DJs get no credit—especially Mister Cee. Big Daddy Kane’s former cut creator put Biggie Smalls on when no one was listening. Here’s the strongest finisher in the game on B.I.G.’s true beginnings.
Written By Michael Gonzales
Baby, it’s cold outside. Through the spotless plate glass windows of a diner on Hudson Street, 36-year-old Calvin “DJ Mister Cee” Laburn watches for a moment as passing pedestrians shiver on the freezing streets of downtown Manhattan. Fresh off the airwaves of his daytime slot on fave New York station Hot 97, Cee cops a squat in a burgundy booth. “The first day I took Big to Puffy, it was as cold outside as it is now,” Cee remembers, waving the waitress over. After ordering a plate of French toast and two sides of bacon, he continues. “I knew Big would be in good hands, because music wasn’t just another job for Puffy, he lived it. His love for hip-hop is evident.”
Mister Cee’s love for hip-hop is obvious, too. Having worked closely with two of rap’s premier vocalists/stylists, The Notorious B.I.G. and Big Daddy Kane, this beat-loving brother from Brooklyn can spin a few lyrical yarns himself.
Like many New York tales from the pages of hip-hop history, Mister Cee’s legacy begins on the booming streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant. While the neighborhood is currently undergoing a transformation—spurred by the construction of a cozy bed & breakfast and a few chic eateries—in the late ’70s and throughout the crackadelic ’80s those streets were crazier than a pit bull in heat. But while many of his friends took pride in walking on the wild side, for Mister Cee it was all about the music.
Raised by his grandparents from the age of 6 during disco’s decline and rap’s rise, beats were in Cee’s blood. “My whole history began in Lafayette Garden Projects and with my Uncle Barry. He called himself DJ Knight, while his crew was called the Knights of Hollywood,” Cee laughs. “Man, that’s one of those mad old-school names, but it was those dudes who inspired me towards the turntables.”
Not that Uncle Barry ever allowed him to actually touch those gleaming steely wheels set up in his bedroom, but a wide-eyed young Cee was hypnotized by the sight of the spinning black vinyl sides—Chic’s “Good Times” or Vaughn Mason’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.” “Whenever my uncle wasn’t around,” Cee remembers, “I would sneak on and emulate what he did.”
With the exception of Grandmaster Flowers, few BK DJs received the props their South Bronx contemporaries got, but back in the day, the borough known as “The Planet” was throwing its own block parties. “We all have our local heroes from where we’re from,” Cee says. “And mine were cats like Master D., Keithy B., Lizard D…. I was always one of the kids standing behind the ropes watching them do their thing. Those are the guys I consider my musical mentors.”
Of course, as hip-hop expanded, its treasures traveled fast. “Uptown tapes” spread across the East River, furthering a young Brooklynite’s cut-’n’-mix education. “My favorite uptown dude was [Grandmixer] D.ST,” Cee says, of the innovator who would popularize his bugged scratching techniques on Herbie Hancock’s 1983 electro-hop hit, “Rockit.” Smiling, Cee remembers, “By the time we got a copy it was probably fourth-generation, but the whole art of cutting up breakbeats was so amazing, we didn’t care about the distortion.”
By the time Mister Cee was a senior at Sarah J. Hale High School, he and his partner AJ Fresh had already hooked up with a set of five MCs. Dubbing themselves the Magnum Force Crew, they set to making those night moves through the cracked Crooklyn streets. “Nobody had a car,” Cee chuckles. “But since we usually performed in the neighborhood, we transported our equipment in a stolen supermarket shopping cart. I don’t think you could do this today, but another time we just loaded everything up on a city bus.”
The hip-hop kids at Sarah J. gathered beneath the humming fluorescent lights in the lunchroom and perfected their skills. While banging beats on the Formica and steel tables, wannabe MCs dropped more science than slippery fingers in a chemistry class. One day, Cee got more than he expected when a kid named Austin challenged him to a vocal sparring match. “He started snapping on me first,” says Cee, who responded by snatching a few diss lines from the Magnum Force rhyme book. “But when I came back with a few borrowed battle raps, the girls at the table went nuts.”
Embarrassed by suffering a rap T.K.O. in front of the rowdy crowd, Austin threw down a gauntlet that was heard throughout the school. “Homeboy kept screaming, ‘I’m going to get my man Kane on you,’” Cee says. “And the only thing that came out of my mouth was… ‘Who the hell is Kane?’”
Later that same day, Cee learned. Kane came through, stalking the high school halls in a flowing white leather coat, braids in his hair, a multicolored feather in his ear and a polished wooden cane in his hand—the epitome of charisma.
“Austin had pointed me out to Kane, who came running over to me, pulling a microphone out of his pocket while screaming, ‘I heard you want to battle me!,’” Cee says, amused by the memory. “I had to explain to him that I was a DJ, not a rapper, so he let it go. About a week later, I saw a big crowd gathered around some kid rapping in the lunchroom and it was Kane. He was all like, ‘I got braids in my hair just like Stevie Wonder…’ From that moment, I knew he was special.”
Reluctant at first, Kane soon joined forces with the Magnum boys, and he and Cee became close friends. It wasn’t until meeting the diabolical doofus Biz Markie that the fortunes of Sarah J.’s finest began to change. “Biz didn’t go to our school,” says Cee, sipping from a plastic cup filled with chilled apple juice. “But he used to come around to hang out and check the girls. Biz would be in the courtyard doing his human beat-box thing, so that’s how we hooked up. Sometimes he would come scoop Kane up and they would do shows together in Long Island. Biz always promised if he got signed to a deal, then Kane wouldn’t be far behind.”
After graduation, most of the Magnum Crew went their separate ways. But Biz started heading out to the Queensbridge Houses, making moves to integrate himself within producer Marley Marl’s seminal Juice Crew—MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Kool G Rap. He kept his word to Kane, and the wheels of hip-hop history were set in motion.
“In the beginning it was difficult for Kane,” says Cee. “Because [Cold Chillin’ head honcho] Tyrone Williams, a.k.a. Fly Ty, always gave him such a hard time. Cold Chillin’ had MC Shan, who was considered at the time to be the prince of rap. Ty would pit Shan and Kane against each other in freestyle sessions to try to get Kane to prove himself.”
Cee, meanwhile, was spending his days delivering packages for Airborne Express. “When the sessions for Long Live The Kane began,” he says. “I would go straight to the studio after work still dressed in my uniform. If we were going to do a show, then I would change my clothes in the car.”
With Juice Crew money getting longer, Marley relocated his House of Hits recording studio out of its first spot in his sister’s living room to Astoria, Queens. But the operation was still pretty much D.I.Y. “At the time we recorded ‘Raw,’” says Cee of Big Daddy’s fierce debut single, “Kane was messing with this girl whose moms had a lot of old records. He found those James Brown/Fred Wesley/Lynn Collins breaks in her collection and gave the records to Marley to put together. I’m sure if that girl is still around, she probably wants to be paid.”