Monday, March 07, 2005
L to R: Futura 2000 on cowbell/Lenard Seele on guitar/Louis Waterson on bass/Pablo Calogero on sax/Marc Edmonds on spliff; circa 1980, Peppermint Lounge, NYC; backdrop throw up by Edmonds; photo courtesy Calogero
glisten special: old gold
J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz - "Shoot the Pump"
In 1981, Hip Hop wasn't yet out of the oven. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five had formed only two years earlier, Fab 5 Freddie was just another kid bombing subway cars and the seminal film "Style Wars" was still in production. "Rapping" was a phenomenon not generally known outside of major U.S. cities; "Bette Davis Eyes" was the number one song in the country. In Brooklyn, a young Shawn Carter celebrated his eleventh birthday and not even a mile away in the heart of the city, a group of young punks released a single that had the potential to change the history of music... but didn't.
J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz was the name of the band; "Shoot the Pump" was the name of the single, released first under John Hammond's 'Zoo York' imprint and then later overseas on Island Records. The song itself is a joyful blast of proto hip hop, drenched in a wild blend of latin funk and disco rock. It's a remarkably clever and catchy track with political significance to boot; dig: Negro, our young narrator is poppin' fire hydrants open with a monkey wrench (borrowed from his Moms, no less) and directing the spray with a hollowed out spraypaint can, effectively "shooting the pump". He wets down hotties in white t-shirts, bike messengers and passing top-down convertibles (being careful to avoid the big thug on the corner) but finally gets busted when the cops get called in to shut down the fun. When the pigs show, they see him reaching for something and "shoot the punk"... but, "it was only a MONKEY WRENCH!" The fuzz fix the hydrant and then flee the scene in a hurry. But what's this? Our hero has somehow emerged unscathed! The crafty Negro has thought far enough in advance to don a bullet-proof vest ("Whoa, that was FUN!") and, undeterred by his near-fatal run-in with th' Law, he's off to go shoot the pump again!
It's an exciting ass-shakin' bundle of urban summer energy, neatly bottled and expertly executed; the playing is ridiculously tight, the rapping is smooth and polished. This is the sort of single you'd expect from a well-known band, something obvious off a greatest hits of the 80's collection, right? So how come you've never heard this song before? How come "J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz" evokes nothing but quizzical looks from most of the tunage experts? Just what happened here?
To find out more, the Tofu Hut got in contact with saxophonist Pablo Calogero, one of the original members of the Loose Jointz (not to be confused with Loose Joints), credited with partial writing credit on "Shoot the Pump".
The first question was obvious: who exactly was "J. Walter Negro"?
J. Walter was a New York kid named Marc Andre Edmonds. Calogero and Marc grew up on the upper west side. They tagged together in a crew called "The Soul Artists" with several of the best known legends of graf: Futura 2000, Zephyr and Dondi.
"I tagged as 'coca 82', Marc was 'Ali' ", Calogero remembers. "We used to go on bombing runs with Futura all along the UWS. This was before people thought what we were doing was art. The only people who wanted to see us do our thing back then was the cops and we weren't trying to get caught."
"One night Futura and Marc showed up at my house at three in the morning, trying to get me to go out tagging with them. I took a pass and it was lucky for me. They went out and hit the tunnels above 135th Street; there was a sitting station out around there on the 1 line where the trains parked so you could take your time and do some big layups. They had set up with a bunch of cans and Marc was working a piece. When you're in an enclosed area like that, there's a lot of vapors coming up off of the spray paint and the air can get really thick. I guess a spark from the third rail shot up and hit the vapor because the whole place got lit up. The cans exploded and the tunnel burst into flames. Marc got burned really bad. Somehow, Futura managed to escape without getting too badly hurt and he got Marc out of there and into a hospital. Marc was laid up for a few months afterward. The fire didn't get his face too bad but his hands got pretty messed up. He carried scars from that night for the rest of his life."
Pablo and Marc started jamming together in high school, doing pickup performances whenever and wherever the chance arose. Along with Louis Waterston, a fellow classmate who dropped out of the band before they started recording, they formed the Loose Jointz. Marc adopted the moniker of J. Walter Negro as a piss-take on the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.
Good word of mouth and Pablo and Marc's connections with outlaw b-boy celebrities led to the band gigging at hot spots around New York. They opened for The Talking Heads, Blondie, and Kid Creole at The Peppermint Lounge and The Mudd Club.
Calogero remembers, "Back then, the club was something special, something different than what it is now. This was pre-AIDS, pre-MTV. If people wanted to hear new music, they'd go out and see a show. Once MTV happened, that whole scene changed and people started making music to get on instead of making it for the club. It changed the whole dynamic."
"Late seventies, early eighties; you could make real money just gigging. We'd go out and play, pack the house, get some girls and get high and then the manager would hand us two or three grand from the door. It was a good time."
The Loose Jointz had an occasional celebrity guest in Jean-Michel Basquiat, another classmate of Marc and Pablo's.
"Everybody in the band knew Basquiat," says Calogero. "We went to school with him when we were kids. One night he shows up at a gig we were doing with an amp and a guitar and says he wants to play with us, but dude couldn't play the guitar! He says he's gotta because he needs to meet a girl to hook up with so he's got a place to sleep for the night. So we let him sit it. I don't even think he plugged in the amp; he just sat there and acted like he was playing. Sure enough, he picked up some chick at the bar afterwards and took off." (Pablo would later record a song for the soundtrack of Basquiat's film Downtown 81.)
Negro and the Jointz eventually caught the ear of super producer John Hammond, the man who brought up Dylan and Springsteen with Columbia Records. Calogero remembers, "Hammond had set up his own label under CBS; he was pretty much retired, but he kept an eye out for anything he thought could get big and I guess that was us. (An associate of Hammond's,) Fred Miller brought him a tape and he was wowed. He called us up into his office and just started promising us the world. We'd be famous and rich and all kinds of stuff. They gave us something like a thousand dollars on the spot, before we even signed anything. It was nuts, but we all figured we finally hit it big."
This seemed a reasonable conclusion. Hammond set up Negro and the Jointz in his studio and recorded "Shoot the Pump". "That was just something we had all done," says Calogero. "People didn't have air conditioning. New York summers get hot. Shit, the super was happy to get you the wrench."
The song was released to favorable reviews in the Voice and made single of the year lists in The Face and NME. "Our stuff was way ahead of its time," says Calogero. "We were playing live music behind the rap when other guys had just started using drum machines." The early line on hip hop was that it was a artless mechanical exercise without musical appeal or aspiration; where, asked the critics, were the instruments, the compositions? Literally decades before The Roots hit, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz presented an alternate avenue for hip hop; one where the creativity and ingenuity of the style would've been unassailable. A hybrid strain of hiphop with greater importance given to live performance might've attracted musical artists who were otherwise attracted to disco and rnb; it's not hard to imagine Prince or Stevie or Clinton or Rick James embracing such a movement.
It's also intriguing to guess how the music industry would've reacted to an instrumental-based hip hop album with international hit appeal; would we have seen a cognoscenti-pleasing branch of hip hop develop further away from the street level, an amalgam of proto-backpacker/funk/rap that might have put more emphasis on artistic qualification than street cred? One wonders how this hypothetical sub-genre would've received and nurtured the Native Tongues, the Pharcyde and a thousand other mutations of hip hop that were unable to survive in the gangsta-centric world of the early nineties marketplace.
It was not to be. Calogero tells how it fell apart:
"Chris Blackwell at Island Records heard us and decided he wanted us on the label, but we had an encumbrance with Hammond's imprint. They ended up making a deal between the companies; Blackwell would produce our album and they'd break up the profits between all of us. Right around this time Hammond had a stroke and the cat was out of business for good. There was this lawyer working for Hammond by the name of John Moore, sleazy motherfucker. Moore was the kind of guy who got into the music industry because he couldn't hack it in real estate law. Anyway, the money just disappeared."
"Yeah. We were sitting around the apartment when we got an overseas call from Blackwell saying that he couldn't get in touch with anybody at our record company, no one was answering the phones and he wanted to know how the album was coming along."
"We told him we were just waiting for the advance to send him the album and Blackwell got real surprised and said that he had already sent eighty grand; hadn't we gotten it? Dude, we were shocked! We coulda made ten albums for that kind of money; rent was like two hundred bucks a month in the city in those days."
"We all went down to 57th street, where the record company's office was. Now you gotta understand, we hadn't been down there in a few weeks; we'd been gigging and dicking around, waiting to hear from them what our next move was. Well, when we got there the place was trashed and abandoned. The phones were unhooked and the doors were unlocked. We could've walked off with the office furniture. Probably should have."
"Long story short, Moore made off with the advance. We think he moved to Philadelphia."
Didn't the band try and find him? Didn't anybody go after Moore?
"Ah, we were just kids. Everybody was telling us we were geniuses and the next big thing; at that point, the CBS record was still a go. We already had a hit single; we were all gonna be stars in a few months and we were about to go on tour. We had other plans. We didn't care."
What about the music that Blackwell commissioned?
"We recorded a whole album but it vanished with the money. There must be a copy still sitting somewhere in the CBS Records archives. I'd really like to see that album released; it was great stuff. "Shoot the Pump", that was the most candy ass tune we had. We had songs on there about chemical warfare, political insecurity, regime changes in South America, Noreaga... as soon as Reagan became president we all knew that something was up. One of the songs on that album was about Reagan getting shot: "Ron E Raygun." This was years before anybody else was doing this kind of stuff in hip hop. We went after Bush too, all the shady shit he was up in. Not to get all conspiracy theory on you, but I have to think that the music that was in that can there, I believe it was suppressed on some level, that it was too political to be released."
The band toured the East Coast, France and England based on the strength of "Shoot the Pump". Audiences were enthusiastic but without a follow-up track or a breakthrough to the American charts, the future was uncertain. Marc spent his time overseas relatively productively, getting chummy with several members of the Clash. Marc found the UK punk scene very open to what he was doing and he went on to record a few tracks with Nick Tesco of the punk band The Members. "It sold more than the last 3 Members singles put together without any promotion," recalls Tesco. "I'd probably have left the band to pursue that had I not found Walter in bed with my then girlfriend!”
Bedroom hijinks and musical escapades aside, Marc was growing more and more unhappy. "Marc was an artist as well as a rapper and it was right about then that Basquiat got really big. Marc had wanted to get into that realm as well, but he really wasn't making it. He felt like he was a better artist that Jean-Michel and it really bummed him out that Basquiat was making all this noise. This is when Marc got into blow in a way that fucked everything up."
"We had arranged with CBS to do a new recording session and scheduled to work from six to midnight. Marc wasn't there when we were ready to start, which was getting more and more common, so the band sets up at six with the suits and the sound guys and we lay tracks down, just getting ready so that Marc can drop the vocals. Nine o'clock comes and goes, no Marc. Eleven o' clock, he's still not there. By this time, we've done everything we can do without him and everybody's just sitting around getting pissed, wasting time and money. At eleven thirty, the sound guy starts packing it up; we're apologizing to the suits and the producer is telling us how he's gonna reschedule and we'll just finish up later."
"He was blowing smoke up our ass. They never rescheduled, we never finished those recordings."
"Twelve-fifteen, Marc shows up like 'Okay, let's cut the track'. We went off on him, saying where the hell has he been, why is he so late. Well, Marc loses his shit and starts stuttering and scratching. He was high out of his mind. That was the last time we ever recorded together."
"Marc was one of the first victims of crack. He had all that opportunity going on and you just couldn't shake the guy and make him realize what he was doing to himself, to all of us. I really blame the record company for a lot of it. They kowtowed to him and gave him whatever he wanted, but they didn't take into consideration that he didn't know what the fuck he was doing."
So he went rock star casualty?
"Real quick, yeah."
"By that time, Marc's mother had picked up stakes and moved out to Arizona. Things had gotten bad enough that we decided to stage an intervention. We took all the dope off him and packed him onto a Greyhound out to the desert to his moms to get his shit together. We hoped he'd come back in a month a little more together and we could get back to work."
"After a few months, he disappeared. Three weeks after he was reported missing, they found him out in the desert. Nobody's entirely clear about what happened but it's not too hard to figure out; my guess is, even out in Arizona, he found what he wanted. It probably got him mixed up with the wrong guys without enough money to save his ass."
"Anyway, he died out there."
"I miss Marc a lot. He was a big part of my life; he was like my brother."
After Marc died, the Loose Jointz went their separate ways. Calogero started working with Tito Puente shortly after the band fell apart and continues to perform professionally; keyboardist Arturo O'Farrill has become a mainstay at Lincoln Center; rhythm guitarist Tomas Doncker (he of the "TOMAS!" shout in 'Pump') went on to play with Defunkt and James Chance. Almost to a one, everyone attached to the band went on to acclaim and success as professional musicians. As far as I can find, none of them ever returned to hip hop.
Calogero retains master copies of a number of the band's performances, both live and studio. When I ask him if he'd be interested in issuing them for the first time, he gets genuinely excited. "I'd love it, man. If anybody wants to license this and get it rolling again, it's still hot shit. I'd love to let people know where this music they're listening to came from."
Calogero sighs. "I'm looking at these old photos of me and the band and my kid is saying 'That's YOU daddy?' Yeah, that's me."
"I try to tell these kids about hip hop, but they don't know."
For those of you who MUST have this cut on vinyl, hippa to da hoppa over to eBay and bid on the bootleg compilation, "Dark Side of Disco".
Note that the track in question is wrongly attributed to Loose Joints.
If you'd like to talk to Pablo about releasing the unheard J. Walter Negro or if you'd just like to give him due props for his hand in this bitchin' track, he can be contacted at: earth.musik AT gte.net
Visit Firehydrants.org to learn everything there is to now about the pump.
Special thanks to Pablo Calogero and Arturo O'Farrill for being so generous with their time and thanks to Robin Edgerton for getting me in touch with Pablo and Arturo and doing a lot of the necessary legwork to get this written.