Posts Tagged ‘Chef Ra’
Back in 1987, the marijuana rally scene had long since faded away, and it wasn’t until a group called the Freedom Fighters appeared that the modern rally scene took off. That’s because in the late 1970s, the media was using smoke-ins to mine images of hippies smoking joints in public, and these images were greatly alarming mainstream America, and were helping turn people against legalization. Because it was so difficult to distinguish hippies from burnt-out drug fiends on looks alone, NORML began a policy of not supporting smoke-ins. It was the birth of what became known as “the suits versus the stoners.”
I thought it was a silly policy by NORML because you can’t have a culture if you don’t congregate and hold ceremonies. So when I got a letter from some students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor saying their legendary Hash Bash founded by John Sinclair was down to less than a dozen die-hards and about to die, I took action by creating the High Times Freedom Fighters. The concept of wearing tri-corner hats and Colonial outfits was to help carry the new message about hemp and our founding fathers, while also costuming the members so that their appearance could not be held against them. The Freedom Fighters became instant magnets at every rally because news crews seek people in colorful costumes. Members were trained to start talking about George Washington and hemp as soon as any cameras were rolling on them.
To encourage participation, members were given pins at every rally they attended and there was even one letter-writing campaign where you could get a pin with a blue Liberty Bell for every response you got from Congress. John Birrenbach gathered so many responses his tricorn became smothered in pins. I didn’t initially realize the implications of what we were doing, but the magic began manifesting on a big scale right away, and the costumes and Betsy Ross flags were certainly helping.
Within two years, the Freedom Fighters became the largest legalization group in the country and only required $15 to get a lifetime membership that included the Freedom Fighter Newsletter edited by Linda Noel, who was the original brains behind the Boston Freedom Rally. From their inception, the Freedom Fighters were wired into my Cannabis Cup, and a member elected by open council to attend the Cup all-expenses paid every year, an honor won by luminaries like Jack Herer and Gatewood Galbraith. It was bizarre when High Times told me to give up the organization saying it conflicted with my editorial duties. I’d amassed a volunteer army of over 10,000 members, and many were enthusiastic supporters pouring immense energy into creating new rallies and other cannabis events all over the country. It was certainly snowballing.
This background is all in the way of announcing a Freedom Fighter reunion at the 2017 Hash Bash. I’ll be looking for a psychedelic bus to take us there, and a site where we can hold a proper ceremony honoring our departed hemp heroes. Jack, Gatewood, Chef Ra, and Tom and Rollie of Rainbow Farm.
We will also be doing inductions for the Pot Illuminati, my replacement for the long defunct Freedom Fighters.
Dedicated to James “Chef Ra” Wilson
I was standing by my window
On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw Chef Ra a-skating
…………..G D7 G
Come to carry my blues away.
May the circle keep on tokin’
Bye and bye Ra, bye and bye
There’s a better world awaiting
…………G D7 G
In the sky Ra, oh so high.
Well, I noticed, the town was lonely
For Chef Ra, he had gone
All his friends, we were cryin’
………….G D7 G
For we felt so sad and alone.
May the circle keep on tokin’
And get high, oh, so high
There’s a better time awaiting
……….G D7 G
In the sky, with Ra, so high.
Won’t you please drive by slow
For that man you are a-haulin’
………….G D7 G
We so hate to see him go.
May the circle keep on tokin’
And get high, Ra, oh so high
There’s a better world awaiting
…………G D7 G
In the sky Ra, in the sky.
Talk to me about being raised in Illinois and how you became a writer.
I started a fanzine in 7th Grade and by the 11th I was publishing my own underground newspaper called The Tin Whistle distributed to four high schools, and banned at all of them.
My hippie newspaper published six issues in 1968. The schools in Illinois were very racist and polarized at the time, but my newspaper led a movement for recognizing black student rights among other campaigns. We were able to elect the first black student council president in the history of Urbana High School, and he did a lot to heal the broken race relations. His name was James “Chef Ra” Wilson and he taught me a lot about ceremony. We both ended up going to the first Woodstock festival, then he went to Jamaica and became an early Bob Marley devotee. We worked on many projects for decades until one Christmas Day when his heart exploded while he was sleeping.
What was your entry into hip hop?
I moved to New York at the end of 1979. My roommate Jeff Peisch was into the music scene and working at Record World Magazine with Nelson George, and he gave me a promo copy of These are the Breaks by Kurtis Blow. Shortly after that, I went to the New York/New Wave art exhibition curated by Diego Cortez, and was astounded by a subway train titled Break by Futura 2000. The connection between the song and the mural made me realize something was going on and nobody was covering it. As a young reporter, it looked like an opening.
What was the first article on hip hop that you read that changed the game for you? Who wrote it? How did you hear about it?
For over a year I didn’t read anyone’s articles. There were none. I only wrote my own. There were a couple of photographers on the scene, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, but I was the only journalist. Most of the coverage aside from me was coming out of England. But they weren’t on the ground and going to any parties, just reviewing records and sometimes interviewing acts if anyone came to England, which was rare early on.
What was the first magazine/newspaper publication that you heard about just focused on hip hop? Did that inspire you to write for it?
There were no magazines until after Run DMC. I guess The Source was the first big one that went all hip hop, although Phase 2 had a fantastic fanzine he was self-publishing for years. I had long since stopped covering hip hop when The Source appeared.
Who were you looking up to as far as writing?
The journalists who most influenced me were Calvin Tompkins, George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Do you call yourself a hip hop journalist?
I sometimes call myself the first hip hop journalist, because in the early days I was the only professional reporter on the scene. But I have 30 books and only three are on hip hop, and all those concern only the first generation from 1974 to 1984.
How did you feel when your name was on the cover of The Village Voice for your cover with the words “hip hop” on it?
Bambaataa coined the term and focused the culture. I just told his story. It took the Voice half a year to print it, although it was “accepted” immediately. I was enraged they held it so long because I was afraid someone was going to break the story, but fortunately, after endless phone calls and threats to publish elsewhere, they finally put it on the schedule.
You were able to make a major impact in how we receive hip hop through your writing and Beat Street. Did you ever have any intention to impact the culture the way you did?
If only my script had been used, it was the real thing. The movie was a great disappointment. Only the dance crews and some of the rap performances saved it. The plot was completely whack. I didn’t recognize any South Bronx people I knew and wrote about.
Who was your favorite artist interview?
In the world of hip hop I am closest with Grandmaster Caz, Coke La Rock and Busy Bee. In fact, we are all members of a secret society called The Pot Illuminati and hold ceremonies upon occasion. Those are three of the greatest storytellers in hip hop, and also three of the most overlooked people in hip hop’s history.
Who was the 1st person that you heard of calling themselves a hip hop journalist? What opened up for you because of it?
By the time hip hop went global and hip hop journalism was born, I was long gone and had no interest in the gangsta rap that came up in a huge wave to displace the political fervor of Public Enemy. I only did research on the first generation, from Kool Herc to Funky Four to Furious Five to Treacherous Three to the Cold Crush Brothers. And I also covered graffiti and some of the original dance crews. I was in a rock band in the sixties, and after rap got commercialized, I formed a garage band and played three-chord-rock for a decade. Being around hip hop inspired me to get back to my own musical heritage. Although I did one hip hop performance early on as a deejay with Jeff Peisch rapping and David Bither (now of Nonesuch Records) on saxophone. Between the three of us we had enough talent to give the soon-to-emerge Beasties Boys a run, but it was just a one-off goof. But David blew the lid off that party as I recall, with me scratching up some hip hop anthem.
What was the first article you wrote about hip hop?
A biography on Futura 2000 for the New York Daily News. After that I had my Voice cover story, followed by one more Voice story. Then I wrote three articles for the Soho Weekly News. And then a couple stories for the East Village Eye. Then I sold Beat Street and published my book, Hip Hop. Then I stopped covering hip hop and not a single hip hop magazine ever asked me to write anything or even gave me props for blazing the trail, although everyone was reading my book to find out how it all started. Most of the people I was hanging with never got props either, like Coke La Rock. Virtually nobody knows him, yet he was right there with Herc when it all happened and playing a major role. My book went out of print really fast and copies started selling for $500 for years.
Whats your experience with publications?
I prefer to self-publish and maintain control over my work.
Who are some rappers you that you feel changed the game for hip hop?
Grandmaster Caz elevated rapping with his comedy and complex story lines and Melle Mel elevated lyrics to high art with those lines in Superappin’ that became the best part of The Message. In fact, my version of Beat Street (called Looking for the Perfect Beat) was built around the political awakening of a kid in the South Bronx who moves from partying to seeing-the-big-picture. When Run/DMC landed, they brought back the original first generation style of staying hard and giving no quarter, something the original scene had drifted away from.
Apparently, Bobby descended into gloom a few years ago after being confined to a wheel chair, but a new pain management specialist lifted his spirits a month ago, and suddenly, he was his old self and contacting people and posting his favorite personal photos on facebook. He posted my Whee utility belt from Whee! 2, and I sent him a link to my latest ebook. The next day he messaged to say he was “blown away” by this manifesto on Bitcoin, and I could tell Bobby was knee-deep in the Bitcoin Revolution and ready to invest. Bobby and I had parted ways on his Y2K apocalypse theory many years ago, when I advised him: “The apocaplyse is always greatly exaggerated.”
Bobby was one of the greatest story tellers I’ve known, and his favorite story involved a trip to Levon Helm’s estate in Woodstock (the same place I went to buy my home). Until he passed away two years ago, Levon was the central spirit of that famous town—Jerry Garcia of the Catskills. One day, Bobby went to visit Levon and discovered him playing basketball with Joe Walsh and Keith Richards. Upon seeing Bobby arriving, Lee tossed him the ball and said, “Show ’em what you got, Bobby.” Now Bobby was never very good at basketball. In fact, it was his worst sport. But that day Bobby summoned up all this chi, and swished five baskets in a row. In fact, he made seven out of ten before Lee let him take a break. And you know what? That’s the last time Bobby ever touched a basketball.
There were several hilarious stories like that one being shared yesterday, many involved his dog Boogie, or his frequent disarming of police and/or firemen, or taking heroic amounts of psychedelics, but one story I neglected to share that I treasure involved Ken Kesey and Mountain Girl.
Bobby was my right hand at the Whee! 2, my eyes and ears at Mission Control as 6/22 and I patrolled the campground independently. After the festival, the Temple Dragons were invited by Kesey and Mountain Girl to visit Mountain Girl’s house—provided we didn’t shoot any video. (I was a bit video crazy during the Whee phase because I wanted to document the ceremonies we were manifesting. In fact, Bobby was a key member of the video crew.)
We were all sitting on Mountain Girl’s patio, probably sharing a joint, when Kesey began busting on Ina May’s speech concerning nipple phobia. Both Bobby and I immediately rose to defend Ina May, but I stepped back and just let Bobby take charge of the situation. “We luuuuuv, Ina May,” crooned Bobby. I could tell Kesey would probably never speak ill of her again, even in jest, so great was Bobby’s power. But that’s the sort of energy any bodhisattva carries around, I guess.
Before I arrived at High Times, I’d spent over a year working on a book about the East Village art scene, examining the art clubs. Art After Midnight goes for around $100 today, although you can buy an updated digital version on smashwords with new illos and photos for under $5. There was a lot of hybridization going on in the 1980s, with punk meeting hip hop and both invading the art world from different fronts. Both styles emanated out of the 1960s counterculture and both found the mainstream too soft.
So I was in a Club 57 frame of mind, where camp becomes a wilderness of mirrors, when I arrived at High Times and just to pass the time, started a column called My Amerika by Ed Hassle, a tribute to Ed Anger of the Weekly World News. I always thought the supermarket tabloids were run as propaganda tools by the CIA, but Anger was an obvious comedy act who made fun of right wing views by taking them to their illogical conclusions. Bill Kelly, my favorite deejay used to read from his column on his Sunday show. Funny thing, Bill was a big reason I diverted into forming the Soul Assassins. I was hanging out with the first generation of hip hop and inspired by their do-it-yourself energy. I could have formed a rap band I guess, or just become a hip hop journalist for the rest of my life and made a fortune like Nelson George. Instead I veered into garage rock? Maybe because I’d been kicked out of my first garage band for doing LSD in 1967 and never got to finish perfecting my garage rock set. Then I met Brian Spaeth and he’d been kicked out of the Fleshtones, the reigning garage kings of NYC. So I guess we both had something to prove.
Funny thing, after Ed Hassle called for the formation of a new movement called The Freedom Fighters, a hemp movement that would bring back the big pot rallies from the late 1960s (most of these events had died out) it began as a joke really, but when the issue came out, the concept took off like wild-fire, and I realized I had a tiger by the tale. Before long, I was touring around the country, playing with my band in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, and giving speeches about legalization with Chef RA and Jack Herer at every stop. And afterwards, we’d head back to the campground and eat Ra’s Rasta Pasta, sip Budweiser and pass spliffs until late into the night while the Assassinettes danced around the fire with a full moon beaming down. See, I was trained in “Happenings” by the likes of Jasper Grootveld, Julian Beck, John Cage, and Ken Kesey, so I had a sense of the magic involved in changing people’s perceptions on a massive scale, as well as the techniques for manifesting that sort of magic.
Funny how the natural elements always seemed to be working against us, not to mention all those undercover cop cars that dogged us everywhere. The first time we left New York in our magic bus, we got stranded by a freak snow storm high in the Pennsylvania mountains. Much later, returning from the first Freedom Fighter National Convention, we got lost in a monsoon and a screaming fight broke out about which way to go. When the bus finally got back to our motel, I kissed the ground. But we lost Rodger, who had all the weed, as he couldn’t take the smell of hard liquor on some of us and disappeared never to trust us fully again. And then the party turned into a binge drinking bash with no weed in which our energy unraveled and we lost harmonization. We’d broken up and lost our Assassinettes, not to mention Brian, Bob and Rick. And the vibe just wasn’t the same without them.
Someday, the band will re-unite, maybe even for some ceremonies of the Grand Lodge of the Pot Illuminati.
The first real-life shaman I met was a kid my age named James Wilson, who became an activist for peace while in high school. Jim was inspired by a lot by music and had filled his bedroom with Jimi Hendrix posters before he even discovered psychedelics. He liked the new styles that were coming out, although his biggest influence and role model was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was still alive when Jim made his big transformation. While a junior, he started dressing like a Black Panther, and went on a mission to single-handedly heal our school’s considerable racial divides. Jim accomplished this by becoming Senior Class President (the first black in our school’s history to achieve this honor) and then organizing education and harmonization ceremonies. Back then, nobody realized Jim was doing magic. We didn’t know he was a natural shaman. Later he would transform into the Great Chef Ra.
In 1969, Jim and I both ended up at Woodstock, and he was the first person I knew who I ran into. He was standing at the gates, watching people stream in with a huge glowing smile. I’d never seen Jim so happy. We all felt the vibes of arriving in New Jerusalem. And, of course, we’d get to study some of the grandmasters of our culture up close, like Wavy Gravy, Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner (left). The Pranksters arrived with the magic bus, just not Kesey, who was probably my biggest role model at the time and hiding out in Mexico. At Woodstock, however, I began to study Wavy’s style closely, as he seemed to have a handle on the type of magic I wanted to manifest. I always liked to dress up for a ceremony.
A couple years after Woodstock, I got introduced to Jasper Grootveld of Amsterdam and became utterly fascinated, especially since Jasper had started the Happenings, of which I was a great student (and especially since John Cage did his biggest Happenings in my humble town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois). John Cage was into monster displays of energy and media, similar to the Pranksters, while Jasper dressed like an African medicine man and used zero technology in his rituals. Jasper’s style was a brilliant synthesis of African and European shamanism and I instantly realized its power and wanted to become an artist like Jasper.
I learned a ton about magic from Stephen and Ina May Gaskin, who I knew about from Sunday Morning Services in Golden Gate Park back in the late sixties. Stephen understood the major spiritual texts from the East, and could translate difficult concepts into easy-to-understand English. But something really deep happened when I discovered John Griggs, founder of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. I instantly realized John was a true hippie messiah, and like all messiahs had died at the zenith of his creative powers, a tragic loss for the world. John’s heart was immense and his love for the world boundless. James put me on the path of action, The Pranksters put me on the path of fun, Stephen put me on the path of wisdom, but John Griggs put me on the path of love. It’s strange how some of the most important figures in the history of the counterculture remain unknown and uncelebrated, and John Griggs is the prime example.
Which is why I think it’s so incredible that I discovered another hippie messiah that I didn’t even know about until a few months ago? I speak of Father Yod and the Source Family. Who knows, I may have even run into some of them at a Rainbow Gathering over the last 20 years, but had no idea the manifestations of this hippie saint and his flock. Yod was doing improvisational ritual theater pretty much non-stop after he discovered the art form and he mixed up all spiritual styles, just like I’ve been doing for the past 20 years in my own humble fashion, while organizing ceremonies at the Cannabis Cups and Whee! festivals.
I’ve been inspired by meeting some of his family online and one even gifted me a free copy of their new book about the family. You can watch their amazing documentary on Netflix.
The biggest problem with attempts to forge a hippie religion is the tremendous pressure put on the leader. The more spiritual the group becomes, the more pressure. Many commune founders went off the deep end with egomania or took advantage of people because they had too much power over their flocks. People ask me if I am starting a new religion with the Pot Illuminati. Yes, I am. But I’m not wanting to be the Pope or anything close. I seek to create a refuge from the storm until full legalization arrives where we can share our sacrament in peace and safety. The ceremonies are improvisational, we are all equal, but everyone gets a chance to put on the big hat and be the Grand Wizard for a day. In this way, we protect the society from corruption and know it will never become encrusted with dogma. I have no dogma. Do what you want, just don’t hurt anybody.
Father Yod began telling his flock he was God. But one day, he woke up, called them all together, and said, “I lied. I am not God. We are all God.” Then he decided to take flight on a hand-glider with no training. He crashed and was carried to his house. Although his injuries did not seem life-threatening, he passed over nine hours later. There is a parable of great meaning in this story.
It’s funny how some shamans walking around today don’t even realize they are shamans (although their magic manifests nevertheless through the healing ceremonies they organize). I’m sure David Bowie was aware of his powers on the astral plane.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking magic (or spirituality—they are the same thing) is something that only happened in the distant past or in some Amazonian jungle. Life is a giant wheel and all the dramas and ceremonies, the avatars and saviors, the shamans and sorcerers manifest over and over endlessly. Despite the rapid growth of technology, human ceremonies have evolved little on a foundation built millennia ago. Ceremony involves investing meaning into life and also healing sorrow and pain. Which is why it surprised me when a friend implied I’m not a “true” shaman because I call my ceremonies “improvisational ritual theater,” an expression I coined over a decade ago. He feels theater is the realm of actors, not shamans. People are right to be suspicious. After all, the New Age movement, religion and magic are all peppered with frauds and hoodwinks of every color and stripe, and I love exposing the con jobs and will continue to do so as I want no association with any of them. Con jobs are found at the origins of many major religions as well as the pagan alternatives. My motivation is to pass down the wisdom I’ve learned over the decades to anyone who cares. And foremost among that wisdom is an understanding of what’s really going on in the world, and not falling for rabbit holes or wag-the-dog movies.
Funny how a title or a costume or even just a big hat can change people’s perceptions. Put on a clerical collar and watch how your aura changes. You’re no longer a mere human being, but something magical. And the same goes for dressing like a tribal shaman. Anyone can do it. Unfortunately, many wearing these costumes are frauds seeking money, and no more enlightened or closer to God than you or me. But the costume manifests magic. And the media works like that on a gigantic scale. Belief can be engineered with the right props.
The basic tools of ceremony have not changed for centuries: bell, book and candle. The revolution I suggest involves merging elements of all cultures (without any dogma) and leading the synthesis any direction you want. Just as hybrid genes produce hybrid vigor in plants, animals and people, hybrid ceremonies produce a cultural vigor. The centerpiece of my ceremonies is a seven chakra candle altar.
Instead of watching TV or playing video games, I encourage millennials to organize creative ceremonies to help harmonize family and tribes. Enlightenment is fun. It’s important to investigate the truth, but more important to celebrate life. Don’t believe the hogwash the path to enlightenment runs through a cave in the mountains. Restless minds require isolation to focus, but culture is a group effort. Unifying major spiritual traditions disarms those who manipulate religion to manifest war for profit.
I studied with a lot of the greatest post-modern shamans: John Cage, Ken Kesey, Jasper Grootveld, Judith Malina, Stephen Gaskin, Wavy Gravy….but one of the greatest was one my own age named James Wilson who became the first black elected senior class president at Urbana High School in central Illinois. This happened in 1968, the summit of racial tension in America. Right after Jim (wearing beret) got elected, he started planning events (ceremonies), the result of which drew students closer together and defused the tension and violence. Jim was already a master shaman at age 17, possibly in part because he’d been traumatized by the death of his father. Later, he became known as “Chef RA” and one of the most popular speakers on the original Hemp Tours.
The beauty of improvisational ritual theater is it requires zero training or induction into any dogma. Do what you want as long as nobody gets hurt. You see, the real Bible is written in your heart, provided you got raised in a loving environment and not warped through some abuse.