"Never once acknowledged, not a spotlight, nothing came in our direction," says Angie Stone of her experience attending the 2016 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. "I just was so embarrassed."
The event, held at New York's Lincoln Center and broadcast on the network last summer, was subtitled "All Hail the Queens," a ladies-first tribute to the female pioneers of hip-hop. Honorees included Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott. But none of the show's celebrated icons were as truly pioneering as Stone's funk-a-doodle-rock-jam trio the Sequence.
The group – Cheryl "the Pearl" Cook, Gwendolyn "Blondy" Chisolm and Stone, the lead singer, then known as Angela "Angie B" Brown – recorded the hard-grooving Sugar Hill Records single "Funk You Up" in 1979, one of the very first hip-hop songs ever etched to vinyl. Though never officially certified, it was a nationwide smash, serving as the first rap hit performed by women, and only the third rap song to chart in the Top 50 of Billboard's Hot Soul Singles. Thrust from a South Carolina housing project into the national spotlight, the Sequence were also America's first Southern rap group. And in a Seventies landscape where the few rap records that existed were chorus-free rhyme marathons, the Sequence seamlessly mixed singing and rapping, unwittingly paving a lane for artists like Lauryn Hill, Drake and Future.
"'Gangsta rap' came out of my mouth. Did you know that?" says Cook. She takes a minute to speedily cycle through her verse on the 1980 single "And You Know That" to get to the smoking gun. "I said, 'We're not Con Funk Shun, we're not the Gap, we're the Sugar Hill girls with the gangsta rap,'" she recites with force. "'We're not Chic or Sugar Hill. We're the Sequence girls with the gangsta thrill.' We were the only ones talking about 'gangsta' in records. It came out of my mouth!"
At the Hip-Hop Honors, Sequence was recognized with a photo – one of 30 squares on a collage of female rappers – and a shout-out during's Salt's acceptance speech. Feeling disrespected, the group started heading toward the door but say they were approached to join Queen Latifah for a show-closing all-star performance of her 1994 single "U.N.I.T.Y."
"We looked at them like they were crazy," says Cook. "We're not going on the stage to talk about unity when there's no unity amongst us. And we left." (Says a VH1 spokesperson, "We're big fans of Sequence and were thrilled to have them as guests at the show.")
"A lot of female rappers say they've been there since Day One," says fellow old-school legend Roxanne Shanté. "I've been there since the night before. And they were there before that. When it came to hearing them on the radio, they automatically let me know, OK, that's what I'm supposed to be doing. If it wasn't for them, there wouldn't be no me. And if it wasn't for me, there wouldn't be none of them."
The Sequence weren't the first group of females to touch the microphone – cassettes of late Seventies and early Eighties New York throwdowns explode with the voices of Sha-Rock of Funky 4+1, the Mercedes Ladies, Lisa Lee of Afrika Bambaataa's Cosmic Force, Pebblee Poo of Harlem's Masterdon Committee and more. But the Sequence were the first to reach ears outside the five boroughs, an integral step in hip-hop's rise from local sensation to Planet Rock.
"[VH1] tried to change history and say a lot of people don't remember Sequence," Stone says. "They didn't make a significant enough contribution, and we were devastated."
For proof of the Sequence's enduring influence on contemporary music, you might not need to look much further than 2016's Record of the Year Grammy winner, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk." The Sequence feel that the song – a 14-week chart-topper and 11-time platinum mega-smash – has a bridge that is remarkably similar to the chorus of the their signature track, "Funk … you … right on up."
"Bruno Mars took the lyrics, the cadence and the melodies," says Stone, "and then they went and reached over to 'Apache' [the indelible 1981 Sugarhill Gang jock jam co-written by Cook] and got 'Jump on it/Jump on it.' I'm like, OK, now y'all done did too much. We're broke over here, OK? We need some money. We need some of that, because we created that!"
"We damn near 60 years old," says Chisolm. "It's nothing funny about this. We still have to work. Cheryl lost her grandmama's house due to not being able to pay her bills."
"For everybody that has used our music, we should have been millionaires a long time ago," says Cook.
"Funk You Up" alone has been sampled or invoked by artists like En Vogue, Boogie Down Productions, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Ice Cube, Flavor Flav, De La Soul and Trina. Most notably, its ring-ding-donging hook was borrowed by Dr. Dre for the 1995 smash "Keep Their Heads Ringin'." All three say their take was about 6.5 percent each for the latter.
The Sequence say their money woes began when they became one of the first acts signed to pioneering hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records. Sugar Hill impresario Sylvia Robinson, who passed away in 2011, scooped them up and kept them eating and touring for half a decade. But, according to Chisolm, Sugar Hill Records owned the group's publishing for 30 years, and Chisolm wagers they could have lived on those royalties. The rights to "Funk You Up" reverted back to the trio in November 2016, and now the group is raring to ring a few heads of its own. The lawyer representing Sequence tells Rolling Stone that he is in talks with the attorneys that represent Universal Music Publishing, with hopes of resolving the situation amicably – though he says he is prepared to pursue litigation if necessary. Mark Ronson's label, RCA, offered no comment.
"We should've been able to enjoy it in our earlier years," says Chisolm. "Not to say I won't take it now!"
Stone, Cook and Chisolm all grew up in the Saxon Homes Projects in Columbia, South Carolina. Cook was the daughter of a factory employee who was killed in a case of mistaken identity when Cook was not yet six years old; Chisolm, the second oldest of a handful of siblings, was born to a single mother; Stone, an only child, was daughter to a nurse and a cab-driver father who sang at the Masonic Temple.
Cook describes the community as "close-knit." Stone and Chisolm sang in the church choir and had respectable showings in dance competitions before the three united as overachievers in C.A. Johnson High School. Within the trio you had woodwind players in the school band, poetry enthusiasts and members of the basketball and track teams – but all three ended up on the cheerleading squad, writing original material instead of stock cheers.
"'Funk You Up' comes from a cheer," explains Chisolm. "'Funk You Up' was [sings]: 'We're gonna blow you, right on out. We're gonna blow you right on out.'"
Cook was a fan of Rick James, James Brown, Larry Graham and musicians from across the Parliament-Funkadelic universe. But things would change once 1979's first wave of hip-hop 12-inches started trickling down to South Carolina radio stations: the Fatback Band's "King Tim III" and, of course, the Sugarhill Gang's monster hit "Rapper's Delight."
"When we heard 'King Tim III,' we lost it," says Chisolm. "And then when we heard the Gang, we was like … 'We can do that!' Because, with cheering, you're basically rapping right there. We all just got together and just wrote the song. Just started. It was just a bunch of talking, and we knew it had to rhyme." Soon they were rehearsing at Cook's grandmother's house and playing the local skating rink, doing embryonic a cappella versions of Sequence songs like "Funk You Up" and "Come On Let's Boogie." Before the year was out, the Sugarhill Gang was rolling through South Carolina, and, says Cook, "We wanted to let them know that we could rap too."
Chisolm worked at the Super Saver, and her boss, who was an aspiring music manager, had promised her some Sugarhill Gang tickets for her 20th birthday. Though Chisolm was the oldest of the group, her mom, a mother of four who worked for the Parks and Recreation department, was the strictest.
"'Now we got to see how I'm gonna get out of the house,'" Chisolm remembers thinking. "Because I knew my mom was never gonna let me go to a concert. … So I said, 'Mom, can I go spend the night with Cheryl?' She said, 'No. Get out of my face, and go sit down somewhere.'"
was like, 'My mom said you can come and stay with us, if you want to. My mom
said your mom is crazy.' I said, 'Well, let me tell you this: If I walk out
that door, I'm not going to ever be allowed to come back in. I'm just gonna
have to pack all my stuff. [My mom] said, 'If you walk out this door, don't
you ever come back.' I never went back."
When the trio arrived at the Township Auditorium, the tickets they were promised were not at the box office. As they stood dejected outside, one of the Gang's staffers began flirting with Stone. She promptly sweet-talked him into walking the entire group backstage.
"We didn't even know who he was or where he was taking us. All we knew was we were going in," says Chisolm. "And when he was talking to us, we go, 'Oh, and by the way, we can sing and rap better than the Sugarhill Gang.'"
According to Cook, they ran into Sugarhill Gang producer Nate Edmonds and immediately went into grind mode – "Somebody gotta hear us. We could beat them guys rapping" – to which he replied that they should send him a tape. Then a voice from a chair said, "I'll listen to y'all."
Music industry veteran Sylvia Robinson had a career co-running the soul label All Platinum and scoring hits for herself, most recently in 1973 with the sultry, luxurious proto-disco song "Pillow Talk." By playing Svengali to some local kids outside a New Jersey pizza parlor, she formed the Sugarhill Gang and Sugar Hill Records, the very first national success for the long-incubating Bronx-born art form of hip-hop. Far from the shiny-suited crooner she appeared as on Soul Train, Robinson was just an older woman in T-shirt, jeans and a jacket asking to hear the enthusiastic girls sing. They performed a few songs – "Come On Let's Boogie" and "Get It Together," and, according to Chisolm, the Northerners laughed at them and got a kick out of their Southern accents.
Remembers Sugar Hill bassist Doug Wimbish, they performed two songs. "Somebody comes to see me like, 'Sylvia's looking for you, Sylvia's looking for you … and get your bass.'"
About to walk out, Cook suggested they do "Funk You Up" as a third number. Robinson said, "'Stop it right there,'" Chisolm recalls. "'Oh, my god, I'm going to make you girls stars. That's a hit.'" Doug Wimbish created what would become the 12-inch's iconic bass line on the spot.
"From the moment they started, 'Won't you get up … keep going,' it took me about five seconds to write that bass line. I'm not even joking," says Wimbish. "I heard it instantly. Out of these three girls, who's the dominant pitch master? I followed Angie. I'm not even joking, I instantly wrote that song. I just listened to one vibe. Took five to 10 seconds tops, not even bullshittin' to you. My bass wasn't plugged in. I was just playing it straight in a room. And I could see their eyes diggin' it, and then Sylvia's eyes diggin' it, so I just held the ground.
"It was so blazing at that time because it was so organic," he says. "There was no prep time. It's in real time. You can't script this shit."
That night they went on stage with the Sugarhill Gang and excitedly bounced along to "Rapper's Delight" with no microphones. The group didn't realize Robinson was the same woman who performed "Pillow Talk" until they were in her New Jersey mansion a few weeks later.
Prior to that trip, Chisolm had taken a phone call from Robinson at Super Saver. "I tried to reach out to my mom one more time," she says. "I said, 'Hey, mom. I just want to tell you that I'm going to New York to be a star.' What'd I say that for? Of course, she cursed me out and told me, 'They're going to make prostitutes and whores out of you.'"
They all got on an airplane for the first time and met Robinson in New Jersey to record "Funk You Up." New York and New Jersey didn't eat them alive, but the culture shock was palpable. On the first night, Robinson gave them each $100 to get something to eat. "To an 18-year-old kid, we was like, '$100 to get something to eat?!' You know, so we went to McDonald's," says Cook with a laugh. "We getting McDonald’s and giving them a $100 bill. I remember them looking at us like we were crazy."
"You know, when we got up there, they took us in the office," says Chisolm," and [Sugar Hill co-founder Joe Robinson] did the daddy talk to us, told us about the drugs, that the boys up North were different than the boys from down South. He asked us do we need to go see a doctor, and I was like, 'Oh, no. I don't need to see a doctor.' I was a virgin until I was 21. I didn't know anything about sex. My mom wouldn't let me out of the house!
"Let me tell you how dumb we were," Chisolm continues. "Sylvia said, 'The guys just went to Europe. If you woulda got here a day early, you could've went with them to Europe.' So, Angie said, 'Can we catch the bus?' And she said, 'Oh, baby, the bus don't go to Europe.'"
Chisolm put on a hard, libidinous persona on "Funk You Up," spitting lines like, "I get more sex than a cat chase mice," but in reality, when her boyfriend Reese attempted to go all the way, she had to call Cook on the phone for advice – and then fainted. The group recorded the song in one take.
"Joe and Sylvia had a cutter, They could cut records at the studio," says Wimbish. "Let me tell you something, [the band] lived in Connecticut. We could cut a song at Sugar Hill during the week. And on Friday we go home, I could hear the shit on WBLS driving back to Connecticut. That's how quick the records got out."
Robinson sent some test presses out to radio, and by the end of their trip, says Cook, they were on the legendary station WBLS doing an interview with iconic New York DJ Frankie Crocker.
"We didn't know him from the man on the moon," says Cook. "We had no idea we were being interviewed by a legend. … But he was very nice to us."
They flew back home. In November, less than one month after their fateful meeting with Robinson at the Township Auditorium, the Sequence were hearing themselves on the radio. In December, Robinson would call again and ask them to meet the Sugarhill Gang in North Carolina – she wanted them to hit the road. At this point, Cook was attending Benedict College, Chisolm had dreams of joining the Army and becoming a drill sergeant, and Stone was a high school senior with four scholarships on the table.
"I'm like, 'My mama ain't gonna let me go nowhere!'" says Stone. "Blondy was like, 'Lord, I know my mom ain't gonna let me go nowhere.' But at this point the record was a hit. I was there crying like a big baby: 'I'm not gonna get this chance ever again in my life. Please!' My dad said, 'Girl, you can cry, you ain't going nowhere.' My mom and dad said, 'They ain't gonna do nothing but take you up there and make prostitutes outcha!' In their world, Sylvia Robinson and them were Northern people and their sense of nurturing wasn't on the level of a Southerner. So our moms was thinking the worst."
Eventually Stone was able to convince her parents to let her go. "Look," she says. "I took $500 home, and that shut the game down, OK?"
From there it was nearly two years of touring, recording, making albums, traveling alongside the Sugarhill Gang and living it up in New York City's bustling hip-hop community. The culture was not even a decade old, born in a South Bronx rec room in 1972 from Kool Herc's "merry-go-round" technique of manipulating two records and, soon, with MC Coke La Rock adding words of encouragement. By 1979, it had spawned an array of techniques, ideologies, aesthetics, styles and crews that crossed boroughs and barriers. Future icons like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Moe Dee and Kurtis Blow had already established themselves. Three girls from South Carolina were immediately thrust into the ground floor of an American cultural revolution.
"We had no clue of what was going on in New York," says Cook. "We had noooo idea. In South Carolina, we were basically doing the same things that they were doing. We had people in the park every summer. We didn't know anything about Grandmaster Flash, none of the groups. We met them. We didn't know them."
Though their labelmates in the Sugarhill Gang were often regarded as New Jersey interlopers, the Sequence have nothing but good memories of their time crashing hip-hop's ground zero: "Herc, all of 'em," says Cook, "everybody respected us." She remembers showing up at the home of hip-hop nightlife in 1979, Disco Fever, in their colorful and sparkly outfits. Bam-Bam, the security detail, took them right to owner Sal Abbatiello, who told them they should feel comfortable. "Sal used to designate a spot for us to sit. They always treated us like ladies. They always kept someone along to watch the girls and make sure nobody got in our space," Cook says. "People [would] go, 'Hey, Blondy,' squeeze your hand, and then you open your hand, they give you drugs or something. I would take it and I would give it to somebody else and say, 'What's this?' and they say, 'Oh, that's cocaine.' What I want it for?"
The group hit the road on Sugar Hill package tours with other early rap luminaries like the Treacherous Three, Funky 4 + 1, Kevie Kev, Mean Machine, and Wayne and Charlie. Chisolm describes the Sugarhill Gang as "perfect gentlemen," and even innocently dated the group's Master Gee "in name only." Cook points out how faithful the Gang were to their significant others back home. However, touring with the biggest group of rap's first decade was a look into sheer rock-star debauchery.
Flash and the Furious Five came aboard tearing up the hotels and fighting and
doing everything. Putting holes in the wall," says Chisolm. "Sylvia
used to put us in the best hotels, [but] she started putting us in
different hotels. Sylvia said, 'Oh, no. I can't afford to pay for them
tearing up hotels.' It was crazy. They would have those girls come on the bus,
have sex on the bus, mess up some of the beds. Then when we get back on the bus,
somebody don't wanna sleep in that bed 'cause that bed done been messed on. You
know them boys, how nasty they were.
"We had been some places, way down in the South where there were no blacks," Chisolm continues. "We walked in a restaurant one day when we were going through town, and I would say, 'We better get our butt back on the bus. These people don't look like they want us here.' And you know, of course, you had [the Furious Five] saying, 'Oh, I want somebody to come,' 'cause they down for a fight. One thing with all of them being on the road, we didn't have to worry about nobody bothering us, that's for sure."
Together, the Sequence and these early rap groups were planting the seeds of the hip-hop revolution across America. In the days before package tours like the Fresh Fest or Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell tour, hip-hop acts were often opening for funk bands like Parliament, the O'Jays, Chaka Khan, and Kool and the Gang.
"Con Funk Shun and Skyy,
they would come on before us and then they would get the opportunity to watch
our shows," says Cook. "And when we come offstage, they'd be like,
'Amazing! Y'all are amazing!' But the most amazing thing
was with the Gap Band, I think. We had two shows that night, and they flew us
into Tennessee. … When [the band] struck up on [sings "Funk You Up" riff], and we came out, the whoooooole place, the whole colosseum went crazy. When we said, ‘We gonna funk ... you ...' we didn't have to sing another word. They sung it all. Then, when we went into 'Tear the Roof Off,' we had the guys sing, 'Turn this mother ...' and the women sing, ‘We don't need no music. …' It just kept going back and forth with each other. It kept going. When we got in the limousine, we could hear them chanting that at least six to eight blocks away. We was like, 'They're still doing it!' And when we met the Gap Band the next night, they said, 'Why did y'all do that? We had to wait a whole hour before we could get onstage.' People wouldn't stop chanting!"
Though the Sequence saga lasted three full-length albums and 10 singles, in the end, nothing matched the success or impact of "Funk You Up." Cook worked as a Sugar Hill in-house writer, helping pen songs for West Street Mob and the Sugarhill Gang, including singles like "8th Wonder" and "Apache." During their brief time on tour together, Stone and rapper Rodney "Lil Rodney C" Stone from Funky 4 + 1 became inseparable. They moved to the Bronx, worked on promoting parties and throwdowns and, according to Angie, quietly made history.
"The first Roxy hip-hop concert ever was promoted, paid for with Sequence dollars, because nobody else had money," Angie says about the legendary Manhattan spot that became a flashpoint for hip-hop invading the worlds of art, dance and rock music. "This is before Wild Style the movie was out; this is before Fab 5 Freddy was a big star. I funded a concert down at the Roxy roller-skating rink. The first time ever. Rodney and I put together a show that split the skating rink in half. Afrika Bambaataa, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Double Trouble, the Sequence – we were the acts. Nobody has ever said thank you because we were the ones that actually moved hip-hop from uptown to downtown.
"Our money was the money that opened doors for music to come from the Bronx all the way down to the Roxy. Nobody knows that," continues Stone, now in a light shout. "And it bothers me that we gave more than our share of a contribution, and it's never, ever, ever been acknowledged. It's terrible! When Danceteria was at the top of its game, Madonna was a waitress and serving drinks! We were in there playing!
"I hope you're taping this, because I'm wired up now," she says. "I've been waiting for 30-something years to say this. And we still look good, OK? We still look good. We don't have a crack in our skin. We are flawless. I don't care if you call me the Grandmother [of Rap] or the Great-Grandmother, but you will not erase my history!"
"I don't care if you call me the Grandmother [of Rap] or the Great-Grandmother, but you will not erase my history!" –Angie Stone
The Sequence never officially quit, disbanded or were dropped, but reached their conclusion in 1985. Angela Brown had gotten pregnant with her daughter, Diamond, married Rodney and took his last name, officially becoming Angie Stone. The group was separated, with the Stones in the Bronx, and Chisolm and Cook in New Jersey. Stone says Sylvia Robinson resented her husband for wanting to educate people on the music industry, creating a rift. Meanwhile, booming, shouting MCs like Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J and Roxanne Shanté were taking hold. The group saw tours and opportunities slow down. The Sequence would funk no longer.
"Sylvia wanted us to re-sign the contract, and there was no advance attached," says Stone. "I had learned a little bit in the Bronx, and I'm like, 'I'm not signing no more paperwork without an advance.' I didn't know what to ask for so I just threw out a number, $10,000. That's how naive I was at the time, because I wasn't thinking about light and gas, I wasn't thinking about water, I was just thinking about having a roof over my head. I'm not going back to South Carolina a failure.
"Cheryl didn't feel it was fair for me to get $10,000 and they not get $10,000," Stone continues. "I went outside for about an hour, sitting in the park across the street from the studio, and I came back in and I said I wasn't gonna re-sign the contract. And then after it blew up so bad, we hardly was speaking, everybody was on edge, and it just fizzled out."
"And then, you know, people were whispering in our ear more," says Chisolm. "People telling us that [Sugar Hill was] robbing us, you know? They stealing from us. When we first started out, you know, they gave us a lil' $1,000. We'd never had $1,000 in our life. So to get $1,000, you're like, 'Wow! That's a lot of money!' When in actuality, we was making way more than that. She knew that she had us young and dumb."
Chisolm immediately went back to work, bouncing between a telemarketing firm in Hackensack and working with Sugar Hill co-founder Joe Robinson (she says she quit shortly after a closed-door meeting concluded with Robinson on the receiving end of a pistol-whipping). Rodney C's mother helped Cook get on a path to working in home health care, and she stayed in Harlem until decamping back to South Carolina in the Nineties to help her ailing father. Stone worked temp jobs, pulling hours at KISS-FM and saving money for studio time. While there she met the members of her Nineties new jack swing group, Vertical Hold, wrote a song for Prince protégée Jill Jones and eventually befriended the Artist himself.
"He had a whole bunch of furniture that was purple at the time, in New York, and he says, 'Hey, Ang, I got a surprise!' He gave me all of the furniture in the apartment," says Stone. "He gave me a Juno-106, which is a keyboard that he played all of his stuff on, and he said, 'I want you to have it.' I mean, he gave it to me. Just gave it to me. And that says a lot about Prince. Prince has a huge heart. Had."
Stone's post-Sequence saga, of course, peaks with signing to Arista and emerging as an icon of the laid-back, bohemian, hip-hop fueled subgenre known as neo-soul, garnering two Gold albums (1999's Black Diamond and 2001's Mahogany Soul) and collaborations with Prince, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and more. The three women of the Sequence remained friends, helping each other when one was in financial or emotional distress and occasionally appearing together at Stone's shows for a funky reunion. Chisolm has had an on-and-off role as Stone's road manager and assistant, and the pair are currently working with preteen rap group 565 Nation. Cook has recently released a percussive new solo single, "Rhythm Changes." "Funk You Up," however, lived on without them.
"I was living in Connecticut, and I had just moved in an apartment, hardly had anything in it. I had the radio on, I was cleaning, and I heard 'Keep their heads ringing … ding ding dong,'" Chisolm recalls about first hearing the Dr. Dre hit. "Then we all started calling each other, and we're like, 'Who is it?' If I'm not wrong, I believe Sylvia gave us $10,000 for that song. They cut our percentage down to six percent each on the song. And then, you go into [Sugar Hill heir and former executive Joey Robinson Jr., who died in 2015]'s house, and Joey got a five-times platinum of 'Keep Their Heads Ringing' in his house with our song 'Funk You Up' on it. How come we don't have one of those, and it's our music? So, you know, it hurts to know that, here you is, busting your ass, can barely feed yourself, can barely pay your bills, and everybody's just going on, and people making millions of dollars off something you created. That's a hurting feeling."
"I created a few publishing companies throughout my career," says Stone. "I've been robbed by at least four accountants. I had IRS tax liens because the accountants that was doing my taxes, they would pay themselves and not pay the taxes. So for a long time, I never received a royalty check [for solo recordings]. I was living show to show."
Stone says that because of a bad production deal she has never received royalties from the album sales of Black Diamond or Mahogany Soul. "I will get a BMI check every now and then or a publishing check every now and then, but my greatest moment in my career, I was never paid for."
"My thing right now
is," Stone says, "we are
legends. We've put down generations of work that we've not been paid for, we've
not been acknowledged for and that we could actually need and use right now to
survive. All of us are over 50. I won't say we're tired because we're not tired;
we love what we do. But I will say we're tired of being mistreated."