because the girls wanted to dance and the guys wanted to dance with the girls. Whereas in the Bronx, it was more of the B-Boy thing, which was almost exclusively a male thing, and they would compete with each other.
They played some of the same stuff in the Bronx because they had girls too that they had to keep happy, but there's a whole thing with the way they pushed hip-hop that comes down to the B-Boys as far as they were concerned. In Brooklyn it was Uprocking and it was more James Brown and stuff like that.
Songfacts: What do you mean when you say the B-Boys?
Cozmo: Alright, B-Boys and B-Boy crews. The only way to tell the difference between a B-Boy crew and an Uprock crew was the way they danced. B-Boys, they went down to the ground and spun on the ground and stuff like that. In Brooklyn, that wasn't done very often. In Brooklyn, it was more the Uprocking part, which was what the B-Boys did as well, but they did it to prepare to go to the ground. In Brooklyn, we didn't go on the ground, we just Uprocked and did those styles and battled against each other in that way.
Songfacts: Was there a rivalry?
Cozmo: Sure. It was all built on rivalry. It was originally built on street gangs, so it was all one crew against another crew. It was all rivalry - everything was battling. The DJs battled against each other, the MCs battled against each other, the dancers battled against each other. In that era, everything was battling.
The most important element of hip-hop - the one that never gets mentioned but it's the most important - is the battle, because that was what drove us. Even graffiti was about the battles - who could put up more and whose would be the best.
Songfacts: So tell me what would happen in a typical battle.
Cozmo: Which kind of battle?
Songfacts: So, this is one thing that I'm getting at: If the battles were distinct. Meaning if the dancers would have their own battles, the MCs would have their own, or if they were all coming together at once.
Cozmo: It happened all kinds of ways. DJ battles, sometimes the DJs would take turns if it was a cooperative thing, and if it was an uncooperative thing, they would battle against each other - one would set up on one side of the park, the other would set up on the other side of the park, and they'd try to drown each other out and we would have what's called "pulling the crowd." If all the people were down there dancing to one DJ and you played the record that pulled the crowd and pulled them away from that DJ and pulled them to your system, that's what pulling the crowd was. In "Jam On It," we talk about Superman pulling the crowd as part of the battle.
MCs could be battling with separate DJs, like one MC would be battling with one DJ and battling against the MC with another DJ, or they could be battling on the same DJ system. When we did parties, MCs either that were with our crew or that were coming by would line up and take turns getting on the mic and battling each other.
Dance crews showed up and if they wanted to battle, they'd tell the DJ to put on something to battle with and you'd play the records that they want to go off on, and they would get in a ring or get in a line and dance against each other.
Songfacts: So as the DJ you really had control.
Cozmo: Oh yeah, it was all about the DJ. The DJ ran everything. The DJ was supreme.
Songfacts: And that was your job at the time?
Songfacts: Did you ever have to deal with fights or other activities that you needed to put a stop to?
Cozmo: Sure, there were fights, but we didn't have many of those problems with our jams. Every now and then a fight would break out, but when we played, people wanted to dance, so they would cover the fight.
A lot of crews had problems with people shooting. Show up and there'd be firing in the air or they'd stick up the DJ crew, take their money or take their equipment. But we didn't have that problem.
Songfacts: When did this music start getting recorded?
Cozmo: The peak for the park jams was the summer of 1979, and of course that's the year "Rapper's Delight" came out. "King Tim III" came out before that also in 1979, but "Rapper's Delight" was the first one that made the radio, so it made most people aware.
The DJs were aware of the rap records with "King Tim III" but most people think of "Rapper's Delight" as the first one because it actually was a hit on the radio. By the summer of 1980, when we were still doing some jams, other rap records had started to come out and there were other rap records that we would play.
Songfacts: And when did you start recording?
Cozmo: We recorded "Jam On Revenge" in 1982, but it didn't come out until 1983. I started fooling around and starting to do music at the end of 1979. I bought a synthesizer, an Electro Harmonix mini-synthesizer, and a drum machine, and I started doing tape-to-tape versions of music that I was coming up with. I got more equipment and got good enough that I got somebody to take me into the studio in 1982, and that was "Jam On Revenge." The name of our DJ crew was Jam On Productions, so we named it after the crew.
Songfacts: Did you say tape-to-tape recording?
Cozmo: Right. With two cassette decks. You record onto one cassette, then you play it through the mixer and then layer it with another recording onto the next cassette, so you ended up with a very noisy, low-quality cassette but with multi-tracks on it.
Songfacts: Was this your full-time job, Ben?
Cozmo: No, I worked in a mailroom.
Songfacts: Because nobody was getting paid for this back then?
Cozmo: Well, we got gigs occasionally. We'd do weddings and block parties and stuff like that but we were doing it for the love - we weren't making a lot of money. We made enough money to buy records and to buy equipment, but it was more of a hobby than anything. When I started doing the music, it was in pursuit of a career.
Songfacts: Many of your contemporaries were sampling...
Cozmo: Nah, there was no sampling back then.
Songfacts: Really? Sugarhill Gang for instance.
Cozmo: That wasn't a sample, they had a band.
Songfacts: Okay, but interpolating - taking something that already existed.
Cozmo: Oh yeah, interpolating, yes.
Songfacts: Yeah, the beats were based on something that was already made, but it sounds like "Jam On It" was purely original.
Cozmo: Yeah. I was in bands before I was DJing, so music was something I always wanted to do. Our band didn't start out trying to do rap, it was the record company that asked us to do rap. We were trying to be a funk band more than anything, but a hip-hop-oriented funk band because we were hip-hop, we were from the streets, but I wasn't an MC and Chilly B wasn't an MC - we were both DJs. So we were just trying to make a funky band, and we had our lines singing, but the record company asked for a rap record and we said, "Oh yeah, we can do that."
Songfacts: Do you guys play instruments?
Cozmo: Yeah, I played keyboards and Chilly B played keyboards and bass.
Songfacts: So you guys could have just as easily been an Earth, Wind & Fire-type funk band.
Cozmo: Yeah, that was more or less our inspiration, bands like that, except we were hip-hop at the core because we had drum machines.
Songfacts: That's a different foundation than what you think of, because most of the rappers around that time couldn't have been in a funk band. Run-D.M.C. was nowhere near a funk band.
Cozmo: No. We were the first hip-hop band. Stetsasonic claims they are the original hip-hop band because they claimed it first, but we were before Stetsasonic and we played our own stuff when we went out on stage. We played our own instruments and we even had a drummer, so when we were on the Fresh Fest with the other hip-hop groups of that time, we were the only actual band that played our own stuff.
Songfacts: So Newcleus, you're saying, has a claim to being the very first hip-hop band.
Songfacts: Wow! That's pretty cool.
Cozmo: I think so.
Songfacts: And you base that on the fact that you were recording as a live band before anybody else was doing it, making hip-hop music.
Cozmo: Yup. And we played all our instruments ourselves. Anybody else that was doing hip-hop had somebody else doing their music for them. Even if the music was original, it was somebody else doing their music. We did all of our music ourselves, every note.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the Fresh Fest and performing "Jam On It" live. Everybody else was putting their tracks on and the rappers would come out and rap over the tracks, but what were you doing?
Cozmo: We played.
Songfacts: Meaning you had live instruments? You didn't just put a track on?
Cozmo: Yeah, live instruments. It was programmed with a sequencer, but yeah, it was live. The girls2 played keyboards, Chilly B played bass, we had a drummer. We were live.
Songfacts: How did that go?
Cozmo: It went well. We kicked ass.
Songfacts: You're talking about a whole festival setup where there's a huge difference between playing to a track and playing live instruments. It's vastly more complicated.
Cozmo: Yeah, we were the only ones that had to do a soundcheck every day. Everybody else just had to play their turntables or play their tape, while we had to get up there and do a rehearsal every day.
Cozmo: It went over well. You gotta remember that Fresh Fest was the first festival of that time, so us being a band, we were the norm. Everything that everybody else was doing was the exception, was something new. Nobody had ever seen people come out and play with a tape for a live act before, or play the turntables, so that was all new. We were what people were used to: a band. And since we were the opening act, we were what greeted everybody. They'd say, "OK, this is what we know." And then everything else came behind it.
Songfacts: How did the other acts on that tour get along with you?
Cozmo: They got along with us just fine. Fat Boys and Whodini - we were all from Brooklyn. Matter of fact, Jalil from Whodini and Ecstasy - God rest his soul, he just passed - we battled against them in the '70s because they were from the neighborhood south. We were from Park Slope and Bed-Stuy, and they were from South Brooklyn and Gowanus. We all knew of each other, and Run-D.M.C. were like the new jacks, so they ended up being the headliners, but they were still humble in their beginnings - it was still the beginning of everything.
But we all got along. Everybody on that tour got along. The only one that had any kind of ego was Kurtis Blow because he had been doing it for a minute,3 but even he got along well with us.
Songfacts: How did you process the vocals to get that spacey electro sound?
Cozmo: Are you talking about the "wikki-wikki" voices, the munchkin voices? We just slowed down the tape.4
Songfacts: Then how did you manage it live?
Cozmo: Oh, live, we had kids, and the kids pretended to be the "wikki-wikki" voices. So when we did live gigs, the kids went out there and they'd do the vocals and they'd breakdance, and that was a large part of our success.
The touring version of Newcleus, out of costume
Songfacts: Did you use a vocoder or anything like that?
Cozmo: We used the vocoder in Newcleus. The vocoder is a different thing. As a matter of fact, I was doing the vocoder before I was slowing down the tape. We used the vocoder live too.
Songfacts: Is there a vocoder on "Jam On It"?
Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on what Run-D.M.C. was like back in 1984 when they had to perform live.
Cozmo: What do you mean?
Songfacts: I'd like to know how they went over with the crowd, because you were playing places like Greensboro, North Carolina - this is not the Bronx - and they're coming out and playing to tracks. I'm wondering how that goes over with the crowd and how they sound?
Cozmo: Well you've got to remember, they didn't play to tracks. The only group that played to a track was Fat Boys - they played to a reel-to-reel. Whodini, Kurtis Blow, and Run-D.M.C. all used DJs, and the DJ would cut the instrumental version, and they'd rap over the instrumental versions of their records. So, they went over well.
Songfacts: But isn't that the same thing as playing to a track, when you're just playing the record of your instrumental?
Cozmo: No. With the track, there's nothing visually engaging about it, you're just hearing the music and you don't know where it's coming from. There are people up there performing and it's just there. With a DJ cutting up the records right in front of you, he's working the crowd and on the mic and all of that.
Songfacts: So having Jam Master Jay back there made a big difference.
Cozmo: Yeah, Jam Master Jay was working the crowd, he's part of the show. Same thing with Grandmaster Dee for Whodini and DJ AJ for Kurtis Blow. So, they're visual, they're part of the show, they've got routines, all kinds of stuff.
Cozmo: No. When I wrote the Superman rhyme, everybody had a Superman rhyme, but I had the BEST Superman rhyme. Everybody else had a certain style and most of the Superman rhymes were based on other people's Superman rhymes, like Superman having his way with Lois Lane and all that. I decided I was going to change it up completely, so my Superman rhyme doesn't sound like everybody else's. It talks about the crew and all of that stuff.
Songfacts: Were there other themes that floated around and everybody had one?
Cozmo: No. Everybody had a Superman rhyme, but nobody had a rhyme like my Superman rhyme.
Songfacts: Just about everybody I know, when we heard "Jam On It" we all thought it was one word: "Jamoney."
Cozmo: [Laughs] You're like the third person that's told me that... "Jamoney."
Songfacts: And here's what's really funny, Ben. I was at a hockey game once and the Zamboni came out and they played that for the Zamboni.
Did you ever consider recording a song called "Disco Kryptonite"?
Cozmo: Yes [Laughs]. I've considered it and thought about doing it quite often, yes. And I probably will do it before I check out.
Songfacts: That is a great name - a fantastic title right there.
Cozmo: People would probably hop on it real quick.
Songfacts: So once "Jam On It" comes out and it starts taking off, how does that change your life?
Cozmo: Wow. Well, what didn't happen was us making money because we got ripped off, but we got to tour all over the country and that was amazing. Living on tour and living on the tour bus and all of that - that was amazing. Hearing your music on the radio wherever you went, that was amazing too. Everything but the money. We got paid for the road which was good money, but we should have made a lot more money and if they had paid us, I would have continued to work with them and we would have had a much longer career, but they took all our money.
Songfacts: Who took all your money?
Cozmo: The guy that we signed to, Joe Webb.
Songfacts: Was he your record label?
Cozmo: Yeah, he was our original record label, and then he signed us over to Sunnyview Records. Sunnyview Records was owned by Morris Levy,5 so...
Songfacts: Oh my!
Cozmo: Yes! They paid him. They probably didn't pay him as much as they should have paid him, but they paid him, and he kept it.
Songfacts: Holy cow, Ben. That is incredibly unfortunate. So, are you telling me that you don't have any royalties from the song?
Cozmo: From back then I don't. I own the masters now, or at least I'm getting them back this year.
Songfacts: Shoot. It seems like if things had broken a little differently management-wise and you had somebody looking out for you...
Cozmo: Yeah, a whole different story. We were much more than just "Jam On It." We didn't sound like anybody else, we weren't structured like anybody else, so the story should've been different, but God is good and I'm blessed.
Songfacts: What song by another artist had the biggest impact on you?
Cozmo: My thing is jazz, but the track as a DJ that I would play first and foremost is "Eric B. Is President" by Eric B. & Rakim. If you break it down, the lyrics are probably the weakest Rakim ever did, but the flow and the way it works with the beat is incredible.
But that's me thinking as a DJ. As somebody who loves hip-hop, it would probably be something from A Tribe Called Quest, maybe "Electric Relaxation." But that's my jazz thing. Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group.
Songfacts: What was it about Steely Dan that really did it for you?
Cozmo: The songcraft and arrangements. The cats they had playing on there. But even before they had the jazz session musicians come in, the songcraft was just so good. Aja is my favorite album of all time.
January 25, 2021
More on Newcleus at jamonproductions.com
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- 1] The Fresh Fest was the first hip-hop arena tour, bringing the beat to 27 cities, including Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia. Along with Newcleus, performers included Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, Whodini and The Fat Boys, along with some breakdance crews, including the Dynamic Breakers. It had a sponsor: Swatch watches, and reportedly earned $3.5 million. (back)
- 2] Cozmo married one of the ladies in the band, Yvette "Lady E" Cook, in 1981. He proposed with graffiti, spray painting "Yvette, will you marry me" on the wall of a train station. (back)
- 3] Kurtis Blow became the first rap act to release a song on a major label when he issued "Christmas Rappin'" on Mercury in 1979. In 1980 he became the first rapper with a Gold record when "The Breaks" was certified. (back)
- 4] The tape would have been slowed down during recording, so when played back at real speed it would be at a higher pitch. (back)
- 5] To quote from the first line of his Wikipedia entry: "Morris Levy was an American gangster and con artist in the fields of jazz clubs, music publishing, and the independent record industry." (back)
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