Freaks Come Out at Night

Grandmaster Dee cuts a wide swath on the comeback trail

Jive Records, which was based in England, flew to the United States and wanted to record an album with Mr. Magic, but Magic decided against it. Instead, he pushed the deal into the hands of Ecstasy and Jalil, who quickly signed with Jive in early 1982. Ecstasy remembers how Jive named the group. "Back then, everyone was the Funky Four +1 or the Furious Five, so here we come as Whodini, and everybody's like, 'What the fuck?' But it worked."

The duo recorded their first song, "Magic's Wand," produced by London-based synth-pop pioneer Thomas Dolby, and it became a worldwide underground hit, getting heavy radio play throughout Europe and Australia as well as in the United States. It ended up selling close to 100,000 units. That was one of the perks of signing with a British label — while Whodini worked it stateside, their material was also getting a sizable push overseas, an advantage Whodini's New York-based competition didn't have.

But without a DJ or an extensive catalog, some of their initial shows overseas were rough. "We'd tour in Europe and do hour-and-a-half sets, but we only had two singles," Ecstasy recalls. "We used to borrow material from everybody — Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow — whoever had material out, we'd borrow it just to stretch out our sets."

Whodini at work in 2005.
Whodini at work in 2005.

By 1983, the duo realized they needed Carter to legitimize them as a group. He was brought on officially as a tour DJ that year and made his debut on wax on 1984's breakout album, Escape. Carter laid all the scratches and DJ blends on the record, and his musical knowledge gave the album a distinctive sound. Russell Simmons, who handled most of the major acts in hip-hop at the time whether they were signed to Def Jam or not, became Whodini's manager.

"We would have followed Russell anywhere back then," Ecstasy laments. "He was our manager, and we loved him, but it couldn't last forever."

There's a notable sigh of disappointment whenever Simmons' name comes up. As the posse parts ways to prepare for the show, Carter is noticeably sullen. Alcohol and nostalgia have worked Dee into a funk. He disappears for a couple of hours, opting not to answer his phone.

Carter the man and Grandmaster Dee the legend are two different people. The former is an all-too-human everyday citizen, a divorced parent and grandparent who struggles with his vices. Grandmaster Dee, on the other hand, is flawless. After 20 years of catering to audiences, his music selection and scratching prowess are superb.

Still, knowing that Carter has spent the better part of a morning and afternoon "getting nice" at the bar and in his hotel room, it's astounding to encounter him hours later, the transformation into Grandmaster Dee complete. He's dressed in an all-white linen outfit with tan-and-white leather shoes, and he has put the boyish hip-hop antics to rest for the moment. On stage a little after sundown, he exhibits no noticeable effects of his afternoon bender. His audience — most ranging in age from 30 to 60 — is at his feet, dancing to Dee's warm-up set of tracks by Donna Summer, Chic, and the Gap Band. It's an assortment of old-school hits he spins before Hutchins and Ecstasy join him to officially start the set.

Looking out from the stage, his gaze meets a sea of clapping hands and swaying bodies. On this evening, there's a singular surprise. Old friend Doug E. Fresh has flown in as a guest, walking on stage with the members of Whodini, exciting the crowd. The impromptu 45-minute set zips along perfectly — though a few sound-quality issues come back to bite Carter in the ass.

The foursome belts out classics like "One Love," "Big Mouth," "Friends," and "Freaks Come Out at Night." Carter seems to absorb the MCs' nearly invisible cues. Like Dwyane Wade on a fast break, he's in the zone, pulling records off the turntables — yep, he's still using vinyl — and softly tossing them behind him like Frisbees. His pace is frenetic, and he barely breaks a sweat while seamlessly switching between two different catalogs. As the show winds down, just after Doug E. Fresh beatboxes the intro to "The Show" and the crowd sings along on a raucous rendition of "La Di Da Di," the ground behind Carter is littered with records.

After the show, the scene backstage is incipient debauchery. Whodini's dressing room quickly fills with groupies, girlfriends, and industry types. Bottles of Moët are popped, the cognac flows, and the backstage antics typical of hip-hop today — minus a cloud of weed smoke — are in full effect. Brown makes a grand entrance — the decibel level picks up as he strides in the door, loud and proud. He's the king of the scene tonight, and his presence swells the heads of the rank-and-file groupies.

Meanwhile, a groupie who has worked her way backstage has her eye on Carter, lifting her shirt and flashing her breasts in his direction. Hutchins takes a shot of Hennessy, and despite a torn ligament under the brace on his knee, he playfully falls to the ground, rattles off a couple of dozen good pushups, and limps back to his chair. Save for the brace, you'd think he was 20 again.

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