Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music's A list. This edition features bassist Doug Wimbish.
As the in-house bassist for Sugar Hill Records, Doug Wimbish played on songs that make up the foundation of hip-hop as we know it today, including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 's "The Message" and "White Lines," and the Sugarhill Gang 's "Apache" and "8th Wonder."
"We cut all of that Sugar Hill music from scratch," Sugarhill Gang rapper Master Gee told the crowd on the 80s Cruise earlier this year before bringing Wimbish onto the stage. "There were no samples. That was all done by real musicians like Doug Wimbish. I'm here today because of this man."
Sugar Hill Records played a pivotal role in Wimbish's early career, but he went on to work with everyone from Madonna and Lauryn Hill to the Rolling Stones , Depeche Mode, and Carly Simon. And for the past three decades, he's been the bass player in Living Colour. During a bit of downtime from his life on the road, Wimbish called up Rolling Stone from his home in Hartford, Connecticut, to look back on his incredible journey.
I know you just played on an Eighties cruise. How did that go?
I want to go back and talk about your life. What's your first memory of being aware of music as a kid?
When did you start playing an instrument yourself?
Another spark was when I was in the Bahamas. I'd go there for summer vacations in 1968, 1969, and 1970. At that time, I had a big Afro and bell-bottoms. I have young uncles and I'm the nephew from America that came to Nassau. At that time, there was no television station. It was just one radio station and a newspaper.
The Jackson 5 had come out. They were a sensation. And so my uncles came up with the bright idea of telling people around there that I was Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5. And people believed them. They'd usher me around to clubs and different places. "Hey, this is Jermaine Jackson." And I'd be in a nightclub at 12 years old. I was just starting to play bass, but I didn't own one.
I came home from the 1970 summer, and I made a decision to start playing bass and not to be known as the person that was running around emulating Jermaine Jackson. They were doing it to get free drinks. It was kind of comical to them. But it hit me in a way where I wanted to get serious. That was the spark.
Who were some of your early bass heroes? On the Corner with Michael Henderson. Paul Jackson from Herbie Hancock. Family Man [Aston Barrett] from Bob Marley's band. I was also listening to John Entwistle. It was the frequencies I was attracted to.
John Entwistle approached the bass almost as a lead instrument. Did that shape your approach at all?
I used to ask him, "How did you get to this frequency? How did you get to this vibe?" In his low voice, he'd explain. We got pretty tight back in the day before he passed. I was living in London. He'd go see Living Colour at gigs. We got pretty tight. It was the shape of the note. That's it. You could hear four bars and go, "That's John Entwistle." You could hear one bar.
Jaco Pastorius was a big influence on me too. You could hear a bar and know it's him. The same with Larry Graham. James Jamerson was a huuuuge influence on me. It was subliminal since I'd been hearing him all my life. He was the master grandfather of them all.
Did you aways know music was going to be your career?
It was the sick Seventies. It was wild. My bother Victor would take me to see Miles. My sister Diana would take me to see all these different bands. My brother would take me down to New York to see the infamous Randalls Island gig [on Aug. 11, 1973] where it was Rare Earth and Buddy Miles and Parliament-Funkadelic. We'd see James Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts, play with Bootsy and [guitarist Phelps] Catfish [Collins] playing 45-minute matinee sets. Those were sparks. It was confirmation for me that this is what I wanted to do.
Tell me about the formation of your first serious band, Wood, Brass, and Steel.
It was through them that I met [Sugar Hill Records founders] Sylvia and Joe Robinson. Sylvia immediately took a shining to us, and to me since I was the youngest one. She was like, "Why don't we do an album?" We cut the first record in just a few days. We were well-rehearsed. The Moments were the main band in the studio at the time, and we'd go in there at night.
For me, Wood, Brass, and Steel was everything wrapped in one. It was Berklee College of Music, MIT. It was all of these elements that you need to be able to survive in this world since I was working with people that had already been on the road. There were different layers of information that was within Wood, Brass, and Steel, and the band was diverse. That was the key for me.
You had the chance to work with Etta James and Solomon Burke during this time.
But meeting Joe and Sylvia, everything starts with them. They were the ones that were my biggest inspirations. I learned so much from them, especially Sylvia. She knew how to make records. She knew how to make records quick. There was no fiddling around. We'd make them in a day.
Mind you, at that time, the whole scene was different. They were starting the second phase of their careers. The Chess catalog was old compared to the music that was out at the time. As time goes on, you have to wait for people to go, "Oh, this is smoking."
I didn't care. I knew they were legends. To be able to be in the studio and watch Sylvia work and watch Joe run that company, that was a work of art. I learned a lot. It was great to be in the studio with them. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.
What are your first memories of really being aware of hip-hop?
My ears starting catching the wave of early rap. You saw it, but we were in transit at that time. Someone would be onstage talking to the crowd and the DJ would play some music. I was seeing it happen in real time.
It was solely a live medium back then. Did you think it was possible to turn this music into singles and get it on the radio?
The spark hit when I got the call from Sylvia when Sugar Hill appeared. Sylvia had been calling my mom's house trying to find Skip and I. "Rapper's Delight" had already been cut. She was trying to get Skip and I on "Rapper's Delight," but we were protesting since we were pissed off that the second Wood, Brass, and Steel record never saw the light of day. I was following my elders, but I heard "Rapper's Delight" at a disco in New Haven.
I then called Sylvia and came down and instantly she hooked us up with the Sugarhill Gang. Within a week, we're doing a gig with them at Harlem World. It was that quick. Sylvia was smart. She had Positive Force, which was the band that cut "Rapper's Delight," but she wanted Skip and I, so she put Skip and I and Keith LeBlanc. We just met up, with Positive Force on the stage at the same time. She wanted nature to take its course.
By the time we hit the first four bars of "Rapper's Delight," it was just mass chaos and pandemonium. That song was huge in New York. We could barely finish it. The crowd was trying to attack Master Gee. We have to run out of the building. It was like they were the Beatles. I'd never seen anything like it. It was then I was like, "No, no, no. This ain't going nowhere." At first, people may have had their doubts. But when I saw that, there was no question. Game over. Game over!
Tell me about recording "The Message."
One of the albums that was happening at that time was My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. We were listening to that, getting our groove on, and listening to how the frequencies worked. That was a big inspiration for us. We were in the studio all the time and we could experiment and do different things.
Fletcher was a percussionist, but he was always like, "I can out-write and out-rap all these guys. I'm a schoolteacher. Give me a shot." And in the hallway of Sugar Hill, there was a water cooler with those plastic jugs. We went out there, and then we grabbed a few empty ones and started banging on them, getting our groove on. We had a Last Poets vibe going and Fletcher starts singing "The Message."
Sylvia hears it and she's like, "OK, I need a song for the Sugarhill Gang. I'll let you do a song, Fletcher, if you give this 'It's like a jungle sometimes' song to the Gang. They need a hit." She was smart like that. She rotated songs to different bands. "Now it's time for '8th Wonder' for Sugarhill Gang. Now it's time for 'Birthday Party' for Grandmaster Flash." Everybody was in rotation.
And so Fletcher went in and he started to build the track up at his house. He did everything. He came up with the bass line, the idea of where things are going to do. That record was originally supposed to be cut with the Sugarhill Gang. But they didn't like it, and so it was shipped over to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and they didn't like it. The original raps, some of Fletcher's parts, were done by Rahiem. It went through a few cycles and came back around, "Let's still do this with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but Mel, you come in and do the rap."
The record came out and it was mainly Fletcher and Mel. You could hear the Furious Five in the part where they're reenacting the police scene where they're getting pulled over. That's how that record was done. It was a spark. It was completely different than anything we'd ever done at Sugar Hill. Completely different. That changed the game.
Tell me about making "White Lines."
At that time, I was actually living in Philadelphia and doing stuff at Philly International with Bunny Sigler and the O'Jays and Gene McFadden. I came up to do that. It was one of those, "OK, here's the main line. Can you roll that line consistently without tripping up?" I came in and just kind of knocked it out.
At that time, we were cutting so much. You didn't really think about it. We'd cut a song on a Monday and by Friday a test pressing would go to Mr. Magic at WBLS. We could hear what we did on Monday driving back to Connecticut on Friday on the radio.
You're on "Apache," too.
In that mix was Chess Records artists, so it was Candi Staton, Jack McDuff. … There were these different layers that were running simultaneously that don't really get talked about.
These songs are really the foundation of hip-hop as we know it. They've been sampled countless times. Do you get fair royalties for your work on them? Do you get fair credit? PPL . They are companies if your records are played they put money aside for people that performed on it. You have to figure out how to get it on the back end.
What I learned from Sugar Hill is how things work in the record industry. You have to understand how to deal with each situation and not be too scarred. You have to move forward. Yes, there are situations that took place. But without Joe and Sylvia Robinson giving me that opportunity, I wouldn't be here talking to you today.
At the end of the day, there's only three sides to a situation: What you said, what I said, and what really happened. The fourth side is it didn't happen at all and you're lying all the way down the line.
My point is, as going through this and dealing with all these things over time, and looking at my discography, I'm thankful to have been able to sustain myself throughout all the challenges. The information it brought me was priceless. I'm a better person now because I was able to learn from those experiences and not come out …Nobody wants to hear about a bitter person complaining about this, that, or the other. Come on. But I know what I contributed. I give credit where it's due.
Look, one of the biggest things that people ask all the time is, "Did you play on 'Rapper's Delight'? No. Do you know how many times it's been printed that I did? I have to set the record straight. That's because it's the truth. A guy by the name of Chip Shearin played on it. And I even heard that being questioned, so who knows? I do know that I didn't play bass on it. But I do know what I played bass on and what I contributed to. That's it.
You played on way too many amazing records to go through even a tiny portion of them, but let's try and discuss a few here. Tell me about the Sun City album. That's a really amazing piece of work. Sun City project comes up. At that particular time, there were so many artists on that. It was insane the amount of artists I was able to meet just with that one recording.
The whole thing just took on a life of its own. It would be Rubén Blades or Herbie [Hancock] and then Ringo Starr comes in. Then it's friggin' Lou Reed and David Ruffin. Bobby Womack. It was bananas. Keith Richards was in there and Jimmy Cliff. Ron Carter came in and played. Amazing musicians were coming in there. It was that record that really broke me out. I tip my hat to Stevie, Arthur, and Danny Schechter, and all the artists for making that happen. It was like three or four months of, "Who is coming in?!" It was so much fun.
The best day of all was when Miles Davis came in. I'll never forget. We're waiting for Miles to come. We were like, "Yo!" It was classic Miles. The limousine pulled up. Miles came out with his trumpet in hand. He was rehearsing the song in the limo. He gets out, goes right into the studio, starts recording. Everyone is waiting for him to play his horn. First thing he says is, [ scratchy Miles Davis impression ] "You guys gotta lead this country." He doesn't even play first. He starts talking! It was in- sane ! And I got to meet him.
It was just the highlight of my career. With that one song, I'm working with about 50 artists and I'm the principal bassist. That busted me out. Next thing you know, I get a call from Peter Wolf to work with him. I met Mick Jagger first with Arthur. He was the key. It was Arthur and it was Sylvia.
How did you wind up playing on Jagger's Primitive Cool? Flash album. Next thing you know, I end up in Jeff's solo band with Simon Phillips and Jan Hammer. We toured Japan. After the tour, I asked Jeff what he was doing. He goes, "I'm going to do Mick's solo album. Matter of fact, they're auditioning folks. Mind if I put your name in the hat?" I said, "Sure."
Then I'm working with producer Keith Diamond on Michael Bolton's record. At that same time, all within about two weeks of each other, Keith got the job to produce Mick's album as well. He was like, "Hey, man, I'm going to put your name into the hat to audition."
I get the audition. I go to New York. It's a classic cattle call. They're having auditions between New York, L.A., and London. I do the audition and end up getting the gig. That's how my Mick Jagger world started.
They gave me a few songs on cassette. When you got to the audition, you did a couple of those songs and then everything else was off the cuff. You can't prepare for that. You have cameras filming everything. I guess my years of hip-hop had prepared me for moments like that since hip-hop was all about the spirit of the moment and how you interpret what's going on.
He then asked you to go on the tour. I spoke to Simon Phillips last year. He said he was surprised that Mick wanted to do so many Stones songs. Did that surprise you, too?
The Stones went back out in 1989. Maybe it was good for Mick to do it, but also to give the fans something that they really know, and also warm the audience for when the Stones come out. I could be wrong. But at the end of the day, that's how the timeline worked. We did some of his solo songs, but we did a lot of Stones songs.
To jump ahead, tell me about the Madonna sessions for Erotica.
When I met André he had just done "Justify My Love" for Madonna with Lenny Kravitz. He asked me to go into the studio with Madonna. He's got a couple tracks, including "Eating Out" [ "Where Life Begins" ]. I cut that track.
And then Madonna comes in. At this time, she's doing the Dick Tracy movie and really blowing up. She comes in and she's got a box of these Playboy magazines. I think she was using them as research for these roles. André grabs one of these magazine immediately and was like, "Damn! Look at these titties!" He introduces me, but things are happening really fast.
Then I'm like, "Yo, Dre. What are you looking at?" She's like, "Don't show him anything. He hasn't played the bass yet." She doesn't know I already cut the track. He's like, "Really?" And he presses play and she starts to smile. That's how I met Madonna. It was kind of like this moment.
It was a quick record. I there for a couple of days and played on a couple tracks. But lo and behold, that record changes the world. That was one of the first records they had to put parental-guidance stickers on. They couldn't sell it a K-Mart or something like that. Dre really knocked it out of the park.
The real event with Madonna was the party she had in New York when that record came out. Wooooh! It was at the Tunnel. That was a party. But I just met Madonna that one time at the studio. But I'm thankful. She was a pro. She came in and was at the top of her game.
Why was that party so amazing? Erotica record as a live visual art. I'll leave it at that. It was a great vibe. I tip my hat to her for opening up the vortex of the industry and being brave and bold. She was like, "No, I'm putting this song called 'Eating Out' on the record. I'm going to do that. No, I want André Betts on this." I appreciate her for keeping it real 100%.
You toured with Carly Simon in 1995. She hates touring and has real stage-fright issues. What was that like? Letter Never Sent . Then we did [ Live at New York's Grand Central Station ] in 1995. That was her coming-back-out tour. She had stage fright. I love Carly Simon. That woman is just the sweetest. She's just so beautiful. We hit it off. It was like my long-lost sister. We spoke a lot during the recording sessions. That's where things happen, just talking to people. Then when it came time for her to tour, she wanted to be around people she was really comfortable with.
Dirk Ziff, the billionaire, was playing guitar. She had a great band. I was able to meet some good people. But Carly was still getting that stage fright. She needed people around her that made her feel comfortable.
I only remember doing a few shows. It wasn't a lot. I do remember doing Grand Central Station for the Lifetime Channel. We also did a few shows around America. She was friends with the Kennedys. It was a good vibe. It was pretty well organized, to put it mildly. I loved working with her.
When Bill Wyman quit the the Stones, did you audition for his job?
I'm hanging out with them and I get the call from Will. He asked me to audition. Then I get the gig. Now I'm in Living Colour. Fast-forward to 1993. I recorded with Bernard Fowler when he was producing Ron Wood's album. I recorded with Mick and Rick Rubin in L.A. on [the song] "Sweet Thing."
Then I hear that Bill Wyman is gone. Then Mick calls me up. "Hey, Doug, would you mind coming out to Ronnie's house? We're all getting together. Everyone is there. The Stones are making a bass change. Come on out."
I'm still in Living Colour, but I come out. We start recording. I meet Keith. We're hanging out. They were just recording. There was no tour or anything. And then I go back to New York and Mick calls me up. "Hey, we'd like for you to come and do it. We're doing a record." It was like October of 1993. I'm like, "OK, well, Living Colour is booked to play Australia at that time. I'd love to do it, but we have this tour."
My loyalty was to Living Colour. Stain had just come out. It was like, "What do I do? Do jump ship and go work with the Stones?" I was in a vortex. I was caught in the middle. Maybe if the timing was different, things would have worked out. Lo and behold, things get dark in 1994 and Vernon breaks the band up in 1995. That's what happened.
I had to make a decision based on what was right, and not just for me, but for families and everyone else. You stand by it. That's what happened.
You were loyal. That's a good thing.
But I'm in Living Colour. I'm in a band that I'm a 25% owner of. You do the math. I'm very thankful I had that opportunity. People ask me all the time about this. Darryl is a dear friend of mine. I'm happy he got that gig. It's Darryl's gig. He's friggin' killing it. As a friend, as a bassist, as a musician, you have to make the right decision because what you decide can affect a lot of people. I'm thankful I'm in Living Colour and we were able to get back together.
And in my career, I'm thankful I was able to work with different people, different artists because I enjoy it, and I enjoy being able to cross into these different categories and work with all these different artists. I'm thankful I've had the career I had. The Stones are a part of it.
You're on Bridges to Babylon in 1997 on "Might as Well Get Juiced."
How was your Lauryn Hill experience? WimBashes that we did. She was a fan of some of the things I was doing with the kids.
At the end of the day, you have someone that is such a talented, genius person. And she did such a great record. I hope people can understand the contributions that she's made to the industry and focus on that. Also, listen to her words and her intelligence. I love Lauryn Hill. I learned a lot working with her. Another period in my life where I worked with someone that is, in my opinion, one of the best artists of all time. She's that good. She's that good.
I love you, Lauryn. Hopefully one day we'll cross paths and work again. What she has done to contribute to the industry, and also as a supporter of things that are right … she's going to speak out. She's standing up.
Let me tell you something … working for her, dude, that human being is super, super intelligent. I looked back the other day at something we did with Questlove in Philadelphia at a 4th of July celebration. It reminds me of what I was fortunate enough to be a part of. Sometimes you have to step away from it for a while before you can go, "You know what? That was a great moment in time. I'm thankful to have been able to work for her."
You played with Depeche Mode on Ultra . Tell me about that.
I wish I could have done more work with Depeche Mode. I wish I had toured with them. I love a lot of these records, but I would have loved to have gone on the road and done some work. You can hear the magic in that song. I'm just glad I'm a part of it.
There's a real magic to Living Colour since the music touches on so many genres. I wouldn't even know what to call the music you make.
Vernon, Corey [Glover], Will, and I have been able to achieve over the past 30 years — and Muzz [Skillings], when he was in the band — we've been able to endure the reality of life and personalities. We've broken up and gotten back together. That's a challenge all in itself.
What we do is bring something to the table that's special and you can feel, especially live at a gig. We have 30 years of working these songs into our own rearranged frenzy. We've been able to not get tangled up with the industry. We just play from the heart. We play what we feel, and we don't compromise.
We make records. Our last one was Shade . We were like, "Let's give it a blues vibe." We tied in the blues into everything. One of the songs was our version of "Who Shot Ya?" with Biggie's lyrics. We were talking about life in real time in the Nineties, and what Marvin Gaye was talking about in "What's Going On" in the Sixties. We tied these things together so that it makes sense.
I saw you guys play "Eminence Front" at a Who tribute at Carnegie Hall. You destroyed the place. Nobody even came close to what you guys did. Shade .
We're that kind of band. Everyone has got their thing going on. You could call us alpha males, or whatever, but everyone is bringing something to the table. Corey is singing better now than ever. He sounds like his voice has only gotten better with time. Vernon, Will, and I continue to explore the frequencies and we challenge each other with grooves.
There's also Tackhead . Those are the two main bands that I have that kind of exploration with.
Back to Living Colour. The four of us have been able to carry that message of live music, mixing technology, stripping it right down, a straight-up four piece. No kissing, no cuddling.
You guys seem to have an almost psychic connection onstage.
If there's a little bit of a lull, we can liven it up. If something goes wrong, we laugh our way through it. If there's a false start or a beat missing, we don't care since what happens on the other side becomes more adventurous. We start focusing on the next passage.
It's just fascinating to be in this band. It is that good. I say that as a fan. After years of doing these songs, we've been able to reinterpret them. I'm thankful we still have that drive and energy to be able to perform at that level.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Also, I want to get the WimBash music festival back up and running. We're also streaming shows online so people can actually see what is taking place with the WimBash. That's very important. I have real passion for that, working with young adults, being a mentor, bringing my friends around the next generation of young kids.
Living Colour is in the process of making a new record. That's my passion. I want to continue working with my closest friends.
I think that wraps it up, but we really just scratched the surface. You played on so many records we didn't even get to.
I recent played a gig at Gerald Veasley's Bass BootCamp in Philadelphia. I put together a workshop — after doing the Sugar Hill stuff on the boat with Gee, I put together a medley of Sugarhill songs and I gave people a history of the bass. I played those songs and those people lost their mind. Because it's in Philadelphia, and because Will Smith made it so famous, when I went into "Apache," you should have seen these people start spinning around and doing that "Apache" dance. That's the impact of that music.
I'm looking forward to doing some more gigs with the Sugarhill Gang, and I'm so thankful that it's gone completely full circle. I just can't thank Sylvia Robinson and Joe Robinson enough, and their families. Thank you, Sylvia, for being able to give me that opportunity to share this talent. And my elders Skip [McDonald] and Harold Sargent, thank you. I'll end on that note.
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