Whoomp! (There It Was)
Twenty years ago, two guys from North Denver released one of the most popular rap singles of all time. An inside look at the weird, wild ride of DC the Brain Supreme and Steve Rolln, hip-hop’s ultimate one-hit wonders.
“How do you spell ‘whoomp’?”
Steve Rolln was on the line with his man DC the Brain Supreme. DC had been talking to three strippers—Cinnamon, Chocolate, and Dark-N-Lovely—who’d just gotten back from Miami and had told DC, who was a strip-club DJ, about a chant that had gone viral in the South Florida clubs: “Whoomp! There it is.” It was difficult to decipher at first; the refrain was so guttural, so dirty. Was it “whoop” or “whoops” or “woot”? No, no, no. It was whoomp, a bit of ingenious, onomatopoeic strip-club slang to which someone had appended the phrase “there it is.” A woman takes it all off, and—Whoomp! There it is. DC was on it. He wanted to take those four words, wrap a beat around them, and make a song. A party song. The party song.
“Yeah, but how do you spell ‘whoomp’?” Steve asked his best friend—the kid he’d grown up with in Denver in the early ’80s, the guy he’d brought to Atlanta all those years later with the dream they’d someday hit it big in the hip-hop game. They’d had to move to the South; Denver didn’t have what they needed to make it.
Atlanta, on the other hand, was the perfect place for these two young rappers. It was the summer of 1992; Bobby Brown, who had made Atlanta his adopted home, was a growing presence at the top of the R&B charts. Record executive L.A. Reid was churning out hits with an all-star list of African-American talent. Now, four years after the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton; three years after the Beastie Boys reimagined hip-hop with Paul’s Boutique; and one year after Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster, DC and Steve—together known as Tag Team—were ready. They didn’t, however, want to compete with those artists. What they wanted to do was much more pedestrian, but no less ambitious: They would create a song with a shuffling high-hat rhythm and a bass line that you could feel in your bones, with lyrics about partying and fun and sex. If they did it right, it would drive people onto the dance floor. If they had a hit, it would play on a seemingly endless loop on MTV and VH1 and FM radio stations. It would show up in movies. People across the country would chant the chorus at clubs; fans at basketball games would shout “whoomp!” after spectacular dunks. And the two guys from Denver would be world-famous and, one day, become very, very rich.
Right now, though, Steve Rolln is just trying to get out of the parking lot. It’s late on a Monday morning this past winter, and Steve—whose given name is Steve Gibson—is sitting outside a North Denver hotel in his rented Chevy Tahoe, waiting for DC, who’s 30 minutes late. Steve’s seat is reclined to a near 45-degree angle from the steering wheel. He’s 47, but he could pass for a man a decade younger. He’s wearing a white Adidas track jacket and jeans; his tangle of cigar-thick dreadlocks is smashed against the Tahoe’s leather headrest. He’s playing with his jacket’s zipper when his phone finally rings. It’s DC. “Whassup, man?” Steve answers. “Where you at?” Pause. “Well, come out. We sittin’ in this Tahoe.” Pause. “Where?” Pause. “You got a Suburban?”
Since Steve and DC released it 20 years ago, “Whoomp! (There It Is)” has made a bigger impact than even the two dreamers could have imagined. The song, which is not much more than a gussied-up strip-club mantra, was certified four times platinum in the United States, generated millions of dollars in sales and royalties, and ranks among the country’s most commercially successful singles of all time. It reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 1993 end-of-the-year chart (and was in the top 50 in ’94). In the annals of American pop music sales, “Whoomp!” sits right alongside singles by icons like Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson. And, even today, “Whoomp!” still gets airtime on the radio, at sports venues, in television commercials, and on movie soundtracks. In two decades it’s gone from bona fide hit to kitsch to generational touchstone. Put another way, “Whoomp!” has matured and grown by means of reminding a whole bunch of thirty- and fortysomethings of their immaturity, of all the fun they used to have before jobs and kids and marriages and mortgages.
Steve pulls out of the hotel parking spot, drives across the lot, and stops his Tahoe behind DC’s rented black Suburban. A few months before their song’s 20th anniversary, I reached out to Steve and DC—whose real name is Cecil Glenn—to talk about growing up in Denver, their irrepressible song, and the smash hit’s past and future. Steve rolls down his window as DC jumps out of his SUV and pops open the vehicle’s back gate. At age 46, DC’s all chest and stomach, with a graying goatee and a Kangol cap pulled over his shaved head. He grabs a picture frame that’s facedown in the Suburban’s trunk. “What’s that?” Steve calls to his friend. DC flips over the black frame for the big reveal: four platinum records and a platinum cassette tape, pressed under glass. “We may be one-hit wonders,” Steve admits to me, then adds: “But there’s people who can’t even do the one hit.”