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Whodini was the first rap group to use official dancers in its live performances, the first to shoot a music video (for the single "Magic Wand"), and the first hip-hop group to go platinum.
But rap in the 1980s morphed at rapid speed. Each hit song, each new artist, spawned whole new fads and styles. Groups that were hot in January were played out by August. Sure, that happens in all forms of music, but early rap's turnover was especially brutal.
"We were a party group, and we made party songs," Carter recalls. "We liked champagne, liked the Hennessy. The other groups drank domestic beer, but we always had Heineken. We had a lot of fun back then, sometimes too much."
The band didn't shy away from substances that were harder than Henny. Cocaine was the group's illegal drug of choice. They may not have been rockers, but they lived the Mötley Crüe lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll to the hilt. Worse, so did their bosses.
"Back in that era, the whole management company was doing drugs," Hutchins says of Whodini. "All of 'em. And half of the artists. We all had bad habits. But it's hard to keep a career going and have all of your business handled properly when even your management's on drugs."
Bill Adler, a hip-hop historian who also served as Whodini's publicist, recalls that the trio's addled behavior was a frequent source of frustration for him. "They would blow off professional commitments," Adler says. "They would disappear into a hotel room, get stupid high, and you couldn't reach them. When someone blows off big interviews, it hurts. And it hurt my reputation as well."
The bottom started falling out in 1987, a pivotal year in hip-hop history. Open Sesame, the group's fourth album, failed to produce a hit. Meanwhile, gold chains and the first stirrings of the gangster vibe were creeping into the music. Even a "conscious rapper" like KRS-One was taking rap in a more hardcore direction with the release that year of Criminal Minded. Whodini's Harry Houdini schtick seemed played out the group was suddenly about as fresh and relevant as 'NSync is today. They'd gone from being superstars to near non-entities in the genre they had played such a huge role in legitimizing.
"My man [Ecstasy] used to come out on stage wearing leather shorts and cowboy boots and a hat," Adler says. "He was beautiful and built, and he was going to let you admire how cut he was. But when you look at those pictures, it looks dated at best. And at worst, it looks fruity... unmanly. Hip-hop is hypermasculine. And here you got songs like 'The Freaks Come Out at Night' that expressed sexuality in too overt a way to be taken serious for any length of time. The lines of hetero- and homosexuality were blurred. I think by the end, people just didn't get it."
For Carter's part, he's moved past the gripes and shortfalls of Whodini's time on top. "My mind goes way past the past and to the future," he says. "I'm focusing on us coming out with new material soon."
They may not make it back to the pinnacles they climbed in their early, groundbreaking days. But now they're pioneers of another sort explorers on the old-school hip-hop revival circuit.
"My objective is to turn things back around. I don't want to jinx it, but I have ideas that I want to do," Carter says. "Me, I feel like Carlos Santana. He took a break, and now he came out again, like a rebirth. I say we got stock in the game called hip-hop."
His plan is to rise to the top from right here in the bottom of America. Two-thirds of Whodini's members now live in Atlanta, and Carter lives in Plantation. The group is touring again. Carter is working out an endorsement deal with DJ equipment giant Stanton, and he just landed a weekly residence at the Marlin Hotel in South Beach. There are tentative plans for the group to star in a reality-TV series about the lives of old-school rappers, and Melle Mel, MC Lyte, and Big Daddy Kane have all made commitments. Carter also hopes to get back to making music, and he thinks now is a perfect time for some of the old-school rappers to come back and show the youngsters in the game a thing or two.
Then and now, you could make a case for Grandmaster Dee as the star of the group. Carter was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the summer of 1962. On old Whodini album covers, it's his hazel-eyed, bronze-skinned mug that stands out the most, and his magnetic personality comes through with mesmeric intensity when the group is on stage.
But this is the Saturday morning after a long Friday night in Jacksonville, and as the clock strikes noon, Carter is already at the hotel bar enjoying a liquid brunch of Heineken and Hennessy. Ecstasy and Hutchins are upstairs sleeping after driving in from Atlanta, where they share a house, and Carter is too busy double-fisting to take care of business. Whodini hasn't actually rehearsed for a gig in years, but Carter typically handles the soundcheck before their shows. Right now, he's supposed to be 15 minutes away at the Jacksonville Metropolitan Park, making sure the system is tight. Instead, he's holding court at the bar and talking shit about the wackness of last night's groupies. His attire is almost identical to what he had on the previous night. He's rocking in the same Jumpman tracksuit worn partly because Michael Jordan is his second cousin and a similar white T-shirt, not to mention the same slurred speech that followed him to bed around the break of day. Forget about a soundcheck; as time passes and more alcohol slides down his throat, you start to wonder if he'll be in any shape to perform at Whodini's show later that day.