With tracks such as Hip Hop Be Bop (Don’t Stop) and Boogie Down Bronx, Parrish was an early pioneer of the urban sound that would evolve into modern hip hop, borrowing from soul, disco and the Teutonic rhythms of European artists such as Kraftwerk to forge a new musical movement.
Once dubbed the ‘Godfather Of Electronic Music’ by the New York Times (and having the honour of being ‘christened’ by Andy Warhol), Parrish has a remarkable story to tell – having faced plenty of challenges over the years, he is now rightly considered a musical pioneer. His Man Stories series, hosted on his website www.manparrish.com, delves into some of his experiences over the years.
His music continues to reach new audiences to this day, with Claptone recently teaming up with Parrish on the single Flashdance, which samples Boogie Down Bronx, and was released on Golden Recordings during the summer. You can download/stream it here.
909originals had the opportunity to catch up with him to learn about his fascinating musical journey. Over to you, Man Parrish…
First off, let’s talk about your recent release with Claptone, how did that come together?
Firstly, I’d like to say, thanks for the interview! I do lots of them and I appreciate and try to give my all to each, so thank you.
Claptone is a huge DJ, mostly in Europe, but he’s breaking out in the United States too. I publish my own music, so when I got a request to license Boogie Down Bronx and I looked at the name, I was quite surprised. We worked out a deal, and of course I said yes.
After a little back-and-forth, the track was released and we decided to do a one hour ‘interview’ for promotion. That’s when we met for the first time. We had a blast. I think you could probably find it on his social media, but there’s all kinds of great snippets from that interview online, and I believe there’s a full, very fun one-hour interview somewhere.
I’m happy that somebody like Claptone liked my music from back in 1983, and was cool enough to re-do it and put it out in 2023. Much like Purple Disco Machine did with my Male Stripper record from 1986, called Dished, a few years back. It’s great to stay relevant, eh?
What did you both bring to the table, musically and artistically?
I’m a record producer and a DJ. He produces records and is a DJ too, but being out there every night, spinning, he’s got a really good pulse on the dancefloor and what people like.
He licensed the rights to use the music and samples from Boogie Down Bronx – it was something that just worked! Of course, I did the original track, he laid in his updates and edited it.
He retitled it Flashdance – which has nothing to do with the 1980 movie soundtrack. It took off like wildfire! After the record, I helped with promotions through my social media, and so did he, and like I said, that one hour-online interview. So the collaboration went well past just doing the music. I’m glad he thought of me. Very cool stuff.
Last August saw celebrations take place to mark the ’50th anniversary of hip hop’ – what role do you think you played personally in the development of the genre?
Here there’s a little bit of controversy, ha ha. The ‘hip-hop’ that I did was very different from what you hear today. It’s funny, I’m working right now with Afrika Bambaata, who is also one of the founders of hip-hop. We just finished a song called Boom Boom, which is just out. He did that famous Planet Rock track, that so many people know.
Hip-hop back then was what you would call ‘freestyle’ or ‘electro funk’ music, depending on where you are in the world. It was done with an 808 drum machine, a couple of synthesisers and vocals. I must have done 20 or 30 records, under other names to support that new genre.
Back in the 1980s the radio station 92 KTU would play anything that I would hand them as long as it wasn’t explicit or violent. I gave them station IDs with a synthesizer voice through a vocoder. I would say ’92 KTU‘ and other call slogans for their air waves. It made them stand out as unique and cool in a crowded New York City radio market.
Millions of New Yorkers heard my voice every day. It became their station ID, and later on other stations adopted that robot voice, which is quite popular today. I’m proud to say I was the first. In doing so, I had unlimited access to the New York City radio airwaves, and we started a new genre of music.
You have to remember that back in 1983, most electronic stuff was coming from Europe, from new wave bands. There was a street movement going on in New York City. Dancing, graffiti, breakdancing, etc. It was a lifestyle and culture movement and the music we did tried to represent that.
I was friends with Keith Haring, the graffiti artist, and Jean Michelle Basquiat, the painter. New York City was a small town and creative people usually hung out in the same places, so we all became friends. There were many other people involved that were expressing ourselves on the street.
The title to my song Hip Hop Be Bop literally translates into “keep dancing, don’t stop”. The word hip-hop was a jazz, slang term that meant to dance. In other words, your hips were ‘hopping’. Bebop was music in jazz slang, and then ‘don’t stop’ – hence ‘Hip Hop Be Bop (Don’t Stop)’.
As the genre evolved, groups like the Beastie Boys would use drum machines – they were originally a rock band – to be part of this movement. And they put rhyme, or what we now call rap, on top of these songs. So the needle was changing from club music to now more of a quasi, social political statement.
Then there were the MCs. They were DJs at local street block parties that would talk over the microphone to get the crowd up and running. That became rap, as we know of it today.
You’ve got to remember back then there was only rock, disco, new wave, jazz or classical music. We defined a whole new era of sound.
The controversy is that I’m a gay white man, and back in those days, there was also reverse prejudice. A lot of the black radio stations didn’t like the fact that this white ‘queer’ was doing street music, so a lot of stations when they found out that I was white and gay, literally took me off the air and banned me and any records that I put out.
I have no regrets – it is what it is – but most people in hip-hop and even groups like the Beastie Boys credit me in their book, as one of the many forefathers of hip-hop. I’m very grateful for that.
You started experimenting with electronic music when you were a teenager – how did that evolve into the hip hop/electro sound you became synonymous with?
Well, I’m not a formal musician. Even to this day I can’t read music, but I can score for 200-piece orchestra and choir, and have done so. All my music is literally done by ear, by listening to sounds.
My early experimental music is what you would now call ambient music, but back then, I used to call it ‘soundscapes’, for lack of another term. I would use a reel-to-reel tape recorder and bounce music from the left channel to the right channel building layers and layers of sound. It had no commercial value back in those days, but I was learning and experimenting in composing, arranging, recording, and mixing music.
When Roland put out the 808 drum machine, I suddenly realised that I could be a full band all by myself. I could now be the drummer, the bass player, the keyboard player, and since I couldn’t sing, I could put my voice through a vocoder, which produced a Kraftwerk-like synthesized voice, and bango! Now I’m a full band.
That led me to buying more recording and synthesizer equipment, which was critical in my career, because I was that ‘guy’ that you could call up and pay me $50 or so, and I would do a demo or whole record for you, if you were a struggling singer.
So I got known in the underground New York City community as a guy with a studio and keyboards, who could produce a finished record for you for a few bucks. That reputation leapfrogged me into doing professional session work, and like a ‘ghost writer’ for books, I was a ‘ghost artist’ for many hip hop groups back in the day, doing complete records for a couple hundred bucks.
A lot of these weren’t real artists, but names that I made up because I was under a record contract that didn’t pay me. I needed money and would come up with these different group names and hand them to the radio stations so I could make a couple of hundred bucks and eat that week.
I was poor – I was literally homeless – and would take any kind of money so I could survive. As music was turning into street sounds, I had equipment that nobody else had, so it literally defined that era of hip-hop.
It’s just over four decades since Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop) established your name as a producer. What were the circumstances that led to its creation?
Well, four decades is a long time, ha ha. I was doing music for local bands, recording sessions, art films and even bad porn music to get by. In fact, it’s porn that got me my first record deal, which is kind of funny.
My friend worked for some sleazy magazine and said there was a producer that he had just interviewed that was looking for somebody to do music for a gay porn film, called Heat Stroke. That song actually wound up on my first album.
He gave him my number, and Joe Gage, the producer, called me. As a young man, I thought ‘wow… how cool is that? I get to watch porn AND do music!’
Well, that wasn’t the case. He gave me a list of so many songs that he needed done. Five minutes here, two minutes and 30 seconds there, 10 minutes here, etc. I had to learn to follow his film cue sheet. On the job training.
He said he would give me a whole thousand dollars. I thought ‘wow… I’m gonna be making a whole $1,000, which is way more than the $50 recording sessions that I was doing’. I could actually eat for a month or more and not struggle.
The film came out, and the DJ at the infamous, sleazy Anvil club, which was an after hours in New York City on 14th St, literally took my soundtrack off the gay porn film – which, by the way, was on Betamax back then – made a vinyl acetate test pressing, and played it in the club with all the moaning and groaning and all. Must’ve been hysterical, right?
Well, anyway, somebody told me that they were playing my song at The Anvil. I didn’t know which song they were talking about, so I went there, my song came on and I went up to the DJ booth.
He told me, of course, ‘no requests’. I said, ‘that’s my song’. He asked, ‘what do you mean?’ I told him I wrote it. He said that there was a record company that services DJs, called Disco Net, and that he would calll the guy tomorrow because he wanted to know who did the song, so they can release it.
That’s how I got my record deal – it was like the next day. I was a 22-year-old kid, and he put a piece of paper in front of my face, and basically told me to sign it. When I said, ‘Don’t I need a lawyer?’, he blatantly said ‘Look… you can’t afford one, would I screw you?’. It was a terrible, terrible deal – he did, seriously. But I got my record out.
It did so well that they wanted to hear more music that I had done. Hip Hop Be Bop was a combination of beats with my drum machine, and some of that early ambient music that I previously mentioned – but a street version.
We took that demo into the 24-track studio from my eight-track multitrack at home, and then put on vocals – dog barks that we did ourselves. Back in those days, club kids in New York would bark like a dog if they liked a record.
Raul Rodriguez, who worked for the record company, and was also a DJ, took me to the Funhouse. That was an underground ‘street’ club in New York City. We went into the DJ booth, and John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez was DJing. Next to him was a girl with black hair, cut off sleeves with hairy armpits and a T-shirt that said ‘I’m Madonna’. She wasn’t even known then.
Funnily, she became my opening act when I performed, and came down from the ceiling at Studio 54. Talk about six degrees of separation!
Anyway, Jellybean puts on a record and the whole club starts breaking out and barking. I freaked out – I said, ‘what the hell is going on, is everything ok?’. Raul told me that this is what the kids do when they like a record. So I said, why don’t we take that song, which you now know as Hip Hop Be Bop, and bark on it.
It was kind of our little joke – we would play the record at the Funhouse club, the kids would hear the barking, they would bark back at us – end of story. We thought it would be a one time novelty thing.
Well, as it turns out, that record, at that time, was accurately documenting what was going on the clubs, and it blew up. And that’s what’s known as my classic hip hop record today. Again, I’m grateful that it’s associated with me.
Hip hop was born out of the ‘urban jungle’ that was New York at the time. What was the city like at the time – both from a positive and negative point of view?
Well… New York was a mess, but it was a beautiful mess! The East Village had shooting galleries for junkies, uptown was rich, downtown was artsy and poor. But the cool thing is nobody tried to cancel anybody or was ‘politically correct’ – or was even involved or cared about much of the bullshit that’s going on today.
I remember meeting an artist at the Mudd Club, below Canal Street. We were talking, and I told him I was a musician, He said, ‘I paint canvas with my blood, with my faeces’. Now, back in the day, you would’ve just shrugged your shoulders and went ‘OK, cool – if that’s your thing, then that’s your thing’. Today, people would have absolute meltdowns and lose their mind over something like that.
The reason I mention it is because life was different and way more accepting and less politically, socially and racially divided. It was quite wonderful, because you were free to do whatever you want, as long as you weren’t hurting anybody. Nobody was threatening to burn your house down if you were different.
I’m not bitter about anything that goes on today – I just ignore it and realise it’s a cycle like anything else in life. But, since I experienced it myself, I tell you, young people today are really missing out on all the cool stuff that we had back then.
I hope there’s a Renaissance that brings back that kind of creative and productive freedom. Most of the people I knew back then were artist, musicians, or creative types. It made New York City a much better, interesting, fun place.
Unfortunately politics and bullshit is killing New York. I still have an apartment in New York’s East Village, but as I get older, I like swimming in my pool in Florida. And when people make fun of me about being in a ‘Red’ state. I just roll my eyes and say, ‘you have no idea what I’ve experienced in my life’. I just ignore the bullshit and I’m happy!
Is it true that you experienced some negativity from the hip hop community in those early years, as a young white guy seeking to establish himself in a largely ‘black’ musical genre? Or was it a ‘class’ thing?
Absolutely, as I mentioned before. I did a record called C.O.D., which was a remake of Gil Scott Heron’s classic The Bottle. It was played every where. Even on the black radio station in Los Angeles, which, by the way, I think Stevie Wonder had a share in at the time.
When the radio station found out that I was white and gay, my music was banned from the station. Same thing here in New York. WBLS, which was the ‘black’ station, wouldn’t play my music – although DJ Red Alert in his weekend show would always mix my music into his DJ set.
The race stuff was different back then. They would play or would not play my music because of who I was. But it ended there. There weren’t protests, or threats to my life, like there are today. I experienced it, but I also experienced general life pressure by simply being a gay man in a not so very open society. I dealt with it and moved on.
But since I ran away from home at 14 years old and was basically homeless. I really didn’t give a f**k what people thought of me, as long as I could eat, have a shelter over my head, and friends that I loved. I was happy. Nowadays, people make such a big deal out of it.
As a child, I was physically, mentally, and then, when I ran away from home, sexually abused. Who is going to pick up a 14-year-old boy, but a 32-year-old paedophile? I was literally in a child paedophile ring for two years, until I escaped. I’m mentioning this because the stuff that I’ve been through my life, most people couldn’t even fathom today.
You learn to get tough, you learn to survive, and then once you survive – and this is the key – you learn to live. I’m living. I’m happy to be alive, and thankful for the recognition that I get. I never got paid for my music, and was severely ripped off. But people like you giving me interviews is worth more than anything else.
I hope that helps somebody out there that’s struggling. Build your own life, don’t listen to other people’s bullshit, and not only will you get through, but you will be successful at what you do. You know what’s right and wrong – follow your heart. You see there, you made me get mushy, ha ha.
We read somewhere that Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop) was produced on just two pieces of equipment, an 808 and a Prophet 5. Do you think that stripped back setup inspired you to push the possibilities as much as you could?
I had an eight-channel tape recorder. One for the drums, another one for the bass, another one for a keyboard part, another one for vocals, etc.
What that forced me to do is to actually think about how to scale music down and make it simple, but still enjoyable. I think because my first album was so simple, musically, that it appealed to a massive audience.
I’ve sold millions and millions of records. I was never paid, but that album [1982’s Man Parrish] is recognised as a milestone because of its simplicity. It pushed my limitations because I had to use my brain to figure out how I could get eight channels of sound to compete with those 48-track productions that were done by bigger commercial bands, and professional recording studios. My stuff was done in my bedroom.
So yes, it did push my capabilities, but it also made me edit. The result, thank God, was fantastic! As a producer, I also write and play everything on all my records. It made me a better producer. A good producer doesn’t just produce, but sits back and listens to music – even though it may be the 50th time you’re playing it back – it’s like the first time you’re hearing it.
I would think, ‘that vocal’s too loud, that bass is too busy, that kick drum is interfering with something’ and then edit. My classroom was me releasing records and learning from them.
Kraftwerk were an early influence on your career. Were tracks like Hip Hop, Be Bop, Boogie Down Bronx etc your attempt at making a New York equivalent to Kraftwerk’s sound?
Well, yes and no. Kraftwerk was an influence because they were an all-synthesized band. Since I had a programmable drum machine, I could be the drummer, the bass player, the keyboard player and vocalist. I love the minimal sound of Kraftwerk, because of my own physical limitations of recording back then. I had to do similar arrangements because I didn’t have a multitrack to work on.
Kraftwerk relied on sequencing, where you program notes into computers or pieces of analog gear – that was the technology back in the day. I had a lot of that same equipment, so we were producing typical types of sounds.
You have to remember something very important – we did not have computers, or MIDI equipment that synchronises drums, sequences, and music tracks altogether. All that back-end was literally done by hand, and punching in and out of tracks to get things to align.
I mean, it was physical manual labour. But that’s what you had to do to create that sound. Today we have computers to help us do that.
What Afrika Bambaataa did with Planet Rock was a direct influence from Kraftwerk. He took Kraftwerk and made it a street sound. I was more interested in the ‘idea’, rather than the ‘sound’ of Kraftwerk.
I would have been very happy to have their sound, they were unique. But there was something that I’d like to call the idea ‘behind the notes’, which was a feeling that that they had, which I enjoyed. I may have been influenced by that thought, rather than the actual notes of what they did.
Your early 80s productions coincided with the emergence of electronic pop on the other side of the Atlantic, in the UK and Europe. How aware were you of what was going on in Europe and vice versa?
Well, at the time, the only thing I was aware of was early Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure-type stuff. The Internet didn’t exist, so if you didn’t physically buy a vinyl record or go to some new wave club, you didn’t hear much of that electronic music.
Also at the time, the music equipment companies sold their drum machines and synthesizers worldwide, so people were able to experiment with this new form of making music. So, a lot of the stuff from that era had similar overtones, and sounds.
You know, you can give two artists, the same paintbrush, and the same pallet of colours – but it’s what the individual artist does with those tools that make some great, or others obscure and unknown. I was quite isolated, and I’ve been told that I actually influenced a lot of their sounds, which at first quite shocked me, but like I’ve said before, I’m quite honoured if that’s true.
What does the rest of the year have in store for you? Anything else you want to mention?
Well, most people know me for electronic dance music, but I also do film scores with orchestras, as well as ambient pieces. I even did a sound installation at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art New York City (MoMA).
Since I have my own record label, and have about 150 tracks released on it through iTunes, Spotify, etc. I’m free to release whatever I want, without a record company making decisions on what the public can hear. I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll – I would see groups like Aerosmith, Blondie, The Cars, Joan Jett, The Runaways, Bruce Springsteen, and other household names performing at clubs like Max’s Kansas City or CBGB in New York City. So I’m a bit of a rock ‘n’ roller.
I was also a big David Bowie fan. In fact, I got to hear his hit Young Americans off the 24-track machine when he recorded it in the studio, before it was released. He introduced me to a guy that he said was going to be famous one day, that helped him with the background vocals. That guy was named Luther Vandross. Also, I was managed by David Bowie‘s manager, Tony Defreeze.
So I’ve decided to dip my hands into twisted electro, funk, rock, music – and that’s my new album. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’ll be out soon. It’s a double album. The first album has 10 original songs on it, the second album has a bunch of rock classic remakes like Aerosmith’s Dream On, Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and Everything But the Girl’s Missing, and a few others.
It’s a collaboration with an amazing new singer, named Pauly Fonik. We worked so incredibly well together, that we knocked out this almost 20-track album in a few weeks. I would do music, throw it over to him, he would sing vocals and send them back to me via the Internet. Everything came together so easy, and sounded so good. I guess it was meant to be!
So I’m getting a little bit back to my roots. I still want to d an old-school, hip-hop-be-bop type of album again in the future too. I grew up on urban funk, so I’d like to get back to those roots as well, although it’s all incorporated in this new album.
I’m happy to be alive, I survived Aids, COVID, homelessness, mental trauma from being in a child paedophile ring, and with all that, I’m still standing. That kind of shit in life humbles you and focuses you. I’ll probably be 99 years old and still making music from my bed, with VR and a brain-to-computer interface, of course, ha ha.
I’m not a musician – I’m kind of a ‘musical artist’ that uses sound instead of paint. Does art literally have to be a painting on a wall in a room, or can it be the sound that fills the air in that room? I’m more of an artist than a musician, and I’m lucky that I can express myself in music.
I’ve been in the music business 51 years and I love that a whole new generation is ‘discovering’ me. I’m quite honoured. And by the way guys, thank you so much for this interview!
More information on Man Parrish can be found at www.manparrish.com.