"Neighborhood Legends" is a concept I've long been intrigued by and a column I've been planning to do for a long time but kept putting it off (you can read more on the inspiration for it at the end of this article).*
First up is Steve "Romeo" White. I just mentioned him in my Trickeration article a couple days ago and that is what inspired me to finally start this regular column.
I remember in the early 80s, approx 1980-1982, while living in Germany that there suddenly seemed to be bit of a increased influx of people moving to our army base from the East Coast. Although, I was at the ages of 10-12 at the time, I was already determined to devote my life or at least just about every free moment of it, to Hip Hop. At first, that made my main goal to get my hands on every rap song that I could. Eventually that would grow into a passion for me to write as many rhymes as I could. "Romeo" was vastly important and influential for both.
This is a time period when the person with the newest music had social status. As a result people guarded their tapes very closely and you had to really be connected to get a copy. Once everyone else had the cuts, then you were no longer special and people struggled to hold on to that "fame". When I knew someone had a certain tape, I would walk around endlessly to find them wherever they were at; gym, basketball courts, or wherever. I would track them down because I knew they'd be rocking "that tape"!
I had some pros and cons going for me. Number one problem was I was really young and most of the kids my age weren't as deep into Hip Hop as me. That meant it was the older kids who had the music and they weren't willing to share with their peers, so giving it to a little kid was pretty much out the question. The general consensus to those my age was "Beat it kid or get beat up"...ha. However, my older sister was popular and a lot of guys wanted to date her so they would try to be cool with me to help them get a date, which I was known to try to barter into a tape trade here and there...and got pretty upset when my sister wouldn't go for it...ha. Also, in my favor was that I had some Popping and Breaking skills, so sometimes, just sometimes, they'd let me hang out with them for a song or two.
However, none of that got me those tapes...and I was fiending, so I had to resort to drastic measures. In '82 for my B-day I got a nice Sharp dual cassette deck with the fairly newly invented hi-speed dubbing function. I would carry that large 10 battery behemoth around in search of tapes. People weren't willing to give them up so that meant hanging out at the b-ball courts and while they were down court, I would snatch up a tape and hi-speed dub it and get it back unmissed before the game was over. Or if there was a house party I would get there first and have my box set up as the designated radio for the night and when the guy with "that tape" walked in I would gas him up saying something like, "Yo man you got the best tape out right now! If we throw that in we'll have this party rockin!". He'd be feeling really good about himself and of course he had "that tape" in his pocket so he'd unsuspectingly give it up, not knowing I had a blank tape on that other side ready to go...
Finally sometime in '82, my days of sneaking around and under-hand tape dubbing ways became a thing of the past. The "White" (uh...as in their last name) family moved in just behind me. Steve White a.k.a "Romeo" was simply the coolest dude I'd ever met. I didn't even know what "New York Cool" was since records rarely had picture covers and it was barely making it on to TV yet, but I knew that he had "it". He came straight from New York (Bronx or Queens...) with stacks of vinyls, boxes of tapes, and was quickly crowned the #1 MC in the Neighborhood. If that wasn't amazing enough, he also took a liking to me and took me under his wing.
From that point we would kick in on the regular. He dropped off a stack of wax at my house for me to put on tape for him and myself (Including that Trickeration as well as the super rare Nice & Nasty 3 "Ultimate Rap" 12", one of raps most expensive records...yep, one sat in my living room for about a week). Whenever he got a new tape mailed to him from New York, generally Mr Magic radio shows, he would let me get a dub, no questions asked. I remember one day sitting in the movie theater in 1982 (perhaps E.T. opening weekend??) and out of a nowhere a pair of headphones dropped on my ear and before I could look to see who or why I heard the sounds of Cold Crush Brothers "Punk Rock Rap" for the first time and look up to see "Romeo" with this satisfied look like, "That's the joint right!?!" He was also the guy that passed me the tape with the "1981 Professional Rappers Convention" where Kool Moe Dee famously went in on Busy Bee.
Although the main point of all this is about his Legendary status as an MC, I honestly don't remember a lot of details about that. That's probably partially due to the fact that at this time the greatest gifts of an MC were his personality, voice, and style. his voice was powerful, but smooth, similar to a Kool Moe Dee or maybe more like Lil Rodney Cee of Funky Four/Double Trouble. As far as his approach, he just made everything seem easy and effortless. I never remember him being in a rush to do anything, he moved at HIS pace. As for lyrics, I have fragmented memories of some of his key rhymes in my head but can't quite piece them together. The only routine I remember is one he had called "Sucker MCs"** and the hook was patterned after Queen "We Will Rock You". The day after he wrote it he came to my house and kicked it for me, as I stood completely wide-eyed, on my front lawn.
Although all these stories were influential and memorable to me, there is one particular thing that "Romeo" did that had a particularly powerful effect on my life and solidified him as a Neighborhood Legend to me. By this point, I had wrote a few little rhyme pieces, but nothing to serious or good, for that matter. One day he showed up with a piece of paper and gave it to me. He had wrote me a rhyme based on my name at the time, MC Coolie. I asked him to say it for me, but he said he wouldn't. He wanted me to learn it on my own and that would help me develop my own personality and flow for it. I took it home and I practiced for countless hours. Ultimately that is the first verse I would perform for a crowd of people at school; rocking the lunch room, playground, basketball court and wherever people would listen. I started to get props and that gave me all that confidence I needed to write my next rhyme...and the 100s after that.
I know I thanked "Romeo", but I don't think he has any idea of the profound impact that his mentorship had on me. He made me believe I could be an MC. To me he is ranked as a legend to the highest degree, right next to my other all time favorites.... Steve "Romeo" White, wherever you are, I don't know what you saw in me, but I'm glad you recognized something and allowed me to gain experience from your brillance as an MC and devotee to this Culture called Hip Hop. Respect.
At the expense of embarrassing myself, here's a recorded version of the verse he wrote me I taped circa '83...youthful giggling included:
*The Neighborhood Legends Concept: Thru out my life I've travelled a lot of places, immersed myself in a lot of local Hip Hop scenes and as a result stumbled upon a lot of amazing talent. Unfortunately, there's a endless amount of these talents that you have never heard and probably never will. I'm certain for every story I know there's another "1000" unknown ones. While I don't believe there's a wealth of undiscovered KRS One, Kool G Rap, Rakim, Slick Rick, DJ Premiere, Marley Marl, Prince Paul, DJ Aladdin, Q Bert, Jazzy Jeff, and similar level unfound talents out there..there's certainly a few at least. However, take a look at what other artists fill your daily playlist. I'm willing to bet that for every one, besides the few and far between elite, like those mentioned above, there's a equally talented person somewhere you never thought of and who you never heard, but they had a effect on someone in their neighborhood.
These are the stories of people who mostly never had a record out. They might not even ever have recorded any material. They may have just been the person who rocked the illest basement parties, served every local MC in the cipher, produced the best beats for the High School talent show, and other similar stories.
My hope is that by me sharing my stories that others will send me their stories and memories so that we can share these untold histories of key Neighborhoods Legends who helped shape their local scenes and impacted some of us just as much as those with record deals, world tours, and names in the "history books".
**this was definitely pre-Run DMC "Sucker MCs". I remember when I heard their cut, I was bugging because Romeo already had "that" routine so it further convinced me that he had star quality or whatever equivalence my 13 year old mind conjured up...
***Yes, the featured image is the famous "rap song" stealing box. I still have it, sitting directly in front of my
turntables in my home studio... This photo, shot by Tina Ford, was from my Hiss-Story Mixtape Photo shoot.
SHOUTS to the other the other MCs holding it down in Stuttgart, Germany (Pattonville Army Base) circa '80-'92: Mike Young & MCKintly Thompson, Trace Hairston, Brian "Lil B' Hairston, and my old partner, Rubens "Dr Jam" Matos.