Interview: Highlight Nation Meets Easy Mo Bee (Part 1)
When I think back to the 1990s, there are lots of individuals who I would classify as game-changing, from actors to political figures. People like Kate Moss, Nelson Mandela, Macaulay Culkin, Steve Jobs and the world-famous basketball player, Michael Jordan. In a year that’s seen Highlight Nation host two 90s-themed art exhibitions, we’ve shined the spotlight on many of these stars, and contemplated what makes them iconic.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was asked the question: if you could interview anyone in the hip hop industry, who would it be and why? Now, being a massive hip hop fan, that question wasn’t easy to answer. There are lots of rappers and producers who I’d relish the opportunity to speak to, given half the chance, so the interview would probably end up being more like panel discussion.
When I got down to it, though, there was one person who really stood out in my mind from the rest. A figure so revered in the game that the very thought of connecting with him seemed like a fantasy in itself. That icon is Easy Mo Bee: the legendary hip hop & R&B record producer, most famous for his work with the late Notorious B.I.G.
Born Osten Harvey Jr., he’s collaborated with some of the biggest names in music, a considerable number of whom were active in the ‘90s.
This April, I was given the incredible opportunity to speak with Easy Mo Bee directly in a candid discussion about life, music and opportunity.
In the first of our Easy Mo Bee installments, we touch on his early years as a record producer, work with rapper, Big Daddy Kane, and perceptions of technology – and the role it’s played in hip hop.
Anton: “So, Easy Mo Bee. You’ve been making music for near on 40 years now. What got you into hip hop?”
Easy Mo Bee: “I grew up surrounded by music. My father played a lot of music: funk, gospel soul, jazz. He’s the one who gave me the bug. All the while, I watched hip hop unfold before my very eyes in the housing projects that I lived in. I saw these guys with two turntables and a mixer in the middle, spinning records back and forth. I was like ‘Wow – I’ve gotta do that’.”
Anton: “Interesting! So, you were literally born right in the thick of it! What were your first steps as a DJ?”
Easy Mo Bee: “I wanted to replicate what other DJs were doing, but didn’t have the equipment to do so at that point. What I used to do instead was simulate the actions of a DJ mechanically by listening to and pausing tapes continuously, thereby imitating the sound you get with a record player.
After getting my first pair of turntables I joined the group Rappin’ Is Fundamental, which consisted of me, AB Money and JR.”
Anton: “I know Rappin’ Is Fundamental very well. What was the focus of that group?”
Easy Mo Bee: “The concept for that group was rapping and singing, which was a different combination back then in ’86 – when we first started. We were rapping and doo-wopping at the same time, leading AB to nickname the style ‘doo hopping’.
I remember early on being introduced to Big Daddy Kane. AB went to the same high school as him in Brooklyn, and put in a good word for me. He kept telling him ‘Yo, Easy Mo Bee’s got some dope beats’, and eventually we connected.”
Anton: “Amazing! What happened next?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Kane brought me on-board as a producer. I did two songs on his second album, It’s a Big Daddy Thing – Another Victory and Calling Mr. Welfare – and, from there, my career began to take off.”
Anton: “What were your early impressions of Big Daddy Kane?”
Easy Mo Bee: “At that point, he was like the premier emcee. There were a handful of great rappers and he was definitely one of them.”
Anton: “Interesting! Was the relationship slow to start or did things just hit the ground running straight away?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Well, he was already established at the time. I, on the other hand, had a point to prove. The beats for Another Victory and Mr Welfare were what really put me on my way.”
Anton: “Sounds like Kane was exactly the hook-up you needed! What was your original goal when you were starting out? Was it a simple case of, you wanted to be a big producer, or did you feel like you had something unique to offer?”
Easy Mo Bee: “I definitely felt like I had something to offer. At the time I was working for the energy company, Con Edison. I had a normal, everyday job, and spent most evenings in the studio working on my music.
I lost a lot sleep in the studio, which resulted in me turning up late for work and taking days off. Before long, my employer was on my back about it, and, shortly after that I resigned from Con Edison to concentrate on music, full-time.”
Anton: “I hear that. It’s always difficult balancing a full-time job with a side project – something has to give at the end of the day! What was your next big step following the Big Daddy Kane stuff?”
Easy Mo Bee: “My work with Big Daddy Kane opened the door to a load of other opportunities.
I produced most of the music on GZA’s Words from the Genius album – which came out one year prior to him joining Wu Tang Clan. I got in there early. I was one of the first people to get a glimpse of what Wu Tang were about long before they went mainstream.”
Anton: “Damn! That’s quite an achievement! What was hip hop like in the early ‘90s, generally?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Hip hop was different back then. There was a lot more variety and freedom to express yourself. The music industry and the public were open to anything. It was a great time to be coming up.”
Anton: “How has the game changed d’you think?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Right now, hip hop is more one-dimensional. The industry has less to prove and this has made artists more complacent. Technology has also become more advanced, which has made it easier for people to make music in the first place.”
Anton: “You’re right! Technology has played a big part in the evolution of music. Where hip hop’s concerned, we’ve gone from people using turntables to make music, to doing it on their laptops and phones in a fraction of the time.”
Easy Mo Bee: “You’re telling me! There were no MP3 DJ programmes back then. We worked purely from vinyl, cutting up and looping breakbeats on two turntables simultaneously. Most of the breaks only lasted around eight seconds, and it was our responsibility to stay on time with them – a process that was perfected by Grandmaster Flash. It was challenging, but, at the same time, so exciting to watch.”
Anton: “With that in mind, where do you stand on the technological evolution of hip hop? Are you for or against it?”
Easy Mo Bee: “I’m not against the technology, but, at the same time, I appreciate my come up as it showed me how much harder we had to work, and how much more we had to do. Everything from blending and mixing to scratching. You had to make all of that stuff happen. From a production standpoint, things were different then too. Whereas everything is digital now, we were recording with tape machines.”
Anton: “What specifically about sound recording has changed in hip hop?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Well, today you can record music remotely. However, that concept was totally unheard of in the early ‘90s. There was no back and forth emailing of audio. All we had was physical mail, and that wasn’t really a viable option for sending tapes to each other. By sending a tape in the post, you run the risk of damaging it by exposing it to magnetic fields – and nobody wanted that. So, instead people spent more time together in the studio.”
Anton: “Interesting! I’d imagine that concept of studio time brought people closer together in a way that it doesn’t do now.”
Easy Mo Bee: “You’re right. Studio time in those days was so magic and electrifying. I remember being in the studio with Busta Rhymes when we were working on the song Everything Remains Raw. He looked at me through the glass and shouted the words: “There’s only five years left.” Now, that was truly something special! You can’t achieve that sort of connection when you do things digitally – there just isn’t the same synergy.”
Anton: “Haha! That’s awesome! I love that track! Correct me if I’m wrong, but, I’d imagine that sense of closeness in the studio must have given way to greater improvisation. If your only option is to get stuff done in person, then surely ideas must come to you that wouldn’t normally with digital recording?”
Easy Mo Bee: “Oh, absolutely! Those last moment ideas and concepts you can come up with is not something that happens in remote recording. There are pros and cons to digital recording, of course – in some cases it makes people lazy, and, in other cases it makes people more creative.”
In part 2 of our Easy Mo Bee content series, we look at his impressions of James Brown and work with Miles Davis. In the mean time, follow Easy Mo Bee on Instagram at @therealeasymobee