culture

How The Crash Crew Introduced Harmony To Rap Records

By Stereo Williams

In the history of Rap music there are crews that rose from neighborhood fame and notoriety to the early "chitlin’ circuit" of clubs and community centers that existed in the boroughs to commercial recordings and radio airplay.

These crews experienced varying degrees of success, and a few became household names and received awards and other decorations. The Harlem based Crash Crew experienced some of the aforementioned achievements, but of equal importance is the fact that they heavily influenced many who became giants in the genre. Known for tight rhymes and routines as well as some of the best harmonizing committed to record, The Crash Crew etched their own lane long before rap became a multi billon dollar industry.

The origins of the Crash Crew lie in a collective known as the Poison Clan (not the early 90s Miami bass act of the same name.) Crash Crew member Barry B-stro says that the name came from the legendary Kung Fu movie “The 5 Deadly Venoms." “The Poison Clan were our friends from the neighborhood. They weren’t performers but they provided security, carried equipment etc”. Barry B-stro, Reggie Reg, Lashubee, E.K. Mike C and Fly Guy were M.C.’s within the Poison Clan who called themselves The Force of The 5 M.C.’s. Fly Guy was eventually replaced by G Man and that line up became known as the Crash Crew with the late D.J. Darryl C. According to Reggie Reg, the groups managers were promoters Mike & Dave who also managed Rob Base, Biz Markie and The Boogie Boys. Mike & Dave gave them a beat tape that was full of sound effects including the sound of an automobile crash and this influenced the name Crash Crew.

“Mike & Dave had the blueprint. They were doing it before anybody else including Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin or any of ‘em”.

In the early months of 1980 Mike & Dave pressed up 500 copies of the Crash Crew’s first record “High Power Rap” on vinyl and they sold them from the trunks of their cars. Musically “High Power Rap” was a loop of “Get Up And Dance” by the funk band Freedom. Sampling technology didn’t exist yet, but Mike & Dave had day jobs in a commercial editing studio where D.J. Darryl C created a tape loop of “Get Up And Dance” and “High Power Rap” became an instant underground hit in the 5 boroughs of New York. Barry B-stro says that Darryl C introduced “Get Up And Dance” to New York City and was the first to debut it at Randy’s Place and other spots. “When he played it Donald D and other D.J.’s would run to the front to see what it was, but Darryl scratched the label off to keep it secret. The release of “High Power Rap” was so rudimentary that the original pressings contained a blank label and Mike & Dave individually stamped the group name and song title on the label of each record.

Lyrically “High Power Rap” was a combination of rhymes that the M.C.’s were already saying, newly written rhymes and routines that they all wrote together. “That was the format for most of our songs. We would write our individual rhymes and we would work on the harmonizing and routine parts together” says G Man when speaking of the groups creative process. “High Power Rap” stands as a template for creating a song that became a hit at the time of its release, is considered a classic today and contains many portions that have been used as hooks in the decades since its release. Amongst those songs that recycled bits from “High Power Rap” is “Girls, Girls, Girls” from Jay Z’s 2001 album The Blueprint. One of the most quoted sections from an early rap record is G Man’s closing verse which was half sung – half rapped “you’re walkin’ down the street with your box in your hand and you’re playin’ the music of the Poison Clan”. This debut record by the Crash Crew would both take them to the next level and put them at odds with a Bronx crew that was starting to gain some traction in the small but quickly growing world of rap recordings.

Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson, who released “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang (considered rap music’s first commercially successful recording that placed rap music onto the radios and turntables of America), had her ear to the streets and was determined to create a monopoly and bring as many artists as she could to Sugar Hill Records. According to E.K. Mike C once Sylvia heard “High Power Rap” through her son Joey she signed the Crash Crew to Sugar Hill and released their first single for the label titled “We Want To Rock”. “Joey approached us at several venues asking us to record for Sugar Hill”. The signing of the Crash Crew coincided with the release of her newly signed group Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and their first Sugar Hill single “Freedom” which contained an interpolation of “Get Up And Dance” – the same track that is the basis of “High Power Rap”.

Reggie Reg says that on the Sugar Hill Revue tours the Crash Crew were an opening act and the crowds were responding so well to “High Power Rap” that they were literally stealing the thunder from Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5. “We were killin’ it and somebody had to call from the road to tell Sylvia that we were blowing them away with “High Power Rap”. The Crash Crew was told that they would be removed from the tour if they continued to perform the song, but they continued. This was problematic because the West Street Mob (which contained Sylvia’s son Joey Robinson Jr.) was also part of the revue and they had also recorded a version of “Get Up And Dance”.

Legendary Rap promoter Mandiplite seized the opportunity to capitalize from the “Get Up And Dance” situation and promoted a battle that he titled “Flash vs The Crash – The Fight For Freedom”. The group that was victorious would continue to perform the song – the losing side would cease. According to members of the Crash Crew Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 didn’t show up for the battle.

1981’s “We Want To Rock” was a breath of fresh air in the world of recorded rap. In ’81 there were still many parody rap records and fly by night labels and artists trying to cash in on what many thought was a passing fad. The Crash Crew brought an authenticity that had been heard on only a few rap records at the time. The Sugar Hill house band recreated “Sky’s The Limit” by Rhythm Heritage to perfection and the Crash Crew delivered a power packed performance that made for one of the best debut releases on the label.

“We used 'Take Me To the Mardi Gras' by Bob James and 'Rocket In The Pocket' by Cerrone for 'Breaking Bells.' Those were hot breaks in the street but no one had incorporated them in a rap record yet”

Although “Take Me To the Mardi Gras” by Bob James was a hot break in the streets and on the live rap tapes that circulated the Boroughs, no one had attempted to incorporate it into a commercial rap recording until the Crash Crew released “Breaking Bells” in 1982. Celebrated by many as the Crash Crews best Sugar Hill Records release, “Breaking Bells” was one of a very few rap records released before Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That/Sucker MC’s” that could still fit within the new drum machine era and didn’t sound dated. “Breaking Bells” contained the phrase "rock the bells, rock the bells" on the hook and Reggie Reg says that L.L. Cool J told him personally that “Breaking Bells” inspired his hook and the title for his classic “Rock The Bells”.

Harmonizing had become a major part of The Crash Crew recordings at this point and it was done to perfection on “Breaking Bells”. G Man says “Craig Derry from The Sugar Hill Band was our vocal coach. He later worked with the Force M.D.’s and he works with some of the industry’s best today. Craig was instrumental in helping us perfect our vocal performances on those records”. G Man also points out that “Breaking Bells” was the first time that the D.J. for a crew rapped on record (Darryl C had a verse on “Breaking Bells”).

Controversy visited the Crash Crew once more on their 1983 release “On The Radio." Earlier in that same year the Fantasy 3 released a song called “Its Your Rock” on Specific Records. The drum pattern and keyboard line for “On The Radio” was identical note for note to “Its Your Rock” – too identical to be a mere coincidence prompting the Fantasy 3 to respond with “Biters In The City”. When asked how two songs could be so similar G Man responds “we ripped it! It was a dope song, Darryl C heard it and brought it to us, and we had to go into the studio and do it the next day”. Despite the controversy, “On The Radio” solidified The Crash Crew as superior M.C’.s and song crafters as well as masterful harmonizers.

Wanting to keep the momentum from “On The Radio” going, the Crash Crew released “We Are Known As Emcees (We Turn Parties Out)” in 1983 as well. According to Barry B-stro, “That was a routine that we used to do and we just turned it into a song but I thought we went too far with the harmonizing. We sounded like a gospel group." G Man explained that B-stro wanted to do the hook in unison like they performed it at the parties while he and E.K. Mike C wanted to do it in harmony.

“We got with Craig Derry to help with the harmony and Tiny Duke (a keyboard player and vocalist with the Sugar Hill Band) helped us as well, but I have to agree with B-stro in retrospect. We could sing and harmonize, but we were a rap group first”.

The last song that the Crash Crew recorded for Sugar Hill Records was “Here We Are – 2,4,6,8."

“Shubee was a big Jackson 5 fan, and that was a Jackson 5 song” says G Man. Reggie Reg says, “We had a hard time with that song. We were trying to get a danceable beat that represented what was happening at the time. We released two versions of that song; one in ’84 and one produced by Hitman Howie Tee in ’85. We were never pleased with the outcome of that song”.

In 1987 the Crash Crew collaborated with Teddy Riley on “The Crash Crew’s Back” and the group released “The Real Hip Hop/Champagne Flights” in 1996. The Crash Crew has partnered with many organizations over the years that work to preserve Hip Hop culture and today they work with Ground Breakers Entertainment, City Wide Safe Nights, Hush Hip Hop Tours, The Universal Hip Hop Museum, The Art of Rap and Just Gimme The Mic. The Crash Crew influenced some of Hip Hop’s greatest influencers and their legacy continues.