There’s a treasure hidden in a quaint corner of Northeast Florida in the heart of Atlantic Beach. A member of The Bomb Squad lives there, and not some local law-enforcer, covered head-to-toe in metal plating, but one of the most seminal hip hop production teams to emerge from what is today referenced as “The Golden Age of Hip Hop.”
Eric “Vietnam” Sadler was one quarter of the team responsible not only for much of Public Enemy’s masterful catalog, but for albums and tracks that range from Ice Cube’s monster solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, all the way to Bell Biv Devoe’s inescapable jam, Poison.
The route from Hempstead in Long Island, New York to Atlantic Beach, Florida is not one taken by many, especially those who detoured into Manhattan during one of the most influential periods in American music since jazz was born. The dearth of intel about him available online reveals that Sadler does not like talking about himself. But convincing him to open up wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine; and, over the course of two interviews, he did just that. (Photos, however, were a no-go. That part of his life is in the past.)
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Eric Sadler’s middle school held its annual career day. Doctors, lawyers, carpenters and the like came in to share their trade with the young students. Included among the adults visiting that day was a bass player, who, once he plucked a few notes of Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely by The Main Ingredients, had the young girls swooning. Young Eric had his career path decided that day.
That Christmas he asked his parents for a bass guitar. The middle-class household could support a love of music, but not a brand-new $100 instrument. So, instead, there were a pair of bongos under the tree that holiday morning.
“They weren’t even tunable,” Sadler says, “you had to light a match underneath them to get any sort of high pitch out of them.”
Still, owning any instrument was reason enough to start a band. “Everybody had a band in the neighborhood. It was just what you did,” Sadler says. He decided to hold band rehearsals at his house and invited his band mates to store their instruments there, knowing that when the band wasn’t rehearsing, he could practice playing bass, guitar and keys. He taught himself to play all three and eventually bought his own bass.
The band played Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire covers around town at parties. Another famous Long Islander would MC the parties and tell jokes between sets. That funnyman eventually landed a prominent role on Saturday Night Live and the rest of the world got to know Eddie Murphy. But to Sadler, he was just another dude from the block.
Simultaneously in the same neighborhood, DJs were starting to rock the parties, too. Sadler crossed paths with a few guys who would have a major impact on both his life and the future of music. Calling themselves Spectrum City, the DJ crew consisted of brothers James Boxley, aka Hank Shocklee, and Keith Boxley, aka Keith Shocklee, and Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, better known as Chuck D.
Sadler eventually tired of the flippant and flaky musicians who cycled in and out of the few bands he was in, so he and decided to call it quits. In 1981, a 21-year-old Sadler and his friend Charles Cassius pooled all of their equipment and opened a rehearsal space in a back area of a building owned by a dentist who was also the Sadlers’ neighbor. For $200 a month, Cassius and Sadler opened Cassad Studios, a name they created by combining their surnames, at the now-infamous 510 South Franklin Street. This nondescript building would deliver Public Enemy to the world.
510 South Franklin and Beyond
Changing the face of music didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen rather quickly. The Shocklees had worn out their welcome at their parents’ house and needed a space to practice and record, so they asked Sadler to put in a good word with the dentist and subsequently moved in upstairs at 510 South Franklin Street.
By then, Sadler was spending more and more time programing drum machines and sequencers between card games of Tonk and Spades. Based off Chuck D’s radio show success on Adelphi University’s station, WBAU, the Shocklee brothers, Chuck D and Professor Griff, another Spectrum City partner, were upstairs, grabbing the attention of Def Jam Recordings.
Sadler was a multi-instrumentalist by this point, and quite adept at operating the recording equipment upstairs. It was also around this time Sadler got his nickname from Chuck D. In a rare interview archived in a brief YouTube clip, Chuck D says that Sadler would show up to 510 South Franklin wearing huge, black glasses, as if he were coming back from the war in Vietnam. The name stuck.
In the fall of 1986, Sadler was recruited to play on and program what would become Public Enemy’s debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Sadler made $100 a song. He says his main concern was being paid before Christmas, so he could buy gifts for his loved ones.
The production of the album set the blueprint for future Public Enemy albums and the production crew that would become known as the Bomb Squad. Sadler says he and the crew meticulously listened to hundreds of albums and pinpointed small but important details to sample. Those snippets — a snare drum off this album or a shout from that album — became integral parts of the beats they crafted. Chuck D laid scratch vocals (a vocal take used mainly for reference and later recorded over) and then the real work began. The team listened to the lyrics and deconstructed the beats created, only to rebuild them to accentuate the rhymes. Music production like this had never been done.
In early 1987, Def Jam released Yo! Bum Rush the Show to critical acclaim. The erratic beats melded well with Chuck D’s empowerment lyrical content. After a taste of success, Def Jam wanted more.
For their second album, which Sadler tells me was the only one that all four members of the Bomb Squad (Sadler, the Shocklees and Chuck D) worked on together, Sadler moved into Manhattan two blocks away from another cornerstone of hip hop, Greene Street Recording studios. For 30 days, the Bomb Squad holed up together, pre-producing at 510 South Franklin Street, then laying the album down at Greene Street’s much nicer digs. At the end of the 30 days, they emerged with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
With a Manhattan apartment, a dance-instructor girlfriend, money coming in, and his work on one of the most anticipated albums in hip hop history, Sadler was ecstatic with the direction his life was taking. And things were only going to get better.
When the Bomb Squad released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the album sold 500,000 copies in its first week. It was a groundbreaking, monumental success.
Hank Shocklee knew to strike when the proverbial iron was smoking, so he started to market the Bomb Squad as a full-on production team. The industry came calling, opening wallets as they walked in the door.
Fear, Poison and an Ice Cube
The next phase of Sadler’s career with the Bomb Squad was his most prolific, lucrative and final. Keith Shocklee had essentially gone MIA after the album release and Chuck D was on the road constantly with Public Enemy, which was facing internal turmoil, due in part to Flavor Flav and his beef with another group member, the straight-laced Professor Griff. (Sadler now says that’s a whole other story. He simply recalls Rico [Flavor Flav] as a talented drummer and musician and a neighborhood dude in a band.)
Still, an ever-touring Chuck D and absentee Keith left Sadler and Hank to bear the brunt of producing Public Enemy’s third album. Fear of a Black Planet was to be Public Enemy’s magnum opus and, though it did sell a million copies its first week, the experience of recording it exhausted Sadler.
Sadler says that by this time, Hank was taking on so much work in addition to Public Enemy’s album, for them to complete it all, he barely saw the light of day for more than a year.
Two projects in particular still resonate with Sadler, but for very different reasons.
After the remnants of the New Edition boy band scattered, three former members took their last names as a new band name. Bell Biv Devoe (BBD) was about to drop its debut album, Poison, on the strength of the title track. Sadler recalls the night he mixed the song by himself, waiting for the rest of his crew members, who never showed.
While he worked on the song, the BBD boys were across the street partying at a club. When they stumbled into the studio at 3 a.m. to hear the mix, they panned it. Sadler says he really didn’t know what to do with the signature snare hits that open the song and repeat throughout, so he just left them out front, mixed at very high volume. The song became a runaway success and cemented the careers of BBD. Some of the additional songwriting that Sadler did on the album paid a handsome return as well.
It was a simultaneous project, though, that would be a high-water mark for Sadler and the Bomb Squad. Rapper Ice Cube was rushing to one-up his former group, N.W.A., by releasing his debut album before they could release theirs. After meeting Chuck D in passing, Cube took him up on his invitation to fly from Los Angeles to New York and record his album with the Bomb Squad.
Sadler recalls how uncertain he felt about what lay ahead when he picked Ice Cube up at the airport.
“He got off the plane with his Jheri curl and L.A. accent and two of the biggest dudes I’ve ever seen,” Sadler says. Intimidating.
Ice Cube held the reins of production tightly and wanted no second wasted. The Bomb Squad, still scattered about on other endeavors, left Sadler to handle Cube’s brusque expectations. He delivered Cube’s highly successful album, AmeriKKKA’s Most Wanted, and to this day humbly insists that the other members of the Bomb Squad played their parts as well.
Sadler, not one to boast, can’t select his favorite songs from all those he helped create. But he perks up a little bit when he talks about AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.
Vacation Every Day
By the mid-’90s, Sadler was a married, successful father of two, but the wear and tear of New York City and the changing landscape of hip hop was signaling a change in the wind. The Bomb Squad was nothing more than a name at this point — the fellas barely talked to each other.
Independence Day 1997 brought a breezy shift.
A former Def Jam employee who’d married a Northeast Florida girl and since relocated to this area invited Sadler to visit Atlantic Beach for the holiday. Within a week of his visit, he’d purchased a home.
“I wanted to get away from all of the entourages and bullshit,” Sadler says, “plus, Atlantic Beach reminded me of Long Island in the ’60s. I happily traded it all in for quiet and peace of mind.”
Since then, Sadler has run a few businesses in Northeast Florida. But he rarely takes part in any music industry melee.
“I was spoiled,” he answers when asked if he misses the music industry. “When you start your career with Chuck D, LL Cool J and Slick Rick, there isn’t much else you need to accomplish.”
Today, the ever-humble Sadler refers to himself as a good drum programmer who worked hard and who was at the right place at the right time, which seems a bit of an understatement in light of the fact that the music he worked on forever changed the face of the industry. He insists he could have never achieved what he did without the other members of the Bomb Squad.
Once in a while, he thinks he’d like to live in Paris someday, but it’s hard to think of leaving Atlantic Beach. “You know, every day, no matter what, since I arrived here almost 20 years ago, every day still feels like I’m on vacation.”