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.