To The East, Blackwards
(1990, 4th & Bway)
by Brian Coleman
The pro-black side of my world thought I was stumbling from my mission in life,’ says Lumumba, aka Professor X, today. ‘I wasn’t being appreciated by them. I was torn between two lives.’ Elder Sonny eventually came to realize the power of hip-hop in spreading black nationalist thought, after his son formed X-Clan, who released their funky, intelligent and powerful debut in 1990. Their Blackwatch crew (with Isis, Unique & Dashan, Queen Mother Rage and others) came before the X-Clan, and it was much more than a fan club. X explains: ‘I always watched how music groups became successful and I knew that fanbase was very important. My idea was to make our fan club base into a movement.’
The seeds for the four-member X-Clan ‘ rapper Brother J, DJ Sugar Shaft and producers/elders Professor X and Grand Architect Paradise ‘ were planted when X and Paradise met in the mid-’80s, introduced by Russell Simmons’ right-hand-woman Heidi Smith. At the time Paradise was working a computer job in Rush Management’s first offices on Broadway, and X was interviewing Rush clients there for a radio station in Detroit, also road-managing Whodini.
Eventually Paradise began managing the famed Latin Quarter club in midtown Manhattan and the two friends started a management company called Scratch Me Management, working with artists like Stetsasonic, King Sun, Just Ice and Positive K. Their touch spread over much of the New York hip-hop world during the years 1985 to 1987. ‘We were very serious when we did X-Clan,’ says Paradise. ‘We were really trying to do something new, after being instrumental in the careers of so many other cats. Back then we knew everybody in hip-hop, but once we focused on X-Clan we kind of became reclusive, because we wanted it to work.’
In 1985 Paradise and X had met two young men who would complete X-Clan as a foursome, although they didn’t know it at the time. ‘I first met Sugar Shaft at the Latin Quarter, and Brother J was his best friend,’ recalls Paradise. ‘But back then we hadn’t ever even heard J rap. His affiliation with us was just as one of the young brothers in the [black nationalist] Movement.’ Sugar Shaft was a DJ on the rise back in the early days, and a member of Red Alert’s Violators crew. Brother J soaked in the teaching of elder Black Nationalists and also continued to perfect his MC skills. But J’s skills got pushed to the side for a year or more, because of the fact that X and Paradise were working with so many other top-level MCs at the time. In 1987, Paradise recalls taking J and Shaft to Ced-Gee’s ‘Ultra Lab’ home studio in the Bronx, where they cut a demo for a song called ‘It’s a Black Thing.‘ With the beginning of Blackwatch, put in motion with Unique & Dashan’s debut album Black To The Future in early ’89, their plan to start X-Clan was about to hatch.
After many passes through the A & R maze of Island Records and its hip-hop subsidiary 4th & Bway, X-Clan were signed for a single deal, directly by Island founder Chris Blackwell. Releasing the powerful double a-sided single ‘Raise The Flag’ and ‘Heed The Word of the Brother’ in 1989, the group became actively involved in the much-publicized ‘Day of Outrage and Mourning’ to protest the killing of Yusuf Hawkins in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurt neighborhood in August of that year. 4th & Bway knew they had a firebrand group on their hands, in certain ways akin to the controversial and popular Public Enemy, and they signed them for a full album. To The East, Blackwards was recorded in one month’s time and put on a full-steam-ahead promo track by the label.
Perfectly described by the opening track’s title, ‘Funkin’ Lesson,’ the album mixed bouncing old-school funk samples with pro-black words of wisdom, perfectly and powerfully expressed by the muscularly-voiced Brother J. Professor X offers this distinction for those who grouped X-Clan and Public Enemy, two different sides of the same struggle, in the same boat: ‘Public Enemy should always be protected, so don’t misunderstand me. But their message, what it was and how it was delivered, just seemed so complicated. We felt that blackness was easier than that. If you were a brother or sister in Brownsville, it was right up under your nose. You only needed to talk to your grandmother to know how proud you were supposed to be and who you were.’
Although it didn’t contain any crossover smash singles to push it into sales nirvana, the album put X-Clan at the front of the list of groups addressing black struggles in cities around the world, and for that they are still respected today. Professor X says, looking back: ‘I didn’t think the album would explode like that, right away. I had planned on a two-year development process, over probably two albums. But all we needed was one. Everything that happened back then was much more than we could have ever dreamed of.’X and Paradise lovingly drive their 1959 pink Caddy past selected tracks from their debut:
Paradise: We definitely combined our message with some funky music. But that’s a pretty obvious thing, since people don’t respond to @#%$ if it ain’t hot, whether there’s a message or not. We were all about walking the walk, not just talkin’. We just really wanted to be funky and put the lesson in the funk. That’s what the song was about. We were trying to redefine something, and have more culture in the music.
Professor X: I was a funk-head from back in the day. That was my contribution to our earliest music. The George Clinton vibe we brought. I mean, who would have thought that the funk explosion in hip-hop started from a group in New York! At heart we were just some funky niggas, trying to connect anything we were saying politically, to funky music. It was just natural for us. It all fell into line, we all clicked into that George Clinton spirit.
Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It’
X: The ‘crossroads’ I mention in that song, and in other places on the album, was very important to us. We wanted to give recognition to all those who didn’t know where they were at in life. It was the point in their lives where they were trying to get clear. We were drawing a picture where you were at so you could make decisions. And decisions start at the crossroads, and you’re protected there.
Paradise: A lot of people take Brother J for granted as a rapper. A lot of the things that he said were things that we or our elders lived personally. Everything we wrote came from the cultural experience of black people. It was all real. And we used the music to build a strong movement.
A Day Of Outrage, Operation Snatchback
X: The Day of Outrage was the day when the Brooklyn Bridge was taken by 20,000 or 30,000 people, with Reverend Al Sharpton. That song is about how we were there [in Bensonhurst], fighting for the right of recognition. We were also deeply involved in the protests in Crown Heights, later on [in 1991].
X: Ah yes, the Pink Cadillac! I mention that on that track, don’t I’ We wanted to tell people to celebrate themselves. When I think of a Pink Cadillac I think of my uncles, who were from South Carolina. Those guys had a Caddy every year. It meant something to them. We were talking about a 1959 pink Caddy because it represented a point in time. Once the elders saw that we were talking about that, they knew that we recognized the transition between a certain kind of negro into a certain kind of black man. We wanted to celebrate the Caddy, too, because we had a little pimp in our crown. We got style from that. It was a metaphor. We wanted to celebrate things that some black people wanted to hide. Corn bread, grits. In every video of ours, Sugar Shaft is eating something. Chicken or watermelon. We love that food and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it, in fact totally the opposite!
Shaft’s Big Score
Paradise: Shaft [who passed away in the mid-’90s] was my best friend. He was quiet and funny and an incredible DJ. Very quite and peaceful. A couple times when I was down he even bought pampers for my kids. Food, whatever. He was amazingly generous and we all really miss him.
X: Each person in the group was a piece of madness, that you’d never believe could get along with the other three [laughs very loudly]. You’d never think we could be in a room together. And that’s why it was magic together, too. Sugar Shaft had such an energy! We had to buy him new Technics turntables every two weeks because he destroyed them, just doing his cuts. They would literally be no good to anybody after he was through. He would sweat so much when he cut, too. He just had so much inward energy. He also cut with his left hand, so he’d have to cross one arm over the other. I think that Shaft’s influence is where the bounce in our music came from. We miss him. That particular track, which features Shaft’s DJ skills, was a very hard track to do, because back then there was no automation. We had to do it over many times to get the punches in there correctly. We heard Terminator X’s tracks and we wanted to counter them, on that level. Because we respected him so much. We all motivated each other in that way.
Raise The Flag
Paradise: That song was actually originally signed to Warlock Records, before 4th & Bway. They loved that demo we did so much that they gave us money right there on the spot with no contract. So we took that money and used it to record an album for the group Uneek & Dashan who we were managing at the time. Warlock ended up signing them and Isis, too, and then we went to 4th & Bway after paying Warlock back. Basically, once we started recording the first 6-7 tracks for X-Clan, we didn’t think that Warlock could do enough with it. We needed something bigger. That was the first studio song that we did. I got that sample from a neighbor of mine in Crown Heights. She heard Run-DMC blaring through my walls and instead of yelling, she wanted to hear more about them, and borrowed the album from me. Then one I day I heard that Roy Ayers ‘Red, Black and Green’ song blaring through * her * walls. She had a crazy loud system that put mine to shame. She was a jazz lover more than hip-hop. So I banged on her door and asked her what the hell that music was.
X: That was our first single, the song we got signed to 4th & Bway for. When the single came out in 1989 it didn’t do good in New York, even though we had stuff like my father [Sonny Carson] putting us on a float during the David Dinkins campaign [for mayor of New York]. After two or three months there was nothing going on with the record. And we went to do a show in Detroit, with I think Kwame and Special Ed, in front of like 5,000 people. It was a talent show, I think. We went out on stage after those guys finished and the place went CRAZY, which was big news to us. So much so that they had to bring in the police to calm things down. I don’t even think that 4th and Bway knew we was that big in Detroit.
Heed The Word Of The Brother
X: We had ‘Raise The Flag’ done and ready to go as a single but we felt that we needed something even stronger to go along with it. That was the beginning of me making enemies at the record company. They didn’t want a b-side and they just wouldn’t do it. So we financed ‘Heed The Word’ on our own, all the way through the mastering. I was right about it and the record company was wrong. It was a perfect example about how they didn’t even know what they had. On that track, other people, like Heavy D and De La Soul, had used that music already. So we made our song even stronger than what they had done. We called the 45 King and he put a string of horns at the end of the beat, and that’s why ours is different.
Paradise: That was the only song that anybody outside of X-Clan ever collaborated on with us, as an outside producer or artist. Mark the 45 King made the beat, and I produced the song. I put in the hook, and the ‘Flashlight’ stuff in the intro.
In The Ways of the Scales
X: That is definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album, if not my #1 favorite.