Spectrum City

The Flavortrons

It’s always great when you find an early track by an artist who was a big influence on you. But I was really surprised to discover this the other day; not because it was so odd that they would have had a previous release, but because after all this time I’ve only just found out about it. I guess hip hop knowledge abandoned me the day I abandoned hip hop… serve this sucker right!

So… as Spectrum City they had their one and only release on Vanguard in 1984. It has more of an old school rap flavour, but on ‘Check Out The Radio’ you can still hear hints of what would become the sound that would inspire millions.

Their early history is great; Hank and Keith Boxley (who changed their surname to Shocklee) started Spectrum City in the mid 70s as a mobile DJing unit in Roosevelt, Long Island, and a lot of the energy of the emerging Long Island hip hop scene emanated from their shows. By 1979 they had recruited another DJ, Norman ‘Mellow Dee’ Rogers, but they knew they needed an MC. Meanwhile, Carlton Ridenhour (aka Chuckie Dee) had been writing rhymes and performing at open mic nights at the Adelphi arts college where he was studying graphic design. Ridenhour became one of the most successful party MCs in the area, and when Hank Shocklee heard Chuckie Dee on the mic he realised that he was the MC they were looking for.

DJ Mellow Dee

Ridenhour became not only their MC but also created the Spectrum City party’s flyers and posters. A fellow student, Bill Stephney, who was an intern at a local radio station, approached Ridenhour and soon Spectrum City had their own radio show on Monday nights – The Super Spectrum Mix Hour. Stephney brought more hip hop talent to the station, including MC Butch Cassidy, and gave a young producer called Andre ‘Doctor Dre’ Brown (who went on to front Yo! MTV Raps) the job of producing the show. Subsequently, Brown invited an eccentric, jheri-curled piano player called William ‘Rico’ Drayton (aka MC DJ Flavor) to also appear on the station, and this was where Ridenhour and Drayton met.

MC DJ Flavor

Due to the increasing popularity of the Spectrum City parties, Ridenhour decided he needed to beef up security and hired Richard Griffin and his Unity Force crew, and a rival Oldsmobile-driving rock outfit called 98 Posse, to handle crowd control. This attracted the attention of the police, complete with helicopters. Tapes began circulating throughout New York and as their reputation and popularity increased, Shocklee decided to set up a recording studio with a view to being able to represent the Long Island hip hop scene as rivals to the Boogie Down Bronx crew and Queen’s Run DMC.

Hank Shocklee

Vanguard, a label which didn’t really understand the upcoming hip hop scene, weren’t initially keen on signing Spectrum City, but were persuaded to by their A&R man, Ray Velazquez, because he had been successful with one of his previous signings, Twilight 22 and their classic ‘Electric Kingdom’. Spectrum City’s record, ‘Lies/Check Out The Radio’ featured both Chuckie Dee and Butch Cassidy and was produced by Hank Shocklee and his brother Keith (aka Wizard K-Jee). It had the stripped down style which influenced Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, but (perhaps due to poor marketing) the record wasn’t successful. Had it been, Velazquez had planned for the follow-up single to be a collaboration between Spectrum City and James Brown. As it was, Spectrum City’s studio was eventually abandoned with Ridenhour and Drayton taking up regular jobs as the popularity of their radio shows faded.

Keith Shocklee

In 1986, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin were looking to sign new talent to Def Jam and gave Bill Stephney a position there. Simmons and Rubin had been fans of the Spectrum City tapes and they soon offered Ridenhour a deal with a view to him becoming, as Chuck D, the rapper for Doctor Dre’s group, Original Concept. Afraid of another flop, Ridenhour originally declined, but after persistant offers grudgingly agreed to a meeting. Ridenhour played four tracks which he had produced two years previously with the Shocklee brothers and Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler at their old studio: ‘Public Enemy No 1’, ‘The Return Of Public Enemy’ (which was later retitled ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’), ‘Sophisticated Bitch’ and ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’.

Chuckie Dee

Simmons and Rubin agreed for Ridenhour to form a group comprising Drayton, Rogers and Griffin. Names were updated so that MC DJ Flavor became Flavor Flav, DJ Mellow Dee became Terminator X, Richard Griffin became Professor Griff and his Unity Force became Security Of The First World. Sadler and the Shocklee brothers made up the production team, The Bomb Squad.

As for the iconic Public Enemy logo… that was originally designed by Chuck D for a crew called Funky Frank & The Street Force, but was never used. The silhouette in the crosshairs is of LL Cool J’s right-hand man, E-Love.

…And that’s the way the story goes.

Public Enemy

Photos by Harry Allen, (from top): The Flavortrons; DJ Mellow Dee; MC DJ Flavor; Hank Shocklee; Keith Shocklee; Chuckie Dee

Posted by Manny Z


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