The Roof Is On Fire: An Old School Rap Story

The Roof. The Roof. The Roof is on Fire.
We don't need no water, let the mutha f--ker burn.

It's an Old School Hip-Hop chant that permeated popular culture, but it was a slow burn. Released by Rockmaster Scott and the Dynamic Three in 1984, "The Roof Is On Fire" was originally the B-side of their song "Request Line." Years later, the chant started showing up at George Clinton/P-Funk shows and anywhere else there was a literal or figurative controlled burn. It was sampled by The Orb, ironically covered by the Bloodhound Gang (as "Fire Water Burn"), and used in the movies Mystery Men, Head of State and Euro Trip. It even shows up in the middle of Nelly's "Hot In Herre" video.

The Dynamic Three were the Bronx rappers Charlie Prince (Charles Pettiford), Slick Rick (Richard Fowler - not the British rapper who did "Children's Story"), and Master Blaster Greg (Greg Wigfall). They released just three songs, but did get their names on the credits, which came in handy when the royalty checks started coming for "Roof." In this interview, Greg takes us back to the block parties and tells the story behind their famous song.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Were you a rapper when this started out?

Greg Wigfall: Yes. Yes, I was.

Songfacts: Tell me about how the whole thing started.

Greg: Well, rap started in the Bronx, probably in the late '70s. And at that time I wasn't rapping. I started rapping probably in 1981, '82, with the group Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three. There were four of us, we had a DJ and it was myself and two other rappers. And back in the Bronx, we did it for the love of rappin'. We called it rhyming.

We ran into our promoter, which was Jerry Bloodrock, back in 1982. He took interest in our particular group, and we started recording on vinyl, on 12 inches. Our first single was a song called, "It's Life (You Gotta Think Twice)," which wasn't a bad song. It was a positive rap song. We made that song in 1983, and a year later we came out with another 12-inch, and it was the A-side of "The Roof is on Fire." It was called "Request Line." And "Request Line" was a huge song for us. Years later they started playing "The Roof is on Fire," but that was the B-side on "Request Line."

And as I speak now, "The Roof is on Fire" is still playing. ASCAP keeps record of "The Roof is on Fire" as it plays on radio, and it's been in a couple of movies. So it's a song that I believe may outlive most of us. In 2006, we received an ASCAP award because people are constantly remaking it. This Spanish Group called Kumbia Kings, remade "The Roof is on Fire," and I guess in the Spanish community it went platinum or gold. And because we were the writers of the song, we got writers credit for it.

Songfacts: Greg, tell me about writing the song.

Greg: Back in the early part of '83, as a group, we came together and we put the song together, wrote the lyrics and everything. And that was it. It was a real simple song. It wasn't a difficult write.

Songfacts: Well, the big distinction with that song that sets it apart from all the other rap songs in the era is the chant. I can understand how you guys would get together and you'd think of your verses and come up with those. But how did you come up with "the roof is on fire"?

Greg: Jerry, who was our producer, had a lot to do with it. Jerry and one of the other rappers, Charles Pettiford, had a lot to do with the chant. As a group we wrote other lyrics to it.

Songfacts: Was there any concern over the cursing in it?

Greg: No.

Songfacts: Was that always part of it - "let the motherfucker burn"?

Greg: Always. Yes. From the beginning that was part of the lyrics. Afterwards, we did come in and we recorded another song, we called it "Scratching on the Roof," where the curse part of it was scratched out. So if we wanted to perform it or if radio played it, most of the time they'd play that version, with the "We don't need no water, let the... chchch" and they'd scratch the lyrics out so it could play on the radio.

Songfacts: Have you guys done other versions of that song since?

Greg: I didn't.

Songfacts: So anything that we hear past that is some kind of remix that somebody put together?

Greg: Yeah. I've never been back in the studio and did a remake on that song, and I've been in Connecticut now since 1985.

Songfacts: So you grew up in the Bronx?

Greg: I was in the Bronx, yes. That's where I grew up. It was going down in the Bronx.

Songfacts: It's excellent that you actually managed to get some royalties for this song, because in many cases that didn't happen. A lot of guys somehow got screwed out of it.

Greg: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Big time back then. Nowadays, you know, the rappers are collecting from the million dollars that Jay-Z makes and 50 Cent make, so they came in at the right time. But when rap first started, we got nothing, pretty much, with these songs. And sales reports were not done right to keep royalties down. It's a whole lot better now for rappers in collecting royalties and making a little bit of money.

Songfacts: One thing I noticed is that Rock Master Scott doesn't have a credit on these songs. So he didn't technically write any of that, huh?

Greg: No. He didn't.

Songfacts: It's his name on the group out front there.

Greg: His name is Mark Scott. What happened was Scott was out DJing and like we just talked about, there are certain things that happened with a lot of the groups that we just didn't know. It was probably the early '90s when I found out that Scott wasn't receiving any credit for anything, because we never looked at the record, we never saw his name mentioned on the record. We were young at the time, and we paid no attention to that. And no, he was never given credit for anything.

He was our DJ. And we utilized Rock Master Scott. And see, the name Rock Master Scott came about because Jerry Bloodrock was our manager and producer. Scott's name was Master Scott. So what Jerry did was he took the Rock from Jerry Bloodrock and attached it to the Master Scott and that's when he came up with Rock Master Scott. It wasn't just Scott. But it was Jerry Bloodrock, Mark Scott and the Dynamic Three. So he called it Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three.

Songfacts: Were you guys out performing these songs?

Greg: Yes.

Songfacts: How did that go down? You hear about these block parties and what was going on in the Bronx. Tell me about what it was like when you would perform these songs.

Greg: See, in the Bronx when our songs came out, we did most of our performing in other states. We did a lot of traveling at the time. But the block parties that went down in the Bronx, they were DJ parties, we would take up blocks. I remember taking a block and the DJ would plug his system up, utilizing the power from off of a pole, and they would rope everything off and the police didn't bother us. The party began at that point. With some of the projects they had a backyard area, the basketball court. Someplace not in the street, but on the basketball court in the playground area is where the DJ would come and set up their ropes and their speakers, and then the MCs would go behind the ropes and entertain the people that were out there. Many block parties happened at a park called Echo Park, like in the Bronx on Tremont Avenue. Echo Park was a place where a whole bunch of local rappers that never made it performed. They were celebrities in their own neighborhood, but just never got the break that we got with making the songs and doing what we did.

Songfacts: How many songs would you typically do at one of these sets?

Greg: Well, we would do the three songs that we made. We would start off with "It's Life (You Gotta Think Twice)." We would do "Request Line," and we would always end our shows with "The Roof is on Fire." Now, in between the songs, we would freestyle rap to what we called back then Beat Music. It was other people's music - instrumental beats in the songs - and then we'd come in with ours. So we'd put the show together that way.

Songfacts: And it was always just you guys with your DJ, it wasn't a package deal where then another DJ would come in and play and other rappers would come on?

Greg: Everybody had their own promoter. There were other people on the show, but they were not attached to us. Like, Run-DMC may have been on the show, we've done shows with Kurtis Blow and a couple of other people. But they had their own booking agent that booked them on the same show we were on.

Songfacts: Back then, it was a lot of hyping the DJ, wasn't it?

Greg: Absolutely. That's why Rock Master Scott led in the name. because back then you had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three. It was the DJ's name who led the secondary name, which was the rapper, and that's just how we did it back then. We always led with our DJ. There were many times we did shows and nobody even mentioned the Dynamic Three. We were called Rock Master Scott and that was it. So we would go places and that was our name, Rock Master Scott.

Songfacts: It sounds like Bloodrock was the guy that was coming up with your beats and you guys were coming up with the raps.

Greg: No. Scott had a lot to do with the beats. Jerry had input and so did we. So when it came down to the beats and stuff, we all had some input with it. Jerry Bloodrock was our management, our producer, and he played that role. But he did have some say when it came down to us with the beats that we were putting together. Scott played a big role with that, also.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing "Request Line," how you came up with that song.

Greg: Jerry was a DJ, and had the concept of, "DJ please pick up your phone, I'm on the request line." We wanted to be in tune with this particular song for the radio station, because with radio, that's what it was. The request line is what people called into when they want to request a song. So we utilized that concept as a radio type of song, the message behind it, DJ picking the phone up and someone making a request and then playing the music.

And then the raps that came in between the hooks were our own freestyle raps introducing ourselves. Like my rap name was MBG and when I picked the phone up, "Hello, MBG on your request line, responding to your request." I would answer the phone and say who I was, and then lay the rap down. It was more of a radio type of song, and it worked. I remember 98.7 KISS broke that song and when they broke it, it just went wild. It came out right around the time that Run-DMC made "Sucker M.C.s" It was like a battle as to which song was #1 this week, and it went from there.

Did we expect it to do that? I didn't. When they started playing and playing on regular rotation, it had everybody surprised. But it hit regular rotation with major radio stations, and it's been in Billboard magazine. I think we were in Billboard with a bullet up to #16 before it started to drop.

Songfacts: You made a video for that, right?

Greg: Yes. We did.

Songfacts: Did that get any MTV play?

Greg: Not much, but it did. Because back then, MTV was not really playing rap music like they do now.

Songfacts: I don't even know if they had Yo! MTV Raps back then.

Greg: They didn't. They didn't start really playing music like that video until probably '85, '86, '87. But we got local play on some stations and other places. It did play on TV for a good while.

Songfacts: Do you know what radio station Bloodrock was working for when you guys came up with that?

Mr. Magic (real name: John Rivas) became the first rap radio DJ when he started Mr. Magic's Disco Showcase on the Newark, New Jersey station WHBI in 1979. He eventually moved to WBLS in New York, where he hosted The Rap Attack. Rivas died in 2009 at age 53. The Whodini song "Magic's Wand" is about him.
Greg: WHBI. For a time he was on the same station with Mr. Magic.

Songfacts: So that meant Jerry and Mr. Magic could help break you guys out a little bit, give you some airplay.

Greg: And he did. He really did. Yeah. Mr. Magic had a lot to do with our group. And then he moved on from there to BLS where he also carried more rap and was an advocate for a lot of the rappers that were doing what they were doing. Mr. Magic played a huge part in the history of rap music.

Songfacts: What do you consider the first rap song?

Greg: "King Tim III" by the Fatback Band was probably the first rap song, the way we'd do it. He came out before Kurtis Blow came out with "The Breaks." They say James Brown had been rapping for years, but the first rap song that we can tie into the way we did it, I believe it was the Fatback Band.

Songfacts: What happened after you guys did these three songs? You kind of disappeared at that point.

Greg: I'm a retired Connecticut Trooper. I went into the State Police Academy on July 15th, 1985, and I graduated in December of '85. The group continued doing shows and stuff - Rick and Charles continued. I took the back seat and kind of drifted away, because of the job that I was doing - it kind of took me away. They never recorded with Jerry Bloodrock again. They make a few other songs, but they didn't do what "The Roof is on Fire" and "Request Line" did.

I did what I had to do. It's been six years since I've been retired, so it worked out for me. I enjoyed it when I was doing it, but it was a decision that I made to drift away and make the move that I made.

Songfacts: When did you start realizing that this whole "roof is on fire" thing was going to be part of the cultural landscape?

Greg: Probably in 1989. That's when I started really seeing it and hearing it being played on the radio and other people sampling the music and the ASCAP royalties began to get bigger. So I would say in '89 is when I looked at this whole thing and said, "Wow, this can go a long time."

Songfacts: Yeah, because it seemed to get bigger. I don't remember anybody saying "the roof is on fire" in 1987. But then I'd go to a George Clinton show in the '90s and everybody would be saying it.

Greg: Uh-huh. One day it was huge. It was huge.

Songfacts: Now that you're retired as a rapper and state trooper, what are you doing with yourself?

Greg: I have my own entertainment company. I work a lot with children now, so I attach myself with the younger generation who wants to rap. In my house I put my own recording studio, and I'm a photographer and videographer by trade now. I run my own media camp for the younger children, teaching them how to rap and studio presence and how to use a video camera and take pictures and stuff. So I'm still sort of attached in a way, trying to help somebody else, pay it forward if I could.

Get more from Greg at All photos are courtesy of Gregory Wigfall.
More Song Writing

Comments: 6

  • Jonathon B from PhoenixThe reason brenda remembers the chant from earlier is the fact that the chant comes from the Ohio Players 1974 song "Fire"
  • Debra W from Chicago, IlI remember Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1979 and the entire crowded pool chanting "the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We dont need no water, let the mf burn"... how is it that Rock Master Scott first recorded it in 1984? I was already out of college for 2 years. Something is not right!
  • Ben Linus from LouisianaI heard this in Louisiana in early 80's. Not sure the source, but it seems like it was something we'd chant after Talking Heads "Burning Down the House". I doubt it originated there. Maybe from a mix of classmates from all over. Jammin' times! Rock on! :)
  • Dj Hassan B from Dallas, TxI was a DJ from NY in San Antonio, Tx. I started in the late 70s. I was the DJ who bought hip hop culture to the city mixing and scratching with my crew The Chill Out Crew. The lyrics of The Roof is On Fire were being performed by Lou Miller a local DJ on a military base Ft Sam Houston in 1982. Those lines wer e bit. Lou Miller wasn't a hip hop DJ but the only thing he had when he battle us an loss was his phrase...The roof the roof the roof is on fireeee we don't need no water let the mf. Burn burn mf burn. When the song came out I figured with all the people in the military that came through someone bit..FACTS
  • Jeff K from LaYou claim that this started showing up in Clinton concerts after 84? Funny that Grag does not mention how si,milar this was to "Tear the Roof off the Sucker..." FROM 19f'n75! I am sick of no talent hacks not given Clinton and PFunk their proper respect. Ingrates...
  • Anon from UkI'm hoping the Bloodhound Gang version will be allowed to be played at my cremation. Definately an 'at the moment' track!
see more comments

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