Gino Sorcinelli spoke with Doug E. Fresh and personnel from The World’s Greatest Entertainer about the album as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Harlem native Doug E. Fresh credits his ability to emulate any musical instrument with his mouth to countless hours of deliberate practice and careful study in school music programs. When his school started to cut music offerings due to budget restrictions as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, he applied the techniques from class to his newfound artform—often beatboxing along to songs he heard in his neighborhood while walking down the street. “I come from a background of studying music, percussion, and things like that,” Fresh says. “I created the beatbox from playing the trumpet.”
To further sharpen his skill set, he took to conducting impromptu lunchroom performances at Charles Evans Hughes High School in Harlem. It was here that he first met Get Fresh Crew DJ Chill Will in 1980. As a sophomore at Charles Evans, Will remembers watching Fresh mesmerize a crowd with his beatboxing skills one day at lunch after hearing about his inimitable abilities from a friend.
Fresh and Will agreed to join forces a short time after the captivating lunchroom performance, with Doug taking on beatboxing and MCing duties while Will held down the turntables. Before long they were cranking out customized mixtapes for people in Will’s bedroom studio that sold for $25 a pop, roughly $60 in 2018 dollars. Although they made a decent chunk of change selling their highly sought after tapes, they never imagined that rap music would take them all over the globe and give them financial security in their later years.
That all changed when they added DJ Barry B and Slick Rick to their ensemble and formed Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew. Utilizing a unique setup that incorporated Doug E. Fresh’s beatboxing and rapping, Slick Rick’s mic skills, and Barry B and Chill Will’s dual turntable mastery, the group quickly gained a reputation for their awe-inspiring live shows.
When they released the two-sided single “The Show”/ “La Di Da Di” in 1985 and both songs became hits, it catapulted the group into a new stratosphere of success, with “The Show” spending 21 weeks on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts and peaking at #4. Though Rick wound up leaving the group shortly after the success of their breakthrough single to pursue a solo career, the group’s path to success had already been set.
As they worked on their 1986 debut album Oh My God!, group manager Dennis Bell —an accomplished songwriter, producer, and music educator who co-produced “La Di Da Di” and “The Show”—introduced them to several high-profile musicians who lent their services to various songs. The involvement of esteemed musicians became a staple of the Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew’s creative process and would prove integral to their 1988 album The World’s Greatest Entertainer.
In addition to featuring an incredible array of accomplished musicians, Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew’s second effort is notable for experimenting with new production styles and expanding Doug’s lyrical content. Of all the standout moments, one of the most notable songs on The World’s Greatest Entertainer is the album’s final track “Africa (Goin’ back Home)”. The song, which first took shape before recording for the album began, was inspired by a 1987 trip the group took to the Island of Gorée. Located off of the coast of Senegal, Gorée was the epicenter of the slave trade on the African coast from the 15th to 19th century. Ruled at different times by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French, the island continues to serve as an important but incredibly painful reminder of a very dark chapter in human history.
Visiting Gorée Island with musical legends like Stevie Wonder a mere year after releasing their debut album to immerse themselves in the history and perform for the people living there had a profound impact on every member in the group. “When we went there, you have expectations of one thing and then you see it be something totally different,” says Chill Will. “You feel it more so than reading about it in a book.”
As the first rap group to travel to Africa, Doug recalls being moved to write a song about his experiences after learning more about the island’s history. “We’re the first group to ever go to Africa,” says Doug. “I wrote the song “Africa” on Gorée Island. That’s where slaves were taken before they were brought to America. That was the door of no return.”
As he penned the most lyrically ambitious song of his career at that point, Doug avoided hyper-analyzing his wordplay and rather focused on conveying his feelings and raw emotion to the listener. “I wasn’t really concerned with being the top lyricist,” he says. “I was just trying to convey energy and emotion and a message that I felt would come across sincerely.”
For Doug, conveying the proper emotion in his music has always outweighed having the most quotable verse of all-time. “People will forget a lot of the things you say, but they’ll never forget the way you make them feel,” he says. “It’s not how great you hear me rhyme. It’s how great I can make you feel. That’s the key to what I do.”
Amazingly, Doug wrote the entire song without a beat, opting instead to put the verses to paper as they came to him during his stay in Africa. Once he started writing the lyrics flowed freely, as he came up with verses like, “I could feel it in the air when my feet touched land/To be the first rap group to rock Africans/Our distant brothers, great, great grandmothers/To one another, it’s you I salute/Because a man without history is like a tree without roots.”
After the group returned to the States and recording sessions for The World’s Greatest Entertainer was up and running, Doug went about figuring out how to find the right music for his lyrics. Get Fresh Crew DJ Barry B helped spark the initial idea for the “Africa” beat by bringing in a now-classic breakbeat with him to the studio. “The beat that we were using under the bottom was called ‘The Mexican’,” he says. “Barry B came in there with the beat. I was listening to it and I said, ‘Man this beat here automatically made me think of a song I already wrote.’”
Further adding to the energy of the music, Doug called up some friends from Africa to play the talking drum on the song. In retrospect, Doug thinks the unique percussion helped the song stand out. “Through the song, you hear the talking drum, which is not a normal instrument that you would hear on a hip-hop record nor is it a song that you would hear on traditional music,” he says.
Adding another yet special element to the mix, Doug brought in a friend who spoke the official language of Senegal to speak at the beginning of the song. “I wanted people in Africa to really understand how I felt about this trip,” he says. “I didn’t want them to believe that this trip was just a regular trip for me. So I had him talk in a style of speaking called Wolof.”
Not every song on The World’s Greatest Entertainer can boast the same emotional and historical significance of “Africa (Goin’ Back Home),” but the album showcases impressive craftsmanship and attention to detail throughout. Building on the musicality displayed on Oh My God!, Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew’s sophomore effort benefited from the increased presence of heavyweight funk and jazz keyboard player Bernard Wright, a brilliant artist who worked on their previous album and already boasted album credits with Bobby Brown, Miles Davis, Rick James, and other giants of the industry. A powerhouse of talent who could play along with songs perfectly after previewing them once, Chill Will remembers Wright having endless reservoirs of creative energy. “He was always on, he had no off switch,” says Will. “If you let him, he’d play on every single song that you had. Bernard was like a musical genius.”
Wright’s connections served the group well, as he called in other industry veterans like multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton and guitarist Billy “Spaceman” Patterson to help create distinct soundscapes for the album. Throughout the process, Wright became one of their most dependable and valued collaborators. “Bernard Wright was my anchor,” says Doug. “He was one of my closest friends.”
The apex of live instrumentation on the project might be the horror soundtrack-esque “The Plane (So High)”. Skirting the heavy sampling used on other several album cuts, Doug, Wright, and company create a surreal mix of electronic bells, synths, vocal whispers, and other elements that evoke early Memphis rap more than late ‘80s New York. In fact, Three 6 Mafia later sampled the song for “Half on a Sack or Blow”.
With a talented team of musicians in the studio to compliment Barry Bee, Doug, and Chill Will’s own studio savvy, both Doug and Will recall studio sessions having a free-flowing, collaborative vibe to them. The recording sessions at Planet Sound, Secret Sound, and A & R Studios—which frequently lasted for 24 hours at a time—would see ideas flying around the room with different artists building off of one another. “I would hum a melody, or I would make a beat, or I would do whatever and from there we would build around it,” says Doug. “I would always have an idea when we were doing the album.”
Although Wright and his talented crew of peers deserve credit for their contributions to the album, Doug and company knew how to operate a variety of drum machines and samplers on their own. This served them well and allowed them to paint outside the lines when they saw fit. On the album’s second cut “Ev’ry Body Got 2 Get Some,” Chill Will decided to “hack” their studio equipment by using a digital delay as a sampler to create a drum loop, a technique that gives the beat a unique, almost off-kilter rhythm. As the unconventional drum loop thumps in the background, Will and Barry B cut in guitar samples and drop stuttered vocal snippets. “I sampled the beat for that in an Ibanez DM-1100 digital delay,” says Will. “When you do that you can keep the delay and make it loop. I said, ‘What if we put a beat in there and made it fit and saw how it came out?’”
Will also remembers the group compensating for the limited sampling time of an E-mu SP-12 they used by speeding up records while sampling them and slowing the music back down once it was inside the samplers. “It was kind of like a horrible sound,” admits Will. “But it didn’t matter. In hip-hop, we didn’t really care about how clear it was and what the bandwidth was and this and that. If it worked it just worked.”
As much as the group prided itself on producing and co-producing the bulk of their material, a key moment in the album’s progression happened when Doug decided to show some tracks from The World’s Greatest Entertainer to the late actor and rapper Heavy D. After listening to the songs, Hev made the suggestion that the group should bring in outside talent to produce. Doug appreciated the feedback but admits to being uncertain about the advice at first. “I come from a generation where, when I made ‘The Show,’ I produced it. When I made ‘La Di Da Di,’ I produced it,” says Doug, who co-produced both songs with Dennis Bell, Ollie Cotton, and Teddy Riley.
Despite Doug’s initial reservations, he eventually enlisted the services of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s then-go-to production team. Already good friends of Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew after the two ensembles spent considerable time touring together, the first song they recorded together was the album’s lead single “Keep Risin’ To The Top”. The origins of “Keep Rising To The Top” date back to 1982 when Doug first heard the original “Risin’ To The Top” single by Keni Burke. “I thought that the Keni Burke record was classic underground and nobody was really acknowledging it to the fullest,” he says. “It was big in Queens.”
Once the group linked up with The Bomb Squad, Doug felt that Keni Burke’s song could provide the necessary sample material for a rap record that would help the genre of rap music make an important shift. “It was a song that I felt hip-hop needed at the time to transition from the regular type of records that were coming out to what I would call a feel-good, Harlem-style record,” he says.
To record the song—as well as the Bomb Squad co-produced “On The Strength”—Doug and The Get Fresh Crew trooped to The Bomb Squad’s studio space in Long Island. It’s an experience Chill Will still recalls in vivid detail. “They had a facility that was set up like a library, but it was all records set up in alphabetical order,” he says. “And you’d walk through isles and isles of records. They knew where everything was.”
Bomb Squad member Hank Shocklee credits his experience working in radio for helping him organize his records in a neat and meticulous manner that benefited The Bomb Squad’s wall of sound, sample-heavy approach to production. “Because we did work at WBAU and WHUR, which is Hofstra University’s radio station, I got an understanding of how to set up records like a radio station would,” he says. “Most vinyl records were on people’s floor or in a milk crate. Our records were not in a milk crate, I built shelves for them that was the size of the 12” inch vinyl so it looked uniform and it was very organized. I needed to know where things were. There were like thousands and thousands of records.”
Amongst the massive sea of vinyl, Chuck D, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, and Hank Shocklee kept their drum machines, samplers, and other equipment at the front of the room. “They had a little workstation set up in the front,” says Will. “It was just incredible how they worked together. They were always so amped, that’s what amped you up.”
Beyond hyping up their collaborations with their infectious energy, The Bomb Squad also gave Doug valuable coaching about his rhymes and delivery. “I remember when I wrote the first verse and Hank Shocklee said, ‘Yo man, you need to go back. If I cut this music off, I want to be able to dance to your rhyme. That’s what Rakim is making people do,’” Doug says.
Hank still marvels at Doug’s flexibility and willingness to listen to suggestions that might have pushed him outside of his comfort zone. “That’s what makes Doug special,” Hank says. “Doug, the brilliance of him, was the fact that there were things that I didn’t have to teach him. For example, the ability to even want to push yourself to go that distance is something where most artists would have been like, ‘Nah, that’s not me. That’s not my style.’”
During the recording session, The Bomb Squad even went as far as to cut off the music and test out how it sounded with Doug rapping acapella. “We would cut the music off and say the rhyme,” says Doug. “I had to change up my flow. And when I changed it, it kind of just made the whole record feel good. I tried to compliment what was already there.”
In terms of the music, The Bomb Squad wanted to take “Keep Risin’ To The Top” outside of the conventional boom-bap sound associated with Doug and not alienate his fan base at the same time. “We wanted to take the R&B sound and push it more towards hip-hop,” says Hank. “Because that was Doug’s core audience and I didn’t want to lose that.”
The Bomb Squad also had to consider how to make the single translate to Doug’s live shows. He had to live up to the title of the “World’s Greatest Entertainer,” something Chuck D had christened him as. “That record needed to sit very well behind ‘La Di Da Di’ or ‘The Show’ or ‘All The Way To Heaven’. It had to feel the same in terms of energy,” says Hank. “That was another dynamic, because back then, when we made records, even though we made records for listeners, we had to also make them for people who were going to the concerts and the shows.”
Between the catchy Keni Burke loops, the vocal sample-infused chorus, and Doug’s new rhyme schemes, “Keep Risin’ To The Top” spent 17 weeks on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and peaked at #4. Perhaps more importantly, Doug now believes the song helped usher in a whole new sound and style that people hadn’t been utilizing before. “I feel like that song is an important part of transitioning hip-hop,” he says. “You had an ‘Around The Way Girl’ and you had all these other songs that came out after ‘Risin’ To The Top’. I was trying to let people know that there’s another lane that y’all are not looking at.”
Once “Keep Risin’ To The Top” was complete, The Bomb Squad were eager to put their fingerprints on another song from the album. Doug credits them for pushing him to make a second record that was more in-line with their Public Enemy production than “Keep Risin’ To The Top”. “‘On The Strength’ is something I would never have made if it wasn’t for Hank Shocklee and them,” he says, “They told me, ‘Yo, you need to make one of these.’”
Doug’s inspired flow was a perfect match for the songs frantic sample chops and sound collage use of scratched samples. Once The World’s Greatest Entertainer hit stores, he was paid a high compliment from an esteemed lyricist of the day for stepping outside of his comfort zone. “Kool Moe Dee called me up and said, ‘Man, that style you was rhyming in was crazy. I didn’t even think you would have came with that style,’” Doug says.
And Kool Moe Dee wasn’t the only legend who showed loved to The World’s Greatest Entertainer. Doug also recalls when the God MC called into a radio promo session to talk to him and celebrate his efforts. “I remember one day I was on WBLS because they were letting me play some of the songs,” he says. “Rakim called in and said, ‘Yo man, that ‘Africa’ record is incredible. I never thought a record like that would make me feel like this.’ I felt that was a powerful thing because me and him always had a very strong relationship creatively. What I learned from that is everybody has their own favorites and their own things that they’re listening to that affect them in a particular way. And you don’t even know how they might affect people.”
Once the album was wrapped, Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh crew had crafted an incredibly varied selection of songs that worked together as a cohesive album. Rounding out the project was strong selections like “Ev’ry Body Loves A Star,” where Doug calls out a neighborhood drug dealer with some more socially conscious lyrics by saying, “Got your whole neighborhood lost in space/You destroyed your community/Killed your unity/Smashed all dreams, hopes, and opportunities/You know what? I’m not mad at you/You just doin’ what you seen the next man do.”
Unfortunately, despite the stellar final product and glowing praise from some of the most highly regarded rappers in the game at the time, Doug feels now that the album didn’t achieve the appropriate level of success due to record label limitations. “They (Reality/Fantasy Records) were not equipped to handle such a project,” he says. “They had no marketing, no promotion, they just had distribution. There were a lot of things that on the album that I felt could have gotten more play. There was not enough support for the album to give it the wings to fly as high as it could fly. The album was designed with a global perspective.”
Now, 30 years later, the album is out of print and unavailable on iTunes and streaming—the only way to score a legit version is to pick up a used physical copy. Aware that this lack of access could limit the album’s legacy, Doug is investigating the possibility of putting it up on streaming and making it easier for listeners to discover or re-discover.
And, in a fitting footnote to this story, Doug’s creative partnership with Slick Rick seems to be coming full circle. With New York City’s legendary B.B. King Blues Club and Grill shutting its doors soon due to a spike in their rent, the dynamic duo was selected as the act for the venue’s final rap show in late April. And if their epic live show wasn’t enough to satisfy longtime fans, Doug and Rick have plans to put out a new project together.
Though specifics on the project are limited at the moment, it appears that the members of Doug E. Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew will continue to provide great entertainment for many years to come.