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“Oh my gawd, I think I’m having a rap attack!”: Mr. Magic and Whodini’s “Magic Wand”
Sometime in the early 80s, while he still working as an intern on a late-night radio show on WHBI, a New York public-access radio station broadcasting at 105.9 FM, a Brooklyn-based rapper named Jalil Hutchins wrote a rap song he dedicated to his boss, called “Magic’s Wand.”
His boss was John Rivas — born in the Bronx on March 15, 1956 — who is better remembered today by the name “Mr. Magic,” although he was originally calling himself by another moniker, “Lucky The Magician.”
He broke into the radio business after first working at an electronics store, giving up-and-coming musicians discounts on speakers, and then he enrolled in a radio course at the New York School of Announcing and Speech, where he learned from his classmates about a small FM station broadcasting into the Upper West Side that sold airtime for $75 an hour.
In the spring of 1979, Lucky the Magician became Mr. Magic, and launched his show, “Mr. Magic’s Disco Showcase,” which aired on WHBI from 2 to 4 a.m. every Sunday morning.
Magic brought breakbeats to the airwaves and rappers into the small studio to do live routines, and soon his radio show was hugely popular and the only show playing hip-hop in the area, and — quite possibly — it segued into becoming the world’s first rap radio show too. Mr. Magic did alright for himself, financially, because charged his local advertisers $100 a minute to advertise their products on his show.
Hutchins (one of the few rappers to go by his real name) was interning at the station when he had come up with the idea for “Magic’s Wand” but turned to his friend John Fletcher — a rival Brooklyn rapper who wore a Zorro-style hat as his trademark and went by the stage name Ecstasy — who contributed a rap of his own to the track, lyrically telling the tale of Mr. Magic’s influence through the local NY airwaves.
Their dynamic duo partnership officially formed sometime in 1981, and would thereafter feature both vocalists, but Hutchins was always their main lyric writer.
Here’s part of Jalil’s rap: “Cause then Magic went on the radio, and everybody said: ‘What a way to go!’/ The moment he went on the air, it was plain to see a new phase was here/He started out playing mostly rap, then they all said: ‘Nobody’s into that!’/Well, they all turned out to be wrong, cause rappin’ on the mike had caught on strong/Some still say it’s not what’s happenin’/After ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went triple platinum/ The record world was in for a smash/Sugarhill, Kurtis Blow, to Grandmaster Flash/Blondie, Stevie Wonder, Teena Marie/They even made a rapper out of me/In no time at all a star was born/And I think he owes it all to his Magic Wand.”
In July 1982, Mr. Magic outgrew WHBI and was invited to make the move over to New York City’s WBLS-FM (107.5 FM), a larger, mainstream station with offices located on Second Ave. They were the #1 black radio station in New York, and had decided to start working rap music into their programming, now that it was clearly the direction the music was moving (as an interesting side note, it was an L.A.-area station — KDAY in Redondo Beach, Calif. — that became the first radio station in the country to adapt an-all rap format, in 1985).
Rivas was offered $750 a week to do two shows, on Friday and Saturday nights, and that’s how Mr. Magic became the first to showcase rap on commercial radio, on a show called “Rap Attack.” He was well on his way to becoming a celebrity in the Brooklyn area for this late-night rap show which was still segregating the still-burgeoning genre to these late-night weekend time slots, but that was the only way that WBLS would allow rap on their airwaves at the time. Jalil Hutchins and Ectasy’s “Magic’s Wand” became his new show’s official theme song, opening up the show.
Unfortunately, Mr. Magic was no longer able to openly take sponsorship checks from record companies, and he soon found that he was now in a more corporate world. It wasn’t always an easy fit for Mr. Magic’s inflated ego. He liked doing things his way, and he didn’t always get his way now that he was having to play by WBLS’s rules, often butting heads with Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker, the station’s program director.
Rivas was fired, and then re-hired again by WBLS, who by the way had for a motto that they were playing “The World’s Best Looking Sound.” Along the way he also crossed paths with Marlon Williams, who was going by the name DJ Marley Marl, and the two became kindred spirits on the show (Marley Marl because the show’s engineer), each taking advantage of the other’s talents to create something special.
They added to the mix the show’s co-producer, a sportscaster named Tyrone Williams, nicknamed “Fly Ty,” who would soon become Mr. Magic’s manager and also a co-host on the show — using the name “Engineer All-Star” — because he helped mix in sounds to create what they collectively called “the dirty basement sound.”
Soon Mr. Magic found himself in competition with another local rap show, hosted by a deejay called Kool DJ Red Alert on NYC’s rap sister staiton, KISS FM (WRKS, 98.7 FM).
DJ Red Alert joins KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions on stage in Chicago, July 1988
Mr. Magic and Marley Marl in particular considered themselves “KISS Busters,” and would regularly throw out insults aimed at DJ Red Alert, calling him “Red Dirt” or “Woody Woodpecker.”
Red Alert had his own crew, and was affiliated with a rap group called Boogie Down Productions, while Mr. Magic’s crew, called the Juice Crew, were a bunch of locals (some rappers, some musicians, some not) who all hung out at Sal Abatiello’s Disco Fever nightclub. The hip-hop collective who drank together at Sal’s included artists like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne and Kool G Rap, and also included guys with names like Sweet G, June Bug, Flash, Melle, Mandingo, Bam-Bam.
Kool DJ Red Alert (born Frederick Crute)
Rivas, meanwhile, was known by yet another nickname — Sir Juice — and Sal even made them special “Juice Rings” to commemorate their brotherly bond to each other.
KISS-FM’s Red Alert and Boogie Down and WBLS-FM’s Mr. Magic/Sir Juice and his Juice Crew would find themselves battling eachother over the airwaves, recording songs which taunted the other side, and rap fans would find themselves taking one side over the other in what now seems as rather good-natured fun and friendly competition.
Rivas played up his appearance at these public shows, wearing sharkskin suits and draping gold rope chains down his chest, with flashy rings circling every finger on his hands. He looked every bit the rap impresario and obviously a kind of symbolic figurehead for genre which continued coming up hard and strong, transforming the music scene in the streets of New York City, in the housing projects and parks, at parties and clubs, which only years before had been blasting disco and funk LPs.
Pretty much just about anywhere you went, you could see that there were suddenly dozens and dozens of rap artists on the scene, taking on new stage names or calling themselves MC s, often performing with accompanying DJ s spinning and scratching vinyl records, many of them named “Grandmaster” something or other.
“In no time at all a star was born,” as the lyrics say in “Magic’s Wand,” and that star was Mr. Magic.
Mr. Magic, right, with Grandmaster Caz on WHBI in 1981 (photo by Joe Conzo/Startraks)
“Magic’s Wand” had already been airing for more than two years in the greater New York area, and Mr. Magic’s theme song eventually caught the ear of Jive Records, a small London-based record label who had come to the states looking for rap acts to sign.
Jive’s executive director Barry Weiss thought that the song was a natural for their label, particularly since no one had released it yet, and so he went to Jive’s owner, Clive Caulder, to discuss producing an entire rap record with Mr. Magic but when they talked to Rivas, he told them he was contractually obligated to WBLS and as much as he’d have liked to, he couldn’t participate with his crew as a recording artist (a double-duty that might be viewed as a form of payola).
Rivas then referred the Jive record execs to two guys in his Juice Crew, his former intern Hutchins, who along with Ecstasy was already performing the song as part of their act in the local Brooklyn area.
At some point they also signed with Russell Simmons’s Rush Management — Simmons, of course, as everyone knows, was the brother of Joseph “Run” Simmons of Run-D.M.C., a hugely popular rap duo from Hollis, Queens, NYC.
Jive wanted their new rap duo to have a name that had something to do with magic, and suggested Houdini — Harry Houdini was certainly the most famous magician of all time, no doubt about it — but they decided to spell it “Whodini” instead.
Jive then paired up Hutchins with British producer Thomas Dolby, who had come to the states and had already signed a publishing deal with Zomba, who had launched Jive Records as a way to get their published songs recorded by acts signed to label’s roster.
Dolby was also a regular on the club scene in New York, and he’d already become aware of a connection between the electronic influence of bands like Kraftwerk on local rap artists like Afrika Bambaataa, and working with producer Larry Smith, a bass player who also handled much of Run-D.M.C.’s early work, Whodini, Dolby and Mr. Magic worked up a new arrangement for the track, which combined Dolby’s interests in synth-driven sounds accompanied by a heavy electro Euro-techno drumbeats.
Hutchins’s new lyrics (Rivas was also credited as one of the songwriters), which not only told the tale of Mr. Magic but also — through raps by Jalil and Ecstasy — told how Whodini had formed.
Jalil Hutchins/Ecstasy: “Well, rapping’s always been around/(Well, it says that it’s big time now)/Every neighborhood had its own crew/ (That meant you against me) and me against you/ (They would jam every weekend at the neighborhood center)/And charge a small price for the crowds to enter/(The parties would be packed inside and out)/To see who was best at rockin the house.”
The video they made for “Magic’s Wand” — the 12″-single was released in the fall of 1982 — has been called by some the first rap video, but we’ll leave it up to you to research for yourselves whether it was or wasn’t.
Everyone knows that Sugar Hill Records had made videos before this for a few of their hip-hop acts, including The Sugarhill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight”) and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (“The Message”), but “Magic’s Wand” may have indeed been the first rap video produced by a different label.
As you might expect, it wasn’t played on MTV, who were still avoiding rap videos at the time, but it did make an impact by being played on local TV shows like “New York Hot Tracks” and “Video Music Box.”
You’ll note that only Jalil and Ecstasy are the main stars in the video — they hadn’t yet added their DJ named Drew Carter, who went by “Grandmaster Dee,” who helped them out during live appearances. Carter was a frequent caller who talked with Mr. Magic on his “Rap Attack” show so he was already well known in the local area, and it was Mr. Magic who encouraged Jalil and Ecstasy to make him a full-fledged member, which is why he appears in their first promo photos.
Marley Marl (left) and Mr. Magic on air at WBLS 107.5FM in New York City on October 21, 1983
Whodini became one of the first hip-hop/rap groups to cultivate a national profile — along with Run-DMC and The Fat Boys — as the music was by now making significant inroads into the Urban/R&B radio formats. They didn’t release their first full-length album, Escape, until the fall of 1984 (it would achieve gold record status, while their sophomore album, 1986’s Back in Black, would become a platinum-selling album for them).
Grandmaster Dee, Jalil and Ecstasy from Whodini, and rapper Dr. Ice (front kneeling) posing after their performance at the U.I.C. Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois in 1985
Unfortunately for Mr. Magic, the genre was moving so swiftly that he didn’t have too much more time to enjoy success at WBLS. In 1984, that station wanted him to abandon his rap show and they offered him a chance to stay on the air but only if he agreed to play softer music.
“If I stop playing, rap will die,” Mr. Magic told them, and soon he was back at his old haunt, WHBI. He came back to WBLS a year later, and stayed until 1989, but he continued to move around and it was never quite the same as it was for Mr. Magic in the very beginning, the early 80s. He worked for WEBB in Baltimore until 1992, and in 2000 he left to work for WQHT in New York, a station known as Hot-97, but then for a period of about six years, Rivas wasn’t able to find a station to give him his own show.
John Rivas died of a heart attack in Brooklyn, NYC, on October 2, 2009. He was just 53 years old. At the time of his death Mr. Magic was negotiating to return to WBLS.
In 2012, just a few years after Mr. Magic’s passing, and what many saw as a surprising move, longtime rivals KISS-FM and WBLS merged together and began simulcasting in an “adult urban contemporary” radio format under the motto “One Family, One Station, Our Voice.”