A couple months ago, veteran Boston MC Kool Gee stepped on stage at the legendary Wally’s Cafe on Mass Ave. Back in his old neighborhood and decked in a black Adidas running suit and a Kangol with a live band behind him, Gee looked out at the college kids and locals, all eager in anticipation of the Bean’s most elusive rapper in history. For all his neighborhood renown, Gee never released a solo project or even a mixtape since dropping umpteen scorching verses on the biggest Boston rap compilation albums for a decade-plus.
As he started, older heads nodded knowingly. Soon everyone in the diverse crowd bopped as Gee name-checked Adidas, forgotten landmarks, and friends who died in delivering a vivid metro report straight from Boston’s early ’80s heyday.
Twenty-five years ago, Kool Gee’s group, TDS Mob, was the premier outfit on a hip-hop scene that included future icon acts such as Almighty RSO, Gang Starr, and Ed O.G and da Bulldogs. The Mob didn’t find the same acclaim as those names, but they earned their spot in history when they became the city’s first crew to have a music video played on national television. Hop in your time machine for a second, and imagine just how funky fresh that moment was.
Like Ed O.G, Boston’s first solo artist to shine, recalled in a 2012 interview on Boston hip-hop, “TDS Mob were the first cats that I ever saw on BET. It inspired me to be as great as I could be.” (Nearly three decades later, Ed remains one of the Hub’s prevailing MCs, having recently released his 11th album, After All These Years, as Edo.G.)
Ground-breaking in format, with two DJs—DJ Michael K and DJ Devastator—and Kool Gee as the sole rapper, TDS Mob put on a hectic show that emphasized turntable tricks and microphone mastery. Their independent records charted over legends in the game’s most competitive years, at the dawn of the Golden Era. When TDS Mob scored a deal with Relativity Records, home of then-ascending acts like Fat Joe and Common, they seemed destined to put Boston on the atlas.
But when the shady side of the music business collided with the reality of the crack epidemic, TDS fell short of releasing an album and became the first in a long line of Boston acts to come close but ultimately miss rap stardom.
Today, the seven songs released by TDS Mob remain favorites for old school aficionados worldwide, while their music has inspired re-releases and remix editions by venerated acts ranging from Boston’s Will C. to DJ Format in London. But at home, the Mob remains criminally under-appreciated.
I interviewed Kool Gee the day after he rocked Wally’s. At his request, we met at the place where the TDS Mob story begins—the stoop of the old Tower Records on the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Ave. From there, he took me back to 1989, when TDS ran the calendar with a year of rap perfection.
Right now you’re witnessing/ A star that is glistenin’/ So pull up a chair shut up and just listen
TDS Mob covered more than just the basic hip-hop elements, with multiple DJs, dancers, hype men, and tough guys to boot. Though originally it was Kool Gee on the mic with Ty B and DJ Devastator on the wheels, after the former started performing with another crew, Gee replaced him with DJ Michael K, the top dog at the moment and the first cat in Boston to cut and scratch.
“I heard about Michael K going back to ’80, ’81,” says Kool Gee. “That was the first time I ever heard anyone from Boston that nice on the turntables. He was like a local Grandmaster Flash.”
TDS Mob shows also featured the breaking brothers Billy and Bobby, better known as The Wonder Twins, and legendary poppers Robby D and Uggy. D-Mo and Carl, the muscled-up bodyguards, handled problems.
Kool Gee was the creative force. As a teen working at Tower, his shift managers were two wannabe music executives, Alan Square and Mark Cohen. Gee told them about a demo he produced with DJ Devastator. One of the songs, an early version of “Crushin’ Em,” was airing on Lecco’s Lemma, a local hip-hop show on WMBR and a megaphone for promising boom bap.
Before long, Square and Cohen formed Race Records with TDS Mob as the imprint’s sole act. To complete the deal musically, Kool Gee tapped the Tower shelves for eclectic breaks, and helped forge sampling techniques that went beyond looping old wax.
“Back then in Boston you couldn’t get any breakbeats,” Gee says. “So I told the manager at Tower to get all 26 volumes in triples … When Ty B came and got the records, we walked straight down Mass Ave to the ‘hood with the records under our arm. I never went back to work. I left my check but the records were worth more to me anyway.”
In their first studio session TDS produced “Crushin’ Em” and “Dope For The Folks.” The reaction was immediate: 2,000 vinyl copies sold out quickly, while the latter single reached number five on the chart in the second issue of The Source in November 1988. TDS went back into the studio the following year, and over three days recorded two classic records and three tracks for their album that never materialized. The first single, “Scratch Reaction,” is a musical explosion that packs 27 samples.
“The idea was to continuously sample these records and make them say what we want them to say,” says Kool Gee. “Find a break beat and instead of playing it just scratch over it.”
In a 2010 interview with the website Diggers With Gratitude, DJ Michael K explained, “I’d take a record and play it and scratch in the kick for four minutes, then rewind it and scratch in the snare for four minutes to build the beat, then take little snippets from this record and that record to create a little demo composition.”
“Scratch Reaction” took off, selling 5,000 vinyl copies and fast-becoming the most requested song on the influential WNYU hip-hop mix show. It also earned a positive review from critics at The Source, which was becoming a dominant player on the burgeoning rap landscape. Source critic Matty C, who went on to discover some of rap’s biggest names in his Unsigned Hype column, wrote: “’Scratch Reaction’ is hard like Plymouth Rock.” “Believe it or not,” Matty added, “these brothers are straight out of Boston. Not the biggest hip-hop town in the world, but definitely building a solid rep with pumping records like this one.”
With a raw black-and-white video filmed in Dudley Square’s A Nubian Notion, “Scratch Reaction” became a triumph of hardcore hip-hop. The B-side, however, would bring more success and a slicker video.
Featuring a Jesse Jackson sample and a socially conscious message, “What’s This World Coming To” decries racial profiling, police brutality, and the hopeless cradle-to-prison pipeline. The song charted in Dance Music Report and The Source, the latter of which wrote, “On this cut the lyrics hit strong and hard. They speak reality, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
With a budget from the New York-based Relativity Records, TDS filmed a video for the song in which they perform from a jail cell—an ominous sign of things to come. When the video aired on BET’s “Rap City,” the occasion marked Boston’s stepping onto the national stage.
Girls goin’ crazy/The crowds in an uproar/ You want an encore
With seven singles and countless routines in their repertoire, TDS Mob put on a string of unforgettable live spectacles in 1989, sometimes even upstaging the acts they opened for.
“We had all the elements,” says Kool Gee. Adds Michael K.: “We had the swagger, we had the dance, we came with a hip-hop show. There wasn’t a bunch of dudes on stage trying to look tough … National acts would have to put on a good show because we’d turned it out and got the crowd all hyped, people screaming ‘TDS.’”
Success aside, the Mob started out ’89 with revenge on the brain. Despite the big reception to their singles, influential New York DJ Red Alert had snubbed the record. “The dude shoots us down” Michael K recalls. “That was like a shock to the heart for us.”
Six months later, TDS got their chance for payback when they opened for Boogie Down Productions at a Boston show hosted by Red Alert. “We tore [it] down,” says Kool Gee of the storied concert, which also featured a set by The Almighty RSO. “We had the Dapper Dan red and black Gucci leather outfits. It was crazy.”
He continues: “The show is over … Red Alert is like, ‘Yo what’s the name of your crew?’ And I just walked away.”
Soon after, TDS opened for Queen Latifah at the Chez Vous roller rink off Blue Hill Ave. “She actually sat and watched our show and was impressed and let us know,” says Michael K. “She said, ‘You guys need some New York connections. Your stage show is really right. You’re too good to be a local opening act.’”
Even at an all-day takeover of Brandeis radio, TDS came with innovative hip-hop. “We’d do “Crushin ‘Em” but to a Lou Reed record,” says Michael K. “We had an impressive resume for a rap group. We could be playing with an acoustic band on the same bill, so we had to have a clean show, a show that people could comprehend that weren’t fans of hip-hop but they could still see the talent.”
They were fashion icons too. In May of 1989, when they opened for Slick Rick at Madison Park High School, TDS Mob wore matching Bruins jerseys, seemingly starting a Boston rap trend that remains today. “We’re innovators,” says Kool Gee. “We made it cool for black dudes to wear hockey shit.”
At their peak, TDS received equal billing with Ice Cube for a Boston show at the famed club The Channel when the West Coast rapper was Jheri-curled and fresh out of N.W.A. They also opened for MC Lyte at the Lee School in Dorchester, stealing the show and kicking “Head of the Dope Committee” off their upcoming album.
It would be 20 years before the song was heard again.
Even now as I recite this song/Outside the studio crazy stuff’s going on
On “What’s This World Coming To,” TDS painted a dark portrait of street life. In reality, they weren’t immune to the lure of cash that came in duffel bags as the crack epidemic bubbled.
“[DJ Devastator] handled his business in the streets and we enjoyed all the accoutrements,” says Kool Gee. “People used to say TDS stands for The Drug Selling Mob. We had a million-dollar neighborhood when crack hit because the South End is in the heart of everything. Dudes were really getting it back then. No rented jewels, no fake shit. You didn’t talk about drugs in the music because it was nothing to be glorified, we did that to survive.”
Meanwhile, money wasn’t coming in so fast through music. “The records sold out,” Gee recalls, “but Alan Square ran away to California with the money. When he came back, Race Records was paid a visit.”
As it turned out, Race Records was also dishonest about production credits. “I wrote and produced 90 percent of TDS Mob songs,” Kool Gee says. “Marc Cohen [who took the credit] didn’t do anything except book studio time.”
And then the streets caught up with them. In the process of helping shield his crew from a rival gang, DJ Devastator was convicted of transporting 30 guns from Georgia. His 14-month sentence spelled the end for TDS. “Without Dev it didn’t work,” says Kool Gee.
In the future/I’d like to foresee/A facsimile/Of the Kool G double E
Just like that, TDS Mob’s run was over before Gee got to sprint. Over the next few years, RSO, Gang Starr, and Ed O.G surpassed the group in both official releases and notoriety. But because TDS Mob’s reign was so brief, their music and routines together make up something of a flawless legacy in craft and creativity.
“All we ever cared about was turning the crowd out, impressing and showing up the headliners,” says Michael K. “That was always our thing. Nowadays a normal person can become a Google or YouTube sensation with a one-minute video. Back then you had to make noise in certain circles to even have your name brought up.”
As for Kool Gee … the TDS maestro renamed himself Mr. Cool Gzus (a/k/a Cool Gsus), and joined former RSO members Ray Dog (a/k/a Benzino) and E-Devious (a/k/a Twice Thou) to form Made Men. Their 1999 album, Classic Limited Edition, went on to become one of Boston’s highest profile rap releases to date, and featured production from a then-unknown Kanye West plus star cameos from ’90s heavyweights like Ma$e and Big Pun.
It’s been a fiery gauntlet, but Kool Gee still finds respect—in hip-hop, in Boston, around his South End stomping ground. Though his story is virtually unknown, those who were around have a similar sentiment to something Roxbury rapper Mann Terror once told me in an interview.
“To me,” he said, “Kool Gee is the best Boston rapper of all time.”