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  • 04Feb

    LL Cool J goes to Maine. On a man, a video, 1985, rap, and a snapshot of hip-hop’s classic era.


    If looking for a tale of the spread of hip-hop culture in the classic era, the last place in the world you would ever expect to look would be Solon, Maine. A town of 1,053 residents as of the 2010 United States Census, the southeastern Maine town is described by Wikipedia as being a “picturesque village containing historic architecture.” However, after an hour-long conversation with  64-year old jack-of-all-trades Mike Starr, the town’s historical value takes a sharp turn from the Revolutionary War to a now global battle being fought with rapping and scratching, a socio-political revolt set to a beat and a rhyme.

    On January 7, 2013, Kodiak Starr, the White House’s Creative Director of New Media, did a most innoculous yet ultimately prodigious thing. He digitized a family video and uploaded it to Youtube. The clip? Just LL Cool J, now world renowned emcee, actor, philanthropist and cultural icon performing at Waterville, Maine’s Colby College in 1985. That fact, while incredible, is arguably 1/10th as amazing as the rest of the story.

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TqQ0rLY-Qo]

    “It’s been a video that’s been in our family for 30 years,” Starr says. ”Every time we’d watch [LL Cool J] we’d say, wow, now he’s in the movies, now he’s in commercials…it was great to look at that video and then see just how big he was becoming.”

    Mike Starr’s, as well as Maine’s connection to hip-hop culture and the then burgeoning rap phenomenon is an intriguing tale of history, culture and serendipity. Starr relocated to Maine from his home in Cleveland, Ohio in 1977, and music was clearly a major part of his life ”My brother was an usher for [early rock and roll DJ felled by payola scandals] Alan Freed in the early days of rock and roll, and I loved country and classical music…I remember paying five dollars to see Jimi Hendrix.” Working in radio, he took his pay in the form of advertising, and was able to become pioneering rap radio DJ Grandmaster Cool in Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain region. “I loved rap. I played it on a 50,000 watt station that reached into Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada. A few German girls I knew had rap tapes. I though that the samples were cool, and the first time I saw the turntables, I thought this is going to be in the Smithsonian!”

    In the spring of 1985, there was this question of ‘will rap die,’ recalls Starr. Clearly, what happened next proves the connectivity of rap music, and ultimately what allowed it t succeed. ”Grandmaster Cool” earned his stripes as a turntablist in a most intriguing manner. “I learned how to DJ from Jam Master Jay. I went down to Boston, to [legendary 80s underground nightclub] The Channel, to see Run-DMC. I went in early for soundcheck. Everyone there was like, ‘who’s this guy?’ I was 37 back then! It was me and a bunch of woodcutters and loggers in our Timberland boots. I watched [Run-DMC DJ] Jam Master Jay’s routine on stage at soundcheck, he let me stay on stage during the show, and I was hooked. It was so loud! Unfuckingbelievable.”
    “Big urban cities knew what was going on,” Starr recalls. In Maine, though, breakdancing had taken off long before rap music. Starr recounts the history, vividly. “I did breakdances for three years. Maine had two military bases, so there were inner city kids from all around the country, with some of the best ones being the dancers from Sacramento, California.”
    The popular, 25-minute Youtube video that spurred the conversation comes into play at this point. Endeared to the seeming peacefulness and non-aggressive art of breakdancing in the face of a rash of teen suicides in the area, the Waterville, Maine Chamber of Commerce tapped Starr to put together what was essentially a “Suicide Prevention Concert” at Colby College in the summer of 1985. Though rebuked for an initial attempt to book Run-DMC, Def Jam Records sent LL Cool J to perform for the sum of $500. “The Chamber of Commerce wanted breakdance show to promote non-violence, and the attendance in the video was actually down from previous events I held because the date that Colby gave the state wasn’t until school was out. There are so many parents and old people there because everything’s far apart, so the kids needed them to drive them there.”

    A Chamber of Commerce in an American city being open to the ameliorative effect of rap music in 1985, though? Starr explains the tale as thus: ”The negative stuff hadn’t really started yet [in hip-hop]. Things were open, there was no gangster influence or a lot of misogyny. You could just mingle. I remember seeing Public Enemy perform live in Boston and they came in through the crowd, among the people. It was just a different scene back then, definitely more fun oriented.”

    LL’s 15 minute performance is a moment thawed from the frozen annals of rap history. If driven to anger by Trinidad James’ “hipsters” and “hypebeasts” poppin’ mollies and sweatin’, then James Todd Smith breaking down the intricacies of scratching, rapping, the “human beat box” and how DJ Cut Creator uses a “disco mixer” are an amazing respite from the fray. In the video’s Youtube description, Kodiak Starr states that the impromptu demonstration was his father’s idea, as LL Cool J feared that outside of “I Need a Beat” and the four other tracks that he performed, that his set would be incredibly short. In retrospect, Starr remembers believing after the performance that the day “was historic,” and recalls a conversation with Public Enemy’s Chuck D eight years ago where the legendary rhymer said that the performance was “solid gold,” and to “hold onto it.”
    Claiming that he had “too much music in [his] mind, Mike Starr left rap in 1995, and returned to solely being an antique dealer. In a decade, as much as legendary folks like the crew at Def Jam Records played an important role in the spread of rap music, people like Mike Starr must not be forgotten. Actualizing a genre’s mythology gives it the ability to spread. To realize that breaking just doesn’t happen on cardboard boxes in the Bronx, or that rapping just doesn’t happen at the Fever or at Madison Square Garden is important. In allowing everyone from Russell Simmons, to Tommy Boy’s Tom Silverman, the Source’s Dave Mays and so many more take rap music and hip-hop culture into unfamiliar spaces, he deserves respect. Why did he do it? The answer speaks as much to the soul of the man as it does the soul of the culture: “I didn’t want my kids to grow up to be assholes.”

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