If hip-hop had a Constitutional Convention, my “Renaissance Man” guest would have had a seat at the table and a prominent spot in the stately portrait. He’s a pioneer, a founding father and a rap historian. He’s Doug E. Fresh. And “La Di Da Di,” did I have some questions for the man known as the original Human Beatbox.
I wanted to know how he came up with mimicking sounds using only his body and what the heck happened between him and Slick Rick. He took me on a wild ride through the early days of the genre and inside his wacky, wonderful mind.
First, he told me about his humble laboratory where beatboxing truly came to be: the apartment of DJ Barry B from the Get Fresh Crew. One day, Barry’s mother heard a beat coming from his room.
“You may not think that this is a person doing it,” he told me of the sound. “His mother … said, ‘What was that? That was a nice beat.’”
But then he explained that it was literally man-made. And a lightbulb went off.
“Then that’s when Barry said, ‘You should [be] the Human Beatbox. And you should call it that.’” Imagine hip-hop without beatboxing? Doug E.’s skills changed the art form, especially when he teamed up with Slick Rick. They went on to create two of the most iconic songs in early rap, with “The Show” and “La Di Da Di,” which is one of the most sampled songs in the genre.
A year later, they broke up, and their split remains one of the biggest mysteries in rap. When I asked about it, Doug E. was very diplomatic.
“[We were] creating new styles that never existed,” he said. “So what happened? … I think personally that we were young,” adding that their egos got in the way. But they both went on to have incredible careers and now tour together. I often wonder what could have been if they remained intact, but he doesn’t.
“We were two different entities who needed room to breathe,” he told me. “We still family. We have grown, and we close.”
Doug E. is still putting out new projects. He recently released a live album, “This One’s for Chuck Brown,” in which he “salutes the godfather of go-go.”
He told me how Run-DMC introduced him to Brown at a show in DC, and his life was changed. But Doug E. has changed many lives on his own, with his art and his mentorship. That includes the late Biz Markie, whom he met in 1982 at a Long Island club and recognized that he had heart. Biz asked for his number and he called Doug E. every day. One time, he came home and Biz was there chilling with the matriarchs.
“He’s in the house with my mother and my grandmother … And then my grandma was like, ‘Yeah, I just sent him to the store to go get me some cigarettes’ … I was like, ‘Yo, how did you get so in the family that quick?’ After that, I could not shake him.”
Doug E. noted that hip-hop battles replaced real-life street violence for many performers, so he was always in his warrior mindset. And when artists like Biz, the Fat Boys, Run-DMC and, heck, even Officer Larvell Jones, the beatboxing cop from “Police Academy,” started making it mainstream, he wasn’t flattered.
“I’m from the battle era, so I’m looking at it as like, ‘What are you doing … When you’re biting my style, I gotta check you.’ But then as I grew older, I started to look at it [like], maybe it was for me to create this style so everybody can give me their interpretation.”
Living in Harlem, he was also plugged into the fashion scene. His neighbor was designer Dapper Dan, who created most of his looks.
“Dapper Dan was the answer to your problem, bro. You go in there with any idea, any style, anything you had on your mind,” he said.
And of course, his onetime collaborator Slick Rick would pile on the jewelry. But Doug E. remembers when Rick only had one chain with an R on it. Now, “when he travels, he puts his jewelry in a separate case. He travels with close to $1 million in [gems].”
At 55, the elder has a new agenda: using the rap game to spread the gospel of healthy living. He praised Busta Rhymes for his weight loss, and even has a foundation called Hip Hop Public Health. So if we do ever get that Slick Rick-Doug E. Fresh reunion, maybe the album will be about eating your veggies. But it will still be a banger.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.