Chubb Rock is a voice you recognize the second you hear it. The rhymer out of Flatbush, Brooklyn has always spoken with the gravitas of a great orator.
Born Richard Simpson, Chubb Rock has given us so many classic hits, from "The Chubbster" to "Treat 'em Right," to his work with Crooklyn Dodgers. Today, the of host of “Diggin’ in the Crates” on Atlanta's OG 97.9 is talking to Rock The Bells and looking back at a career that was born of hard work and humility.
"Growing up in Brooklyn and growing up in Flatbush...the group was U.T.F.O. That was our local group," Rock remembers. "They started out as dancers; they were the dancing crew. And my cousin Hitman Howie Tee had his crew, called Count Disco and The Sureshot Four. And U.T.F.O.. battled them in King's Highway at a block party. Howie and Kangol got together and did 'Roxanne, Roxanne.'"
The iconic track was put together in Chubb Rock's aunt's basement, and it lit a fire under the aspiring rapper, as did The Fat Boys. And with Howie Tee, Chubb Rock had a musical partner and mentor. Their pairing would prove extremely fruitful for both men.
"It's undeniable chemistry because we're cousins," he explains. "His mom and my mom are sisters and we're a tight-knit Jamaican family. We're close. I lived at his house. Very close. He was always going to have my back and protect me in this thing called the music business—because he's never gonna wanna say 'Hey, Auntie...this happened or that happened.' And I was young. So he was very, very careful [about] what we were going to do or how we were going to do it. Of course, I had carte blanche in the studio because it was my Aunt's house! I can just go in, eat some curry goat and turn around and we can go down to the basement and make music."
I had carte blanche in the studio because it was my Aunt's house! I can just go in, eat some curry goat and turn around and we can go down to the basement and make music."
- Chubb Rock on his early days with Howie Tee.
When he got frustrated, Chubb Rock and Howie Tee were determined to drop a hit. They stayed in the basement until they created "Caught Up," which would be a single from Chubb's debut, Chubb Rock Featuring Hitman Howie Tee. The song generated a buzz in the New York underground, and gave Chubb Rock his first taste of success.
"I will always say this: Our journey didn't start off with an explosion," he says. "First album, we couldn't get arrested. It was because Howie and me felt like 'we're not gonna do a lotta samples, we're gonna play instruments.' It was a different kind of album. But we couldn't get arrested."
Rock's visibility would take a gigantic jump with 1990's "Treat 'Em Right," but the infectious party anthem had a bitter origin.
"The sad part of it was, at the time, a little kid named Yusef Hawkins got killed in Brooklyn for going to a white area—Bensonhurst—and he was but two years younger than me, maybe three years younger than me. And that bothered me." Rock had been warned by people that he shouldn't go to various parts of Brooklyn and he was angered that the news coverage was minor. He mentioned Yusef in the lyrics. "[That] was our Travyon Martin, for our time," he recalls.
But it was the success of singles like "Treat 'Em Right" and "Just the Two of Us" that took Chubb Rock's status to a different level. He began the 1990s as one of the most talked about rappers, armed with a distinctive voice, catchy production and videos in constant rotation on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Rock recalls crafting "...Two of Us" for him and Howie Tee to perform as a tandem.
"The basis of that record was, I wrote a verse myself and I wanted Howie to do the second verse," he explains. "I wrote a verse for him." The single wound up being another solo performance for Chubb Rock, but its origins are evident in the lyrics. "That's why the verse goes 'It's the Hitman/Yes, the Hitman—yeah, you know it...He was scared to kick a 16 bar/I guess he's not a rap star...' That's what it was. I was teasing him because he didn't wanna kick the rhyme. But it was really 'just the two of us.' The two of us against the world. And when it was time to do the video, I was in school."
Ralph McDaniels filmed the video on the Howard University campus, and the visual is still one of Chubb Rock's most enduring. "My brother's in school, I'm in school, my whole crew was in school. Hot Dog was in school," he says of that time. "So we just said 'yo, let's film the video on the campus, and the fraternities are gonna come out, the sororities are gonna come out." A young Elise Neal can be spotted as one of the dancers prominently featured.
"She was a dancer. Everybody has a start. She obviously went on to do great things."
Neal's appearance is the second high-profile cameo in Chubb Rock's classic vids. Mona Scott appeared in the "Yabadabado" video. "She was another sister from our start, our beginning, our journey."
I will always say this: Our journey didn't start off with an explosion..."
Chubb Rock would collaborate with Jeru Da Damaja and O.C. on "Return Of The Crooklyn Dodgers" in 1995. "It was nothing premeditated about the creation of Crooklyn Dodgers. Crooklyn Dodgers was the way Preemo likes to work—he likes to cook things up while you're there. He never sits around like 'Oh I made this up last week' or 'two weeks ago.' Nah, he doesn't work like that."
Rock got a call about doing a sequel to the hit track (originally recorded by Masta Ace, Special Ed and Buckshot, with Q-Tip producing), from Spike Lee's 1994 film Crooklyn. "Spike called. Preem called," Chubb remembers. "[Preemo] went into his brilliance and I kicked it off. Of course, O.C. and Jeru Da Damaja crushed it. We had the honor of the video being filmed by Spike Lee. Another checkmark that you can you put on your resume."
Chubb Rock's resume is an enviable one. He's an accomplished emcee, a distinguished radio personality and one of the most affable figures in the game. He's always been a staunch advocate for the fans, and the young people who buy rap records. That spirit is born of how long it took him to climb the ladder; his first album barely got noticed, and his second only did moderately better. It was 1991's aptly titled The One that really made him a mainstream star, and he sustained his career by being unafraid to diversify and expand his approach.
And he's also tried to maintain a connection to the broadest swath of fans. Even as Hip-Hop got popularly "gangsta" in presentation, Chubb Rock remained Chubb Rock.
"Even though there were records coming out at that time that were a little more hardcore, which is fine, everybody's allowed to make their own music. But I wanted people to know that I'm gonna still do this type of music," he says. "I gave an alternative choice of records. And that was it—and I was proud of those records. My daughters can listen to those records, my sons can listen to those records, my Mom can listen to those records. We're a Caribbean family, so there's a different paradigm there. With your aunts, y'know—if I had craziness on the records, it would be a lot of stuff to explain! So no, I never went down that road."