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.
In Hip-Hop culture, the word legend tends to be thrown around flippantly.
But there are times when the word is applied to someone, and in every part of it, the description is warranted.
Such is the case when it comes to Mister Cee.
The DJ and iconic radio personality is decades into a career that has seen the Bedstuy, Brooklyn, born veteran attached to many of the most iconic moments and artists in Hip-Hop history. From being the official DJ to Big Daddy Kane and being front row for the rise of The Juice Crew, playing an integral role in the growth of iconic New York hip-hop station Hott 97 to discovering one of the most influential musicians of all-time, The Notorious B.I.G. Mister Cee has seen and done it all.
Rock the Bells sat down with Mister Cee to talk about his early Hip-Hop memories, the mixtape era, unreleased Biggie music, Mark “The 45” King and more.
What's your earliest Hip-Hop memory?
Growing up at my grandparent's house and learning to DJ through my late Uncle Barry and his next-door neighbour Anthony, who are no longer with us. They were in a DJ crew called DJ Knight and the Knights of Hollywood. That's how I started to learn to DJ.
Why did you gravitate towards DJ'ing versus other elements of Hip-Hop culture?
Because of my Uncle and his next-door neighbor. Growing up with my grandparents, I heard all types of music playing. Gladys Knight to Stevie Wonder to The Jackson Five. I never had an interest in rapping. It was always music, music, music for me. Music was always playing in my house, and then radio in New York got popular.
I started listening to the World Famous Supreme Team, Awesome Two, Teddy Ted and Special K. Super Rock and Mr. Magic with Marley Marl, Chuck Chillout and Red Alert. This turned into my passion for deejaying and having that dream that one day I wanted to be on the radio.
Who did you look up to most when it came to Hip-Hop radio?
Early, it was the World Famous Supreme Team. Se’ Divine the Mastermind, Just Allah the Superstar. Those were my idols. From there, it was Mr. Magic and Marley Marl, the Rap Attack. Eventually, when me and Kane (Big Daddy Kane) got down with The Juice Crew, I would be up at WBLS a lot during the Rap Attack shows. I was in the background, watching how Marley and Mr. Magic would do their shows.
They were in heavy competition with Red Alert and Chuck Chillout. They used to listen to Red and Chuck when they were live on WBLS. They would have a little transistor radio listening to what Red and Chuck would play. So if Red and Chuck would play "Top Billin," Magic would want Marley to get that record on simultaneously. They were battling for listeners.
You were the first DJ to drop a 120-minute mixtape. Why did you put out those long tapes? Was there a strategy behind it?
A couple of things. One, no DJ was doing 120-minute tapes, one hour on each side. Before I got into selling mixtapes and people would ask me to make them for them in the neighborhood, I was always making 120-minute tapes. I was never making 60 or 90-minute tapes. I wanted to be unique. The other thing was I wasn't talking on the mic at that time. I wasn't performative. So not only are you getting more music than the average DJ, but you're getting it without talking, without sound effects, without spinning the records back. You're getting two hours of straight music.
Do you agree that the music industry was much better off with mixtapes? Is it something that could come back? How can the industry replace the excitement of the mixtape era?
I don't know if it can be replaced. I'll give you an example. A few months ago, Apple Music approached me about reissuing the Best of Biggie mixtape on Apple Music. They wanted to re-release all these legendary mixtapes. Kid Capri 52 Beats, Doo Wop 95 Live. I had major problems with The Best of Biggie being re-released on Apple Music because of the clearances required.
The clearances are the biggest obstacles to putting out those classic mixtapes. It becomes more of a headache now than back in the day when we put out a mixtape; we just put it in the store, and there was no harm, no foul.
Also, the mixtape has changed over the years. When 50 Cent came out, he was one of the first artists to do a mixtape where he took other people's songs and redid them. He took the DJ out of it. Even though Whoo Kid was his DJ, the mixtape wasn't about the DJ. It was about the artist. When that transformation happened, it killed the DJ somewhat.
Now, when an artist says they are putting out a "mixtape," it's nothing more than an album.
What's your favorite mixtape you dropped?
It's the Best of Biggie. That mixtape changed my life. It changed everything. My brand, my life. With Best of Biggie, I made the most money. When Best of Biggie came out, I got a cease and desist from Arista Records. They told me not to put the tape out. I got scared and told Steve and Ian from Tape Kings that we had to shut the tape down. A week later, I got the idea to talk to Puff about it. He told me not to worry and put the tape out, and he would speak to Arista. It's what's making Biggie hot in the streets. We put the tape back out and didn't have any trouble.
Take me back to the first moment you met Biggie.
The first time I met him was when his DJ 50 Grand, rest in peace, brought Big to my house. The plan was we were going to redo the basement demo that he and 50 Grand put together. Big was very shy. He would always talk with his head down and say, "Yo man, don't be promising me nothing, man. If you say you're going to do something, do it." And I'm like, nah, we're going to redo the demo.
I started going through and picking the beats that were hot at the time, and the beat that Biggie picked was the Casual "I Didn't Mean To" beat to do the infamous "Biggie Smalls is the wickedest/n*ggas say I'm pussy I dare you to stick your dick in it." We did that one if not two takes, and if you listen to the freestyle, at the end of it, you'll hear a fire truck going by. We weren't in a studio. We were at my house. I did it with two turntables, just cutting the record back and forth. We had a little cheesy mic that was better than the mic 50 Grand had at his house.
When you heard Biggie, did you know he would be this massive superstar? Could you see the vision of what would become of his career?
I knew he was dope. I didn't think he would become what he would before passing away. All I did at the time was try to get anybody and everybody to listen to him. Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, I would try to force Biggie down their throat like you gotta hear this guy. Had we had the wear with all we do now as grown men, me and Masta Ace could have put Biggie out or me and Kane.
When it comes to Big, we haven't seen the volume of material released that we've seen other artists release posthumously. We've seen reworkings and patchworked new music but not much authentic, unreleased, new material. Is there any Big music still unreleased?
There are still things out there. There's not a lot, maybe one album of material still unreleased from 'Ready to Die' and 'Life After Death' sessions. And even a few things before 'Ready to Die.' To the powers that be, to the Puffy's and the rest of those guys, come see me if you need it. If they could find it, something would have been done with it by now.
You have that unreleased material?
Yeah, there's a lot of stuff I have. So Puff, if you see this interview, if you need the material, see me, man.
If Big was still alive, what do you think his musical legacy would have been? Would he be setting Billboard records like Drake recently has?
That's a great question. One thing about us so-called Hip-Hop fans is we are so fickle. The average person doing this interview might say oh yeah, he'd be as big as Drake well, Hip-Hop fans are so fickle, and there would have been a fall-off or slow-down period for Big where fans wouldn't have been appreciative of his music. I wonder if he would have had the sustainability to be what and who he was. Hov has maintained that, but that's because of all the other ventures he's gotten into outside of music. Had Big done that and gotten into acting and stuff, he may have stayed consistent. But not on music alone.
We pray for the downfall, as Big would say. We want to see the greatness, and then we want to see the fall. We all love Nas, but Nas's sustainability from 'Illmatic' to 'Magic 3' has changed. There's some fogginess there, but that doesn't stop him from being a goat.
What would Big think about the state of Hip-Hop today?
Some of it he would embrace: the Drakes, the J. Coles, the Kendrick, the Symbas. Big was a practical joker, so he'd probably laugh at much of this stuff, too. Big's daughter loves Sexyy Red. Imagine Big being alive now, and his daughter loves Sexyy Red. It would have been an interesting dynamic to see how Big would feel about his daughter being into something that he might not necessarily rock with.
You've been mentioned on so many records over the years. Do you have a favorite record where you were name-dropped?
What's one thing you hate about rap today? And what's one thing you think is great?
One thing I hate is everything is a beef; everyone is an op. Everybody wants to kill somebody. Every other day, a rapper drops a hit record, and two days later, he's getting arrested. A month later, he's going away for 20 years. Two days later, he's dead.
The one thing I do like is artists have a much better chance of being successful than when we came up because of all the social media platforms. If they have a good following on Instagram, they can post their song, and it starts to blow up. They don't even need a video.
Last question. Hip-Hop recently lost the legendary Mark "The 45" King. A lot of information came out after his passing about how he felt underappreciated despite producing massive records. Why do you think that was?
One thing that Jay-Z said about his passing that is so key about Mark is he'll appear and do some magical things and then disappear for years at a time. So, part of why Mark didn't get the credit is because, during his life, he would fall out of the spotlight and not want to be seen. He was never the type of person that wanted to be visible.