When New York duo 3rd Bass -- MC Serch (real name Michael Berrin) and Prime Minister Pete Nice (born Peter Nash), now both 47 -- burst onto the scene in 1989 with the single "Steppin' to the A.M.," they were a revelation to the public. Serch's first single, "Melissa," which came out in 1986 on Warlock Records, "was a brick," he says. "But I was a white boy who danced, so I got a lot of shows." He caught a break in the summer of '87 when hip-hop luminary Russell Simmons, then Def Jam and RUSH Artist Management head honcho, saw him rap at the New Music Seminar MC Battle. Serch recounts that when he walked offstage, "Russell rubbed my shoulders and said, 'If anyone asks you, tell them you're signed to Def Jam.'"
Simmons' right-hand man, Lyor Cohen, set up Serch with a producer named Sam Sever (real name Sam Citrin). Serch recalls, "One day Sam called me and said, 'Def Jam signed another white kid from Queens. His beats are crazy. I think you guys should work together.'"
That white kid from Queens was Pete Nice. Says Pete, "The old story that Russell and Lyor put me and Serch together is the furthest thing from what actually happened." In fact, "I was at Chung King Studios and had laid down the original version of 'Wordz of Wizdom.' Sam liked the track and played it for Serch. That's how it all began." Despite signing to one of the hottest labels in hip-hop, the group's deal wasn't exactly a dream payday. "Our advance was $5,000 each," Serch says. "We used three or four samples per song, so those clearances ate up all our royalties. We're still $150,000 away from being recouped."
The Cactus Album, produced by Sever, Prince Paul and the Bomb Squad, and featuring DJ Daddy Rich (born Richard Lawson), came out in October 1989 and went gold within six months. In this excerpt from the forthcoming book Check the Technique: Volume 2, Serch, now a promoter and producer, and Pete, a baseball historian, share the unexpectedly sensational stories behind a half-dozen classic Cactus tracks.
"Sons of 3rd Bass"
Serch: The Beastie Boys were huge at the time. One day I saw Mike D on the street and I ended up talking to him in his apartment, because I needed some advice. They had gotten out of their Def Jam deal, and he gave me really good insight about Russell. I was leaving his apartment and all of a sudden he started throwing shit at me, like foam balls and stuff lying around his apartment. There was no reason for him to do that. Two months later there was a piece in Spin and the writer asked them what they thought of 3rd Bass, and Mike D said how he threw shit at me and shooed me out. So that's where all the Beasties' disses on "Sons of 3rd Bass" came from. I didn't know any of them before I met Mike that day. He was a real asshole.
Pete: I used to secretly record the guys at Def Jam. I did that with all of our meetings, just to hear all the bullshit they would say. That's where "Russell Rush" came from. That was an actual meeting we had with him. [Def Jam executive] Bill Stephney, Russell and Lyor would tell us all kinds of stuff, and we thought they were just blowing smoke up our asses.
"The Gas Face" (featuring Zev Love X of KMD)
Pete: Zev [born Daniel Dumile, aka MF Doom] coined the phrase "gas face."
Serch: When a girl would diss us, Doom started saying, "She just gave me the gas face." Which meant that we just spent our gas money to get to the mall, only to get dissed. The gas face was when girls would suck their teeth and just walk away. "The Gas Face" still gets quoted. I just heard it on ESPN the other day.
Serch: There was a lot of drama with MC Hammer that resulted from that song.
Pete: I'm actually the one who said the line about Hammer in the song ["The Cactus turned Hammer's mother out"], but Serch took the brunt of it.
Serch: When we got to L.A., we heard that Hammer's brother [Louis Burrell] and the Crips had put out a hit on us. They locked down the whole floor of the hotel we were staying at. Luckily Russell had persuaded Mike Concepcion, who was a leader of the Crips, to bring in this guy Pookie to roll with us. Pookie was a lieutenant who was well-known throughout California. So if anyone tried to do anything, Pookie would be like, "It's off."
On the second day, we had an interview at [hip-hop radio powerhouse] KDAY, and they had Hammer call in. I was beyond pissed at [KDAY DJ/music director] Greg Mack about that, I told him to go f--- himself. But I couldn't knock it, it was great radio. I turned it around on Greg and said, "Why don't you ask people out there who is doper, 3rd Bass or Hammer?" And it was overwhelming for 3rd Bass when people called in. But he edited it so that it was even. I called Greg out on the air, saying that Hammer was his boy. Then he took a live call on the air from some Crips, who were like, "Yo, we're coming to kill you." At that point, we were out of there. We were in our van, and there was a low-rider at the bottom of a hill. Guys came out with sawed-off shotguns and AKs. Pookie had to get out and wave his sign, telling them it was off. It was real. To finally call the hit off, Russell had to give Concepcion two tickets to the American Music Awards, sitting next to Michael Jackson. If you look at the tape of the awards, you’ll see a guy in a wheelchair sitting next to Michael. The president of Columbia Records had to give up his tickets for that.
"Flippin' Off the Wall Like Lucy Ball"
Pete: That was a Tom Waits sample ["Way Down in the Hole"]. It was goofy, an inside joke. We ended up getting sued by Tom Waits.
Serch (below, with Nice in 2013 in Brooklyn): Sam had this Tom Waits sample. I said, "That sounds like some country bumpkin shit!" and I started doing that voice. Tom Waits thought we were insulting him. So he sued us, and won. I didn't know anything about Tom Waits at the time. I thought we had cleared that sample, but obviously we hadn't.
"Steppin' to the A.M."
Serch: I had originally written my verses on that song for Rakim. He and Eric B. had gotten into a slump on their second album and Lyor asked if I would write a song for Rakim. So, Lyor set up a conference call with me, Pete and Eric B. I started rhyming the song and Eric B. hangs up the phone and calls Lyor directly, starts flipping out on him. Lyor comes downstairs and asked why I didn't tell him that I had beef with Eric B. And I said I didn't! Eric just couldn't believe I would have the audacity to write for Rakim.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.