Rock The Bells is celebrating Hip-Hop History Month this November with a series that delves into the genre's four foundational elements: DJing, MCing (rapping), graffiti writing, and breakdancing (b-boying). This week, we honor the DJ.
The Hip-Hop producer has morphed from its earliest iteration as either a musician/arranger or a label head. The label head was the executive producer who often chose the music bed that the artist would rap over. This form of the producer had some say so concerning subject matter, arrangement and even vocal coaching in many instances.
Musicians and multi instrumentalists such as Pumpkin and Larry Smith were credited as producers in the early days of the rap record. As it often does, technology tends to bury those who don't embrace it, and only the musicians who embraced and mastered the technology of the early '80's were able to advance, remain relevant and enjoy the fruits of Hip-Hop's upcoming quantum leap.
By the mid '80s the popularity of drum machines such as The Roland TR-808, The Linn Drum, and The Oberheim DMX [for which Davy is named] replaced musicians and ushered in the birth of the bedroom producer. This era also saw the DJ, who naturally had knowledge of sound, engineering and music enter the realm of the knob twister. The DJ comes a step closer to dominating the role of The Hip-Hop producer when the sampler is combined with, and eventually replaces the drum machine by 1988 and becomes the preferred method of Hip-Hop production. There are very few who were able to play a role in each of Hip-Hop productions rapidly moving eras, and Queens own Davy DMX is one of those few.
I'm a guitar player who taught myself bass
- Davy DMX to The Foundation, 2019
The first time that I interviewed Davy DMX was 22 years ago, and I got off to a bad start as of the first question. He quickly corrected me after I referred to him as "a second generation Hip-Hop DJ". He firmly responded that he was indeed a first generation Hip-Hop DJ, and he proceeded to give me a small piece of his great story.
Since my blunder two decades ago I've interviewed Dave at his home, acted as a consultant on his upcoming documentary, and dialed his phone many times to confirm information about breakbeats, his discography and to pick his brain about his band Orange Krush. What I've come to realize after many marathon-long talks with him is that David Reeves is perhaps one of music's most versatile musicians, and definitely one of Hip-Hop's most underrated DJ/producers. Many Hip-Hop fans first became familiar Davy DMX via his 1984 debut instrumental hit "One For The Treble", but his story starts well before that single.
The man who has become a Queens icon was actually born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem. "I was looking at my birth certificate recently and saw that I was born at Lincoln Hospital, that's in the Bronx," he reveals. "I was raised in Harlem between 114 and 115 & Lexington Avenue, and I moved to Queens in 1970." Dave absorbed the soulful sounds of r&b masters such as Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, and The Commodores on 8 track while riding in the back of his father's car as a kid. He later became a guitar player and played in church choirs and several bands before teaching himself bass. After seeing the late DJ Junebug at club 371, Dave was bitten by the Hip-Hop bug and began to explore collecting beats, DJing and scratching.
I started calling myself Davy DMX instead of just Davy D because it sounded more artsy. Like Thomas Dolby. I was going after something that felt like that
- Davy DMX to The Foundation, 2019
"I used to go to The Bronx and Yonkers all the time because I had family there, and I was 15 years old when I heard DJ June Bug cut 'Groove To Get Down'. It changed my life," Dave says of the foundational breakbeat. "DJ Hollywood was his MC, and it was all about mixing back then, but he was cutting and that was my introduction to Hip-Hop. This was like 1976."
Dave says that Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba were two of the first MC's that he ever witnessed, but his introduction to cutting and scratching caused him to transition into DJing. "Records like 'Galaxy' by War were cool, but 'Groove To Get Down' by T-Connection and records like that made things more interesting for me."
He says that the first Hip-Hop tape that he heard was of Grandmaster Flash back spinning, but he thought that Flash was doing a "pause mix" because he knew of no other way to make a record repeat on beat the way that Flash was doing on the tape. "Flash was playn' 'Star Wars', but this was the pause era, so I thought that he was using the pause button. When someone told me that he wasn't using the pause button, I interpreted like he was picking up the needle, and that's when I started picking up the needle (the needle drop).
Dave formed his own crew known as Solo Sounds, and out of this crew would come a few great entities. "I started DJing in Yonkers, but I got tired of running back and forth and I ended up getting my own turntables and my own crew," Dave says. "Solo Sounds was myself, Hurricane & Cool T [who later became The Afros], Kippyo, Brother B, and DJ Q. That's actually how I met Kurtis Blow. He was managed by Russell Simmons and lived in Harlem. He came to a club in Queens called Fantasia and Solo Sounds was on the bill. Russell and his brother Run lived in the same neighborhood that I did. They were actually in Hollis, and I was in Queens Village. I used to DJ at an after school center called 192, and Run used to come up there and wanna get on the mic. He told me that his brother was a manager. At the time Run was Kurtis Blow's DJ and he billed himself as the son of Kurtis Blow. He broke his arm and that left Kurtis needing a DJ. They asked me could I be Kurtis Blow's DJ and the rest is history."
Hurricane, who later became the DJ for The Beastie Boys says that other DJ's had big sound systems, but they weren't playing breaks like Solo Sounds. "No one else in Queens was scratching 'Mardis Gras' and 'Groove To Get Down'. We had the echo chamber and everything."
When legendary DJ 45 King passed recently Hurricane posted to Facebook that 45 lived in Queens in the late '70s and rocked with Solo Sounds for a short time. "He went to Andrew Jackson for a year, and he joined Solo Sounds," his post explains. "He said that we were the only group in Queens that had all the beats and routines like The Bronx. Of course Davy had everything."
Courtesy of DJ Hurricane
I started playing bass in church. My style of playing is a runny style. I was influenced by Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson, Stanley Clarke, and Larry Graham
- Davy DMX to The Foundation, 2019
"Orange Krush is a band that I was part of," Dave says. "We were actually Kurtis Blow's touring band, and it was myself, Larry Smith, Trevor Gale, Bobby Gass, Kenny Keys, Alyson Williams, and Ron Griffin, who is actually Rakim's brother. When Trevor Gale left Pumpkin was our drummer for about a year."
Orange Krush's underground hit "Action" was released by Prep Street Records in 1982, and was later picked up by Mercury/Polygram. The song which featured a spoken word intro by Russell Simmons and vocals by Alyson Williams would change Hip-Hop a year later.
"Run and his partner DMC were up and coming rappers behind Kurtis Blow, and they redid a Orange Krush song called 'Action'," Davy recounts. "Larry Smith took a DMX Drum machine and replayed the exact drum pattern that Trevor Gale played on 'Action', he just added handclaps. The song was 'Sucker MC's' and in the record they say 'Dave cut the record down to the bone' because the way that me and Larry saw it I was gonna be their DJ, but after DJing behind Kurtis Blow, I wanted to do my own thing."
In 1983 Output released "Move For Me" on Tuff City Records. Output is a band created by Davy DMX featuring Jerome Prister formerly of Secret Weapon. Prister and Secret Weapon scored a huge hit in 1981 on Prelude Records with "Must Be The Music". Tuff City founder Aaron Fuchs said of Output's sound: "The music of Output can be described as funk nine months pregnant with Hip-Hop." Output would go on to release "Say You'll Be", and "Baby Be Mine" (released on Output compilations, but credited to Eddie Ski White). These Output recordings all contain Dave's signature bouncy basslines, and he produced them all.
"Output was really just [some members of] Secret Weapon: Jerome Prister, Ricky Paige, Leoni James, and Tony Mcloughlin," Dave says. "They didn't own the name Secret Weapon, so we changed it to Output. I produced those records before I became an artist on Tuff City. I also produced "Big Beat" by Spoonie G before I became an artist at Tuff City."
The 80's was a huge decade for instrumental releases. Songs like Herbie Hancock's "Rockit", "The Smurf" and "Fresh" by Tyrone Brunson and "Mt. Airy Groove" by Pieces Of A Dream all contained elements of Funk, Jazz and Hip-Hop, and were huge hits that contained no vocals. In 1984 Davy DMX's "One For The Treble" became an addition to that list. A combination of superior drum machine programming, top tier scratching, and some of the funkiest bass playing committed to tape, "One For The Treble" was Dave's debut as an artist, and one of the best DJ Cut records ever created.
Every other bar of "One For The Treble" contained a new sound or scratch. From the "Burn Rubber" engine rev and tire screech to the British accent intro courtesy of Leoni James, and the drum intro from Bob James' "Take Me To Mardis Gras" to Run's classic "Dave cut the record down to the bone" scratch section. "One for The Treble" is a sonic roller coaster ride that almost didn't happen. "I connected with Tuff City as an artist when Russell Simmons turned down 'One For The Treble'," Dave explains. "I put Leoni on the intro with the British accent to make the record sound like it was an import. I played the bass, programmed the drum DMX drug machine and did all the scratches."
Davy DMX's second single as an artist on Tuff City was "The DMX Will Rock", and it featured a version with Queens legend Sweet Tee and Leoni. "The DMX WIll Rock" also contained a vocoder hook as well as a keyboard melody that carried the track.
In 1985 Kurtis Blow released "If I Ruled The World", which appeared on his sixth album America as well as the soundtrack to Krush Groove. Davy DMX co produced the song which was written by the late DJ AJ Scratch, who told The Foundation in 2006 that he wrote the hook of the song to the melody of New Edition's "Candy Girl". "If I Ruled The World" contains a loop of Trouble Funk's 1980 hit "Pump Me Up". The loop is credited as the first sample loop in Hip-Hop. In 2002 Kurtis Blow told The Foundation that the loop was created on a Fairlight sampler, which was essentially a computer that artists like Herbie Hancock were using to create new sounds.
Davy DMX says that he performed "If I Ruled The World" live with Kurtis and DJ AJ, and that those performances marked the first time that two DJ's performed together onstage.
In 1987 Davy, dropped DMX from his name, reunited with Hurricane and Russell Simmons, and released Davy's Ride on Def Jam Records. The lead single "Have You Seen Davy" featured the chanted all female hook "have you seen Davy, haven't you seen Davy" over scratches of beats by from Edwin Starr, The Brothers Johnson, and Uncle Louie. The single received heavy primetime radio play as well a two thumbs up from the streets.
"Get Busy", "We Ain't New To This", and "Live On Hollis Day" feature Hurricane on the mic and he holds it down lovely, especially on the remake of Go-Go God Chuck Brown's "Bustin Loose". "Keep Your Distance " is also a standout cut with Hurricane showing his versatility, while "Davy's Ride" features Davy's signature hard drums and the return of the tire screeching from "One For The Treble" as women beg him for a ride in his new whip. "Bring it" is another Go-Go tune that features Russell Simmons shit talking over the DC inspired beats and chants of "Gotta Check Out Hollis Avenue".
"Ooh Girl" and "Feel For You"see Davy singing legit R&B songs over his own scratching and production. Davy's Ride is the perfect output from a musician who understands Hip-Hop and is a top tier DJ. The album is literally the best of both worlds and still bangs today.
In 1988 Run-DMC made their long awaited comeback after a lengthy court battle with their label Profile Records. The lead single from their album Tougher Than Leather was "Run's House"/"Beats To The Rhyme" - both produced by Davy D. The album received lukewarm reviews, but "Run's House" and "Beats To The Rhyme" are widely regarded as the bangers on the album. Dave also produced "I'm Not Going Out Like That", "How'd ya Do it Dee", and "Radio Station" which are also strong songs on the project.
Davy DMX played the bassline on the Disco 3's break out hit "Fat Boys" and guitar on their classic "Jail House Rap". Jimmy Spicer's heavily sampled "Money (Dollar Bill Yall)" is also a Davy D bassline and production as is "Problems Of The World" and "F-4000" by The Fearless 4. Davy DMX also produced "Pause" by Run-DMC which was a departure from the more rugged sound that Run-DMC previously delivered.
On a California tour stop with Kurtis Blow Davy DMX introduced cutting and scratching to a pre NWA Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. "The history of scratching on the west coast came from the east coast," says Lonzo Williams who managed Dr. Dre and Yella in his group The World Class Wreckin' Cru. "I brought Kurtis Blow to California for the first time and Davy DMX was his DJ. There was a song on his record with scratching and we wanted to know how to make that noise. Davy taught Yella, and Yella taught Dre. Up until then we weren't scratching on the west coast at all.
In recent years Dave has toured with Public Enemy and he continues to DJ around the country. In addition to continuing to make music, Davy D is preparing for his upcoming documentary titled Have You Seen Davy.
The legacy of Davy DMX is one of high level musicianship. His versatility and respect for his craft has resulted in a catalog that spans several eras and genres of music.