Reggie C. Hobdy Jr. is laying low in rural New Jersey. The Harlem native’s city is under siege, this time from a virus that has already claimed the lives of more than 32,000 New Yorkers at this writing. This is not the first time Hobdy, now age 63, has seen destructive forces take over his hometown. “Harlem was not safe in the ’60s,” he says. “Heroin was the prevalent drug; 116th Street was the home for addicts. There was a lot of people robbing because they had a habit and they had to support it. In my building it was rough. Just getting on the elevator, you had to look and see who you on the elevator with. It carried over to the early ’70s and then things started getting cleaned up. And then a new drug comes. Crack replaced heroin. There’s always another drug.”
Pandemic aside, Hobdy has always been laying low. But to many, he’s a Hip-Hop legend. Better known as Silver Fox, he is a skilled rapper whose group Fantasy Three independently released a handful of singles in 1983 and 1984. Of greater historic importance was his mentorship of LL COOL J and Kool G Rap. The two MCs, both 11 years Silver Fox’s junior, used their lyrical sensei’s rhyming techniques, which changed the way rhymes were written and the way Hip-Hop sounded. Silver Fox is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, but fame always seemed to elude him.
Courtesy Silver Fox
Courtesy Silver Fox
Music always played a huge role in Hobdy’s life. He grew up at Grant Houses on Amsterdam and 125th Street, just three blocks from the world famous Apollo Theater, where as a child he saw James Brown, the Jackson 5, and Chubby Checker. By age 19, he was married to a woman in the army and the two moved to Fort Greely, Alaska, where he was a percussionist in a bar band. Upon returning to Harlem one year later in 1977, a new cultural phenomenon had already exploded in the Bronx and crept into Upper Manhattan. In his neighborhood, he was surrounded by rap artists such as Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh, Fearless Four, Pinelio, Disco P, M7, Rayvon, and Johnny Wa. While enrolled at City College of New York with a scholarship in music, Hobdy witnessed pioneering rappers Eddie Cheba & the Cheba Crew, DJ Hollywood, and Lovebug Starski on the Columbia University campus and was inspired to try his hand at MCing. He was interested in taking the name Reggie Reg, but after Spoonie Gee informed him that it was already taken by a member of the local group Crash Crew, he settled on Silver Fox, a nickname for the recently introduced luxury sedan made by Audi called the Silver Fox Edition.
“The first rhyme I did in front of people was garbage,” says Silver Fox. “It was a Humpty Dumpty rhyme. You know, ‘Minnie Mouse and Pluto was looking at the paper, and Mickey Mouse and Pluto tried to rape her."
"It was some old corny ass. My partner Kev-ski — Kevin Sheppard — and my brother Benjamin actually snatched me off the stage and took me into a staircase, and was banging on the wall like boom-boom-bap-boom-boom. They were MCs. They were showing me how they do it and how they stay on the beat and cadences. I was like, ‘Oh!’ It was like a light clicked and I started writing. The next time that I did it my rap wasn’t garbage.”
It’s Your Rock
It was cadence — the rhythmic sequence of words — that became an integral part of Silver Fox’s style. It wasn’t just about what you say, but how you say it. He learned from Devastating Tito and DLB of Fearless Four as well as L.A. Sunshine and Special K of Treacherous Three. Even while in its infancy, rap was experiencing a regionalism of sorts. “We were doing our Harlem thing. Mostly it was to get away from that, ‘Yes yes y’all! You don’t stop! To the beat man! Keep on!’ It was like, ‘Nah man, we gotta do something else,’ ” says Silver Fox. He formed a short-lived group called the Glorious Four around 1978 with Kev-Ski, his brother Benjamin who was going by Wessu, Carrie G, and Shaka with a DJ from his projects named Lee D. By 1980 Fox was a solo MC and performed with dancers Mike Nice and Ronnie Ron as the Light Brothers. They carved out a circuit, doing Upstate club gigs in White Plains and Spring Valley as well as in their home base of Harlem, but the rapper, now in his mid 20s, was yet to cut a record. That changed in 1983 when Devastating Tito introduced him to two guys from the neighborhood who wanted to be rappers: Charlie “Rock” Jimenez and Lawrence “Larry D” Mack. With Silver Fox, they formed Fantasy Three, a name Fox was never keen on because it didn’t resonate with aggression like the furious, treacherous, fearless, and cold-crushing names of their peers.
After making a demo and failing to garner interest from an established label, Fantasy Three hooked up with manager-producer Julio Guina, aka Chico, who ran a social club on 133rd Street and had opened a record store next door called Manhattanville. Guina (“Chico”), Jimenez (Charlie), and Mack (“Larry B”) formed C.C.L. Records, with Silver Fox, the creative force of the group, conspicuously absent from the business arrangement. The rhymes on Fantasy Three’s first single “It’s Your Rock” were written entirely by Fox and set to music he had in his head. Giving the record an air of legitimacy was instrumentalist-producer Errol “Pumpkin” Bedward, who had also worked on singles by Treacherous Three, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Disco Four, and his own record “King of the Beat,” released the same year on Profile. Pumpkin recorded live drums and keyboards based on Silver Fox’s vision, and Master O.C. of Fearless Four mixed it. “It’s Your Rock” wasn’t a runaway hit, but it made its way into a few young and impressionable hands.
Battle Anybody, I Don’t Care Who You Tell
One day Silver Fox was working his day job at Manhattanville Records when the phone rang. On the other end was a 15-year-old James Todd Smith, who was calling himself LL COOL J, short for Ladies Love Cool James. He had found the phone number printed on the label of the Fantasy Three 12-inch, and before Fox knew it the young man was hanging out at the store on a regular basis, making the long journey from his grandmother’s house in St. Albans, Queens, to Harlem on public transit. The two hit it off and Silver Fox passed along the lessons he learned from Tito and DLB. “I used to call him CJ,” Silver Fox says. “Man, that LL COOL J stuff was too long for me. I helped him sit back and think Hip-Hop, because when you leave from me you gonna go, ‘Damn, Fox, what was he saying?’ Bounce like this and make sure you breathe here and not here. It’s more to it than just the words and the sounds. It’s the delivery, it’s the breathing, it’s your cadence, it’s a whole book about this stuff.”
Unable to procure a record contract from Fantasy Three’s label, LL COOL J nevertheless absorbed the lessons he was taught like a sponge, even memorizing Silver Fox’s rhymes. He was astonished to find out that Fox was light-years ahead of most of his peers skill-wise. LL says, “I learned about flipping cadences. I learned about storylines. I learned about live performance. I learned about just writing in general. He instilled in me a love for writing.”
Beyond helping LL COOL J with his rhyming, Silver Fox would take him to shows where they would perform together. They rocked the stage at Diamond J Lounge in White Plains, where they missed the last bus out of town and LL witnessed Fox smoke a joint he found on the ground. He also brought his teenage protégé to Joe Grant’s, an illegal after-hours club and gambling spot on 113th Street and Lenox in Harlem founded by a Jamaican hustler. Fox had been rapping there on a weekly basis starting in 1980, and word about the venue spread. Joe Grant’s began attracting other talent from the neighborhood like Doug E. Fresh, Special K, and Devastating Tito. Before LL entered the picture, an impossibly young drug dealer living in LeFrak City, Queens, who was friends with Joe Grant’s son began showing up. Nathaniel Wilson soon adopted the name Kool Genius of Rap.
Men at Work
“Kool G [Rap] was like 13,” Silver Fox recalls. “He was a young scrambler, a young hustler. He wasn’t really being a rapper per se, but he would do it off and on. At first he would go on the mic and do his thing. I’m like, ‘OK, OK.’
We’d go back and forth battling each other. He was like, ‘I don’t know where you coming from. You from the future. I gotta rip up my rhyme book and start this over.’ He had a chance to listen to me every week and write new stuff, try it out with me, and see if that’ll work. It’s like we doing it in the raw, both of us together just rhyming.”
Six months younger than LL COOL J, Kool G Rap put in work with Silver Fox for several years before hooking up with DJ Polo and producer Marley Marl to make records for Cold Chillin’/Prism. “I identify with being advanced,” says G Rap, whose songs like “Men at Work,” “Kool Is Back,” and his participation on the landmark posse cut “The Symphony” raised the bar for MCing.
“This is something Silver Fox instilled in me,” he says. “Silver Fox was out before Rakim records. If you listened to certain shit Silver Fox said other than what he did on a record, if you was there to hear him freestyle, then you would understand why this is one of the dudes that influenced me to have an unorthodox style, different from the regular MCing at the time.”
Silver Fox’s influence on Kool G Rap was perhaps even greater than his influence on LL, particularly in his use of assonance, which is stringing together multiple words that have the same vowel sound, rather than simply rhyming the last word of a line with the last word of the previous line. Fox taught both MCs to “Come at ’em fast, come at ’em hard,” a lesson that served them well throughout their recording careers. It also served Fox well in an unforeseen battle of his own.
The War in ’84
Silver Fox remembers that fateful day in 1983 like it was yesterday. “I was in the front of our building. We all have our radios, big boxes, and stuff. And I’m sitting there and I’m hearing da . . . da! They were playing our record. I’m going, ‘Yeah. Here we go, we on the radio again.’ Then suddenly it was zicka-zicka-zicka, ‘Crash Crew rockin’ on the radio!’ And I was like, ‘Whaaat? What the hell is this? Where’d they get this from?’ ” He couldn’t believe his ears. How could Crash Crew — a group that literally lived 10 blocks away, a group he never had personal problems with and was actually a fan of — betray Fantasy Three by stealing the music for “It’s Your Rock” and rapping different lyrics over it for their new single “On the Radio”? There was a general acknowledgement in Hip-Hop that rapping over a disco, funk, soul, R&B, or rock record was par for the course, but rapping over someone else’s rap record was sacrilege. That sort of behavior constitutes biting, which is the worst offense in the highly competitive and creative world of Hip-Hop. Fox found out that the culprit was Sylvia Robinson, the owner of Crash Crew’s label Sugar Hill Records. Robinson had the in-house band learn “It’s Your Rock” while the MCs wrote new words over it. This meant war.
Fantasy Three’s follow-up single “Biters in the City” was a response to what Crash Crew had done, and it stopped just short of calling them out by name. Again employing the talents of Pumpkin and Master O.C., “Biters” was the highpoint of Fantasy Three’s extremely short recording career. Silver Fox made Jimenez and Mack write their own verses this time, but he did all the arranging, writing a coda that had all three MCs rapping in unison in a rhythm reminiscent of salsa music, making “Biters in the City” somewhat of a Hip-Hop anomaly. Tension built up between the rival groups. Fox took to the airwaves, calling out the “Trash Crew” for stealing. This led to the booking of an event at Broadway International Disco on 145th Street billed as The War in ’84. Flyers hung from lampposts advertising the ensuing battle. Doug E. Fresh was the house MC. Master O.C. would serve as Fantasy Three’s DJ. Jimenez and Mack just wanted to stick to the script and perform their songs as they are on the records, but Fox knew he needed to go for the jugular with fresh rhymes written just for the occasion. In other words, come at ’em fast, come at ’em hard.
Almost four decades later, Silver Fox still remembers how it went down, verbatim. “I started saying battle rhymes. Stuff like, ‘When it comes to rapping let’s be specific / you gotta be prolific and be terrific / You gotta be a writer, not a one-nighter biter / with a tape and typewriter also be politer / than any MC but if angered slightly / it will incite me not to politely / to explode and what I release / is a masterpiece that will never cease / with expertise home piss / have you ever heard a rock like this? / I bet you never / but if you ever it’s a bit because what I write I’m never counterfeit now let’s endeavor with this.’ That’s how I started it. [Laughs] That was just the beginning of it. Then I started going at each individual. I took La Shubee and [said], ‘Hey you funny bunny MC, I thought I saw you on my TV, on channel 5 about three o’clock, your funny bunny self, saying, “What’s up doc?” and “Reggie Reg should be back in bed.” ’ I was talking about all of these cats, right? And after I finished they wanted to fight. That’s all they could do. They couldn’t retaliate verbally, so they wanted to retaliate physically.”
The packed house erupted into a massive brawl with Silver Fox and his hood fighting against Crash Crew and their hood. Fox, who was wearing a Popeye-style sailor outfit, immediately removed his brass belt buckle and started swinging at attackers. He fought back-to-back with his limo driver Victor Garcia. Chairs flew. Fox found himself on the ground at one point and managed to escape relatively unscathed in Garcia’s limo, his white sailor suit completely bedraggled. The whole time he was wondering where Jimenez and Mack were. Did they have his back? It was the beginning of the end for Fantasy Three.
The Buck Stops Here
One more single followed in 1984, but it proved to be a disappointment on multiple levels. Instead of working with Pumpkin again, Fantasy Three went with Jerry “Hashim” Calliste Jr., who had a hit of his own the previous year with the electro single “Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)” for Cutting Records. Silver Fox felt that the synthetic sounds of their A side “The Summer” didn’t fit the style the group had already established. “He [Hashim] started adding stuff in there, like a dog barking or something: ‘Woof-woof! Doo-doo-doo-doo-doot.’ I’m like, ‘Goddamn man! What is this shit? This ain’t Hip-Hop.’ ” To make matters worse, “The Buck Stops Here,” a song written entirely by Fox, came out as the B side to “The Summer” instead of a separate 12-inch single as he was led to believe. Between financial disputes and Jimenez’s insistence that the group learn dance moves, Fox was at the end of his rope. Fantasy Three disbanded in 1985.
Silver Fox stopped rhyming, but one day he heard a contest on Jack the Rapper radio in which contestants would call in and rap on the air. The first-place prize was a contract with Polygram Records. He called in, spit several brutally complex bars, and easily won the contest. It was his big break. Fox acquired a manager and went to the label to sign but found out he was only being offered $5,000 — a pittance. He walked away. It seemed as though Fox was destined for obscurity.
As Hip-Hop was becoming a global phenomenon in the ’90s, one of those destructive forces had taken over Fox’s life. He was selling coke in Atlantic City, New Jersey, after realizing that the drug fetched a much higher price there than in Manhattan. Fox was also using, that is until he served a six-month stint in county jail. Reggie C. Hobdy Jr. came out clean and in great shape. He made a pair of singles in 2017 and 2018 and is now gearing up to release an album — a first for Silver Fox. He is still named by LL COOL J and Kool G Rap as a primary influence on their careers. His two students are widely regarded as two of the greatest MCs to ever hold the mic.
“I started a style and I started a format that they could adhere to, and respect, and then improve upon it,” says Silver Fox, theorizing on his influence. “It’s not supposed to stay at that one thing and sound like Silver Fox. No, you take a piece of Fox and then a piece of [Grandmaster] Caz, a piece of Tito. That’s the way Hip-Hop should be."
"I’m the product of my people, especially Tito from the Fearless Four, because we talked philosophy on rap. We practiced, he helped me hone my skills. And DLB and Special K. These guys are prolific in the English language, too. This way you can articulate. You can say words and don’t have to break it down in layman’s terms for them to understand, which is what I’m saying to LL. When LL was first coming up, I’m like, ‘Man, don’t worry about if the people don’t understand. They gonna have to get a dictionary to understand your collegiate vocabulary. If you could do that and put it to music then you got it.’ That’s the same thing with G Rap. Come at ’em fast, come at ’em hard.”
* Banner Image: courtesy of Silver Fox