Feature

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.

June 2013

Man, did they have it good: trips to Rio, to Germany. “We played at this place called the Hippodrome” in London in 1993, Steve remembers. “When DC yelled ‘party people’ the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. People were going crazy.” The song was played in NBA arenas to pump up fans; it exploded on the coasts. Birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, frat parties. You name it, the song was there. Shortly after “Whoomp!” was released, Steve’s mother went on a business trip and walked into an auditorium where her son’s song was playing. She got a standing ovation.

Even if they thought the success would last forever—and they did—DC and Steve acted as if it all could disappear just as suddenly. After a trip to the American Music Awards to present the Favorite Soul/R&B album to Whitney Houston and a performance on the Arsenio Hall Show, they fashioned a handful of terrible reworks of “Whoomp!” that included a 1995 song for Disney (“Whoomp! There It Went”), a Spanish remix (“Whoomp! Si Lo Es”), and a historically awful lead single for the 1993 movie Addams Family Values, titled “Addams Family (Whoomp!),” which earned Tag Team a Razzie for worst original song in a motion picture.

If anyone—family, friends, business associates—thought to put the brakes on the enterprise, to find someone who could guide Tag Team’s future, no one said anything. The group’s label, Bellmark Records, didn’t seem to care if its number one act was turning into a sideshow. And, if they’re being honest, neither did DC or Steve.

Money rolled in, and the two spent it without consideration. For guys who’d grown up in hard-working families, the idea of easily accessible cash made life into a carnival fun house. Steve got married and started to build a family, but he brought friends with him on international trips and paid for everyone. When he needed $100,000 to put a down payment on a house outside Atlanta, he called Bellmark and waited for the check. “Whatever we wanted, we got,” Steve says. “We didn’t think about saving it for later.” Shortly after the song’s release, DC bought several apartments in Atlanta and a Mercedes. “I couldn’t understand why he wanted to be a rapper,” Cecil Glenn, DC’s namesake father, told me recently. “It was such a different life than I could have imagined.”

Then, as if the narrative arc of Tag Team’s story had been written for VH1’s Behind The Music, everything fell apart. The company representing the group Kano argued that Tag Team illegally sampled “I’m Ready.” Bellmark paid several hundred thousand dollars to settle and eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1997. Soon afterward, calls stopped getting returned; the checks stopped arriving. Bellmark’s assets were split up—though the company’s founder, Al Bell, was granted full ownership of the song last year after a lengthy legal battle with another record label. Bell, who did not respond to an email sent to his attorney, now has full say over how the song can be used in the future.

All DC can do these days is shake his head. “You get one shot to do shit sometimes, you know what I mean?” he says. “It’s that one shot, and we know we’ll never have it again. I take responsibility.” In his mind, it’s his fault for hiring an ineffectual lawyer when Tag Team first signed with Bellmark (the pair own only “writer” rights to “Whoomp!”—not the more lucrative “mechanical license” or “master recording license” that would allow them to reproduce the song at will and retire as multimillionaires). The eponymous Whoomp! (There It Is) album—with songs like “U Go Girl” and “Just Call Me DC”—was certified gold but never was anywhere near as successful as the “Whoomp!” single. The two released a second album, Audio Entertainment, in 1995 that flopped.

There wasn’t a moment when the two agreed to kill the group, no come-to-Jesus meeting. DC went back to spinning records as a strip-club DJ, and Steve bumped around for a while looking for work, without much luck. With his connections in Atlanta, he sold some weed. In the early spring of 1997, he got a knock on the door from an acquaintance who was looking to dump some marijuana. For a guy who’d spent whatever he’d made and had just had his life blown apart, the idea of quick cash was impossible for Steve to turn down. And shit, as they say, was about to get real.

“I can talk about it now,” Steve tells me as we drive. “It’s over with.”

Steve says he sold some weed, built up trust, and then was hooked up with a deal to collect and sell 600 pounds of premium Mexican marijuana, which would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the street. He was reluctant at first—“I didn’t even want all of that shit”—but he agreed to have the product delivered to Atlanta. Before the drop was made, though, police caught the drug runner, who was driving a camper filled with the pot somewhere in Kansas. Before long, there was a call for Steve. The camper was on a street a few miles from his place. Steve was being set up. He arrived, got the camper, drove home, and took a nap on a couch in his living room. “Next thing you know, [federal agents] were right in my face with guns,” he says. “ ‘Get the fuck on the ground!’ I woke up to that.”

He pauses to let the moment sink in again. “That’s what happened with that, man. It’s just the worst at first.”

DC interrupts: “You know that’s off the record?”

“That can be on the record,” Steve says. “Shit. It’s what it is, man.”

 

Steve was convicted and was sentenced on November 23, 1998. According to the Federal Correctional Institution-Talladega, where Steve served time, he was released on January 26, 2001. Back in the Atlanta clubs—and during visits to Denver—he found respect that had eluded him after “Whoomp!” came out. Serving time in a federal penitentiary burnished his legend, like a rapper who is shot in the butt and gains fame. Only the act, and the survival, matters. Steve was the dude who got caught with 600 pounds of pot and lived to tell the story.

By the early 2000s, though, “Whoomp!” was mostly forgotten. Trapped in musical limbo, it wasn’t far enough removed from the happy, hazy summer memories of the millions of people who once listened to it, and it wasn’t ready for a new audience yet. DC continued to work the strip-club scene—and later graduated to voice acting, photography, and online marketing—while Steve laid the groundwork for a new record label, Merciless Music. He wanted to find and develop young hip-hop acts and guide them in ways Tag Team never was. (Among those he’s now working with is a group called 2 Big, which includes Jordan Hancock, Mayor Hancock’s son.)

That might have been enough. But in 2003, the actor Will Ferrell danced to “Whoomp!” in a scene for the movie Elf. DC didn’t know the song had been picked up for the movie until he was sitting in a theater. “All of a sudden, the song comes on and I smile, because a check will soon be coming to my mailbox,” he says. The movie scored big—and just like that, “Whoomp!” was a thing again. The song showed up in three movies the next year—including the Will Smith-Robert De Niro animated flick, Shark Tale—then it started getting dropped into television shows, like South Park and Scrubs. Money rolled in again. Ten thousand here, 20 thousand there. (The song generates up to $500,000 in a good year, which is divvied up among the rights-holders and lawyers; DC and Steve might collect up to $70,000 each, DC says.) The two traveled a bit, to corporate events, mostly, where they’d collect their cash—oftentimes around $5,000 per performance—play the song, and jump the next flight out of town.

Then, in 2010, “Whoomp!” got more juice when a gawker.com writer thought he saw President Barack Obama in the song’s video. The story caused a brief stir. Of course, it wasn’t the future president in the video—the man in question turned out to be a rapper named LA Sno—but the attention gave “Whoomp!” another pop culture bump. The next year, the song popped up in two national commercials. In one, for AT&T, two guys debate the year “Whoomp!” was released and use the iPhone 4 to get the answer. In the other, cartoon babies defecate in Luvs diapers to the tune of “Poop! (There It Is).” In the world of constantly changing musical tastes, “Whoomp!” had run a cycle rarely seen in the industry: Here today, gone tomorrow, back for good next week.

Which brings us to today. Steve and DC doubt they’ll ever revive Tag Team. And even if they wanted to, there’s no catalog of old songs they could play for fans; no new tracks to release. “The curse of ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ is that it’s so big, people just want to hear that,” DC tells me. For any other folks, this might be a soul-crushing realization, that their best years are way in the rear view. But not for the guys from North Denver. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Steve adds later. “It’s been a good ride.”

And maybe, they admit, they might be getting a little tired of it. After all, 20 years is a long time to have that song caught in your brain. Steve, who’s now divorced, tells a story from a few months back: He was at one of his daughter’s cheerleading competitions with his daughter’s mother when “Whoomp!” came pounding through the sound system. While Steve paid attention to his daughter on the stage, the parents around him were looking at him. And a surprising thing happened. The only thing Steve could think about was that he wanted someone to turn off the music.

 

Pages