Inside Joe Grant’s: The Harlem Hustler’s Den Turned MC Incubator
By Alec Banks
"Joe Grant's was an after hours spot for people who'd hustle at night and go in there and spend their money and gamble in the back," says Silver Fox, a veteran MC who was raised in Harlem and is renowned for his role in the old school crew Fantasy Three.
The establishment in question was originally situated on 113th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City. "This was the cocaine era, so people would sit around and everybody's sniffing coke," adds Silver Fox, who recalls first visiting Joe Grant's in 1978 after his rhyme partner, Kev-Ski, hipped him to it. "This was a place you could smoke your weed, do your coke, have a drink, gamble and it attracted old school hustlers, number runners, pimps—the whole gamut would be in there chilling."
Beyond acting like a clandestine clubhouse for the city's hustlers, Joe Grant's took on a second life as a word-of-mouth musical arena where upcoming MCs could test out new rhymes—and Silver Fox wound up helping to develop the talents of a teenage LL Cool J and Kool G Rap at the spot before they cut their first records. The transformation came about after Silver Fox asked Joe Junior—the resident DJ and son of the venue's namesake owner—to give him a chance to rhyme over the instrumental soul and R&B breakbeats he was spinning. "The structure of my rhymes would change with the beat changes to make the cadence proper," says Silver Fox, remembering his first performance at Joe Grant's on his inaugural visit to the venue. "It really did make an impact: First people were listening and then they're listening to the words, and now they're dancing so I've got a crowd."
After Silver Fox finished up, Joe Grant asked him to return. The gig wasn't paid, but Silver Fox was happy to claim Joe Grant's as what he calls "his spot." T La Rock, the MC who would go on to release the pivotal “It’s Yours” single in 1984 on the Def Jam label, vouches for Silver Fox as someone who “hung out there a lot” and remembers being with him a few times. Soon, Silver Fox began bringing a couple of breakdancers along to pep up his routines. Through word-of-mouth, nights where Silver Fox would perform at Joe Grant's became popular and attracted increasingly larger audiences.
The outside facade of Joe Grant’s was deliberately low key. Peso 131, an MC from the iconic group the Fearless Four, says you “had to be known” to get in. “You go in the building and it's just a regular building but then you go through that door, and it’s, ‘Oh, shit, that's the party spot!’” Peso heard about Joe Grant’s through word of mouth, and would hit it up after performing at another venue, Randy’s Place, once it had closed at 2 o’clock in the morning. He characterizes Joe Grant’s as “almost like The Fever but after-hours.”
Open officially from Wednesday to Saturday, late night patrons would pay $5 to enter Joe Grant’s, get searched by security stationed by a double door, and make their way to what Silver Fox remembers was "a kinda octagon shaped room with an open dance area facing the bar and a makeshift DJ booth right by the entrance.” Silver Fox says another door at the back of Joe Grant's housed a separate area for “gambling," while on Monday and Tuesdays the MC recalls the venue only allowing "selective people, it was Joe and his people." (Both Silver Fox and Peso recall Joe Grant’s as a drama free sanctuary: "It was a nice neutral place, nobody would worry about getting stuck up or people wanting to clock you for your dough,” says the former, while the latter adds, “If you had problems, you never do it there because that's a sacred place.”)
One night at Joe Grant's, Silver Fox was introduced by Joe Junior to a 12-year-old Kool G Rap.
"He was a kid but he was doing his thing at two in the morning in the back gambling with money," he says. "G Rap didn't come there to be an MC—he came there to gamble and have some fun." But as the two struck up a bond, their conversations would turn to different styles of flows and cadences in between laughing and joking at the bar. (Silver Fox’s drinks of choice at the time were Long Island Ice Teas and Seagram’s whiskey mixed with 7UP.)
It wasn’t long before G Rap performed at Joe Grant’s, beginning to rhyme about "things he saw around Joe Grant's and dealing with the hustlers and the stick-up kids,” recalls Silver Fox. He adds that G Rap "had a style but wanted to change how he did things," so he mentored the younger rapper about "a science of poetic structure,” which included incorporating the 5/7/5 syllable setup of haiku poems into rhyme form.
Another aspiring rapper calling himself LL Cool J was also ushered into the world of Joe Grant's by Silver Fox. By 1983, Silver Fox had joined the group Fantasy Three and released "It's Your Rock" on Specific Records. Joe Grant's itself had moved locations to nearby 112th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue in Harlem to a more spacious venue with two levels to accommodate its growing popularity. LL Cool J tracked Silver Fox down via contact information printed on the label of the "It's Your Rock" vinyl single. "He didn't think I was one of those MCs until I started doing my thing," says Silver Fox. "We started hanging out and he was listening to my style and it helped cultivate him. I'd talk about cadences and switching stuff up and he's a very studious person so he kept listening and kept notes." When bringing LL Cool J to Joe Grant's, Silver Fox recalls telling the MC to bring his notebook along.
"At Joe Grant's, LL ripped the mic," recalls Silver Fox. "A lot of LL's verses [he performed] made their way into songs. The young LL was carnivorous—he wanted to chew people up, he wanted to be the best." Silver Fox adds that one night he performed alongside LL and Kool G Rap—"a nice little trilogy going on!”—and that he's got a lead on someone who claims to have a cassette recording of the routine. "If you wanted to talk to a lady, you'd chill with LL, but if you wanna go shoot shit up, go see G Rap," he says with a laugh.
Some time around 1983, Silver Fox stopped going to Joe Grant's after a dispute involving money. "[The owner] didn't want to pay me, just give me a free drink or a few bucks a couple of times," he says. "I got pissed at him because he wanted me to pay the guy at the door to come in. I was like, ‘I pack the people in here!’ So I bounced." He speculates that the building that housed Joe Grant's has long been knocked down and turned into high-rise real estate, much like many of the blocks in the area. But he looks back on Joe Grant's with a fondness for the word-of-mouth MC scene that sprouted up and added on to hip-hop's lyrical development.
"The special thing about it was the atmosphere and the people that would come there," says Silver Fox, going on to name-check established old school star Doug E Fresh alongside more folkloric local figures Elmo The Magic Christian, Mr. Bond, plus Rayvon and Johnny Wa from the Magnificent 7 group. "Hip-hop would be different without Joe Grant’s," he adds when asked to pinpoint its legacy. "I was in my 20s and these guys LL Cool J and Kool G Rap were 16 and 12, so I always told them it's your time because everything has to change, it’s a metamorphosis. Hip-hop would be different [without Joe Grant’s] because LL influenced other people and G Rap influenced a whole genre of gangsta music—and everyone went to Joe Grant's to see what it was and add on to it." After a pause, Silver Fox says, "I think Joe Grant's is part of the culture."