Doug E. Fresh for FRANK x ASAP
Harlem’s own Human Beat Box is a machine amongst men. A pioneering rapper, record producer, and beat boxer, Doug E. Fresh has done things with his mouth your mother can only dream of. Fresh is the name and fresh has always been the game for Doug E., trademarking dance moves and keeping his wardrobe as fly as they get—mock necks, Kangols, and Sergio Tacchini all day.
Now a successful entrepreneur, Doug E. sat down with Black Hollywood to conduct a history lesson in Harlem fashion. Cameos abound in his tellings of hip-hop’s early days across 110th Street.
When you grow up in Harlem, it’s about fashion and style from day one. Each borough has its own style and niche, but Harlem has always been about cutting-edge fashion, flavor, and excitement. It was the party capital. Whenever you’d go out somewhere, you’d go to Harlem because that’s where you know the party was popping. Then later on it became like downtown, which is Manhattan, but still influenced by Harlem.
Harlem’s influence was serious, it had the celebrity clubs, Harlem World, the Apollo, the Roof Top—so many places. But one of the things that started the fashion thing in Harlem for me was Floor Shine. That was a place where you got all of your shoes and British Walkers and Playboys that were really hot in Brooklyn, then became hot in Harlem. The British Walker was the shoe that jumped off in Harlem; that was a very important shoe. You had mock necks, ice cubes, sheep skins, the quarter fields. There was a place called AJ Lester right on 125th Street that was a high-end fashion store where you got all the hottest street gear. You also had a store called British Walker right on 125th Street as well. Growing up around it taught you a particular way of putting things together. As time went on in hip-hop, one of the things I wanted to contribute to was fashion and style. At the time the Treacherous Three—Kool Moe Dee, LA Sunshine, and DJ Easy Lee—were pretty hot in Harlem. They would wear the mock necks and the British Walkers and the Kangols; stuff like that. But when I got that opportunity to bust through the door, that’s when I started coming through wearing all types of sweat suits. FILA, Sergio Tacchini, and Bally’s—it was all about style and flavor, keeping yourself fit. Wearing tank tops, having your hair cut a particular way—that’s when we had the fade. Dardo [need clarification on who this is] was the first person to tell me, “Doug E., you need to get a fade,” because I had a curled afro, which Teddy Riley convinced me to get. Then afterwards Dardo told me I needed to get the fade and turn it all the way up. It was at Superstar Barbershop. Everyone was looking in the window like, “Ooh, he’s doin’ it.” That was in ‘87, ‘88, because I had came out with “Keep Risin’ To The Top.” That’s when I was wearing leather—the leather shirts, the Coogi sweaters, stuff like that. I was turned all the way up.
I would say when you’re looking at fashion and when you’re looking at what Harlem did at the time, even when I came out, cats weren’t dancing. But in Harlem, that’s what we did—we danced. So when I got onstage and danced, that’s because that’s what I did when I went to a party. So I just brought the whole culture of Harlem; the dance, style, the haircut.
I had my man Denny Moe who was dancing, but then you’d see him at the barbershop where he’d cut your hair. He was the guy at Superstar Barbershop, and he put the New York Yankees sign and all the designs in my hair. It was dope coming from him because he was from Brooklyn, and our objective was we wanted to get that Harlem cut with a Brooklyn hand. King Sway used to pay for everyone’s haircut just so he’d be the first to go and get out of there. It was seriously 7 o’clock in the morning and Denny Moe had like 15 people waiting; it was a crazy situation. It was disrespectful to not have your hair cut right. I would go and talk and laugh and stuff like that, it was that energy that brought on a lot of fun.
I remember one time Keith Sweat was laying in the dressing room knocked out, and Diggie Moe was over the top of him cutting his hair while he was asleep. He gave me a cut the other day—he’s still nasty. He’s run a real clean barbershop to date, and I got my restaurant around the corner.
Even the nation of Islam played a role in Harlem’s fashion, especially Temple #7. It was all about cleanliness and neatness and I think that still stays true today, but there’s a little bit of griminess in Harlem and I think it’s because of the drug culture and cats going through their little changes. You can always tell a cat from Harlem—just look at Teddy Riley on the cover with Guy. Teddy was rocking mink jackets when we were like 16 years old.
Rock Steady had that Bronx style with the jeans and white tees and that energy, and I really appreciated the style they had because it fit them, but it wasn’t Harlem. Harlem wasn’t about the jeans—we can rock the leathers or the terry, but jeans were really a Bronx thing. Later the whole jeans fashion came out with the Sergio’s, cross color, and the Karl Kani. Karl Kani is out of Brooklyn, he had that kind of baggy look to his jeans.
As the style went on, it started to change. If you look at some of the styles—like the Sean Johns and the Rocawears—all of those are like the styles we were wearing. Puffy used to do styling for me— Dard introduced him to me at one of my shows and we started talking and the vibe was good. Puffy was doing the Running Man at the time, he showed me the Running Man and from there our relationship grew. I did what I could to help him reach his goals and he helped me with my image, we covered everything from music to business. These are very intricate things that people don’t really see but play a major role in seeing the things you see right now.
I never had a passion to dress like a dude from the street; I always had my own style. I appreciate the fact that hip-hop and Harlem are able to create their own individuality and that’s what A$AP Mob has done. You can do your own thing with it and don’t have to be like everyone else. Dard used to do it—he wore a kilt. Now you see Kanye wearing a kilt. Dard wore his back in ’87 to ’89 with a wifebeater on and a pair of Timberlands. He was kiltin’ ‘em.
At the end of the day, we are all a summation of our experiences—all of those experiences will make you who you are. So for now, I guess I’m still Harlem worldwide.