In 1984, Madonna Louise Ciccone left a downtown Manhattan club without her leather wristbands. She’d swapped them for a test pressing of “We’re Rocking The Planet,” a 12-inch recorded by an eighteen-year-old from Upper Manhattan called Hashim. Despite what Madonna’s wrists might tell you, it was an even trade. One year earlier, Hashim had conquered the Danceteria club scene with “Al-Naafiysh,” an epic six-minute b-boy anthem that made kids spin smoking bald spots into their heads. New York stations like WKTU blew it up, while hip-hop DJs used its vocoded imprimatur, “It’s time,” as a scratch tool. (Disclosure: My high school basketball team ran onto the court to “Al-Naafiysh.”) “Al-Naafiysh” was an easily misunderstood hit, thanks to its Arabic air; more than once I heard it referred to as “the fish song.” We masses dancing and battling to its ominous synthesizers had no idea that the track was the work of a kid who’d ditched his Catholic upbringing and found himself through Islam.
Hashim, born Jerry Calliste Jr. got his start in the music biz by infiltrating (read: cleaning) the offices of indie hip-hop label Tommy Boy; he went on to cofound Cutting Records (later home to 2 in a Room, whose “Wiggle It” went gold). In the 1990s, he jumped out of the game and into Columbus, Ohio, where he runs his own management consulting firm, a technology company, a music video service, and probably something else he’s started up in the time it’s taken to write this sentence. (Vast swaths of information and social networking links can be found at his personal website, www.jerrycallistejr.com, including how to pronounce his last name.)
Meanwhile, “Al-Naafiysh” has appeared on approximately 1.5 million compilations, anthologies, videogames, and remix albums. Calliste claims that a new project, Hashim Electro-Tech, featuring an array of Silver- and Bronze-age hip-hop heroes, will see the light before the end of 2011 — especially now that he’s said so in print. Madonna’s wristbands remain in his custody.
Dave Tompkins: Five years ago I was in a studio with Aldo Marin, one of your partners at Cutting Records, and he showed me the original editing blocks, scuffed all to hell, that the Latin Rascals used back in the day. One thing about the music from that period is that a lot of releases sounded like they were recorded on dog-food budgets. But the recording quality of the Cutting releases was superior.
Hashim: A lot of that clarity came from Aldo’s ear. Aldo had a certain sound and he knew how to get it. And I brought a lot of the fun stuff. I was always in the clubs. You name any disco, I was down there. And I was mostly there to watch people, watch their reactions, see what songs had that thump. There were certain songs that, when they got played in the clubs, they did something to people. You could see it on the dance floor. You could feel it in your chest. That’s what I was trying to get.
You have to understand that I was always more of a businessman than an artist. The only reason I made “Al-Naafiysh” was so I could afford to buy business cards and stationary.
DT: Wait — what?
Hashim: I was going to start a management company. My original goal, back then, was to manage rappers.
DT: Stationary? The fifth element! That must be one fresh-ass set of business cards. So how did you meet Aldo Marin?
Hashim: Aldo and I knew each other from the neighborhood. We went to the same Catholic school, though he was two years ahead of me. And then by the time we were in high school, he’d established himself as a DJ and a mixer. He was on the radio, spinning for KTU. I was running around with a really hissy demo of the song, and I had various offers but Aldo was starting a label with his brother and he said if I brought in some other artists, I could have a third of the company. So I went with that.
DT: And “Al-Naafiysh” was the first release, right? People were baffled by the title.
Hashim: Always. Two years ago I was speaking with this Arab over in the UAE. He said, “What’s the title?” And I said, “‘Al-Naafiysh,’ it means the soul in Arabic.” He goes, “Brother, no disrespect, but the soul in Arabic is al-nafas. That might be Turkish or Hebrew or something else, but it’s not Arabic.” I said okay, that’s another thing I can add to the list. I made up a word. Made the music and made the word.
DT: And Hashim?
Hashim: Oh yeah, that was given to me by a mentor. It means decisive — at least, that was always my understanding of it. This was before I took my Shahada. I was sixteen.
DT: How did you get into Islam?
Hashim: I was introduced to Islam in high school. I ended up going to John F. Kennedy High School. I’d been at Catholic schools until then, and I actually got into Fordham, but my parents didn’t want to pay for it. I was coming into myself as a teenager — I mean I’d started DJing when I was twelve — and they had this vision of me going to Fordham Prep and acting out, wasting their money. So they said, “Why don’t you go the public school for a year or two and let’s see what happens.”
So I went to JFK, and pretty soon I was introduced to various people who were talking about Islam. I read a book called The Movement. It had that picture of African Americans being hung from the trees, you know, with all these Caucasians looking at them, smiling and everything, laughing. It’s a famous picture, but I’d never seen it before, and it made me want to find out more about the civil rights movement. I knew a lot already — my grandfather had a huge book collection, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, the autobiography of Martin Luther King. I’d read all that stuff growing up, but I found myself wanted to hear the rhetoric of some of the people out there in the streets.
And then I just knew that there was something other than Catholicism for me. Not that I was against it — it was more like I felt I was ready for more. Catholicism was like a stepping stone. That’s how I viewed religion back then. I was reading a lot of philosophical stuff then, too — The Finding of the Third Eye, Plato. I was really just in search of the truth, and that’s what led me to Islam.
DT: What did your parents think? I bet they wished they’d sent you to Fordham.
Hashim: The parents definitely didn’t approve. My mother said, “Well, just because you’re a Muslim now doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying pork.” I remember that statement vividly. And she didn’t — there were nights I didn’t eat.
But the big turning point was the Christmas after I became a Muslim. I was supposed to get a turntable that year — my parents had told me I was going to get one. And then… nothing. They said, “Your grades aren’t good enough,” which came out of nowhere. My grades were fine, and I said so. And then they said, “If you’re a Muslim, then you don’t celebrate Christmas.” And I just looked at them. I could not believe they threw that in my face. And I just thought, fine then, if you’re not going to respect me as a Muslim, I’m going to take my Muslim self and get out of here. I grew up right there on the spot.
I left home when I was seventeen. “Al-Naafiysh” took off right away — I licensed it to somebody in France, somebody in the UK. I moved out a few weeks after it came out.
DT: “Al-Naafiysh” sounds so focused. Even hearing it back when it came out, it sounded like something else was going on.
Hashim: I really felt inspired. Honestly I felt like Allah was performing through me. I picked up the keyboard and just played by ear, so I must have been inspired by something. And for this song to reach so many millions of people around the world? That’s out of my hands. But I had very specific ideas about what I wanted it to sound like. And I had to fight for it. Everybody wanted me to put a rap on it, because rap was popular. And they wanted the hook to be in English — they said it’d never get played on the radio, that no one would understand it, you know where it goes “naafiysh naafiysh naafiysh.”
DT: Disbanded through a vocoder, no less.
Hashim: Obviously, they were wrong.
DT: But then what about the B-side? The B-side opened with the words: “It’s time.” I knew a lot of people who thought that was the name of the song. I, uh, may have been one of those people. And DJs would scratch that phrase. I remember going to see the Fresh Festival in North Carolina. I was obsessed with people cutting “It’s time” to pieces. I just wanted to hear “time, time, time, time” going back and forth. [Laughs] Remember Grandmaster Dee, Whodini’s DJ? They used to hold him up by his ankles and he’d scratch with his mouth on “It’s time.”
Hashim: I never saw him scratch that up! It’s funny. You know I did that part last. We put “It’s time” on the B-side and “Just feel it” on the A-side, deliberately, for people to scratch.
DT: I think I got the song for the first time when I bought that Street Sounds Electro 2 comp. You were keeping good company on there — The B Boys, Rammellzee. “White Lines” was on there.
Hashim: You know, “Al-Naafiysh” has been licensed eighty times for “best of” and “definitive” and “classic” compilations.
DT: No doubt. I guess I was just wondering whether you were going to any of those electro parties in the Bronx back when you were at Catholic school? Was there anything in particular that informed your musical outlook?
Hashim: I used to like “Moody” by ESG a lot. “Al-Naafiysh” almost ended up on 99 Records, their label, actually. Ed from 99 introduced me to Rick Rubin, who was going to NYU at the time. Actually, I remember Rick came up to my house one time and he brought one of the Beastie Boys with him, back when they were still a punk band. I think it was Adam.
DT: The squeaky kid? That was Adam Horowitz.
Hashim: So they came up to the projects in north Manhattan, you know, and my mom had all this food and everything, and they didn’t want to eat it. And I was like, “Come on.” [Laughs] And Adam didn’t want to touch it. And finally I got him to taste it, and then he would not be stopped. He kept asking for more turkey legs, and my mom thought it was funny, too. But Rick and I were going in different directions. He was doing like 102, 100, 98 beats per minute, and I was doing 126, 127, 130, even 132 bpm. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Anyway, you were asking about what I was listening to. Back then we used to get mixtapes — we called them outside jam tapes. My favorite was Charlie Chase from the Cold Crush Brothers and Whipper Whip and Dota Rock… Grand Wizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five. Actually, before Hashim I called myself Wiz Kid and I used to go to Downstairs Records, this tiny little hole-in-the-wall, where you could get all the hip-hop beats. You’d bring in one of those outside jam tapes and play it and the guy’d be like, “Oh yeah, I can get you that.”
The thing is, it came to my attention through those outside jam tapes that there was another Whiz Kid out there, who was down with Kool Herc. So then one day, there I was in Downstairs Records, wearing a Wiz Kid T-shirt. And the guy was like, “Are you Whiz Kid?” And I was like, “Yeah, what’s up, yo?” And he’s like “Are you the Whiz Kid?” And I was trying to play it off, and the guy says, “So what kind of equipment you have?” And I started stuttering, I said, “I have a s-s-s-s-system.” I couldn’t even say what it was because I had nothin’. I just stood there stuttering. And he says, “You ain’t no Whiz Kid.” But then he asked if I wanted to meet the real Whiz, up in the Bronx where Herc had his store. And we set it up — one day he showed up and we talked and he was like, “Well alright, Wiz Kid, I’ll take you back to my house and battle you right now.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s go!” [Laughs] So he got on the turntables and started scratching and… I don’t think I even got on. I was like, “Okay, you won.” I just threw in the towel. Because he was just this ultimate scratcher.
DT: His work on that Imperial Brothers 12", “We Dub to Scratch,” is insane.
Hashim: So I just conceded. But we became good friends. And Whiz Kid, peace be upon him — he passed away at a young age, he was in his twenties — played a big role in the birth of “Al-Naafiysh.” Remember I’d never had any musical training, I never had a piano lesson or anything. But Whiz was playing a little Casio keyboard. So I’d borrow a friend’s Casio to battle Whiz Kid. We’d be listening to the radio and we would sit there looking at each other and go, “That one? Okay, go!” And as the record was playing it was a matter of who could figure out the notes faster than the other. So he and I would battle each other on that, and it turned out that he beat me at the DJing but he couldn’t get me on the keys. [Laughs] Of course when I was back home I’d listen to the radio and learn the songs in advance, so I would win every time… but he was doing the same thing. And of course we’d get a note or two wrong or whatever, but we got most of the songs correct, just by hearing it. And that’s how I learned to play the keyboard. I started coming up with these different licks on the Casio, which led to the melody on “Al-Naafiysh.” It was the same with beats actually — Whiz Kid was always creating these hot beats. But I learned how to make beats from hanging around with him.
DT: Whiz Kid did “Play That Beat Mr DJ” with G.LO.B.E. (with the fingernails painted with the Tommy Boy logo on the cover). Is that how you got the connect?
Hashim: You know, Whiz started out at Tommy Boy cleaning the office two days a week. And he was about to do a deal with them to start producing records, and he was getting ready to leave his job as, uh, janitor [laughs]. And he was like, “I’m going to get you in, but you gotta do something for us. I need this graffiti artwork done.” They needed banners for, I think it was Soul Sonic Force and the Jonzun Crew. Whatever it was, I did those banners — I spray painted bed sheets because I couldn’t find any other material — and that was my introduction to Monica Lynch. And then Whiz was like, “Hey man, I got you a job at Tommy Boy!” And I was like, “Great.” And he said, “You’re gonna clean the office!” And I said, “I’m not cleaning that office, are you kidding me? I’m too smart to be cleaning offices.” And he was like, “Exactly!”
Hashim: “I want you in that office so I can have somebody there on the inside. I want you to keep track of what’s happening for me and you’ll learn how to run a record label at the same time.” And I thought, you know, that’s not a bad idea. And so I ended up going in there two days a week, and I’d watch Monica work the phones. It was a pretty small office — there were maybe four employees. And then on occasion Monica would ask me to take some records down to the clubs, where I was introduced to a lot of people — club DJs and managers. Remember I was like fifteen, sixteen at this point — technically I shouldn’t have been in there, but, you know, I had the Tommy Boy T-shirt and the records in my hand and Monica would call to put me on the guest list. And it got to a point where I would call and get myself on the guest list, and I just kept going. But that was a big part of my job at Cutting Records, you know, hitting the pavement, getting the records out, see what people were responding to.
DT: Which clubs?
Hashim: My main party was Danceteria. First it was the Roxy for a while, then it was Danceteria. But I was everywhere — the FunHouse, the Tunnel, Limelight. It was a funny scene. You know Robert Downey Jr. used to work at Area, way down near Canal St. And there was a guy who always used to give me a hard time, like a majority of the time, this bouncer named Mark Vincent. I would be on the list, plus whatever, and he’d be having a fit with me. And years later I’m at the movies and — that’s Vin Diesel. I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s the guy from the clubs!”
Hashim: I mean, he used to break-dance back in the day. He knew the music. Maybe he was mad ’cause he was stuck bouncing at the door while I was hanging out with the girls. This was about the time I was dating this girl Paula, who was a receptionist at Unique Studios. We lived near each other uptown. And one day Steve Peck, the engineer at Unique, came up to me and was like, “Hey man, I see you getting all cozy with Paula, that’s cool. She’s Paula Ciccone.” And I was like, “Yeah, and I’m Jerry Calliste Junior! What’s your point?” I had no idea who she was. And then eventually it came out, and I was like, “Hey, why didn’t you tell me you were Madonna’s sister?”
DT: That’s great.
Hashim: This was after Madonna gave me the wristbands, by the way.
DT: You sort of moved away from the music business, literally and figuratively, when you left for Ohio in the nineties.
Hashim: Again, really, I’m a businessman first. These days I run a technology company, I also run a management consultancy. I’ve got two PhDs on my team — one in Vietnam, one in China. There’s another one in the works. So I’m not just hanging out, kicking it, smoking weed all day. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do any of that. I’m not just playing video games. That is not the life of a retired old-school electro hip-hop artist on this side of the fence. So you could put that in the interview!
DT: Last question: Are you Nitro Deluxe?
Hashim: A lot of fans have written in thinking that I’m Nitro Deluxe. They hear “Get Brutal” and think that I had something to do with it. I did not. Nitro Deluxe is a nice guy from Philly, legally blind, big Hashim fan. One day he came into the office with his keyboard literally under his arm and played us his stuff, and we liked it. We put out some records with him on Cutting. But I am here today to tell you that I am not Nitro Deluxe.