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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.

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."

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Jonathan Cunningham

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