My Pop Life #33 : We Got Our Own Thang – Heavy D & The Boyz

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We Got Our Own Thang   –   Heavy D & The Boyz

…you’re a chicken mcnugget and I’m a Big Mac…

This is the end of a long story, and the beginning of an even longer one.   From way back “when I was a writer”… I’d been invited over to Washington D.C. by the No-Neck Monsters Theatre Company who’d happened to see my play Sanctuary performed by Joint Stock at the Drill Hall in 1987, and wanted me to write an american version of it.  At first I said no, then they said they would re-write it, then I said NO even more, then I decided to go over and plunge in.

Featured imageThat’s for another story;  the workshop on the streets of Washington (the play is about homeless teens) and so is the writing period, up in Mount Pleasant having an affair with the woman next door who worked at The Pentagon, and yet another tale is show opening in the Unitarian Church in Adams Morgan in late ’88 and the epic empty road trip that followed.

But now, here, I’m flying back to America with my brand new girlfriend one Jenny Jules because my play has been nominated for best musical in the Helen Hayes Awards, and actress Deidre Johnson has a best supporting actress nod too.   We fly to New York first and stay in Jim’s mini walk-through apartment in the Lower East Side at 7th St and Avenue A – Alphabet City.  Jim was brother Paul’s first boyfriend – they’d met in San Cristobel in Southern Mexico after I’d been forced to fly home with hepatitus B in 1980.  Then Paul had come back with Jim to New York and this very apartment.  They’d split after a year but were still close.  Jim was upstate this week.

This part of Manhattan is scuzzy, broken down, graffiti’d and druggy and has a very definite edge.  You gotta remember this is 1989 and there are homeless people with mounds of belongings in tow, dealers hustling in Tompkins Square Park, squeegee merchants at every corner squirting grey water onto your windscreen if you’re unlucky enough to be driving in the Lower East Side and get caught on a red light.  There’s a racial whiff in the air too and it’s unpleasant.  Jenny is my first black girlfriend, and here we are getting chups and spat at on the sidewalk by angry black men, the Nation Of Islam in Times Square berating Jenny for selling out to the devil and miscegenating with the white man (all this from the lips of a mixed race brother).  And then the Central Park rape case exploded.

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 In this atmosphere we took the Amtrak train 4 hours south to the nation’s capital and a nice hotel in leafy Georgetown.    I had to show Jenny around since I’d spent four months in D.C. the previous year – we went to the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, up to Dupont Circle which figured in the play, the Adams Morgan district, walked along the Potomac River, explored the Smithsonian Institute and we met Herbert again, a social worker who’d been a great resource while I was re-writing the piece.  Herbert invited us a to a barbecue in his yard where everyone sang the Temptations “My Girl” and told us about The Mack Man.  Herbert later escorted us down to Anacostia Park in South East D.C. to an almost 100% black event at which Jesse Jackson spoke thrillingly, and we heard the famous I Am (“I Am”) *pause* Somebody (“Somebody”) speech.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that as well as appropriating a black woman, I had also appropriated black culture and written a hip-hop musical, called Sanctuary D.C.  I’d been wrestling with this particular dilemma since the first incarnation of the show in London and found most of the barriers to be inside my own head.   But here in Washington D.C. which is 80% black, where people work side by side all day but then socialise in distinct racial groups in the evenings, where there are white areas, and black areas, and somehow we were in a mixed gang forging a middle path and to be honest, I was on a pretty steep learning curve regarding black culture, particularly black american culture.   But it’s a curve I am still happy to be on.

It was good to see director Gwen again, and the cast who’d worked so hard but with whom I’d largely fallen out (another story).   We all got dolled up to the nines in black tie and ear-rings and attended the Helen Hayes Awards in the Kennedy Centre.  What a lovely glamourous evening.  We didn’t win, and Gwen invited us all back to her apartment in Georgetown afterwards and we drank and laughed.

Sanctuary D.C. was a rap musical and was largely inspired by a handful of old-skool rappers, notably Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne Shanté, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and KRS One (Boogie Down Productions).    All started (for me) by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.  By 1989 we’d heard from NWA, Ice T and the stirrings of Gangsta rap which would put me off following hip hop in the same way that I had in the 80s.   In the late 80s I bought everything that came out from a vinyl shop in Soho on 12″ – EPMD, Stezo, 7A3, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Schoolly D, Biz Markie, and I still have all those singles, and albums.  I couldn’t sustain that level of purchasing, the huge volume of bands that suddenly appeared, the genres went in all directions at once and it became impossible – and expensive – to follow.  Although I wrote a second rap musical, based on my Washington D.C. experiences, it has never been produced.   Hip Hop was splintering into factions, East Coast and West Coast, conscious rap and gangsta rap, and yet ! here was Heavy D with his own Thang.

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Heavy D

Mixed by Teddy Riley this was New Jack Swing with a rap and it was a great funky bouncy pop soul mix.   It reminded me of the joy of rap, the delivery of the words being their own reward, the syncopation of those tumbling syllables on the beat giving such major satisfaction.   There is some creative disrespecting inside this song.   This is the jam.

“It started with a POW and I’m a end it with a BANG”

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And 20 years later Jenny Jules returned to Washington D.C. and the Helen Hayes Awards with a production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”, and won “best production”.  Happy endings.

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…Be your own guy, follow your own movement…

My Pop Life #7 : Do The Right Thing – Redhead Kingpin & The FBI

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Do The Right Thing  –  Redhead Kingpin & the FBI

…brothers are stealing & dealing & big wheeling, and to a younger mind that stuff is appealing – so

what do they do? they gather up a crew, go out & steal or rob instead of gettin’ a job…

Summer of ’89 I was living in Archway Road N6 and directing a summer school at the National Youth Theatre in Holloway – a 3 week workshop with a mixed gang of wannabe hopefuls from all over the UK.  We had a presentation to make at the end of the fun. So we started to build a show – based on an eco-disaster idea I’d had called Zone. We met each morning in Parliament Hill School gym and did warm-ups, games and hot-seating. They were a talented gang – one of them (Frank) became a writer, another (Kerry) became Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and another (David) became David Walliams.  My assistant director was David Steinberg from Tel Aviv, who is still a close friend  (I travelled to see him during the 2nd intifada).  The local estate kids used to “invade” the school every day and run amok, the caretaker did nothing of course – we were the ‘incomers’.  I challenged them one morning with the phrase “off you go“, which the leading kid echoed back incredulously “off you go?“, then off he went.  But that lunch hour my leading actor Rob was slashed with a knife outside the sandwich shop on Highgate Road and was rushed to hospital with a cut cheek. Disaster. Police were called, nothing happened, we finished the last few days of the workshop in Holloway Road at basecamp.


David Walliams’ 17th birthday, with the National Youth Theatre 1989


I cannot imagine what is happening here

They were a really splendid group of kids.  Kerry went on to become Artistic Director of Stratford East, Frank became a writer, David became a houselhold personage, many of them didn’t go into the business I’m guessing.  In the final show I used two pieces of music – one was a choreographed dance routine to a hip hop song which had stormed my ears that summer.  I brought in two hip-hop choreographers whose names escape me now, they used to do all the videos from that era – the Cookie Crew, London Possee, Gee St Records kinda thing, and they took this disparate group through their B-Boy paces.  Good dancers stood at the front, less good ones at the back, but NO ONE was exempted, despite protestations.  Walliams in particular, despite doing an impeccable and hilarious Kenneth Williams impersonation on a regular basis, really wasn’t a natural dancer, but I never treated him any different to the rest of them (despite evidence to the contrary), and to his credit he gamely danced on.  It really was the highlight of the “show” when we presented it to parents and the NYT.  It’s got great lyrics and a real new-jack swing bounce to it.  Despite the title (which you cannot copyright thank god) the song has nothing to with the Spike Lee film of the same name which also came out in 1989, and was also in the form of a cautionary tale of hard-won wisdom.

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Many years later Jenny was working with Sharon Osbourne in The Vagina Monologues and we were invited to the Osbournes Christmas Party just behind Harrods.  Elton was there, I ignored him out of nerves (regret) and David Walliams, now star of hit show Little Britain was also there.  He took my elbow : “Ralph I need to thank you for the National Youth Theatre workshop – you didn’t treat me differently to the others, and I had such a good time I went back the following summer, and met Matt Lucas.”  That was nice.  David also devoted part of a chapter in his autobiography to the experience which he then sent to me, and we’re now back in touch.  Life is long!

Later in 1989 I went to a live hip hop concert in London with KRS-One headlining, EPMD (?) and Redhead Kingpin performing this song.  It’s still a classic.