Music News & Reviews

Hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh has found many ways to stay relevant

Doug E. Fresh helped to spread the popularity of hip-hop music around the world.
Doug E. Fresh helped to spread the popularity of hip-hop music around the world. ASSOCIATED PRESS

There was little precedent when Doug E. Fresh ruled the hip-hop world.

Before him, there was no beat- boxing, the ability to simulate mechanically designed beats with only a mouth and a microphone. Fresh was a pioneer of the style.

Before him, there was little global consciousness of the music. Fresh took care of that by becoming the first hip-hop artist to play Africa and the Caribbean.

Before him, there was no such thing as a two-sided rap hit — a single containing two tunes that both become high-profile songs. Fresh was the first when the regally cheery The Show and the beat-box-heavy La Di Da Di became simultaneous hits in 1985.

There was no precedent for any of that before the rapper born in Barbados as Douglas E. Davis took the spotlight. But then, hip-hop in the early to mid-'80s was in its infancy. It was music of discovery that was just beginning to change the way mainstream pop, and the youth culture that sustained it, moved and grooved.

"I didn't think hip-hop would ever reach the level of impact that it has," said Fresh, who will present a performance and presentation titled Hip-hop: The Echo of a Movement on Sunday at The Lyric Theatre as part of Lexington's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"I certainly thought the music would have some impact. But what's happening now? I mean, it's mind-blowing. It's over the top. Times have changed quite a bit. Still, some things you can never predict."

"I've seen quite a bit. I've seen the relationship between hip-hop and the struggles people went through to create this opportunity for us. So I'll have a lot to talk about. But I always look at that opportunity as a blessing. I always look at it as, 'Hip-hop is not just an art form. It's a way of life.'"

Fresh's career took root in music that he created out of New York in the early '80s with a then-novice crew of DJs called The Get Fresh Crew. Among them was a young artist who went by the name of MC Ricky D, later igniting his own hip-hop audience after switching to the stage name of Slick Rick.

Hits like The Show soon established Fresh with followings in England, Europe and Africa. Subsequent recordings never equaled the impact of his early successes, but Fresh's career has taken him though collaborations with Ludacris and Nas (the 2005 summit Virgo) right through to 2011.

Beginning in February, Fresh will take part in a 20-city tour headlined by the rap-soul duo Salt-N-Pepa that features a full roster of fellow hip-hop vets including Kurtis Blow, Kool Moe Dee and Slick Rick.

"We see the power of hip-hop as communication all the time," Fresh said. "President Obama probably would have had a harder time getting elected if it wasn't for hip-hop simply because a lot of the young men and women who grew up with this music and voted for him were hip-hoppers. They came to the parties, they came to the shows. Obama really seemed like he was relating to our generation.

"I just think that hip-hop, from a global point of view, has affected so many people. It's unreal. Just in the way people move and think and the things that they do. It's had a tremendous effect across the board."

When it comes to making people move, few hip-hop artists have been hotter than Fresh. Along with his music came a primping, muscle-pumping dance dubbed The Dougie. It's a Fresh creation that has picked up a number of high-profile fans. Among the foremost is former University of Kentucky basketball star John Wall, whose popular celebratory dance is rooted heavily in The Dougie.

"John Wall looks like he's having fun doing it too," Fresh said. "And that's really what it's all about. It's just about having fun and keeping that enjoyment in your life. John Wall plays basketball real good. But a lot of people don't know he can do The Dougie like that."

The front-runner for the most unlikely dancer of The Dougie? Try CNN newscaster Wolf Blitzer, who took a stab at the dance last year at the Soul Train Awards.

"All these people keep coming up to me going, 'Teach me how to do The Dougie.' And I just go, 'Man, I am The Dougie.'

"It's all about that vibration. It's about having fun. That's the whole purpose of the dance. That's the whole purpose of hip-hop. If there is a message to all of it, that message would be to celebrate life. That's the message I live by. And I make sure it's not just something I'm saying. It's something I'm doing."

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