Master of Ceremonies to Mic Controller
by Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers
MC - those two initials have always stood for Master of Ceremonies, the host or announcer. To us, the guys on the street, it meant the guy on the mic. Not singing, just talking on the mic. Today the role of the MC in hip-hop culture has grown far beyond its initial function of announcing what the next jam is going to be. In order to fully understand the role of the MC in hip-hop culture, we must examine the origin of the MC. Today, the MC can boast about being responsible for a multibillion-dollar industry. But how did the role of the MC come about? We will have to go back, way back. Let's call it 1974 - BR (before rap). When the cultural phenomenon we now know as hip-hop was in its infancy.
DJs emerged at a rapid rate to supply music to the growing demand of b-boys and young eager "hip-hoppers." It was the DJ who supplied the sound system (usually plugged into a lamppost or donated electricity from an apartment) and decided when the first MCs would use their catchy phrases. The DJ decided when the name of the DJ and crew would be announced. The DJ was responsible for any break in the flow of music. The MC was there to put a little extra on it. The main job and function of the MCs were to blow up the DJ and big up the crew.
By 1977 the MC had become a fixture in every hip-hop crew. Crews started to pop up like toast. There were many wannabes in the first crop of MCs. A better description would be that they were DJs with no equipment trying to stay close to the game. Some were crate-carrying hopefuls wanting to be down and trying to get girls. Whatever the motivation, the game was on. As the number of MCs continued to increase, competition rose. Just as the DJs had battled and raised the standards of excellence, turning their hobby into an art form, so began the MC craft.
When you are an MC for a DJ or crew you represent everyone, you are the voice of the group. There is no way you are going to let anyone sound better than you are. The game was to be the best. Some MCs were naturally talented, like some people are born to sing. Other MCs studied, practiced and persevered. Another group of MCs were ham sandwiches that skated through the cracks and landed on winning teams. But, like it or not, the field was full, and the streets were the prize.
MCs came in all shapes and sizes. There were solo MCs (one MC along with a DJ), groups (two or more MCs with a DJ) and girl MCs (Sha-Rockof the Funky 4, Lisa Lee, Cosmic Force's Lil Lee and Cool DJ A.J.). It was no longer enough to be "the man" in your own hood. This was the big time, and it felt like being in front of the audience at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. Talk about a tough crowd. It was the job of the MC to act as ambassadors, bringing their signature brand of hip-hop to the different hoods and boroughs. It proved not to be a problem for some because heads were hungry for good hip-hop, no matter where it came from. Many crews tried to conquer new territory. Many were crushed and left by the wayside as is the balance of nature. Only the cream rose to the top.
MCs rhymed about how great they were and how big and bad their crew was. Some were writing stories that were either close to home or totally fictitious. One MC in particular was primarily a crowd rocker. He did not rhyme that much but his quick clever one-liners have echoed throughout the hallowed halls of hip-hop history, Chief Rocker Busy Bee. Busy Bee was the first MC to translate that disco MC style to hip-hop. He is the hip-hop master of audience call and response.
Most MCs gathered into groups consisting of three or more individuals: Grandmaster Flash and three MCs (later billed as The Furious 4 then The Furious 5 with the addition of Scorpio and Rahiem, respectively), DJ Breakout, Baron and The Funky Four + 1 More, The L Brothers featuring Grand Wizard Theodore, Mean Gene, Cordio and the Three MCs (before adding Prince Whipper Whip and Dotarock, thus The Fantastic Five), Charlie Chase, Tony Tone and the Cold Crush Four MCs (featuring yours truly).
Soon, the role of the MC catapulted to the next level. The MC was now a showman, the leader of a unit, a team. The MC's role as an artist grew as a result of the recording industry's interest in the hip-hop forum. Not only was the MC the new cultural icon, but the pillars upon which the rap industry was built. The MC represented hip-hop in every way. MCs represented through their rhyming skills, their style of dress, their walk and their attitude. While the DJ was delegated to background status, the MC came forward, and became "the man." The MCs became writers, composers and arrangers. The DJs became producers.
Prior to the industry's involvement, competition on the street was fierce. There was no love lost between rival MC camps. The crew at the forefront of hip-hop prior to the "official" rap era was Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5. With their DJ marquee, tight routines and flashy leather outfits, they set the standards for all MC groups. Their leader was one of the most prolific rhymers of all time, Melle Mel. When they made the transition from tri-state (NY, NJ, CT) shows to touring with established artists, the battle was on for the number one status in New York. So began one of, if not the fiercest, rivalries in hip hop history: the Cold Crush Brothers versus The Fantastic 5. The two Bronx crews put the B in battle with one of the most anticipated showdowns of the era.
July 4, 1981 at the Harlem World Disco, Cold Crush Brothers vs. The Fantastic Five. The Cold Crush Brothers went on first, wearing matching pinstriped gangster suits and brims, along with prop machine guns. The Fantastic 5 came out in their trademark white tuxedos, to the squeal of female fans. The audience chose the winner and the Fantastic 5 prevailed. However, the standards were set. Battles like this and MC conventions became the proving ground for rival MCs and up-and-coming crews.
Now you have heard of the Furious 5 and you have heard of The Funky 4 + 1 More and I am sure you know The Fantastic 5 with D.J Grand Wizard Theodore and you are familiar with The Love Bug Starski and the Chief Rocker Busy Bee. But, ladies and gentlemen, there were the eighties and it was all about CC Cold Crush, Cold Crush Brothers 1980.
By the 1980s, the era of the MC as a showman and entertainer was just about over and the art form was about to be simplified to its barest elements: no long hair, elaborate routines, flashy costumes or intricate rhyme patterns. The arrival and wild success of Run-DMC made everyone want to become an MC. It was not hard anymore because beats and rhymes became a simple formula. All the glam and glitter became a thing of the past.
So where are MCs today? Look around, chances are you are listening to and watching them every day. You are watching them in music videos, perhaps wearing their new line of sportswear, or clothing endorsed by them. Maybe you have watched one of the sitcoms on television or even a motion picture starring an MC. Maybe you have attended one of their sold out concerts, or have seen one in a commercial. One way or another, people all over the world have been affected by the impact hip-hop has had on society. At the core of all the excitement… the MC. At a closer look, the role of the MC has not changed much. They are still inventive, informative and entertaining.
I remember back in 1982 shortly after the first hip-hop movie Wildstyle was released, several cast members and I were flown to Tokyo, Japan for a promotional tour. We made several appearances and performed on radio and TV. We were there for three weeks. By the time we left, the influence and impression we made on the people was overwhelming. DJs were attempting to scratch and kids were trying b-boy moves. Some even tried short rhymes in English and in their native tongue, Japanese.
Our role back then was as ambassadors of hip-hop. This role increased as hip-hop grew out of the neighborhood into the mainstream. The MC's role was to introduce the hip-hop culture to the world. Now that hip-hop is accepted worldwide, the role of the MC today is to grow the art form, to be innovative and to continue to communicate with the masses. MCs must also continue to teach, entertain and set positive examples for our youth, and for the future.This story was commissioned by the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and first appeared on this website in 1999: http://www.rockhall.com/exhibitions/past.asp?id=498
For more information on Grandmaster Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers check out his website http://www.coldcrushbrothers.com