Spike Lee’s Crooklyn debuted in cinemas in May of 1994. Changing tact from the combustible racial commentary of Do the Right Thing and his political biopic of Malcolm X, Lee presented Crooklyn as a nostalgia-steeped series of familial vignettes centered on the Carmichael clan in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the early ’70s. The movie’s soundtrack reflected this vibe with songs by Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and The Staple Singers. The sole musical nod to Crooklyn’s era of release came from a rap track credited to The Crooklyn Dodgers, an impromptu super-group consisting of the Brooklyn-born rappers Buckshot, Masta Ace and Special Ed. (Production for the song came courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest’s Brooklyn-raised Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Queens ambassador Q-Tip.)
Lee charged the Crooklyn Dodgers with two goals: To conjure up what Special Ed remembers him terming “a Brooklyn anthem” while also reflecting the back-in-the-day atmosphere of the movie. The song they came up with, “Crooklyn,” fulfilled Lee’s requirements, with the rappers dropping a series of smart verses over a steely beat pepped up by the occasional skewed Miles Davis horn stab. At the time it was simply a homage to the ’70s setting of the movie. Looking back, it’s also a snapshot of hip hop’s golden era. Here's the inside story of how it came to be.
The Genesis Of The Crooklyn Dodgers
Q-Tip: Spike Lee called me and asked me to do it. He just said he wanted Brooklyn MCs, so we had a screening of the movie and we had Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Ace, Special Ed, Buckshot, a couple of other ones. We was watching the movie and ODB got up after ten minutes and was like, “Man, ain’t nobody getting shot in this movie!” and walked out. So it was the MCs that was left that got on the record.
Buckshot: Spike wanted to put together a project and I believe he put together the team himself and he went after everybody. He specifically knew what he wanted, to my knowledge. He said, “I want a team to represent Brooklyn, but conscious Brooklyn.”
Special Ed: It was Q-Tip or someone from his camp who got in touch with me. Q-Tip produced the track and I guess he was given the task of putting together some of Brooklyn’s finest and that’s how we all got chosen for the role.
Buckshot: There was no direction from Spike Lee about what the song should be about. He just said, “This is a song representing Brooklyn and Crooklyn Dodgers is the project.”
Special Ed: It was obvious – it was a Brooklyn anthem. Spike Lee didn't say what the song was going to be like but he was hands-on and he did come to my studio, the Dolla Cab Lab.
Inside The Dolla Cab Lab
Situated in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the Dolla Cab Lab was a studio owned and run by Special Ed. (It was named as a nod to the one-buck vans that cruise up and down Flatbush Avenue as a surrogate taxi service.) The spot became the Crooklyn Dodgers’ home base.
“ODB got up after ten minutes and was like, ‘Man, ain’t nobody getting shot in this movie!’ and walked out.” - Q-Tip
Special Ed: The Dolla Cab Lab was my baby! It was a studio I put together: It was about four rooms, three of them had equipment and there was the main room where everybody recorded and then a lounge area. The Dolla Cab Lab was there for almost ten years. I used it for my own music, for some Biggie Smalls and Junior M.A.F.I.A. music, some 2Pac, some mixtapes, some stuff with Busta Rhymes, Buckshot and Boot Camp Clik, just a lot of artists came through. It was on Utica Avenue and Avenue M.
Masta Ace: I remember being surprised at the Dolla Cab Lab location ‘cause I probably had driven past it a million times and didn’t know that it was a studio. It was above some kind of store. I remember having to walk up a flight of stairs and it was a very small control room with a board.
Buckshot: Spike Lee himself came down at the time and Q-Tip, who produced the track, he came down and we had [Black Moon’s DJ and producer] Evil Dee who also assisted Q-Tip on the boards. It was this little small corner. Me and Special Ed and Ace were in the other room doing the vocals and we had Spike Lee roaming about filming and chillin’.
Q-Tip: It was dark and there was a good atmosphere and a good vibe in the studio. We just banged it out, did the track right there.
Buckshot: Evil Dee loved the song. He actually helped Q-Tip out on the beat, so certain things you could hear on the beat he added and certain other things on the beat Q-Tip added. They kinda worked together. The drums was extra hard on the stuff ‘cause Q-Tip was great on that but Evil was really crazy at other things.
“Buckshot went in and did his verse like boom, boom, boom! Everybody was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” - Evil Dee
Special Ed: It was kinda like a group session as opposed to just come in, lay your verse and now here’s the track. I think we finalized it in the Dolla Cab Lab and Tip might have added some touches later, but we all had input ‘cause Tip is not like a controlling producer. He’ll ask for an honest opinion. We were all creatively involved – it was just a matter of having Tip helming it as a producer and we respected that. We all contributed to the hook – even Action Love [Special Ed's DJ] contributed on that hook.
Evil Dee: Buckshot went in and did his verse like boom, boom, boom! Everybody was like, “Oh, shit!” When that happened it was like, “We need a chorus for the record...” I was like, “Why don’t y’all scratch the chorus?” Someone said, “Maybe you should scratch the chorus.”
I took the song home. [The scratches] were Guru [on Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell”] and [Black Moon’s] “Who Got Da Props.” Back then I used to listen to records to learn the rhymes. When they said the record was “Crooklyn,” I thought of the Guru verse first when he said, “Never taking shorts ‘cause Brooklyn’s the borough.” I was like, “Yo, that right there is ill!” But then later on that day I wound up remembering “Who Got Da Props” says “Straight from Crooklyn, better known as Brooklyn.” So I tried to combine the two. Those lines were my only choices. It worked. And actually, Spike Lee is the one that put the baseball samples in the record [at the start and end], so you could say that Spike produced it also.
“We did it like that/ And now we do it like this…”
The finished version of “Crooklyn” is hooked around verses that Buckshot says “take people on a trip down memory lane and a tour of Brooklyn.” But that direction only came about after some intervention from Spike Lee, with an earlier take of the song sticking to a more traditional bragging and boasting template.
Masta Ace: I remember us going up in there [in the studio] and Tip and Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] was there and they had a rough idea for the beat – it wasn't completely fleshed out yet – and we listened to it and everybody kinda vibed out to it and basically we just took the beat home that day and wrote our verses.
The original version, the drums were really prevalent and up front, but the elements of the sample and the bassline, you couldn't really hear that stuff. It was just a whole lot of really loud drums and I think the elements were there but it wasn't a good mix. I remember it just being drums, drums, drums and then Q went and made everything stand out and the bassline and some of those other hits came out. It wasn't until he mixed it that I could really hear what the track was.
“The beat did change a lot when the final mix happened but the biggest change was the lyrics.” - Masta Ace
The beat did change a lot when the final mix happened but the biggest change was the lyrics. We did the song, we came back into a bigger studio – I forget which one it was – and we did the song and then Spike Lee was actually there and he listened to the lyrics we had did and it was really just us rapping about, you know, being dope or whatever, just typical rap verses. He said that he felt that we needed to see the movie and that the song needed to reflect more of what the theme of the movie was, which was the ’70s. So we left the studio that day and he set up a screening of the movie – we went to a very small screening studio and we watched the movie way before it came out – and after we watched the movie, for me, the ideas really started to come together as far as what I wanted to talk about. We went back on a later date and rerecorded to reflect the theme of the movie.
Q-Tip: Yeah, at first everybody was freestyling for a couple of minutes. Then everybody recorded different verses and we went in and did it again.
Masta Ace: I don’t remember one line from those original verses! But I do have a cassette somewhere in a pile of bags that has the original version of that song.
“Howard, Tapscott and Sutter / I remember way back in the days playing hot peas and butter…”
Buckshot, Masta Ace and Special Ed dropped tight-knit complementary verses on “Crooklyn,” but each rapper chose a different angle: Masta Ace linked the past to the present via modernizing ’70s TV show characters, Special Ed took a broader philosophical approach to musing on the life and times of a Brooklyn kid, while Buckshot packed his rhymes with hyper-local references to blocks he grew up on and the Franklin Avenue Posse. Here’s how they took it back.
Q-Tip: The verses were all pretty dope. [starts rapping] “Howard, Tapscott and Sutter / I remember way back in the days playing hot peas and butter.” I kinda like that shit! And [Special Ed's] “Give me a dollar for the trouble / Or get blown up like a bubble,” and [Masta Ace's] “We be doing it up Crooklyn-style/ What does it take to get you wild?” All of that shit!
Buckshot: I grew up on Tapscott [Street], 51 Tapscott. I grew up in Brownsville too. I bigged up all the places that I lived at: I said “Peace to C.I. and the Bush.” I grew up in Coney Island for a couple of years, 33rd Street between Surf and Mermaid [Avenues]. I had my share of being all around Brooklyn.
“My first memory on Tapscott was meeting the local neighborhood drug dealers” - Buckshot
My first memory on Tapscott was meeting the local neighborhood drug dealers and one of them used to like my sister so he let me hang out in the spot. That's when I first started learning about, “Hey, wait a minute, these streets are kinda real, yo!” I grew up a lot of places but Tapscott was the first place where I was chilling all day in the drug spot type shit. I'm not bigging that up, but it showed me that wasn’t where I wanted to be at. I got a chance to have that experience early.
Hot peas and butter, you know, that was a game that we all used to play in the neighborhood. We played a few games like skelly, tag and hot peas and butter where a person got to catch a skill. I think in the neighborhood all we grew up with was skill games. All those games was a part of my upbringing. I just chose hot peas and butter ‘cause it rhymed with Sutter.
Special Ed: When I talk about “If you know the Ave, follow the path,” I mean Church Avenue, Flatbush Avenue – any major avenue in Brooklyn.
Masta Ace: I’m from Brownsville so I said, “I come from the ‘Ville and never ran.” I just remember really hot summers and running around the neighborhood. We were surrounded by projects – I lived in the projects and there were ten other housing projects in the same neighborhood – and I remember going to different projects to what we used to call jams which was when the DJ would bring music out and play.
Special Ed: It was my idea [to interpolate a line from A Tribe Called Quest]. It came from, “Award tour with Muhammad my man” and I was making it for Brooklyn, so I just went “I’m in a world war with Muhammad my man.” That was my ode to Q-Tip and Ali for producing the track.
Buckshot: Special Ed’s flow was different and Masta Ace was always creative, and you know he brought in the Reruns and Rogers to bring it back to the culture that influenced us when we were growing up. We knew the TV show [What’s Happening!!]. What we saw on TV was impacting us on the street.
Masta Ace: When Spike opened the movie and I saw how they were dressed, it made me really remember being in Brooklyn growing up. The one thing that stood out to me as a kid was sitting with my grandmother and watching a bunch of different programs when we'd watch TV together. We'd watch The Partridge Family, we'd watch Barney Miller. I thought it would be a cool thing to talk about some of the characters on the TV shows and kinda put it into a more current what-they-might-be-doing-now angle, being that it's not the ’70s any more and it’s the ‘90s now, 20 years later, and stuff is a little more street and a little more wild. I tried to bridge the ’70s and the ’90s.
Buckshot: The Franklin Avenue Posse was basically where I stay at. It's an avenue in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. A lot of talented people come from this neighborhood, so that's why every time I speak about Crown Heights I’m always proud of it. I wanted Spike Lee to get a feel for it, let Franklin Avenue shine.
The Return Of The Crooklyn Dodgers
“Crooklyn” remains the only song ever released by the inaugural incarnation of the Crooklyn Dodgers. A sequel of sorts appeared a year later, tied to Spike Lee's Clockers movie and this time with Chubb Rock, O.C. and Jeru The Damaja taking on mic duties over a DJ Premier production. According to one member of the original crew though, a plan was put in place to record an entire album as the Crooklyn Dodgers...
Special Ed: We spoke about another record, but I think it was a matter of everyone coming together. I was just feeling good about being asked to be involved – it was my first collaboration where I was invited to be involved.
Q-Tip: No, there was never any plans [to record again]. But I was down.
“About a year after that record came out Spike Lee approached us about doing an entire album.” - Masta Ace
Masta Ace: Well, about a year after that record came out Spike Lee approached us about doing an entire album. He had a deal with MCA that he somehow brokered and the idea was to bring the Crooklyn Dodgers as a group to MCA and do a full album that would be mostly produced by Tip and Ali. It was a great idea and a great opportunity and both me and Special Ed were 100% down to do it, but Buckshot wasn't as enthusiastic about doing it. He had just inked a deal with his Duck Down label with Priority and I guess the label was growing very fast and he didn't feel like he had the time to put into it. So he basically was the one who decided not to do it. I even went to him personally and tried to talk him into doing the project but he politely declined.
Buckshot: It’s all good. We made history. History is about leaving your mark and leaving your presence. That’s what it’s about. We’ve made history and we put a scratch in the glass of time.