The Secret History of Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew's 'The World's Greatest Entertainer'
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.”