Freaks Come Out at Night
It's almost midnight in the lobby of the Jacksonville Sheraton Hotel, and Grandmaster Dee, legendary DJ and key member of Whodini, is acting the fool. With his low-cropped fade, blue Jumpman tracksuit, and white sneakers, he does not stand out as a celebrity at all. That's the problem or make that, part of the problem. His speech is slurred, his eyes are glazed, and he's clutching a Heineken bottle like a microphone, hollering at every passing female about how he's a member of Whodini the seminal hip-hop group from the 1980s. You remember Whodini, don't you?
Some of the women clutch their purses closer. Others cling to their husbands tightly and walk rapidly by, eyes downcast. Dee's friends try to corral him back to his senses, but the scene drags on for 20 minutes. This is Grandmaster Dee at his worst, a guy who reeks of washed-up hip-hopper.
Dee, born William Drew Carter, is in Jacksonville on this chilly Friday to perform at the Funk Fest alongside other throwback artists such as Lakeside, MC Lyte, Bobby Brown, Cherelle, and Frankie Beverly and Maze. The daylong extravaganza of popular rap, R&B, and soul acts from the 1980s is a big deal to Jacksonville's African-American population. A weekend of heavy partying is already in full swing, and the mood in the Sheraton, where all of these groups are staying, is laid-back, except for Dee, the one knucklehead causing a ruckus.
Not 30 minutes later, that Grandmaster Dee is gone. The other one, the one who still commands respect, is making a beeline for the DJ area in the packed Deep Blue nightclub. The club's resident DJ sees him approaching and announces on the mic that "Grandmaster Dee from Whodini is officially in the building!" and the patrons on the dance floor start going crazy. In a flash, Dee is on the turntables, scratching records with his elbows, forearms, and hands and doing behind-the-back tricks.
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This is a DJ master class. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who could barely stumble up a flight of stairs a half-hour ago, the same guy who was almost turned away at the door for being drunk and not meeting the club's dress code. But there he is, on point and rocking the turntables with pinpoint precision. His "set" lasts barely five minutes, but he's flawlessly controlling the crowd. It all looks so effortless, and a knot of patrons presses forward toward the DJ area to see a legend at work.
Now people are walking up to him and extending their hands in introduction. Women are trying to flirt, and their boyfriends are getting jealous. This is Grandmaster Dee in his element.
It's been 25 years since Whodini first burst out of Brooklyn. Back in 1982, the group's three cocky kids Jalil Hutchins (one of the few rappers to go by his real name), Ecstasy (with his trademark Zorro hat), and DJ Grandmaster Dee quickly made a name for themselves as one of the most versatile hip-hop crews in New York City. No thorough anthology of old-school rap is complete without Whodini classics like "Freaks Come Out at Night," "Friends," and "Five Minutes of Funk," key tracks that helped hip-hop break out of R&B and into the pop charts and the national mainstream.
For a time, their prominence was paralleled only by Run D.M.C. another New York-based group that Whodini regarded more or less as friendly rivals. The two groups played many shows together, but according to other hip-hop acts on those tours, Whodini was the more popular act.
"There's no question that Whodini was killing it every night," Public Enemy's Chuck D says from Long Island. "You gotta understand, between '84 and '87, you've got a group that nobody wants to play behind. Run D.M.C. didn't want to play behind them. And it caused tension. It was like the Four Tops and the Temptations. Hell, they got along, but they were out to smash each other every night."
Doug E. Fresh is another hard-core fan. "I think because there were people who had something against Whodini, people haven't told the whole truth within the history of hip-hop," he says. "You can't leave them out. They did hip-hop and R&B, and the combination is different than most. A lot of rap fans almost hold it against them that they were able to bring those two worlds together."
Whodini penned songs that appealed to women as well as men a trick Run D.M.C. never figured out. "You know, Whodini were the first true sex symbols of hip-hop," old-school rapper Dana Dane says. "You had Grandmaster Dee with the green eyes, X and Jalil had their own style, plus they always dressed fly. They were getting NBA-type groupies before ballplayers were getting 'em. They were rock stars, basically."
By the time Escape, their 1984 record, hit the streets, they were regularly playing shows in Germany, England, and Japan. Aside from Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang, rap groups touring internationally were still virtually unheard of.
Whodini ruled hip-hop when the culture was still fighting for recognition. At the time, hip-hop was still pretty much confined to the five boroughs of New York City, and the so-called smart money said the music was just a fad, that it would die out by the end of the summer. You could barely hear it on the radio, and television shows like Yo! MTV Raps were still years away. As for hip-hop-based ad campaigns, forget it.
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.
For the duration of this weekend stint, Carter is sharing a conjoined suite with another legendary partier longtime friend Bobby Brown. Brown spent much of Friday evening out of sight save for a 3 a.m. appearance at Carter's hotel room, where, soaking wet and dressed in nothing but a towel, he looked to borrow something. For his part, Dee spent the wee hours with three middle-aged groupies who planted themselves in his hotel room until it was time for this reporter to get lost.
It's hard to tell if Carter's buzz is freshly acquired or lingering from the earlier one, but either way, he's especially talkative about hip-hop and what's kept him going for the past 25 years.
"There's just something about going out there and having 20,000 people in the palm of your hand every night that's addictive," he says. "I had to make sure my game was tight, because it was about showmanship back then. You really had to stand out and be different for anyone to notice you, because all the DJs were so good."
"Drew had beautiful timing," Adler remembers. "He was the drummer basically, and he did it with flair. He could cut a record with his nose. I mean [Grandmaster] Flash was incredible, and he could spin around and cut with his elbows, but Drew could do it with his face."
"All the DJs wanted to be like Grandmaster Dee 'cause he was the best," Dane adds. "Even Jam Master Jay, who was one of the greatest ever, wasn't as incredible as Grandmaster Dee. Dee had control of every cut, every motion. He could read the crowd, the MCs; he knew when to drop the record, when not to, and could let the fellas do what they had to do."
"Drew was always ahead of the game, even back when we first got together," says Dr. Ice, who has now joined the entourage at the bar. While some may remember Dr. Ice from his time in the group U.T.F.O. and their breakout 1985 hit "Roxanne Roxanne," he was also a part of the Keystone Dancers alongside his partner Kangol Kid; the pair were brought on to enhance Whodini's live performances. Although Kangol has retired from hip-hop, Whodini still includes Dr. Ice in all of its current shows so that rapping, scratching, and dancing three of the four vital elements of hip-hop are represented each time they take the stage. "We came up in the days when DJs were party rockers," Dr. Ice says, "and a part of what makes Drew so good is that he still has that quality about him today."
By now, Ecstasy and a few longtime Whodini affiliates are flanking Carter at the bar. Everyone is laughing, cracking jokes, and reminiscing. Turn back the aging process and you could be looking at one of today's rap posses.
Carter says his first encounters with DJ'ing were through Masta Don from the Def Committee and DJ Whiz Kid, who took him under their wings his freshman year at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan. "Every day after school, we'd work out on the turntables," he says.
The first time he heard the music, as a freshman on his high school's basketball taxi squad, he was electrified. "I went to the lunch room one day, and they had the boom box set up, and I remember hearing with the echo effect, 'Yes yes y'all, and you don't stop, you are listening listening, to the sounds sounds of DJ Afrika Afrika, Bambataa Bataa, and the mighty mighty Zulu Zulu Nation Nation.' And I was like, 'What was that?' like, ooh, I want to be down with that."
Soon enough, he was. Everything about hip-hop was growing at an exponential pace, and Carter's DJ'ing skills were no exception. By 19, he already had his own group, Grandmaster Dee and the Devastating Two, with Carter on the turntables and two female MCs called Dimple D and Giggle G.
Around 1980, he also fell in love with the late-night broadcast of New York's preeminent radio host, Mr. Magic, on radio station WHBI. It was the only radio show in town where you could hear hip-hop, and Carter tuned in religiously. Though he didn't know it at the time, this would eventually lead to the formation of Whodini.
"Me and Jalil didn't even know Drew back then," Ecstasy says. "We had our own group, the Quadra Brothers. This would have been like '80 or '81. But we were fans of the Mr. Magic show. We recorded a little radio jingle, like a commercial bigging up his show, and Magic used to play it on the air. After that, we started working at the station just answering phones to help out, and the first person to call in every [Saturday] night was Grandmaster Dee. He used to call in every night to check in."
Magic rented the Saturday-night graveyard slot between 2 and 4 a.m. for $75 an hour. Anybody who cared about hip-hop was glued to the radio. Carter laughs as he recalls his standard catch phrase, which was echoed through boom boxes across New York City each Saturday night. "I used to call up and say, 'Yo, what's up, Mr. Magic? This is Grandmaster Dee, and, yo, I'm checking out Mr. Magic on WHBI, 105.9. '" Although it was pure shameless self-promotion, both Jalil and Ecstasy were intrigued by his resolve. The three met and practiced together, but they didn't become a trio for a few more years.
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."
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.
When Carter steps out of the room, Fresh gushes about his longtime friend. Neither Carter nor Whodini have gotten their due, he says. When the topic of VH1's Hip-Hop Honors (one of the closest things in existence to a hip-hop Hall of Fame) comes up, Fresh can't hold his tongue. "They should have already got it," he says. "They might have to change it to Hip-Hop Dishonors in a minute."
Ecstasy chimes in that he'd like to be honored, if only so that his kids will know that their father isn't just talking shit about being an unheralded legend. But he doesn't want to come across as bitter. "I don't want to be the angry rapper that says, 'What about us, what about Whodini?' We made our music, and the crowd still loves it. I don't care if they honor us or not."
"Truth is truth," Fresh insists. "And a lot of this has to do with your time on Rush Productions."
It's the second time the R-word (referring to Simmons) has been mentioned. The mood in the dressing room remains jovial, but the Hennessy and champagne are loosening tongues.
"When we started working with Russell, he booked us on the Fresh Fest, the Def Jam tour," Hutchins says. "He made sure we were on all the major tours. So I ain't go no beef with Russell, and I ain't got no beef with [Russell's business partner] Lyor Cohen. They got a beef with us. As far as they were concerned, there could only be one of us on top. And we were running on Run and 'nem [Run D.M.C.]. They live and they do their thing, but come on. We were kicking their ass too. Whodini ain't no joke!"
Minor controversy mars the tail end of Funk Fest 2007. Carter is supposed to DJ Bobby Brown's set, but the promoters pulled the turntables off stage, and their co-performance never happened. Brown and Carter believe that the organizers didn't want them to upstage the headliner, Frankie Beverly and Maze. And Brown and Frankie Beverly can't stand each other. They've traded words in public before, and Brown is seething. Brown and Carter have may shared bills for nearly 20 years, but tonight would have been the first time they would have performed together. When Beverly's entourage led by Beverly himself, clad in a black suit topped with a bright-red hat brushes past Brown's, it's the last straw.
"Oh, you're wearing the red hat tonight, huh, Frankie?" Brown says as Beverly slides past, pretending not to hear. "You lucky I don't knock that hat off your head, you faggot motherfucker."
The Whodini and Brown crews head out to a club across town. Brown arrives with his new girlfriend, several cousins, and his father, Herbert "Pop" Brown, in tow. They've eschewed the VIP room and are hanging out on the dance floor bewildering curious onlookers who marvel at Bobby Brown in their midst.
Carter arrives a little later in a stretch Hummer, lugging a heavy crate of records to the DJ booth. Soon he's playing a mix of reggae, funk, and hip-hop while Dr. Ice works the crowd, basking in Carter's grooves. Suddenly, Brown decides to join in. He heads to the DJ booth he's had a bit to drink takes the microphone out of Ice's hand, and starts freestyling. The crowd goes apeshit. It's not the duo performance the two had in mind, but as organically and spontaneously as possible, Carter and Brown are working the club in unison. Carter drops the beat to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning," and Brown raps it word for word. It's more like karaoke than a real performance. Brown is too drunk to be coherent, and Carter is mostly playing songs with words instead of spinning instrumentals. From a purely musical standpoint, it's a shambles, but the two old friends are cracking up and having a blast.
Much later in the evening, everybody still on the premises is herded over to the VIP area in a separate building. There, Carter takes over a different set of turntables and spins an exclusive set that lasts until the wee hours. Brown alternately tends to his girlfriend and 77-year-old Pop (who is partying at least as hard as everyone else in the building) and occasionally busts out with what looks like a few choreographed New Edition dance moves. Despite it all, nothing about the night reeks of celebrity.
The night finally concludes after 5 a.m. A second posse of groupies has gathered in Carter's hotel room, and they get a bit out of hand. They're loud, and they start hitting on Pop Brown, who's more than game. He maintains that he's "got his Viagra ready and needs a woman like a fish needs a raincoat," but his son boots the girls out.
Most A-list rappers today are a lackluster album away from seeing their careers vanish, though it's hard to detect the undertow while it's happening. Whodini is lucky; there's an old-school circuit that can help keep a rap group afloat. But before a group can bounce into that market, things have to get ugly.
It's not necessarily the conversation that Carter wants to have, but he's stuck, driving in a car for six hours from Jacksonville to Plantation with a reporter who won't let him off the hook. During the drive, which includes stops at the home of a childhood friend, an extended nap, and a lot of hip-hop trivia, Carter is candid and hungover. He misses touring, and he's glad the phone is ringing again.
"Back in '85, '86, I was making more than a $100,000 easily," Carter says. "I was taking in around $150,000 just off touring and hip-hop. And that's 1986 money. We'd be hanging with Mike Tyson, partying at the Roxy with Madonna. And I'll be honest, I shared a lot of that money with other people from around the way or whatever. It wasn't like I wanted to have fun by myself."
By the time Whodini released its Greatest Hits album in 1990, it was a foregone conclusion that the time in the spotlight was finished. By 1994, all three members of Whodini were in Atlanta, where they signed with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label. A decade earlier, Whodini had given an adolescent Dupri his start in the music business when they let him be one of their dancers. The group had high hopes for their So So Def debut Six, but it was a commercial failure.
Carter stayed in Atlanta for two more years after the So So Def deal wound down, leaving only after a run-in with the police outside of Club 112 that left him with a broken arm. After a subsequent stay in Memphis, he moved to Miami briefly before settling in Plantation a year and a half ago.
Carter doesn't remember when tricks became part of his repertoire, but he delighted fans with antics such as scratching records with his sneakers, Chapstick, and anything else he could get his hands on. "The first time I went to Japan, I started doing tricks with the chopsticks," Carter remembers. "I went and got a dozen of them, took four, put them together, and just started scratching the crowds would go crazy when I pulled that one off. I remember we started doing something in the middle of the second tour where, at the end of the show, the group would pick me up with my feet in the air, trying to pull me off stage like, 'Yo, we gotta go,' and they're pulling me away from the turntables but I'm still scratching the records. We were always giving them something different. That's what made our live shows so fun."
Speaking of tricks, one of the original Houdini's most astounding illusions was making a 10,000-pound elephant disappear. Audiences never figured out exactly how a five-ton elephant vanished into thin air, but it bears a special relevance to this juncture in Carter's career. An obvious topic that most people around Whodini these days choose not to discuss is whether there's still room for the group to reemerge in the rap industry with new material. Their stage shows are tight, but the genre as a whole is hurting. The question is: Would audiences even care? That's the five-ton elephant in the room.
"There's a fantastic market for their music right now," Chuck D insists. "Now is a good time for them to make some music, some videos, and use them as advertisement for their live shows. With today's market MP3s, digital downloading all they need is to play their shows, no different than the Dells play shows, and they'll be fine."
Carter can't argue with that, and, in fact, he's hoping his old friend is right.
"Like I always say, if you could last 25 years and still do what you do and love what you do and still eat without a record out, then you've done something right," he says. "Nobody is making music catering to the older crowd. That's where we're going to step in. Not just for us but to save hip-hop as a whole."
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