When an album is described as "like nothing you've ever heard before," that usually means it's either a transcendent success or an unprecedented failure. Standing in the Spotlight by Dee Dee King may be both.
Dee Dee Ramone's 1989 rap album is as close to a universally reviled album as you can get, due both to the music / lyrics and what many listeners perceive it to be: either a brazen act of hubris by a rock star or the recorded delusions of grandeur from a struggling addict. And from his opening demand that “It's time to rock / It's time to rap / It's time for the mash[ed] potato attack,” most react in a similar fashion — slack-jawed disbelief that this record was conceived, performed and released.
And sure, it is nearly impossible to circle this square. Less than 15 years earlier, Dee Dee was penning songs about male prostitution and Vietnam, and this album finds him taking surfing lessons from a mermaid on “Commotion in the Ocean.” He helped inspire generations of aspiring punks, but sings, “We walked down the aisle and made a bond / The sculptor waved his magic wand / And created a work of art / You and I will never part” on the anachronistic ballad “Baby Doll.” Decked out in gold chains and posing lovingly on a ghetto blaster seems at best some kind of awkward satire.
But while it would be disingenuous to try and sell the record as objectively good, there something undeniably compelling about it. On top of music that feels incompatible with rapping, Dee Dee’s vocal delivery is so unusual, and his lyrics so quotable, that it invites repeated listens. And once you get over the initial shock, there are truly genuine hooks. “German Kid” will probably make you laugh the first dozen times you hear it, but at some point, the earworm chorus will have you singing “half American / half German” at random points in your day. And despite how pretentious it may all seem on the surface, the entire album has a surprising authenticity — if there hadn’t been money and celebrity behind Dee Dee Ramone, Dee Dee King would have likely found some acclaim as an outsider artist.
There are only seven people listed in the credits of Standing in the Spotlight. Three of them, including Dee Dee, have passed. Two others are Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who only make guest appearances.
That leaves the men who took on the lion’s share of putting the album together: co-writer / producer Daniel Rey and engineer Greg Gordon. Here is what they remember:
Daniel Rey: [Dee Dee's] doctor recommended he go in for a tune-up, just to get his shit together. His real first name is Doug, and all the brothers in there were calling him Doug E. Fresh. And when he came out of the hospital, he was a rapper. He was into rap.
Greg Gordon: The Ramones were one of the most influential bands ever. They were the Beatles to me. But they never made a lot of money. In their prime, they were playing 600-seat clubs. And I had heard “Funky Man” [12" single, 1987] and knew Dee Dee had a falling out with the band and was exploring other avenues.
DR: I wasn't involved with “Funky Man.” I didn't like it so much. I thought it was kind of sloppy. It was kind of rough. And I thought it would be pretty short-lived, but he was determined to put some songs together. And Dee Dee wasn't a great singer, so rapping seemed to work for him. He always needed to be busy, so if the Ramones were done with a record, he still needed to be creative. He was in a weird headspace at that point. He felt like he was being controlled — by his wife, by Johnny [Ramone, guitarist] — and he was on all these medicines his psychiatrist was giving him. His whole life was laid out for him — what he was supposed to do and where he was supposed to go. He needed to challenge himself. Conformity drove him crazy. The Ramones became conformity for him. He just wanted to rebel against that. And one way was to do a rap record — it would get him out of the house, it would make Johnny really pissed off. When he started doing it, Johnny basically rolled his eyes. The unanimous opinion was, “Oh, that Dee Dee.”
DR: He wasn't using street drugs. He was on meds and he smoked a lot of pot, but that was about it. Maybe he would score a nickel bag of pot just to be in control. He would come to my house to work in the afternoon. He would just write down an idea and we'd talk about what kind of song it would be — an angry song or a happy song or a beach song or a ballad. And then I would try to come up with some music that matched the lyrics and we'd put it down on a four-track. He would write the lyrics in like 20 minutes, and then the music would come together pretty quickly. It wasn't too sophisticated. And then he would have to call his wife and then go home for dinner. Dee Dee lived on two levels — he lived as someone who did what he wanted to do and someone who does what he's knows is good for him in the long run. So, having a wife to keep him in line and keep him alive, it kept him in check. But he was only ever really happy when he was creating.
GG: Chung King was only about three people, and we were in the top 10 record-selling studios at the time because of the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. But it was a small crew who did everything from cleaning the place to booking the place to running the sessions. We were just having a ball back then. There were so many records happening.
DR: Warner Brothers gave him $25,000 to keep him busy. "Let's put it out as a favor to Dee Dee."
GG: At that time, 25 grand was lunch money. Nowadays, budgets are so small and everything is so controlled. Back then, people would come in and we'd think, “Okay, what can we do today?” But Daniel had a very clear vision. He's an amazing imitator, he has that ear, and we mapped out the basics before Dee Dee came in. He was a real good spirit, and gave Dee Dee really good support. He said it was about Dee Dee having something to get him out of a bad place.
GG: I worked with Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Stetsasonic, Run-D.M.C. But we didn't really make the record with hip-hop techniques. Other hip-hop guys would come in and dig through old records and find grooves and try to play stuff off each other. But this was made more like an old-time rock record with a drum machine.
DR: We had the first generation of drum machine and a four-track, and we would go into the studio and do it the same way. It was pretty much just me and Greg and Dee Dee. A cutting-edge drum machine which sounds so dated now.
GG: Dee Dee was fresh out of rehab and was quiet, almost shy. So nice and polite and sweet. And he was just holding on. He was drinking these 32 oz. iced teas, probably five of them a day. One time he said, “Could you come to the store with me?” And I would say I couldn't right then. He could just take the elevator and there was a convenience store on the corner. But he wouldn't go alone. This was Chinatown in the '80s. He was worried he was gonna walk three blocks away and score.
DR: They're wonderful people and big Dee Dee fans, and you just ask them and they're there. Chris had an idea for a guitar part on “German Kid,” and we needed female vocals. It was just family helping out each other. Debbie's always an absolute joy, and Chris is very creative.
GG: They were so loving towards Dee Dee. They were his friends and wanted to support him. Debbie's vocals took maybe 15 minutes. And Chris played “Ride of the Valkyries” really slowly over “German Kid.” I remember him cracking up that it was gonna work. We did a crazy remix of that song with a lot of samples from The Producers. So, we had Dee Dee rapping over “Springtime for Hitler.” It was so outlandish, and it exploded into a German boys choir. And the label was like, “No way are we putting this out.” That was the only time where we used traditional hip-hop techniques.
DR: I think he was doing what you were supposed to do. Pride and positive thinking. Rap was pretty cutting-edge. I think Dee Dee associated with the whole Gucci gangster thing, where you may be poor, but you have a thousand-dollar chain on. It was like a party record. It wasn't like a Jesus and Mary Chain album.
GG: There was certainly a huge tongue-in-cheek factor. The whole macho hip-hop persona back then. I mean, he starts out saying he's gonna be a badass surfer, and by the end he gets bit by a jellyfish and he's like, “I'm out of here.” And he's gonna be a badass wrestler and then he gets punched really hard. I think even when he's saying, “I'm the master of hip-hop,” he wasn't trying to be Chuck D. I think he believed he was the king of being Dee Dee Ramone. I don't think he was ready to get into the ring with LL Cool J. I think that is what he was struggling with: being himself. And I think there's a big part of Dee Dee's heart in that record.
DR: The reviews were wonderfully brutal. And sometimes people pull out the record to have me nervously sign, thinking I'll break it over their head. But the best review was from Maximumrocknroll. They listed the 10 worst records of the year. And at the end it says, “We would have included the Dee Dee King album, but we only listed albums that were recorded in English.” That's my favorite. But it was Johnny's idea to put “The Crusher” on a Ramones record later on. I know that meant a lot to Dee Dee. It meant Johnny had actually listened to the record.
GG: Making it was absolutely joyful. I feel really fortunate to make records. And whatever feeling is in the room ends up going into the record. And that record was a positive support of somebody's life: Dee Dee wanting to do something better than go down the tubes. It was a good energy on that record. A very Dee Dee record. You can't call it the worst hip-hop record of all time because I don't think it is a hip-hop record. It's the best Dee Dee King rap record. I imagine when the Ramones came out, people thought it was the worst rock 'n' roll record ever made. I mixed “Bring the Noise,” often called the best hip-hop record. If Dee Dee is the worst hip-hop record, then I've got the spectrum covered!
DR: It was on at a club I played last year, and I enjoyed it. I thought it was funny. And it's where he was at this point. In the back of his mind, maybe he thought there would be a novelty single, but he just looked ahead. It's not like he worked his whole life to be a rap star. It was new, exciting music he got into. He got into the Stones when he was 13, got into the Stooges when he was 18. And then he got into rap. He could be mean and ruthless, but deep down Dee Dee was like a little kid. The record, I think, shows his innocence. It makes me miss him.