88Nine Radio Milwaukee (88.9 FM) has just released a six-episode podcast series called “Backspin” that follows the search for Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song. As the story meanders, it addresses how hip-hop music and culture took root during the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Through interviews with Milwaukee DJs and MCs like Andy Noble, Speech from “Arrested Development,” Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC and more, Radio Milwaukee staff unearths key turning points in this cultural shift.
Hip-hop expert Tyrone Miller (the DJ) and Music Director JustinBarney (the resident music geek) co-host the series and the interplay between the two different points of view is entertaining and engaging.
“The series is about so much more than the first song,” Miller said. “It’s about the journey of getting to that song. The birth of Milwaukee’s hip-hop movement is a microcosm of what was also happening around the country”
I caught up with Barney to elaborate on how this project, about a nearly forgotten musical story that is unique to our city, came about.
This series started with you asking a question – are you satisfied with the answer you came up with?
Yes, the question: “What is Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song?” Who knew it could take so many twists and turns? I thought it would be straightforward, but it was anything but. With that question we got larger-than-life characters, a whole history of Milwaukee that I never knew, and we got to the heart of the whole culture of hip-hop. I have been super happy with the answer that we ultimately came up with because it changed the way that I look at music.
How long did it take you to track down everyone to interview to answer your questions?
Well, one person led to another. So from Milwaukee DJ Andy Noble, we got Darrel D, and from him we got Todd Thomas and so on. My co-host Tyrone Miller a.k.a DJ Bizzon has been in the scene for years and knew a lot of the guys that started the hip-hop scene. We recorded interviews for about two months and just listened to what they had to say about their music and impact. It was a joy for me to listen to because I didn’t know any of that stuff.
We learn early on in the series the name of the first hip-hop song made in Milwaukee, but in your mind, who or what was most influential in creating the city’s hip hop culture?
Honestly, one of the most interesting bits to me was how everything was funded. We talk about Todd Thomas a.k.a Peechy a.k.a. Speech a lot. Speech was able to record because he had the equipment. He had equipment because his parents had money. His parents had money because they ran The Milwaukee Community Journal, a local newspaper. And it had money because residents of Milwaukee’s north side paid for the paper. So early hip-hop was kind of funded by this micro-economy of Milwaukee’s North Side so ultimately, all the subscribers and advertisers of The Milwaukee Community Journal were most influential in creating the city’s hip-hop culture – pretty wild stuff.
JK: Was Milwaukee far behind the rest of the country with the emergence of its hip-hop scene?
One of my favorite stories in the podcast is when Marvell Love, a local record label head, goes to a regional music conference where he discovers hip-hop. It wasn’t Spotify or Rolling Stone, things took a bit, but they got here. Actually, one of the biggest influences on early hip-hop here was 91.7 FM WMSE. Their free-form, block programming started in 1981 encouraged DJs to play whatever they wanted and was huge when it came to bringing hip-hop to the people of Milwaukee.
What if you’re not really in to hip hop music? Will people still find the series interesting?
Yes! It’s more than a story of hip-hop, it’s a story about Milwaukee. We learn about what the city of Milwaukee was like in the early ‘80s. We hear about the clubs, skating rinks, record stores and basement parties where this culture lived and thrived. And, hey, if you don’t love hip-hop maybe you will by hearing so much about it!
What were you most surprised to learn?
I was most surprised to learn about Todd Thomas a.k.a Speech. I knew that he went on to create Arrested Development, but I didn’t really know his ties to Milwaukee. This guy started making music in his parents basement in Milwaukee and went on to win a Grammy, be Rolling Stone’s Band of the Year and change hip-hop as everyone knew it, and it all started right here in Milwaukee.
Find the Radio Milwaukee’s original podcast series “Backspin” here or anywhere you download podcasts.