Music

Commemorating the Legacy of Steve "Stezo" Williams

Stezo died in his sleep on 29 April at age 51, leaving behind a legacy begging to be properly commemorated. His 1989 album Crazy Noise has been buried in the annals of hip-hop history, an underappreciated dollar-bin find that serves both as a time capsule for hip-hop's late 1980s golden era and a lesson in keeping it real.

Crazy Noise
Stezo

Sleeping Bag Records

1989

Crazy Noise opens with Steve "Stezo" Williams in his basement melding rhymes with a galvanized swatch of Kool & the Gang rhythm guitar folded together by hip-house maestro Doug Lazy for maximum dopeness. That is eclipsed by the first-ever battle-rap to fuse the theme of vigilantism with similes about Princess Diana and a two-year-old tying her shoes, all soldered by a Lyn Collins breakbeat Krazy-Glued to an Average White Band funk nugget. A breaking news bulletin blasts through the speakers: "There's no way that the crowd can sit down!" Stezo's vocal is warm but assertive, urging you to the rooftop dancefloor where he's showing off some devastating footwork. His voice vaults to a rhythm and sticks the landing, transmitting atop a bass-boosted amalgamation of imitation dog panting, a flying saucer distress signal, and the rawest boom-bap drum break not yet sampled over five hundred times.

"It's My Turn" was Stezo's introduction to the world, garnering radio play from Kool DJ Red Alert on New York City's WRKS 98.7 KISS-FM, peaking at 18 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart for 1989, and eclipsing every track on his debut LP Crazy Noise. But the song's foundational drum break, ripped from the then-rare 1973 funk track "It's a New Day" by the band Skull Snaps, has since eclipsed the entirety of Stezo's (admittedly small) musical output. For years it seemed that every time Stezo's name was mentioned, the Skull Snaps break (which he was the first to sample and which has since been sampled by everyone from Black Moon and the Pharcyde to the Prodigy and that one guy from The Matrix soundtrack) overtakes the conversation.

Stezo died in his sleep on 29 April at age 51, leaving behind a legacy begging to be properly commemorated. His 1989 album Crazy Noise has been buried in the annals of hip-hop history, an underappreciated dollar-bin find that serves both as a time capsule for hip-hop's late 1980s golden era and a lesson in keeping it real.

"Crazy Noise was probably a little too hardcore for daytime radio," said Forrest Getemgump, a b-boy and DJ who lived in Stoney Brook, New York when Crazy Noise was released. Forrest remembers hearing "It's My Turn" for the first time in an apartment in Spanish Harlem, on a radio tuned to the Red Alert Show before him and some friends went clubbing at the Palladium.

"You'd hear 'It's My Turn' on the nighttime mix shows and all-rap shows like the Red Alert Show. Even though it was on Sleeping Bag, and that was one of the more popular labels at the time, it seemed like only the real heads were the ones that were on it."

"It's My Turn" is an armored jeep decimating a cityscape with low-end shockwaves blasting from an overhead speaker box. It's a breaker's shell-toe Adidas shuddering the pavement beneath a cardboard slab. It's an intravenous injection of Krylon, a graffiti-caked autorack crammed into your cerebellum.

Whereas "It's My Turn" was Stezo's debutante anthe-num, the album's other single, "Freak the Funk", is either a compressed history or mythology of his rise to crowd-rousing MC, though it overlooks an essential aspect of what made him so unique. The song was produced by Doug Lazy, who had a number one Billboard Dance Club hit that year with his hip-house jam "Let It Roll". He also produced the album-opener, "Bring the Horns", though on the center label both songs are attributed to the moniker Vicious V. These are the only two tracks on Crazy Noise that weren't produced by Stezo, a rarity for a rapper both then and now.

In hip-hop, the term "triple-threat" denotes someone who can rap, DJ, and produce beats, an honorable designation in a culture founded on connecting seemingly disparate elements – rapping, breaking, DJing, and graffiti art – into an organically cohesive artform. Stezo's hip-hop talent was a tier higher.

In The Untold Story of Stezo, a documentary by James "Kraze" Billings, Stezo discussed his manifold interests in hip-hop starting at roughly age 13: "We were roller skating first, and then we started taking it to the floor, breakdancing…. And then I started writing graffiti, and then I started DJing. And I started rapping later. That was like my last thing I started doing, but I always touched all the elements of hip-hop."

As a teenager growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, he was the neighborhood DJ in the Brookside housing projects. From there, he moved to production, initially using a Casio SK-1 to loop drum break snippets. After killing it on the dancefloor at an EPMD show in a New Haven club, the group fired their dancers and hired Stezo to join them on tour.

In the 1988 music video for "You Gots to Chill", you can spot him dancing "the Steve Martin" in an all-yellow jumpsuit. The eye-jarring shade landing was somewhere between "daffodil" and "rubber-ducky", a fashion statement that may have been dated hours after the video's airing – behind Parrish Smith, who's delivering an acronym lesson over a bouncy mutation of "More Bounce to the Ounce".

Stezo's multi-threat talent made him both an anomaly and paragon of hip-hop culture. The day after his death, hip-hop spokesperson Questlove posted an Instagram homage detailing a wide array of Stezo's accolades:

Before Hammer's pants, there was #Stezo...before we all abused that #SkullSnaps #ItsANewDay break...there was Stezo. Before #AtomicDog fed an ENTIRE GENRE....there was Stezo. While your favorite rapper was asking so & so & such & such to do some beats for em....Stezo was doing it all himself. I mean for gods sake this man made #SteveMartin cool to a hip hop generation too young to get King Tut/The Jerk/& a wild & crazy guy references—-he turned Steve Martin into the coolest verb EVER in 1988 (google #EPMD's #YouGotsToChill video to see dances that defined a generation—-we talk about MCs/producers/videos/movies/icons from 87-92 but rarely give light to the iconic dances that came from that era—Stezo was always my fav dancer from this era (yes I know the Kid N Play dance was iconic too) but when you don't have a partner to kick it with? Then yknow...lol——this dude is displaying ALL the moves that others will build empires on.

So why is Crazy Noise so underappreciated?

One possible answer is because he never released another full-length album or hit single. Unlike other tenured hip-hop groups who released LPs in 1989 that are still alive in the public consciousness – De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, and EPMD's Unfinished Business – Stezo stopped churning out records, forgoing critics and fans a career narrative to follow along with and help contextualize the music. In the mid-'90s, he released some rugged downtempo boom-bap, seamlessly transitioning from the garish colors and party-time antics of late '80s hip-hop to the mellowed-out instrumentals and roughneck flow of '90s spliff-passer jazz-rap. "Bop Ya Headz" and "Funky For Ya" are heavy-hitters for the hardcore heads, but stylistically resemble almost nothing of Crazy Noise save how indebted the records are to the soundscapes of their respective eras.

Another possible answer: for the hip-hop layman, the cover of Crazy Noise looks shockingly dated. In 1989 you could cheese it on your album cover, wear a tattered jean-jacket exposing your hairless chest, rock a flat-top, pose mid-dance over a backdrop that could have been doodled by a first-grader with a ten-pack of Crayola markers, and be a hardcore rapper. In 2020, if you're flicking through a record bin and don't know your hip-hop history, you might mistake this for another MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. And of course, you'd be wrong.

From a careerist perspective, Stezo's story feels incomplete. But careerism is often a compromising venture in hip-hop.

Rakim once claimed that the career of a rapper is like that of an NFL halfback: "You got about seven years, then it's a wrap." Since most of today's mainstream rap is a nearly-indistinguishable mutant offspring of the genre's forebearers, the only way to fight this inevitability would be to surrender to nostalgia or surrender the ethos your career was once grounded on.

From this perspective, Stezo's career is a triumph of authenticity. He never sold out.

We can nod to the lyrics of the album-closer "Going for Mine" – "But it's O.K., I'mma get mine / Maybe in the future, maybe in no time" – and the pain and regret hanging from the ceiling of success Stezo never reached is surpassed by something bigger. Instead of wincing at the knowledge of some career misstep, some stumble into wackness that taints the lyrical fervor like a disappointing ending glimpsed while flipping to a later page, we can feel comfort in the song as a reminder that, for some, until death snatches the mic from their hands, they'll never stop keeping it real.



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