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    A Breath of Fresh Air

    Rap music has taken some twists and turns over the last half-century, from its early days as a mostly New York City scene to today’s globally embraced culture. Few artists have played as formative a part in its development as Doug E. Fresh, the innovator who added colorful beatbox to the hip-hop palette.

    While still a popular performer in his own right four decades after bursting onto the charts with hits like “The Show” and “La Di Da Di” (one of the most sampled songs in the genre), with the Get Fresh Crew, he has also become something of both an elder to and an ambassador for the rap community.

    Long known as The Greatest Entertainer in the World—a tag given to him by Public Enemy’s Chuck D after witnessing an early performance—Fresh is also widely recognized as one of the nicest guys in the hip-hop world for his peaceable nature and positivity. Recently, the man described as one of rap’s “founding fathers” (the New York Post) was among New York City’s 2022 Power & Music Award honorees for his impact on music and culture.

    In addition to shaping rap’s sound with his beatboxing, Fresh has also inspired hip-hop’s dance scene: the “Dougie” shimmy based on his moves became a big hit in the clubs in the early 2000s and was co-opted by athletes as part of their victory celebrations.

    Fresh attributes his longevity to “a blessing from the Creator,” a hint at the spiritual thread that runs through his genial conversation with WayMaker Journal. “I can never be more thankful to be able to do something that I love for a very long time,” he says. “It’s like a relationship, you know: you get into a relationship with somebody and you think you going to be together forever. It takes work; relationships take work. And so does the work that you say you love.”

    “I had a rule: if I couldn’t play it for my mother, there was something wrong.”

    But hip-hop isn’t a job to him. “It’s more of a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s a privilege, it’s an honor.” And it’s a platform that allows him to share his message of what it takes to make a meaningful life: discipline and concern for others, in addition to a good work ethic.

    For example, he uses his Instagram account to promote good health and positivity to his half-a-million-plus followers—such as posting a greeting from a hospital bed shortly after undergoing a colonoscopy, to encourage others to consider having a similar preventive checkup.

    “Some people treat their cars better than they treat their bodies, brother,” says Fresh, who founded the Hip-Hop Public Health foundation to further his message. “The secret to this whole thing is keeping things in motion. Keeping your discipline. No. 1, keeping your health together. Don’t get… drinking crazy and eating crazy and [not caring] about what you put in your body.”

    Fresh hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic may have encouraged members of the Black community to be more serious about their health. What he dubs the “planned-demic” was “an eye-opening experience for all of us,” he says. “This is the time to really take inventory and think about it,” because COVID highlighted the danger of underlying health issues—diabetes, high blood pressure, asthmatic symptoms, anxiety—that have “just continuously been destroying the Black community…

    “You put a COVID on top of that, your body can’t take that level of pressure. So it hit us harder than most people. So it should make us say, ‘We’ve got to eat better. We’ve got to treat each other better.’”

    Earning his stripes

    Fresh grew up in Harlem and gravitated to rap at an early age. “I knew that it wasn’t an art form that was accepted by everyone, but for some reason, I loved it.” He tried DJing and emceeing, and stumbled into what became known as beatboxing kind of by accident. School music programs were cut, which meant that he lost the trumpet he had been learning to play, but he just kept practicing without the actual instrument and his new style of vocal percussion was born.

    He started out at Harlem World, the mecca of hip-hop, where he learned from early pacesetters like DJ Hollywood, Lovebug Starski, Chief Rocka Busy Bee, the Cold Crush Brothers and The Treacherous Three. “I was the little kid that was studying them and they gave me no breaks; they made me earn every stripe you get.”

    The biggest putdown at the time was to be called a “biter,” someone who copied another’s style. “It forced you to be really original,” he remembers. “I learned to see what was going on and figure out how to create my own style.” Beatboxing “opened up a whole new dimension. It was off the path. It wasn’t the same as everything else.”

    Fresh watched as rap took a harder edge over the years, becoming “a little more aggressive, a little bit more in your face. We were just playing, joking—you know, ‘hotel, motel.’ And then it was, ‘I’m going to punch you in your face.’” A few years later, and that became “‘I’m taking my gun out,’ and it was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty heavy.” The trend was something of a reflection of the times, he acknowledges—crack hitting Black communities especially hard, he notes—“but I chose to express it in a different way.”

    That decision was based on his artistic principle: “I had a rule [when I made a record]: If I couldn’t go home and play it for my mother, there was something wrong.” Not that she was a frowny person. “My mother had a sense of humor,” says Fresh. “She listened to Richard Pryor. She listened to Redd Foxx. She liked all of the jokes and stuff, but if my mother felt that there was some kind of antagonistic, angry, violent, disrespectful invalidation to us as a culture and as a people…That was my little scoring board.”

    It still is. “When I make stuff now, I think about, ‘How would my mother take this?’ And it keeps me right where I feel I should be.” He says it’s about staying in the lane of who he is and what best represents him. “I didn’t want to change and become something that I know will go against my integrity… it means more to [me] than all of this.”

    Giving his respect

    Fresh is grateful for the many people who have been a part of his success, including the guy who caused him to reorient his style early on (see sidebar) and stay true to what he believed about himself. He also namechecks Matthew Turner, who founded the Harlem Youth Federation, for “when he was trying to get us off the street and making sure that none of us were out there selling drugs. Because every corner you went to in the hood, there was a drug deal on the corner. Even some of the drug dealers who was trying to figure out how to get out of the game, one was telling me, ‘Don’t even look this way. This ain’t for you. You go that way.’

    Life is a puzzle and people are pieces that can fit to complete your picture, he says. “When the puzzle matches, it just automatically, naturally happens. There’s no forced energy. I’m just thankful for all of the people that have come along the way and assisted me, the women in my life, my children, all of them, because at the end of the day, you are nothing but the sum of your experiences. I feel I’m on the journey of being the best version of myself and I work at it every day.”

    In a world that is well known for its beefs and feuds between styles and stars, how has he managed to remain pretty universally liked and maintain such a positive profile for so long?

    It’s all about respect, he says. “It’s innate with me. I just naturally respect nature. I respect my elders. I respect children.” He breaks the word down: “re” means again and “spec” means to look at. “So if you look at it more than once before you just act on it, and you take out the emotion—and emotion is nothing but energy in motion—and you take it and you control it, [that] gives you the ability to really make a better choice of judgment.”

    He also likes to put himself in someone else’s situation. “I look at it and say, how would I want somebody to deal with me? Because if you say you want for your brother what you want for yourself, then that means that if you want to be successful, you want your brother to be successful. It takes away everything that might cloud up the

    It’s also important to ask yourself whether you’re living in a way that is deserving of respect, because it has to be earned, he says. “You can’t walk around doing a bunch of things to people, looking for people to respect you, because they’re looking at you like, ‘Yo, you’re a clown.’” It’s about being aware of your ego, Fresh adds: “Edging God Out.”

    Paying his tribute

    Talking of respect, Fresh’s first new album in a quarter-century, last year’s This One’s for Chuck Brown: Doug E. Fresh Salutes the Godfather of Go-Go, was a tribute and thank-you to the late artist who pioneered the unique brand of funk that came out of Washington, D.C. in the seventies.

    “A lot of people don’t know the contribution that this man has made to our culture and to our form of celebration,” Fresh says, recalling how they met for the first time in 1985 when Brown opened for Fresh. “I thought I was headlining because we were on fire, but Chuck Brown was on fire,” he remembers with a chuckle. “Twenty thousand people, from the top to the bottom… my mind was blown. I ran back to the dressing room and after he got off I was like, ‘I never seen nothing like that. Mr. Brown, that was crazy.’ He just started laughing and said, ‘You’ve never seen the go-go, did you?’

    “And from that day, all the way until his last performance, me and him was tight… If ever he needed me, I was there with him, and because he is the creator of this particular style of music, I felt that I wanted to acknowledge him and I wanted people to know and never forget Chuck Brown.”

    Fresh’s peaceable manner has given him access to other artists, to offer a word of counsel or encouragement. He tells of visiting with one star rapper after hearing he had come through a health scare of some kind.

    “I said, ‘I came to see you specifically about one thing, brother, and I mean no disrespect. I’m saying this out of love. I’m telling you that we need you and you need to take better care of yourself… Do you need me to get with you? Do you want me to make a call?’”

    He’s always had the same attitude, recalling spending time with Jay-Z and Sean Combs when they were starting out. “I’m using these people as examples to say that no matter where we were on the totem pole, I always treated them with respect. I always was the person that tried to encourage them to be better or to be more, instead of invalidating them and talking about them and trying to hurt them.”

    He’d like to see a different kind of mindset in the industry, where “we start helping each other more… if something goes wrong, we are there to help our brother out instead of, ‘You know what I heard?’ ‘You know what I seen?’ Let’s really be brothers and sisters to each other.”

    Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Fresh collaborated with Salaam Remi, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes and Mumu Fresh on “No Peace” a song on the Black on Purpose album, a protest project Fresh sees in the tradition of Black artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

    Floyd’s death brought “2020 vision” to the ugly truth that racism is still “kicking loud,” he says. “If America does not come to grips and confront the reality, the systematic racism that’s been put in place, then this whole game is never going to change,” he says. “But you can’t deny it now because it was too plain to see… There’s no excuse.”

    Rocking with Prince

    As one of the most innovative figures in hip-hop, Doug E. Fresh got to cross genres by working with rock star Prince.

    “He was fascinated with wanting to understand hip-hop and he was fascinated with my ability to perform because he had never seen a person perform like me because it was different from the way he learned,” says Fresh, who toured with Prince and played at the White House with him. “So he would allow me to implement this other energy into his show: He would let me design his performances, tell him where to come out. The timing. I mean, he gave me the utmost respect.

    “He would ask me, ‘Why did that rapper say that?’ ‘What did Rakim mean by that?’ He would sit there asking me questions all day. It became one of those bonds.”

    Doug E. Fresh: My WayMakers

    Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa—the whole family line… A well-meaning guy who worked at Harlem World saw me there when I was cursing on the mic, trying to come off with a style. He pulled me over to the side and said, “Yo, you ain’t got nothing better to do than that?” I walked out of there feeling like, What does he know? Then I thought about it, and I said, “You know, he’s right, because that really ain’t me.”

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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