This year's For Whom The Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy and Peter Relic is the spectacular sequel/ bonus batter to the essential Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (33 1/3) book released in 2006. Continuing with the treasure trove of Beastie factoids , LeRoy and Relic have dug up more amazing outtakes from the album's recording sessions, including the album’s great lost single and a rare studio notebook full of inside info. Plus, the just-released paperback edition (you can order it here ) features exclusive, newly-uncovered photos of the Paul’s Boutique era from Mario Caldato, Jr. ’s archives.
In this exclusive excerpt reprinted with permission from the authors, we meet Doug Powell and Rasheed Shakur , ex-Marines with a rap-related past not well known until now. As you're about to find out, Powell, also known as rapper Known Master of Devastation (or KMD ... not to be confused with the other KMD ) and Shakur (aka DJ Rock Master Shock ) were once a promising hip-hop duo who caught the ear of The Dust Brothers and Beastie Boys . They were poised to make a big splash in the rap game, but then... well, read for yourself...
For Whom The Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique
By Dan LeRoy & Peter Relic
"Wild Side: The Reverberating Legacy of KMD"
“It was like our theme song when we were making Paul’s Boutique . We listened to it religiously, every day,” says Mario Caldato, Jr., excitement filling his voice at the memory. “It was just some raw, in-your-face shit. We used to play it so loud!”
“It was just sick,” agrees Dust Brother Mike Simpson with equal enthusiasm. “Just fuckin’ incredible.” His partner, John King, says simply, “It was inspirational.”
Surely Caldato, Simpson and King are talking about Public Enemy’s hair-raising 1988 hit “Bring the Noise.” Or maybe N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police,” an equally pugnacious anthem that would certainly rouse the troops in the recording studio. Perhaps they’re recalling EPMD’s “Strictly Business,” or Eric B and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” or Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Give the Drummer Some,” all seminal tracks from one of hip-hop’s most magical summers.
The answer is none of the above. The song that resonates so vividly in the memory of Caldato and Simpson, the song that helped inspire not one, but two Beastie Boys albums, is called “Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s not Lou Reed’s gender-bending classic; there’s absolutely no connection. It has a low-riding groove, rocks a cowbell in true Paul’s Boutique style, and slays sucker MCs with lines like, “On the lookout/ I took out/ many a duck/ who tried to stick me/ but in the end got stuck.”
You’ve never heard it. Almost nobody has.
Likewise, almost no one’s ever heard of the two ex-Marines who recorded it: one with the soul of a poet, and a strikingly original sound that the Beasties appropriated; the other his rock-steady DJ and beatmaker. Of all the what-if stories contained under the psychedelic big top of Paul’s Boutique , theirs may be the least-known, and most significant. Had one small ripple changed history, you might admire Known Master of Devastation, aka KMD, aka K, as much as you do any of the MC legends listed above. And you might rank Rock Master Shock up there with the top DJs.
These days, K goes simply by his given name, Doug Powell, while Shock is known once more by his old handle of Rasheed Shakur. Both have returned to their native New Jersey, and they’re not the least bit bitter about their oh-so-close brush with hip-hop history. And who knows? You might not have heard the last of them yet.
Once upon a time in the Eighties, back in Patterson, NJ, there was a hip-hop crew whose every member was a master.
“We were the Master Force MCs, so everybody had ‘Master’ in their name,” Doug Powell remembers, clearly amused at his high school conceits. “There was Master Mic Controller. There was Master Lover Cupi-D. There was Master E. There were our DJs, Rock Master Shock and Scratch Master TAB.
“And there was Known Master of Devastation,” he says, laughing as he namechecks himself. “It was a name I came up with in the Eighties – don’t judge me!” There’s no need; the name “KMD” seemed like a good idea in hip-hop at the time. On Long Island a few years later, another group of teenagers would claim it for their group. But that KMD – who signed to Elektra, guest-starred on 3rd Bass’s “The Gas Face,” and gave rapper MF Doom his start – was a totally different act, completely unrelated to Doug Powell.
Powell’s story, in fact, has never been heard. So he’s taking a little time on a midsummer morning before work – he’s the assistant manager at a Hobby Lobby craft store -- to finally tell it. He’s friendly, thoughtful and articulate; as he says proudly at one point, “I’m a wordsmith.” Yet even well into his forties, this cut-up former Marine looks like he could still kick your ass.
The Master Force MCs disbanded after high school graduation, and Powell enlisted in the Corps in 1986, ending up stationed at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton. He didn’t stop writing, however. “I had the urge to start recording again,” he says. “I went to a local studio, recorded three songs, and then I was good for a while.”
Then he discovered that his old friend Shakur had also joined the Marines, and was at a base known as 29 Palms, about 100 miles northeast, in the Mojave Desert. Powell began making the drive up on weekends, and the pair started writing and recording in Shakur’s barracks.
“We didn’t have any money for a studio,” Powell recalls. “All we had was two turntables, a mixer and a cheap-ass red Radio Shack mic. That was it.”
The one frill the duo possessed would become the linchpin of their sound. “Shock had a reverb button on his mixer, the only effect,” says Powell. “So we would go crazy, and turn the reverb up really, really loud – way too loud for what most people would consider a good recording technique.”
The lyrics were still audible because “I had mic control. I’d been recording since I was 14, and I knew how to finesse a cheap mic. But the result was scratchy, it was grimy – and it was just two turntables and a microphone. It was real hip-hop.”
Listen to the Known Master of Devastation (KMD) & Rock Master Shock Demo Tape Snippets.
1. "Walk On The Wild Side"
2. "Create An Effect"
3. "Absorbed In It"
4. "What A Culture"
(All songs produced by Known Master of Devastation & Rock Master Shock)
Without a sampler, Shakur cut two copies of a record – like Wilson Pickett’s 1970 Philly Soul hit “Engine Number 9,” which became the basis for “Walk on the Wild Side” – to create a seamless backing track for Powell’s distorted vocals. The duo recorded a few songs, which wound up on the flipside of a cassette featuring demos of Moe Nice, another Marine and hip-hop hopeful.
One Friday evening early in 1989, the cassette made its way to a college radio show on KSPC called “The Big Beat Showcase.” The two DJs who ran it – Mike “EZ Mike” Simpson and John “King Gizmo” King, better-known as the Dust Brothers – immediately focused on the B-side.
“Mike and John said when they heard my songs, they told Moe, ‘We’re not really interested in your stuff, but we wanna meet this guy!’” Powell says, laughing.
“We thought he was an excellent rapper,” remembers King. “We thought the songs sounded raw, and were cool in their rawness. There was a charm about the demo that we all loved so much. It was an old-school thing, like you had found something real, authentic, untouched by music executives and focus groups.”
The tracks from KMD’s original demo prove what all the excitement was about. On “Absorbed In It,” Shakur lays the smooth fusion of Dexter Wansel’s “Theme From the Planets” beneath Powell’s limber-syllabled entreaty to “get absorbed in” the music. The more subdued “What a Culture” heralds the Afrocentrism that would resonate throughout hip-hop in a year or two. Over the mournful keyboard riff that opens Grace Jones’ “My Jamaican Guy,” Powell attacks apartheid and delivers a spoken plea for knowledge: “As pitiful as it sounds, there is no other race of people of the face of the Earth that is more ignorant of their history than the black man.”
“It was a black empowerment thing,” Powell recalls. “I had just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so that’s what inspired the song.”
“Create an Effect” offers another monstrous groove, beginning with a snippet of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and segueing into the dramatic break from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Powell playfully addresses the state of his finances, asserting “But enough about the cash/ I don’t wanna upset ya/ point-blank, we gettin’ paid/ etcetera, etcetera,” before addressing the real issue: an artist’s ability to “create an effect” that will resonate with listeners.
It certainly resonated with the Dust Brothers. The very next morning, Moe Nice brought Powell and Shakur to King and Simpson’s apartment, and they vibed immediately. The Dust Brothers recorded the duo doing a new, live version of “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then Simpson and King played them tracks from the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique , which was well on the way to completion, and discussed working together.
“He just had such a voice. And lyrical. He was like a KRS-One, a very conscious rapper with almost a Q-Tip kind of voice. Not hard, but very precise. Just right on point,” says Mario Caldato of Powell, remembering what had so impressed the Paul’s Boutique team about KMD. “He had all the qualities that the Beasties were in awe of.”
Powell discovered this upon leaving the Dust Brothers’ apartment and running into another tenant of the building, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.
“Moe said, ‘Yo, this is my boy!’ And Yauch looked at me, and he said, ‘This is KMD?’ I’m surprised he even knew my name.
“And then Yauch said” – here Powell imitates Yauch’s gravely tone – “Yo, man, I heard your joint. That shit is dope, man!’ And I was like, ‘Really, Yauch? I’m tryin’ to get on your level!’ But he was a great soul. Very humble. Very gracious.”
Yauch immediately invited Powell and Shakur back inside, to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Delicious Vinyl video star Lisa Ann Cabasa. “It was like an artist’s den,” Powell recalls. “All these little projects. He had candleholders with candles in them set in the windowsill, so the candles would melt around them. He said, ‘This is my art.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is deep!’”
Shakur remembers a magical Saturday, spent hanging out on the roof of the apartment building and taking photos with a camera equipped with a fisheye lens – the same type used for several Paul’s Boutique promotional shots.
“It was a crazy day,” he says. “A lot of good energy. Mike and Giz was on the brink, and they were diggin’ our sound. So we were like, ‘Wow, this could be it for us!’”
It wasn’t all fun and games, however: Yauch pressed Powell for every detail about his song “Walk on the Wild Side.” “He was like, ‘It’s so well-written. How’d you get that effect on your vocals?’”
The Dust Brothers, too, were smitten with Powell – so much so that they contacted a lawyer to see if it would be possible to buy out the final year of his four-year service hitch. They were advised that it would be more trouble than it was worth, so they used the time before Powell was due to leave for his posting in Okinawa to record as much as possible. Some were new tracks, including “Over You” and “The Good Stuff,” and others were re-recorded from the demo. But recapturing the magic of that cassette was tricky.
“I recall us trying to redo ‘Absorbed In It' with Mike and Gizmo,” says Shakur. “I just ended up cutting it live, right into the system. Sometimes, the old way is still the best.” That’s partly, Shakur believes, because of the pressure of recording without a net. “When you’re two-and-a-half minutes into a song, and you have to get that last verse, and if not, you’re back to square one – I guess that intensity comes through in the vocals.”
Powell left the States for Japan in the early summer of 1989, just before the fateful release of Paul’s Boutique . “So I missed all that,” he says. He would soon find that he’d missed quite a bit.