REMEMBERING KEITH COWBOY
we hear people talk about Hip Hop greats that have passed , we often
hear of Tupac , Biggie , Jam Master Jay and maybe even Scott La Rock.
But very seldom is the name Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins mentioned. Keith
Cowboy laid the foundation for the call & response tactics that we
have seen almost EVERY Emcee use since the 70s. Everytime you hear
“throw your hands in the air” , “Say hoooo” etc. etc. you are
listening to the creations of Cowboy.
Unfortunately Cowboy did not get the chance to see his
contributions reach every corner of the globe. Its only right that
Cowboy’s story be told by those closest to him – his family members
& fellow Furious 5 brothers…….
Mele Mel : He was definitely the backbone of the group , and the most popular on stage with the crowd response. Even with working out , he would get down on the floor & do his push ups , then Scorp started working out with him. I didn’t want to be the weakest link , so it was me Cowboy & Scorp working out. Cowboy had big arms , he didn’t have big shoulders or anything , but he definitely had some big guns. So we got into the whole fintness thing through working out with Cowboy.
JayQuan : Im told basically that Cowboy was the first Emcee.
Mel : Yeah , it wasn’t even called Emceeing back then , but he was the first to get on Flashes mic and do the crowd response – without a doubt.
JQ : How did the 3 Emcees (Cowboy , Mele Mel & Kid Creole) form. I know Cowboy was first , how did you & Cre join?
Mel : We used to dance for Flash. We were called the D Squad . Before we started rocking the mic Flash would just put the mic down & Cowboy was the main one on the mic. Me & Creole would be in the house writing routines , and we just started to grab the mic. Our routine was a lot more polished than the average person. When we first started doing our indoor parties in the Fall of ’77 we would put on our flyers “Flash & The 3 Emcees”. The whole hit was from Summer to Winter. You did the parties in the Summer to get the rep to do the Fall & Winter. You couldn’t do indoor parties in the Summer unless you were Kool Herc , ‘cus no one would come inside.
JQ: I have been told that the whole intro that Wonder Mike does on “Rappers Delight” is actually part of Cowboys routine.
Mel: Without a doubt. This kid named Kokomo was going to the army & Cowboy was messin’ with him -teasing him with the marching Hip Hop rythm Hip/Hop/Hip/Hop ; and he just took it on from there and kept goin’ with it. It just took on a life of its own…..
He was the strength of the Furious 5 , and he really kept us together ; not just on the mic but his strength kept us in check with each other. If anyone went far left , he was the one to make sure that we got back. We didn’t only respect him for who he was , but he was stronger than all of us , and he would knock you out !!!! Don’t get me wrong , it’s not like we had a violent relationship in the Furious , but if you got him to a certain level it’s like if he said “it’s goin’ down like this” – you had to respect it. He never got irrate like that unless something was happening that affected the five of us , and he would step in. He also kept just the average street people off of us too. It’s not like we were a bunch of punks , but he was just the one. The rest of us were way more diplomatic , where if somethin’ happened we would try to talk it out before it got to that. If someone said somethin’ negative about the Furious he would just knock’em out. It sounds negative , but comin’ up the way that we did , you needed people like that around you. That’s just the street level , as far as his character besides being the first Emcee. People perceive Mel as being the top guy in our group , and he was the top lyricist , but nobody could rock the crowd like Cowboy. He could rock any crowd with no script , nothing written down. He would step on stage & ask “did y’all see the Knicks game tonight?” – just stuff that nobody else was sayin’ on stage , in addition to the “say ho”. He had the ability to really personalize the whole crowd like he knew everybody in there. That was his gift & his trademark. Even back then he said stuff like “all the single moms” and “all the sexy ladies say owwww” it was different hearing it back then because no one had said it before. It even took Mel some time to gain his power , like a couple of records , but when we first went out on the road with Superrappin , Freedom , Birthday Party & It's Nasty it was ALL about Cowboy!!! After the concert we would all be tryin' to get girls and we would have no girls. Cowboy would have 3 or 4 in his room !!! It wasn’t like they would settle for just anyone in the group , they specifically wanted Cowboy. I didn’t get the rep as a ladies man until the stage shows really developed & the era of Rick James & Super Freak ; that’s how I came into my own. But before me it was all about him , till the point that it almost wasn’t fair. We came out & posed and sweated and all he had to do was walk out with his bow legs. We had to settle for straight cookie monsters in the early days , ‘cus all the Fly ones wanted Cowboy. He was the personable one in the group ; and I know for a fact that if he was still alive we would still be together. The stuff that Flash is doin’ now , only performing by himself – no way that would happen if Cowboy was still alive!! Cowboy would physically walk up to him & break everything down to him & give him an option ; just that simple. “Either you get yo ass back together with this group that we all built , or im gon’ knock you out “!!! That’s who he was and we all understood it , respected and knew that if he said it he meant it. One time we was on the road overseas and he missed the plane. I just so happened to call his house because I have a child with his sister. I heard him yellin’ in the background “watch when they come back , that’s aight watch”!! We left him , cus Mel was tryin to teach him a lesson about being late. We had about 6 shows left , and I was countin’ the days and literally walkin’ on air!! I knew it was comin’. Mel ain’t even know , and I was so shook that I ain’t even tell him. But I knew that he loved money , so when we got off the plane I was like yo I got a couple of dollars for you. He ain’t even say nothin’. That might sound weird but it really wasn’t one of those torturous relationships , or on the level of him bullying us , in fact it was really that he had so much love for us that he was protectin’ us.
But with the Des Moines Iowa show I knew that as soon as I heard the crowd yellin’ and cussin , that Cowboy was gonna react. And he did. He started rumblin’ with all of ‘em – throwing chairs and everything. He even got stabbed.
I remember he had just gotten out of jail , and the Latin Quarters had just opened and it was mad Brooklyn nig#as , stick up kids and all that. We knew ‘em all , but they would flip at any given time. We brought Cowboy down there to party on his first night out. He got on the mic and tore the crowd to pieces. We went down stairs and people were fightin. I had been there so much that I knew all the back rooms and stuff , so I tried to tell Cowboy lets go over here. He was like “I ain’t movin’, “ I ain’t goin nowhere”. He was standin’ there almost like he was daring one of those Brooklyn cats to run up on him. This is who he was. He stood there with so much pride like a warrior. Its not like he was a knuckle head or anything like that , he just felt like the fighting had nothin’ to do with him , so he wasn’t movin’.
How did the dynamics of the group change for the period that it was just you , Mel & Cowboy ?
Well at first it was just me & Mel , then I saw that some money might be comin in , so I said to Cowboy lets do what we have to for now, but for a point I wasn’t even down. I had a deal with Def Jam , but Sugarhill Records interfered with it. Me & L.L. were the first ones to get contracts from Def Jam. I only went back to Sugarhill because they were blockin’ everything that I was tryin’ to do. At first even Mel left. For a brief time the whole group walked. I guess Sylvia got in Mels ear , and he was the first to go back. Flash took me to Elektra to talk to them when he was puttin’ his new group together , but somethin’ didn’t feel right so I didn’t mess with either one for a minute.
Cowboy ever try to get the group back together initially?
No because we stayed busy soon after we decided that it would be me , him & Mel , so it never got time to really sink in. We were touring big when “Step Off” came out. I do remember that he didn’t like the direction that we were goin’ in musically. He felt the records were almost like rock & roll , and I wish we had listened ‘cus he said “we need to make records with just beats”. And right after Run – Dmc came out with just beats. Cowboy really knew what the streets wanted to hear , and neither me or Mel listened.
the time of the “On The Strength” lp i t seems Cowboy was deep in
that life – do you think that there is anything that any of you could
have done to prevent what happened?
No not really. He was stayin’ with his stepdad in Queensbridge and we thought that he was being looked after. Me & Mel just basically up & left and went to Cali. We didn’t really have our ear to the streets. When I heard that he died I was shocked , I didn’t know he was sick or nothin’. And to be honest at that point we became so consumed with our own stuff that we became almost selfish and was just tryin to make it. The group was all over the place , and everybody was tryin’ to do somethin’ but it was all amounting to nothin’……..
I can concur with what everyone else says as far as him being the enforcer of the group when anyone tried to take advantage of us, especially by force. He would always be one to say its not goin’ down like that. In fact I nicknamed him 10 and 0 because whenever he had a fight with someone he knocked ‘em out with one punch.
I remember one time when we were at the peak of our succsess we would have contests to see who could get the most ass in one night , and Mel & Scorp were always roommates , and me & Cowboy were roommates ; and I remember specifically that Cowboy came in first , and I came in second. This was when we were touring with Rick James & Teena Marie , Cameo , The Barkays , Confunkshun , Switch , The Commodores – when Lionel Ritchie was still with them.
get too far off subject , but how were you received by those groups.
Well at first with some reluctance. A group like Cameo , we were in awe of the their stage show & their presence. Like they had a walk , where they would walk in formation and everyone in the group looked in the direction they walked in , not deviating from that direction. We were in awe of it , and trying to befriend them to get some kind of professional take on what they think that we needed to do to enhance our stage performance. They were on some real military type shit and wouldn’t talk to us. After awhile Larry Blackmon started talking to Flash , but until we studied their stage show we weren't on their level. We sat in the audience every night and studied them. We were on a six month tour , and about two months into the tour we started bustin they ass !! When we started we were the opening act , but by the end of the tour we had to close the shows. Unless maybe Rick James was on that date we had to close. Even when he was there sometimes he would be too physically exhausted to take the show over the top , and he would have us close it.
Cowboy’s signature was the crowd motivation. Cowboy was actually the first Emcee. I was the last member to join the group and when Cowboy joined I was probably too young to go to parties , or I may have been at my first Kool Herc party when Cowboy started Emceeing. Nobody was rhyming on beat and doing crowd response before Cowboy. Not Hollywood - nobody.
But that concert where Cowboy got stabbed in Des Moines , Iowa we were doing a show with Midnight Star & some more acts. Someone announced to the crowd that we were there and refused to go on ; but they failed to tell them that the reason why was because the promoter didn’t have our money. The whole crowd seemed incited to come to our dressing room and confront us by one seemingly drunk individual. This guy along with about 5000 other people came to our dressing room . We were working out and Cowboy had a dumbbell in his hand that was maybe 50 lbs or so. We were in the conference center of this hotel , and people were picking up ceramic ashtrays and flower pots and launching them with all their might at our dressing room door. If we weren’t so angry about it , it could have been a very intimidating and life threatening situation. Cowboy set it off by throwing the dumbbell at the door , and it burst open. I think that the crowd thought that we were shooting at them so they dispursed. We went out to confront the people still talking trash including the drunk guy. Cowboy , EZ Mike & someone else picked up a conference table – and kind of like on the old Batman & Robin when they picked up a table and ran with it and pinned the guy to the wall with the table. The drunken guy pulls out a knife and Cowboy & the guy begin wrestling and that’s where the stitches came from.
I listened to “The Message” lp the other day and I heard ”Dreamin” and “You Are” in their entirety for the first time , and they are very well written and produced – did you write them both?
I wrote “Dreamin’” and a guy named Gary Henry wrote “You Are”. Christopher Williams and I wrote “Dreamin’” together. I told the Robinsons that someone else wrote the song with me , but they left him out.
the split did both factions get along?
For awhile we were arch enemies. In fact I think “Step Off” was directed towards me in some ways. When I first got in the group , and for awhile after I was seen as the best next to Mel. I guess that was Mels way of lettin’ me know that he is gonna be who he is without me.
ever did drug use begin to affect the performance of the group?
Strangely enough I think our performance was never affected , but more so our judgement , and how we conducted our business. We are in the music business and a lot of people in that era took the business part for granted , because we were having fun , and traveling to places where most people our age , or people in general wouldn’t see in their lifetime – and we got paid for it. Ultimately I think that played a part in the demise of the group , and it became visible around 1983. We had been dabbling from 1979 till about ’83. It came to a head in about ’83 – especially for me , and I have no problem talking about it because I am 19 years clean drug free.
You look younger today than you did 20 years ago in the ‘80s.
Thank You. I think that I am still supposed to be here doin’ this , and that’s the reason….
you improvise live for Mels solo joints?
Well I did Duke Bootees parts. Even in the Message video I lipsync his parts. Originally I did his parts on the song , but Sylvia got mad at me because my mom got us a lawyer. Right before we recorded the Message I was 17 and my mom was supposed to sign the contract for me and never did. When I turned 18 she got us a lawyer who advised us against signing it at all. She was mad at my mom , so she didn’t allow my voice on the song.
the reluctance to perform with Flash coming from?
From Flash. When we started to make records , and when we became recording artists his role signifigantly changed , and he is uncomfortable with the role that he plays. He didn’t have much of a voice in where we went creatively , even though we listened to his suggestions a great deal , but when it came time to record Sylvia made the final call , and took all credit for production…………
: To your knowledge how did Cowboy get into music ?
(Cowboys Sister) : He used to be in the house bangin’ on furniture and
just rhymin’. He used to get all the guys from the block , and they would form a circle & do their thing. This was
before he met any of the Furious 5.
Did he know any of the members of The Furious 5 , before they formed the
He knew of them. They were basically just doin’ the same thing that my
brother was doin’. They didn’t go to the same schools or anything
When they first started making records what was it like in your
Well , Flash was by himself , doin block parties or whatever – and my
brother would just get on the mic. He was
the only one that would get up there , and he was a crowd pleaser by
himself. Then the rest of the guys came along one by one. When they
started making records it was real exciting. I got a chance to do some
traveling with them , mostly when they were in New York. Scorpio & I
have a child together also.
: Was that awkward dating Scorpio , being that he was in a group with
your brother? Were there any problems between the 2 as a result?
No , not at all.
I have heard that Cowboy was nice with his hands…
I didn’t wanna go there with you ,cus that’s my brother and I
didn’t want it to sound like I was braggin’ about that , but anytime
the group had any static my brother was there , and took up for the
whole group. That’s how he got 76 stitches in a stabbing incedent.
JQ: I heard his rhyme where he says “been rockin that party 9 years of my life – been shot wit a gun/stabbed wit a knife” ......
Yep. If there was ever a time when promoters didn’t wanna pay , Cowboy
would handle that , and get everybody paid.
When you traveled with them , did you get a chance to meet any other
Oh yeah – Rick James , Eddie Murphy- lots of people……
Im told by more than one person that Cowboy started the term Hip Hop…
Yeah , you know how he started it?
What did you hear?
I heard that someone was going to the army , and he was teasin’ em
Yep , Yep that’s it….and then he started goin’ further into the
“Hip Hip Hop bop bop ya don’t stop” he even had us goin’ along
with him. We didn’t know what he was sayin’ , but we went right
Did you ever go to the studio while they were recording?
Yes. We met Joey & Sylvia Robinson.
It always sounded like a party in the background of those records , and
I wondered if that was family members or what.
Yeah , my mother and I…
Whats your favorite record by them?
Creole:…..On that term Hip Hop. A friend of ours named Billy was about to go to the Army , I think this was ’75. We had a party at the Black Door over on Boston Rd & 170th St. That was one of the first places that my brother , my self & Cowboy played as the 3 Emcees , along with Flash. This was Billy’s last weekend before shipping out , and Cowboy was on the mic playin around doing that Army cadence : Hip / Hop/Hip /Hop . But he was doin’ it to music and people was diggin’ on it. So we never thought much of it. Disco was king at the time , and the Disco crowd referred to us as those “Hip Hoppers” , but they used it as a derogatory term. But Cowboy was the first one I heard do that to music , as part of his crowd response.
JayQuan: So he did something similar to what Wonder Mike is doin’ at the beginning of Rappers Delight?
Cre: Except for all that ole bang bang boogie shit , the intro to Rappers Delight is what Cowboy used to say. Word for word except that up jump the boogie shit. Up jump the boogie was some disco shit.
JQ: When I ask some of the first Emcees who the first person was that they saw Emcee they usually say either you , Mel or Cowboy. But many times they say just Cowboy. Where as far as you know did he get it from?
Cre: Well Cowboy never really wrote rhymes. He would say like lil’ nursery rhymes like everybody else. The first person that I heard say a rhyme…and not just a phrase , like at Hercs parties where Clark Kent & Timmy Tim would say “givin ya more than what you paid at the door , on down to the A.M. The first person that I heard say a rhyme that wasn’t a nursery rhyme was my brother Mel. He was the very first person that I saw say a rhyme about themselves. Not a poem , a bonafide rhyme. That’s what motivated me to rhyme , ‘cus Mel was on the mic and he was getting girls. I couldn’t just stand on the sidelines. Cowboy was a guy who had no fear of just getting in front of a crowd , and asking them to do what he wanted. It was a time when people in Hip Hop weren’t doing that. The only other person who did it to any degree , on purpose was D.J.Hollywood. Let me tell you a story about Cowboy….
We had just made Freedom. Cowboy got into a beef with his girl and it escalated into a misunderstanding. Well her brother got involved. I was at my sisters house and it was like 1 in the morning , and we all had these mini – motorcycles. Ni**as called me at 1 in the mornin’& I got my lil’ brother on the back. We all met over at Cowboys house in the Bronx - Crotona Park North off of Prospect Ave. Her brother had his people were out there , Cowboys stepfather – Duke had his hardware , I had mine so we weren’t worried about somebody doin’ something stupid. Plus this was like 1980 so we didn’t have a mentality like we were gonna go hurt nobody , but Cowboy didn’t appreciate them comin’ up into his crib , and he had to leave out of the fire escape window to get away from them!!! So it comes down to Cowboy is about to fight this girls brother. So we go in the park right across the street , and Cowboy and this dude square off. Cowboy hit him with about 3 good shots to his head…boom boom boom the kid bent over ; fights over. That’s my word !!! If you got him mad , Cowboy would ball his fist up and be ready to fight right then & there , no question. If you got him riled up you couldn’t talk to him.
…..another time in about ’82 or so we were on a Tiger Flowers (promotion company) tour in Des Moines Iowa. We were doin’ a show on a Tuesday ‘cus during the week the tour wasn’t rolling, and we did a show at the Holiday Inn in the ballroom. We were getting’ like 4000 dollars for the show , but at that time we were usually getting like 12,000 dollars so it didn’t mean that much to us – just something to keep us goin’. When we got there it was a nice crowd , and we would have gone on in front of 12 people just so the promoter paid us. The promoter was like the town pimp from all accounts , and to make a long story short he didn’t come up with the money. We weren’t gonna go on , because we don’t make it a habit of doing shows without getting’ paid first. We were in the dressing room and here comes the bootleg promoter with a couple other guys saying that he is gonna make us go on. The promoter stuck his foot in the door so that we couldn’t close it , and one of our security guys – Joe was closing the door on the guys foot. When the crowd found out what was goin on’ , they started throwing everything that wasn’t nailed down. They turned on us along with the promoter and his boys. It sounded like 100 people knocking at the door. We were in the dressing room , and our bus is outside. They were tearing up the Holiday Inn & the police weren’t comin’. Mel was into weights even back then and we had a bunch in the dressing room , so we took them apart - anything that we could use for a weapon.
Mel used to bring a baseball bat onstage , and we had that. I had a weight bar. We decided that we had to make it to the bus. We counted to 3 , there was maybe 11 or 12 of us ….we busted out the door and started wailing on people. They were throwing stuff at us , and we were trying to protect ourselves. The promoter tries to make his way to us with a knife. Cowboy grabs him & starts to tussle , and the guy is bigger than Cowboy. The guy stabs Cowboy twice. Reggie & Joe – two of our security men take a table and run the guy up against the wall with it. Cowboy had like 12 stitches in his arm and 6 in his side. The next day we did a show….that’s the kind of trooper he was. The next day we were performing !
Im gonna ask you about some Furious 5 recordings , and I want you to
tell me the first thought , memory or story associated with that song.
the very first time that we went on a real concert tour it was so
foreign to have a big crowd , and fans come afterwards. Also to have
people recognize you. We were known in the Bronx to some degree ‘cus
we did our thing , but not in this way. It would be even different today
because you have MTV & the media involved in Hip Hop. For instance
when I went with Flash & Rahiem and our new line up we went on the
Fresh Fest tour and got arrested in Providence Rhode Island for beatin’
up a bootleg t shirt seller. There was no media coverage except right
there in Providence. If that was today it would be on MTV news , the
internet and everywhere. But our lives just changed. We went from being
a regional act that played in gymnasiums , and if we were lucky
gymnasiums that had a stage ; to going on tours in different cities and
playing arenas that basketball teams played in. Real teams that we knew
of , and eventually some of the players attended our shows. It was
Nasty – That’s
when we started goin’ to the South a lot and doing more shows. Also
going overseas. The first time we went to London we fit right in with
all the wild dressing – the leather pants , studs & spikes.
- Is it true that when you opened up for the Clash the crowd booed you?
Yeah that was right here in the states !! That was in Manhattan at Bonds
International. It used to be a clothing store , but when they went out
of business it was turned into a club. When we first started doin’
shows the second set of uniforms that we bought were black velvet with
rhinestones , but this was a rock crowd – and people had stayed 2 or 3
days outside of Bonds International waitin’ for tickets. We had just
done Freedom and we had to do 2 shows. The crowd had the wild hair dos
and black lipstick , you know a Punk Rock crowd. Well Hip Hop wasn’t
like that back then – they didn’t wanna hear it AT ALL !!!They
started throwing stuff at us. Flash got so nervous that his ear started
bleeding & sh*t !!!! The second show we wore our dungarees
and we threw stuff back !!!
released that right after Freedom. We did a lot of commercials for radio
stations off of Birthday Party. That song was basically Mels idea.
Message : None
of us really wanted to do it. Especially the rest of us , because we
didn’t really have a part in it. Before the Message anything that we
wanted to say creatively we said it. Now someone was telling us that we
couldn’t say anything. After awhile Sylvia made up her mind that we
were the right type of group to do that song , coming from the inner
city and everything. We would be believable doing it , and none of her
other groups would. But she was gonna have her way on that one , as far
as Mel being the only one to do that song. It worked out for the best ,
but I wish that I had gotten the chance to say somethin’ on it though.
The rest of us came up with the idea for the arrest skit at the end so
that we would have a chance to say something.
Sugarhill Gang in the studio with you?…….Nah we recorded that at
different times. Them fake Emcees didn’t wanna be in the same room
Why was Cowboy not pictured on the “On The Strength” photo sessions?
CRE: He had just gotten out of jail , which made it possible for Elektra to sign us as a group. I was ok with the group getting back together , but I wish that we could have still kept our faction together.
: What was the most memorable time that you had on the road with either
the original line up , or the group after the split?
The Tiger Flower tours with the original group because they were
professional tours and we would go on the radio
in different cities , it was a lot of fun.
thing about Cowboy was that he was a huge Dallas Cowboy fan. That’s
not why we called him Cowboy (it was because of his bow legs , and he
walked like the Cowboys on the old westerns). He was very athletic also.
Him and Mel were always doing push ups together & stuff like that
.He was always playing basketball & football. It really surprised me
when he started messin with crack. I can also say that he loved his kids
, Cowboy really loved his kids. The people that represent us as far as
people using our stuff , they make sure that he gets his 1/5 th
Not to get too personal , but is that
a good source of income for you? I know that Will Smith & LL
Cool J have used some of your stuff….
It ain’t enough to get that Benz that I want , but it helps every now
lastly about Cowboy , when he was alive and we started to do parties
together he & I used to smoke dust together , we lived in the same
neighborhood and we were best friends. We were mad mad close. Before we
started making records together we hung out everyday. It’s not fair to
say that we were like brothers , but we were mad close. The fact that
the industry does not recognize or try to remember Cowboy is bad for me.
We didn’t do all that much in the industry where they might give a
tribute to him , but he did a lot for the seed that grew , and the terms
that he used are still used till this day. It's sad that the group
couldn’t stay together long enough to make sure that Cowboys memory
was firmly entrenched in Hip Hop history. Its disappointing that Hip Hop
turned its back on Cowboy – not that someone purposely tried to make
sure that his name is not recognized in the industry , but im just
disappointed that it’s not .
What are your 3 favorite breakbeats to rhyme over , and give me 2
: A joint by Passport called “Ju Ju Man” , “Sing ,Sing, Sing”
& way way back before we started rhyming rhythmically I liked to
rhyme to the “Bra”. Two honorable mentions are “I Can’t Stop”
: What is your favorite song that you made after the split?
: Larry’s Dance Theme.
Lastly when you guys performed the song “Scorpio” on stage , how was
it done being that the song had the vocorder in it?
CRE: We just let it play & kinda talked over it. We wanted to bring a vocorder on stage , but Sylvia would have to pay for it , and make an instrumental copy , and she never wanted to do anything to enhance the group in that sense.........
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