In the early 1980s, the Los Angeles electro and hip-hop scene was a kingdom ruled over by a crew called Uncle Jamm’s Army and their DJ, the Egyptian Lover. Egypt was a scratch pioneer, and he also became known for programming beats on the Roland 808 live. As Egypt and the Army’s reputation grew throughout the city, they played clubs in Echo Park and South Central, did hotel parties in Long Beach and Downtown, and even packed out venues like the L.A. Sports Arena. These were the formative years for West Coast hip-hop. Taking the stage alongside Egypt was fellow Army member Ice-T, and their sound influenced up-and-coming acts like the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, who counted among their members both Dr. Dre and DJ Yella.
On April 15, Stones Throw will release the 22-track anthology Egyptian Lover 1983 to 1988, highlighting his pioneering early work. But to get a sense of Los Angeles hip-hop before gangsta rap, G-funk, the Project Blowed scene, Kendrick Lamar, and everything else this region has produced over the past thirty years, we sat down with Egyptian Lover at Skip Saylor Recording in the San Fernando Valley and asked him to give us a virtual tour of the city and venues he once inhabited.
Long Beach Holliday Inn
I started out in ’79 making mixtapes for my high school. I was queuing up the records, and it sounded like ticka ticka ticka ticka, and then I’d hit the pause button at the same time. I let the record go like ticka ticka boom ta, boom boom ta. I’d pause it again, like ticka ticka boom, so all you hear on the tape was boom ta, boom boom ta, boom ta. I was making loops by using the pause button. I knew what queuing the record was, so when I heard Grandmaster Flash make a record, I was like, “Oh, he calls it scratching.” He’s actually just queuing the record out loud. Then I noticed that Grandmaster Flash let the whole word play, so I started doing that. Of course I called it “flashing” cause that’s what Grandmaster Flash did. I started letting the words go like “two turntables, two- two- two turntables.” At my lunch dances in high school I was doing that kind of stuff.
When I got with Uncle Jamm’s Army they had no clue what I could do. Uncle Jamm’s Army had a DJ contest [at the Long Beach Holiday Inn], and I’m like, “Pshh, I’m gonna get turned out, because all I know how to do is these little tricks.” So I got up there and one of the guys from Uncle Jamm’s Army gave me Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It,” and I’d never heard this record before. I put in the headphones and heard a little “Jump, jump, jump to it.” There was a little pause and then the beat started, and I’m like, “Okay, I know I can repeat that, but how am I gonna get this ‘jump’ in there?” I played the beat so it started going, and then I played, “Jump jump jigga jump,” then played the beat, then “Jump jigga jump,” and just kept doing that. When I looked up to see if people were even kind of liking what I was doing, nobody was dancing. I’m like, “Uh oh.” But everybody was looking like, “What the hell are you doing? This is pretty cool.” They weren’t looking in disgust, they were looking on in shock, but nobody was dancing. I wanted them to dance, so I played the beat again, then I kept doing tricks, and then more people started dancing.
I saw Rodger [Clayton, founder of Uncle Jamm’s Army] run from the front door where he was collecting the money, and he was like “What’s going on? That’s you Egypt? What record do you want?” So now I can pick my record. I picked Grandmaster Flash and started going “two- two- two turntables” and everybody was clapping their hands, standing on tables and chairs. Everybody was just watching like it was a show, and all the other DJs after me turned around and walked away. So I won and I was the new DJ for Uncle Jamm’s Army.
The Play Pen was on Crenshaw and Stocker. They tore it down and they built a bank. Where the Play Pen was is actually a parking lot now. It was pretty big, I’d say 750 people could fit. We rented the club from the owner, his name was Roscoe, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and some Sundays. It was nothing but a freak fest. It was just so many people who kept trying to get in, and we kept selling out. Different people would come all the time, I mean even the celebrities would come there because they knew this club was happenin’.
People would come there to get their records played, but of course we couldn’t play them, because we had our program. But George Clinton came one time and we were like, “Our name is Uncle Jamm’s Army, we’ve got to play whatever George Clinton has.” He brought this song called “Atomic Dog,” and it was too slow. The crowd thinned out a little bit and we kind of told him what to do: Speed it up a little bit, do this, do this. So he brought it back the next time and it was the “Atomic Dog” that you hear today, and it was just jammin’.
Radio was in Echo Park, and they shut that one down, of course. That’s where they filmed the documentary Breaking and Entering, and the movies Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2 came from that documentary.
It was a party vibe. When I was DJing for Uncle Jamm’s Army, we had a program we had to go by. The party went from 10 to 2, so from 10 to 11 we played all the new hip hop. Then from 11 to 12 we played the more hot hip-hop, songs playing on the radio, stuff that everybody knows. Then from 12 to 1 we played the funk, Prince and just the nasty freaky stuff. Then from 1 to 2 we played all the uptempo “Planet Rock” type stuff. That’s how the party went, slow at first, all the way up to high energy. That’s how the program was, and you couldn’t alter from the program. But when I went to club Radio, I had no program. As soon as I’d get in there, I could just play “Planet Rock,” it don’t matter. I could show off, I could do more tricks, I could play records backwards and just experiment. Once I brought my 808 and played it with records, just rolling it out of the 808, and everybody was like, “Wow, this is the best party ever.”
So me, the Glove, and Afrika Islam all would DJ there on different nights and made it a really nice, hip spot. All the break dancers, pop lockers, and graffiti artists would come down. That’s when the director of Breaking and Entering said, “We need to film this.” They did a documentary on all the different people that were there. We actually did a soundtrack to it where we did five instrumentals so Ice-T could rap on them in the documentary. He rapped live in the documentary over the songs that we did, and that soundtrack is one of the most collectable records you can buy now. We only pressed twenty-five so that we could DJ with it in the movie.
It was just unbelievable to be there at that time. If you watch the documentary you can see me program the 808 and teach people how to work an 808. You can see me and Glove DJing and doing our scratching from back then.
L.A. Sports Arena
Uncle Jamm’s Army bounced around all over L.A. Rodger was very good at promoting, so he’d always build up the promotion higher and higher. We would do high school lunch dances in one area just to promote this one hotel party. We would bring the equipment to the school, and for thirty minutes we’d just play the records. We’d go through the records real fast and give them a miniature Uncle Jamm’s Army party. The kids loved it, and at the hotel party those kids from all the different high schools we did would be there, plus our original fans. So it was just getting bigger. Before the internet, that was the way to do it, actually taking it to the schools.
So let’s say we’d do the Holiday Inn ballroom or the Biltmore ballroom. We did high school dances around that area to promote that hotel party. Then we would do other hotel parties, and all those hotel parties were to promote the Veteran’s Auditorium. That held maybe 2,500 people. Then we did the Veteran’s Auditorium and that party would promote other things that we were getting ready to do. All these parties together were a big promotion for the Sports Arena. At all these parties you would see a flyer hanging around for the Sports Arena party two or three months in advance. Then, pretty soon, the Sports Arena starts all over again. Now we’re super popular, so now maybe we skip those high school parties and do hotel parties. We just kept doing it like that, and we did that three or four times.
The first time I played the 808 live was at the Sports Arena. After I learned what it was, I programed it for about a week, and then we had the Sports Arena show. Rodger had a Roland SH-101, and we were trying to get the SH-101 to match up with the 808 and get a good sound. We went on stage and played them, and people lost their minds. This 808 sounded like a record, and it was the best thing that I’d ever heard. Everybody in the Sports Arena, all 10,000 people, loved it. Even guys who were in groups coming to get their records played were standing beside the stage, and one of them I think it was one of the drummers from the Deele. He said, “Who programmed that beat?” And Rodger told him it was me, and he said, “Man that’s the best program I’ve heard in my life.” Coming from a guy who made records, and I hadn’t made a record yet, that was a good compliment.
Record Stores on Melrose and Santa Monica
Melrose Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd. had a handful of record stores that always got in imports from Europe and also long versions and stuff from New York, all the early rap stuff. It was Prime Cuts, Aron’s Records, Rhino Records, and a couple more I can’t remember. All those record shops had their own little thing. I used to go in one shop and the owner knew me because I came in and bought so many records every week. So when anything that sounded like “Planet Rock” with the beats came out, he would actually know I’d be coming and that I was going to buy those records. One day I came in there and I brought in two boxes of records, and I said, “This is for you. This is the record I made.” He opened them up and said. “You’re Egyptian Lover? You’ve been coming to my store all this time and you’re him? I’ve been hearing about you since day one with Uncle Jamm’s Army!” I said, “This is my brand new one, it ain’t out yet. These are for you to sell.” A month later, it was already a super hit.
Once we had a record on the radio everybody started treating us a little different. We were already popular as far as DJs and being in Uncle Jamm’s Army, but when we made the record it took us to a different level. We put out “Yes Yes Yes” and “Dial A Freak” on the radio and they played it immediately. People were requesting them all the time. The next day I went to the studio and made “Egypt, Egypt.” I played the record for Rodger and he was like, “Man, you cannot put this record out. If you put this out, it’s going to kill ‘Dial A Freak’ and ‘Yes Yes Yes.’ You’ve got to hold it for six months.” So I went back in the studio and did a remix, and that’s what you hear today. That’s why I got the breakdown. I heard it so many times I knew exactly how to mix it in the studio, so I made the long version and put it out with some other songs on the B-side. “Dial A Freak” and “Yes Yes Yes” were already blowing up on the radio, but when “Egypt Egypt” came out, it was like they played it every hour on the hour. They also played the B-sides, “What is a DJ if He Can’t Scratch” and “My Beat Goes Boom.”
One day [DJ] Greg Mack called and said, “You need to come down to the station.” I asked why, and he said, “It’s an emergency, come down.” So I came down to the radio station like, “What’s going on?” He says, “I want you to answer the request line.” I’m like, “What? You called me all the way down here to answer the request line?” He said, “Please, just answer the request line.” So for the first twenty calls, nineteen of them calls were for Egyptian Lover. The other one was “When Doves Cry” by Prince. I said, “Did you do this? He said, “No, it’s been like this for two days now. Everybody wants to hear something from you.”
Greg was a Billboard reporter, he put “Egypt Egypt” in the top ten, and all the other Billboard reporters were like, “What’s this ‘Egypt Egypt’ song?” They requested it, and they started playing it, and it just got bigger and bigger all over America.