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“I remember what it was like to see the entire world of hip-hop on the New York subway map as a child,” Marvin Young, aka Young MC, told me in a 2012 interview. “Like, Moe Dee’s from Harlem, Boogie Down Productions are from the Bronx, Public Enemy’s from Long Island. It even stretched to New Jersey and Naughty by Nature. But if someone outside that map made a record, guys were saying it wasn’t real hip-hop because it didn’t come from New York. Everyone always assumes I’m from Los Angeles, and I claim LA proudly, because if I’d stayed in New York I would’ve never blown up. But the fact is I’d never even been out to LA until I went to college.”
In the summer of 1987, Marvin Young wrapped up his sophomore year studying economics and computer data processing at the University of Southern California and headed home to New York City. After dropping off his bags at his parents’ home in Hollis, Queens, he hopped the train into Manhattan to his favorite record store, the venerable Rock and Soul, tucked away in the shadow of Penn Station.
As he perused Rock and Soul’s spidery wall racks stuffed with funk, R&B, disco, electro, boogaloo, jazz and hip-hop 12-inches, he was approached by a young clerk named Eric Flewellen, who knew that Marvin had aspirations to be a rapper, and that he was attending college out in LA. “Eric said, ‘Yo, I know these guys in LA who are starting a label, Delicious Vinyl, you should give them a call.’” When Marvin returned to USC that fall, he cold-called the Delicious Vinyl office. “I rapped for them over the phone and they sent me a contract in the mail to my dorm room at USC,” he said.
Marvin had rung the right place at the right time. Funk fanatics Matt Dike and Michael Ross had founded Delicious Vinyl in early ’87 with a $5,000 loan, setting up their gear in Dike’s railroad apartment over a carburetor repair shop in East Hollywood. Within 18 months, Delicious Vinyl sold 10 million records worldwide, becoming a key label in the expansion of hip-hop from New York sensation to global phenomenon. At the time Marvin called, however, Delicious only had two rappers on its roster: a gravel-voiced, semi-reformed gangster called Tone-Loc, and a Cuban-American dandy from South Gate named Mellow Man Ace.
“That first phone call, I was falling out of my chair laughing at Young’s rhymes,” said Ross. “I remember telling Dike, ‘Wait till you hear this kid, he’s our Dana Dane!’ Young had punch lines and told stories, with unexpected references. When he said, ‘More than water seen by a sailor, more than husbands of Elizabeth Taylor,’ it was on and poppin’!”
Marvin Young’s parents were both Jamaican by birth. Cleveland and Lucille Young arrived in Great Britain in the mid-1960s, part of the West Indian immigration movement that began in the mid-century. The young married couple lived in the London hamlet of Neasden, where, in 1967, Marvin was born. In 1970, the Young family crossed the Atlantic again, moving to New York City, where Marvin’s father worked as an executive with Bell Telephone and his mother as a nurse at Jamaica Hospital. The family settled into a free-standing colonial home in Hollis, Queens.
Trawling through his father’s record collection, young Marvin discovered Jamaican dancehall artists like Yellowman, Peter Metro and Sister Carol. “When I heard how fast and clear the toasters were toasting, I knew I had to emulate them,” Young said. There was another influence on Young’s developing sound: “My mom made sure that I had no perceivable accent, meaning not a Jamaican accent, not a New York street accent. That was her thrust, for me to speak clearly, and I brought it to MCing.”
The prepubescent schoolboy jotted his lyrics in ballpoint pen on sheets of loose-leaf paper, stuffing them into plastic bags to carry along while cruising his neighborhood on his single-speed sky blue bicycle. When he got his turn on the mic at park jams, Marvin made arrogance sound cute: “They think they’re lying on the beach when there ain’t no sand / They think that they’re the freshest rapper but they ain’t heard the man!”
“One time I was at a block party when there was a shootout,” recalled Young. “I took off and left my bag of rhymes behind. I went back the next day to get it and it turned out that this guy had taken it home. He was probably 17 and I was maybe 13, and he said to me, ‘You should memorize these and not take them out with you.’”
Marvin did as he was told, creating a memory bank he would later tap to considerable effect. “When I first auditioned over the phone for Delicious Vinyl, I did a rap that I’d written when I was 12 years old. Mike Ross loved it, and I realized that I could still use all the raps I’d written as a kid. ‘Got More Rhymes,’ ‘I Let ’Em Know,’ ‘My Name Is Young’ and ‘Non Stop’ were all written when I was between the age of 12 and 15. That all worked toward the concept of me being quote-unquote Young MC.”
From early childhood, Marvin was instilled with the core belief that personal excellence and mainstream acceptance were desirable and synonymous. “‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out when I was 12,” said Young. “I remember calling up WBLS like crazy to request it. I was impressed by hearing rap on FM radio because you could hear the hi-hats clearly, that was a big thing. To me, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is the greatest rap record of all time because, in terms of the capability of rap crossing over, that’s the foundation.” These values would, by the decade’s end, make Young MC the exemplary candidate for crossover success as a rapper. But at the moment, Marvin felt the common teenage need to assert his independence. For college, he had a simple directive: “I knew I wanted to get out of New York.”
“If I was coming from a prep school, I might’ve been scared,” Young said of his arrival at USC, located in a grimy quadrant of central Los Angeles, sight unseen, “But here’s where rap helped me. The area around USC was the prime audience for KDAY, and right by the clubs that had live hip-hop nights. I’d go to a show and be able to get back and get some sleep and make it to class the next day.”
When Ross picked Marvin up from his dorm and drove him to Matt Dike’s apartment, the college junior was ready to ace a test he’d been prepping for since childhood. In the spring of 1988, the results came back from the pressing plant.
Young MC’s debut single, “I Let ’Em Know,” credited to M. Young, M. Dike and M. Ross., is five minutes of spartan, glockenspiel-spiced drum programming bolstered by Marvin Young replaying the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight” bassline on a Minimoog Dike had found in a thrift store. The blocky track serves Young’s verbosity, beginning with his declaration of self: “My name is Young MC and rockin’ the mic is my craft / but when I first started everyone just laughed / ’cause I got rocked ’n’ rolled, left out in the cold / ’cause I was trying to battle men when I was 10 years old.” On the flip, “Fastest Rhyme” is over in 49 furious seconds, before “My Name Is Young” clocks close to five minutes of plinking piano as the son of Hollis sets himself apart: “Not Doug E., Run, Whodini, Cool J or Shan / My name is Marvin, Young MC, and I’m a helluva man!” All three of the winning tracks would also appear on Young’s debut album, Stone Cold Rhymin’.
Fresh-pressed record in hand, the Delicious Vinyl promo man, Orlando Aguillen, drove Marvin up Echo Park’s serpentine streets to deliver a copy to the KDAY broadcast tower atop Alvarado Terrace. “As we were driving back down the hill, we turned on the radio, and they were playing the record,” said Young, delighted at the memory. (Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists calls KDAY 1580 AM “the first 24-hour rap-oriented station in the universe.”)
The song made a lasting impression on one precocious teenage listener down in Long Beach. “Everyone knows Young MC because of ‘Bust A Move,’” Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Doggy Dogg, told me in a 2013 interview. “But before ‘Bust A Move’ was ‘I Let ’Em Know.’ That’s the first song by Young MC I heard. I’d hear it on KDAY. ‘I Let ’Em Know’ was hard! Young MC came out with what he was born to do, and pop crossed over to him and ran with him. Young MC was the truth.”
Focused and serious, Marvin managed his university course load while making time for music. Young didn’t drive, so he was ferried from his dorm to Dike’s apartment by either Aguillen, Ross or engineer Mario Caldato, Jr. After walking into the mattress-padded closet at Dike’s, Marvin nailed his rhymes on the first or second take. His debut album was quickly taking shape.
“Matt and Mike would both be there,” Young said. “Mike to supervise the vocal performance, and Matt to make sure I didn’t mess his beat up. Mike Ross really taught me how to make a structured song, the importance of verses and choruses instead of just lyrics and hooks. Plus, Mike had specific ideas about how he wanted the vocal takes to sound. When I nailed it, we’d be falling about laughing. Matt would be chuckling, he was more understated. But, no question, Matt Dike was the creative force, the one who took it off the beaten path. Mike Ross was too straight a thinker, as was I.”
With the Sennheiser 421 microphone still smoldering, Matt and Mike would hand Marvin the next beat on cassette to take back to his dorm room. There, Marvin waited for his roommate to leave, put on the tape and sat down beneath the Miami Vice poster on his wall to write.
“Matt and I would give Young a catchphrase like ‘roll with the punches’ and he would come back straight away with a finished song based around it,” Ross recalled.
Marvin’s reliability and relentless verbosity meant that Dike and Ross tasked him with writing two verses for the next single by his labelmate Tone-Loc. Marvin completed the assignment in 30 minutes.
“When ‘Wild Thing’ came out I remember Tone saying to me, ‘Maybe we’ll sell 30,000 records and I can get a car,’” said Young, “And I was thinking, ‘Hmm, 30,000 is a lot.’”
When “Wild Thing” was released in October, 1988, Young had completed the tracks for his own album, including what was slated to be his next single, the jaunty “Principal’s Office.” But the surprise success of “Wild Thing” gave Dike an idea: They needed to make an up-tempo song for Young MC.
“When Matt gave me the beat for ‘Bust A Move,’ it just seemed like a good funky track,” Young remembered. “But as we’re putting the song together, with the rest of my album completed, we’re watching Loc blow up. By the time ‘Bust A Move’ comes out in the spring of ’89, Loc had gone Double Platinum, and that was really bugging me out! I graduated from USC and figured I’d do music for the summer, then most likely go to grad school. But at the same time I’m thinking, ‘This could be interesting…’”
Released on September 5, 1989, Stone Cold Rhymin’ contains 13 songs and zero curse words. The sepia-toned album cover depicts Young in profile, cradling an old broadcast microphone and looking more like a dapper doo-wopper than a hip-hop hero. In terms of playing it straight, the songs are shocking in their innocence. “Now I wrote this record for when I perform / lonely nights inside a university dorm…” begins the album-opener, “I Come Off.” The album bridges old-school sounds and what, at the time, was a creatively uninhibited, low-budget production. In retrospect, it’s easy to see which of the songs on Stone Cold Rhymin’ date from Young’s Hollis youth and which were written in college. This has less to do with any perceptible immaturity on Young’s part than with the rigorous structures and topical conceits of dorm-penned numbers “Roll With The Punches,” “Principal’s Office” and “Bust A Move.”
“When it comes to summing up Marvin, I can’t help but think of ‘Got More Rhymes,’” said Ross. “Those lines: ‘Because I got more rhymes than the other guys do / They’re just a monkey, I’m the whole damn zoo.’ If you were going to dissect his mentality and his defining character traits as a MC and as a person, it would have to be that song.”
“Know How” is one of Stone Cold’s standout jams. The album’s sole production by Dust Brothers Michael “EZ Mike” Simpson and John “King Gizmo” King, the song begins with a straightforward stacking of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From ‘Shaft’” and The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” until, 65 seconds in, the beat combusts with delirious, stereo-panned scratching by EZ Mike. With a nimble bass line by Kevin O’Neal (formerly of SoCal rock band The BusBoys) the track’s tight cuts and stacked breaks are the closest prequel to the Dust Brothers’ subsequent cosmic cut collage on Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.
The ultimate success of Stone Cold Rhymin’ was predicated on its true outsized hit. The winning sound bed of “Bust A Move” is a key assemblage lesson in Matt Dike’s hip-hop production master class. Its immediate inspiration came from the compulsory crossover hit of 1988, “It Takes Two” by MC Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, which cribbed its “Wooh! Yeah!” hook from the 1972 James Brown-produced Lyn Collins belter “Think (About It).” Dike, in turn, discovered a similar grunt-shout exchange in “Found A Child,” the opening track on the self-titled 1970 debut album by the horn-fueled Seattle band Ballin’ Jack.
“Found A Child” begins with a clattering cowbell, a snare drum press roll and a juicy horn fanfare. A unison vocal line with vaguely Biblical lyrics about a quasi-Moses child proceeds until the two-minute mark, when the group seems to sharply, collectively inhale. Everything falls away. Then, in it comes: a ratchet-tight, gator-tailed electric guitar riff backed by padded-paw handclaps, repeated twice, lasting approximately 12 seconds total. It’s a passage of absolute divine convergence in the middle of an otherwise scattershot jam.
For the breakdown in “Bust A Move,” the Delicious Vinyl crew slotted in a sure-shot: Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio.” Meanwhile Dike roped in his pal Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to add a bass line. “To be honest,” said Young MC, “When we made ‘Bust A Move,’ I had no idea who Flea was.”
“When I got to the studio that day, Flea had already laid down a bunch of bass tracks with lots of thumb-poppin’ and tons of notes,” said Ross. “He definitely was making Bootsy [Collins] and Larry Graham proud, but it’s not quite what we envisioned for this track. I’m sure Matt had just let him rip and didn’t get to really defining the part. So Dike wandered into his room, leaving me to suggest to Flea a less busy version of what he had been playing. Flea realized the vibe and nailed it. His bass line is funky as hell and definitely a signature part of the track.”
For his part, Young dove into his narrative bag to come up with lyrics encouraging nerds to put their mack down: “A chick walks by and you wish you could sex her / but you’re standing on the wall like you was Poindexter.”
“I never used rhyming dictionaries, but I write backwards,” Young explained. “It’s like a drama. As a writer, you have the power of knowing the ending. So I’d have the catch line first — in this case, the Poindexter quip — then worked backwards to write ‘you wish you could sex her.’ ‘Bust A Move’ is a great example of a rhyme that, if I’d stayed in New York, would have never come out that way. I don’t say my name anywhere in the song. There’s four 16-line verses, and I don’t say my name once. In New York rap, not saying your own name is a sin!”
“Bust A Move” clocked in at 4 minutes and 23 seconds, improbably long for the purposes of Top 40 radio play, but, as Ross said, “We kept all four verses; they were all too cute to cut.” A radio edit was never culled, and the song’s Tamra Davis-directed video, with Flea in custom clown pants miming his bass part on the Venice Boardwalk, depicted actor Max Perlich and model Lisa Ann Cabasa (then dating Beastie Boy MCA) indulging in what Spin magazine writer Frank Owen deemed “innocent scenes of interracial teen petting.” The clip received crucial mainstream exposure, playing in heavy rotation on MTV from April 1989, a full two months before Yo! MTV Raps went daily.
Commercial radio proved less receptive. In his Hot 100 Singles column of October 14, 1989, Billboard magazine reporter Michael Ellis noted that “Bust A Move” had rocketed to No. 2 on Billboard’s sales chart (behind only Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much”) and was “a smash everywhere it [was] played.” Ellis then noted how few radio outlets were doing so — less than half of the 119 stations that comprised Billboard’s reporting panel. As incredible as it may seem in the hip-hop saturated world of today, the fact is that, at the peak of his career, Young MC was making a style of music that the gatekeepers of mainstream America were still keen to keep out.
Then, at the 1990 Grammy Awards, “Bust A Move” won for Best Rap Performance. It beat out DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson,” De La Soul’s “Me Myself And I,” Tone-Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” It was clear that hip-hop wasn’t going to back the NY-or-nothing mentality, and New York’s ire was real. Grumpy Village Voice don Robert Christgau deigned to give Stone Cold Rhymin’ a “B+” in his letter-grade consumer guide. “His polysyllables and quick lips aren’t as fresh as he thinks they are,” sniffed Christgau.
Au contraire: Stone Cold Rhymin’ still sounds fresh after all these years.
Peter Relic has worked as an usher at the Rose Bowl, tour manager for The Black Keys, and a journalist for Rolling Stone, where he interviewed artists from Neil Young to Snoop Dogg. His XXL article about pioneering Houston hip-hop group Geto Boys appeared in Da Capo Best American Music Writing 2006. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.
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