Ben Cenac talks us through Newcleus’ 1984 electro classic ‘Jam On Revenge’
‘Jam On Revenge’ was originally known as ‘Jam-On’s Revenge’ and it was a song that I made as a joke. In 1981, we were going by the name of Positive Messenger and making music that had a purpose, songs that spoke about either love or faith, or talked about the conditions of the world.
“Musically, my influences came from two different directions, both with a heavy synth feel. From funk there was George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Junie Morrison, and Mandré. From the European electronic side there was Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarre, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. I was also pretty heavy into new wave at the time, stuff like Devo.
“Positive Messenger was me – Ben ‘Cozmo D’ Cenac – Bob ‘Chilly B’ Crafton, Yvette ‘Lady E’ Cenac and Monique ‘Nique D’ Crafton. Monique and I are first cousins and we basically grew up as brother and sister. I met Yvette at my birthday party in 1979 and we became a couple. Bob lived on the same block and we had been in a previous band together.
“We all started making music together in late 1980. However, we were also still doing lots of hip hop jams with our DJ crew Jam-On Productions. This was myself, Pete ‘Master Quadro’ Angevin – Monique’s brother – and David ‘Dr Freeze’ St Louis. Pete and I began DJing together, along with Monique, in 1976. Al ‘Al T’ McLaran joined us soon after as our first MC. David was my best friend and he joined up with me and Pete when Monique left for college in ’77. We never performed as Positive Messenger, but we would play our music at Jam-On parties.
“Another of our DJs, Salvador Smooth, kept nagging me to do a rap song. Having come out of hip hop street battles in Brooklyn in the 70s, I didn’t really think much of the rap records that were playing on the radio, so I figured I‘d make a parody piece about the Jam-On Crew as an old Wild West posse ridding a Western town of wack rappers.
“The song was actually an ‘anti-rap’ parody. I made the voices sound like munchkins a la George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, put together a funky beat and just had fun with it. I threw in an idea from an episode that actually had happened in the 70s when a DJ we had just blown out in a battle said to me, ‘Yeah, you guys are bad, but you can’t do this… wikki wikki wikki wikki’, meaning we didn’t scratch on the turntables.
“I used to play ‘Jam-On’s Revenge’ at our parties and it would fill the dancefloor, so even though I had never planned to release it, when I was shopping Positive Messenger for a deal, I put it on the tape just to fill out space at the end. It turned out to be the track that drove everybody crazy!
“Before forming Positive Messenger I’d made an extremely crude demo with the Jam-On MCs. I only had one copy of the tape, so I couldn’t leave it with any of the labels I was shopping it to. No one would sit down and listen to it with me, bar this guy, Joe Webb, who was then at Reflection Records.
“Joe didn’t sign it, but he did give me some constructive criticism. I then had the idea to take a new demo up to Tommy Boy, who’d just had a hit with ‘Planet Rock’, which was somewhat similar to my sound. But out of a sense of loyalty, I decided to give Joe, now running Mayhew Records, a listen first.
“He heard ‘Jam-On’s Revenge’ and lost his mind, and started promising me the world. So I ended up going with him. Joe didn’t like my John Wayne impression because he said that Wayne was an American icon, so I changed the theme to us ridding an alien planet of wack rappers… and we’ve been from outer space ever since.
“The song was recorded at Quadrosonic Studio, later shortened to Quad, in Times Square in New York. At the time it was mostly used for porn movie audio. We had a Roland TR-808, a Roland RS-09 – for the pad and string lines – and a Sequential Circuits Pro One for the solo. Bob played the electric bass guitar. The b-line was meant to be on a Roland TB-303, but I‘d left it at home.
“To get the alien vocals, we simply recorded with the tape slowed right down and then sped it back up. Recording the track probably took only around three or four hours, since it was based on a pre-existing track called ‘No More Runnin’’. I was only trying to make a parody, but it came out funky as hell.
“For the release, we changed our name to Newcleus because Positive Messenger was supposed to be about spreading conscious vibes, and ‘Jam-On’s Revenge’ was definitely off-mission. So we took on Newcleus to denote the coming together of our three families. Though we had no intention of doing rap, when ‘Jam On Revenge’ – renamed on the release due to typos – took off, it changed our lives forever.
“The song got a lot of local club and radio airplay. It was all over the place in the summer of ’83. The first time I heard someone else spin it was Jonathan Fearing on his mix show on WBLS, and it brought me to tears. It was the first record that I had ever released. When the song started to blow up on New York radio, Joe signed us over to Sunnyview Records, and off the back of the track we got a few club gigs, some outside of NYC.
“I managed to keep the synths and equipment that Joe purchased for us to record and play with, and Sunnyview asked us to do another rap record as a follow-up. We tried in vain to explain to them that ‘Jam On Revenge’ had actually been an anti-rap record and that ‘Computer Age’ was supposed to be next, but eventually we gave in. I dusted off my rhyme book from the 70s, added a new verse for Chilly B, and ‘Jam On It’ was born. Now we are considered hip hop pioneers. Go figure…”