THE ORIGINAL HARLEM SLIM
“The Original Harlem Slim” – a befitting stage name for brooding bluesman Tito Deler, New York’s modern day soulful talent. Catch Harlem Slim onstage at St. Mazie, the jazzy supper club in Brooklyn, every other Wednesday night. But you’ll just have to wait until this dapper cat comes out with his next record, since you won’t be able to find any of his first pressing. Run to see this extraordinary talent and get ready to step back in time. Photography Alexander Thompson http://www.titodelerblues.com/music/ https://www.instagram.com/harlemslim/
PONYBOY: Tito, tell us the origin of your stage name, Harlem Slim.
HARLEM SLIM: “Three monkeys sat up in a coconut tree – Discussing things as they is said to be – Said one to the others, now listen you two – there’s a certain rumor going around that can’t be true. Now if you’re from Long Island – ain’t nothing wrong with that – Matter of fact I know quite a few Long Island hep cats – But the truth is plain and simple, and it will surely set you free – There can only be one Harlem Slim – mutherfucker that’s me!” – The Original Harlem Slim
I’m born and raised UPTOWN and have a lot in common with the Blues OGs in that my culture is STREET culture and my first exposure to music was the CHURCH. I took the name from a perpetrator from Long Island that held it till I came along – believing in truth and the dissemination of truth it was my duty to right that wrong – thus Harlem Slim was born.
PONYBOY: You were born and bred in New York City. What was your upbringing like?
HARLEM SLIM: I’m a first generation native New Yorker of Dominican parents. I grew up with three older sisters. One was a disco queen that never saw the wrong side of the velvet rope and taught me the hustle. The other was a rocker that let me rock her boyfriends cut-sleeves and snuck me into her band’s shows at CB’s. The youngest of the three was an original B-Girl that showed me the ropes and exposed me to graffiti in the late 70s and skateboarding in the early 80s. When Saturday Night Fever came out my sister gave me a blowout and I hung out on my stoop all day listening to Tavares and Earth, Wind & Fire. My first record was the Ramones (76), my second record was Leave Home (77), and my third record was Fonzi’s greatest hits (76). When I heard Sucker M.C.’s on Mr. Magic’s Rap attack in ’84 I knew it was fresh. In the late 80s I pushed my skateboard up the block past all the B-Boys, dealers, pimps, pushers and junkies to my own beat because regardless of our differences, it felt like home.
PONYBOY: How did you get into music?
HARLEM SLIM: My father was the super of the building I grew up in and because we come from a culture that creates music and art perpetually, folks were always getting down in our basement, with a wide range of neighbors and family in the mix. Dressed to the nines, they would turn up with instruments and records for the HiFi. In those basement jams they mostly played music from Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the still newish Salsa from the streets of Nueva York. But late at night after the riffraff blew off steam and all that was left was the compadres and comrades that had kissed and made up my step grandfather on my mother’s side, who would play his stack of jazz and rhythm and blues records. Sleeping on a bed of coats listening to the sound clash in the other room was how I got into music.
PONYBOY: What influence did being raised in New York have on you, as well as your music?
HARLEM SLIM: “I write rhymes like I come from New York City” – Afrika Baby Bam
If you REALLY know New York then you know that this city doesn’t tolerate fakes. My mentor Miss Lelly Blue taught me long ago that anything you put out there must come from your heart. Picture a man sitting up on stage singing about things he doesn’t know and playing a roll that he’s only seen on TV or read about in books…that’s clowning around – akin to minstrelsy and a damn shame since the blues liberated us from minstrelsy. As a native New Yorker I respect my audience wherever they from and I respect my ancestors that did this before me; therefore, I find it mutually beneficial to play my blues with my feeling, write songs about life and sing about things I’ve experienced. Now I’ve never been given gasoline in the place of water, but I know what a broken heart feels like and I’ll sing to you about it.
PONYBOY: Tell us about your connection to blues music specifically.
HARLEM SLIM: Blues allows me to express myself without complication – be it singing about pain, joy of a fly pair of slacks, a broken heart or love and peace I found in Jesus Christ. The blues gives me the opportunity to tell my story. Blues is at the root of all USA music that I love…so why would I mess with anything but the raw uncut funk.
PONYBOY: We’ve seen you perform at St. Mazie’s in Brooklyn and were been blown away by your performance. So tell our readers, what does your recording process entail?
HARLEM SLIM: My favorite jazz record is Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. I found it on the second floor of my building growing up and it took me many years to really dig it. Miles made that record to capture the feeling of a live performance. The true essence of jazz or jazz improvisation. I approach my recordings the same way I do my shows. I get in the spirit all the same and play blues with a feeling.
PONYBOY: And tell us your musical influences.
HARLEM SLIM: I love the blues shouters, particularly Big Joe Turner, but Son House is my greatest influence in the sense that he did everything with a feeling. You never seen Son House “dialing it in”. Another great influence of mine is Thomas A. Dorsey – the father of Gospel music. He got his start playing Hokum blues and later made the switch and composed most of the Gospel classics we know and love, nurturing talents like Sister Mahalia Jackson along the way. I also really love Sister Rosetta Tharpe who has such a rockin’ sound and sang about her faith in the Lord. It’s so good to see folks diggin’ her these days.
PONYBOY: Are there modern day artists that you follow?
HARLEM SLIM: No doubt! Soul brother numero uno Leon Bridges AKA the future of the funk is a close friend of mine who’s music I love. JD McPherson, Jimmy Sutton and the crew are a class act. I caught them recently in NYC and they tore it up! My homeboys Daddy Long Legs always get my feet to tappin! Soul queen Nikki Hill and crew are true professionals and a treat to watch. Modern blues players that I dig…The big homie C.W. Stoneking, my man Diablo Dimes, and I can’t forget the OG Jimmy Duck Holmes and the whole Blue Front crew! One of my favorite records of recent is Hurry For The Riff Raff’s The Navigator. I hope to catch them soon.
PONYBOY: Your great personal style is part of your attraction, when watching you perform or seeing photographs of you. Do you mix vintage with new clothing? Any brands that you favor?
HARLEM SLIM: Right on! I appreciate the compliment. I always perform in a suit and most of my suits are vintage purchases from Dated Vintage NY & Cavemanteeks. My fedoras are modern creations from Wellema Hat Co. in California and my Panamas from Borsalino in Italy. My everyday go is Mister Freedom – them threads just drip with style and every drop has me like a kid in a candy store. I rock some vintage shoes, but mostly for show since they don’t hold up to my stompin’. On stage and trooping around I rock Aiden’s from New England or Churches from Old England. When my feet need to rest I slip on some PF Flyers and when it’s time to make moves I throw on some fashions from Thee Teenaged. If I mix or not, I keeps it fresh.
PONYBOY: You’ve worked in the fashion industry for several years. What are your thoughts on the trend for vintage inspired menswear? Do you think it makes it too commercial or perhaps mainstream?
HARLEM SLIM: Trend makes it a little harder to find your tribe. Back in the days it was easy to pick the hep cat out the crowd by the fold of his jeans, or the cut of his hair. Today there’s a lot of snakes in the grass – more foam than coffee – but you can’t knock the hustle, you can’t hate the game. Everybody’s got to eat at every level so access and entry price points are key. I believe there will always be a separation between the commercial and the niche market – at best one feeds off the other and at worst one is devoured by over saturated market and overproduced goods. The sad side effect in this 21st century is the reality of waste in clothing manufacturing and the effect it has on the our environment, which is why I favor those vintage inspired brands that don’t process their clothes and treat mother earth with the respect she deserves.
PONYBOY: Tell us about your day job, as a graphic designer/art director.
HARLEM SLIM: I’m the VP of a team that designs men’s, women’s and kid’s graphics for Tommy Hilfiger. It’s an honor to work with such talented people on all sides of our business and share in the great success of this iconic American brand. The first talent I discovered was visual art and I am blessed to be making a living from it. Making music is a beautiful thing and also essential to my survival, but having a career outside of music allows me to make music on my terms with no ones hands in my pocket. “God Bless the child that’s got his own” – Billie Holiday
PONYBOY: You have one release from a few years back. Do you have any new music to be released in the near future?
HARLEM SLIM: I released my first record about five years ago. Recorded it myself in my bathroom on Avenue A. I made 1,500 pieces and sold 1,500 pieces. It was a perfect expression of what I was feeling at the time. Since then I’ve been busy writing and performing new material with plans of releasing my new project on the early side of 2018, this time with the support of my friends, record label and business partners Blue Front Records. It’ll be a mix of Gospel and Blues. If you follow me on @harlemslim you’ll get a taste of what to expect.
PONYBOY: And finally, any thoughts on the resurgence of music that gets labeled “retro”?
HARLEM SLIM: “There is good and bad in everyone…” – anonymous?
Some of it I like, some it is just plain corny. But the funny thing is that sometimes a kid will get into Soul music via a watered down mainstream band playing watered down radio friendly music – then start to dig a little deeper and discover artists that are really making beautiful music that just might save you someday. BUT to be clear about the term retro, my feelings are best explained by paraphrasing L.A. music journalist Kickboy Face (RIP) and ask that in reference to PONYBOY’s question the reader put the word retro in place of new wave…
“I have excellent news for the world. There is no such thing as new wave. It does not exist. It’s a figment of a lame cunt’s imagination. There was never any such thing as new wave. It was the polite thing to say when you were trying to explain you were not into the boring old rock ‘n ‘roll but you didn’t dare to say punk because you were afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party and they wouldn’t give you coke anymore. There’s new music, there’s new underground sound, there’s noise, there’s punk. there’s power pop, there’s ska, there’s rockabilly. But new wave doesn’t mean shit.” – Kickboy Face (RIP)