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

“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.”

 

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.

 

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.

 

Now our trip is almost over. First, though, DC says we’ve got to stop by his parents’ place. Outside, a pine tree towers over the neighborhood, over the manicured grass and the immaculately clean brick on the house. DC unlocks the front door. His parents are waiting on the other side.

Cecil Glenn is 75 and has short, gray hair, smooth hands, and a belly that becomes larger and rounder when he sits in his stuffed chair in front of the white-mantled fireplace in the family room. Today, he has thick socks on his feet and his eyes seem to be in a perpetual squint. His wife, Lucille, sits quietly at a table next to the kitchen; DC is at one end of the room, next to a stand-up piano and a bunch of family photos stacked on some shelves. Steve and I are on a floral-print couch near the picture window overlooking the massive tree.

Among Cecil Glenn’s favorite stories is the one he tells about the time he learned the title of his son’s song. It was at Cure d’Ars Catholic Church, in the summer of ’93. As the story goes, one of his friends stopped him after church. The man said he’d just heard DC and Steve’s song on the radio, and the guy was over the moon. “That’s great,” Cecil told the man. “What’s the name of it?”

For the purposes of this story, it’s important to understand two things: First, Cecil Glenn knows his music. He plays bass, baritone, and trumpet, and he’s been married about 50 years to a woman who, every other Sunday for four decades, has sang in the church choir. Cecil’s favorite singer is Frank Sinatra, and he can name almost every song Ol’ Blue Eyes ever made.

The second thing worth knowing is the fact that Cecil never heard his son’s song before it showed up on the radio. In fact, he wrote a $2,000 check to DC and Steve so they could record “Whoomp!” and didn’t even ask what the song was about.

Anyway, Cecil asked the man at church the name of his son’s song. “You know, like ‘Strangers in the Night,’ ” Cecil says, naming one of his favorite Sinatra tunes. “The guy was like, it’s called ‘Whoomp! (There It Is).’ ” Cecil has a shit-eating grin on his face now, imitating the man who’s delivered the punch line. Cecil puts a hand on his face to feign disbelief and leans back in his chair. Everyone laughs.

Cecil and Lucille rarely talk about the song, mostly because Cecil still hasn’t come to terms with why his son decided to become a rapper. When I ask him about this, his face flattens and his voice turns serious. “How would you feel if your son made that?” I can’t tell if he’s deadpanning or if he’s sincere. In any case, it’s clear he likes to poke fun at the song: He often refers to it as “Whoomps,” almost as if he’s saying “whoops”—as in, “Whoops, my son and his high school buddy made this ridiculous song.”

That’s not to say the Glenns aren’t delighted with DC and Steve’s musical legacy. Lucille saved almost every poster featuring the two, kept almost every magazine in which their names appeared, recorded almost every television show on VHS tapes now stored somewhere in the basement. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for these boys,” Cecil says. “Really, truly, I’m very proud of them and what they’ve accomplished.”

We hang around DC’s parents’ place for an hour, listening to Cecil go on about the neighborhood, how things used to be, how they are now. DC says we’d better get going. He has a plane back to Atlanta he has to catch tonight; Steve has some friends to see.

Cecil wants to tell one more story. Back in Tag Team’s glory days, he says, his son had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Dre, of N.W.A fame, who’d produced a debut solo album in 1992 that featured a young MC named Snoop Doggy Dogg. A few weeks later, DC was on the phone with his dad, telling him about the encounter, talking about Dre’s songs and how foul-mouthed some of the lyrics were. Cecil’s voice softens. “He said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I have that in me,’ ” Cecil remembers.

There’s a moment of silence. Then some laughter. It’s DC, next to the piano. “See!” he says, his voice booming. “My dad doesn’t even know what the song is about!”