Happy 15th Anniversary to DJ Kay Slay’s debut album The Streetsweeper, Vol. 1, originally released May 20, 2003.
Unfortunately, we often forget that the very fabric of hip-hop culture was originally woven and, in many cases, remains stitched together not just by the master of ceremonies but largely by the ingenuity of the disc jockey.
In fact, long before cultural pioneers like the late great Love Bug Starski coined the term hip-hop or the musical genre was branded as rap music, the cool kids of New York City’s five boroughs filled parks and recreational centers just to be in the presence of turntablists such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Disco King Mario. Since the 1970’s, notable dee jays have always shown great marketing acumen by pushing the culture, so when the new generation of rap acts began to heat up the game around Y2K with a fierce spirit of competitiveness, a superstar DJ emerged not far from hip-hop’s Mecca and dubbed himself “The Drama King.”
For me, growing up about 200 miles south of the Big Apple in Baltimore, MD during the ‘90s, an actual mixtape was as hard to get as a Triple Fat Goose Bomber underneath my Christmas tree. At least until my older brother was able to secure a plug that supplied DJ Craig G, DJ S&S, Doo Wop, and DJ Clue mixtapes on a regular basis, circa 1994. Following the tradition set by the older DJs, it seemed that everyone had their niche, while following the one uncompromising principle of keeping the listener well in-tuned with the street.
Doo Wop’s specialty was featuring raw studio freestyles from hardcore artists, while Clue frequently boasted of debuting exclusive new music. Regardless of the particular brand, this underground circuit became a bicoastal—and even international—phenomenon by the mid ‘90s, garnering the attention of major record labels. Veteran nightclub DJ and radio personality Funkmaster Flex was able to secure a major label deal with Loud Records for the first three installments of his Funkmaster Flex Presents: The Mixtape, (60 Minutes of Funk) series. DJ Clue would follow suit as his own label, Desert Storm Records, merged with Roc-A-Fella Records and Def Jam Music Group for his own three-part series The Professional. Clue achieved new heights of commercial success, the inaugural chapter of his series reaching platinum status.
As the new millennium rolled in, other DJs like Frankie Cutlass, Tony Touch, and West Coast media icons Sway & Tech featuring DJ Revolution all released similar studio projects that helped add a new dimension to hip-hop, expanding the sub-genre of compilation albums.
Building his brand by harvesting key relationships with marquee artists during pivotal times of their career like Nas, Cam’ron, and 50 Cent, it almost seemed as if it was DJ Kay Slay’s turn to release a hot studio album to usher in the summer of 2003. With many rifts lingering throughout hip-hop, DJ Kay Slay’s Hot 97 “Drama Hour” and street mixtapes provided a platform for the storied tradition of the emcee battle, and his signature East Harlem bravado only added to the excitement like the voice inflections of ring announcer Michael Buffer.
By the spring of 2003, I had been a hip-hop consumer for a strong decade, rarely missing a Tuesday without copping some brand new music. For the first time since 1993, my weekly record store visits were put on hold as duty called and I deployed overseas to Southeast Asia in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Feeling like I had missed so much in the months my unit was on the ground in Iraq, Kay Slay’s The Streetsweeper Vol. 1 was one of the first CDs I reached for when finally getting back to Kuwait in May of that year.
Figuring a good mixtape would be the fastest way to catch up to the pulse of the street, and by just reading the star-studded track list, I could see that Kay Slay had assembled an impressive group of collaborators for his debut studio album.
The intro which featured New Jack Swing staple Aaron Hall served as more of a prologue and autobiographical look into a man who had been entrenched in the culture since his early days as a respected graffiti artist. It may have been this vast education in “hip-hop-ology” that allowed Kay Slay to summon three men of great respect such as Scarface, Raekwon, and Fat Joe.
Whatever the case, Streetsweepers helped create one of my personal favorite moments, as a group of my friends who just survived the initial invasion of US troops into Iraq sat in a circle and rewound the individual verses of the opening track “I Never Liked Ya Ass.” In true Kay Slay fashion, his album didn’t make it past the initial bars before the speculation began on whether Scarface’s verse was aimed at 50 Cent, Lil Flip or another unnamed foe of this king of southern hip-hop who navigated through the Ez Elpee track as naturally as a Bronxdale Projects native. Still within the first 10 minutes of the album, every face in our circle cringed at the ferocious lyrics of The LOX who delivered the album’s title track.
Not giving his audience a chance to catch their breath, 50 Cent’s song “50 Shot Ya” begins with a hail of gunfire as rap’s new prince proved how he went from being a premier mixtape artist to the cusp of diamond album sales with his own 2003 debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
While some of the album checks off frequent A-List features like Flipmode Squad and Mobb Deep similar to Violator: The Album (1999) and many soundtracks during the time, The Drama King did well at setting his project apart from other compilations. The album was even led by a Billboard charting single “Too Much for Me” featuring Nas, Foxy Brown, Baby, and Amerie. The album’s final song, “Put That Thing Down” featuring 8Ball & MJG and Jagged Edge would have fit well as the follow-up single produced by the red hot southern producer Jazzy Pha whose signature twang transports listeners into a Georgia strip club.
The album of mostly new music does capture moments of Kay Slay’s mixtape essence, as megastar and legendary freestylist Eminem dropped in for a few entertaining bars. Kay’s relationships also paid off when Cam’ron provided “Purple Haze” which was also a song on his Dip Set’s Diplomatic Immunity released just a few weeks earlier. Fat Joe made a second appearance on the LP, this time for a remix of “Take a Look at My Life” which originally featured Kay Slay when released on his 2002 album Loyalty.
“The Champions” served as one of the more fun-filled moments of 2003 as Slay brings in a who’s who list of veteran DJs including Kid Capri, Doo Wop, Ron G, Brucie B, Tony Touch, S&S, DJ Clue, and Funkmaster Flex to stand in solidarity in their support of underappreciated party rockers. A surprising Bad Boy reunion for “Everybody Wanna Shine” featuring fellow East Harlem native Black Robb, Craig Mack, and G. Dep and produced by hitman Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie also fit well among the star-studded casting of the album. Showing his versatility, Kay Slay balanced the nostalgia with a track that featured a group of the games’ hottest up and comers Grafh, Cassidy, Shells, J-Hood, and Postaboy.
Before the advent of social media sites like Myspace and YouTube, or the audio streaming platforms SoundCloud and Spotify, hip-hop fans relied on mixtapes to keep us tuned in to our favorite artists in between their studio albums. Just before the summer of 2003, fully heated DJ Kay Slay managed to find himself embedded into everything that seemed interesting within the culture, so when my combat boots finally hit the safer grounds of Kuwait, The Streetsweeper Vol.1 was just what I needed to get caught up with the culture I had missed over the past two months. The Drama King served as my and my friends’ special post-war correspondent, shining a light on the direction of hip-hop, and providing fresh music that reminded us of home before we touched down back in the states.
This solid studio compilation helped cement DJ Kay Slay’s name in history amongst the all-time greats and served as a proud moment for the disc jockey, the original practitioner of hip-hop vulture.