Lowcountry for Old Heads

By  |  November 19, 2019
“Searching for a Portal (Storehouse),” by Sarah Hobbs; chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist “Searching for a Portal (Storehouse),” by Sarah Hobbs; chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist

 

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art of hurricane prep includes swaddling your drum machines in the fall collection. The 808 in Guess, Nautica, Polo. In September of 1989, just before Hugo blew the marina into Charleston, Matt Jones stowed a pair of color-coded briefcases in the dressing room of Hi Fashion of NY on King Street. The purple case was labeled TR-808. The royal blue: TR-909. Mannequins in tracksuits held their poses as store owners Roger Sahijram and his wife, Manu, boarded the windows. On their transistor radio, WPAL 90.5 interrupted Stephanie Mills with evacuation instructions.

The AM station normally aired commercials for the clothing store this time of year, with Jones rapping about back-to-school baggy pants over a Pointer Sisters bass line (“Yes We Can Can”). A longtime employee, the young hip-hop producer had recently given the Sahijrams a vinyl copy of his EP The Musical Prophecy, recorded live in his mother’s living room on Kracke Street in downtown Charleston. The wood-framed shotgun house (credited as “The Genius Productions Control Center”) acted as a studio for Jones, who worked with a rotation of teenagers that included New York transplants like himself, locals from James Island, Air Force cadets, a rapper who still sends Jones’s mom Christmas cards every year, and a girl named Suede. (By most accounts, Suede could take them all, and possibly already had, ruling dance battles under the iron-on alias Precious Pop.) Jones was DJ Wizard, as indicated by the customized “WIZARD” button on his 808. Only three hundred copies of The Musical Prophecy were pressed and none had bar codes. Most were stored in the tin shed in his mom’s backyard when Hugo made landfall at one hundred thirty-five miles per hour and flushed dolphins into living rooms.

“Maybe that’s what happened to them.” Jones chuckled, looking up from a pile of records, when I visited him this summer at his house in Charleston’s West Ashley district. “I know I have one in here somewhere.” He passed me a Run-DMC 12-inch, signed by the late Jam Master Jay after Jones defeated him in a DJ battle at Hot Wheels skating rink in 1983. (Jones basically used Jay’s own record to give himself a round of DMX golf claps.) He then extracted his EP, labeled Genius Productions, from a battered cardboard mailer. “This is from Hugo.” Item description: Considerable water damage, plays fine! 

According to the virtual marketplace, The Musical Prophecy  might run between fifteen hundred and two thousand dollars, making it the most expensive rap record not purchased by an intranasal ketamine fraud named Shkreli. “Back then”—when the record came out—“I was like, ‘I’ll pay you if you take it!’ Later, I would get emails from Japan, Germany, Paris. How did this happen? People have been trying to get out of here musically forever. What are you doing? Hip-hop? What?”

Jones currently runs a company that provides live sound production and systems admin. Clients include the Charleston County government, which might not be aware that its IT contractor once operated a pirate radio station (“99-point-something”) from the shed in his backyard, transmitting the Fat Boys half a mile to a basketball court boom box in Harmon Field. Or that he once customized mixes for the local ice cream truck. “The ice cream man was boomin’,” Jones said, laughing. “He wanted something besides that dinky melody.”

“It was an independent, black-owned ice cream truck,” recalled Alex “Focus” Nelson, an old friend of Jones’s who raps on the EP. “Bumping that ‘King Kut.’” A 1985 hit by Word of Mouth, “King Kut” demolished the vanilla bell theme (which, it turns out, has racist origins) with a warped steel pan version of the French national anthem, courtesy of DJ Wiz. Kids in the neighborhood might’ve thought they were being summoned to the truck by Ric Flair, but it was T-Ski Valley yelling whooo! twenty-five times. Upon hearing about this, a civil rights lawyer in the Bronx called Matt Jones his hip-hop hero.

 

As an aspiring DJ with goals of “smoking Flash,” Jones would anonymously drop off his mix tapes at WPAL. One of his mentors, a radio jock and family friend named Anthony Braxton, was known to sing along with Cheryl Lynne’s “Got to Be Real” on the air, to the point where his version would get more requests. Jones had caught the MacGyver bug as a child when his mother, a pediatric nurse, taught him to solder while fixing his toy record player and accidentally locked the volume on blast. Patricia Nowell would soon find her stereo getting dissected, as her son devised new channels for his DJ rig. “Things in the house that weren’t supposed to come apart started coming apart,” he admitted. 

Before his mother permanently relocated south, Jones would bounce between her place in Bed-Stuy and his grandparents’ house in Charleston. (“I got in all my trouble here. I was a little rambunctious for my grandparents.”) In 1982, he attended one of hip-hop’s more revisited get-togethers: the Amphitheater jam in Manhattan’s East River Park, filmed at the end of Wild Style. Jones is in there, somewhere, while Rammellzee’s onstage off-top, rapping about ebony earthquakes and a heist, before thanking everyone for coming out for an after-dinner rap attack. Cue Chic’s “Good Times.” Roll credits. Cut to middle school Matt Jones, reenacting the scene while deejaying a teen club near Shipyard Creek in Charleston. He still has the flyer from the Wild Style event, screened and preserved on the t-shirt he was wearing when we met. 

“Charleston had this—call it ‘cultural exchange program’—with New York,” recalled Alex Nelson. “Everybody had family up there. During the summer the cousins come down with shoeboxes full of cassettes. When I went to New York I would sleep in the daytime so I could get up in the middle of the night and catch ‘The Zulu Beats’ on 105.9.” Nelson joined all the daydreamers who scrambled their sleep patterns to hear recordings of black nationalist speeches (“We all came by way of the South!”) over a Cameroonian disco break. Then host Afrika Islam’s wee-hour nod to someone called the Love Squid. 

Before Matt Jones took part in the I-95 dub exchange, he was hearing Parliament at a church social with his grandmother at Calvary Episcopal on Line Street. (“My grandmother did not approve of the artwork on Hardcore Jollies.”) At age nine, he left his mom a note saying he’d run off and joined Parliament and would only return if she bought him a drum set. Forwarding address: the Mothership. “I’m hiding under the bed watching my mom read this note and she’s getting upset. I felt so bad, I crawled out. Here I am!  Needless to say, I did not get the drums.”  

A problem solver, Jones would ultimately get his drums from his mother’s record collection, as her Charles Wright and Isaac Hayes albums began migrating into his room. “There wasn’t enough money for records,” he recalled. “Or I couldn’t find them. So I’d record songs on the radio off the reel-to-reel, and take the reel-to-reel to the party.” There’s a photograph of Jones deejaying the Charleston YMCA wearing pleated baggies and a fade, with a Michelob parked in front of his Akai séance machine.

Jones showed me his scrapbook from those years. There’s 3rd Bass performing on a baseball diamond at Rainbow Stadium. Genius Productions opening for the Geto Boys in Denmark. Matt Jones with Salt-N-Pepa at Ladson Fairgrounds. Matt Jones with the Braxtons. Matt Jones on the cover of Rappin’ The Magazine. A photo of Matt Jones’s pet turtle on a turntable, getting flipper-prints all over Eric B & Rakim. Across the page, another turtle sits on a Moog Source keyboard. “That’s Flash,” he said. “Actually, he’s on the membrane above the keys—you can create different waveforms with it. . . . I’ve always had turtles. My best little friends.” (Jones’s first turtle, as well as his first Blowfly record, came from his uncle.) Next: a photo of Roger Sahijram behind the counter at Hi Fashion of NY, holding a reel of The Musical Prophecy. “We were so proud of Matt,” said Sahijram, who immigrated to Tampa from India in 1976. “We used to sign for all of his equipment for UPS.”

 

The Musical Prophecy doesn’t sound “regional,” a coded designation with boundaries of its own. Back then, daisy chain studios and kids wanting to be heard were part of a shared rap geography, located around Yo! MTV Raps every afternoon. GPS James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and you’ll end up in just about every rap album from 1989, including the one that was made in Matt Jones’s living room. The Bronx attorney surmised: “Great Golden Era beats, but no samplers. Cuts and scratches, but on reels. Makes a record without a record company. He’s a samurai.” The lyrics often nod to the wizard creating one song from eleven records, virtually in real time before his mom got back from work. The shotgun layout at Kracke Street was amenable to the cut-through approach to production, the beats often changing room to room, songs en route to their next version (there were several), as if the horn section from “Catch a Groove” faded toward the kitchen, passing the terrarium and three different drummers quantized from three different time zones, followed by a Moog beaming through Matt’s grandmother’s sewing room. At what instant did he decide to snatch an eavesdrop of party chatter from 1976, overhearing it as part of the beat, on a chance fly-by? 

“A lot of things weren’t on purpose,” Jones said. A foot-switch for recording freed up the producer’s hands to fool with the tape machine, or look for the next record, the next idea, backspun with one finger (not easy!), while the rapping about warhead medallions occurred in the living room. “This isn’t really working for me,” Suede had said, right before casually scorching her track. Just passing through. “None of the EP was done with a sampler,” Jones recalled. “All overdubbed and scratched in. I would scratch what they were saying on the reel-to-reel.” Lines about brushing your teeth with gunpowder, for instance. 

The ceramic owls on the end table watched it all go down. “He had to transform it back into the living room when he got done,” remembered Patricia, her house’s wild studio days long past. “The authorities only had to come over once when it got too noisy. He was always saying, ‘I’m almost finished!’”

Jones was disappointed with the final fidelity, possibly due to the scarcity of mastering engineers working with hip-hop in the Charleston County area (there were none). “I remember standing at the truck yard,” said Nelson, recalling when they finally got the record back from the pressing plant. “We were waiting for them to dig it out. We had the trunk open, standing there salivating. If you could see the smile on our faces.”

Jones pointed to the octopus on my t-shirt, which appears to be answering several phones at once. “That octopus was me.” He then recounted a party that Genius Productions held at the Ramada Inn. The flyer featured an octopus, along with the suggestion “Wack DJs bring your cameras.” They made so much cash that night they had to transfer it in Jones’s 808 suitcase. “I was walking though the party with the suitcase handcuffed to my wrist,” Nelson said. “We thought we were big time!” 

Jones pulled out the purple and blue briefcases, which he built himself, sourcing materials from the shop where his grandmother, Alease Nowell, bought fabrics. An old DJ friend recently approached him, saying, “I still got the felts from your grandmother!,” referring to the turntable slipmats Jones cut out in the sewing room. “I don’t think companies were making that kind of stuff back then,” said Jones. “That helped me get faster. It might’ve been cotton polyester blend. It was kind of scratchy but it was smooth. You know, slippery!” Nelson referred back to that battle with Jam Master Jay. “All you could hear was clap clap clap. Jay took his hat off to him. Literally. You know that big black hat?”

Jones still has the slipmats. And he still has a prototype of an MPC sampler from his time as an informal memory consultant for Prince’s favorite drum machine company, debugging chips that arrived in the mail. He’s accumulated a museum of hip-hop technology over three decades, spread across homes and storage units. “Have you seen his storage?” Nelson asked. “Matt’s an electronic hoarder!” When Jones’s son asked why he had, say, forty mixers, or dupes of iconic samplers, he got the straight answer: “Well . . . I was nuts. I thought, What if I’m in Virginia? Every place I go—if I have stuff there, I’m good.”

 

On the back cover of Run-DMC’s first album, JMJ (hatted) sits on a massive boom box. Known as the 777 Searcher, Sharp’s battleship radio offered six speakers (two of which were subs), dual tapedeck, Echo knob, a mic line, a jack labeled “Super Woofer,” and a place to rest your weary bottom. Too much heft to be shouldered, best transported by car.

When Jones evacuated Charleston before Hugo, his own 777 hogged the backseat of his red Mercury Capri. Nelson sat up front, his moniker stickered in tiny letters down the lens of his Malcolm X–style browline frames: FOCUS. In the back, a rapper named Major T was bunched up against the window, with half a radio in his lap.

At the time, Major T had a 12-inch out called “Sit Back Relax,” released through Loco Records, a Charleston record store that for forty years served local DJs and furloughed sailors. The song seems to advocate patience, time management, and doing the Roger Rabbit. Scrub brushes work the floor, sprinklers flick and hiss, fake yawns signal time to go. The chorus, “Sit back, relax, and let it happen,” reclines into a HoMedics chair massage of bass, not really sweating the cone of concern menacing the coast. The B-side, “Broadcast System,” was in more of a hurry, constantly jabbing rave sirens to get to a party, while Major T rapped about bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95. The cause of the jam? People dancing in vehicular abandonment. It’s less Hugo, more Freaknik.  

During the Capri’s six-hour crawl up I-95 that day, they listened to Jones’s mixes. “We got as far as Columbia,” Nelson said. “Those kids at the shelter were so happy when they saw us show up with that radio.” I imagine them lugging the Searcher into the gym, heralded by “King Kut.” Whooo! Whooo! The cone of concern became a sub gone fudge ripple, a refuge.

Upon returning to Charleston after Hugo, Jones was relieved to find his mother’s house intact. “Only one window pane was broken,” he said. “But the shed was toast.” Most of Charleston was without power. As they drove by the traffic sawhorses with flashing yellow lights, Jones had an idea. “I had converters that would turn battery power to AC. We took all the lights off the horses—lantern batteries—and made electricity. It worked for a couple of days.” Nelson added, “It’s kind of like that moment in Beat Street when they get power on, when the DJ chants, It’s workin’!

“One cool thing that came from Hugo: everybody worked together to rebuild,” Jones said. “For a brief time nobody thought they were better than the next person. Everyone standing in line for the same thing. It was during Hugo I made Charleston my permanent residence.”

After evacuating to Milledgeville, Georgia, Roger and Manu Sahijram returned to find that Hi Fashion of NY had withstood the storm carnage as well, Matt Jones’s 808 carry-on still in the dressing room. When I phoned the Sahijrams, now retired and living in West Ashley, I mentioned that Jones still has a tape of the radio commercial. Back-to-school baggies. Roger let fly aWhooo! “We sold lots of baggie pants back then. When Prince came to play in Charleston, we completely sold out. All the baggies were gone!”


“Hyper Than Dope” by Genius Productions feat. Suede is included on the South Carolina Music Issue Sampler.

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Dave Tompkins's first book is How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks. He is currently working on his second book, a natural history of Miami Bass. Born in Charlotte, he lives in New York. He last wrote for the magazine about George Clinton. 

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