It was 25 years ago today…
I wanted to post this a few weeks ago. When I heard the devastating news of Phife (a Tribe Called Quest) passing away, I immediately thought about playing with him on MTV UnPlugged. There’s a book that documents all of the episodes and I discovered that he passed a few days from the 25th anniversary of the taping of MTV Yo! UnPlugged Rap. I wanted to post about it but I was too busy. So I waited until today, the 25th anniversary of the show’s airing. It’s a bit long but as I started writing a lot of memories came back that I just wanted to document.
I was mixing a record for a band called Pop’s Cool Love (on Elektra, I believe) when they got the call from MTV. They were starting the next season of their UnPlugged series and wanted to do a Hip Hop episode. Would they be interested in being the backup band? We were in the studio at the time so I started asking them which acts were performing and which songs they’d be doing.
“Tribe will be doing Can I Kick It”
“Oh that’s “Walk on the Wild Side””
LL will be doing “Jingling Baby and Momma Said Knock you Out”
I named the samples that were used (right now off the top of my head I don’t remember what they were - it’s been a while…)
So after talking about it with the band for a while I said “Man, that’s sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. See if you can get me into the taping.”
Pop asks me if I had an acoustic guitar he could borrow which I did. “Good, I’ll see if I can snag you a bass”.
“For you to play.”
“But, um, I’m a guitar player.”
“Same difference. You have a day to learn the songs. We’re rehearsing at SIR the day after tomorrow”.
After furiously learning the songs on an Ovation acoustic bass that was strung with with what seemed like suspension bridge cables, I showed up at SIR (with a profoundly bigger set of calluses on my fingers) along with drummer Tal Bergman (Billy Idol), pianistJerry Cohen (he wrote “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”), Pop, and his guitar player Mike Tyler. After setting up for thirty minutes or so everybody else showed up - Tribe, MC Lite, and De La Soul. LL Called and said he’d show up a few hours later.
No one seemed happy.
It was pretty obvious that people were not happy with the fact that the band backing them up did not have a single black musician. It wasn’t a big deal but it was mentioned a few times. The director, Alex Colletti, smoothed things over really quickly. Pop’s Cool Love was a new act on Elektra and the label wanted them on this show to promote them - which was mostly true (only two of the musicians were officially in the band).
We ran through each song few times with each act. It was good but felt perfunctory. Afterwards the artists left and we sat around waiting for LL. He showed up twenty minutes later and we proceeded to rehearse his songs. After two run-throughs he had questions…
“This is all good but what can we do to make this sound more exciting? Can we change things up a little? Let’s start Jingling Baby like a jazz lounge thing and build it up from there. How about a breakdown in the middle of Mamma said knock you out? Maybe a James brown kinda thing?”
We rehearsed for another forty five minutes or so and punched up his set quite a bit.
The next day we all met up at Pop’s apartment before the taping. Pop loaned me a colorful hoodie to wear (I was flying a lot of flannel back then, I’d stick out like a sore thumb on stage otherwise). We went to find a cab and somehow managed to hail a stretch limo - we were only going ten blocks. We got there at the same time as Tribe and De La - they did a double take when they saw us getting out of a big white stretch.
We ran through the set for the cameras and sound - Tribe, MC Lite, De La. Same as SIR - perfunctory, stiff. (As a side note - UnPlugged was recorded directly to stereo - no multi-tracks, no remixing. That changed after this day of taping). LL was the headliner so he was last and his run through was great. When rehearsal was over I approached Alex and told him I had a problem: I was sitting so far to the left that I couldn’t see Tal’s hands or hi hat; as a bass player how was I going to be able to play in the pocket with him?
“Well we just blocked all of the shots and camera angles and they’re about to load in the audience - we’re kinda locked in…”
“Look, just move me four feet closer to the drum set and everything will be cool with me.”
We walked onto the stage and he picked up my stool and moved it over. “Is this cool? Anywhere else and you won’t have any light and no one will see you. In fact I can’t guarantee that you’ll be in any shot at all.”
“I’m fine with that”. In fact it was more than fine. He pretty much put me in line with every camera - I wound up in almost every shot!
Meanwhile, back in the dressing room, one by one each act came by while they started loading in the audience.
“Hey, why does LL get the dope arrangement and not us?!?”
“Well, you didn’t seem like you were too into it. Besides, it was LL’s idea to change it up. We’d have worked with you too if you wanted.”
This was not going to go well…
The audience was filled with young college students and high school kids. As we walked on stage I was sweating bullets. I hadn’t played on a stage in at least five years and here I was pretending to be a bass player - a funky one at that.
Alex came out and spoke to the audience and told them who was playing - apparently no one had any idea and everyone started to get excited. We sat there on stage for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the guys in the control room to tell us to start. A hundred or so people just staring at us blankly.
Alex shouted "We're rolling!" and I started the all too familiar bass line to Walk on the Wild Side while Q-Tip walked on stage from behind me - the place just exploded. Everyone was on their feet cheering, Tip looked sideways at me as if to say “W.T.F?” We plowed through the first verse of “Can I Kick It?” when we were suddenly stopped by Alex. “I’m so sorry folks. We had a glitch with the audio. We need to start over but please, please be just as enthusiastic as you were before”.
-[Cue sad trumpet]-
The rest of the taping went incredibly well. LL absolutely killed it. You’ll notice throughout the set that I’ve got the biggest shit-eating grin on my face.This was the reason why I got into music in the first place. I wanted to play for people. Somehow I stumbled into recording and let my playing take a bit of a back seat.
After the taping everyone was buzzing backstage; a complete reversal of the mood at SIR. I was talking to Q-Tip for a bit.
“Man that was fun! I don’t know; I’m kinda thinking that when we go on tour for our new album that I should take a real band out with us. Yo, would you want tour with Tribe? Play bass?”
I just laughed. “I’d love too but I’m really guitar player. Besides I’m too busy being an engineer these days. I got roped into this because I was mixing Pop’s record”
“What studio you work at?”
“Greene Street Recording. I do a lot of work with Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad there.”
“Cool, let’s do a couple of tracks. I’ll book some time”.
As we left, they were loading in REM for their taping. Talk about contrasting vibes…
A few days later, Tribe Called Quest came to Greene Street and we recorded “Jazz (We Got)” and “Check the Rhime”; arguably two of the best songs from Low End Theory - widely considered to be one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. The weight of this fact and the random way that led me to working on it does not escape me.
After the show’s airing, MTV took LL’s performance of Mamma Said Knock You Out and put it into heavy rotation. I’d get stopped on the street in NYC from people recognizing me. It was a bit surreal. It’s one of the highlights of my life.