Interview / Ben Cenac / Newcleus / Dream 2 Science / Push Pull
Brooklyn-born DJ & Producer, Ben Cenac`s career has spanned over 30 years, embraced a variety of genres, Hip Hop, R&B, Electro & House, and left several large landmarks in each.
Where are you from?
I’m from Brooklyn, NY.
Where are you based?
I’m now based in Easton, Pennsylvania.
What prompted the move?
We wanted to buy a house but were priced out of Brooklyn by all the yuppies and hipsters.
What made you start making music?
I always loved music and wrote a few crude songs as a child. I tried playing guitar and singing in a couple of bands. I also became a DJ in the mid ‘70s, and became inspired by electronic music. In ’79 I bought my first crude synthesizer and drum machine and never looked back.
Who or what inspired you to start DJing?
I was hanging out at my high school in the Spring of 1975 and heard a tape made by Count JC, a DJ from Coney Island, Brooklyn. What intrigued me was the way he was playing a song called “Bra” by Cymande. He was going back and forth on the bass break, extending it. It was the dopiest thing that I had ever heard up until that point. Right there I decided that I would become a DJ.
Where were your first gigs?
Our first gigs were all house parties.
What kind of music were you playing?
We played Disco, Funk and R&B.
Are you still DJing now?
I will DJ until I die!
Can you remember which electronic artists, or pieces of music, inspired you to buy that synthesizer and drum machine?
Well, it wasn’t the artists or music that inspired me to buy them, it was my ideas of what I could do with them. I had no intention of sticking to any kind or genre of music. In fact, the very first song that I did, which was the same night I brought them home, was a Reggae sort of thing. The electronic artists that drew me towards synthesizers in the first place were Giorgio Moroder, Jean Michelle-Jarre, Kraftwerk, Mandre, Parliament/Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.
What makes you continue?
My love for creating music.
How would you describe your sound?
For the most part I wouldn’t, as I am into a myriad of genres and styles. I guess the most consistent thing is I try to build around a dope bass line, even if I’m doing a ballad. For me it all starts with the bass line.
Where is your favourite place to play / party / other?
I love to travel and I love to play, party and even “other” (big laugh). This question is too hard! Check with me again after I’ve been to about 1000 more places!
Is there any chance you could give me any background / stories around the production of the following classics?
Newcleus / Jam On Revenge
“Jam On Revenge”, originally called “Jam-On’s Revenge”, was a song that I actually made as a joke. At the time (1981) we were going by the name Positive Messenger and were making music that had a purpose, either messages of love or faith or talking about the conditions of the world. However, we were still doing lots of Hip-Hop jams with our DJ crew Jam-On Productions. So, one of our DJs, Salvador Smooth, kept nagging me to do a Rap song. Having come out of Hip-Hop street battles in Brooklyn in the ’70s, I didn’t really think much of the Rap records that were playing on the radio, so I figured as a joke I would make a parody jam about the Jam-On Crew as an old west posse ridding a western town of wack rappers. I made the voices sound like munchkins a la George Clinton and Parliament / Funkadelic, put together a funky beat and just had fun with it. I threw in an idea from an episode that actually had happened in the ’70s, when a DJ who we had just blown out in a battle said to me “Yeah, you guys are bad, but you can’t do this… wikki wikki wikki wikki”, meaning how we didn’t scratch on the turntables. I used to play “Jam-On’s Revenge” at our parties and it would fill the dance floor, so even though I had never planed to release it, when I was shopping Positive Messenger for a deal I put it on the tape just to fill out space at the end. Turned out it ended up being the track that drove everybody crazy! So, we went with it and changed our names to Newcleus. The guy we did the deal with didn’t like my John Wayne impression because he said that John Wayne was an American icon, so I changed the theme from a western town to us ridding a planet of wack rappers, and we’ve been from outer space ever since. Though we had no intention before this of doing Rap, when “Jam On Revenge” (renamed due to typos) took off it basically changed our lives forever. It got a huge response and Sunnyview Records picked it up. They asked us to do a Rap record as a follow-up, even though “Computer Age” was supposed to be the follow-up, and we tried in vain to explain to them that it had actually been an anti-Rap record. Eventually, we gave in, I dusted off my rhyme book from the ’70s, added a new verse for Chilly B, and “Jam On It” was born. Now we are considered Hip-Hop pioneers. Go figure…
Sha-lor / I`m In Love
Sha-Lor grew out of a young girls group that we started producing in 1986 or so at the request of a friend. The girls were all about 14 and none of them could really sing, but I was just learning how to produce and it was more or less a favor. I think it was originally 4 girls. Well this girl would quit and that girl would get kicked out by the others and not much was getting done. Then, finally they brought in a girl named Sharmelle John as a replacement and suddenly I had a girl that could sing a little. We were down to 3 girls then I think, including the girl who had been the original leader of the group. Well, that girl turned up pregnant and the other disappeared, so Sharmelle told me she had a cousin who could really sing, and she brought in Laurie Maynard. Bam! After years of fooling around I actually had a talented couple of girls. They had originally been doing Pop and R&B, but I had started really getting into House, so I figured I would do a House track with them. I wrote a song for them called “Fell In Love Tonight”, but they liked a song named “I’m In Love”, which I had written for Shareen Evans better, so I gave them that instead. Since it was House I figured I would release it myself on my own label instead of shopping it. This was my first venture without Bob Crafton (Chilly B). I still gave him producer’s credit even though he really didn’t work with me on the record. My friend Gregg Fore had recently left his production job at Warlock Records, where I had my first labels, to run the House at Jump Street Records, so I approached him to do a label there, which became Gertie Records. Though “I’m In Love” didn’t do as well in the States as we had hoped, it made a good bit of noise in the UK and Europe, and taught me the important lesson of licensing my music rather than doing record deals. It also made me realize that I had a home in House music.
Push / Pull
After the Sha-Lor release I found myself in a totally new phase of my life. For the first time I was working in music completely alone as Chilly B and I had gone our separate ways. I had also had a very tumultuous parting of the ways with Sha-Lor, as they had found themselves a manager who’s first priority was to cut my throat. So, at the same time as I was finding new expansions on both the production and creative end, I found myself souring on signing and producing other artists. With the success of “I’m In Love” I needed a follow-up to release on Gertie, and I figured for the first time in my professional music life that I would do a project just to please myself, with myself as the artist. As guest vocalists I would use my wife Yvette “Lady E” Cenac and my cousin Monique “Nique D” Angevin, fellow members of Newcleus and the closest women to me in the world, and Gregg Fore, so no conflicts. I also decided to make the music what I wanted to make, rather than try to compete with what was out there. So, I chose to mix 3 of my favorite genres into one, House, Afrobeat and Jazz. Then, I had fun! I basically did exactly what I wanted to on that album, lot’s of percussion and vibe and flute solos, a little vocal smattering, and even a Cozmo D rap, masquerading as Rebal 3, which is one of my graffiti tags from the ’70s! I guess it’s because I grew up idolizing George Clinton that I have this thing about using different names and personas for myself and my projects. Once again, we didn’t do as well as we hoped in the states but we did manage to get a very nice license in the UK.
Dream 2 Science / My Love Turns To Liquid
I had always loved my wife’s voice, but I had neglected her talent over the years. I realized this when I made the conscious decision to not sign and produce other artists anymore after the Sha-Lor venture ended so badly. She had sung for me since the very first night that I had brought home my very first synthesizer, but I had never written a song for her. So, I decided to change that. I got her down in the studio and figured out the sweet spot of her voice, then set to work writing in that key. Her style and instrument always seemed very soft and ethereal to me, so I decided to write and arrange the track to match. And of course, I wanted the song to be seductive and sensual, to reflect my passion for her. It was probably my most devoted labor of love to date, and I think that shows. What emerged from that process was a feel that to me was 2 parts dream and 1 part science, so I named the project Dream 2 Science. For this totally new feel I decided to start yet another label, Power Move Records. Gregg was now doing distribution so it was distributed by his Fore Records. This time we were getting a nice buzz in the States, so Gregg asked me about doing an entire E.P. in the same style. So, I set about writing new tracks with the same feel and flow, Gregg joined me in the studio on a few of them, and the Dream 2 Science E.P. was born. Of all of my House releases the Dream 2 Science release has remained my favorite over the years.
What are you most proud of?
Probably “Jam On It”. I marvel at that song’s longevity and how 35 years later it still never fails to fill a dance floor no matter where you are in the world.
Why “Cozmo D”?
When I first started DJing I was looking for a name. One of my favorite Disco records at the time was “Mondo Disco” by El Coco. I really liked how that sounded. I had created a comic book superhero character when I was younger named Captain Cozmo. So I replaced Mondo with Cozmo and took on the name Cozmo Disco. I used that for about a year until Hip-Hop had completely swept through Brooklyn. Most DJs and MCs of the time were going by names like Frankie D, Roger G and Master B. So, I shortened Cozmo Disco to Cozmo D and have been that ever since. These days I am using my real name, Ben Cenac, as well as Cozmo D and Cozmo Dizko.
How did you go from Newcleus` Funkadelic / Parliament-like Electro Hip Hop to the seductive New York Freestyle / House of Sha-Lor? Where had you been going, what had you been listening to that brought about the change in style?
Like I said, I have always embraced all kinds of music and genres, and would do it all in the studio. I had cut my DJ teeth on Disco, so House was a natural progression for me. Plus, when we spun we played a lot of House. I think I did my first House jam as early as 1986. So, my style didn’t change, it developed. When we started out first label in 1987 it was built around a House record, though we ended up not releasing it. That record was finally released by Thug Records, it was “Pay Me” by the Cellar Boyz.
Was there a House scene in Brooklyn?
Absolutely! Maybe not like Chicago or even Detroit but we played a lot of House.
You had a series of releases, one-offs under different aliases, Dance Advisory Commission, Dream 2 Science, Body Work, Push / Pull, all on different labels around 1990 / 1991. Why so many aliases and labels?
In retrospect it was probably a stupid thing to do, but I got a kick out of inventing artists identities and themes to fit whatever the music project was. The good thing is that I learned the hard way early on never to relinquish control of my music, so all of the artists and labels are either owned by me or me and my partner Gregg Fore.
You then seemed to largely disappear from music production. Was this the case?
In 1992 Gregg, who handled our distribution end, decided to take a day job. I made the mistake of, instead of trying to find a new distributor for my labels, going back into producing Rap & R&B artists. I wasted the next 12 years doing that with very minimal results. It wasn’t until 1999 when people started seeking us out for Newcleus again that I would get back to producing for myself.
Who are you working with at the moment?
My wife Yvette “Lady E” Cenac and my friend Gregg “G4” Fore (Buster Fhott).
How did the re-issue program with Rush Hour happen, and how did you hook up with Carl and Thug in Australia? That “Cozmic House E.P.” will go on to be a classic. It sold out the minute they repressed it. Were they recent productions?
Christiaan, who used to be at Rush Hour, tracked me down and asked if he could license Dream 2 Science. At the time things were going very well with Newcleus, but I was looking to get back into House music, so I jumped at the opportunity. Long before that I had been planning to release a compilation of my House releases with some unreleased stuff and call it Cozmic House. About this same time Nick Simoncino had contacted me about getting Gregg to do a vocal for him, and for me to do a remix. The Rush Hour release came out and was doing well, so I thought it would be a great time to get Cozmic House out there. I sent all of the tracks to Christiaan, but he wasn’t interested. However, I also sent them to Nick, and he passed them on to Carl from Thug. Carl wanted to put the unreleased tracks on an E.P., so I signed the license with him. All of the tracks were from ’87 – ’91.
Do have a lot of archived material that could be released? Any plans to do so?
I still have a couple of House trax from that era that I plan to release on the full version of Cozmic House.
Do you get a lot of remix offers?
I have done 3 recently, including Jose Padilla’s “Lollipop”. I have had to turn down a couple more. I am anxious to get back to producing my own music.
As far as House music is concerned, who are you listening to in 2015?
I make it a point not to listen to other artists beyond just passing through. I will dig their vibe and then move on. I want to be inspired, but I don’t want to absorb. Because I have not done any House DJ gigs this summer I am not really up on what is happening in the scene. Next year I hope to do some gigs and will be able to do much better with this question.
What are you listening?
Mostly, I just listen to Jazz. It keeps me refreshed.