It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing - doo wah - doo wah - doo! Duke Ellington, 1932
Since June of 1979, many Americans have celebrated Black Music month honoring the contributions of African American songwriters, musicians, composers, and singers have made to the diverse cultures of our society. On Tuesday, the 22nd of June, “Conversations with Al McFarlane”, co-hosted by KFAI Radio, virtually sat down with a legend, that of Spider J Hamilton, OO (Original Old School). Along with being a master musicologist and communicator and a renown deejay, Hamilton is also the station’s Golden Boy having been in the music business for 50 plus years.
“My career actually got started at KWKI 92.3, in Kansas City where I connected with the celebrated deejay, Freddie Bell. Jerry Bowling, known as the Doctor of Urban Radio, came up with my name and it stuck. Both Bell and I discovered we were alumni of Central High School, so that connection gave me a foot in the door. This was the station that came after KPRS which is the oldest Black radio station in the country. After completing the company’s year-long Youth Talent Program at the top of my class, I eventually enlisted in the Army, following having gone to jail for my involvement in the 1968 riots. When I came out of the Army, I decided to move to Minneapolis where I could study electronics at Control Data. That was August of 1979.”
The music Double OO and musical geniuses such as Teddy Riley, Bobby Brown Jr., the late Michael Jackson, and Belle Bev DeVoe have held on to for decades is known as ‘New Jack Swing’. Riley describes it as the most refined example of R&B; a steady infectious sound - a mixture of mental hip hop, smoothed out on the tip with a pop feel appeal to it. “Do you remember when James Brown would turn to the band, point, and yell, ‘Take It to the Bridge’! And then the dance crowd would explode into a crescendo of excitement putting together their best dance steps,” Hamilton asked?
Swing beat or New Jack swing is described as a fusion genre blending the production techniques of hip-hop, jazz, funk, rap, rhythm and blues, and dance pop with the urban contemporary sound of R&B. Spearheaded by producers Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle, New Jack swing movement was most popular from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s, and usually performed by Black musicians.
The Minnesota Sound included Prince, Andre Simone, and Mint Condition along with a host of others. Mint Condition, a jewel of this genre, continues to perform live. From 1984-2011, Pete Rhodes showcased many undiscovered talents of the ‘Sound’ such as Jesse Johnson, T.C. Ellis, Paul Lawrence, and Sue Ann Carwell, Alexander O’Neil and Maserati during the celebrated Black Music Awards.
Taking a walk down memory lane, McFarlane and Hamilton test each other’s memories of Minneapolis’ secure and joy-filled night life and the 70s and the 80s club scene. There was the street-level club at the Foshay Tower which started as King Solomon’s Mine, then morphed into The Establishment and later, Cork’s. The Spruce Club, owned by the Masons, was their place to do business; the Nacirema, an elite, semi-private neighborhood club; the Elks’ Lodge on Plymouth Avenue and Cato’s on Golden Valley Road. When 1-94 intentionally cut straight through the Black communities in the late 60s, decimating Black homes and businesses, the O.G. of entertainment, Jimmy Fuller lost his popular Cozy Bar, but later created the thriving River View Club. There were few welcome mats for Blacks in the downtown. Black entrepreneurs created entertainment venues that supported elegant social lives and at the same time, facilitated relationships that reflected and supported fulfilling their civic responsibility. These venues afforded safe night life and they were well-managed.
Artists seemed to be drawn to that Minneapolis Sound, so much so the Twin Cities were sometimes called the 3rd Coast. It was easy to make a demo, and then hope the artists could make a contact with the “circle” found in numerous club venues. There were big time players, a lot of talent, and possible contracts. The circles were tight knit, but often connections were made. The club scene provided for outlets of outstanding creative expression, and the dance music, clearly the infectious sounds of the New Jack swing, was brought by DJs Jimmy Jam Harris, Kyle Ray, Billy Bump, Pharoah Black, Dan Portier, and Spider Hamilton’ back in the day.
“The Fox Trap was the largest Black serving, but not Black owned, club in either of the Twin Cities. It was a classy environment to be at and to be seen. Surprisingly, in the 80s, Jimmy Jam had a deejay residency at this entertainment venue. On the first floor, there was always live music. On the second floor, there was the main disco with reflecting lights and full crowds. The third floor was where I found myself. We danced and we sang and we felt alive,” Hamilton said.
“The music I grew up with was about connections; relationships,” Hamilton fondly recalled. “None of that destruction and death stuff; how somebody was going to ‘smoke’ someone out. But if you look at the top 10 contemporary picks, most are Rap and Hip Hop worldwide. The Dramatics and the Whispers wanted love back and they were convincing. We played this safe stuff. I still do.”
Fifty plus years, and the infectious, rhythmic body twerks are still there. The SOS band is heard in the background. Double OO comes alive. Years gone by. The feel of the release of all the drama is remembered. The lights, the exhilaration of the live bands. Party slips being distributed. Classiness, love, and laughter fill the rooms. “I hope other bands keep the Minnesota Sound going. That’s going to be important. I’m going to do what I can, but I’m not going to be around forever,’ said Hamilton.
Movies such as House Party with Kid N Play, Boyz N the Hood, Boomerang, Ghostbusters II theme song (Bobby Brown) ‘On My Own’, and “New Jack City” all had a ‘swing’ cut in their soundtracks. The dance music was popularized by rappers Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (However Do You Want Me), The Fresh Prince; and late 80s and early 90s television shows ‘A Different World’ and ‘In Living Color’ also helped to popularize the genre. To date, the most successful New Jack Swing album is ‘Dangerous’, released in 1991 and produced by Michael Jackson and Teddy Riley. The album has sold over 32 million copies worldwide, he said.
For the past 5 years, Hamilton, an inductee into the prestigious Marquis Who’s Who, has awarded deejay scholarships to up-and-coming talents in the field. The winners of the two annual scholarships are then invited to come and watch the jocks at work. “It’s about giving back; passing the torch, Hamilton said.
For further information: www.SlamAcademy.com/scholarship Look for Double OO this fall in “Millennium Magazine”
Reference: “Purple Snow: What Came Before Purple Rain” - The Atlantic/11-13-2013. A compilation chronicling the influential Minneapolis R & B sound of the 70s and early 80s right before Prince.