They’re some of hip-hop’s biggest names, and they’re attached to some of the culture’s most unassuming bit players: these are the other guys, the namesakes who’ve since been eclipsed by bigger and oft-better artists of the very same name.
What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose might by any other name smell as sweet, but there’s something indispensable about a title. Though we’d surely like to believe that art speaks for itself, a name can be the difference between breaking out and falling short; making it and admitting defeat. It was the deciding factor that led you to this very piece: the title is a split-second sell, set on a feed of limitless content in the hopes of somehow piquing your interest. Mission accomplished!
That goes some way to explaining why name changes are so common in hip-hop. Whilst some rechristenings are purely creatively motivated – see MF DOOM’s roster of pseudonyms – others preface artists’ greatest successes, and whilst there’s nothing that could suggest causation, there’s certainly some correlation at play. In their infancy, Organised Konfusion were Simply II Positive Emcees, a moniker that betrays their acerbic pen; Havoc and Prodigy were Poetical Prophets, a quasi-religious designation that undercuts the worldly realities in their rhymes; Tupac was MC New York, a hometown dedication at odds with his eventual West Coast allegiance; and Tauheed Epps adopted Tity Boi, an adaptation of his childhood nickname, long before he rechristened himself 2 Chainz.
Even some of history’s most lauded emcees have had to switch it up: Biggie Smalls was reportedly sued for his use of that name, taken from a fictional gangster, which led to his formal adoption of The Notorious B.I.G.. Others have fared better, such as Rick Ross, who withstood a suit from legendary crack kingpin and businessman “Freeway” Rick Ross. Not only are titles the single most essential element of marketing, but they’re also prime real estate, rife with competition.
Whilst some emcees borrow their stage names from legendary figures they wish to channel, few would risk stepping on an already-established title. Can you imagine a young emcee christening themselves Jay-Z, Biggie or Tupac? It’d be a quick way to notoriety, sure, but some names are just too hallowed for a second go around. That’s not the case in the inverse: lesser-known artists who preceded their legendary namesakes aren’t condemned as much as they’re eclipsed, lost to fans, history and search engine results. Some are homophones, words with like pronunciation. Others are homonyms, spelt similarly but distinct in meaning. Some are both; all are familiar. Whilst we’re all witness to the power of a compelling rebrand, that’s not an option for many of the originators, their careers all but over when their names are adopted; their achievements doomed to the footnotes of hip-hop history.
Here’s to those who came before the fame, those who kept the proverbial seats warm for the subsequent stars. That’s not to discount their own achievements – these artists were often trailblazers in their own right, inhabiting singular moments and brushing shoulders with their notable peers – but they earned them in relative obscurity, a fact only enhanced by the subsequent success of their names. In their honour, let’s take a look at some of the culture’s most interesting namesakes.
It’s an alternative history of hip-hop, as told by the other guys.
Dre / Dré
In the late ‘90s, following a perceived pop-pivot and a poor Aftermath compilation, Eminem helped make sure the world wouldn’t forget about Dre. In delivering 2001, however, Dre might’ve ensured that we’d forget about Long Island’s own Doctor Dré.
In 1983, moments before Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young broke out with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru in 1985, Andre Brown – a DJ at Adelphi University’s WBAU – took up the mantle of Doctor Dré. It was a good time for the student-run station, and Brown’s familiarity with fellow WBAU DJ William Drayton, who played Friday mornings and sprayed a soon-to-be-familiar tag, Flavor Flav, helped Public Enemy sign with Def Jam.
Though Wikipedia deems Dré an “American radio personality and former MTV VJ,” admittedly the roles for which he’s best known, he was also an artist in his own right, forming Original Concept with his fellow WBAU disc jockeys. The group signed with Def Jam, then but a fledgling operation, releasing Straight from the Basement of Kooley High in 1988. Dré produced “Pump That Bass,” the biggest hit from the record, which has since become a famed sample, appearing on indelible cuts from Eric B. & Rakim and Coldcut, Mantronix, Ice-T, Stetsasonic and Slick Rick. Even Dr. Dre himself sampled Doctor Dré on 1987’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” and Flavor Flav flipped his colleague and labelmate’s jam on the 1988 classic, “Prophets of Rage.”
That record stands as Original Concept’s only release, and in 1989, Doctor Dré linked up with Ed Lover to become the weekday hosts of Yo! MTV Raps. Fab Five Freddy, originally the sole host, took over for the weekends, and Original Concept member T Money later joined the fray. Dré and Ed Lover cut an album together, even managing to land their own buddy cop film, directed by Yo! MTV Raps creator Ted Demme, replete with early-’90s hip-hop cameos. Doctor Dré stayed with the program until it was cancelled in ‘95, and in the years since, he’s maintained a low profile, though his relationship with his West Coast namesake has come to the fore a handful of times.
As Dré remembers it, he was instrumental in breaking N.W.A’s “Express Yourself” on Yo! MTV Raps, and was present when Detroit Police infamously shut down the group’s show. “The scene when they’re in Detroit and they get rushed off the stage, I was on stage with Ed when the cops did what they did because [N.W.A.] decided to [perform ‘Fuck Tha Police’] and were told and warned not to do it,” he told The Cipher. “They ran back to the hotel ’cause the cops came after them. And I got stuck, ’cause they thought I was Dre.” Dré’s roles at MTV and Def Jam helped him introduce an eager and soon-to-be-solo Ice Cube to The Bomb Squad, the spark that would light the flames of 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.
Havoc and Prodeje
You may be able to explain it away with the allure of certain sounds, but it still seems crazy that just as Mobb Deep’s Havoc and Prodigy were trying to get their cassettes to label executives, two emcees of the very same name were making a splash in South Central LA.
Mobb Deep – then two teens going by ‘Poetical Prophets’ – were championed by East Coast staple Q-Tip, whereas Havoc and Prodeje came up within the west coast’s South Central Cartel, a gangsta rap outfit conceived in the wake of subgenre pioneers N.W.A. Though that legendary posse inspired no shortage of imitators, South Central Cartel became one of the most indelible gangsta rap outfits, a peer of fellow acts Above The Law, Thug Life and Compton’s Most Wanted.
South Central Cartel – already centred around LA’s Havoc & Prodeje – had just released their debut, South Central Madness, when the two emcees formed their own duo. They dropped a debut of their own, Livin’ In A Crime Wave, in 1993, and though it was met with positive critical reception, it failed to replicate the commercial success of their original outfit. Mobb Deep’s Havoc and Prodigy were in similar straits, as their debut album, Juvenile Hell, saw some limited success with single “Hit It from the Back.” Following their critically strong but commercially weak arrivals, both duos got back to work, unwittingly crafting their magnum opuses.
It wasn’t until 1994’s Kickin’ Game that the South Central duo broke onto the Billboard charts, buoyed by impassioned lead single “G’z On Da Move.” This would prove their only charting record, as their third and final LP – 1998’s Truez Neva Stop – made little impact. The opposite was true for their east coast counterparts, whose sophomore album, The Infamous, proved more than just a commercial success. Running with the dusty sample-savvy sound pioneered by RZA, the record became a tentpole of the East Coast Renaissance, in which NYC reclaimed the national spotlight from standout west coast acts such as N.W.A, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. The moment that gave Mobb Deep – and the greater East Coast – a wider audience did so at the expense of LA’s Havoc and Prodeje – and the greater West Coast – whose gangsta rap and G-funk, whilst still popular, wasn’t as immediate and cutting edge.
Though Havoc and Prodeje retired their duo, they remained key members of South Central Cartel, who continued to release records well into the new millennium. Their commercial appeal peaked with 1994’s ‘N Gatz We Trust, but the posse turned out two more albums in the mid-to-late ‘90s. The 2000s brought forth seven LPs, and their most recent release, the 2 Da West EP, dropped earlier this year. You just can’t keep a G down.
Long before Reasonable Doubt dropped – back when the jury was hung, to paraphrase Hov himself – the singular title of Jay-Z belonged to a small-time Digital Underground collaborator. As Brooklyn’s finest was cycling through a roster of short lived titles, including Jay-Zee, J.Z. and JZ, California’s own Jay-Z – real name Jeremy Jackson – was joining that influential outfit for their 1991 sophomore LP, Sons of the P, on which he provided backing vocals and turntabling. That same year, Jackson earned a writing credit on the debut from another Digital Underground collaborator, Tupac, penning “Something Wicked” alongside the up-and-coming great.
The West Coast Jay-Z would stick around for The Body-Hat Syndrome, Digital Underground’s third studio album, which saw the introduction of lead emcee Saafir, for whom he’d later write. Though he left Digital Underground for their next record, Future Rhythm, Jackson remained a member of Digital Underground aligned collective Hobo Junction, producing for Saafir as well as associates such as The WhoRidas.
He returned to Digital Underground for 1998’s Who Got the Gravy?, but by this point, he’d lost his monopoly on his name. Though Shawn Carter – then JÄY-Z – had been a presence throughout his entire career, the success of 1996’s Reasonable Doubt was a direct challenge to Jackson’s claim. If there was any doubt as to Hov’s longevity, it was undercut by 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, the Diddy-infused sophomore effort that cemented Hov’s claim to the name with commanding crossover success. Thus, Jackson went by three different names on 98’s Who Got The Gravy?: his turntablism was credited to JZ, his keyboards and production to DJ-JZ, and his writing to J. Jackson.
Arguably, Jackson’s most significant credit came at the twilight of his career, when he helmed Xzibit’s “Get Fucked Up With Me,” included on the 2001 Car Wash OST. It would be his last appearance until 2008, when he returned for Digital Underground’s final album, contributing scratches to “Children of the Sun.” The original Jay-Z – now DJ JZ – bode farewell to the scene as his more successful namesake continued to make hip-hop history, returning from his brief retirement with 2006’s Kingdom Come before returning to form with American Gangster the very next year.
There’s no single Jay Dee who can compare to Dilla himself, but there’s been no shortage of emcees who’ve gone by the admittedly simple stage name. However, each spitter in question was beat out by the original Jay Dee, Earl Nelson, a soul singer and longtime friend of Barry White who released his only record, Come On In Love, in 1974. That Jay Dee was himself just beaten by an elusive British soul singer responsible for a solitary 7” single, 1973’s “The Streets Ain’t Paved With Gold / You’re Gonna Learn.”
Hip-hop’s first Jay Dee arrived in the mid-’80s, his name laced by a then-popular honorific, ‘Grandwizard’. The electro-hop turntablist contributed scratching to two minor 1986 releases, D-Struction’s “Do You Love Your Nation,” and Chapter 3’s “The Biters.” Though these singles failed to endure, the label on which they dropped – Rappers Rapp Records – helped usher in the electro-hop wave on the West Coast. It was in this scene that Dr. Dre, then a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and Arabian Prince, a popular solo act, cut their teeth prior to the formation of N.W.A.
The next Jay Dee to enter the fray was steeped in the soul tradition, though their 1992 single isn’t as much a summary of their approach as it is their solitary effort. The 90’s Jay Dee was a one-off moniker of Jeanne Downs, a British singer best known for her work alongside former Genesis member Steve Hackett. “Simple Solution,” the solo track in question, was the only track released under the name, though she dropped “No Life Without Love,” a house-infused soul jam, as ‘Jeanne Dee’ just one year later.
Another Jay Dee impacted the UK garage scene in 1998, featuring alongside Caspar Nova on the M.J. Cole track “Sincere.” That single – Cole’s debut, and I ain’t talking “Lights Please” – became one of the first garage tracks to break into the Top 40 of the UK Singles Chart, peaking at #38. The strength of the single landed Cole a deal with Giles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud, for whom he cut his 2000 debut, Sincere, which was released to considerable acclaim. Though that album produced two more hit singles, and a re-release of “Sincere” took the track to #13, Jay Dee remains a mystery, a sole credit on an integral musical moment.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that Dilla started going by Jay Dee, most notably on his own debut single, 2001’s “Fuck The Police,” and his landmark 2001 BBE release, Welcome To Detroit. Even after Dilla’s ascension to the Jay Dee throne, some emcees continued to take up the mantle, with one Johnathan Doncker assuming the title for an official 2001 remix of Destiny’s Child hit, “Bootylicious.”
In 2008, just two years after Dilla’s death, yet another Jay Dee emerged in west coast gangsta outfit Gang Nation Trues. In some strange second-string coincidence, that one-off outfit was founded by South Central Cartel member Prodeje, then going by the ever-so-slightly amended ‘Big Prodeje.’
The existence of two Jazzy Jay’s lends credence to the idea that some names – and, by extension, some sounds – are inherently attractive. The two Jazzy Jay’s would likely have never met, given their disparate scenes and wildly different trajectories, though they both emerged at the dawn of recorded hip-hop, when new names were aplenty. Different though they were, both Jazzy Jay’s were musical innovators, amongst the first emcees to take to the wax following the ‘79 release of “Rapper’s Delight.”
The first Jazzy Jay hailed from Connecticut, a state infrequently invoked in hip-hop discussions. Interestingly, the state was particularly early to hip-hop, and the scene that developed therein turned out more than a handful of old school tracks during the culture’s first few years. As a member of the Outlaw Four alongside emcees Junie Jay, Basic and Disco Rick, Jazzy Jay appeared on the group’s 1980 single “Million Dollar Legs,” their one and only release.
Discogs lists that single as one of just two records released on Dynamite Pep Records, which attests to both the determination of the Connecticut outfit and the limited viability of such endeavours. Nonetheless, here we are today, talking about that single forty years on, and that has to count for something. Jazzy Jay’s sole appearance was included on Stones Throw’s 2004 compilation, The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979–1983.
It was just four years later that Jazzy Jay – the NYC-born, Afrika Bambaataa-trained DJ of international repute – broke onto the scene with “Son Of Beat Street,” a debut soon dwarfed by “It’s Yours,” his classic collaboration with emcee T La Rock. He cemented his name into the history books with 1985’s “Def Jam” / “Cold Chillin’ In The Spot,” released on the eponymous label, with the former track co-written by Bambaataa and Rick Rubin. The b-side is less iconic, but if you’ve ever wanted to hear an audibly drunk Russell Simmons talk shit over an Oberheim DMX, today’s your lucky day.
Though the two Mr. Magic’s were hardly peers, it’s still worth mentioning that one of hip-hop’s most legendary DJs was the second of his name. The famed Mr. Magic, shouted out by Nas on “Halftime,” was a prominent radio DJ on WBLS from ‘83 to ‘89. Rap Attack, then just one of just two hip-hop-centric shows in NY, played an important role in spreading the culture throughout the ‘80s, with Magic playing large roles in hip-hop’s first beef, the Roxanne Wars, and New York’s greatest rivalry, the Bridge Wars.
Magic’s right hand man and assistant DJ, Marley Marl, would assemble a crew under the banner of Magic’s nickname, Juice. The Juice Crew would become the defining hip-hop collective, responsible for a groundbreaking posse cut as well as a handful of stellar careers. Kane, Biz, G Rap, Eric B. & Rakim, Masta Ace, Tragedy Khadafi – all were onetime proteges of hip-hop’s first superproducer.
The original Mr. Magic, who emerged in the late ‘70s, was a similarly vital presence in an underrepresented scene. Though far removed from his NYC counterpart, Connecticut’s Mr. Magic was a local peer of the similarly-overshadowed Jazzy Jay. The Hartford Courant calls Mr. Magic – real name Anthony Pearson – “the first New Englander to commit rhymes to vinyl,” also crediting him with “the first known sample clearance” for “Get Up (And Go to School),” a song featuring bars from his then-12-year-old cousin, Pookey Blow.
Magic Records, nestled on Main Street in the small township of Ansonia, was the base from which the fledgling emcee released both “Rappin’ With Mr. Magic” and “Potential 1980.” The small operation also distributed “2001 Kazoo’s,” released on New Haven hip-hop label Tri State Records, also founded by Pearson. The emcee dropped 1981’s “Gilligan’s Island To The Beat” on that label, and helmed a compilation of Connecticut talent, Mr. Magic’s Be-Bop Convention, in 1982. The failure of that compilation maligned many of the featured emcees, and Pearson stepped back from music, dooming Connecticut’s hip-hop history to little more than trivia.
He may not have a gold record, and his name may be irrevocably tied to one of hip-hop’s most essential tastemakers, but Connecticut’s Mr. Magic is just as indispensable to the culture. Where would hip-hop be without the work of trailblazers such as he, who cultivate artistic spaces in their own cities, pioneering an artform traditionally tied to the five boroughs of NYC? It’s this kind of philosophy that’s helped turn hip-hop from a vibrant counterculture to one of the world’s most dominant artforms, with scenes as far flung as Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and South America.
As of 2004, Pearson was “a part-time New Haven DJ and record store owner” in his hometown of Ansonia. Luckily, many of the cuts included on Mr. Magic’s Be-Bop Convention later appeared on the terrific Stone’s Throw compilation, The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979–1983. If you’re interested enough in this piece to read to this point, you’d probably dig it.
OG: Original Gangster
It can be humbling to consider these namesakes all high-achievers in their own rights. They cultivated local scenes, pioneering hip-hop when it was but an emerging culture; featured on classic records, contributing to the rich and ever-expanding history of the artform; kickstarted their own movements, pushing sounds and styles alongside more noticeable peers; and championed their own expression with minor musical moments. The name Jay Dee itself offers a strange cultural cross-section, cutting through skillset, genre, nationality and era with total abandon. They remind us that hip-hop is a culture, not merely a spectator sport. It’s a living, breathing entity, pushed by the unsung artists and hometown heroes who promote such liberating self-expression.
Names are, of course, a social contrivance. They’re are all but illusory, like the days of the week or the months of the year, but in some sense, we feel a special bond with them. We can feel like our names just as we can feel distant from them, feel that they’re innate just as we feel that they’re errors or misprints. A name encapsulates a lot of our identities, and that’s reflected best in the ones we get to choose: some run with their gut, impulsive, whilst others consider, weighing their options and mulling it over.
Stage names are the titles we choose, and there’s something very powerful in that. It speaks to who we are more than those names thrust upon us, the products of our places, our parents and their plans. These artists might’ve been eclipsed, but their familiar names were conceived in moments of freeform creativity, and ultimately, that’s the very essence of art itself.