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Remembering DJ Mister Cee, pioneering hip-hop broadcaster

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

DJ Mister Cee has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH OF AUTOTUNE")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) I made this just for Flex and Mister Cee. I want people to feel threatened.

CHANG: As Jay-Z notes right there, Mister Cee was a hip-hop DJ and radio host for satellite radio, for 94.7 The Block in the New York City area and, before that, for New York's Hot 97. And one thing about him - he was always introducing his audience and record industry to new talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICY")

THE NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) It was all a dream. I used to read Word Up! magazine.

CHANG: Mister Cee was an early advocate and producer for the Notorious B.I.G., and he started his own career in music as the DJ for the rapper Big Daddy Kane, whom he grew up with in Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTER CEE'S MASTER PLAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Rapping) Who's the man with the master plan?

MISTER CEE: DJ Mister Cee.

CHANG: With us now is Mr. Cee's friend and fellow Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg. Hi.

PETER ROSENBERG: Hi. How are you?

CHANG: I'm good. I'm so sorry for your loss. Can you just explain to people why Mister Cee was such a huge deal in the hip-hop world?

ROSENBERG: The probably most obvious is Biggie. I mean, if Notorious B.I.G. is maybe the most impactful or one of the most impactful artists who's ever lived, it's hard to picture that story happening without Mister Cee.

CHANG: Yeah. Tell us about that history, how he became such a big factor and how Notorious B.I.G. got so popular.

ROSENBERG: So Cee would definitely want me to credit Biggie's first DJ, who was a guy named 50 Grand. And while Biggie and 50 Grand were working on a demo, doing their thing, Mister Cee was the DJ who was actually connected to the industry. He was the one who could get him different places, and he played the connector for Biggie. Sometimes it's more complicated than rapper and DJ or artist and DJ, whatever it may be. There are these other people who play roles, and Cee was a connector for Biggie Smalls.

CHANG: Let's talk about what he was like as a radio host. I mean, he was a host for decades. You're a host, too. You understand the craft, the art. How would you describe Mister Cee's style, his presence on air?

ROSENBERG: He was a hurricane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MISTER CEE: Another edition of "Late Night With Mister Cee." Call me up, New York - 1-800-223...

ROSENBERG: He was like an organized hurricane.

CHANG: I love that.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, because - the hurricane part is that he was just so big and impactful and loud. You know, when you turn on the radio and you heard, it's the finisher, Mister Cee...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MISTER CEE: The finisher, Mister Cee. My man Big Dennis holding it down for Fatman Scoop.

ROSENBERG: Like, you knew you were listening to a guy who believed in every word that he was saying. But one thing that has to be stressed - I have never - in my now 30 years of DJing, I have never known a more meticulous, prepared deejay than Mister Cee.

CHANG: Wow.

ROSENBERG: The memory that all of us sort of share of him around the radio station is walking around with his laptop at all times working.

CHANG: That's amazing.

ROSENBERG: He referred to his laptop as the Bible.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROSENBERG: And - because it had everything. He was most famous, DJing wise, for the mixes that he - the Throwback at Noon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: Yo. It's your man, Tony Starks from the Theodore Unit, representing that Wu Clan. Right now we're going to take it back with my man Mister Cee, straight up and down the throwback style.

ROSENBERG: He would have an organized, curated mix that would not only have their hits but have rarities that would absolutely blow your mind, and they would be cleaned up for the radio and prepared. There was nobody like Mister Cee in that regard.

CHANG: It is so cool to hear you describe how intentional and deliberate he was about his work. I want to go back to a pretty difficult period in his life. I'm talking about 2013. This is when Mister Cee's sexuality became the subject of a lot of conversation in the hip-hop community. And, you know, he even talked about it on air. He briefly resigned from Hot 97 because of it. And he said at the time - I'm quoting here - "I am tired of trying to do something or be something that I am not." Do you personally have a sense of what it was like for him to go through that time? Did you guys talk about what that experience was like for him?

ROSENBERG: Yeah. He did go through a lot during that period. We had him on our show in the morning. You know, we had a conversation about sexuality in that way, homosexuality, all of these different things. But in the years that followed - and this is truly one of the most impactful things I've ever seen with anyone in my life - he became a different person.

CHANG: What do you mean?

ROSENBERG: Well, when everything came to light and he was able to take ownership of it all, he went on our friend Meno's (ph) podcast - it's, like, a very Brooklyn, street kind of podcast - and, when asked about it, was like, yeah, I'm into transgender women. That's what I'm into. His ability to do that gave him a freedom and happiness and light that none of us had ever seen. One story that we always reference that was quite regular was that when we did our morning show and he would come in next to do the midday show, on a Monday, you did not want to see Monday Cee. Monday Cee was no fun. And by the time you got to Friday, Friday Cee was a joy. And then in the years that went on, after everything came to light, he was just always Friday Cee all the time.

CHANG: Well, Peter, you're obviously someone who's not just a former colleague. You are a friend who has so much love for this man. How do you want people to remember Mister Cee not just as an artist but as a person?

ROSENBERG: From my vantage point, as the Jewish guy who came up from Maryland and was on Hot 97 and nobody knew who I was...

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROSENBERG: ...And why I was even there in the first place 17 years ago when I got here, he is as supportive a colleague as you could ever find. He - literally this past Sunday, he was promoting the fact that one of my other former colleagues, Jen (ph), had just gotten hired at his radio station, and he did that with everyone. And also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, I mean, he's called the finisher because, you know, after he plays, the party's over. You can't go on after him.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROSENBERG: If you saw Mister Cee DJ, it was like a full-body experience. He's covered in sweat. His whole body is moving. He's yelling and screaming and blending and scratching.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MISTER CEE: That's how hot it is in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOD BOY (FEAT. BIG BOI)")

FANTASIA BARRINO: (Singing) Yeah.

MISTER CEE: My iPhone shut down because the iPhone said it was too hot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOD BOY (FEAT. BIG BOI)")

BARRINO: (Singing, inaudible).

MISTER CEE: We back at it.

ROSENBERG: It is an entire experience and journey that he takes you on every time he DJs, so I'd be remiss to say that that shouldn't be at the top of the list of qualities that should be mentioned also.

CHANG: Peter Rosenberg, host at Hot 97 in New York and ESPN radio, thank you so, so much for helping us remember your friend.

ROSENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOD BOY (FEAT. BIG BOI)")

BARRINO: (Singing) Wifebeaters and jeans, always in the trap... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.