Monday, March 5th, 2007

Rap’s Holy Grail? :: Live Convention ’77-79

That’s right, 1977.

Old school afficianados know all about the Disc-O-Wax Live Convention 81 and 82 platters that captured the Fantastic Romantic, Flash, Mel, the Cold Crush and others off of street tapes that were circulating at the time. The records have become highly collectible and have been oft-bootlegged. For folks like me, who first heard these records all out of context during the mid-to-late 80s, they were proof early on that hip-hop had rich roots we had no idea about. The tapes were technically recorded after the record industry was into the rap thing a couple years, but the vibe–and the thrill of hearing live tapes–brought to our minds the energy of “Wild Style”. Folks have since sampled the records over and over–including Blackalicious on “Swan Lake”.

Now the Golden Reaal folks have brought to light what may be an even deeper story: that the first real Live Convention tapes weren’t ever committed to wax! The story begins with a Bronx edit-master and engineer from the Soundview projects named Kenny Wilson.

Kenny loved hip-hop’s beats and mixing, but, being a sound guy, was frustrated by the quality of his younger brother’s live tapes. So he decided to recut the music straight to reel to reel tape, imitating the turntable trickery of folks like Grand Wizzard Theodore and DJ Kool Herc. Then he added the rap routines back over these clean remixed versions. The result is pure old school rap heaven, back when hip-hop wasn’t something you could have a remote control relationship with. It’s urgent, in-your-face, just lots of fun.

Unlikely stars–including folks who never made it to wax–emerge like Kool Kyle the Starchild and a young girl named MC Smiley of the Herculords. Kenny also cut sound bites from movies like “80 Blocks From Tiffany’s” and anti-drug films over the music. If the story he tells is true, this could be one of the first proper mixtapes. (I’m sure there must have been home-recorded show demo tapes around, tho I’ve never heard stories of any.)

Here’s his story:

Q: How did the Live Convention 77-79 mix happen?

A: …After they started releasing rap records by the end of ’79, my brother and I figured we might be able to make some money by selling our mix. Reggie had already quit selling tapes as he was too busy with other hustles, but hearing rap on the radio got him back into it. He was seeing a girl who worked for a record store opposite the Celebrity Club at 125th street which was owned by Johnny Soul – may his soul rest in peace. Tanya told me Johnny wanted to talk to us after he heard what we were doing with the edits and all. So one day in the summer of 1980 she took us out there to see him. We brought him a cassette containing the best edits that I had done, and he was like hell yeah, I’ll put this out, because he was also trying to get into the business of releasing rap records. He was cool with a lot of artists (such as Fantastic Five, ed.). He told us we would release a ‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’. He made me go back to the drawing board to prepare the mix for release. It took me another six months before I could hand over the masters around January ’81, over 3 years after I began editing. Remember all of this was done outside my regular day job at the studio.

Q: What was Johnny’s part in the process?

A: Well, we basically left the business side up to him, which would include talking to the emcees [featured on the tapes], and obviously he would pay for the pressing, do the marketing and all. He also came up with the name Live Convention 1977 1979 and had someone do the cover art, which didn’t really represent the amount of work we had put into the mix! It was a sketchy drawing of a deejay standing behind one turntable, not even two. Still, we was proud, even though we weren’t even mentioned on the sleeve at all and we didn’t know how much money was in it for us.

Q: So why were the records never released?

A: Two things happened: myself I had been looking to get away from NY. I had a girl who wanted to get married, thinking of having a baby and we didn’t want to stay around the Bronx any longer. So when I got the chance to take a share in my uncle’s electronics store in Richmond, VA, I accepted. The other thing was Johnny’s store got robbed at gunpoint and together with some jewellery, they took two boxes with the master reels and the art work for our records!

Q: Why would anybody want to steal that stuff? Did you buy that story?

A: You know, it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for him to make that up. There were other reel-to-reels with rap recordings inside those boxes, but they were heavy, so the robbers must have known that they weren’t taking any lunch money, haha. Reggie and I were pissed off but we couldn’t do nothing about it. The story out in the streets was that it had to do with an unpaid debt. But we never saw those tapes back.

Q: And that was the end of it?

A: I had to concentrate on starting a new life away from NYC, so I couldn’t go back to the studio to compile a new mix from the reels that we’d kept at the studio. Some of them had been recycled anyway. So I just left it. Reggie lost hope that our record would ever come out. After I moved to Virginia, two records came out by the same name we had picked: Live Convention 81 and 82, on Soul Wax / Disc-o-wax, which was Johnny’s label. But the concept was totally different, he only used live cassette recordings and more recent stuff. No edits like I had done, so the sound wasn’t that good at all!

(excerpt from the site and liner notes) Fast forward to 2004. At a liquidation auction in Newark (NJ), Jay of Golden Reaal buys the entire inventory of a former record store with the purpose of reselling the most wanted soul & funk items in the UK. Part of the lot is a number of boxes with dusty reel-to-reels which look as if they have sat there since the 80’s. One box comes with artwork for an apparently unreleased album and a hand-written producer royalty contract. Jay also discovers five test pressings which are labelled ‘Live Convention 77-79 volume A’. Aware that he may have discovered one of hip hop’s holy grails, a predecessor of the legendary Live Convention albums, he calls up his partner who proceeds to inspect the reels and finds out that this is the real deal!

A search starts. Local phone directories and yellow pages to butchers, grocery stores and relatives finally lead to the man behind this production, who is living a quiet life with his family a few hundred miles from New York. A phone call puts Jay in touch with Kenny, who is surprised that anyone shows interest in his work, and even more so to find out that the lost tapes have resurfaced. When they meet in person, they agree the importance of this set makes it worth a re-release on the newly established label Golden Reaal records.

I honestly don’t know how much of this can be verified, and I honestly don’t have any reason to doubt its veracity. To me, the point is simple: the CD sounds fantastic. It’s a must-hear.

If you have never heard some of these original live tapes, it’s a mind-blowing experience. Even if you collect them, you will still be awed by how Kenny captures the feel of those tapes: the raw energy, the human mistakes, the crazy echo-chamber effects, all of that. It’s just jaw-droppingly great.

You can listen to snippets of this incredible document and purchase the CD here.

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