Ben “Cosmo D” Cenac split his formative years between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Park Slope. As a child of the ’60s, he grew up listening to all types of music, but it was nascent sound of hip hop in the parks that really grabbed his attention, inspiring him to become a DJ in 1976. While only a sophomore in high school, he started Jam On Productions with his two cousins and future wife, and began throwing neighborhood block parties. After crafting their own tracks under the name Positive Messenger, they eventually morphed into the group known as Newcleus. They released two seminal 12-inch singles, “Jam On Revenge,” which cracked the Top 40 on the US R&B chart, and “Jam On It” which reached #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, both of which capitalized on the computerized, electro sound that “Planet Rock” made popular.
So who was in the original group?
It started out with my cousins Monique and Pete Angevin. We grew up as brothers and sisters, basically. Our equipment was nothing special: a BSR turntable and a Gerard turntable. No pitch, no strobe – we didn’t know nothing about pitch and strobe anyway. And a very cheap mixer. But by the next year we moved on up to Technics SL-23s, which are the best belt-driven turntables ever made period, and that’s what we really learned how to spin on. And the next summer, my cousin Monique, she was going to go away to college, so we got my best friend Dave, who grew up in Park Slope with me. So it was 1977 when Dave joined and took Monique’s place that we became Jam-On Productions.
What kind of stuff were you spinning back then?
When we first started out we were spinning funk and disco, because that’s what was really happening in Brooklyn. People wanted to hustle to the disco, and people wanted to party to the funk. My first name that I took, I had a comic book character that I created as a kid called “Captain Cosmo,” and one of my favorite records was El Coco’s Mondo Disco. So I took the name Cosmo Disco. But in ‘77 not long after Jam On Productions was formed, hip hop was coming down strong in Brooklyn, and everyone was taking on a name like “Master B,” “Frankie D,” and so forth, so I cut my name short to Cosmo D. And then we started playing breaks, and the more hip hop-oriented – I mean it’s funny to say hip hop-oriented, because there was no such thing as hip hop at the time – but the stuff that works for hip hop like “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,” and we started rhyming and all of that.
You would be out doing a park jam, and somebody would light a firecracker, and suddenly there’s thousands of people running.
At the same time, right around ‘76, ‘77, when I had just left high school, a friend of mine, Tony Flemings, was a drummer, and he started a rock band. And I joined the band as a singer. The name of the group was Thunderfunk. We would do block parties and stuff like that. We would do covers of rock and disco tunes, believe me, it was funny. We’d jump from Boston into “Love Hangover,” shit like that. That was a lot of fun. So anyway, ‘79, right about the same time everything is hitting in the parks, and the park jams are reaching a crescendo, I had met my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, Lady E (Yvette Cook), and she started MCing with the crew. Also, Monique, whose deejay name was Nique D, was back, and she started going out with Bob Crafton, who had been the bass player in Thunderfunk. And he was also DJing at the same time, but not with us. He had his own hook-up, but he was DJing under the name Chilly B.
How did you go from DJing into production?
At the end of 1979 what started happening in Brooklyn was people started running, basically stampeding. So you would be out doing a park jam, and somebody would light a firecracker or something like that, and suddenly there’s thousands of people running, and your equipment gets smashed and run over. Since people are going out there and doin’ these jams for free, and there’s a chance they could lose their equipment, the DJs stopped doing it. So that basically killed the park jams in Brooklyn. It wasn’t worth it anymore.
So right about that same time I started working in the city, and there was this store called Electro Harmonix that had these neat little gadgets. They had a little synthesizer for like $120 or something like that. And I bought that and a little Boss Dr. Rhythm drum machine that fit into the palm of your hand. I came home and started making a song, and Lady E was there and sang on it. And I took two tape decks and dubbed it back and forth and did layers, and right then and there I decided that’s what I was going to do.
I started getting better and better at that technique and I started buying more Electro Harmonix equipment. I bought a vocoder, because they made a vocoder. I bought the Electro Harmonix drum machine even though the Dr. Rhythm I would find out is better because it’s programmable. The one thing that was holding me back is everything I was recording was cassette to cassette, so you’re constantly dubbing back and forth and by the time you’re finished you have something that’s often distorted, and the sound quality doesn’t come out.
By the next summer, me and Al T., who started out with my boy Dave [Doctor Freeze] before he joined us for Jam On Productions, became an MC, and he was going by the name MC Harmony. So he and I and Yvette and a couple other people from the crew put together a record that we called “Freak City Rapping.” Now I’m calling it a record, but what is was was a recording – I shouldn’t call it a record – tape-to-tape-to-tape shit. And I believed in it because I heard what was going on in it. I figured, yunno, it was a rap record. But I figured it was better than a lot of rap records that was out there.
I didn’t like the rap records that were happening. I thought they were stupid.
But all I had was the one copy. So I went out with it and started hitting the bricks and hitting the labels. And nobody would listen to the tape. They said, “You have to leave it.” I said, “It’s the only copy I got.” The last place that I went was a small label called Reflection, where this record called “Raptivity” was released. He said, “OK, I’ll listen to it.” And he sat there and he listened to it – he’s the only person that listened to it – and gave me constructive criticism. “I hear something there, but you need better sound.” But I still appreciated the fact that he listened to it. That cat’s name was Joe Webb.
So, anyway, I go back home and I realize I have to have a machine that’s multi-track, and right about the same time Tascam came out with their very first porta-studio, with a four-track cassette player with a built-in board. So we were working and putting better stuff together and all that. Now, right around 1981, Jam On Productions is still going strong. Yunno, we’re not rocking in the parks anymore but we’re still doing block parties, got lots of equipment. We’re pretty well known. And we had a DJ in our crew by the name of Salvador Smooth. So he listened to the music that we were making, and said, “Why don’t you do a rap record?”
Now I didn’t like the rap records that were happening. I thought they were stupid. See, in Brooklyn, we had battle mentality when it came down to hip hop. Every party was a battle. I mean we didn’t have DJ crews – some did – but very few had routines like they did in the Bronx and Harlem. Yunno, everyone’s rapping together, and they take their turns and answer each other. Now, we ain’t do that shit. You could be a member of a crew but everyone took 16, 32 [bars] or longer, and the next guy would go and try to blow him out. And you’d all be best friends. But getting on the mic was about the battle. We had a battle mentality.
And the records didn’t sound like that – most of them. Even though they were using Brooklyn beats, stuff that worked in Brooklyn, a lot of the rhymes were all this sing-songy routine shit. We thought they were corny. So when he said to make a rap record, and yunno, I’m doing serious music, I said, “Ok, I’m going to have some fun.” Since I’ve always been a huge George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic fan, I went in that vein and made an anti-rap record that was making fun of rap records, yunno, using munchkin voices. It was all about Jam On Productions riding into town, and chasing off the wack rappers before sundown. You know we would call out different crews and all of that. And I called it “Jam On’s Revenge.”
He starts jumping up and down, “That’s it! That’s the one!”
That’s the only record I had done up until that point that did not have some kind of message. Right at the end of 1981, I came up with a track that was pumping. And it had vocoder in it, it had a serious message, it was pounding, it was fast, it was danceable, and I called it “Computer Age.” And right after it was done, I started hearing this shit on the air, “Planet Rock.” And I hear this shit, and I said, “If that shit is a hit, I know ‘Computer Age’ is a hit.” Yunno, cause nobody had ever heard anything like “Planet Rock.” But “Computer Age” was right up that fuckin’ alley. So I said “OK, it’s time to shop again.”
So I started putting all the songs that we had accumulated as Positive Messenger together, and there was room at the end of the second side of the tape. I couldn’t have this pause at the end of my tape. I had just enough room to put “Jam On’s Revenge” on there and fill up the tape and have two full sides. So I go out and I’m going to shop it, and I’m going right to Tommy Boy because Tommy Boy put out “Planet Rock.” If they liked that, they’ll love this shit. You couldn’t tell me otherwise. I was convinced. So I hit the streets, but then I said to myself, you know what? Out of loyalty, I’m going to give one person a shot first: Joe Webb.
So I went to his office, and Reflection was gone. So I stop at a phone booth, and I look and sure enough right there’s Joe Webb. I call him up, he remembers me and says come on down. I figure I’m going to his office. But instead I go to his house in the projects. I go in there and play him the tape and he’s loving it. He’s loving everything. He loved “Computer Age,” gets to the last song on the second side, “Jam On’s Revenge,” he loses his mind. He starts jumping up and down, “That’s it! That’s the one!” And he starts telling me, “Listen I’ll make you rich by the end of the year, I’ll make you half a million dollars,” and so forth and so on. So I never made it to Tommy Boy.
It took over a year for him to get it out, but when he finally released the record, the name of the label was Mayhew Records. It was released in ‘83, and we rerecorded it in ‘82. He gets us in the studio, our first time ever in a recording studio. It was Quad studio, but they weren’t Quad then, they were Quadrosonic. And when you went in there, all over the walls, what they did most there was pornos. All they did there was soundtracks for pornos. Joe Webb probably found them and got the cut-rate deal of a lifetime. The original uses a TB-303 for a bassline, but I had forgotten the TB-303 at home. But Bob brought his bass even though he wasn’t supposed to be playing on there. And we let Bob play the bass instead, which ended up being a smart thing. And that was how “Jam On Revenge” got recorded.
Is that when you took the name Newcleus?
Yes, because we realized our first record is violating our prime directive because we were only supposed to be doing songs with messages or praise songs, yunno, and yeah our first song is nonsense. So we needed another name. So we decided because our family was me and Monique, we’re first cousins, and I was married to Yvette and she was married to Bob, so our group was the nucleus of three different families. Originally it was spelled the conventional way but Joe Webb came to us and said that that violates some science trademarks or some nonsense like that. Looking back now, I think it was a trick – he was trying to steal the name from us. Jonathan Fearing, who at the time was a DJ at WBLS, started playing the record. He actually did more than anybody, probably, to make the record a hit.
But the record was released on a label called Sunnyview?
I don’t know how Joe Webb went to Sunnyview, so I can’t tell that part of the story, but he ended up going to Sunnyview and moving us over there. And they brought Jonathan Fearing in to do an edit, and for the rest of our brief career as Newcleus back then, we were tied in with Jonathan Fearing for life. He got more say in our music than we did. He was good at mixing, he was fantastic with effects, but he thought he was the fuckin’ artist. He was a disco DJ. He didn’t understand hip hop, and we understood what the streets loved. He knew nothing about the streets; he knew what worked in clubs. I can’t complain so much because it’s a blessing what he did with “Jam On It” and “Computer Age,” yunno, basically he left them alone but he mixed them well and added nice effects. And we weren’t allowed in the mixing room. He didn’t let us in there, and that’s a fuckin’ shame cause it was our music. Nobody knew our music better than us, we created it, and we knew every bit of it.
Do you remember how many it sold?
Whatever they told us, it was a lie any fuckin’ way. We were with Morris Levy, man. Morris Levy owned half of Sunnyview. Like, to this day, the first album has not gone gold. How is that possible? That’s not possible. How is “Jam On It” not platinum? “Jam On It” sold for 30 years now.
So we finally come to “Jam On It.”
Wait, wait. So “Jam On Revenge” is done. “Computer Age” is supposed to be next, cause remember that’s the record I’m shopping. Everything’s supposed to be built around “Computer Age.” He’s done moved us over to Sunnyview. And all things are happening – we start doing our first shows and all that. He comes back and says, we’re not doing “Computer Age” next. The label wants a rap record. So me and Bob are like, “We’re not rappers, how we gonna do a rap record? ‘Jam On Revenge’ was an anti-rap record.” So I sat down and came up with a dope ass beat in about 45 minutes. And then I took all the old rhymes – remember I used to say rhymes in the park in the ’70s –put them together, and said, “OK.” Then I said to Chilly B, “OK, I got a spot for you, for your rhymes, come up with some rhymes.” Chilly B –’cause remember he’s not a rapper – couldn’t come up with any rhymes so I wrote new rhymes for him and we followed up right where “Jam On Revenge” left off. And we called it “Jam On It.” Took it in, recorded it in the studio, said to Joe Webb, “What do you think?” He said, “I don’t like it.” I told him he was out of his fuckin’ mind. And that’s how “Jam On It” came to be.
What equipment did you use?
I programmed the rhythm on the 808. Pro 1 was the bassline, TB 303 played the sequence and RS 09 did the chords.
So the whole idea of using the sped up, chipmunk voices, you said, was influenced by George Clinton and P-Funk?
Absolutely. To me, it was carrying on the joke. And you gotta remember, I cared less about the record. I knew the beat was going to make it hot. When I came up with the beat, I knew it was going to make it hot. The rhymes are battle-tested. I said those rhymes a thousand times. And the chorus, two of the things I’ve always been good at is basslines and hooks. So, yunno, I had confidence in that. So the munchkin shit just felt like it belonged to me cause it was answering the first one.
And how about that signature phrase, “Wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki.” Was that kind of mimicking the sound of a turntable scratching?
In 1978 or 9, I think, we had just finished battling a crew whose head was named Barrington. And they sucked. They had equipment, but they didn’t know how to use it. But they had this one kid who had just joined that year, and he could scratch. He came up to me, and said, “You guys are bad, but you can’t do this.” And he did the scratching thing with his hand and went, “Wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki.” And that floored me. I said, “Mu’fucker, we just blew your ass away again, we don’t have to wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki.” And I never forgot that. So when I did the original “Jam On’s Revenge” I put that in there and that was the thing that hooked Joe Webb more than anything. He didn’t know what it meant, but he didn’t care. Matter of fact, he said, “You gotta put that wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki in there again.” So my attitude was like, “Wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki, shut up.” It was nonsense that you got us doing, but it works.
How soon after “Jam On It” came out did it blow up?
Right away. Once it started getting radio play, that was it. It was over.
So how did your life change when that record blew?
We were on the road, that was the change. We got a tour, we got our own tour bus, yunno, that was a trip. It was a blessing. Joe Webb added dancers – we found out later he added dancers to the recording contract, saying that they were Newcleus. He added dancers, added a drummer, he added Yvette’s sister Denise as a back-up singer. She was the only one who actually recorded with us. At points there were ten of us, at points there were nine, at some point there were 11 or 12. And the money went to Joe Webb’s pocket. None of us were making a lot of bank. We were making some money.
How about publishing?
Luckily, the publishing was out of Joe Webb’s hands. That was between me and Sunnyview. I mean they took all the publishing, but at least I got songwriting. So that paid my bills for a long, long time.
I could not be more ecstatic that they made me do a rap record.
When did you part ways with Joe Webb?
Well, right after the second album came out, we were starting to learn. Instead of taking his word, we’re going up to Sunnyview, and talk to the people up there. And we got to know Adam Levy. Joe Webb kept telling us, “Oh, you’re in the red, you’re in the red.” So one day I’m sitting there talking to Adam, and I just figured I’d ask him, “Adam, when are we going to be out of the red?” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Joe Webb says we’re in the red.” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; Joe Webb has been getting paid. We just cut him a check for $250,000 a couple of months ago.” That was the end of doing anything with Joe Webb. But suffice it to say, we never got nothing.
When you look back at the legacy of the song, “Jam On It,” 30 years now, which has influenced so much dance music we hear today, how does that make you feel?
Blessed. It makes me feel proud. It makes me feel humble. Yunno, cause all of this shit could have not happened. I could not be more ecstatic that they made me do a rap record.