Even if you don’t know how Grandmaster Caz’s new book Written came to be, looking at the handwriting on every page is immediately impressive — it’s nearly perfect. Readers will be enamored to find actual photos of the Hip Hop pioneer’s original rhyme books within its 124 pages.
The idea evolved quite organically. While filming Ice-T’s 2012 documentary The Art Of Rap, Caz was demonstrating his innate ability to write a rhyme on the spot when those on set noticed his penmanship and encouraged the former Cold Crush Brother to package them up in a book.
So, that’s exactly what Caz did. Beginning with “Mr. Bill” and culminating with “The Art Of Rap,” Hip Hop fans have a rare opportunity to see Caz’s personal artifacts.
In a way, these books are what started Caz down the path to legend status. In the late ’70s, Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records was trying to put a Hip Hop group together and essentially plucked Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee off the street to form The Sugar Hill Gang.
The problem was Hank didn’t have any rhymes, so he asked his friend Caz — who went by his MC name Casanova Fly — if he could borrow some. Caz dug out his rhyme book and handed him what would become “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap single to crack the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Caz says he was never properly compensated for his contribution to the groundbreaking song, he told HipHopDX knowing he’s considered a godfather of the culture is “priceless.”
While speaking with DX, Caz also opened up about how losing his mother saved him from addiction, the magic of his Hush Hip Hop Tours in New York City and the #CazPassTheeMic social media challenge.
HipHopDX: What made you decide to put your rhyme books out there?
Grandmaster Caz: I participated in a film The Art Of Rap that Ice-T directed a few years ago. In the film, I was actually writing a rap to show these guys I could write a rap right there. They noticed my penmanship and were like, “Your penmanship is phenomenal. Where’d you learn to write like that?” I said, “Well, you know that’s just my handwriting. I’ve been writing like that for years.” They were like, “You should check out his rhyme books. This guy writes in perfect penmanship.” So, I pulled out a couple of my rhyme books, the guys they were enamored by what they saw and thought it would be really cool if I put that in a book. So, that’s what Written is all about. It’s about 40 of a few lyrics chosen out of my actual rhyme books, in my own handwriting.
HipHopDX: That’s definitely the first thing that popped out to me too is like this guy has perfect handwriting! Like it was pretty phenomenal, and you don’t really see that with too many men. Usually it’s more like chicken scratch (laughs).
Grandmaster Caz: I guess that’s what the novelty of it was. You usually don’t see men with good handwriting, but I’ve been writing that way since I was in catholic school.
HipHopDX: That explains it! I went to catholic school, too and people often remark that I have nice penmanship. Maybe that’s where it comes from.
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, that might have something to do with it. They started us out early, learning how to write script.
HipHopDX: Do you remember they used to put up those alphabets all around the room?
Grandmaster Caz: Yes I do.
HipHopDX: Yeah, you’d have to practice on those pieces of paper to kind of emulate what they had on the chalkboard. I remember having to do that constantly.
Grandmaster Caz: You sound much younger than me, but there was a time when they had the script letters on top and then they had the plain letters underneath and then we would practice the plain ones first. Then in second grade, that’s when you’d start learning the script. But I was writing script in first grade. I just got a jump on everybody I guess.
HipHopDX: I was reading through the book and really intrigued by “Mr. Bill.” How old were you when you wrote that?
Grandmaster Caz: I was like in my 20s when I wrote “Mr. Bill,” maybe 24.
HipHopDX: OK, I feel like you had to be pretty aware of your surroundings back then. What is it about ? I have my own idea, but can you explain that one a little bit?
Grandmaster Caz: “Mr. Bill” was about the things that were prevalent back around that time that people were attracted to, which was money and cocaine. It was just like nothing can give you the rush or the excitement that I can, Mr. Bill — the “bill” being money or the bill with the cocaine in it.
HipHopDX: Oh, that’s genius!
Grandmaster Caz: And then, Mr. Bill on Saturday Night Live was a very prevalent piece of culture at the time as well. Oh no, Mr. Bill!
HipHopDX: Was that Eddie Murphy? I can’t remember. Who played Mr. Bill?
Grandmaster Caz: No, that wasn’t Eddie Murphy that did Mr. Bill. It was during that era when Eddie Murphy was part of the cast.
HipHopDX: I know you had a bout with drugs in your younger years. What pulled you out of that? How were you able to move on?
Grandmaster Caz: Because I had done it long enough. I had suffered all the lows you can suffer during addiction, and I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think finally, the straw that pretty much broke the camels back in my case was when my mom passed away. My mom passed away in like ’92 and and it just showed me like, “You’re all alone in this world now.”
Like now that she’s gone ,I mean there’s nobody left that you know. That really helped me to cleanup. Like, “You know what Caz, get your shit together, man. You’re better than this. There’s more to you than this.” I decided — not other people, not society, not NA [Narcotics Anonymous], or anything like that — I was on top of this shit, man. I wanted to do better, so I took to my health.
HipHopDX: I just lost my mother five months ago. I feel you. It makes me want to keep making her proud, even though she’s not here.
Grandmaster Caz: That’s what it did for me. It’s like I don’t want her looking down on me still.
HipHopDX: How old were you?
Grandmaster Caz: I was 32.
HipHopDX: It’s the biggest punch in the gut. It doesn’t matter how old you are, really. It’s your mom.
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, that’s like a finality. There’s no coming back to that.
HipHopDX: Do you ever feel like your mom is still with you?
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, yeah I do. I try to keep her with me, you know, always. She never really got to see the … I don’t know what you want to call it.
HipHopDX: Your legacy?
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah. She never really got to understand how big that was to other people. When I was young, it was just a notoriety kind of thing. She’d say, “Tell them girls stop calling up my house” or “Stop tapping on the window,” you know what I mean? I always had a lot of company, that kind of thing.
HipHopDX: Right. Like, “Who’s Casanova Fly? What are you talking about?”
Grandmaster Caz: Right, right. “Go take the garbage out.” (laughs)
HipHopDX: Now here you are, a godfather of an entire culture. That’s pretty phenomenal. Your mom is no doubt proud.
Grandmaster Caz: I was adopted, too. I never met my real parents. I would hope that they would get some kind of satisfaction out of knowing that I became something.
HipHopDX: Hip Hop is the biggest genre in the world. Did you ever think that would ever happen?
Grandmaster Caz: In the back of my mind, I always said to myself, “If other people get to see this and be exposed to it, they would love it as well.” I thought that way, but I wasn’t enterprising enough, or I didn’t have the foresight that it would grow into this global conglomerate. If I would’ve thought that and didn’t act on it, I’d be an asshole. I was involved, I was involved in it. I wasn’t on the outside looking in, I was on the inside making it happen.
HipHopDX: That ties to the beginning of the book. You started with a quote and it’s talking about the difference between a rapper and an MC. To me, there is a huge difference. Anybody can be a rapper, but what does it take to be an MC?
Grandmaster Caz: It takes a skill set, for one. It takes a love and attachment for the culture. It takes personality. It takes a certain level of education because you have to be somewhat articulate — at least you did when I was doing this. You had to know what was going on in the world. You had to be able to articulate ideas to other people. You’ve got to paint pictures for people. It was to get away from the things that were bad in our communities and the things that were going on that were depressing. That’s what music did and that’s what it was supposed to do for us back in the day — to give us a release or just a minute away from life’s deals, you know what I mean?
HipHopDX: Absolutely. I know you do the Hush Hip Hop Tours in New York. I read you still perform “The Message.” And of course, you’ve been at the center of controversy with The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Some people don’t realize Big Bank Hank was spitting rhymes you wrote. All these years later, does it feel good getting credited as writing those rhymes?
Grandmaster Caz: Credit is great and it’s cool and for people to acknowledge your contribution to something — especially something as big as that — is definitely a good look. I’ve been doing interviews all morning and one part that I always talk about is that I may not have been compensated for my role in “Rappers Delight” but just being a part of it, knowing that I helped to put Hip Hop out into the world, is something that’s priceless.
HipHopDX: 1000 percent. I remember Ice-T saying blatantly ripping off your rap was pretty bold at the time. Spelling out Casanova Fly was kind of like, “Really?” When you figured that out, what was your initial reaction?
Grandmaster Caz: Well, when you’re not an MC, you don’t know how to be an MC. You just emulate what you hear directly. You don’t embellish. Hank, he wasn’t an MC. An MC would’ve changed the letter around and spelled out his own name. He might’ve copied the rest of it, but the part that identified him as someone else? He would’ve changed. But he wasn’t an MC. He didn’t know no better.
HipHopDX: This was so new at the time, too. You were just trying to help out your homie or something.
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, exactly! I’m thinking, “You down with me so if anything comes from it, it’ll trickle down to me.” But it didn’t work out that way.
HipHopDX: People are so blown away by the passion you still have for this culture all these years later. What makes you keep going?
Grandmaster Caz: I don’t know. It’s been here from the beginning and it’s just something I never lost; my love and my passion for the culture. I pretty much pigeon-holed myself into Hip Hop for the last 40 plus years. What else am I going to do? My whole mentality is Hip Hop-based. It may not be about making a record and it may not be about something commercial, but I’m doing tours, I’m writing books, I’m teaching classes, and all of that. It keeps me involved.
HipHopDX: Tell me about the #CazPassTheeMic challenge.
Grandmaster Caz: The #CazPassTheeMic challenge is the brainchild of my publisher Wahida Clark. The book was released earlier by a company in the U.K. called The Lyric Book company and then it was discontinued by Amazon. My publisher said, “Let’s get this thing new life. Let’s put it back out. Let’s do an audio version, so not only can they read your lyrics in your own handwriting, but they can also hear you say them.” That’s why the book is back out now. So we said, “Well, let’s do this mic challenge on Instagram and we’ll have people jut get on and drop a verse of one of their favorite songs, or something original, and then pass the mic to three more people.” That’s how that got started and we’ve had some stellar performances so far. You just challenge your friends to get on and drop a verse. Once you’ve done it, it’s like, “OK, here’s my verse. Now I challenge so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so” and then just keep it going.
HipHopDX: It’s inspiring all sorts of younger people to come out and give it a shot, huh?
Grandmaster Caz: Yes it is! And people I don’t even know or didn’t invite, but they’re like, “Hey, I’m in!”
HipHopDX: We have a new Gang Starr album coming. We see super lyrical MCs like Rapsody getting shine and I was wondering, what are your thoughts on what’s happening in the culture right now?
Grandmaster Caz: I think that the current crop of Hip Hop or rap artists today are trying to make their own mark. I think they’re trying to create their own sound, their own environment. I think they’re a bit detached from the last school of Hip Hop and these guys are pretty much these millennials. These are the independent artists. These are the guys who don’t need record companies or nothing like that. They’re putting out their music independently and so there’s no quality control. The rules that you might have to adhere to being a part of a group or consortium or a record label — you’re independent so you can do whatever you want to do. And that’s what the music sounds like today — everybody’s doing what they want to do.
HipHopDX: It’s almost quantity over quality. That’s literally what it feels like, for me anyways.
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, just gather as many likes and photos as you can. That’s the new and what they judge you by nowadays. There’s like a chasm between these generations. At first, there was one, just one. Then crack happened, and then there’s this big divide with this generation and the next generation. Every generation after crack has its own ideas, its own philosophies and its own agenda.
HipHopDX: To me, it’s so far removed from the actual root of Hip Hop.
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, I agree.
HipHopDX: It’s hard for me to get down with it, you know what I mean?
Grandmaster Caz: Yeah, I agree. There’s a lot of things about Hip Hop that could be very relevant today. You could instill some of those things into today’s Hip Hop and not have it sound old or like it has to go back to how we sounded. Some of the reasons for why you do this should always be conscious.