By the mid-’80s, Jalil Hutchins, John “Ecstasy” Fletcher, and DJ Drew Carter, AKA Grandmaster Dee – collectively known as Whodini – had catapulted themselves as a soul sonic force on two different continents. After the release of their self-titled debut album in 1983, the group started to work on an infectious blending of R&B and hip hop that would distinguish them from their contemporaries. On October 17, 1984, Escape was released by Jive Records, and it became their second consecutive smash. The album would spawn three hit singles: “Five Minutes of Funk,” “Freaks Come out at Night,” and “Friends.”
Behind the boards was pioneering hip hop producer Larry Smith. Through his groundbreaking production techniques, innate communication skills, and incomparable musical talents, Whodini was given the platform to push their creative boundaries. Their styles were a perfect meshing of rhythmic and authentic storytelling – featuring Fletcher and Hutchins as compelling wordsmiths and Carter showcasing his anatomical scratching abilities on records. For the album’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Jalil Hutchins about constructing this classic album.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
The first member that I adapted to was Ex [Ecstasy]. He was in another group, and they were about a block or two from the Gowanus Housing projects. This is where my family is from. There were rival MC groups in the area and Ex and I hooked up. We were two leaders from two different groups.
We made a promo about Mr. Magic. It was the first promo ever played on radio that talked about a DJ. Any promo that you hear from a hip hop DJ; we were the first group to make one. This happened from listening to Mr. Magic on the radio. When he first came on, I loved what he was doing for hip hop. He had this theme song he used to play on there. One day, I offered to make him a tape. He was like, “Yeah. Come on down.”
So, Ex and I hooked up and we put the tape together. It was really hot. I’m looking for someone who has a copy of that tape from Magic’s show on the radio. I lost my copy. He played the tape that night, and he played it every night for two years straight on the radio. This is what started the promos for DJs on radio. We had scratching on it, but it was really neatly placed. It was done to the theme of the TV show, S.W.A.T. It was real fly.
What is the story behind the group getting your record deal with Jive Records?
Well, most of the original hip hoppers wouldn’t like the way I would characterize it because the unit of Whodini was almost like a studio type of thing, you know. When I was doing the final mix for “Magic’s Wand,” me and Ex had separated. He went back with his crew and they were doing their thing, while I started rolling with Magic and his brother and the promo was playing every other night on the radio. If I needed them, they were there, and if they needed me, I was there. After I went to record the song “Magic’s Wand,” I called Ex up. I couldn’t reach him, so I ran 15 blocks down to his house. I got there, and I caught the elevator because he lived so high up in his projects. When I saw him, I said, “Yo, man. I haven’t seen you in a while! I got a record deal.” He was like, “What?” I repeated, “I got a record deal!” He said, “Get out of here! With who?” I said, “I got the deal from this record with Mr. Magic. Where is Joe and your brother at?” He replied, “They’re outside.” I said, “We can’t look for them right now. We gotta go!” He said, “I don’t have any paper.” I said, “I got five dollars. Let’s go!” He said, “How did you get your deal?” I said, “I’ll explain it to you along the way.” We ran out of his house within three minutes to run down to the train station.
We get to the train station looking like we had stolen something because we were sweating so much. So, we get to the train station and the train pulls up. We were exhausted. We got on the train, and I explained to him how I got the deal. When we did that tape for Mr. Magic, we didn’t have our group name; we were calling ourselves The Crowd Pleasers. At first, it was me laying my parts down, then my man came in and laid down the crowd replies. Then, I put him on some vocals, and I left them up in order for the engineer to tape them. They gave my man a shot, then the record company decided they liked my noble act. They met my noble act with respect and decided to give him a point on the “Magic’s Wand” record. This is how we got signed to a deal. The song started to get some play in the clubs. It had a disco sound and it was tight. It also had a pop sound, and it started getting some play in Europe. We had the chance to go on the big show Top of the Pops. But we actually missed Top of the Pops by one number, and at that time in Europe, Top of the Pops would take you over the top on the music charts, if you were able to get on the show. The record company should’ve bought that spot…cheap asses. [laughs]
After the success of the two records on your first album, Whodini, you met Larry Smith before making your group’s next album, Escape. What direction was your group trying to take your sound in?
I can’t recall the exact date that Larry and I met, but I think it was at the Disco Fever. This may shock a lot of people, but Larry and I hung out for two years after meeting there. I loved the jazz fender bass sound. He introduced me to it and played it. I just loved that sound. Larry and I were boys. We were tight. I would see him at least once a week for those two years, but we never discussed him working with us. We would talk about everything else but music and hooking up together.
When we made our first album, we worked with some really fly people, especially Conny Plank from Germany. We didn’t make the right songs, but when we learned how to make a song, we tried for years to get back to Conny Plank. I think the most I learned from somebody in the studio came from Conny Plank, who produced Ultravox, Kraftwerk, Devo amongst other groups. Conny Plank produced “Nasty Lady” and “Rap Machine” for us. Jive watered down “Rap Machine” a little bit, and we didn’t know what to do with it.
Conny Plank lived up in the hills of Germany.... I’ll never forget I looked through somebody’s windows that had them open, and they had nice decorations. I look in the next house, and they had a picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall.
Conny lived up in the hills of Germany. One time, we were in the restaurant with him and the whole restaurant stopped. They put their forks and spoons down to look at us. We were the only Black guys there: me, Ex, and the bass player. I walked down the block from the restaurant because we saw this really jazzy looking Mercedes. It was the first time we saw a Mercedes with a kit. They had it way before we did in the United States. I remember it was a hot day, and I’ll never forget I looked through somebody’s windows that had them open, and they had nice decorations. I look in the next house, and they had a picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall. It let me know where I was at. We were in the farm side of Germany about an hour-and-a-half away from the airport.
It made me feel uncomfortable recording songs for a minute after seeing that, but Conny and his family were so warm and friendly, though. He said, “The sounds that you get in my studio you’ll never get anywhere else in the world.” He was really showing me how to be an artist. If we continued to work with him, who knows what type of artists we would’ve become. We enjoyed working with him. He actually tried to get back with us a couple of times. We even tried to get him while we were working with Larry overseas because we told Larry about him. Larry said, “Let’s go get him then.” As it turned out, he was working on a big project so he couldn’t break free.
I was looking for somebody else who could read us, because we just did a three month tour in Europe where we performed “Magic’s Wand” and “Haunted House of Rock.” Then, we had Doc Nice and Kangol Kid from UTFO rolling with us on this tour doing scratching with us. First, we did two-in-a-half weeks, and they loved us. Then we did another month and the next thing we know, we’re there for three months. It was exhausting because every day we had to work. We weren’t at home where we could rest. So, every day we went from place to place. The two or three days we had off were traveling days to go to other countries.
God works in mysterious ways... If it wasn’t for the guitar player getting two fingertips cut off, we wouldn’t have worked together.
There were times where we didn’t know where we were. But when we finished that tour, we had a different look in our eyes. We understood teamwork and it was all about the entertainment. We learned how to run behind the one who was hot that night and support the one who wasn’t that hot. We learned a lot from those experiences. Back then, they wanted us to go from Europe straight to Israel for two weeks and two weeks in Australia. Not going to Israel or Australia was one of our biggest mistakes. Everyone opted to go home because we had been away for three months and it was rigorous. We needed a break, according to us. Somebody should’ve stepped in and made us go do it. Hip hoppers knew if Conny had an understanding of what hip hop was, and if we had an understanding of how to explain it to these musicians who were far ahead of us, we would’ve produced some special records. On the next album, we decided that we needed to get somebody from home that understood where we were coming from.
The record company couldn’t find anyone for me, so I called up Larry. I said, “Larry, I need a favor. I need you to come to Europe, man and record something.” He said, “Ja, you know you’re my man, but I don’t like to work too much outside of the box. I’d do it for you, but those boys are so damn cheap where you’re at.” So, the record company tried to match numbers with Larry. Then Larry called back and said, “They’re too cheap, Ja. They’re too cheap, man. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t do it. If you can get some more money from those boys for me, I’ll do it.” I called Jive and nobody answered.
By midafternoon on the next day, I got a panic call from Larry. He said, “Yo, man. God damn. Ja, I was outside fixing my car.” I said, “What’s the matter, man?” He said, “My guitar player, man.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “He cut his fingers off. It was the fan belt. When he was fixing the car, the fan belt caught his fingers and snatched his fingertips off.” I was like, “Oh, shit, Larry.” He said, “I picked up the fingers and wrapped them up. We just took him to the hospital. I’ve been in there all morning. They’re sewing his fingers back on. But the procedure is little expensive.” This happened in 1983. He asked me, “Is that deal with your boys still on the table?” I said, “Yeah. It is. I didn’t tell them to get anyone else.” He said, “I’ll do the deal. I need to get some money fast!” I said, “Bet.” He asked, “What are you doing now?” I was like, “Nothing.” He said, “Get over here so we can lay something down for them to hear.” Two hours later, I was at Larry’s house, and we laid down the bass for the song “Five Minutes of Funk.” [laughs] God works in mysterious ways. In the long run, the guitar player ended up being alright. If it wasn’t for him getting two fingertips cut off, we wouldn’t have worked together.
What was the collaboration process like between you, Ecstasy, Grandmaster Dee and Larry Smith during the making of this album?
I have a gift. There would be times I wouldn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but I could see pictures in my head once I got an idea. When I got a particular idea or concept, the record was going to be done, especially in the first three to four years we were together. Once I got the four to six lines I liked, the record was going to be done. Everyone just had to wait until I got that groove. I always liked to gather information over time. I had a problem with writing the whole song at home because I figured by the time I would get to Europe six months later, there would’ve been so much more I would’ve picked up on a particular topic, so I used to leave it open. And it used to drive Larry crazy. [laughs]
Out of any producer I’ve worked with, why I can’t finish working with a lot of them is because of their input. Their input was at a minimum. They always looked at the artist like this was a check to them, but Larry would get into our stuff with us. He would start talking a lot of shit to us to let us feel like he felt what we were doing.
I’ve never seen studio sessions like ours. Criticism would be flying around that studio like skyrockets and bullets.
Plus, the attention he would give to every song. The sound of the “Friends” beat was nothing like the way it sounded after he got on it. This is where he came in at. I used to hum things on tape because I was primitive. This is how I would get the sounds from out of my mouth. I would bang on my bed or whatever. Whatever the sound was I had to tape it because I didn’t have instruments. Larry would take that sound, define what I wanted, and then show me what it should sound like. We used to battle over sound a lot. There were times where I wanted to have the jazz fender bass played on a track, and he would tell me not on this song. Just to satisfy me, on “Friends,” he put that melody underneath the beat to make it sound double time. It turned out to be an important part of the song.
When he made the “Friends” drum beat, he made it with the Roland 808 and Linn Drum. It was first time in hip hop where a song had two drums within one sound, and when that shit dropped in the studio, I couldn’t say nothing. [laughs] That was the hardest hitting snare drum. He said, “Do you realize how many cats are going to play us in the park for this sound right here?” He mastered that sound. We had no problems taking criticism from each other. I’ve never seen studio sessions like ours. Criticism would be flying around that studio like skyrockets and bullets. [laughs] But we knew we got something right when Larry started grabbing his dick, and that was the craziest thing in the world. [laughs] I still get nightmares from it.
Ex knew how to make his rhymes flat and sharp enough for hip hop and R&B. I don’t sing a lick, but he knew how to make it sound right for “Freaks Come Out At Night.” He put a little something on it and just rode the track and that’s all it took. He understood tracks, which made us a perfect combination. See, I’m very wordy, but he understood where to cut me at and let the track breathe, until I started to understand where to cut myself at and let the track breathe. Without Larry, we’re not the same group at all. That’s my man. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves for what he’s done for hip hop music.
You mentioned to usage of the Roland TR-808 and the Linn Drum. What were some of the other instruments and equipment your group and Larry Smith used to create the music for this album?
For each record, it was different. If we wanted to hear the same instruments on every record, Larry would get mad at us. We would go from the Roland to the Linn to the 707 to the jazz fender bass. The jazz fender bass sound was our signature. No one could play the jazz fender bass like Larry. On “Five Minutes of Funk,” part of the melody I got was from Wolfman Jack’s show. He used to have an after school TV show way back in the day. The original sound Larry put on it came from the Minimoog. Nobody ever heard it. It was really half rock & roll. At that time, he was new and he was loving us, but he gave that sound to Run [D.M.C.] and them for their song “Rock Box.” If you really listen to “Five Minutes of Funk,” there’s a rock guitar that he started with. He put that boom on it.
I remember many times the guy who was programming the Fairlight computer would look at Larry like, “What are you talking about?”
I was furious when he left off the Minimoog because the Minimoog almost had a bass and a raw guitar sound like the Isley Brothers used to play. It was so fly. When we were in the studio, he said he left his Minimoog at home. We searched for two days to find a Minimoog throughout Europe, and they told us nobody used it any more. I was like, “Larry, how in the hell did you forget the Minimoog?” He said, “I thought I could get one over here.” But he put that bass on it, and it was still raw and rough, but I still had a problem because I was missing what I was missing. Then six or seven months later “Rock Box” came out, and I was like we were going to do the rock & roll thing before them, but now we can’t take our sound there. Larry was like, “Y’all are good though. You got the R&B sound and they got the rock & roll sound.” The music for “Five Minutes of Funk” was Larry being a big kid in a European studio. He used everything they had.
How different was the recording process in a European studio versus an American studio?
Larry was a godsend. Europeans weren’t knowledgeable on hip hop. The Sugar Hill gang came out and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” but that was it. They understood the electric component, but not the boom bap of the hip hop sound. They didn’t understand an MC rhyming over a drum roll. So, Larry was a big translator. The musicians they had working with us were the first ones to operate the Fairlight computer. When we were in the studio, they were bending shapes and sounds on the computer and we were like, “What the hell is all of this?” Because when we were at so-and-so’s joint, we would just lay things down. So, Larry was the mediator between us and the musicians. He had to educate them on what we were doing, but he could relate to them. I remember many times the guy who was programming the Fairlight computer would look at Larry like, “What are you talking about?” And Larry would explain things to him, and he would show Larry a lot of stuff, too. Larry said to me, “If you would stop writing in the studio, we would have more time to bring you some real devastating shit, man, but you take up some of our time writing in the studio. I was like, “That’s what turns me on.” We made this album in two weeks and two days. It was done, packaged, and shipped.
As you look back 30 years later, how do you feel about the impact this album has made not only on hip hop culture, but music in general? Many of the songs have been sampled by acts in different musical genres.
We were on a cruise with R&B singer Eric Roberson, and he came up to me and said, “I rate your group in the top five in terms of writing and producing, because it wasn’t just hip hop cats feeling your stuff. I’ve been around a ton of R&B cats who were listening to your songs and picking lyrics and melodies from them.” I was really taken aback by it because this was Eric Roberson telling me this. R&B groups like Next have told us they go back and listen to our stuff, telling us how much love and soul was in it. Larry always made us do live hi-hats. We never used a hi-hat, drum machine or cymbal in our entire lives. It gave us that perfect blend. Bass players, keyboard players, and violin players around the country could tell we were using real instruments on our records. We would tell them that it was either Pete Harris or Larry making the sounds like that.
When it came to lyrical structures, giving concepts, making the lyrics legible and understandable, we wanted to do that because I couldn’t stand MCs who would lose track of their stories or throw in fill in rhymes. So, I look at this album as the blueprint, because there were no groups before us that made three or four songs that showed the audience that they knew how to make a song. Some groups would make half of a song on an album, at the most. So – that was the difference with us. We brought that into the game; we brought mature topics into the game.