The Story Of Sugar hill
Records In- House Producer, Capitol Records Solo Recording
Artist And Va’s Best Kept Secret- Clayton Savage.
What age were you when you first took an interest in music , and what
was the first instrument that you played?
Savage : Probably the children’s flute , like when you’re four or
five in the first grade. I used to sing and play that back then.
And you’re originally from Virginia right?
Yes im originally from Norfolk Va , and I grew up in Chesapeake and a
place called Stony Creek Va. In the summers I worked on a farm there.
When was the first time that somebody noticed that you had a talent,
outside of the kids flute.
Well right around that same time I started to play piano. I could play
by ear, and I would write little songs at like 4 & 5 years old.
Who were your influences?
Well the Jackson 5 , Motown and I listened to a lot of James Brown. Stax
stuff also. Singin’ was something that I always did, but never around
people. I had a cousin named Jeremiah , and he played guitar , and I
would try to pluck the guitar , but again never in front of anybody.
How difficult is it to play an instrument and sing at the same time. Is
it hard to stay on beat?
Every instrument that I play I can sing and play it at the same time.
It’s just something that I learned to do. Sometimes people don’t
show up for rehearsal, and you have no choice.
JQ: You mentioned that you played in a few bands back in the days. Were you the leader of those bands.?
Oh yeah. When I was a kid like 14 & 15, I was callin the shots in
bands with cats that were in their 30s and 40s sometimes. This dude
Kenny had the idea of putting our first band together. He was older than
me , but I still was the leader and called the shots.
What was the name of the first band that you played in?
We called ourselves Nitro. We had that band for a few years , and we
were playin’ clubs and stuff in Va & the Carolinas. We were young,
like 13 through eighteen.
Who did you sound like back then.
We were heavily influenced by Chic and Cameo, people like that. This was
the late 70s. We were influenced by Earth, Wind & Fire as far as
their excellence , but not their sound. We played a lot of Confunkshun,
Cameo & Rick James.
You patterned your falsetto after one of the early lead singers of Cameo
Yeah Wayne Cooper (R.I.P.). I used to do the Phillip Bailey thing, and I
liked the Stylistics. Wayne Cooper was incredible with his inflections
and stuff. He was like a masculine version of a female singer with that.
We played a lot of Raydio stuff also – Ray Parker Jrs old group.
How did your parents feel about you being in a band.
Well they weren’t interested in me doing anything that had to do with
music. Its just not something that was supported in the environment that
I came from. It was far fetched at that point – education was
stressed. My pops was one of the first Black phone men for the Bell
phone company. My mom was the first female Black manager in the
Alcoholic Beverage Control in Va.
...So education was our way out.
...So education was our way out.
Are you most fluent at guitar and piano as opposed to other instruments?
Yes those are the 2. I was always writing, engineering and mixing too.
As a multi instrumentalist is it difficult to jump from one instrument
to another. Like I was watching a Prince concert and he jumps from
killin the guitar
Its just something you do. You aren’t thinking about F sharps or
nothing like that. Your hands just go where they're supposed to whether
you want them to or not. That’s the cool thing about playing by ear.
It amazes you , and it amazes real musicians. I call real musicians
those who read music and understand what's goin on. They will ask you how
you know what you're doing , and you won't even have an answer for them.
Fast forward to getting a deal as a producer at Sugar hill Records.
Well I was telling the band that I was in that in order to get a deal we
needed to focus on one person. Like Lionel Ritchie & Michael Jackson
both did from their groups. I had already produced and recorded all
these songs. Like a lot of stuff that you heard on the Grandmaster Melle
Mel & The Furious 5 album I had already recorded solo and sold on
cassette. Stuff like Yesterday and We Don’t Work for free – even
stuff from my solo lp, like Virgin Lover & Ecstasy I wrote that stuff
when I was 15. I sent out tapes , and would go to the labels and follow
up. Just sittin’ there waiting for the A &R person – bold &
ignorant as hell. Try doin’ that shit now and you would be out in the
were the last days of having talent and getting a record deal based on
that. The last stop on my list was Sugar hill Records. My sound was 1
part Prince and 2 parts me. They zeroed in on the Prince part. Or the
A&R who was Shonte’ Harvey did anyway. Shonte’ was Joey Robinson's
girlfriend, and she was also in The Last Dragon….. I had
hundreds of songs that they never heard because I was held back due to
the lack of them having a studio that I could record in at the pace that
I needed. I was doin’ sessions on Bunny Sigler , or whoever came
through. I sang on one of the bass player from Cameos solo songs. His
name was Aaron Mills.
Let me back track for clarity. Did you audition or drop off a tape?
I dropped off a tape, and they listened and said that they would call me
back. They called back and I went up there with my manager. They advised
me not to sign the contract, but I said “what else do I have”? I was
working 2 jobs and in college.
one of the B.E.T. shows use your music as their theme.
Yeah Video Souls original theme music was my song – “Palm Of Her
anyone in your part of VA make a big deal that one of their own had
signed a record deal.
Not with Sugar hill , but when I signed with Capitol they did. The song
“Virgin Lover” shot to #1 in the area quickly. My man Purcell from
WRAP in Norfolk did make some noise for me about signing with Sugar hill.
Virgin Lover wasn’t a single because I got an explicit warning sticker
slapped on my lp for the word virgin.
How did you go from being signed as a producer and artist to being part
of Mels new Furious 5?
I recorded sessions for other people in the day, and at night I did my
stuff. I recorded “We Don’t Work For Free” and Joey Robinson Jr
heard it. He was like “Mommy Mommy listen to this song that Clayton
did”. She liked it , but thought that it would do better with Mel
rapping on it.
Were you familiar with the Furious 5s history and catalog before then?
I loved White Lines – I thought it was real creative, and who could
have missed the Message. I had a lot of respect for their energy, and I
loved how they flipped the Tom Tom club song on “Its Nasty”. I
didn’t really take rap seriously at first though. Right after Rappers
Delight Mel Brooks made a rap song called King Tut , so I took it all as
a joke. Then Blondie comes out, and Must Be The Music by Secret Weapon.
To the common person there wasn’t much difference between the Furious
and Sugar hill Gang.
It wasn’t until I saw them live that I could really
appreciate the difference. I started to see that the label was holding
them back. If they had some kind of label support Run & them
wouldn’t have had a chance! We
were down with the rock & roll shit from day one. I remember doing
shows with Run Dmc and them telling the crowd how they don’t sing –
they were kinda dissin’ us. Then the biggest hit that they had was
remaking a rock song that they sang!!! It was wild times touring the
world but we never made songs about it. We never really thought to. The
girls and everything was just part of being a so called celebrity or
whatever. Now days guys make songs about that kind of stuff , but it was
just everyday life for us.
Who else contributed to the “We Don’t Work For Free” that you did
on Sugar hill.
Cheryl The Pearl from Sequence came up with the end chant and Craig
Derry sang on it too. My song was basically getting butt fucked at this
point. Craig is very talented and as a producer and song writer I have
always been able to think outside of the box , and I realized that they
did add something to the song that wasn’t there at first. Mel
surprised me with his intro verse , because I didn’t know what was
gonna come out of his mouth!!! We did songs on the road together that
Sylvia never heard.
I never knew that you sang the background on “Step Off”. The part
that mimicked the O Jays for the Love Of Money until recently when you
Yeah man , and I programmed the beat !!!!
You did the beat for Step Off ?…my man VA represent!!! When did you do
that , was it before y'all did “We Don’t Work For Free”.
We had already did “We Don’t Work” but no the lp. I remember
Scorpio telling me to come on the road with them , and that kinda just
happened. I wasn’t originally supposed to be a part of the new Furious
Did you have any idea back then that “We Don’t Work” was so big in
Nope, and I still don’t!!! (laughs). Until you sent me all those news
paper and magazine clippings from the UK. I had no idea at all. When we
went to the UK Mel had just done “I Feel For You” , and we used to
perform that on stage. I used to do Chakas parts , and they thought that
it was me on the original record. So I knew that they knew I Feel For
You , and they knew We Don’t Work as well , but I thought that
momentum was just from I Feel For You.
Do you see royalties from Step Off?
Man I aint never seen a royalty from Sugar hill. EVER.
So did they pay you in a brown paper bag or what , cus I know you made
something because you continued with them for a minute.
I never got paid through the Furious like that. My money from came
straight from Sugar hill for sessions. I got paid weekly for sessions ,
and Mel & them paid me per night for gigs. I still don’t know what
its like to get paid a royalty.
: What was up with the image of the Furious at the time. I remember
lookin at the cover of the lp and thinking about the cats from Sha na na.
Well Mel & them were rock & roll. They hung out in the village
and lived that lifestyle. Run Dmc rocked leather , we rocked custom
leather. It was the same shit , presented differently. Style wise I
looked at Run Dmc as the poor mans version of Mels group. There was no
way that Run & them couldn’t have respected Mel & them , but
you’ll never hear it from their mouths. They lost Jam master Jay , we
lost Cowboy. Cowboy died broke , Jay died with money problems. The
difference was I would say Mel was more of a visionary , and more
prophetic. Run rapped from a disadvantaged perspective about the stuff
around him. For those that needed it dumbed down that was perfect
because he talked about Adidas. Cats are gonna imitate that cus its
easy. It was nothing Earth shattering or enlightening. But Mel was
talking about Jupiter & Mars that’s a lil harder. You may have to
read a book and educate yourself. Not that Run is an ignorant man , and
it clearly benefited that he had his brother Russell in his corner. If
its one thing that the Furious 5 has taught us that goes unnoticed is
without unity its gonna dissolve. They really should never have broken
up , cus its Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 , not Grandmaster
Flash & Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious. That Grandmaster
stuff came from Sylvia.
How was it coming from a musical background ending up in a rap group
with cats like Kama Kaze & Tommy Gunn who were left of center?
Performance wise it made me step my game up. Kama Kaze was a hell of a
dancer. His name is Les. He was a choreographer and Tommy Gunn was like
a rock star. He was the first to stage dive, no one had ever seen anyone
do that. America is like one big hood, and no individuality is stressed.
When you get out of your environment and travel overseas , you discover
that they welcome different things. You should see how some acts from
the States change their stage show for the UK. Individuality is stressed
more over there.
I know that Clayton is a part of your birth name, but where did the
Savage part come from?
This chick named Janis Chapman told me that her teachers name was
Clayton Savage , and I thought that it was a tough name. I was also into
comics like Doc Savage.
:So you are a big comics fan. I see that your record label is called Red
K, and you’re a big Superman fan.
Yeah I used to collect the original stuff and mark up the price. That
was one of my hustles back in the day…… but Superman is like a trip
‘ cus he is an alien that is totally accepted on this planet. He
appears to have no weaknesses , but his biggest weakness isn’t Green
Kryptonite , its Red. It flips out his inhibitions , and he is a totally
different person when he is on it. That’s the difference in me being
Clayton Savage as a dude around the way , and Clayton Savage the
What else did you do on Sugar hill aside from Mels stuff?
“I'll Be Your Beasty” by Shonte’ , Lisa Danielle who was on Ronald
Isleys label. I did some stuff on Bunny Sigler. It was just work for me
so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to
who it was for. I was just chasin’ a check. But the West Street
Mob , whatever their last album was - that was most of my work. They may
have sang , but the music was me. I was more West Street Mob than they
When you left Sugar hill you left a lot of music there right?
Oh yeah. They didn’t know because they had no idea what was goin on. I
left a lot of music in the DMX – that was my shit.
Didn’t you also program the beat for “The New Adventures Of
Yeah. That was me. I forgot about that one (singin’) gotta check out
the avenue – there’s no coolin’ out….
What prompted you to leave Sugar hill , and how did you get with
Sugar hill wasn’t gonna release my solo lp and I finally saw that. Like
I said, they held the Furious back, and I could see that they were doin’
the same with me. Jerry Griffith was an a&r at Arista who moved to
Capitol/Manhattan and he heard my music. Shonte’ and her family were
cool with this guy who became my manager named Dywane who was tight with
How long did it take you to record the lp?
I went to them with 3 songs already , and they wanted to see how I did
in the studio. I went to Unique studios and finished the rest of the lp
in a few weeks. They were very impressed by that. People record now
because of the technology , but a few weeks was fast back then. The
first single was Satisfaction Guaranteed, which I had written for Lisa
What was the problem at Manhattan. Was it lack of promotion?
Well they were a straight up old school r&b label, and I was kinda
new for them. They did have Bernard Wright and Gavin Christopher as well
as Robbie Neville. But they could never agree on what singles to
release. Also Sugar hill were claiming that I was still signed to them.
That’s you on the cover of the “Who's Zoomin' Who?” lp by Aretha
Franklin. How did you get that gig?
Well in between deals I had to eat. Don Davenport was Sylvia Rhones
husband and he suggested that me & my girlfriend do the shoot. I
cant remember who hooked it up , man its been awhile, its all kinda gray
Weren’t you the first male on the cover of some hair magazine.
Well the publicity department was doin’ their job, and they got me
Right On magazine & I was on the cover of Black Hair Magazine. I
didn’t know that hair could take you that far!!!
There was a period when you gave up on music right?
the deal wasn’t working , and personal things started happening. This
was 87 or so. Then I moved to Minnesota and played with a band called
Didn’t you do something with Monte Moir of TheTime?
: Yeah when I moved to Minnesota I submitted songs to Montes management.
They got one of my songs to Nia Peeples , and Monte produced it on her
album. The song was called “Poetry In Motion”.
Tell me about your label that you currently operate called Red K
I want Red K to be the top label in the Mid Atlantic. When you leave New
York & Jersey headed
south things go dead. They pick back up in Atlanta & Florida. That
whole dead area is my zone. All my artists will come from that area. I
want to provide a place where artists don’t have to leave their area
to have a shot at making it. But its R&B, Hip Hop & Gospel.
: Are you seeking a relationship with a major label?
The question is: a major label to do what? A major is a bank. So the
question is do I want to give up a percentage of my profits for a bank
loan. Im looking to work with strong independents who have progressed in
this field. I have distribution with the Anonymous Music Group and
Michael Edmoni. He is a grinder like me ,and it’s a partnership. Those
who partner with majors do so for different reasons. Boutiques work as
their artist development, and the labels just provide an influx of cash.
It’s a big deal to go from being in a couple hundred stores to ten
thousand stores. Anyone should be able to get a hit if they are in
10,000 stores – you only need to sell 10 copies in each store!!!
: Thanks for your time bro.
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