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.
DC and Steve will both tell you they weren’t raised on the mean streets. Their respective childhoods—they both grew up on leafy blocks in North Denver—couldn’t have been more different from the vicious, violent upbringings so many rappers claim to have endured. Life was more reminiscent of a scene from a Leave It To Beaver episode than anything from Straight Outta Compton. Run-ins with cops happened only when a neighbor complained they were practicing their music too loudly; neither ever had to use an AK to get through the day. And DC and Steve never hid their middle-class upbringing, even if the rap industry seemed to demand it. (As Dr. Dre once noted in a track called “Nigga Witta Gun”: “And for a youth to survive, a nigga gotta be a gangster.”) But these two dudes were no gangstas, nor did they ever want to be. “When you look back, I had it good,” DC tells me after Steve and I pile into the Suburban and head east toward their old neighborhood. “I can’t complain about shit.”
DC was enrolled in Catholic schools for much of his childhood, went to Mass regularly with his family, and was expected to earn a college degree. His parents were his role models: DC’s father, Cecil Glenn, earned a doctorate in education from the University of Colorado Boulder and was director of minority education programs and the ethnic studies program at the University of Colorado Denver for more than three decades. DC’s mother worked as a supervisor at a juvenile court. Steve, too, lived a life of quiet expectations. One of his uncles served as an attorney in the Carter administration, and Steve’s mother worked a job as an administrative assistant but was always home in time to have dinner ready for her three children. Though Steve’s parents divorced when he was five, both were constant presences in his life. He’d visit his father and then go home to his mother, who made him do his homework.
There were curfews and allowances and chores to do. Like so many adolescent boys, the two got involved with girls, smoked a little weed, and hung around the campus at Manual High School, where they met in Mrs. Langley’s social sciences class in 1982. Theirs were the sort of low-drama lives that make parents feel confident about their kids’ futures. Neither saw the racism they learned about in school, and neither can remember a time in Denver when they were discriminated against. “We all grew up around everybody,” DC says. “That was one of the blessings of Denver. We were just friends with everybody.”
It was Steve who fell for music early. He’d listen to LPs at his dad’s apartment, then mix songs at home on his mother’s tape recorder and save the cassettes in his bedroom. When he met DC, Steve already had a couple of bands. In DC, he found a future collaborator. DC could sing and play piano; Steve played drums and was a budding beat-maker. Steve wrote songs in class, and DC was in the Bolt Vibrations, the Manual choir. DC played football; Steve was elected senior class president and prided himself on his wardrobe, which included a pair of penny loafers. “They were the big men on campus,” says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who attended Manual in the ’80s and lived not far from DC. “Steve was the man; Cecil was just the coolest dude.”
Weekends were like something out of a movie—running from one house party to the next and entertaining girls at Steve’s mother’s place. After school, they either practiced at DC’s or in Steve’s basement or grabbed rides downtown, where they rapped on the 16th Street Mall and collected tips in a plastic cup. When the second member of the original Tag Team—one of Steve’s groups—graduated from high school and joined the Army, DC stepped in. “It was the stone age of hip-hop,” DC says today. “It was simple and fun back then: Make the beat, write the lyrics, name the song, and make it sound good—not necessarily in that order.” They made their first recordings at Free Reeling Studios in Denver and performed at the city’s Juneteenth celebration for the first time in 1983; they rapped in a parking lot off Holly Square Shopping Center and in hotel lobbies. There wasn’t much of a future in hip-hop in Denver, though, and rap wasn’t getting regular airtime on the radio. Everything that made Denver a generally safe place for a young African-American male made it a terrible incubator for hip-hop.
As DC and Steve showed me around their old ’hood this past winter, DC slowed the Suburban at the corner of York Street and 27th Avenue and pulled over to the shoulder. Steve let out a groan when he saw the green house. “Oh, man,” he said of his childhood home. “They painted it. That’s not how it’s supposed to look.” DC shook his head. “What happened to the majestic burgundy?” he asked. “That is not very majestic.”
Steve got out of the SUV and wandered over to the sidewalk that runs along the front of the house. DC and I followed. Steve pointed to the window where his mother’s room used to be, to the basement where they once wrote songs. Steve walked up the steps and into the yard to get a better look. There was a big porch out front, with some plants lining the walkway. As Steve poked around, a gray-haired woman appeared suddenly from behind a storm door. “Can I help you?” she called from behind the glass.
“I used to live here,” Steve said.
A look of acknowledgement registered on the woman’s face. She opened the door. “Are you Steve?” she asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Ooohhh,” the woman said excitedly as she stepped into the sunlight. “I was told a famous rapper once lived here.”
After graduating from Manual in 1984, DC studied communications at California State University, Sacramento, and Steve moved to Georgia to enroll in the Art Institute of Atlanta. The two stayed close and paired up again when DC moved south in 1989 and eventually got a job as a DJ at an Atlanta strip club called Magic City. The money paid for rent and food, kept DC in the local music scene, and gave him afternoons to work with Steve on new material.
When he learned about the chant, Whoomp! There it is, in the summer of 1992, he pitched the idea for a bass-heavy party song to Steve. Both men were now 26 and seriously considering their futures in the music business. They didn’t have a full album or a deal with a record label, and no one was paying attention to the one-off songs they were releasing in the club. With “Whoomp!” though, DC thought they had something—even if he hadn’t written lyrics yet. Make a few beats, DC told Steve. Do the bass your way.
At the recording studio in his house, Steve put together five beats and brought DC over to listen. They were good, DC said. But one stood out. Steve had sampled a 1980 dance track, “I’m Ready,” by an Italian group named Kano. He’d heard the song years earlier and especially liked the synthesized, funked-out intro. To the Kano sample, he overlaid the bass—a sort of BOOOOOM-booooooooom rumble—and then the cymbals.
To open the song, DC yelled the words, “Party people!” To fill in a 15-second gap after Steve’s first verse, the two repeated the phrase “shaka-laka”—a goofy expression Steve would say to another friend when the two passed each other in the Manual High hallways. They added several call-and-response sections, then patched the rest of the track together.
DC finally played “Whoomp!” at Magic City in October 1992. They put the track away for a few months, then played it again one night in February 1993. The song was a hit. They needed to find a record label, DC said, right away.