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DJ Kool's `Clear' SailingBy Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 1997; Page N13
IT WAS EXACTLY a year ago that Washington's DJ Kool released "Let Me Clear My Throat" on Baltimore's CLR Records. Just last week, the title track to that CD broke into the fabled Top 40 of Billboard magazine's Hot 100 Singles chart, and currently sits at Number 38, with a bullet.
"I guess it kind of blew up," says DJ Kool with a smile. He's on a BET sound stage one recent Saturday, with pals Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie to tape a version of the hit for the TV show "Teen Summit." Kool, in designershades and a soft camouflage cap, nods to his DJ and musical partner, Twenty, who kicks it in, the funk/go-go groove curling out the speakers until the whole room seems to move to the beat.
The song is instantly recognizable, with its one huge hook: Kool's very own cough. "It started in a club in Petersburg, Va.," he explains later. "I was just getting ready to say something to the audience and instead of the words, I coughed. Then a line from an old Beastie Boys song came to my head and I just said, `Let me clear my throat.' " He laughs and says, "Some of my best material comes from my mistakes."
The song caught the ear of the man who had signed the Beastie Boys to Def Jam records long ago, Rick Rubin, who then signed DJ Kool to his label, American Recordings. The CD was repackaged with a more radio-friendly version of the title track (featuring Fresh and Markie) and re-released in December. "But even since before it came out on American it's been nuts," says Kool. He reels off his recent itinerary: Florida, Canada, Hawaii, London for "Top of the Pops" (he's got the No. 8 single in the U.K.). "Every week it's four or five shows, then home for two days."
Home is just blocks from RFK Stadium. "I live right here in the H-O-O-D," he says, spelling it out. "This will always be where I get my vibe from. It's where my essence is at." Kool graduated from Eastern High School in 1976, and began DJ-ing house parties, moving up to clubs in 1980. "I played every major R&B club in the area. I started at the Paragon, then the Room, Classics, East Side, Triples, Ibex, Rhythms, the Legend. I still try to DJ at Legend on Wednesday nights if I'm in town and I've got the time."
He became one of the best-known MCs in town, in those pre-rap days, chanting over the music, making every song a party. The studio was the next step and in 1987, his record "The Music Ain't Loud Enough" was a local radio and club hit. But the next level was elusive, until now. "People been showing me a lot of love on this one, saying they appreciate the angle I'm coming from," says Kool. "They like that I'm bringing the old school funk back, and mixing in a lot of the go-go. And plus I'm not talking about killing somebody, or how much weed I'm smoking. That's really getting out of hand, and we need to be a bit more responsible. There are young ones listening and since we keep saying they're our future, I'm saying treat them with respect."
Kool says that beyond that, he's just giving people what they want. "Being a club DJ, that isn't hard for me to do. Responding to the public is what I do, that's why I like recording my songs live. All I do is bring the club to the stage, then try to totally involve the audience." It's just Kool and Twenty on stage, Kool singing, rapping and MC-ing, Twenty spinning and scratching records.
On April 11, at Kings Dominion's Black College Day, Kool will make a live recording of a new song, "Blow Your Whistle," another go-go/funk breakdown that he says will go even farther than "Throat." "We're gonna get it in one take, and then you'll hear it everywhere."
But plans for global domination don't necessarily mean a big head. "Me personally, I don't trip off any of it. I take all the success with a grain of salt. Who knows where I'll be tomorrow, right? So I got to stay humble but hungry, always play like I'm 10 points behind. My father's been passed away nearly 20 years, God rest his soul, and he told me `Whatever you do, make something out of yourself, and take care of your mother.' So right now, that's all I'm trying to do."
To hear a free Sound Bite from "Let Me Clear My Throat," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
Thinking Happy Thoughts
What the 27-year-old Wedren was going through physically was battling Hodgkin's disease, diagnosed in November 1995, just as the band was gearing up to write and record its follow-up to 1994's "Pony Express Record." "We'd been on tour with the Foo Fighters, and I couldn't get my body happening," Wedren says. "I'd gone through some heartbreak so I thought what I was feeling was from being exhausted and miserable. It turned out to be quite a bit more than that."
A trip to the doctor "sent everything into hyperdrive," says Wedren. "All of a sudden my family was here, everyone was crying, they were doing biopsies, and I was wondering `Will I live through this year?' " Radiation and chemotherapy treatments began, with doctors taking great care not to damage Wedren's vocal chords. Despite the treatments, three songs were recorded with drummer Adam Wade in the spring of 1996 before Wade left for Seattle to join the band of former Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic.
Writing new material stopped, and Wedren took on a side project, composing songs for "First Love, Last Rites," the feature film debut of Jesse Peretz, a former member of the Lemonheads known for his music videos (like the Foo Fighters' Mentos takeoff). The songs Wedren wrote were deliberately derivative, composed in the styles of hits from the '60s and '70s, to be sung for the movie by the likes of John Doe, Billy Corgan, Jeff Buckley and Liz Phair.
"When we started recording demos of the film stuff, we were really freed up from the Shudder to Think sound and began writing stuff that was altogether different from earlier material," says guitarist Nathan Larson. "It was liberating." Wedren agrees: "The songs for the movie weren't what you'd call typical Shudder to Think songs, but I was loving them, and I realized we'd created a ghetto identity for ourselves and we needed to break out of it. With the new songs, I felt that this is the music we should be playing. This is the music that's making us feel beautiful."
"When we started in on the newest material, we definitely didn't want to do so much dark stuff," says Larson. "We needed to reflect some joy." So is it catchy pop? "Well, it's still us," laughs Larson, "with weird chords and weird rhythms, but it's got a more upbeat flavor."
The recordings that became "50,000 B.C." were completed (with drummer Kevin March stepping in, and former Washingtonian Ted Nicely producing) at the same time as Wedren's radiation therapy, which has sent his disease into remission. Fans of Wedren's swooping, sing-song vocal style will be happy to know that his fight with cancer has left his voice intact, and that the band is ready to hit the road to perform for the first time in 17 months.
"I'm absolutely terrified," admits Wedren. "But we want to support the record, and also I want to do it for myself. I've come through fire and want to see if anything's different. I just want to tour and enjoy it." Shudder to Think appears March 20 at the Black Cat (1831 14th St. NW, 202/667-7960).
To hear a free Sound Bite from "50,000 B.C.," press 8114.