Monday, January 1, 2007

Rare groove: 'Shoot the Pump'

Yeah, I’m all about the MP3’s, like I used to be all about the CD’s. But I’ve still got crateloads of vinyl. I’m not out there digging for more, but I do love my vinyl. I’ll be writing about some of it here, from time to time.

One of my all-time favorites is a 12-inch single from 1981 called “Shoot the Pump,” by J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz… a track so obscure, it isn’t even listed in the allmusic.com database. But it’s six-and-a-half smokin’ minutes of Latin-tinged proto-hip-hop, shot through with a funky Downtown-NYC vibe.

“Shoot the Pump” got a little bit of airplay in D.C. during my college days, and I dug it instantly, but never did make that purchase. Too bad, because this thing became my Holy Grail as years went by. I searched for it at record conventions and in the hippest vinyl shops. (That being the era before websites like Discogs.com made it simpler.) I never once encountered “Shoot the Pump.” And it never turned up on any CD dance-music comps. Finally, in the mid-‘90s, Melissa Weber, the New Orleans groovologist better known as DJ Soul Sister, hooked me up.

Now, about this song…

Front man J. Walter Negro wasn’t a rapper exactly. But he was definitely a storyteller, and an actor-on-wax. “Shoot the Pump” paints vivid word-pictures and weaves a mini-drama about the New York City pastime of breaking open fire hydrants and directing the spray by means of a hollowed-out tin can (as seen in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”).

With boyish exuberance, J. Walter explains how the deed is done (“… then you make like a monkey with a monkey wrench, ‘cause you feel a little funky, got a thirst to quench”) and carries us with him through the adventure of it all (including lying to his mama about why he needs to borrow the wrench). All this over a slick, churning arrangement featuring a popping bassline, trilling flute, Latin percussion, and multiple solos from two different guitarists, plus a baritone sax solo and a reverb-drenched keyboard solo.

The mind-blower comes in the middle of the song, when the police show up. At first, it still seems like day-in-the-life stuff. (“Get away from that fire hydrant, ya punk. Don’t you know there’s a water shortage?”) But then one cop says to his partner, “Look out, there’s something in his hand! You better just shoot the punk!” And there are gunshots. Followed by the second cop’s grim discovery: “Oh my God… it was only a monkey wrench.”

Shit! That still wipes me out. Every time. This twist elevates “Shoot the Pump” to a whole other level. And 25 years later, it’s still as relevant as the Daily News.

Now, in the early ‘90s, when I briefly published a fanzine called UNCUT FUNK, reviewer Mark Sullivan argued that J. Walter copped out big-time at the song's end by having Monkey-Wrench Kid emerge unharmed. (“Good thing you had your bulletproof vest on or they woulda killed you, man.”) Sure, taken literally, it makes no fucking sense. But the kid’s rejoinder – “I’m gonna live forever or die tryin’” – takes the sting off it for me. He’s ready to grab that can and shoot the pump again. And life goes on.

I am crazy in love with this track. And though J. Walter Negro was barely heard from again (I’ve got a 12-inch by him and punk-rocker Nicky Tesco called “Cost of Living”; it ain’t much), his musicians went on to have fine careers. Particularly keyboardist Arturo O’Farrill, Jr., who has played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Carla Bley, and who now leads his late father Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

Bassist Lon Hillyer (whose late father was a Mingus sideman throughout the ‘60s) has performed or recorded with Billy Joel, Bernie Worrell, Will Calhoun and many others. Guitarist Tomas Doncker’s resume includes work with Bonnie Raitt, Bootsy Collins and Sadao Watanabe. (On his MySpace page, Doncker proudly refers to the Loose Jointz as “New York’s absolute 1st hip-hop group.”)

According to Wikipedia, J. Walter Negro’s real name was Marc Andre Edmonds, but he’s listed in Wikipedia under his graffiti name, ALI. He was a pioneer graffiti artist. Sadly, the Wikipedia entry also reports that Edmonds “lost his life to cocaine addiction.”

All this Wikipedia info was drawn from an MP3 blog called The Tofu Hut, by music fan John Seroff. In 2005, John managed to track down baritone sax player Pablo Calogero (a credited co-writer of “Shoot the Pump,” and a one-time aerosol artist himself), and he got the whole story. Please go there and read it, because this single, as John put it, “had the potential to change the history of music... but didn't.”

"Our stuff was way ahead of its time," Calogero told John. "We were playing live music behind the rap when other guys had just started using drum machines." Calogero’s and J. Walter’s connections in the b-boy underground led to gigs around New York, opening for bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie and Kid Creole & the Coconuts.

When “Shoot the Pump” was released, it was a hit in the U.K., and the band toured England and France. But things soon fell apart as J. Walter Negro got into cocaine, according to Calogero. This happened in part because J. Walter/ALI/Marc Edmonds was envious of the art-world success raining down on Jean-Michel Basquiat at the time. “He felt like he was a better artist than Jean-Michel,” Calogero said.

By now, if you’re just itching to hear “Shoot the Pump” for yourself, click here to download it.

But come back and read the rest, because in 1991, when I had my fanzine, I got a letter from Alan Leeds, who was then vice president of Paisley Park Records. He gave me his own quick take on the J. Walter Negro story; he managed the group after the single came out.

[UPDATE (01/02/07): Mr. Leeds says he is currently writing an article about J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz for the almighty Wax Poetics magazine. Can't wait to see it!]

Here’s what he wrote in 1991:
ALAN LEEDS: J. Walter Negro first gained "acclaim" in New York as one of the seminal subway graffiti artists, spreading his graphics all over the city under the name ALI. A poet, hardly a singer, J. Walter was encouraged by, among others, Fab 5 Freddy to put his poems to music, and gradually he formed an amazing, young New York semi-new-wavish funk band.

They probably only played two dozen gigs in the year-and-a-half they were together, J. Walter's personality frequently clashing with every club owner he came in contact with. Under-rehearsed and over-egoed, the talented and innovative band was cutting edge, to say the least, and had among its supporters Vernon Reid, Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Joseph Bowie (Defunkt) et. al.

Somehow they came to the attention of legendary producer John Hammond, who signed them as the debut (and perhaps only) artist on his short-lived, CBS-distributed Zoo York label. Shortly thereafter, I came into the picture for a few months.

On the trivia tip, my brother, saxophonist Eric Leeds, was added to the band for this single session. The band's only horn player was baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero (seen on David Sanborn's "Night Music" behind Bootsy Collins). Among the other Loose Jointz were keyboardist Arturo O'Farrill; bassist Lonnie Hillyer III, who recorded at Paisley Park with Tony Le Mans; rhythm guitarist Tomas Doncker, who now leads his own funk group in Yokohama, Japan; drummer H.B. Bennett, who since returned to his native Pittsburgh where he leads several jazz groups. The lead guitar player's name was Leonard K. Seeley. The record was actually produced by Fred "Freddy Pro" Miller, whose credit read "Artistic supervision."

The group dissolved a few months after "Shoot the Pump" failed to but meagerly dent the few charts that took notice. As for J. Walter, he dramatically left New York for London and was seldom heard from since.

And that is the story of J. Walter Negro and his Loose Jointz.

12 comments:

John said...

Glad to see there's still interest in this amazing story and excited to learn new things about this awesome track! Thanks for doin' the work and spreadin' the word!

Undercover Black Man said...

Thank you for dropping a line, John. You hit me before I could hit you. Your Tofu Hut piece was absolutely amazing!

What's up with that blog now? If you've moved on to other things, what might those be (if you don't mind me asking)?

Oh, and I forgot to mention in my original post: My friend Mark Sullivan actually saw J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz perform live, during their one-and-only East Coast tour. Amazingly, J. Walter REFUSED to perform "Shoot the Pump"!! He said something like, "That was last year's music."

Can you imagine, if you had paid your money to see this band... Good Lord...

SJ said...

Hey David, just wanted to say that I am a fan of your writing...especially your work on "Homicide", "The Corner" and the outstanding "The Wire".

Sorry if it's off-topic, but I just wanted to say it.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, SJ. Much appreciated. I intend to blog about TV writing as well. Matter of fact, David Simon is coming out to L.A. soon, and I plan to interview him about the politics of "The Wire."

Take it easy.

moist paula said...

OMG -- SHOOT THE PUMP!!! This is my favorite record ever. I first bought the 12" in Perth Western Australia in the early 80s and used to spin it on my radio show at the local University. It was my favorite of faves -- I also had the Nicky Tesco Cost of LIving joint which I liked a lot too and which I considered part of the holy trinity of extended mix dance songs about $$$$ along with Cash - Cash Money by Prince Charles & The City Beat Band and Money's Too Tight to Mention by Valentine Bros. As destiny would have it I got the hell out of dodge by 84 and ran away incrementally to the big city 3 times -- fist to Melbourne, then Sydney and finally to New York -- 3rd time lucky, as they say. Anyway, somehow those 12" singles never left Perth with me, I"m sure they were comandeered by my abusive boyriend of the era and were probably a small price to pay to get away from his ass. But Shoot the Pump was always emblazoned on my frontal lobe. I was mad I lost the record and was always scouring high end record stores and junkshops trying to find another copy. As the decades rolled by and the internet was invented and I STILL couldn't find a copy I began to wonder if I hadn't imagined it, but on rare phone-calls to old friends from Perth I would run it by them and they would remember it.
Now, not only was this joint slamming and filled with sounds that I hoped at the time contained the keys to the future of music; bells & whistles & thumping bass and a sick bari sax solo (I'd never even held a saxophone at the time -- little did I realise I would grow up run away to New York & become a bari sax player and one day kick it with Pablo Calogero!!), it described a magnetic atmosphere charged with heat, fun, action and heroism. When I first came to New York in July 1989 and ventured immediately into the neighborhoods I'd been repeatedly warned to avoid, I felt like I'd stepped into the record. I remember walking from The Garage on Avenue B and East 2nd street down to the East River and walking all the way down to Battery Park and there were kids shooting the pump all the way. Something about all of this for some reason was deeply emotional for me. I searched for the record, but even in New York couldn't find it. Nobody knew what it was. So imagine my heart attack when one day I was digging through the crates at my friend Miggy's diy record "shop" in the front room of his apartment in Williamsburg and there it f*#)@!g was and he sold it to me for $4. YOWZAH. So now I have it and I've spun it at my sporadic DJ engagements and nobody gives a shit about that record as much as me, it seems, like there are never 10 people running up to me saying "WHAT'S THIS?". So now I don't even necessarily always spin it on those occasions, not wanting to scatter pearls before swine. Meanwhile, I'd found Money's Too Tight, Cash, Cash Money and other faves from the time such as "Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys, but was always still looking for Cost of Living but couldn't remember the artist. This week I emailed my 1982 roommate who has been still working in the record store in Perth where I originally bought most of these joints all this time, knowing if anybody remembered, he would. (Yeah, Wrigteous 1!). He emailed me back with the Wright answer -- Jr. Walter Negro & Nicky Tesco and a link to this blog. So now I know that there is at least one other person on the planet who was really feeling this record, I couldn't pass by without saying hello. 1 question -- whatabout Brother D and The Collective Effort?

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Moist Paula, I'm glad you found me! Thanks for the comment. It tickles me that "Shoot the Pump" found you all the way in Australia.

As for Brother D and Collective Effort... name rings a bell. But not a real strong one.

Anonymous said...

Re-released on a Soul Jazz compilation! the song is blazing hot fire.

Jim d said...

I just heard this track for the first time a few days ago. Can't believe I missed it up until now. What struck me right away was the strong narrative that sets it apart from other raps of the time. I hadn't heard of the expression "shoot the pump" before so I google'd it and was lead to your post.

Your write-up on this was amazing. Thanks so much for digging into the history behind this track and the people who made it.

Incidentally, I heard this track on The Rub radio (itstherub.com). Ever heard of it? They play all kinds of gems like this. Thanks again -j

Bilrock 161 said...

I grew up with Marc, Pablo, Lenny, and almost all of the Loose Jointz. We all grew up together on the Upper westside. Our origins were rooted in the early(1st-2nd gen.)graffiti scene in NYC. Marc was a big inspiration to me from an early age(12), since his brother Michael(Lil'Ali)and I were best freinds. Pablo Calogero(aka.Coca-82, SA.)lived upstairs in my building and was like the older brother I never had. During the time of J.Walter Negro and The Loose Jointz, myself and Crunch(RTW.,SA.)were their security. It was a crazy time and we were all very young and crazy. Marc's star burned too bright, too fast. His personality combined with the crazy 80's drug epidemic was just too much. He was a very special person, and even today I cant say I have ever known anyone like Marc. He wore his creativity on the outside, it exhuded from him, taking his life blood with it. I was made a member of Marc's(Ali's)Soul Artists back in '74 when I was just 12. In 1976 I founded The Rolling Thunder Writers(aka.RTW.)which went on to become one of the most famous and prolific of all the NYC. subway graffiti clubs. We were the sons of The Soul Artists. RTW. included writers like: Revolt, Quik, Min-One, Zephyr, Crunch, Haze, Pade, Rasta, Mackie, Regal-192, IZ, Sach, and others. Most of RTW. came out of the same place, we were the crew that took the SA. trip further and beyond.Without Marc there wouldnt have been an RTW. and I dread to think what the upper westside of the 70's-80's would have been like without Marc's insane funky and beautiful brain......

Nick said...

I first heard "Shoot the pump" in '81 on the John Peel show on bbc Radio 1 and managed to track down a 12" copy, which is still in my collection.
Nobody else in the UK ever seemed to have heard the trackand it's now consigned to history, not even meritting a Wikipedia entry

SEA*ARE said...

Well could anyone really ever forget if they were lucky enough to see in person NYC's amazing band J Walter Negro And The Looze Joints & "Shoot The Pump" performed live. Memories that were mostly fun, strange & filled with some great performances. I knew most of the band personally and saw many of their shows, even filming one of them at The Peppermint Lounge with my Super 8mm camera. Ali at that nights show we should say-was not at his best. His trouble are well documented so let's leave it that he was a Great Artist in severals ways that might just have burned too bright !
Back to the band. That song if you know it, you know it's just SUPER ahead of it's time and truly still great to hear. Unfortunately someone stole my vinyl copy at a party out in LA in 1986 but I had it backed up on a cassette which I still have.
One show we went to at Interferon on 21st (the location soon turned into where everyone remembers Danceteria) was a crazy fresh show that was off the hook, where everyone was in TOP form, GOING OFF. Aurturo, Pablo, Lenard, Tomas, H.B. & the rest, and of course J Walter (Ali). Will never forget that show as long as I live (it was several months before the show at The Pep lounge). That night before the band could even get in, we were all hanging out in front on the sidewalk. My downstairs neighbor PETRO/Pete B. showed up in a taxi with Ali and the management wouldn't let PETRO in because of his long hair and vest, saying he looked like some hippie biker. Well Ali promised PETRO would stay backstage and also might have said he would not go on if his friend couldn't come in. That's the kind of person Ali was, the way we all should be. They also had this crazy super huge bald bouncer guy wearing a seersucker suit, guy looked liked he was from the Australian outback and eat kangaroos or dingos for breakfast. Some of us went to school with Tomas Donker and also were in our own bands, but some kids weren't so club savvy. After we had just walked in one drunk kid trying to still get in foolishly mouthed off the Mr Outback bouncer and the results were not pretty ! Back then it seem like different cultures were colliding . You had the 1970's ending and the 1980's happening with all this new music and a talented new band like J Walter & The Looze Joints. (The Show Must Go On) and it did and a GREAT ONE at that. But the excitement was short lived and the energy that the band and Ali had didn't survive much longer, for reasons to some of us that are obvious. Besides the business end, people have their demons and we as friends can only do so much. Most of the band have gone on to great careers in music. Still it touch with some like Pablo & Tomas as well as still friends with some of the RTW Artists. I know these comments weren't all about the music, but a little slice in time and the mood of that period. There's many more stories like that. Thanks for letting me indulge !

"SHOOT THE PUMP" lives on forever and even though it's winter right now & snow's still on the ground, kid's get ready for summer to sneak out with that wrench and your friends and spray the whole city (look that car window's open) HIT IT !
Peace-CR

SEA*ARE said...

Well could anyone really ever forget if they were lucky enough to see in person NYC's amazing band J Walter Negro And The Loose Jointz & "Shoot The Pump" performed live !
Memories that were mostly fun, strange & filled with some great performances. I knew most of the band personally and saw many of their shows, even filming one of them at The Peppermint Lounge with my Super 8mm camera. Ali at that nights show we should say was not at his best. His troubles are well documented so let's just leave it that he was a Great Artist in several ways that might just have burned to bright.
Back to the band. That song if you know it, you know it's just Super ahead of it's time and truly still great to hear. unfortunately someone stole my vinyl copy at a party out in LA in 1986 but I had it backed up on a cassette which I still have.
One show we went to at Interferon on 21st street (the location soon turned into where everyone remembers Danceteria) was a Crazy Fresh show that was off the Hook. Everyone was in top form, GOING OFF ! Arturo, Pablo, Lenard, Tomas, H.B. & the rest and of coures J Walter (Ali). Will never forget that show as long as I live (it was several months before the one at Pep Lounge). That night before the band even got in, we were all hanging out in front on the sidewalk. My downstairs neighbor PETRO/Pete B. showed up in a taxi with Ali and the management wouldn't let PETRO in because of his long hair and vest, saying he looked like a hippie biker. Well Ali promised PETRO would stay backstage and also might have said he wouldn't go on if they didn't let his friend in. That's the kind of person Ali was, the way we all should be. They also had this Crazy Super Huge bald bouncer guy wearing a seersucker suit, guy looked like he was from the Australian outback and eat kangaroos & dingos for breakfast. Some of us went to school with Tomas Donker and were also in our own bands, but some kid's weren't so club savvy. After we had just walked in one drunk kid still trying to get in foolishly mouthed off to Mr Outback bouncer and the results were not pretty.
Back then it seemed like different cultures were colliding. You had the 1970's ending and the 1980's happening with all this new music and a talented band like J Walter Negro And The loose Jointz. (The Show Must Go On) and it did and a GREAT ONE at that. But the excitement was short lived and the energy that the band and Ali had didn't survive much longer, for reasons to some of us that are obvious. Besides the business end, people have their Demons and we as friends can only do so much. Most of the band have gone on to great careers in music. Still in touch with some like Pablo & Tomas as well as still friends with some of the RTW Artists.
I know these comments weren't all about the music, but a little slice in time and the mood of that period. There's many more stories like that. Thanks for letting me indulge !

"SHOOT THE PUMP" lives on forever and even though it's still winter & snow's still on the ground, kid's get ready for the summer to sneak out with that wrench and your friends and spray the whole city (look that car window's open) HIT IT !
Peace CR