THE NOTE: UNCLE JAMM’S ARMY DOCUMENTARY
A couple years back, I had the good fortune to arrange an in-store performance by the Egyptian Lover at Silver Lake record store Vacation Vinyl. As per his standard protocol, Egypt started his performance at 8:08 pm on the dot—a deliberate nod to his musical weapon of choice, the Roland 808 drum machine. About midway through his set, a man in his late 40s ran into the shop excitedly, panting, having dashed to the in-store from blocks away. He was the owner of a Mexican restaurant nearby and word had funneled through the neighborhood that the Egyptian Lover was performing. Without wasting a second, he’d rushed over from his restaurant, elated at the sudden opportunity to relive the memories of his youth. This was the moment that I fully understood the magic of Uncle Jamm’s Army and the blueprint they laid for the modern day dance party as we know it.
If you happen to fall into a very specific demographic, Uncle Jamm’s Army is the stuff of legend. Los Angeles natives who came of age in the 80s will have no problem recalling the stories—whether first or secondhand—of packed all-ages dance parties at venues that could easily hold thousands like the L.A. Sports Arena, Alpine Village or the civic auditoriums in Pasadena or Long Beach. Even heads like myself who came of age in the 90s heard the stories, though we might have found it hard to believe that such an atmosphere could have ever thrived without fights breaking out or shots being fired.
Uncle Jamm’s Army was the first crew to put the DJ front and center as a headliner, revolutionizing the very concept of what a dance party could be. All the modern day filepushers who make millions by twisting knobs and playing pre-recorded mixes in exclusive nightclubs likely barely realize how much they owe to the turntable talents and marketing savvy of Rodger Clayton, the Egyptian Lover, Bobcat, Dr. Funkenstein, Gid Martin, Arabian Prince, Chris ‘The Glove’ Taylor, a pre-gangsta rap Ice-T, and so many others who were a part of Uncle Jamm’s Army.
The story of Uncle Jamm’s Army is one that is uniquely L.A., and as such, the tale has largely escaped notoriety outside of southern California. Thirty-plus years later, it seems that the Army is finally set to receive their rightful recognition for their place in the history of hip hop, electro, and dance music. The City of Los Angeles formally recognized UJA, declaring October 28th Uncle Jamm’s Army Day, just as Red Bull Music Academy released a documentary on the crew.
It’s safe to say, as an L.A. native—by way of Pasadena—that none of my records would exist in their current form without the sounds that Uncle Jamm’s Army pushed, which ranged from certified dance floor fillers from funk outfits like Funkadelic and Cameo to Cybotron & Kraftwerk. It’s just as safe to say the same for basically every seminal L.A. hip hop album that came after it, from the gangsta intonations of The Chronic to the street-conscious poetics of To Pimp A Butterfly. I sat down to talk with the Army’s biggest star, the Egyptian Lover, as well as modern funk maven Dâm-Funk, who scored the documentary, and Will Abramson, the documentary’s executive producer. Red Bull Music Academy presents Uncle Jamm’s Army tonight, Oct. 28, at the Savoy Entertainment Center in Inglewood. The Note: Uncle Jamm’s Army is streaming now on redbull.tv. These interviews by XL Middleton.
Uncle Jamm’s Army was basically the first DJ crew to throw arena-sized parties. In that sense, do you think it’s safe to say that you guys basically laid the blueprint for the modern-day concept of the ‘superstar DJ?’
Egyptian Lover: Definitely [we were] the first to do big events with only DJs as the headliner. We were just having fun and doing what we do best—party!
What’s the story behind you linking up with Rodger Clayton and joining UJA?
Egyptian Lover: I used to go to the parties to dance—Rodger saw me there all the time. One day Snake Puppy and I saw Rodger passing out flyers and Snake told him ‘Hey Rodger, you have the best dance production organization but you don’t have the best DJ! My boy Egyptian Lover is the best DJ!’ Rodger looked at me and said ‘You can DJ?’ I said ‘I’m the best!’ From that second I was riding with Rodger to make a commercial. That weekend Uncle Jamm’s Army has a DJ contest and I blew everyone away. I became an Uncle Jamm’s Army DJ.
How is it that Uncle Jamm’s Army was able to go from throwing local dances to packing the L.A. Sports Arena in such a short time?
Egyptian Lover: Promoting parties—the records we played. Rodger Clayton had an ear for music and a specific way to play them. His programming is what made him a great DJ. Breaking the best songs first—before radio. He knew what album cut would rock the crowd. He also knew how long to play a record and when to mix it. I learned a lot from Rodger. I had turntable talent but Rodger had DJ skills. As we gave parties the crowds grew larger and larger and Rodger and Gid had a dream to do the L.A. Sports Arena. So we did it. DJing was the new thing for people to watch. I had so many eyes on me when I mixed—it was crazy. But Rodger kept me under control and that’s what gave me longevity in the game—keeping the crowd wanting more.
What are some of the songs that you’d consider staples at any UJA party?
Egyptian Lover: ‘We want to Rock,’ Crash Crew. ‘Head,’ Prince. ‘One Nation Under a Groove,’ Parliament. ‘Planet Rock,’ Soul Sonic Force. ‘Funky Soul Makossa,’ Nairobi. ‘Sweat till you get wet,’ Brick.
How did you get introduced to scratching and the whole idea of doing turntable tricks—as opposed to just selecting cuts and playing them?
Egyptian Lover: Scratching to me was just cueing the record out loud. I discovered it while doing pause button mix tapes. Then I heard Grandmaster Flash doing it on a record and knew exactly what he was doing. So I had always knew how to scratch—I just didn’t know the crowd was ready for it? I sold many pause button mix tapes so I knew the world was ready to hear my turntable mixes. I had a style unlike anything you ever heard before.
At what point did you incorporate the 808 into your sets?
Egyptian Lover: In 1983 I brought the 808 to the Sports Arena and played a beat right after Planet Rock. The crowd went nuts asking, ‘What record is that?’ Then I played more beats and just killed all 10,000 party people with a drum machine. I was kind of worried because I thought people would be mad that it was a drum machine and not a record playing. But they danced even harder to my hardcore beats.
I’m sure you’ve got many, but give me just one of the craziest stories from one of the parties.
Egyptian Lover: I was there… they were there … we were there … boom!
I’ve got a question of personal importance. In 1984 UJA did a party in my hometown—Pasadena—and you guys brought Run DMC. Do you remember anything in particular about this one that stood out? Who was the winner of the Ms. Sexy Pasadena contest? For all I know she could’ve been one of my childhood friend’s moms.
Egyptian Lover: I don’t remember but she had to be sexy. There were so many freaks at the parties we were celebrities. Everywhere we went people would point and scream ‘I love y’all!’ It was the best time of my life.
It was so great to hear you scored this documentary—what’s the experience like writing a score as opposed to an album?
Dâm-Funk: The album comes more from your inner soul and experiences you go through in life—that’s my particular take. For the scoring, you’re playing off of the emotions and things you’re looking at on the screen. Both are very unique to one another.
You worked with some heavy soundscapes and ambient textures on the project you recently put out as Garrett—is there any relation between Garrett and the score you did?
Dâm-Funk: The scoring … anything could happen with scoring. For the Uncle Jamm’s Army score, I had to score different eras. Some parts they were talking about like funk being more craved by the audience members after the uptempo stuff got to a certain height—so I had to create that soundscape. And also the electro boom that happened in L.A. in that particular period—I had to create that vibe as well. Any style could be applicable to the situation, based on what’s going on in the movie. The Garrett situation is straight-up ambience based with the funk appeal. Anything I do is always gonna come from a funk perspective, but branching out in so many other ways. Garrett is one of those—on the ambient side.
I’ve always wanted to have an in-depth Pasadena conversation with you and I think this is the perfect time. It’s relevant to your own personal experiences with Uncle Jamm’s Army. For those that don’t know, you and I are both from Pasadena. It’s a unique corner of L.A. We got our own vibe going. And Uncle Jamm’s Army threw some parties in Pasadena at the Civic Auditorium—that’s a huge venue. What was your experience like with Uncle Jamm’s Army in Pasadena? Do you think it was different than the parties in L.A. proper?
Dâm-Funk: It was great, man. They even did some at PCC—Pasadena City College. They were juggling back and forth. But back then the Civic Auditorium was a huge deal. A lot of people were talking about it. You’re young, you know what I’m saying? You’re not even 20—not even 18! It was geared towards teens. That whole experience was more like … about getting the girls, meeting people, meeting up with your homies, having your parents drop you off or maybe somebody’s sister or taking the bus or even walking, you know? No cellphones, no internet blogs to check up on or a flyer to look at for where it’s gonna be at—you had to just get there! The atmosphere … I know you know the street Lincoln and the west-northwest Pasadena and there was a lot of house parties that would happen off in those streets, random house parties at night time. The place would be dark, the DJ would be playing records in there … The Civic Auditorium was like a growth out of a house party—and cats from L.A. like Egyptian Lover and Uncle Jamm’s Army, they were the pinnacle of it. When they called a party, you knew to be there. What was a trip is I can’t remember … it was so much action going on! With the kids and trying to get action from the girls and vice versa that nobody really tripped off of who was DJing, you know what I’m saying? It was all about dancing, lurking the dance floor, partying … I didn’t look at who was on stage! That’s how packed it was. It was all about what was going on on the dance floor, and that was cool that they knew that—they were really just trying to rock the party as opposed to now when the DJs are these stars, and everybody’s just standing there looking at the DJ. That was one of the differences between those parties and now. There was no somebody coming on a stage talking in your ear. That would’ve been totally … untolerated! People just moseying on up to the stage and having a conversation with you while you’re dropping wax?
And asking what song is playing?
Dâm-Funk: Exactly! It was sacred back then. Why I bring that up is not to be funny—I’m just saying the party was on the dance floor!
Where it should be.
Dâm-Funk: That’s what it was about back then when we were growing up in that time period in Pasadena.
I love it—I wish I coulda been there for some of those days. When I would go to house parties in Pasadena in my era, they’d always either get shut down before anything happened or some shit would happen, you know? I read in an interview that you got your copy of [Egyptian Lover’s] “Egypt Egypt” [on Freak Beat Records] from Poo Bah back when it was in the little house on Walnut, and coming from Pasadena—could you talk about Poo Bah in terms of your own discovery of music?
Dâm-Funk: Poo Bah was very instrumental, man. They had 12”s that were cheaper than everybody else. Poo Bah’s knew the trick of taking it down a couple bucks and it was a quality record store where the owner Jay Green not only carried jazz and experimental music and rock and stuff like that, the whole sub-genre of Frank Zappa and comic books … but he also knew to cater to the Black community or different people that were weren’t rock audiences all the time. People of color that really enjoyed funk, soul and even rap when it was coming out. My dad introduced me to Poo Bah and that was just the place to be. The atmosphere, the wooden floor, the magazine stand in there—the seriousness of the record clerks, but they were cool, you know? Jazz playing when Jay Green would be on the record player. He had an assistant there named Pearl who was cool—she was like the mama bear of the crew. The point I’m making is they were a part of the community. I was able to start riding my bike and taking the bus to Poo Bah by myself and I’d buy like promo 12”s—a lot of radio stations had employees that worked there and record labels being in L.A., they’d get promo records and didn’t know what to do with them so they’d dump them at Poo Bah’s. I learned a lot, buying a lot of different stuff and going to different sections. Eventually I went there so much that Jay Green’s son—David—offered me a job, and right after high school I was able to work there for two years. It went by so fast! I learned so much. A lot of different groups and a lot of different records came across my fingertips—a lot of different styles I got turned on to, anything from noise music to all kinds stuff. That experience alone with Poo Bah’s taught me a lot about music. And they had the earthquake one time when I was working there! Most of the people who worked at Poo Bah’s lived in West L.A. and I was one of the only guys still in Pasadena. When the earthquake happened, I went and took my baseball bat with me and made sure nobody was looting the place! These are little details that people don’t know. That’s what I’m getting at with Uncle Jamm’s Army—their story has never been told like this. To participate it in it from a musical score aspect and just support these cats … and they’ve always supported me. Egyptian Lover used to have his birthday party at Funkmosphere at Carbon with the taco truck outside! These cats getting respect and flown to Berlin over and over again, going worldwide … it’s so good to see. And it’s a pleasure to play a part in it. I’m looking forward to the documentary and above that, just their party, period—them getting together to be respected for a musical explosion that happened in this city.
What does the legacy of Uncle Jamm’s Army mean to you personally?
Dâm-Funk: I feel that it really identifies and puts a stake in the culture of L.A. that wasn’t really covered by major magazines like Rolling Stone and all those outlets, the big magazines and the big journalists of the time. They just ignored it, you know what I’m saying? Whether it was just out of ignorance or they didn’t feel it was cool enough or who knows? But enough people knew about it. There’s clips in the documentary that weren’t even identified, but if you look closely at the faces there’s Jeffrey Daniel in the audience—from Shalamar—just in the background, going to shows and learning things. Michael Jackson of course went down there in disguise! A lot of people caught on. But like they say, XL: some things just aren’t meant to be discovered and covered and dived in all the time. Maybe it was for the best for the people that actually experienced that era—they have something special to hold on to. It never really blew up nationally, it never really … all the secrets weren’t figured out. That leans toward a legacy of being something unique. I think the Uncle Jamm’s Army experience is—as Arabian Prince said—it’s just a party. Big serious parties and serious DJs and promotion and the legacy of L.A. having its own sound that was culturally embedded in that generation. We have a lot of great memories. I hope that people respect that legacy. It’s nice to see it’s being paid attention to again.
What was it about Uncle Jamm’s Army that sparked your personal interest in doing a documentary?
Will Abramson (executive producer, Yours Truly): I love stories of extraordinary people—people with an X factor that propels them to extraordinary heights. Rodger Clayton was clearly one of those people. Within him was a mixture of grit, vision, talent and determination that you can’t help but admire—and aspire to.
My guess is that, like me, you were too young to have ever attended a UJA party in person. Have you envisioned what it would be like if you had been able to be there in the 80s?
Will Abramson: I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these guys had WAAYY more fun than I could ever fathom. Like movie star/rock star ‘Showtime!’-era Lakers fun. I’d like to believe I could rise to the occasion, but the 80s were wild—they don’t make em’ like that anymore.
It’s great that you guys tapped Dâm-Funk to score the documentary—I couldn’t picture anyone more perfectly suited for the task.
Will Abramson: Yours Truly has a history with Dâm. Six years ago we did a session with him at Different Fur Studios in SF and we ended up capturing what was some of the last footage of the late great J-1. It’s bittersweet, but that is still one of my all-time favorite sessions from our early years. That same day, I’ll never forget—Dâm was feeling good and feeling the studio and before we wrapped he was like ‘I’m gonna do a song for ya’ll.’ He went back in the live room and recorded a song for us from scratch. At the time I didn’t think much more of it, but that session ended up being the inspiration for a series we’ve been doing in partnership with Adidas Originals for more than five years now. I think one of my favorite things about Dâm is that you can tell he’s a student of the game. He’s an ambassador and a teacher, and he knows this era in LA better than anybody walking. I didn’t know when I booked him that Dâm was actually there at the Uncle Jamm’s events, but I wasn’t surprised—of course he was there. While scoring the film Dâm gave us some game on what L.A. was like back then, the feeling he had when ‘Egypt Egypt’ came out, how people lost their minds for that 808 scream. He is literally the only person who could have made the music for this film. We’re lucky.
What is the overall picture you want people to come away from the documentary with?
Will Abramson: I hope people will regard Uncle Jamm’s Army as one of the greatest entrepreneurs in history—up there with all the Silicon Valley types we hold up so high today. These guys were dreamers, but dreams alone don’t sell out the Sports Arena. Like any founder—any visionary—these guys saw a better way and didn’t stop until they saw it through.
RED BULL MUSIC ACADEMY PRESENTS UNCLE JAMM’S ARMY ON SAT., OCT. 28, AT THE SAVOY ENTERTAINMENT CENTER, 218 S. LA BREA AVE., INGLEWOOD. 8 PM / $15 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! THE NOTE: UNCLE JAMM’S ARMY DOCUMENTARY IS STREAMING NOW AT REDBULL.TV.