A Freak Is a Freak, and Egyptian Lover Is an Icon
Ahead of his new anthology, we spoke with the gilded lothario about 808s, the state of DJing, and how he shaped West Coast hip-hop as we know it.
Photo courtesy Stones Throw
If LA has a “Planet Rock,” it’s Egyptian Lover’s “Egypt, Egypt.” Forever b-boy canon, the 1984 single evolved Afrika Bambaataa’s cosmic funk into a new, distinctly West Coast sound. Crafted with the same Roland TR-808 drum machine that serves as the backbone for everything from Eric B. & Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke" to most of DJ Mustard's discography, “Egypt, Egypt” borrowed more from Kraftwerk and Prince than Bambaataa, paving the way for electro rap long before Kanye would release 808s & Heartbreak. The song’s amorous electro-thump suited both freak-filled clubs and souped-up car stereos, fusing futuristic sounds with a primal immediacy. Its architect was a gilded lothario with a linebacker build and glistening jheri curl, a South Central-bred 21-year-old born Greg Broussard.
As an integral member of legendary LA hip-hop crew Uncle Jamm’s Army, Egyptian Lover detonated dance floors all over LA and the US, DJing, rapping, and producing live on stage while most others were just trying to competently do one of those things. In addition to scratching, cutting, and performing his songs before crowds of thousands, Broussard moved millions of records. He recalls hearing his music on LA R&B/dance mainstays KDAY every hour, on the hour. Without Broussard and Uncle Jamm’s Army, West Coast hip-hop wouldn’t exist as we know it today: The influence of their sound can be traced from Dr. Dre and the World Class Wreckin’ Crew to N.W.A. and beyond.
Over the last three decades, Broussard, now 52, has continued to record and perform as Egyptian Lover. His latest offering is last year’s 1984, a modern electro LP recorded entirely on analog equipment. And though he’s ditched the jheri curl and gold of his heyday, his live performances remain more polished and entertaining than most contemporary rap acts.
To honor Egyptian Lover’s enduring legacy, Stones Throw will release a collection of his early material, Egyptian Lover 1983-1988 Anthology, on April 15. We spoke with Egypt over the phone after his car broke down en route to our interview, and even without his physical presence, he commands attention: Every syllable exudes the kind of confidence and suavity only afforded to actors playing James Bond. We touched on everything from Uncle Jamm’s Army and his solo career to jheri curls and the current state of DJing. Though Broussard declined to share any freaky tales, there’s an entire Egyptian Lover catalog that captures their spirit.
NOISEY: This anthology essentially could’ve come out at any time in the last few years. Why now?
Egyptian Lover: It was actually supposed to come out on the 30th anniversary, which would’ve been 2014. But we kept going back and forth in the studio trying to figure out which songs we should put on there. We had too many songs, so we had to narrow it down until we got the right songs. We had to find some rare stuff, too. So I pulled out a song called “Electric Encounter” that I never released, a couple of songs from the Breakin’ N’ Enterin’ documentary, and a couple songs that I did with Uncle Jamm’s Army. It’s definitely the beginning of Egyptian Lover’s career and everything I did until ‘88.
Apart from making music, what do you remember most about those years?
Roaming around LA in a brand new Benz and enjoying LA. That was the highlight of my life. Playing with Uncle Jamm’s Army and becoming a popular DJ. Listening to all the music and hearing how the style that I created from Kraftwerk and Prince was being copied by other people. They kind of called it the "West Coast sound," but I never saw it as the West Coast sound. I only saw it as the Egyptian Lover sound that I created from mixing Prince and Kraftwerk together to come up with this freaky, big-beat sound.
I remember the radio stations playing the songs...Back then it was kind of cool. Now I look back on it am I’m like, ‘That was really, really, really cool to be on the radio.’ They were playing one of my songs every hour on the hour on KDAY. It was really big.
What was your preferred brand of activator?
I used World of Curls [Laughs].
Do you think the jheri curl will ever make a comeback?
Not since that movie [Coming to America] came out and that guy got up off the couch and left all that jheri curl juice on the couch. It was cool. It caught a lot of ladies back in the day.
You had a brick cell phone before a lot of people. About how much did they cost then? How expensive were those monthly bills?
It was between $1,800 and $3,500. The phone bills had to be about $400 or $500 a month. So yes, you were balling if you had one of them.
On Instagram you post pictures of the drawings you do on a lot of your vinyl. Can people expect any illustrations in this box set?
The cover of the box set is actually one my drawings from '86 to '88. I’m actually working on doing a couple of box sets special edition. I think I’m going to do 25 hand drawn box sets and give them to only a few fans so they can have something special.
Uncle Jamm’s Army was comprised of DJs, breakdancers, and a few MCs. Were people in the group capable of trading roles?
Maybe they were capable, but when we did big parties it never came up like that. When we did big parties we knew we had certain DJs that had to play because you couldn’t mess up at a party like that. There were people from all over the LA area and we didn’t want them fighting. So you had to keep them dancing just so they wouldn’t fight. If you got on the turntables and did something stupid, like a mix you didn’t know how to do or you skipped the record, that’s not good for that kind of party. At smaller party we might’ve put some smaller DJs on there early to start them out and then me and Roger [Clayton] would jump back on for the rest of the night.
Then Bobcat joined us. When Bobcat first joined us he was wild. He just scratched on every record. I pulled him to the side and I was like, “You can’t dance to that. You have to do a quality mix and a quality scratch. You can do it on a breakdown, but just keep it on the breakdown.”
What do you think about the current state of DJing? Do you go out to clubs often?
I see it two different ways. The DJs that are creative, they don’t even have to know how to mix. But they are producers. They’re producing music for the clubs while you’re dancing. That is a plus. There are programs to do all of this while you’re DJing. You don’t have to know how to mix because you can match the BPMs and another record will come on. You can produce all these different sounds: lyrics, drum beats, bass lines, stabs of horns, backwards sounds, samples, reverb. You’re producing live and I absolutely love it, no matter what kind of music it is.
Then you have some DJs who were DJing back in the day on vinyl and now they’re DJing on Serato, or CDs, or whatever the case may be, and they can still do what they did on vinyl. Then you have some DJs up there that just push the button and think they’re a DJ but they’re really not. They don’t even look into the crowd to see if the crowd is dancing. They’re just doing what they practiced at home, which is definitely a no-no. You always have to look into the crowd and make sure they’re still moving.
Breakdancing and popping required a certain amount of dedication and skill. How do you feel about the dances that rap has forwarded in recent years (e.g. the dougie, the dab)?
As long as they’re dancing, I don’t mind. It’s the ones with the phones in the air that don’t do nothing who get on my nerves...If the crowd is moving then you’re doing a good job DJing.
Do you see any similarities between DJ-centric events now and those at which you used to perform?
Nah. I think they’re totally different now. Back then, the DJ was not the highlight. When I first started DJing it became the highlight because of the tricks on the turntables that I was doing. When we started doing that, we started to get more popular. That’s how we were able to do a party at the LA Sports Arena with 10,000 people. Everybody who wanted to get into the music scene had to follow Uncle Jamm’s Army. And pretty much everyone did. That’s why we have some many West Coast groups that made records, because Uncle Jamm’s Army made a record.
You continue to play all vinyl at your shows. What are the advantages to playing vinyl?
I like the show when you’re pulling the vinyl out of the crate. I like putting vinyl on the turntable. I like turning the vinyl over. I like putting the needle on different parts of the record. It’s all part of the DJ show. When people come to see me at a show, I want them to see what I did back in the day, what made me who I am today.
Apart from radio promo, how did you get the word out about Uncle Jamm events?
We did lunch dances at high schools, we did smaller parties to promote bigger parties, and we passed out flyers. We were at every hotspot in LA handing out flyers for the next party. We knew that Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we were passing out flyers for Friday.
Sunday we had a routine. We would go to Venice Beach after 12:30. That’s when the party people start waking and going to the beach. So 12:30, 1 o’clock were at the beach. We’d leave Venice Beach and go to to Crenshaw at about four or five o’clock. Then we’d go to the skating rink at 9:30 or ten o’clock and put flyers on people’s cars. After that we’d go to different clubs on Sunday night and put flyers on everyone’s cars while the parking lot was packed.Then we’d maybe hit a high school lunch party that Monday and a club that night. We’d do the same thing on Tuesday and Wednesdays. We’d also go to different high schools, barber shops, and record stores to pass out flyers. Then on Thursday we’d hit up the school closest to wherever we were throwing the party that weekend. That’s how we did it. It was just street promotion.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the members from the crew?
We talk online now. I’m actually going to do a song called “Freak Beat.” I’m going to invite them all to the studio to be in the background of the song. It’s going to be pretty cool. We’re probably going to film it and make it feel like a party, like a family reunion kind of thing.
When was the last time you spoke to Ice-T?
I was actually supposed to go to his show in London about two-three months ago. At the very last second I got so tired I couldn’t leave the hotel. He was actually reciting poetry to this jazz player. I was just so tired and jetlagged I could not go. I should’ve made it, though.
Is it strange watching him on Law & Order?
Yeah [Laughs]. But Ice was always a hustler, someone who could talk his way into anything. When I see him as a cop on one side and a gangster on another side it’s like, “He’s an actor.” He can do anything he wants to do. I’m loving him for that.
When did you buy your first Roland TR-808?
The very first time I heard about it. I was in Club Radio and Afrika Islam told me what it was. The very next day I went down to Guitar Center. One of the employees helped me program the “Planet Rock” beat and then I started changing the beat around and making my own beat. I had to get it right then and there. I brought it to the next Uncle Jamm’s Army party. All 10,000 people were partying to the drum machine, and nobody even knew what a drum machine was. So I was playing “Planet Rock,” and then on the breakdown I played the 808. Nobody knew I switched it. Then I started doing different things to it--bringing in the cowbell and the hi-hat--and people were like, “What is that?” Then I changed the whole beat around and Roger came over and was like, “Where’d you get that record from?” I said, “It’s not the record, it’s the drum machine.” When he saw it he was like, “We gotta make a record.”
What do you think it is about the 808 that resonates with crowds?
I think it’s just the analog sound of it. When you hear that analog sound coming out of the speakers there’s nothing like that. You can’t copy that onto a CD or any kind of digital format. You can’t sample it. The raw 808 sound coming through the speakers is the best sound ever.
You started your own label, Egyptian Empire Records, during an era when record labels conceivably had a lot of money. Why did you decide to go the independent route?
One reason why I decided to go independent was because everybody I knew who was on a major label was broke. Everybody. I kept asking them, “You have a hit record on the radio. How come you don’t have any money? Why am I paying for your dinner?” So I started my own record label to find out where all the money was going. All of the money was going to the record label.
A lot of your old music celebrates being a “freak.” What did the word mean to you then? Has its meaning changed over time?
A freak is a freak. You can call them different things, but a freak is someone that doesn’t have any sexual hangups and just wants to go out there and have a good time. Or a freak could be someone who looks freaky but doesn’t do a thing--they just have that look.
I’d imagine you fared fairly well with women. Are there any particular freaky experiences from your past that you wouldn’t mind sharing with Nosiey readers?
Nothing I can share [Laughs]. I learned that from Dean Martin.
After your third album, Filthy, N.W.A. came on the scene. How did you feel about the transition from party rap to gangster rap?
I didn’t really see it myself because I was on the road. I knew that it was out, but I didn’t see it blow up. I was doing a festival in Louisiana one day and during the intermission between the groups they put on N.W.A.’s album. I was like, “That’s N.W.A.’s album.” But the crowd already knew that was N.W.A.’s album. They were singing the songs word for word. I immediately picked up the phone and called Arabian Prince like, “Hey, they’re playing your record here in Louisiana during the festival. Every kid knows the words.” He said, “Yeah, the record is selling like crazy.” That’s when I knew it was a big record.
In your mind, how did it affect Los Angeles as a city and/or the club scene?
LA had always had gangster style. It just wasn’t on the radio. You had Mix Master Spade and Ice-T doing their thing, just doing street rapping. Then when N.W.A. came they put it on the radio and it became really popular. It wasn’t a surprise because I heard Mix Master Spade things back in the day that were super street. It never got on the radio or anything like that.
You had a lot of different things playing in the club at the time, but you did notice that people didn’t dance as much when they played N.W.A. I wasn’t used to it. I was like, “This is the kind of thing we don’t want.” If you saw the [N.W.A.] movie, what Alonzo was saying was, “We want them to be dancing and thinking about girls, not guns.” That’s how Uncle Jamm’s Army was thinking.
That brings me to my next question. Straight Outta Compton does briefly depicted the late 80s club scene. Do you feel they did a good job, or do you think it got the short shrift?
I think it was definitely short. They didn’t put Arabian Prince in it and they kind of started the movie out on the second album. They were already known. They were already popular at that time. I kind of thought they gave Arabian Prince the short end of the stick, but that was their story and they’re in entitled to that.
You’ve continued to perform and record for over 30 years now. What keeps you going?
The music. I love traveling. To have a job where you can travel and see the world and they pay for it is a dream come true. I’ve been to places that I never, ever thought I would see growing up in South Central LA. When I go somewhere I go, “I cannot believe that I am here.” When you see something with your own eyes it’s a totally different feeling.
How has your live show changed?
I used to bring all of my equipment out until the airlines trashed every piece of equipment. I got kind of mad. They trashed every piece of equipment that I had to the point that it was unrepairable and they gave me a check, but that equipment was my first equipment. I kind of lost the taste for playing live, so I started playing on DATs. Then I started DJing. Now I carry my 808 on the plane. I don’t let nobody carry it.
Do you feel that live performances today lack showmanship?
It lacks entertainment. If you’re up there and you’re not entertaining the people, you’re not really doing your job. Anybody can go up there and play music, whether it’s on a record or live, but you have to entertain the people… In rap, everyone wants to be hardcore. But if they ever sat in the audience and looked at themselves on stage, they’d say, “Okay, I have to do something better.” But if you never get a chance to do that, then you’re never going to be able to improve. I’ve seen rappers grab a mic, take two steps left, take two steps right, and that’s the whole show. Even if they have a slamming record, all they’re doing is walking. They’re too cool to dance and they can’t do anything. Where’s the entertainment in that?
How do you want to be remembered?
As a DJ who could do it all, baby, just like that.
Egyptian Lover's 1983-1988 anthology is out April 15 via Stones Throw. Order it here.
Max Bell is a writer living in LA. Follow him on Twitter.