On September 11, a day when most New Yorkers were remembering the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, celebrated DJ Mister Cee retired from his 20-year spot at Hot 97 after yet another allegation of soliciting a transvestite for sex. The following day, on Hot 97’s morning show, Mister Cee came out of the closet and admitted his preference for men. “I was only able to fight for so long,” Mister Cee said. Supported by collages Funkmaster Flex and program director Ebro Darden, the DJ was said to be considering returning to the station.
A Hot 97 employee since 1993, his 20-year reign has been marred in recent years, beginning in 2011 when he was arrested for a prostitution offense with a 20-year-old male. “What you did today in hip-hop is monumental,” Ebro to Mister Cee. “You have saved people’s lives in a real way.”
While the world of hip-hop has long been known for its homophobia and less than tolerant attitude towards same sex pairings, as independent publicist and former Billboard rap music columnist Havelock Nelson points out, “Since the beginning of Mister Cee’s problems, people have remained supportive of him. As far as we can see publicly, none of his friends has shunned him. We know there is a lot of hate and ignorance when it comes to gay issues in hip-hop, but I think Mister Cee can rise above it. He might want to use this opportunity to educate people and become an advocate.”
Film producer Domingo Canate, whose documentary Hands to the Sky is a celebration of dance music culture says, “In the hip-hop world, it’s not the norm to be out, but all it takes is one prominent person to make a difference.”
As a straight male who’s been around gay dance culture for most of his life (beginning in the 1980s clubbing at New York City’s infamous Paradise Garage), Canate adds, “For me it’s always been about live and let live. But in hip-hop, people can often be very close-minded. Hip-hop needs someone who can educate them about their messed up attitudes towards gays in general.”
Party promoter and Mad Wednesday’s founder Maria Davis has been friends with Mister Cee since the ’90s. “In our community people, don’t ever want to talk about issues of same sex unions, because it makes them uncomfortable,” she says. “Whether someone is gay or not really shouldn’t matter. We should be concerned with people, not issues. People know him as the guy who does the Throwback at Noon show on Hot 97, but many don’t realize how much he has contributed to hip-hop culture.”
Mister Cee’s history in hip-hop is deep. Years before the scandals, he was just another Brooklyn boy dreaming of being down with rap music. More than nice behind a set of turntables, his initial goal was to become a DJ. As a student at Sarah J. High School, teenage Calvin Lebrun was down with a local posse calling itself Magnum Force.
Along with his friend AJ Fresh, the duo hooked up with a posse of five rappers and made their name playing local jams. Yet it wasn’t until he linked with fellow student Antonio “Big Daddy Kane” Hardy that his visions of stardom began coming together.
Shortly after graduating from school the duo—along with Kane’s goofy friend Marcel Hall a.k.a. Biz Markie—was signed to the legendary Cold Chillin’ Records. The then Queensbridge Projects-based label was home to the seminal Juice Crew rap collective, featuring producer Marley Marl and rapper MC Shan. The Brooklyn teens started on the road to making history.
Working a job delivering packages for Airborne Express, Cee would go to the studio still in uniform and lay down his mixes and scratches for the verbose rapper’s stellar single “Raw” and his classic 1988 debut, Long Live the Kane. “When it was time for me to go on tour I was still working at Airborne Express,” Cee told me in 2003 when I interviewed him for XXL. “But they refused to give me a leave of absence. They advised me to either stay or quit—and you can see which one I chose.”
For the next six years, the Bed-Stuy turntablist stuck with the Cold Chillin’ crew. But when things began falling apart in the early ’90s, he wasn’t sure which direction he would go. All of that changed in 1992 when he met another aspiring Brooklyn kid named Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Biggie Smalls a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. Suddenly, Cee knew what his next step would be.
Hearing Big’s demo, Cee recalled, “I was blown away. I had the same reaction that I had when I first heard Kane. It was just raw talent. Most of the time when I’d got demos, the rappers were not very good, but B.I.G. sounded like he had been rhyming forever.
“Biggie was forceful, but a gentle giant. He painted beautiful pictures with the simplest lyrics. He would put you in mind of the thug next door and explain why he sold drugs, why he was stressed out, or why he had suicidal thoughts. Once he started getting more confidence, it was over.”
After signing Biggie to a production deal, Mister Cee was instrumental in grooming him for success. Cee worked with Big on perfecting his demo, as well as getting pictures for the rapper’s package to send out to record labels and magazines. After sending everything to The Source magazine (where he was later featured in the Unsigned Hype column), the oversized rapper caught the attention of Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“At the time Puffy was still doing A&R at Uptown Records,” Mr. Cee said. “Biggie didn’t even know who he was, so I explained that Puff was the cat who had worked with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. In the meeting, Puff asked Big to kick a rhyme. He sat there excited and when Big finished, Puff said, ‘We can have a record out by the summer.’ That’s how fast it happened.”
While Cee had already begun working at Hot 97, he tried to get Puff to sign Biggie through his production company, but the savvy executive refused. As Cee recalled, “I could have been selfish [and withheld consent], but what would I have gained by holding Biggie back?” In exchange for releasing Big, Cee received a finder’s fee and points on the rapper’s debut Ready to Die, where he also supplied the scratches on “Gimmie the Loot.”
Watching his former protégé go on to fame and fortune made Mister Cee proud, and when Big was murdered in 1997, it rocked his world. “The last time I talked to Big was when he was recuperating from a car accident,” Cee remembered. “A few weeks later, he was dead. I went to [Hot 97] right after I heard he was murdered.”
Moreover, it was at Hot 97 he remained until this latest episode of sexual misconduct brought an end to his tenure at the station. “Mister Cee is a talented and exciting DJ,” says Havelock Nelson. “This development might be an opportunity for him to open for or spin behind hip-hop artists like Nas or Jay Z, who’ve gone on record supporting gay rights. His life post coming out depends on the reactions of high caliber artists like these.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.