Rap and hip-hop went from underground urban music in the late ’70s and ’80s to become a cultural phenomenon. With household names like P-Diddy, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and Eminem, the music genre has become a part of Americana.
One of the principal players of modern rap is Hot 97 FM radio DJ Mister Cee. A modest guy with a brilliant mind for the arts, Cee (real name Calvin Lebrun) is a turntable virtuoso. As if he was playing a Stradivarius, he transforms the task of spinning records into an art form.
"I do what I do. I’ve been spinning all my life. In fact, growing up, all I wanted to do was to buy records," Cee, who is in his mid-30s, said last week during an interview near his station’s headquarters in the city.
Before his successful radio days began, Cee was busy hanging with famed rap superstar Big Daddy Kane. With Kane in the ’80s, Cee learned the business of rap and met a variety of talented musicians, like rapper Biz Markie, who is famous for the hits "Just a Friend," and "Nobody Beats the Biz," and producer Easy Mo Bee, who has worked with almost every current rap act around.
"Working with Kane, I met a bunch of people who enabled me to open doors for myself," Cee said.
Cee grew up in the Lafayette Gardens projects in Brooklyn. Raised by his grandparents, he was introduced to the DJ scene at an early age. His uncle and his neighbor were the local DJs in the neighborhood, playing at birthday parties and other functions. Cee stuck around and helped out when they needed him. But when his uncle was not looking, he would stand behind the turntables and spin records.
"I learned by watching them, and I would try things by myself," Cee said.
By the time he entered high school, Cee had a command for scratching and spinning vinyl albums. He was part of a small rap group, but after meeting Kane, the two decided to perform on their own. Cee graduated in 1984 from Sarah J. Hale High School, and with Kane, he performed locally. Eventually Kane earned a reputation as a great entertainer because he had a quality voice and charisma on stage. So the pair began to tour regionally.
At the same time Cee was making a name for himself, with his talented mixing ability and comprehensive understanding of club crowds. A good DJ, according to Cee, is not only able to mix and scratch great songs, but understands the crowd. He is almost like a "mind reader" behind the booth.
"You have to know what the people want to listen to. It’s not what you want to hear. It’s what they want to hear," Cee explained.
During their touring they met Markie, who at the time was a well-known act because he had put out quality albums and had toured successfully throughout the country.
Markie was impressed by the pair’s skills, and he recommended them to a major label to be signed.
As a result, Kane and Cee were signed by Cool Chillin’ Records, and the group eventually put out three albums, most notably "It’s a Big Daddy Thing," which went gold in 1989.
With the success of the group, Cee was able to branch out and DJ at clubs in New York, and other major cities. After Kane’s success somewhat diminished, Cee realized his club gigs would allow him to reinvent his role in the hip-hop scene.
"I never wanted to be the center of attention, and the clubs seemed like a perfect thing for me," Cee said.
In the early ’90s, Cee spun at every club in the tri-state area. He made it to Hudson County, where he hit several clubs in Jersey City, including the Sandbar. Jersey City still has a viable rap scene, and it is home to rapper/actress Queen Latifah’s production company.
"Jersey is great. They have some great crowds there in Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Elizabeth," Cee said. "The thing to know is that if you go to Jersey you have to be ready to play some house music."
House, as opposed to rap, is more beat driven with heavy influences from techno and electronica.
In addition to Jersey City, Cee said he has hung out in Hoboken and appreciates the city’s nightlife scene.
"Hoboken is a beautiful little town," he said, smiling.
During his early club days, Cee was also scouting for talent. And in the early ’90s, he met a young charismatic teenage rapper from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Christopher Wallace, who eventually changed his name to Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. Cee went on to associate produce Smalls’ first album "Ready to Die," which is arguably one of the greatest rap records ever. "Ready to Die," was able to capture the modern underground rap scene and bring it to the mainstream. It included such hits as "Juicy," and "Big Poppa."
"With the success of Biggie, that’s what did it," Cee said. "My career saw a rebirth. He was so good and we were able to work together. It was great," Cee said.
In the mid-’90s, Smalls went on to dominate the rap world. His success was cut short after he was killed in 1997 in Los Angeles at the age of 24.
"People still remember him. He is one of the greatest. What’s sad is that he could’ve done more great things," he said.
After his works with Smalls, Cee went on to work at Hot 97 FM WQHT, alongside world-renowned DJ Funkmaster Flex. The famous DJ, impressed by Cee’s caress style of mixing and scratching, recruited him to be a part of his entertainment company Big Dawg Pitbulls, designed to promote and showcase DJs throughout the world. The company is an elite circle of mostly hip-hop DJs.
"We’re like the dream team. I give Funk a lot of credit for what he’s done. We have mutual respect for each other," Cee said.
During the latter part of his career, Cee has won the coveted Mixtape Award three times, a prize given to the best DJ in New York. Former winners include successful DJs like DJ Clue and Green Lantern. But despite his accomplishments, Cee does not consider himself a marquee celebrity. And when he is recognized on the streets, he tries to be as polite as possible, without offending anybody.
Throughout his life, Cee faced some confrontation and resistance from people who did not believe in his talent, but he was always true to himself, he said.
"Make your own decisions. Know yourself. Find yourself. Don’t be a follower. Be a leader," he said. "Do what you like to do."
Cee has little time to rest nowadays. He is always in demand from club promoters and musicians. He is busier than ever, and he is not missing a beat. Cee can be heard on 97.1 FM Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. for the "Throwback at Noon" show, and Friday nights (Saturday mornings) from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. q