Detroit’s Godfather of Rap: Awesome Dre
For years, the Midwest has produced some of the most lyrically talented rap acts in Hip Hop. Despite the mainstream appeal that has sometimes eluded the other coasts, Midwest artists have still managed to remain true to their Hip Hop roots.
Like other cities, Detroit has seen its share of incredibly talented artists over the years but none more essential than Hip Hop pioneer, Awesome Dre. Beginning his legacy over twenty years ago, Awesome Dre is considered the first major artist to emerge from the Motor City and has influenced nearly every rap act from Detroit, all over the Midwest and beyond since his emergence.
AskHipHop caught up with the Godfather of Motor City Hip Hop who kept it all the way raw as he discussed his legacy as a Hip Hop pioneer, the funny tale of how he encountered Chuck D and what he’s up to now.
AHH: It’s a pleasure sitting here with one of the pioneers of Hip Hop in the Midwest. But I have to start with the universal Detroit greeting, “What up doe!”
Well, I want to say what up doe and thanks for having me.
AHH: Okay, now let’s get right into it. You’re considered the first major artist to record out of Detroit so why don’t you give us a little background on how you got started.
Well basically, we’ve been doing this for over twenty years and this year actually marks the anniversary that I started blowing up. I recorded my first record in the latter part of 87 and then we got it pressed up on a 12-inch in the beginning of 88’. That album was called Hardcore. We also had a single called “Dean of Rap” and “My Little Friend” which was on the first album we recorded in the studio in a professional atmosphere. My stepbrother, “Brother Lonzell,” Ivan Ill, Joint and I met with this dude who we called, “The Detector.” He was the engineer at this studio called Wonderlove, which was in the back of a record store on Grand River in Detroit.
So we went in there and put it together without any technical or music industry knowledge. Ivan Ill had faith in us so he executive produced our first project. But back then, it wasn’t as open as it is now and not many people had faith in it. They said it was just going to be a flash in the pan. We just wanted to do us; it wasn’t about the fame, fortune and glory. Of course when you enter something like that, you want to become successful but the main thing for us was getting our word out and getting people to recognize our face, knowing our name and seeing us. You really didn’t care about the money because it wasn’t too many rappers that were millionaires back then like it is now. It was just a totally different atmosphere…just some young brothers trying to get it together and move in a positive direction on some creativity.
AHH: So how does it feel to know that you had such a major impact on so many artists in Detroit and the Midwest in the past twenty years?
Well, I’m just blessed to still be around and have people reflect on it and appreciate it. For your music to stand the test of time for that many years and for your name to still ring is a testament to show that you’re blessed because everybody doesn’t have that opportunity. A lot of people came out that we can’t forget about. We came up in that era back in the late eighties when it was a big crew of us that came out in Detroit like Detroit’s Most Wanted, Smiley, Prince Vince and The Hip Hop Force, AWOL, Kaos and Maestro, J to D, Rap Mafia, B-Def and Poncho, Esham, Box, Champtown…a lot of people. I’m still in contact with a lot of them. Like Merciless Amir…we still hook up and do stuff. I actually have some projects coming out soon with DJ Los and Motsi Ski. It all stems from us sticking together from back in the day.
AHH: Looking back at your music, there’s obviously a strong respect for Hip Hop. Can you elaborate a little on your beginnings as a rapper?
I started cultivating my skills back in the day. My Hip Hop experience started when I was water waving, break-dancing and jitting, which I still love more than the music actually. Back then, it was more unique and more specialized; everybody couldn’t do it. Anybody could grab the mic and rap but everybody couldn’t just hit the windmill no hands…you know. See, I came up as a product or child of Hip Hop back in the days when it was real Hip Hop. Now, people think Hip Hop is a style of rap but it’s really a total culture that rap is a part of. Hip Hop is not rap; it’s a way of life and consists of the basic elements: emceeing, deejaying, graffiti artists, artists in general, the b-boys and the b-girls, the dancing element, even the way you talk, your dress, your philosophy…your whole way of life.
AHH: So do you agree that people nowadays have it confused that Hip Hop is simply just the act of grabbing a microphone and rapping?
People say you rap Hip Hop or you don’t rap Hip Hop but that doesn’t even make since to me. It’s like Hip Hop is not a style of rap…rap is a style that’s incorporated in Hip Hop. Rap is something you do…Hip Hop is something you live. You don’t have to rap to be a part of the Hip Hop culture. It’s like they just took it and twisted it during the backpack era. A lot of people were considered backpack rappers and conscious rappers and a lot of people wanted to consider that Hip Hop but those were just separate sub genres of rap. It’s all up under the umbrella, period. Hip Hop is not just rap; R&B is Hip Hop, singers are Hip Hop now a days…it’s like your style.
AHH: Talk to me about the success you experienced early on in your career.
Well I started grinding between 87-88. We hooked up with Bentley Records, which was some bullshit. Then we hooked up with some middleman trying to fuck us out of some money. But at the same time, we connected with Priority Records and they put out our record while Bentley put out the video for the classic, “You Can’t Hold Me Back.” We already had the album finished and recorded when they jumped on board and released our video but Priority put out our album, You Can’t Hold Me Back and the second single “Frankly Speaking” shot up to #6 in the top 25 Hot Rap singles in Billboard Magazine.
The album made it to number 51 on the Top 100 Black albums in December 89. We were right there above Frankie Beverly and Maze and Barry White. That’s when we started blowing up. We were doing interviews on Rap City with Chris Thomas. We were flying around the country kicking it with Chuck D, doing promos but at the same time we were young and didn’t know the game yet. Nowadays you can press up a 100,000 copes independently and make a million dollars, as opposed to the majors selling a million copies of your shit and you still being broke.
AHH: So many artists from the Midwest in the early nineties were influenced by your music. But can you tell us who some of your influences were when you first got into the game?
Well, my song, “Hardcore” was based off “Rebel Without A Pause” by Public Enemy. Obviously Chuck D was one of my favorite emcees at the time. I was listening to their first album, BDP’s Criminal Minded and Eric B. and Rakim’s, Paid in Full. Then I was gone off Ultramagnetic MC’s, Critical Beatdown. I was making ni%$as listen to that shit and they were like, who the fuck is these crazy muthafuckas, cause ni$#as just wasn’t ready for that type of shit yet. But I had been listening to rhymes before Sugarhill Gang…I had crazy 12-inches cause we used to deejay.
But I was so influenced by these albums that when we went in the studio to record, I called the number to the studio on each of those album covers and asked the engineers specifically what kind of drum machines they used to record. Each one of them said, SP-12, so I told my man Ivan that I wanted an SP-12. I went in the studio and told Cory Blake A.K.A. The Detector” that this is how I wanted my album to sound and it was based off those albums.
AHH: So PE had the biggest influence on your music?
Oh definitely. I thought I was baby Chuck D cause I wrote a rhyme to, “Rebel Without A Pause.” That’s how I got my first deaI. I wrote the rhyme and Brother Lonzell who had Alkey Records, was like, “That’s sweet. We need to get in the studio.” I was like I ain’t got no money but he said his mans might want to put some money behind me, so I called him up and rapped that verse with “Rebel Without A Pause” playing and my man was like that shit is sweet. Then we went to the studio but they were robbing us blind. None of us had ever been to the studio before but it was all-good because we were young and it was a learning experience.
AHH: Tell me how your experience coming up in Detroit and Ohio has impacted you?
When I moved from Detroit to Ohio, 93 FM WZAK used to have master mixes, just like in Detroit when they had The Wizard and Electrifying Mojo. They used to have local Hip Hop artists and they would simulcast New York radio shows, like Mr. Magic, Rap Attack and DJ Red Alert. We were exposed to a lot of that organic pure Hip Hop: The Fearless Four, Treacherous Three and the Crash Crew. I even fucked around and hooked up with Prince Whipper Whip from The Cold Crush Brothers/Fantastic Five and the movie Wild Style. That’s my main man…his deejay Grand Wizard Theodore was the one who invented scratching so how fucking classic can you get. Shit, I just talked to him the other day.
But my family was musically inclined like my cousin Bootsy who used to manage everybody from Peaches and Herb, The Manhattans, all the way to The Dramatics. My Aunt Dee Dee worked at Simpson’s Wholesalers…Donny Simpson’s family. She used to be at all the parties and took me to concerts. I saw the Mothership Land at Cobo Hall. I saw Rick James throw a garbage bag full of joints into the crowd and everybody just fired up and the police came out. She took me to see the Jackson 5 when they reunited.
AHH: What was it like to be an artist in the city that Berry Gordy helped to make famous?
I literally grew up down the street from Motown. I grew up on Woodrow Wilson right off West Grand Boulevard and you could walk right outside and look down the street and see Hittsville. We’ve seen Michael Jackson over there so many times. We took it for granted whereas people fly from all over the world to see the museum. My mother used to be in there while they were recording. She grew up with all them cats. The Dramatics used to come over to the crib. Matter of fact, Phillipe Wynne, of the Spinners, would come over all the time. One time, he took us fishing at Belle Isle. He pulled up in an Excalibur and had fishing rods sticking out the window cause ain’t no way you could store no whole fishing rods in an Excalibur!
AHH: True that! I noticed that several of Detroit’s early Hip Hop artists including you had a propensity for sampling a lot of funk-based music. What would you say was the motivation that sparked that genre of music to be sampled by so many of those artists?
What I love about Detroit was that we had techno music and that music was right before the rapping. That was the music of the hood and they played that on the radio and in the club and we were jitting to that music. We had Cybortron and all these muthafuckas coming out with Cosmic Cars. We had Technicolor and Metroplex Records, so we had homegrown music. We didn’t need to listen to nothing else because we came up on that stuff.
AHH: Who were some of the major acts that you had the opportunity to work with back in the days?
We used to do local shows back in the days, which was the shit because it would bring all of us together and it would be all the Detroit pioneers: Smiley, DMW, AWOL, Prince Vince…you name it. That’s a show that people would love to see nowadays. But I love them shows we used to do at the Grand Quarters…well it was called Latin Quarters back then. Some of my favorites were when we performed with Rakim down at Kentucky State University and the time I met Scarface, when his name was DJ Akshun.
AHH: You touched a little bit earlier on how Chuck D had a major influence on your rap style. Talk to us about your experience of meeting him and how he personally helped your career.
The way we met Chuck D was funny. We flew to DC to do Rap City and the limo came to pick us up. We get in and see the limo driver got somebody else sitting up front with him and we are like, that isn’t cool. We were like, how you gone have somebody in the limo when you supposed to be picking us up? I heard the dude up front talking and when he looked up it was Chuck D. He got in the back and started kicking it with us. I was like man you are one of my biggest influences and you know what he told me?
AHH: What did he say?
He was like, “I got your album in my collection.” Man, that shit blew my mind that Chuck D had my album in his collection. So, we kicked it some more while riding over to BET and he said he had a new song and asked if I wanted to hear it so of course I said yeah.
He gave me the Walkman and let me hear, “Welcome to the Terrordome.” He told me it was coming out in a few months. So, we get to the studio and I gave him one of my t-shirts and he took his shirt off and put my shirt on. Nobody had ever done that for me. I did my interview with Chris Thomas and got ready to leave and Chuck D was like, “Where you going,’ you ain’t gotta go nowhere. Just chill right there while I do my interview.” While he was being interviewed, I’m sitting right there next to him and he was referring to me in the conversation. I was like hell yeah AND he’s sitting here with my t-shirt on! We filmed that in September 89 and he asked if I wanted to do a show on Thanksgiving with him in New Orleans. I was like fuck yeah! It was PE, 3rd Bass, Too Short and I’m sure it was Cash Money or No Limit back in their very early days but I’m not sure. Dr. Dre and Ed Lover were hosting and we rocked the show. It was banging.
AHH: What is the feel and the reception when you perform in Detroit?
Well, the only time I ever stepped on stage at Joe Louis Arena was when Ice-T was performing. I was back stage taking pictures with his wife Darlene and he was performing and called me on stage. I went out there and I ain’t gone lie, I was nervous as hell and I probably was buzzed. I didn’t rap but I was like, “What’s up Detroit!” and the crowd went wild.
AHH: What are some of your biggest moments while touring throughout your career?
Me and my man Champtown and the homegirl, D’ Phuzion, one of Detroit’s finest female emcees, were able to go on tour with Public Enemy in 99. We had DJ Carl and The Invisible Man. Being on tour with PE was the shit…kicking it with Chuck, Flav, Griff and the rest of the crew. It was their fortieth tour. We were out there for about a month and a half. We did the whole United States and some joints in Canada. The shit was live as hell.
AHH: Now I heard that you were still touring and performing but what are some of the other things you’re doing these days?
Recently, I’ve been doing some shows with Psychopathic Records, which is Insane Clown Posse’s record label. There shows are off the chain because they got the Juggalos (their fan base) and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. They are the most loyal fan base I’ve ever seen. They buy the most merchandise, wear the gear, tattoos and they support ICP. They know all of the lyrics to the songs, they live the life for real…there shows are hyped as hell. We had the gathering of the Juggalos last year in Southern Illinois, which was a four-day event and it was over 100 acts. Ice T performed, Three Six Mafia, The 2 Live Crew… they had a lot of people. This year, Ice Cube is going to be performing and we’re going to be performing. We did the Hatchet Attacks out in Phoenix back in May and various shows that they have here. They have yearly shows like the Hallowicked and The Monsters Ball, which are held the night before Hallowicked, along with The Big Ballers Christmas Party. Their fans show us a lot of love, which I appreciate because when they love you they love you, and if they don’t, they don’t.
AHH: I’ve heard that you also have a radio show. Tell us about that.
Psychopathic gave me a radio show called Awesome World on their Internet Radio Station, www.wfuckoffradio.com. The radio station is a psychopathic outlet for their artists but I just happen to be lucky enough to be offered a show without being one of their artists. They list me as an influence but its only natural that they might have seen me as an influence and I’m grateful for that. They gave me the radio station out of straight love and we been holding it down. We’re just being ourselves on the show. Me and my cousin, Doe Dubbla have been doing the show since December 08. It’s two shows per night every Tuesday and Thursday between 9pm and 1am. We play a lot of my music, a lot of old classic stuff, a lot of my affiliates and new unreleased whatever we want. We have segments like, “Repeat It or Delete It” and we’re going to be putting out a Repeat It or Delete It mix CD. We have Hip Hop horoscopes and a sample source segment where I play the original song and the rapper who may have sampled that music. Just log on to wfuckoffradio.com and click on Awesome Dre. If you miss the show you can always stream it and save it to your computer.
AHH: Recently I found a recent remix of your classic single, “You Can’t Hold Me Back” and I noticed that you had guest appearances on the song from some other legendary Detroit emcees: Big Herk, Esham, Merciless Amir, Shaggy 2 Dope and Boss. How did that project come about?
Well that collaboration came about through my boy, Violent J. I’d already been off and on hooking up with these cats over the years. The idea was to go to the studio and have everybody spit the original lyrics to the song. Esham and Shaggy 2 Dope laid down their verses first and then we pulled in Merciless Amir, Big Herk and Boss. It actually took all of that summer to finally get the song recorded because of everybody’s schedule. Herk was glad to do it. Boss did the last verse the night me and Doe Dubbla performed with Motsi Ski at the Return of the Legends tour with Rakim and Busta Rhymes at Chene Park. We hooked up with Boss that night and she laid her track and then she came back and was like, “You mind if I change up a few things in my verse” and I was like you can do whatever you want and she freaked it. I wanted to get Smiley on the there but we never could get her but I would love to work with her. I’m waiting for all of us to be able to rock that song live.
AHH: A lot of people feel like Big Herk is the most underrated emcee in the country and he’s been holding it down steady for the D for the last few years now. What was it like to work with him?
It was funny because I had to write the song down when we were in the studio for everybody to memorize, but Herk was like, “I don’t need you to write the words. I already know em’. I been rappin this fuckin song damn near all my life”. I got to give Herk his respect cause when I read his interviews he always mentions us…the Detroit Hip Hop Pioneers. A lot of people hate to mention the pioneers and that’s important cause they act like they gone lose out from mentioning the ones that came before them but Herk always shows us a lot of love.