Netflix’s The Get Down is a musical odyssey about the birth of hip-hop and its sometimes violent labor pains. Depending on whom you ask, the show is either white Australian director Baz Luhrmann playing Christopher Columbus to hip-hop’s origin story, or a sublime fantasy about the roots of the most influential phenomenon in contemporary music. So far it’s getting mixed reviews, and the dazzling visuals make it easy to forget that in reality, Bronx boys weren’t the only kids searching for the perfect beat.
Nearly 3,000 miles away in Harbor City, there was another kid throwing parties and reshaping the local music scene: Rodger Clayton, later known all over town as DJ, promoter, recording artist, producer and record store owner Mr. Prinze.
Clayton's first party, Industrial Shop, was in his father’s garage. It was 1973 and he had just finished the ninth grade. For 50 cents, partygoers funked it up while psychedelic light beams swirled around them. Dr. John’s “Right Place, Right Time” was spinning on a little record player hooked up to a speaker.
Throughout high school, Clayton continued to throw house parties. After graduation, he worked at a factory by day and DJed at night. Disco hadn’t yet died, but Clayton's crowd was more into funk. “We were Rick James fans … and a lot of the dope gangsters wanted to hear funk. They didn’t want to hear no disco,” says Lester Malone, a DJ who in 1980 became a member of Clayton’s band of DJs, known as Uncle Jamm’s Army (UJA).
Egyptian Lover and Ice-T got their start working Clayton’s dance parties.
Other members of various early incarnations of UJA (which was initially called Unique Dreams Entertainment) included Charles “Alvon” Woods, Renord Collins, Rodney Gardner, David “Dr. Funkenstein” Storms and Rene “Bleeps” Williams. Later, Arthur “Gid” Martin and his brother Tony — friends of Clayton’s from his Narbonne High School days — rented out Torrance's Alpine Village for a party and asked Clayton to spin. “I DJ’d. … They had only 150 people,” Clayton lamented in a 1994 Rap Pages interview (the source of all Clayton quotes throughout this article). “[I] said, ‘Let’s do this right.'”
Soon, the Martin brothers and Clayton merged their crews and party-promoting efforts and Uncle Jamm’s Army was born. The name was a nod to Funkadelic’s album Uncle Jam Wants You. Clayton, who had been performing under the name Ace of Dreams, changed his DJ handle to Mr. Prinze.
Luminaries like Egyptian Lover and Ice-T got their start working Clayton’s dance parties. If there ever was a Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa of the West Coast, Clayton was it. “He was a genius,” Malone says. “He acted on the fly. I think, had he not been that type of person, we would have never opened a lot of doors for hip-hop up in here, period.”
In the early ’80s, before N.W.A and gangsta rap became what the West Coast was known for, UJA was the biggest hip-hop party promoter in L.A. “We had the whole market,” Malone recalls. “There was nobody in L.A. but us.”
While out-of-town acts like The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five were headlining early L.A. rap shows, UJA was drawing crowds just as big. “I had never in my life seen 10,000 kids just coming to see DJs play,” says Greg Mack, former music director of famed radio station KDAY, which back when it was on the AM dial became the country's first all-hip-hop station.
When UJA went back to Alpine Village, they printed posters and bought 10-second radio spots on KDAY. “Gid does not get a lot of credit for what he did,” says Malone, noting that Arthur “Gid” Martin was responsible for UJA’s memorable and highly effective commercials. “Our first dance at Alpine, called Bustin Out,” Clayton recalled, “we got like 500 people.”
Together, Clayton and Gid ran the Army. “They were the formula that made us exist … [Clayton] started taking over and doing his thing, but Gid was a very important part of UJA,” Malone explains.
As the Army stepped up its promotions game, printing thousands of posters and plastering them all over L.A., they faced increasing competition from other mobile DJ crews, who would sometimes put their posters over UJA’s. Clayton called it “poster wars.” “They didn’t win. That’s all I can say,” Malone boasts.
At area high schools, during lunch break, members would do short DJ sets to motivate kids to attend their shows. Soon UJA’s swelling roster read like a Justice League of West Coast DJs: Rodger “Mr. Prinze” Clayton, Greg “Egyptian Lover” Broussard, Mark “DJ Pooh” Jordan, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, George “Mr. No Good” Hatchet, Tommie “Tomcat” Richardson, Troy Johnson, Dwayne “Muffla” Simon, Duane “Razor” Meadows and a host of others.
It wasn’t just that they were talented DJs; they were experimenting with the turntables’ possibilities as an actual instrument. Before KDAY Mixmasters and other DJ crews, UJA were flawlessly mixing with four turntables and inventing scratches that the world had never heard. “Egypt[tian Lover] did all the extra tricks: playing records backwards, taking the needle and turning it upside down, stacking the record and playing the record from underneath instead of on top,” says DJ Muffla. “[Clayton] could ride a record with two different speeds and make that shit match.”
They also were mixing records while playing keyboard and programming live drums. “Just us DJs playing a drum machine and a few keyboards rocking 10,000 people. It was unheard of,” remembers Egyptian Lover. “I still remember hearing [Clayton’s] strong MC voice saying, ‘Uncle Jamm goes live!’ And I pushed play on my 808 drum machine.” On the tables, 15-year-old DJ Bobcat had Usain Bolt speed and Jazzy Jeff–like precision. Some members were even scratching with their elbows and pounding the turntables like drums. The crowds loved it. Thousands of kids went to UJA shows to get down.
It wasn’t as if UJA needed acts, but when they did one of their Sports Arena shows, Def Jam Records owner Russell Simmons called Clayton and asked if Run-D.M.C. could perform. The not-yet-famous New York trio was blown away by the size of UJA's following. “They saw all these people and they had never seen that many people in their life. They were scared,” Clayton said. He booked other out-of-town acts, as well, becoming a vital conduit between the coasts. “Rodger was the first promoter to bring East Coast acts to the West Coast,” Muffla remembers. “He brought Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Kurtis Blow, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, UTFO, The Real Roxanne, The Boogie Boys.”
Disco was officially dead, dead, dead. Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and Twilight 22’s “Electric Kingdom” had dance crews, poppers and lockers going as if their reputations depended on it. “Hip-hop and electro were one and the same,” says Egyptian Lover, “just a faster BPM [beats per minute]. The faster the BPM, the harder the freaks danced.”
When factions within UJA realized how easy it was to make a record, things started to change. Clayton and Egypt were the first to step into the studio and come out with the Kraftwerk-inspired electro tracks “Dial-a-Freak” and “Yes, Yes, Yes,” both of which got constant local radio play. “Once we had a record on the radio, everybody started treating us a little different. We were already popular as far as DJs and being in Uncle Jamm’s Army, but when we made the record it took us to a different level,” Egypt once said in a Frank151 interview.
Egyptian Lover followed up his early UJA success with a solo cut, “Egypt, Egypt.” KDAY put it in heavy rotation and it spider-webbed across the nation's airwaves. Flush with solo success, “I left the group,” Egypt says. “Others wanted to do their own thing, as well.”
Uncle Jamm's Army put out a few other tracks, but a full body of work never materialized. DJ Muffla, DJ Bobcat, DJ Pooh and UJA member Darryl “Big Dad” Pierce went on to form a production team called L.A. Posse. Lester Malone started working with them to help produce a local rapper named Breeze, who was being sought after by Russell Simmons. L.A. Posse also produced LL Cool J’s album Bigger and Deffer (1987). DJ Pooh went on to write, produce and direct several films, notably The Wash (2001), starring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. As more and more former UJA members went down their own creative paths, Clayton and the remains of his crew trudged on.
But Clayton's influence on West Coast hip-hop wasn't over yet. He began doing a lot of Uncle Jam's Army (somewhere along the way, the group dropped the second “M” from “Jamm”) shows at Skateland, a legendary Compton rollerskating rink that was a safe haven for black kids to see their favorite artists. “He [Clayton] said, ‘You know, I’m doing these huge fucking gigs at the Sports Arena. Nothing but problems. I’m paying out a lot of money. I’m taking in a lot of money,’” remembers Craig Schweisinger, former owner of the now-defunct Skateland. “But he said, ‘I want to do something here.’ I told him ‘OK.’ He had a good reputation.”
Skateland became the place where UJA would help introduce the world to gangsta rap. Toward the beginning of the film Straight Outta Compton, the screen flashes a UJA poster promoting Eazy-E and N.W.A “Live in Concert.” Dotted lights swing around the rink as the camera pans to N.W.A rocking the crowd. The “strength of street knowledge” was in the building. Old, white record executives looked on, shaking their heads. “It was fucking epic,” Schweisinger says of the actual show the scene was based on, which took place March 11, 1987.
Revered as a West Coast pioneer, Rodger Clayton — like all great DJs — had an ego but he knew how to read a crowd. He was considered a master programmer. By playing other great songs from an artist’s catalog, instead of just their hits, he forced radio to play what people heard at UJA parties. “His gift was picking the best records before anyone. Major labels would give him the albums before they came out and ask him to pick the singles, and in which order they should come out,” Egyptian Lover says. “I think Clayton loved seeing people have a good time more than he liked making money,” Schweisinger speculates.
Rodger “Uncle Jamm” Clayton died of a heart attack on Oct. 10, 2010. “[He] actually DJed until the day he passed away,” Egypt says. “We were talking the day before he passed away about [making] a movie and [doing] an Uncle Jamm's Army reunion.” Currently, Egypt and three other members are putting stories together for a UJA biopic. In August, the Army had a reunion party to salute their general and pay their respects to the Sports Arena, which is set to be demolished.
Los Angeles, and the evolution of rap for that matter, would not be what they are today if it weren’t for Rodger Clayton. He didn’t just throw historically epic parties; he put together an Army.
“[Back in the day], we had conquered every place that you could think of in L.A.,” Malone remembers. “Biltmore Hotel, the Long Beach Convention Center, the L.A. Convention Center. We had went all the way to Oakland. We did the Oakland Convention Center, Richmond Auditorium, the Meisner in Fresno. The Sports Arena was like the cherry on top of the ice cream.”
They had huge speakers stacked like pyramids. No alcohol was allowed. The parties were all ages. Middle-school girls in miniskirts snuck out of the house just to attend their parties. “Their mommas come looking for them,” Clayton said. “And we get on the microphone, ‘Such-and-such, your momma at the door. She got a belt.’”