Three days before rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard released his debut album in 1995, he was interviewed by WUSL-FM Power 99 host Colby "Colb" Tyner. ODB almost ended Tyner's career when he spilled Alize on the operating board.
Tyner, luckily, was reprieved; such stories aren't foreign to the longtime Philadelphia radio personality. With more than 20 years in the radio business, DJ Colby Colb has seen the best and worst days of hip-hop.
He's just released Backstory with Colby Colb, a podcast highlighting rare, archival interviews with some of the most notable acts in hip-hop, like Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Run DMC, Common, and the Roots — whose episode was released Tuesday — in the early stages of their careers. Though Backstory doesn't have a regular release schedule, it's available on iTunes, and subscribers will be notified of new episodes.
Currently Urban One's vice president of programming, Tyner describes himself as a "first-generation hip-hop head." He broke into radio as an intern for Power 99 in the late 1980s, when many of today's heavy-hitters were still finding their footing in the music industry.
"[Colby] introduced new songs from Run DMC and Public Enemy and all of hip-hop's giants that are legendary today," said Quincy Harris, host of Fox 29's The Q and WRNB-FM 100.3's morning show, who began working with Tyner in 1998. "All of these different artists were introduced to Philly, from that show. He was the Donnie Simpson of hip-hop."
After listening to The Making of Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, a podcast by the late hip-hop attorney Combat Jack, Tyner was inspired to create his own, dedicated to expanding the narrative of those who helped shape hip-hop. Interviews with veteran hip-hop artists are relatively accessible on larger platforms like YouTube, and are even easier to share with the help of social media. What sets Backstory apart from more mainstream interviews is Tyner's narration. At the beginning of each episode, he gives an account of the interviewee's career at the time of the interview. Not only is the context insightful, but little-known stories are unearthed.
"People think LL Cool J is just an actor, but do they know his story? Do they know about the music he created? Do they know he went through a rough period and then he came back with Mamma Said Knock You Out?" Tyner said. "With hip-hop, you have to connect. And if you lose that connection or get too 'Hollywood,' it's hard to deliver another project. So with LL, I wanted to tell his story. He's had an amazing career and I don't think people talk about him."
In addition to artists who have transcended hip-hop, Tyner explores the narrative of the genre's fallen. Ol' Dirty Bastard was known for his outrageous antics, like going to pick up food stamps in a limo, and was famously arrested at a South Philadelphia McDonald's while on the lam. In the studio with Tyner, an inebriated ODB passed along a tape, asking to rap over it. After a few bars, ODB stopped because he was shocked he sounded so good. It turned out ODB was rapping over a tape that had music and vocals on it.
Of the nine episodes available for listening, the interview with the Notorious B.I.G. is the most personal. Unlike other episodes, there's not just an interview with Biggie, but one with his mother, Voletta Wallace, conducted shortly after the rapper's 1997 death. Wallace recalls Biggie's debut single, "Juicy," a sample of Philly native Mtume's "Juicy Fruit."
"As a matter of fact, there was a part of the [song] that I never understood," Wallace said. "I thought he was saying that my hallway was pissy, and I yelled and screamed at him. His friend said, 'Ma! He's talking about a drink, Alize. I didn't even know what Alize was."
Through Backstory, a deeper, more informed account of hip-hop emerges, underscoring the importance of Philadelphia's impact in helping the genre grow.
"Philly was number two," Tyner said. "I've made a living out of hip-hop. That's why I'm able to share these memories because the first place that hip-hoppers would come after conquering the five boroughs was Philly or Boston. It was mainly Philly because it's about 95 miles south of New York. They would come here and Philly would show a lot of love."
Tyner quotes rapper Chuck D. in saying that hip-hop was "the CNN of the 'hood." Tyner believes hip-hop was born of the experiences of black people — experiences that were overlooked or not cared about. Through the podcast, Tyner unpacks hip-hop's history by discussing social and political motives that contributed to the difficulties of the black experience. Tyner believes hip-hop rose from the ashes of low-income neighborhoods and evolved into an art form that was not only cathartic but relatable and infectious.
Tyner believes that there's something interesting about everyone and that, as an interviewer, his mission is to discover it.
"When I was on the radio in Philadelphia, I ascended from being an intern all the way to mornings. My cohost in the morning was Wendy Williams, and we did a show together for two years. Wendy Williams taught me the art of interviewing, and so I learned how to get beyond the surface information. Just like this podcast. You're going to walk away from the podcast learning something you did not know about these people."