NEW YORK — Grandmaster Caz, clutching a mic as the bus rambles toward Harlem, remembers when he and his buddies decided to act. It was the late 1970s and disco had taken over. Patti LaBelle. Teddy Pendergrass. Even the Four Tops had switched to sequins and syncopated beats.
“But the straw that broke the camel’s back?” Caz tells the tourists who have paid $75 each for the roughly three-hour tour. “I saw an album cover with the ‘Godfather of Soul,’ James Brown, in a Spandex, glitter suit. I knew right there then that disco had to die. And so we hatched a plot to kill it. And it worked. That plot is called hip-hop.”
It’s Thursday and Caz, as he does three days a week, is leading Hush Hip Hop’s “birthplace” bus tour. He doesn’t own the company. A former legal secretary named Debra Harris started Hush. But for Caz, the bus is more than a gig. It’s a chance to tell his story, meet people and even perform. Truth is, he just might be the most overqualified tour guide in a city packed with them. Imagine Willie Mays pounding his glove as he walks you through Cooperstown, or Jasper Johns roaming MOMA with his docent’s badge. The difference is that Caz isn’t famous. He’s been name-dropped by Jay Z, guested on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2015 hit “Downtown,” and wrote a chunk of the Sugarhill Gang’s revolutionary smash “Rapper’s Delight.” But for reasons as old school as a Kangol, he’s got less name recognition than Vanilla Ice.
To expect Caz to be free of bitterness would be unfair. But the master MC leaves the wrongs behind when he’s on the bus. At 56, he’s made peace with his reality. Record deals are hard to come by. But a regular job you like, that’s no small thing.
“I love doing it,” he says of the tours. “I could be doing this in my sleep. It’s in me. It’s in my DNA. I get on that bus, I click into bus mode.”
The Hush bus is no Greyhound. It’s the kind of vehicle you might find idling outside the senior center before that weekly outing to the mall. Caz, wearing a T-shirt, thick chain and baseball cap, is accompanied by a driver and a younger aspiring rapper, Rayza, who serves as a kind of assistant.
It’s unclear whether any of the 21 tourists know who they’re dealing with when they get on the bus. Hush doesn’t promise who will serve as guide, listing several potential candidates, including beatbox master Doug E. Fresh and Kurtis Blow, rap’s earliest star. But Caz does more tours than anybody else.
That’s how Baz Luhrmann discovered him in 2007. The Australian director was in New York starting his research for “The Get Down,” his new Netflix series. Caz’s tour, he wrote in an email, “left a tremendous and lasting impression on me.”
Luhrmann didn’t introduce himself. He sat and listened. And Caz admits he had mixed emotions when Luhrmann emailed him an invitation to the show’s premiere earlier this year. Lasting impressions are great. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to be paid more than compliments.
“You come on my hip-hop tour, you get inspired to make a series about hip-hop and you don’t call me?” he says. “You call Grandmaster Flash? How does that work?”
Caz was born Curtis Brown and grew up in the Bronx, a few streets over from fellow pioneers Melle Mel and Flash. The kid loved drawing and writing and, after graduating from high school in 1978, he enrolled at Lehman College with plans to study political science. But he never took a class. Brown had already been working as a DJ, recasting himself as Casanova Fly. “Caz” came soon after, as he moved into being an MC.
What made Caz special was his wide array of skills. He wasn’t just a DJ and performer. Brown was the total package, an MC with notebooks stuffed with lyrics.
“I remember going into his crib, on Creston Avenue, and he had stacks and stacks of composition books,” says film director Charlie Ahearn, who featured Caz prominently in “Wild Style,” considered hip-hop’s first film when it came out in 1982. “And he just laid out these books on his bed and opened them up and each page had the lyrics to a rap and they were done in the most impeccable penmanship, without a mistake. This guy wasn’t like working on this stuff. This was the preservation of raps that he had written.”
In “Wild Style,” club scenes with Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers were electric. The group never made it commercially, but they were huge influences on such second-wave rappers as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.
“His rhyming skills had to do with telling stories,” Ahearn says. “They were narratives that would go into great depth of both dramatic material, characters. These rhymes would go on for 10 minutes and, of course, as an MC, he could go on for hours.”
On the tour, Caz points out landmarks, from the housing complex where DJ Kool Herc worked his first gig in 1973 to the famed Rucker Park basketball courts. He stops at a small park so that Jason “Mighty Mouse” Vasquez can give the tour group a breakdancing demonstration. Caz also performs along the way, including a full version of “The Message,” the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song famous for being the first rap with a scathing social commentary.
But the showstopper has to be his 11-minute take on “Rapper’s Delight.”
It begins with the opening bars of the 1979 smash playing over the bus speakers. Caz doesn’t say a word. He sits quietly waiting for the second verse. That’s when “Big Bank Hank” comes in and, strangely, enough, declares “I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y.”
The music goes off and Caz stands.
“How can he be Casanova Fly when I’m Casanova Fly?” Caz shouts and pauses. “Okay, a story is in order.”
He tells it. Back then, Caz was tall and wiry and dressed like a king. Hank Jackson was four years older, a chubby kid who had wrestled in community college and now worked the door at a local dance club. He agreed to manage Brown’s group, Mighty Force, his crew before Cold Crush. Then Jackson took a job at a pizza place in New Jersey to help pay for some of the group’s equipment. Sylvia Robinson, who ran Sugar Hill Records with her husband, Joe, discovered him there, rapping over a tape. Robinson asked him to be in a group she was forming. Only problem: Hank didn’t have any lyrics. He asked Caz if he could borrow some rhymes.
“So when he came to me like, ‘Yo, these people want me to make a rap,’ I said: ‘For what? You don’t rap. You ain’t no MC. Didn’t you tell them about me?’ He’s like, ‘The lady heard my tapes and she likes my voice.’ So anyway. He said, ‘I need you to write me some rhymes because we going in the studio.’ I’m not thinking nothing of it. I’m not thinking this is going anywhere. So I’m like: ‘Cool. Come over my house.’ He came to my house. I threw a bunch of rhymes on the table and said, ‘Say this, say this and say that.’
If there is rap jail, and not the one currently occupied by Iggy Azalea, it should be reserved for the cheaters and hucksters who took what wasn’t theirs. And nobody stole more than Sugar Hill Records. In the case of “Rapper’s Delight,” the Robinsons were audacious enough to grab the music from a No. 1 hit, Chic’s “Good Times” without giving credit. Only after the release, under pressure from Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, did Sugar Hill list the duo as co-songwriters and pay them. Caz was not so lucky. He had handed over his lyrics to a pizza guy. Instead of telling anyone that Caz was the real deal, the pizza guy became “Big Bank Hank” and an accidental star.
“I didn’t know at the time, of course, when everybody heard the Sugar Hill Gang, we thought this is the greatest rap ever,” says Ice-T, a longtime Caz admirer. “But then, after I met Caz, the world kind of got out that Caz wrote that rhyme. ‘I’m the C-A-S-AN, the O-V-A, and the rest is F-L-Y.’ When you’re going to steal somebody’s rap, you don’t steal somebody’s name, too. It’s blatant it was done like that.”
Hank and the Robinsons are gone, now, but Caz hasn’t forgotten what they did to him. He’s told the story before and it’s even been immortalized in an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History”, with Caz played by Jaleel “Urkel” White. But here, on the bus, Hank’s betrayal sounds fresh. Because it’s not just a retelling, it’s a reclaiming. It peaks as Caz reveals that he’s actually written and recorded a rap about the monster hit that missed him. Then he performs “MC’s Delight, Casanova’s Revenge.”
“Grandmaster, grandmaster,” he chants as the bus heads through Harlem. “I’m the grandmaster with three MCs. Grandmaster, grandmaster, who put this thing together? Me, that’s who.”
In the late ’80s, Caz fizzled along with his recording career. He got into crack, lost his sound equipment, even did a few months in jail for drug dealing. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that he cleaned up and restarted his career. He began doing gigs and recording. But he needed a job.
There were his nine children to support. Seven years ago, he married Cora, a cosmetologist with four children of her own. Then Harris started Hush.
“When I was putting this together,” she says, “one of the main forces behind it was to preserve the roots of hip-hop and give the pioneers a chance to share their stories firsthand. Not because they’re being written in books and taught by professors. So many generations who have come after these guys stand on their shoulders, and there was a time when that recognition was not there. What I have is created is just one way of doing it.”
Word has spread. Kid Rock, who has been horrified to see so many of his old-school heroes struggling to get by, says that he’s impressed by the idea.
“That’s smart,” he says. “If he’s making money that isn’t MC Hammer doing that television commercial degrading himself, good for him.”
Ice-T, who featured Caz prominently in his 2012 documentary “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” also appreciates the tour.
“Caz is a legend,” he says. “And at the end of the day, Caz is a performer and an artist. It’s good to take people into the South Bronx and let them get an understanding.”
Caz himself plays down his role. It’s just a job, he says, as the tour group stops for a buffet lunch (paid for by the pound) at Manna’s, a soul food restaurant in Harlem. He’s older now, thicker in the middle, but remains a masterful performer. He also has perspective.
There is reality and there is hope. Luhrmann has already emailed to say that he’d like to bring Caz on as a consultant for a new series of “Get Down” episodes. He’s got gigs and new rhymes and knows that anything can happen. Even a hit with Macklemore.
At Manna’s, Caz sets up T-shirts, CDs and paperback copies of “Written! The Lyrics of Grandmaster Caz” on a table. He sells a few copies and signs them for the tourists. In a few minutes, he’ll be off, ducking into the subway to catch the 2 train back home to the Bronx. Is he at all bitter to be working so hard when less-talented MCs got so rich? Caz shakes his head.
“This is the kind of thing we’ve had to do to reinvent ourselves,” he says, after signing a few glossy pictures. “And to stay in the public eye. I’m 56 years old. What, am I going to look for a record deal?”
Hush runs a series of tours, including dance- and graffiti-centered tours. The “Birthplace of Hip Hop” tour, which regularly features Grandmaster Caz as a guide, takes place three times a week. It leaves from Manhattan and includes stops in the Bronx and Harlem. Tickets: $75 adults, $58 ages 6 to 18. www.hushtours.com.