Differently-formated videos deserve different formats of “A Visual Sound”. That’s how I’m trying to get away with it. For the first time in the 56 years that this column has been going, it won’t be about three crucial albums this time, people. Oh no. Just ’cause, Zoo York’s legendary flick didn’t really have a classic soundtrack to it. As its title, and fake giant audio cassette artwork suggested, all of Zoo’s first video’s music was a succession of hip-hop freestyles at a radio studio. Insert the word “raw” somewhere at this point.
So why, where and how, you may ask? I caught up the mastermind behind this mythical display of East Coastal talent (from Maurice Key to Vinnie Ponte), the human mixtape of words and anecdotes Eli Gesner, and just asked him. It’s that easy.
(PS: For those who happened to read the article in Kingpin, what’s below is the uncut version. You enjoy reading?)
How did you come up with Mixtape‘s concept?
Eli Gesner: It sort of happened organically. And probably not the way you expect. It goes like this. My best friend (and original Shut Posse Skater) Beasley, and myself, threw these wildly popular Hip-Hop parties from 1989-1991 called ‘Trip’. We threw them at this huge night club in New York’s ‘Meat Market’ called Mars. We had a lot of amazing DJ’s. Our main DJ was Duke Of Denmark, and we got The Allmighty KG (from The Cold Crush Brothers) to be our MC. It was an amazing time. Our back-up DJ was Clark Kent, and we also broke a few new kids who had never DJ’ed before. Most notably, Moby. Ask him. I gave him his first gig. Another DJ was my good friend Adrian Bartos, who DJ’ed under the name Adrian B. But that name sucked.
Adrian was going to Columbia University and got himself a late night radio spot out of Columbia’s radio station WKCR. He got our other friend, Bobbito Garcia, to host. But his name still sucked and he begged me to come up with a name for him. Adrien was a tall and skinny cat, and everyone was calling him DJ Skinny Bones. He hated THAT! So, Grand PooBah [Maxwell] just had that song out ‘Like Stretch Armstrong I go… On and on and on and on.’ And ‘stretch’ is american slang for skinny so I was like ‘OK. You’re DJ Stretch Armstrong. And you can cut your name off a record.’ So that was it. Adrian became Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito the barber (who actually used to cut hair).
I was going to the SVA Film Program at the time and had access to all these video cameras. So, I would go up to the radio show to hang out anyway, so I just started to bring my camera. And poof! Before you know it I had hours and hours of footage of everyone rapping. I lost a lot of it as well. Which is a loss. But, regardless, I still had about 4 tapes worth of freestyles and mayhem up at the station. And there it sat for years.
By the time we got Zoo up and running and we’re in need of a video, the soundtrack was OBVIOUSLY going to be Hip-Hop. And I really thought the world should get to see some of this amazing footage. Buster Rhymes debut, Ghost and Meth. I mean, these were important moments in New York Hip-Hop and I wanted to share them.
Andy Howell already did the Sky Pager video. The video cassette box was designed to look like a pager (this was before cell phones) but I really liked the marketing idea, so I said ‘Lets make the video tape into a huge cassette tape and make a Hip-Hop mix tape of our skaters over my Stretch Armstrong footage.’ And there it was. I think we may have shot Diamond D specifically for the Mix Tape 1 video, but other than that it was all older footage. I think I even date the footage if you watch Mix Tape again.
Who’s the DJ in the intro and where did the intro take place?
None other than the legendary Roc Raida, 1995 DMC World Champion and member of the X-ecutioners. We wanted a DMC champ to mix a routine for the opening and Roc was kind enough to do a little acting for us. R.B. Umali and myself shot it at his house in the South Bronx. That was specifically done for the video..
Did you know a lot of these dudes beforehand?
Stretch and Bobbito are like family to me. I grew up with them. And the rappers I all sort of know from around New York City. I still have more crazy footage we never used, like, I have Large Professor writing and then performing his rap from ‘Live At The Bar-B-Cue’ for the first time ever. I mean, in Hip-Hop, ‘Live At The Bar-B-Cue’ is one of the most important songs ever and I have the creator of the song creating his rhyme. It’s important. But for the Mix Tape video it was too slow a rap. And the footage is kind of dark. I gave it to Stretch and Bobbito to use for their documentary.
Any particularly funny stories in the studio?
That footage of Busta Rhymes is literally the first time he was on air or rapped for major public consumption. I didn’t know who he was. None of us did. Only Bobbito (who was working at Def Jam) Kurious Jorge [he's the super-stoked guy in the red backwards cap in Mixtape, Seb's note], and some guys from A Tribe Called Quest knew him because the Leaders Of The New School were shopping their demo around, but the rest of us had never even heard this guys name. So… Everyone’s freestyling and I’m filming and then BOOM! This Jamaican kid in a head-to-toe acid wash jean suit runs in and starts screaming ‘I wanna rhyme! I wanna rhyme! Give me some head phones! I wanna rhyme!’ Like a total maniac and were all looking around at each other like ‘Who the fuck is this?’.
See, 99% of the rappers who would come by would be very mellow. And the show was at 2AM so everyone, even the big rappers, would be way relaxed, and here comes this nobody kicking in the door and screaming and shit. Like he was gonna go crazy if we didn’t let him rhyme. So, we gave him the mike and in 30 seconds everyones looking at each other like ‘WHO THE FUCK IS THIS?’ I mean the whole world knows Busta Rhymes now, but watching that happen? That was just amazing. It was watching a star being born. It was mind blowing.
Was it a hard process to put the video together?
DJ Ani Quinn and myself actually ‘mixed’ all the music together. It was a very long and complex undertaking. Everything in that film is analog. This was years before everything went digital. I don’t even think there’s a Mix Tape 1 on DVD. Just VHS.
Ani and I had to blend every segment into one another and in some cases throw OTHER music OVER the original raps, because the beats were too quiet or too ‘slow’. We would add high hats or shakers or keys. Something to spice it up. In other cases, the rapper could NOT be heard, so we’d hunt down friends who had the audio recorded on cassette tape and then have to manually dub it over the video footage. It was a lot of work.
Anyone who is doing shit like this today and thinks they’re so fresh and suckers. Everything digital and it’s all synched right off the bat. Everything we did would start drifting out of synch after 10 seconds. Ani would be there tapping records while I was force-spinning cassette tapes and recording it all in one take! That’s not a lie.
The analog hacks we pulled off in one giant seamless mix for an hour straight is super human. I’m really proud of all that.
In restrospect, what was the best skater/freestyle combo in your opinion?
I love Jeff Pang over Fat Joe. That shit is like the MOST official grimy New York Rah-rah ever. It’s so New York that I think only New York kids get it. That’s just two New York kings shutting shit down. I suppose everyone gets psyched on Harold Hunter and Meth, and it is the power combo, but I set it up like that. That was the NYC celebrity power move. Like, we all knew from the jump that that was the part everyone would shit themselves over.
I love Vinny Ponte over Diamond D. Vinny is SUCH a Hip-Hop head and Diamond D is SUCH a Hip-Hop pioneer super producer, that was a good mix.
Any chance to ever see Mixtape released on DVD some day?
Zoo’s lawyers will never let it get re-released. It’s a licensing nightmare. We went out and got all the rappers and skaters and everyone to give us the OK to use them, but then our lawyers were like ‘What about the music everyone is rapping over?’ I mean, we don’t even know what half that stuff is.
Part of the reason why it’s so hard to find Mix Tape 1 is that Zoo is protecting itself from lawsuits. Not that there’s any money to be made off that video. It had ONE VHS run over ten years ago!
Would this kind of project would be possible today?
No! Not with Hip-Hop and skateboarding. But yes with something else. See, the reason why things like this are so great is that it all happened organically. No one thought any of this shit was important at the time. We just did it ’cause we loved it! You must follow your passion and hopefully you’ll be in the right place at the right time. If you want to be a photo journalist? Easy. Find a war and go to the front line. You’ll get pictures of shit blowing up and people dying. This is sort of the same thing but that the war just formed around us and I was there to film it.
Also, I happened to skateboard, and I was fortunate enough to say ‘Hey! I’m going to put my passions together and call it Zoo York.’ So, something like this will happen again, you just need to be in the middle of what’s happening. And I don’t know what that is.
Maybe my kids will really get into Downhill Mixed Martial Arts and then start listening to Techno Cowboy Music, and mix it together and poof! Mix Tape 3! There’s no way to tell. You just have to find what you like and contribute to it. Be apart of it. Get involved.
AND SAVE YOUR SHIT! This would be a way more interesting interview if I saved half the shit I lost or got rid of. I had Jay Z and Big L rapping together as duet before Big L was killed. If Big L was never killed, it would have been a duet, instead, today kids only know Jay Z. And I lost that tape. Hate me now!