The Secret Double Life of Mister Cee, Hip-Hop's Most Beloved DJ
Mister Cee is as central to the story of rap as the rappers themselves. Biggie Smalls, Jay Z, Big Daddy Kane—Cee came up with all of them, helped launch their careers, and has spent the past two decades spinning their records at Hot 97, the radio station synonymous around the world with hip-hop. But last year, Mister Cee's own story began to take a bizarre and shocking turn, until finally, while millions of people listened, all his demons came tumbling out
By Zach Baron Photographs by Holger Pooten February 2014
Every weekday, Calvin Lebrun—Wallop King, the Finisher, or as he's known to most of the New York City area and around the world, Mister Cee—rises around 10 A.M., thinking about radio. There is a calendar he keeps by his bed that's inscribed with anniversaries—March 9, the day his friend Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G., was murdered, or October 17, Eminem's birthday—and he consults it shortly after waking up. If the occasion warrants, he'll begin preparing one of the on-air tributes for which he is beloved. By noon he's on air.
There are slight variations to the routine. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights he does club gigs. Manhattan, New Jersey, Staten Island, wherever. “I'm a gypsy cab,” he says. Because his time in rap dates from his days DJing for Big Daddy Kane in the '80s, because he helped broker the deal that got Biggie Smalls signed, and because he's been a warm, boisterous presence at the world's most revered hip-hop radio station, New York's Hot 97, for going on two decades, he is extremely well connected. So occasionally, someone like Jay Z might hand him or his friend Funkmaster Flex, who does Hot 97's evening show, an exclusive premiere of a song, like 2009's “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” on which Jay shouted out the two of them: I made this just for Flex and / Mister Cee, I want people to feel threatened. That night, the two of them played the record over and over, gloating in the direction of most every other DJ in the city—“Take that big lemon-meringue pie in your face!”
And then there were the two days last year, one in May and one in September, when Mister Cee found himself in front of a microphone far earlier in the morning than usual, sitting across from his boss, Ebro Darden, the on air sign glowing red above them, searching for a radio-friendly synonym for the word fellatio. Searching for the appropriate term to describe a man who looks and dresses like a woman. Searching for a way to say he did, or did not, pay cash to engage in certain activities with that person. Searching for a way to say: Have I lied about getting sexual fellatio in a car with a transsexual? Yes, I have lied about that.
Searching for a way to hold back tears, or to deceive, or to forestall judgment.
And then searching for a way to let the tears come without shame or embarrassment, to tell the truth about who he is, even if it's not entirely clear—even to Mister Cee himself, even now, to this day—what exactly that truth is.
He intends to talk about all of it—the arrests, the double life, the women whom he'd loved, the weekends he'd drive up and down Christopher Street and the strangers he'd pick up there and pay for oral sex, the lies he told and then apologized for telling, the job he quit, live on air, and then reclaimed the next day. He'll try to tell the story as best he understands it.
But first, we're going for a ride.
Up through Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, on a windy Saturday in October, on our way to a club in Queens. Cee—round, taciturn away from the microphone, stone-faced until he smiles, which is more often than you'd think—is driving, winding the car through his old neighborhood, pointing out landmarks as he goes. Here is the metal lamppost where, back in the '80s, Cee and his friends would siphon power for park jams. Over there is where he and Big Daddy Kane shot the “Show & Prove” video, with Jay Z and Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Lafayette Gardens projects: redbrick, city-worn. Cee grew up here. His uncle was a DJ; his next-door neighbor had turntables. It was the moment that all over the city people were piecing together what hip-hop would become. You'd stay up late to listen to the Supreme Team on WHBI, or a friend might pass you a live-performance tape—dubbed-into-oblivion recordings from Harlem, the Bronx, Queens—of the Cold Crush or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Or maybe you'd go to school one day—Sarah J. Hale, only a couple of blocks from where the Brooklyn Nets now play—and find a guy rapping in the lunchroom in a white leather jacket, a feather in his ear, walking around with a cane, calling himself MC Kane.
A few blocks east, at a brownstone with a tony Corcoran FOR SALE sign hanging outside, Cee pulls over. “This is the house where I was raised by my mother and father,” until he went to live with his grandparents in Lafayette Gardens. He gestures just to the left, at the top floor of a boarded-up house covered in vinyl siding. “And that's the house where I recorded the Biggie demo.”
It goes like this, spending time with Cee. He has been around history—sometimes as a DJ, other times as an engineer, an adviser, a sympathetic ear. There he is on turntables on Big Daddy Kane's 1988 debut, track nine—“Mister Cee's Master Plan”—or on tour in 1990, being accompanied by a hype man and sometime drug dealer calling himself Jay-Z. When a shy, overweight local kid from down the street in Bed-Stuy needed his demo tape re-recorded, he showed up at Cee's door, the door we're idling outside right now, to rap the tracks again. It was Cee who, starting in 1993—first on Brooklyn's public-access station 91.5 WNYE and then on Hot 97, where he remained—would play the then unknown Brooklyn artist. And after Biggie died, it was Cee who went on the radio to memorialize him—something he still does to this day, for more people than just Biggie. “When I started doing the tributes for Biggie,” Cee says, “that's what made me think: ‘Why am I just only doing a tribute to Big? Why don't I do a tribute to all of our fallen people?’ ” So he keeps a list, writes the names on his calendar, goes on air and tells wild stories and plays obscurities and brings back, through the depth and urgency of his recollection, those that are gone: Guru from Gang Starr, Aaliyah, Big Pun, all of “our fallen kings and queens.”
At Hot 97, Funkmaster Flex might humiliate some poor soul one night, if he's in a bad mood or if he feels he's been wronged. “I like that type of back-and-forth,” Flex says gleefully. But “Mister Cee's personality,” Flex says, is different. “You kind of know he's not going to go at you. Cee talks with his hands.” It makes the people around him feel protective. You can see it in the car: Away from the microphone, or a laptop, or a turntable, he's almost diminished, not entirely there, like he's waiting to go back in the booth.
“Let me show you one more thing before we start heading to the club,” Cee says, starting up the car. We drive for a few blocks, take a left, pause outside a white marble apartment building. You can tell where we are just by the way the silence falls in the car. “You see how close everything is,” Cee says after a while. Biggie's old place.
“If we had a little bit more time, I would've took you to where Jay Z's from, which is up the street from us, too,” he says, shifting back into drive.
Most of his life, he had girlfriends. One day we meet up at a Chinese-food spot near where he grew up and he starts listing them, all the women he's loved. His first serious girl, from high school, he dated for four, four and a half years, and for a while he thought they'd get married. But she didn't believe he'd succeed and told him so. “ ‘You're not Run-DMC! You're not LL or the Fat Boys!’ That was it for me,” he says.
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