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I Was There – Whodini bring hip-hop to The Haçienda, 1983

The roots of hip-hop reach a very chilly Manchester

It was the cold, the unending, penetrating cold. The wind streaming in from the Atlantic, across the Mersey and into the heart of Liverpool. I was a student at Liverpool University and would turn street corners to be mercilessly whipped by the icy blast. It was late October and Halloween was just around the corner.

Having lived through punk and segued into ska and soul, I was equally transfixed by the electro-funk – as it was often called back then – coming out of the States. The NME had alerted me to the mysteries of Trickeration, Spoonie Gee, Sequence and the Funky Four Plus One and, of course, ‘Rappers Delight’ was a surprise breakout hit in 1979, but we knew there was more bubbling away in the fiery furnace of the New York rap scene.

It was hard to hear the music, but John Peel played hip-hop on his late-night radio show; it was worth trawling though all the noisy guitar soundscapes to press the record button as soon as the first electronic drumbeats came in. One track which was big at the time was ‘Magic’s Wand’ by Whodini, a two-man rap crew from NYC. So, when I heard that they were playing with Run DMC at The Haçienda in Manchester – a hop, skip and a jump away – it was a no-brainer.

So, on the chilly evening of Friday 28 October 1983, I boarded the train to Manchester.

The Haçienda has become legendary, but it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that mad, raving haven of sweaty bodies jacking to acid house. In fact often it was relatively empty, a vacancy exacerbated by its aircraft hangar-like industrial architecture.

As for the gig itself, Run DMC cancelled, which may seem like a bummer now, but at the time Whodini were the headliners and the better-known act, with ‘Magic’s Wand’ a cult cut within the passionate, growing hip-hop community. Jive, the UK label they were signed to, had just released their debut album.

Part of deejay Greg Wilson’s night, the band took to the stage and, although there were two frontmen, it was really a trio, with Grandmaster Dee on duty behind the turntables. And even though they were heroes to us, at the same time they were kids, like us. Ecstasy, aka John Fletcher, who very sadly died last year, was only 19 – younger than me at the time. But they were canny, streetwise and had a sense of humour which rap had back then and which the crowd loved, but which became eroded during its gangsta years.

Despite their youth, they were almost alien spacemen – beings from another galaxy who’d come to bring us the future at a venue in a cold, grey, industrial metropolis in the north-east of England.

As well as the much-anticipated ‘Magic’s Wand, they played ‘Rap Machine’ and ‘Haunted House of Rock’ – appropriately three days before Halloween. It was a great show with the suave-looking Ecstasy rocking his trademark wide-brimmed, Zorro-style hat and trading raps with Jalil Hutchins, while Kangol Kid and Doctor Ice were busy performing their breakdance/bodypopping moves in the background (known as UTFO they were to have their own hit a year later with ‘Roxanne Roxanne’).  

Of course, within a couple of years Run DMC were to become the bigger band, but this was a fat slice of fun, inventive, authentic NYC electro hip-hop which is scorched into the memory.

Gareth Thomas

A big thanks to Greg Wilson and Mike Pickering for filling in some of the gaps.