There is little dispute that, between 1978 and 1984, the three greatest rappers anywhere from Planet Earth to Planet Rock were Grandmaster Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee. Despite basically being the Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley of what Jay Z does for a living, they're not exactly household names — though that may become somewhat less true in the coming weeks.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Seattle's quirky underground rap group turned chart-topping grandpa fashionistas, paid tribute to their legacy by inviting them to record a verse on "Downtown," the lead single from the follow-up to 2012's platinum The Heist. The track turned into a single, which turned into a music video, which turned into hip-hop's Mount Rushmore getting the opportunity to shout through an intricate MTV Video Music Awards performance, a high-octane Jimmy Fallon appearance and 16 million YouTube views.
As New York City's most gifted architects of a new American art form, their impact on hip-hop — and, by proxy, culture worldwide — is immeasurable. As a member of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Melle Mel penned "The Message," a crucial document of inner-city reportage and forefather of Kendrick Lamar's socially conscious word-spill. During his run in the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee stretched the boundaries of lyricism into tricky double-time flows and became the most formidable battle rapper in the land, laying some of the earliest groundwork for Meek Mill and Drake's verbal pissing contests. Grandmaster Caz and the harmony-soaked Cold Crush Brothers didn't fare as well on wax, but set standards for lyricism and group interplay as viewed by their performance in the iconic Wild Style.
Before Macklemore invited them to appear on "Downtown," the three rappers had never appeared on a track together and hadn't had a molecule of pop impact in years. Moe Dee last hit the Hot 100 assisting Will Smith's 1999 remake of his "Wild Wild West"; Melle Mel's last charted in 1984 when he gave Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" some hip-hop credibility; Grandmaster Caz has never had a charting single unless you count the time his rhyme book was jacked to create the first commercially released hip-hop single ever, in 1979. "Downtown" is currently at Number 22 and, to paraphrase their moped-loving student, the ceiling can't hold them.
Rolling Stone met with the three pioneers to talk about the past, the present and — in what seemed unlikely but a few months ago — their future.
Was there hesitation on anyone's part to make "Downtown?"
Melle Mel: Well, I thought it would be a good project just hearing about it. Really you couldn't lose with it. I thought it was a no-brainer.
Kool Moe Dee: Big Daddy Kane, when he called me, he broke it down so thoroughly, it was nothing to even hesitate about. He gave me backstory and then gave me the idea. He starts the sentence off, "Do you know who Macklemore is?" I'm laughing like, "Of course, why?" I didn't know where he was going with that. . . . I'm a vibe person. I wanted to actually sit down with Macklemore, get his vibe, see where he was coming from. Soon as we got out [to Seattle], we had like a two-hour debate about hip-hop, basketball, whether the Cavaliers are gonna beat Golden State, Mayweather fight — really, we went in for two hours or whatever and we talked. And then finally Ryan says, "OK, so this is the song." That set the tone for how cool the environment was.
Were you guys familiar with Macklemore before this went down?
Melle Mel: I mean, I knew vaguely, because he had some big records, but not, you know, actually following his career.
Caz: I was somewhat familiar with it, still being a DJ. I was more acclimated towards his music on a DJ sense than his career as deeply rooted he was into hip-hop. I found out that later on.
Kool Moe Dee: I was almost like Joe Public. People know you for your hits. So, because of "Poppin' Tags" ["Thrift Shop"] and because of "Ceilings" ["Can't Hold Us"], OK, I know who he is. Once I got the call, I immediately went in and started looking up songs, seeing who was. There's a song called "White Privilege" that really caught my ear. So he goes deeper than I even know. You think of him as a new artist, but he's got 10 years deep as an underground artist. Which was the first thing that let me know that something else was going on with him.
What was the session like?
Kool Moe Dee: Comedy. Pure comedy.
Caz: The actual rap time, that took maybe, a half hour.
Melle Mel: Everything else was just clownin' and talking.
Caz: We was telling jokes and clowning and once we got to the music part, it was all laid out. Like, here it is and boom. It was in and out.
Kool Moe Dee: To be honest, I've known these guys easily 35 years . . . until that session I didn't know how fuckin' funny they actually were. So I can't stop saying "not without my Viagra," because of this one. [Laughs and points at Melle Mel.] It just went so far because it literally was like the onus was on laughing first and then working second.
Caz: There's never been a Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz collaboration really up until now. People haven't seen it like this. So we're a little tighter now, you know. . . . We're working on a thing, a project. We call it Three Kings. And we're going to try to do an album.
Melle Mel: It's almost like getting a . . . I'm not going to say a second chance because I believe strongly in destiny, but it's like you get a second bite at the apple. And with a whole newer audience.
What younger artists inspire you right now?
[Group laughs. Caz covers the outspoken Melle Mel's mouth with his hand.]
Kool Moe Dee: I truthfully like Kendrick Lamar, I like J. Cole, I like A$AP Rocky, and honestly, I know it seems cliché to pick the popular person at the time or whatever, but I think Drake is a very creative guy in terms of how he approaches it. It's not the hip-hop that we're used to in terms of what we did, but for the generations transforming to what it is, they're doing a lot of which I call "the Biz Mark/KRS-can't-sing-MC shit." They're doing a lot of the "I can't sing but I'm singing the hook anyway" kinda stuff. And the audience understands that he's not a singer. But they're doing chants whatever, and we did that with "Body Rock" and Cold Crush routines of that nature, it's just like a soloist doing it now as opposed to a group doing a chant thing. The thing that's missing more for me in this generation is I don't hear as many diverse concepts. It's almost like once Jay Z hit, 90% of the younger guys . . . wanted to relate themselves to being a hustler; and I think that put a cramp in the game in terms of coming with the same kind of thought process. But when you start to listen, Kendrick Lamar's not doing that, Drake is not doing that, and you see consistently, the guys that I like aren't doing that.
J. Cole is a great example. He's selling more records than literally any rapper out there right now, but doesn't get the same type of attention as when someone like Young Thug drops a mixtape.
Kool Moe Dee: Like, we did Stop the Violence [the all-star "Self Destruction" single] in '89; it was pound for pound way more popular than anything gangster, but gangster got the headlines. It's almost like if you go to a gangster movie, Eliot Ness is gonna win, but everybody is relating to Al Capone. The way the thought process goes, you think Al Capone is hotter, but really Eliot Ness won. Al Capone got locked up, went to jail and died or whatever.
Where do you personally draw your line where you're like, "This is where I stopped listening as closely?"
Caz: Ah, you know the Jay Z, Biggie, Nas era, was the last era I really was checking. For me, and I think for all of us, we come from when MCs was lyricists. Moe Dee takes more into consideration, but some of us are purists. I'm more of a purist. I don't care what beat it is, put any beat on it, I'm listening to what you say. . . . I'm listening for lyrical content and, you know, I don't see as much of it you know. And maybe that's up to me to seek out more of it.
Melle Mel: I think, my cutoff point was right after Public Enemy. Because right after Public Enemy came N.W.A and then, creatively, everything goes downhill after that. 'Cause it was mostly gangster rap.
Kool Moe Dee: That's Melle Mel [talking]! Just making sure!
Caz: Definitely Melle Mel.
Well, they had gangster rap in your era — "Street Justice" by the Rake, Schoolly D. . .
Melle Mel: Yeah, but even with Schoolly D there was certain amount of creativity that was still, that had to be upheld by certain standards, because back then, we were making the best records you could make. When they started selling gangster rap, you got out of selling records and you were selling an image, this gangster image. So you didn't have to be creative, you just had to have the image. And that's why I said, creatively, everything goes downhill after that. Because even right now, I mean, most of the guys that define hip-hop, they're not good rappers. And they don't even claim to be rappers mostly, they're just some guy from the street who just so happened to make a record and people just relate to the "streetness" of it. But creatively, it's not there, it's not the same creativity. I don't think they even want it to be that same creativity that we had when we were in our heyday.
You can't front like the Furious Five didn't have an image, though.
Melle Mel: See, our image was a rock & roll image. We went the other way. In other words, we were from the hood and we tried to be rock stars because we wanted to get outta the hood. Now, their mindset is, they're from the hood but they wanna be more entrenched. And that's where the image comes in. These tough guys, "We from the hood, we grew up broke, we didn't have it, now we gonna get this paper." And that's not everybody, that's the guys who more or less define hip-hop now.
I take it you didn't see Straight Outta Compton?
Melle Mel: No. I'mma definitely go see it, but I haven't seen it yet. I don't like to get caught up in the euphoria of the thing. I just like to let the wave pass a little bit, then I'll go see it. You don't want to be in theatre just crying over N.W.A just 'cause you're caught up in the moment. [Laughs.]
Caz: I saw it. I thought it was very accurate, 'cause I was out there. Afrika Islam had a whole contingency of Zulu [Nation] out on the west coast. We had two of the biggest clubs in Hollywood going. And when Islam went on tour with Ice-T, I was left in the club DJ-ing, from '89 to '92. So we seen it [when] Rodney King got whooped and all that. I was out there for all of that. And Eazy and all the cats used to come in our club during the week, and love was love. D.O.C., Ice Cube, all of 'em. So, we kinda saw their growth kinda firsthand, as opposed to people who were on the east coast just finding out about them. I think it was very accurate. And [Ice Cube's] son played the hell out of that role. I think they kinda glamorized Dre a little bit, I think they made him a little tougher. You can't have it like these guys are running all over him throughout the film.
Kool Moe Dee: The reason I don't have a cut off year [for rap], the reason I can stay with it . . . It ebbs and flows at a creative standpoint in turns of what styles are hittin'. If I take you all the way back to '79 most of us did not like or respect the Sugar Hill Gang. We understood the record ["Rapper's Delight"] was hot, but as MCs, we just didn't grasp it that way. . . . So we already knew it was a divide, like, "This is the lyrical stuff, and this is that big record-making stuff." And then you had the start thinking, "How do I make a big record?"
Even for me, to be honest, the only reason I got a second wind the first go 'round, is because I changed my whole lyrical style up and made a record called "Go See the Doctor" [in 1986]. The hardest record for me to ever do because I had to take it all the way down and say [slowly and clearly] "I was walking down the street, rockin' my beat, clappin' my hands and stompin' my feet." I'm cringing through the whole shit. I know I'm on point for whatever this time is, but this is going to take a lyrical hit. . . . This is no disrespect to Run-D.M.C., which we were disrespecting at the time by the way. They were so simplified, the elements of what we did put down so far: "A dog . . . a cat . . . a mouse . . . a rat . . . a fly, he won't die, and a little gnat." They using the technique, but we wouldn't say that. But it is working. The reason it's working is because you're hitting a mass of people who are just getting up on this art form that wanna participate. I remember Redman said it best. "When I heard Rakim I knew I couldn't do that, but when I heard EPMD I found my lane." That's when I started realizing, hip-hop had lanes.
As a forefather of rap beef, what's your take on Meek Mill vs. Drake?
Kool Moe Dee: I'm a little biased because Drake is one of my favorite artists — not that I don't like Meek Mill. I think the mistake for me that Meek is making is not keeping it hip-hop. Not being able to step outside of "cool," step outside of "thug." You have to be in a battle space. Not "I'll kill you, I'll shoot you." Humor has a lot to do with battle. It's not, "I'mma shoot you, I'mma do you" it's "I'm gonna talk about what you look like, what you act like." And I think Meek Mill still could have done that, but I think for whatever reason whether it's his camp or his people, nobody is approaching it from a hip-hop perspective. They're approaching it from a personal perspective only, and to me that's the bigger mistake. Who's better and all of that? I don't even have a take. Once you take it outside hip-hop, that's when I bow out.
When's the last time you talked to L.L. Cool J?
Kool Moe Dee: At the [VH1] Hip-Hop Honors, I think it was like 2008. Believe it or not, and this is the one thing about our era, our groups were battle groups, but we were brothers always. Cats taking it personal, and you see how silly some of that stuff was as you mature — we wound up being like best friends! You would have never thought that in 1980. And that was just, "He was the king of the mountain, we thought we could fuck around with them, we wanted to battle."
"Downtown" is Number 18 on the Hot 100 right now. Melle Mel, the last time you were on a charting song was in 1984. What is it like to be back?
Melle Mel: I feel great. I feel blessed. I've been doing hip-hop for as long as I've been doing it because I love doing it. And to do it on another stage, on a bigger stage, its just exhilarates me. Like I'm back. I'm back to, you know, where I was in my twenties and you got more to look forward to.
Kool Moe Dee: Well I was Number Four with "Wild Wild West," so uh . . .
The Will Smith version went to Number One!
Kool Moe Dee: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. . . . So I've been there. [Laughs.]
Caz: Well let me chime in then, 'cause I haven't ever been on a chart! This is new territory for me. I don't have a hit song, I don't have a hit record. People know me for my reputation. They know 'cause Rakim, 'cause Will Smith, 'cause Run-D.M.C., 'cause everybody talks about me, but I don't have a body of work that you can refer to that will put me in that realm. So for me to be on the charts. Hey, this is new territory for me. I love it. I'm just happy to be here.
Melle Mel: He was on the charts in Home Depot, but that don't count.
Caz: Oh, I got a lot of records man. I remember one time I got locked up, yo. I was like, "Yo man, I'm Grandmaster Caz, I make records. He said, "Yeah, well you just made a record just now."
You guys rode mopeds for the "Downtown" video. Have you ridden mopeds before?
Caz: I think Moe should take this answer.
Kool Moe Dee: The moped was the baddest idea.
Caz: It's a Moe-ped
Kool Moe Dee: It just wasn't my cup of tea. I didn't really like it. I sat out that scene. New-school videos now [are shot with] a little hand-held. We went in an alley somewhere, and it had this big blow-up doll and a parade. So I saw that he was really pushing the button and really standing behind this idea all the way. It wasn't like just doing a shout, doing a solid. He literally was riding with this record, with this concept, to the tenth degree. I could not imagine any of this.
Why hasn't this happened sooner?
Kool Moe Dee: Ah shit.
Melle Mel: I think there's a simple thing of young artists don't think that they need a confirmation from an older artist. Because you figure a lot of these guys have credibility issues anyway. Because they're on this thing like they're trying to uphold a certain image that really ain't them. And in hip-hop, the only guys that really are the guys who they say they are, is basically us. Right?
It seems like something Jurassic 5 would've done years ago
Caz: Well, Jurassic 5 kind of complimented us in imitation. I was flattered by Jurassic 5, because they kind of brought back the era of what we used to do, and they sound good doing it, so natural. But as far as an artist . . . Come on, who's been in a position to do something like this in all of these years? From the Russell Simmons on up to the Puff Daddys. Doctor Jekyll and Hyde? Jekyll, when Andre [Harrell] had Uptown. He was in a position to do it. Puffy was in a position after that. There have been a few entities that have been closer to our generation that have been in a position to be able to do something like this. I think part of it is that, they were in the process of finding their own way, and trying to build their own images and their own dynasties. They didn't want to bring anything in that would overshadow them. But you had to find somebody that's not worried about that. We're not a threat to anybody's existence, you know what I mean?
How have your lives changed in these last couple of weeks?
Kool Moe Dee: Obvious: I've been on TV more in the last couple weeks than I've been in four years. Five years. Ten years, actually.
Caz: All of our social media's been flooded with calls and with texts and with followers and all that. We've been exposed to a whole new generation of people because of this. And I don't think the entire impact is here yet. . . . It's exceeded all of our expectations up to this point, so there's no telling where it's going to take us from here.
Melle Mel: For me, and this is going back a couple of years, I always had a feeling that this thing was going to turn around, as far as the level of popularity between the older artists and the newer artists. I knew that it was going to come to a point where old is new again. . . . It re-affirms what I'm saying, which is, there is a market for classic hip-hop.
Kool Moe Dee: Right now, in every major city, there's a classic hip-hop station. Radio's driven by advertising. And there's only a certain amount of things you can advertise to an 18-year-old. So the bigger accounts that they need, need an older demographic. And what I always used to say: We're not the only ones getting older! So, if I sold a million records, I know a million people didn't die. So why do you think there's no market there?
When did the licensing checks from the new radio format start coming in?
Kool Moe Dee: The checks from BMI start to get a little fatter. . . . Probably 2013. It was consistently happening, luckily. And the other thing that I would always say to R&B artists back in the day that didn't respect us was like, "We write our own stuff." For the most part an MC, a rapper, whether you respect them or not, wrote his own stuff. If it wasn't for publishing I don't even know what I would have done over the last 20 years. Because I wrote all of my stuff, my publishing kept me alive at a level that was ridiculous. So when Will Smith redid "Wild Wild West," I got more money the second go 'round than I did the first go 'round because it was a big pop record. And then you had the Will Smith movie money. This is like free money that's coming in again, and it's the gift that keeps on giving.
Mel, are you getting those publishing checks too?
Melle Mel: That's the main reason why I'm still here. You get that check every three months and you don't have to go out on a limb and do stuff that you don't necessarily want to do.
And, Caz, you. . .
Caz: Some of us have to work for a living. [Laughs.]
Mel: Caz still gotta work the pole. [Laughs.]
Caz: Still doing lap dances, man.
You are probably owed an obscene amount of money at this point.
Yeah, pretty much. If I were to have the publishing on the only song I wrote, "Rapper's Delight," we probably wouldn't be sitting here, you know what I mean? But the last 10 years or something I've been getting my little dribs and drabs. All the Cold Crush songs and records, we never had no major hits, but those songs get views and they get played and a majority of that money comes to me. I mean, I see checks.
What were the VMAs like?
Kool Moe Dee: When we came into the crowd's view and the explosion that happened, for me I call it "myth eliminated." It's another myth that younger acts won't respond to older acts and that mythology was crushed in five seconds because I know 90% of those kids may not know who we are, but they were responding to the energy and the fun of what we were actually doing. Art is always art no matter what.