This weekend, scores of people will descend unto New Orleans for the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture, which will see performances from a wealth of rap and R&B acts that span generations. What is sure to be one of the biggest moments from the fest will come from Doug E. Fresh, who is curating a tribute for hip hop’s 50th birthday — a moment he promises will contain surprises for attendees to enjoy.

His longtime colleague Slick Rick spoke on the upcoming celebration. “Honored to be partying with a purpose in honor of the 50th anniversary of hip hop with Essence Fest and the good people of New Orleans,” he said.

Another legendary peer, Big Daddy Kane, also chimed in. “Hip hop is turning 50 this year, and I am honored to have contributed to the culture. The Essence Festival’s continuous support and dedication to providing a platform for hip hop artists speaks volumes. I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with my hip hop family,” he expressed.

Over the past four decades, Doug E. Fresh has had an undeniable impact on the culture. He developed a new way to create music without the use of an instrument, launched one of the most iconic rap groups in existence, The Get Fresh Crew, and helped to put a spotlight on an entire city’s subgenre with his contributions to go-go music in D.C. He’s one of the biggest frontrunners campaigning to bring good health to hip hop, which has become increasingly important as the art form continues to lose many of its most notable names. All in all, the Barbadian-born talent is still pouring himself into a culture that, with his help, has reached the previously unthinkable golden jubilee mark.

REVOLT was fortunate enough to catch up with Fresh, who opened up about his past, present, and future in vivid detail. Check out the Black Music Month exclusive below.

When was the moment you fell in love with hip hop?

The moment I fell in love with hip hop was when my sister came into the house, and she started rhyming Hollywood lyrics, and DJ Hollywood is one of the first emcees in hip hop. He is actually the first emcee that put crowd participation and rhyming together. I listened to the cadence, I listened to the melody, and it kind of all caught me… And then, I remembered it and I was probably around 11, 10, something like that. And that’s when it hit me, it opened me up to appreciate this thing.

You went from a solo artist to founding The Get Fresh Crew. How did that collective come together and when did Slick Rick join?

The first one was when it was just me and DJ Chill Will. Now, before DJ Chill Will, I had another DJ named Kev Ski and another one named DJ Rich. Kev Ski got involved in a relationship and that kind of took him down a certain road. Rich, similar. And then, Chill Will was the guy who I met in school. And when we got together, a friend of mine named Pop, who I used to train with, hang out with, just my guy, you know, my boy I roll with — he told me about Barry B. And so I met Barry in Lincoln Projects in Harlem, and we went to his house, and he was a part of a group called the Devastating Three. Devastating Three went to college.

I thought that if Barry B and Will got together, it’ll be a way of us training. Because he had emcees over there and they made me better. And so I thought if Chill Will DJs with him, it’ll make him better. So what happened is I was doing that and then, that’s when Barry gave me the idea to do “The Human Beatbox” in ’82. But I was doing it already from school… that was the introduction of the beatbox. The beatbox didn’t exist until, well, the human beatbox didn’t exist until that time, and the word “human beatbox” came out of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five because he used to play the beatbox. So Barry said, you should call yourself “The Human Beatbox.”

So Rick heard about me, and when he heard about me in ’82, my name was in most of the schools. In ’83, it exploded again. And I shot Beat Street. I called him over to Chill Will’s house one day and I heard him rock. And I thought his skills was nice. So then, I said let me put him down with The Get Fresh Crew. And at the time, it wasn’t The Get Fresh Crew — Barry came up with that name as well. So then, I got with Rick, I told him about my idea of the song we were already doing, “La Di Da Di.” So we wrote that together. After we let it out, it exploded.

You created beatboxing, which you also refer to as the fifth element of hip hop. How does it feel to see that it’s still prevalent today?

First, I appreciate that, and I feel honored, and I feel blessed to have created an element that plays a part in the culture and in the representation of hip hop. When I was creating it, I didn’t know that, that is what it would turn into, you know? And as I look back at it… I was playing the trumpet, and they cut the music programs and the school. So, as an alternative, I came up with doing the beatbox, but I didn’t even really notice that’s what I was doing until Barry and his mom heard me do it. And they were so blown away from what I did. Then he said, “You should call it ‘The Human Beatbox.'” So, I feel like some people are chosen to do different things, and I was always really good at rhyming ’cause I studied the greats.

But the beatbox had no blueprint. I had to create everything myself. So when I watch what’s going on and when I see what’s happening, I think it’s a beautiful thing. It’s like seeing a child born, you know, like you created a new life. For me, when I did this, I didn’t even know that I was gonna do it. But now, looking back at it and seeing this whole generation and seeing how every hip hop artist, whether directly or indirectly, has been affected by the beatbox… whether it’s me and Snoop, whether it’s me and Rick, whether it’s whomever. I was listening to Music Soulchild — I did a show with him not too long ago and he said, “I’m gonna do the beatbox in the beginning.” I know that thought wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t put that thought there.

Given your background, what are your thoughts on the Caribbean islands’ overall contribution to hip hop?

It’s amazing to hear how many people have a Western Indian background, you know what I mean? And then when you go a little bit deeper, you’ll realize that your background is obviously from Africa. But the fascinating thing is that we were all dropped off at different parts of the world, and we claim these different parts of the world because this is as far as our history allows us to go back until we start to investigate ourselves.

When you look at the music, whether it’s soca, whether it’s calypso, whether it’s, you know, dancehall or whether it’s just straight reggae music, everywhere we go, we carry that piece of music with us. In America, hip hop is a spinoff of all of those sounds that we carry with us from the motherland. And then when we got here, we created hip hop — as well as go-go — because they are all connected from a genetic standpoint. And we cannot disconnect from the vibration, from the beat.

In 2021, you paid tribute to go-go and its godfather with the live album This One’s For Chuck Brown. How did you first dive into go-go and what are your feelings on the genre?

I think, sometimes, we don’t have a choice. And I say that honestly. I think, sometimes, there’s genetic things that are spiritual. They are above our level of comprehension and we do not have a choice. When I got to D.C. in ’85 — well, before ’85 — they were playing [Brown’s late ’70s hit] “Bustin’ Loose.” We were playing [Trouble Funk’s] “Pump Me Up,” we were playing [EU’s] “Knock ‘Em Out, Sugar Ray,” we were playing [Junkyard Band’s] “Sardines,” we were playing everything. We was playing so many records. And when I got to meet Chuck Brown, I really didn’t know the magnitude of what go-go represented. In ’85, when I performed at the Capital Centre, everything went to another level.

To meet Chuck Brown and to see the movement of so many beautiful Black people in this place — 17,000 to 20,000 people. And when you’re standing at the stage and you look at all those around you, it’s a memory that I could never forget, nor would I want to forget. And I realize in my studies that go-go is the first cousin of hip hop, and the reason why is because it is of itself. Go-go is go-go. It is what it’s being called the same way hip hop is what it’s being called.

You are curating the ESSENCE Festival of Culture hip hop 50 celebration. What can you tell us about the forthcoming event?

First of all, there’s no festival in the world that’s like ESSENCE that represents us in the manner that it represents us. I probably have done more ESSENCE Festival concerts than anybody in the history of ESSENCE. I mean, I go back to Susan Taylor and then the brother who owns it now. [CEO Richelieu Dennis] is a friend of mine before he owned ESSENCE; we were real cool when he was just doing Shea Moisture and he was selling it on the street.

So, I had to design a performance that I felt would represent 50 years of hip hop and bring in elements that I thought would really explain the story, but make it entertaining — and the way that this performance is going to go, you have never seen one like this.

We got KRS-One, so you know, you got the teacher there. I got me Melle Mel from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Vibe and Scorpio, I got them, I brought them in. I have the original members of The Sugarhill Gang. I have Grandmaster Caz, who is the original writer behind Big Bank Hank’s lyrics [on “Rapper’s Delight”].

So, why am I saying this? Because it’s an education behind it, but it’s also gonna be extremely entertaining. And I also have some surprises that are gonna be attached to it, that are gonna be shocking.

What is necessary for hip hop to live on for 50 more years?

Very good question. I think one of the main things that hip hop has to do is it has to focus on its health. Health and wellness. Because so many great hip hop artists have become sick and even our R&B artists. I’d like to acknowledge Tina Turner‘s passing, Jim Brown’s passing, Harry Belafonte’s passing. Look at those ages of transition, 83, 87, 94, 95… You don’t get no hip hop artists and R&B artists of this new generation that live that long. And there’s something going on with that. It’s not just about living long, it’s about living good and long in a very good space. So I think that that’s important.

On just a creative level, I think that it’s important for us to continue to collaborate with each other, so that we can continue to create more dimensions to hip hop. But if we kind of just limit ourselves to what we’re doing, then it will start to flatline. I said a long time ago that one of the biggest hip hop artists in the world to come out will come from another country. The next guy is gonna come from another country. The next thing that’s gonna take this thing to the next level is gonna be a collaboration between hip hop artists from multiple countries. And that is what’s going explode hip hop on the next level. Remember I told you this (laughs).