DJ / Producer / Hip-Hop Pioneer.
What’s the saying about never meeting your heroes? My earliest memory, the one that sparked my lifelong love of hip-hop, happened at the age of eight I was in the bubble of suburban Ohio, but heard scratching for the first time at the hands of Mix Master Ice (aka Maurice Bailey) on my worn cassette copy of UTFO’s seminal “Roxanne, Roxanne.” Little did I know then that many years later I’d be sharing a beer with the man, talking about his whirlwind career and reminiscing about the golden era of hip-hop that Ice helped establish.
Born in Harlem, but raised in Brooklyn, Maurice Bailey was drawn to music by his father and a household full of reel-to-reel machines, 8-tracks, and soul records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1979, at his 8th grade prom he witnessed a live DJ for the first time. According to Bailey, “Hip-hop had just started moving from the neighborhoods to the mainstream, and I wanted to be a part of that culture.” Eventually his first dalliance into hip-hop, the Jam-A-Lot Crew, became UTFO, and success followed throughout the ‘80s at a time when the genre was booming.
For the last two decades, with UTFO behind him, Bailey has called Columbus his home. Here he’s done a lot to nurture the old-school renaissance—from a heralded stint on Power 107.5 back in the day, hosting talent shows, to resident DJ nights across the city. And this year, more than ever, Bailey hopes to begin producing emerging young artists and assume his legendary DJ status. He was inducted into the DMC DJ Hall of Fame in 2000 on a world tour. In our lengthy interview, I got the oral history of “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and words of wisdom from a true pioneer. As such, in listening to the tale of one of my childhood heroes, I came to realize he’s not a relic. He still has things to accomplish.
“A lot of the hits are hits but they don’t become classic. They can’t sustain. We had records that sustained, that stuck to your soul. But it’s a different situation right now. You don’t need a record label or publishing to be successful.”
What was the atmosphere like living in Brooklyn during that time? Were you a part of that burgeoning revolution of hip-hop?
Mix Master Ice: I was a freshman in high school when hip-hop began, so I was too young to travel to the Bronx. But we would always get these tapes from those parties and battles from the Bronx and from Uptown. We would study them and add our own style to that stuff. It was energy that you couldn’t deny. You just had to be involved. It definitely was a much needed outlet for me. It became an outlet to keep me from drifting into trouble. Trouble was there right when you stepped out your door. It kept me busy, creative, and it kept me off the streets.
…Fast forward to 1983 when Bailey, now going by Mix Master Ice, and the Educated Rapper auditioned two former dancers for Whodini—the Kangol Kid and Dr. Ice—to round out what would become UFO (which stands for Untouchable Force Organization). Soon as the best crew in the neighborhood, they were recruited by the R&B group Full Force and thrust into the studio to start making records. Due to a copyright issue (and legal threats by the British hard-rock band UFO) they changed the name to UTFO. As UTFO they signed with Select Records and recorded their first single, “Hanging Out,” which had little success, but ironically the b-side, “Roxanne, Roxanne” became an instant hit and propelled the group to fame.
Who was the “Roxanne” that UTFO pursued in the song? I guess who was the “real” Roxanne, before there was a Real Roxanne.
MMI: It’s crazy because it was completely by accident. We were just doing singles for Select at the moment, and needed a B-side to “Hanging Out,” when Full Force suggested we did a song about a girl. I think one of them might have had a girlfriend named Roxanne, but there was no face to the name. What’s unique about it, is that instead of bragging about getting the girl, it was three rappers talking about a girl they couldn’t get, and battling each other to win her attention. It could have been called “Suzanne, Suzanne” or “Joanne, Joanne,” it didn’t matter. It was imaginary when we wrote it. The whole concept of the song was incredible and really different at the time that it was written. It also had that hardcore edge to it, it had that boom-bap beat. When we were first doing parties, we would always use that break from Billy Squire’s “Big Beat.” That was something Howie Tee suggested we added to the record.
…Though the success of “Roxanne, Roxanne” quickly made UTFO a new sensation in hip-hop, it wasn’t long before competition came in the way of 14-year-old, Lolita Shante Gooden, who at the behest of producer Marley Marl, recorded “Roxanne’s Revenge” over the original “Roxanne, Roxanne” beat. Thus, the “Roxanne Wars” had begun.
Do you think that Shante and “Roxanne’s Revenge” eclipsed the impact of your first single?
MMI: Well it has to be stated that we never wrote this song about her. Her name wasn’t even Roxanne, it was Shante Gooden, and her rap name at the time was Fly Shante. She wrote the Roxanne rap, and what I equate to a cover song, to win a talent show. I think at that moment the people behind her had light bulbs going off. They actually went and pressed “Roxanne’s Revenge,” using the instrumental from our single. We were very upset because we took it as a diss. She would have never been our Roxanne, because she was too young. And how dare you take our instrumental and release it as your own, and how dare you act like you were the Roxanne that we were talking about? She was blowing up and we couldn’t stand it. So as a result, we decided we would create our own Roxanne, and that’s how the Real Roxanne came to be. Eventually they were going at it.
…The feud spawned a series of “answer” records to the original two singles. During the phenomena known as the “Roxanne Wars,” there were dozens of songs released by different artists responding to UTFO and Shante, in hopes of cashing in on that initial spark.
Did anyone get in touch with the group when they started to make the movie on Shante’s life (the 2018 Netflix film Roxanne, Roxanne)?
MMI: It has nothing to do with them telling her story. I’m all for somebody telling their story. She’s got a great story and has been through some trials and tribulations. However, she would never have that name if it weren’t for UTFO and by naming the movie “Roxanne, Roxanne,” I feel it was a direct insult to us. How do you have a movie called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and not cast the band who originally recorded the song? They didn’t reach out; they didn’t even license our song.
…Despite the bad blood, UTFO went on to become the second rap group in history (after Run DMC) to release five albums. They were also one of the first rap groups to record with a rock band, culminating in the single “Lethal” with Anthrax, years before Anthrax collaborated with Public Enemy. In the midst of UTFO disbanding due to “creative differences,” Bailey was already starting a worldwide campaign as a DJ, touring clubs as a star in his own right. In 1993, one of his most beloved stops, Columbus, Ohio, became his new home.
When you first got here, what did you make of the hip-hop scene in Columbus?
MMI: I thought the scene was live. You had the Groove Shack. I was supporting stuff there. There was Singing Dog Records. There was B&B Records on Livingston, in the ‘hood. I was highly engulfed in hip-hop here because I was very sought after. I embraced Columbus and it embraced me. I’ve always felt the love here.
And now, as you mentor younger artists, what advice do you give them from the lessons you learned back in the day?
MMI: Basically I just tell people to be original. Everything is marketed towards hip-hop. It’s a global thing now. A lot of the hits are hits but they don’t become classic. They can’t sustain. We had records that sustained, that stuck to your soul. But it’s a different situation right now. You don’t need a record label or publishing to be successful. I’m not going to knock the kids, because I envy the freedom that artists have right now to push things and to be creative. The blueprint is there. We didn’t have a blueprint. There are no excuses to fumble right now. Rap is not a hobby. It used to be a hobby, but now it’s a business, so learn the business.
Follow Mix Master Ice on Instagram @mixmasterice.