The Making of Das EFX’s ‘Dead Serious’
25 years after their seminal debut album, Skoob and Drayz look back.
Seminal moments in hip hop music start with a debut single. First it hits. Then, there’s the explosion. After the fanfare and smoke clears an artist’s impact manifests when other artists begin biting (or liberally nibbling) on their style. Such was the case when the rap duo Das EFX debuted on April 7, 1992 with their album, Dead Serious. That seminal moment came when they dropped the LP’s first single “They Want EFX.”
Atop a sample of James Brown’s “Blind Man Can See It” (from the Black Caesar soundtrack), former Virginia State University students Skoob and Krazy Drayz dished out a new rap language. Their fast-paced and highly rhythmic wordplay was phonetically accentuated with the “iggity” (as in “smiggity smoke a blunt”). With boasts chock-full of references to classic cartoons and TV shows, vintage commercials and children’s songs, you’d think the two were creating their own form of pop art.
But Skoob and Drayz weren’t aiming to be the next Warhols while making Dead Serious. They were aiming to be next Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap, rappers who transformed the style of rap poetics. To get the sound for the debut LP—which dropped 25 years ago tomorrow on East/West Records—Das recruited then-new production team of Solid Scheme (Chris Charity and Derek Lynch). The result was an album that would not only be certified platinum, but would also change the sound of rap, influencing the rhyme styles of everyone from Common to Naughty By Nature.
This is the story of Dead Serious.
BEFORE THE ALBUM
How did Das EFX come together?
Skoob: Basically, I’m from Brooklyn. Drayz is from Jersey. We met down in Petersburg, Virginia where we were students at Virginia State. We lived in the same dormitory. Drayz used to run with a coupe of dudes, I used to run with a couple a dudes, but there was a friend we both had in common. It was a friend of mine from Brooklyn. He introduced us one night at this party. We started vibing and stuff, and it was on from there.
What influenced your style?
Drayz: Back then it was, like, the regular dudes that were hot. Like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, KRS-One. We were rocking with Brand Nubian early. Biz Markie. Master Ace. I may be forgetting a whole lot. But we were just us, trying to sound different than all the rest.
So when you came up with the “iggity style” you were just looking to break from the pack?
Drayz: Yeah. But we were in Virginia, so we couldn’t keep up with what was out there. So we did was this: we would have our mixtapes. We would have people tape the radio and send us what was the latest and the greatest. It was one of those things where everybody who was hot from New York at the time you kept abreast of what they were doing on radio or on the mixtapes. And we stayed current as best we could being four hours away in Virginia. But, at the same time, we were working on our own thing. So the iggity just came along while we were perfecting our style.
DJ Clark Kent [East/West A&R]: Basically, they were scratching their words like a DJ. If you take the word “wow” and you bring it back and forth it would go, “wiggy wow.” Or the word “play” would go, “pliggity play…pligit pligit.” It’s just scratching the words to make it sound that way.
Was there no reggae influence on your style? The way you flipped your words reminded me of dancehall artists.
Skoob: Not particularly. I mean, it was like we listened to all types of music, but it was what it was at the end of the day. I mean we loved dancehall, but we wasn’t like trying to fuse our style into what this and make something out of it. It wasn’t that type of party. Let me explain it this way: When me and Drayz came up with the iggity, it was that we just didn’t like pauses in our sentences in the rhymes, so we had to figure out how do we make something fit with no pauses. And in figuring that out gave birth to the iggity. If you listen to Dead Serious now you will figure out that, oh, these guys didn’t like pauses. We just liked filling our rhymes with rhythm.
How did you link up with EPMD?
Drayz: We entered a rap contest during our junior year at Virginia State. We drove down to Richmond, Virginia, when we heard about this contest on the radio. We’d recently did a song over the Christmas break and it was called “Klap Ya Handz.” It eventually made it on our first album. Long story short, EPMD were on tour promoting one of their albums—can’t remember the name. While on the tour they became judges for this rap contest we happened to be in. We did our one two, one two. It was going on that night in the club, and we didn’t technically win the competition. Some other rappers had the home court advantage or some shit like that. But EPMD from the top understood what was going on with us and what we were doing. And they were, like, even though what we were doing was way different, it was something they could recognize. So after the show they called us backstage, we gave them our demo, exchanged numbers. We waited for a phone call, and then we just kicked into overdrive because we saw the dream right there. We recorded as much as we could.
How did you land on the East/West label?
Skoob: At the time there were a lot of people who were interested. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who couldn’t understand what the hell we were doing. Like Jive Records for instance, was really heavy on us. There was an A&R person up there, her name was Sophia Chang. She just went crazy when she heard us. She adopted us as her little brothers in the industry. She would take us everywhere. And this was before we even got on. But at the end of the day, Jive had Tribe Called Quest. It was a couple people that Jive already had. And East/West was a relatively new company, so they didn’t really have anybody up there. At that point it made more sense to go with them because they would pay more attention to us. And they would allow us to be ourselves, and it would be a better fit. At a place like Jive, who had so many rap groups, we might have gotten lost in the shuffle.
DJ Clark Kent: It was Parrish Smith of EPMD who came to the label and brought them in. And it was me and Sylvia Rhone who had to listen and either agree or disagree. The great part about working for East/West at that point was that they were open, like, “What do ya’ll think?” So when Parrish came to us it was like, the guy who showed us Redman. Those guys. The EPMD guys. It wasn’t just, “Give us a tape.” It was, basically, asking them: What you got? We can’t downplay who Parrish is. We looked at the fact there was already a Hit Squad. And that track record mattered.
What Parrish played for me was just dope. Their music was dope. Just listen to it. “They Want EFX” was incredible. Their records were dope. And it didn’t sound like anything that was out. And I’m not just talking about styles. I’m talking about the music. It was hard and guttery. It did exactly what they were talking about, like they were coming from the sewer.
What do you remember about the making of the debut album?
DJ Clark Kent: Parrish came to me with practically the whole album already recorded. We sat down and listened to it and the shit was fire. There was no questioning it. We trusted whatever Parrish brought. You have to understand when you trust something when you first hear it, you have to trust the process and not go in and change things up. The only thing we helped in was bringing in remixes. Pete Rock did “Jussummen.” Those were the things we were in front of.
What was the sound of rap music before Das EFX came out?
Drays: I just remember it was all about New York hip hop. I don’t know if you watch The Breaks on VH1—it was kind of like that era. It was all, “Have you heard the latest?” I just remember the diversity, and it was mostly coming from one area. I just remember being amazed, like, “Oh shit! did you hear this?” Or. “Oh shit! Did you hear that?” It was a lot of that.
1. “Mic Checka”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Skoob: That record was one of the hardest to make for the album because after we recorded it we didn’t have a chorus. So it was empty. So one of the producers for the joint said, ‘Yo, Skoob, we just gonna loop what you said and throw it in the chorus.’
Drayz: Also, a lot of people don’t know that for some reason, Redman wound up on the record. That’s him in the background.
Produced by Solid Scheme
Drayz: What I remember was, before the final version was out, we had about two to three different versions of it out. We had different beats. We couldn’t decide on the beats. The producers tried two or three different ones. We might have even changed our rhymes a little. We might have even changed the hooks, too.
We made the song because, the whole Dead Serious album….actually the title of the LP came about because we’d dropped out of school after three years, and a lot was on the line. Each song title was talking about what we were about. Now we’re not deep political rappers or talking about how much weight we push or how many broads we smashed. We those “ooh, did you hear what he said” rappers. Not totally about punch lines, but we have content. So “Jussummen” is just what we’re about: dudes that get on the mic and get busy.
3. “They Want EFX”
Produced by Das EFX
Skoob: That was crazy because the track was done by two of my dudes from Brooklyn. They looped it differently than what you hear on the record. When we got it we just said, “Let’s add to it.” Top that off here. Let’s do this and move that there. I heard the radio when KRS-One said, “They want effects.” I forgot how the record went. But I was like, “We got to throw that in there.” And it wasn’t a type of “we got a hit” type of thing. It was, like, “Cool, we got a record here. Let’s move on to the next joint.”
Drayz: Also, when we wrote it we were still at Virginia State. Our biggest record we wrote when we were the brokest we’d ever been. We were still in school. That was the first record we co-produced. Like Skoob said, it just a loop basically. We went back and found the actual record “Blind Man Can See It” by James Brown. Then we wanted this piece put in like the drum roll. We did a whole bunch of little things ourselves we got credit for. But we are co-producers on the record.
Skoob: We wrote the lyrics together. You know, going back and forth like, “Oh shit!” And the whole nostalgia part—the old commercial references and cartoons and so on—came about because there’s not so many things that you can say. There’s only so much that can be said. Basically, you can’t brag and boast but so many ways. So we had to attack it from a different angle. We could have said things the same way as the next rapper, but we had to put it in our form. So we would compare ourselves to cartoons or use TV shows or whatever the case may be. That was just our thing, to say something different.
Drayz: Also, it was our intro record. Like I said, every record was saying something about us. The lyrics are just introducing the world to Das EFX. It was our way of kicking in the door.
Skoob: Did we think it was a hit when we recorded it? Hell no. Me and Drayz were like, “If ‘They Want EFX’ is going to be the single, then ‘Jussummen’ is going to be the B side.” But everybody from the label to Parrish was telling us no, just make “Jussummen” the next single. We were like no, kiss our ass. Make that the B side just in case.
Produced by Solid Scheme
Skoob: That just about when you out and you got to go to the bathroom. We just wrote a song about it. That chorus was crazy, though. That’s a Special Ed sample.
Drayz: We were big on wordplay. The bathroom instances in the record never happened to us. We just wanted to make light of a situation that could possibly happen. It was like, “Yo, let’s not just fill this album up with raps that brag, brag, brag.” That’s why did songs like “Looseys” that told stories.
5. “Dum Dums”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Drayz: Another story song. Story behind that is just we’re some broke dudes in the hood, and you know how it goes. When you the broke dudes in the hood, you not gonna get the hottest shorty until your game steps up and you got coins in your pocket. We knew we were headed for something.
6. “East Coast”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Drayz: Like I said, each song told people about a part of us. And this one said we the dudes from the east coast. We had to talk about ourselves, our introduction. You know, we just rowdy east coast niggas. But we also wanted to let people know we came up under groups like N.W.A at the time. And we were big fans of dudes like that. When the album came out, we were the first in line to get it and play it and listen to it. We were inspired by shit like that. Our producers, Solid Scheme, were inspired by dudes from the east coast and the west coast: Premier, Pete Rock, Hank Shocklee, Dr. Dre.
Skoob: And even though the record is called “East Coast,” we still got love from the west. Ice Cube called us to do a record with him even though we got a record called “East Coast.”
7. “If Only”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Skoob: I remember recording that at a studio in Long Island. It was recorded at the engineer’s house. It was in the attic. I just remember in the recording booth you could hear the floor boards squeaking. I think I said it in the record. I was like, “Yo, can you hear that?” I was nervous about that noise getting on the record, and I think it did make it on there.
Drayz: Also, the reasoning behind the record, if you really listen to it, it’s sonically different than the rest of the songs on the album. The chorus and the clean sound of the beat, that was our west coast influence. Chris from Solid Scheme wanted to polish the record up a little more and make it sound richer, not so dirty. And most of Dead Serious was about being dirty and coming from the sewer. That boom bap. And we knew that other hip hop couldn’t sound like what were making at the time. So we were saying if only they could sound like us, the other groups would be as dope as us.
8. “Brooklyn To T-Neck”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Skoob: That song it’s self-explanatory. I’m from Brooklyn. Drayz is from Teaneck. But it was just so crazy that Chubb Rock said that in a rhyme and were able to sample it for the chorus. It just made sense. Like, Chubb grew up around my way. We knew each other before I got on, but he didn’t know me and Drayz was gonna make a record. So when he said it, it was like, “Oh, we got to get that.”
9. “Klap Ya Handz”
Produced by Dexx
Drayz: That was the song we were doing when we got discovered by Erick and Parrish. That song was sort of an exit from our old style into our new style. If your heard us prior to “Klap Ya Handz,” you would have heard us working to develop something. We didn’t know where we were going. There was no iggity in it but we were still working with referencing commercials and cartoon stuff, but after that is when we switch everything and came into our own sound.
10. “Straight Out The Sewer”
Produced by Solid Scheme
Drayz: It was another way of saying we were underground. It was our concept. I just remember us being in the studio waiting for the beat to come on. On thing let to another where I was on the mic and said, “Blah blah blah, coming straight out the sewer.” And I think either Derrick or Chris for Solid Scheme or Parrish walked in was like, ‘Yo, what’d you just say?” And that was another record that we built around the hook. Dead Serious was a well thought out process. Not just songs slapped together. “Straight Out The Sewer,” again, is a song that’s telling you what we are about.
Skoob: And if you’re saying you’re from the underground, we want to say something different. We want to say we’re really underground. We in the sewer with rats, wilding. Like, your underground over there looks pretty, we over here, dirty. But we always had that concept.
Drayz: So we just made up our own shit. Because we came up under EPMD we were given gems in the game. We knew that that would be our identity. EPMD was about business. Big Daddy Kane was about the flat top. Brand Nubian was about knowledge rap. Slick Rick told crazy stories. And we were students of the game, so were we were out the sewer.
After you came out, how did it feel to hear a lot of rappers copying your style or sounding similar to you?
Skoob: That was the craziest shit ever, only because we grew up in an era of hip hop where biting was a no no. So hearing it, I was like, “Wow, word, really?” I guess it was a form of respect and, in a way, we were weirdly flattered. But, on the other hand, it was, like, “Man, come on. Enough is enough.” I can’t remember specifically one group that didn’t try it. It was crazy.
DJ Clark Kent: I saw that group who made “Chief Rocker,” the Lords of the Underground and I was like, “Oh shit!” But, hey, the Lords were good too. But you have to understand, a lot of people who heard Das EFX thought that Jay Z rapped the same way. But what they didn’t know was that he just rapped like that. He sounded like that since the ‘80s when he was down with Jaz-O. And Jaz rhymed like that first, and they were down together. They rapped like that together. I can show and prove that he was already rapping like that. But what Das did, musically, just set a lot better at that precise moment. It wasn’t about how they were rhyming, it was the way it sounded.
There was Da Youngstas, Jay Z kind flipped it a little, Chip Fu from the Fu-Schnickens.
Skoob: The Youngstas get a pass. They were young boys. And they were on East/West Records. They were like our little dudes. But the adults, man, come on.
Drayz: Look, whether people want to nitpick or not, you know, there were other groups that took from us, like Funkdoobiest. The list goes on. Common, who was Common Sense at the time. It was a whole bunch. Even some females took swipes at us. There was Boss. At one time if you put her video on you would think it was one of our videos. So it wasn’t just our style people were biting, it was the way we dressed. Folks started wearing dreads. You know how the industry rolls. Video directors wanted that same kind of tint and feel for their videos. So for us it was just a whole wave of everybody wanted to wear Carhartts and Timbos. We had a lot going on.
What about the legacy of Dead Serious? What impact do you think it had?
DJ Clark Kent: I just think Das just made a hell of a dope album. I just think they gave us a different sound and approach. And they just let the gutter be the gutter. Their shit was so down and dirty. You know how hard it is to make some real guttery shit a good song? They made their song a good song. You don’t understand that for a record to sound that anti-radio, but still be a good song, it’s everything. That’s why the radio took to it immediately. It was gutter but it was on the radio.
Marcus Reeves is the author of Somebody Scream