Though many remember him as “the overweight lover,” Heavy D was much more than one of hip-hop’s first pop stars. He made some of his most important moves behind-the-scenes. And even after his untimely death, Hev's lasting influence on the game remains undeniable.
Written by Michael A. Gonzales (@Gonzomike)
In the mid-1980s, when rapper-turned-record-executive Andre Harrell first brought the “overweight lover” Heavy D. to his boss and friend Russell Simmons, the Queens-bred hip-hop mogul, who owned Rush Management and Def Jam Records, told Andre that nobody wanted to sign a fat rapper.
Coming straight out of the suburban streets of money-earning Mount Vernon, the town that was also the home of future flavors Dave “Jam” Hall, Pete Rock, and even a skinny kid named Sean Combs, Heavy was a six-foot-two Jamaican-born flyboy whose parents named him Dwight Myers.
Convinced that Russell was wrong about Hev, Harrell jumped ship to form the label Uptown Records under the MCA Records umbrella. Although Uptown Records would become legendary for launching the careers of Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and Puff Daddy, the imprint was birthed so that Harrell could find a home for the big man rapper.
After the 1986 compilation album Uptown Is Kickin’ It, the label’s first proper album was Living Large by Heavy D. & the Boyz—the first of many hit releases for the man who would become rap’s first plus-sized sex symbol, paving the way for Big Poppa, Big Pun, and Ricky Rozay.
A former resident of the Bronx, Hev first heard rap when he was eight years old and knew instantly what he wanted to do with his life. Blessed with a sense of style that ranged from playground casual to suit-wearing dandy, Hev made it cool to be a big man rapping on the mic. “Heavy D. never compromised style for girth,” fashion writer Julia Chance noted in her 1998 essay “And it Don’t Stop.”
Meanwhile, women and girls were swooning over the big guy, something that hadn’t happened since the days of Barry White. “Heavy is one of the coolest guys in the music business,” singer Faith Evans wrote in her memoir Keep the Faith. “He was gregarious and jovial and never failed to make me smile.”
On record, Heavy D. & The Boyz combined smoothed-out rhythms and hip-hop beats courtesy of producers Marley Marl, Teddy Riley and others. Redefining the sound of rap from urban bleakness to suburban swagger, Heavy was a nice who was respectful of women, but could still hold his own on the microphone.
“His flow is impeccable,” MC and author Kool Moe Dee observed in There's a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs. “Combine that with his flavorful delivery and you have one of the most enjoyable MCs ever.” In much the same way songwriting great Smokey Robinson helped Berry Gordy define the Motown sound, so it was with Heavy D., Andre Harrell and Uptown Records.
Although their new brand of music didn’t have a name yet, this was the beginning of what Barry Michael Cooper would christen “the new jack swing movement” that would eventually include Teddy Riley, Al B. Sure!, Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp, Guy, Bobby Brown, and many others.
“Heavy was a very cool guy with a wild sense of humor,” recalls former Keith Sweat manager Vincent Davis, who claims Heavy and his boys pulled the fire alarm in their Philly hotel back in the ’80s. “We all know that he put Mt. Vernon on the hip-hop map, but he was also fun to be around.”
Unlike other rappers of the period, who were either gangsters, militants or a winning combination of the two, Heavy D. wanted nothing more than to be simultaneously a lover man and a pop star. As cultural critic Da Ghetto Commentator wrote in 1994, “Heavy D. blew a hole on the map where Mt. Vernon, NY used to be.”
Heavy D who would become rap’s first plus-sized sex symbol, paving the way for Big Poppa, Big Pun, and Ricky Rozay.
Proving that he wasn’t a novelty act, two years later Heavy & The Boyz refined their sound on the hip-hop soul, gem Big Tyme. The album’s brilliant first single was “We Got Our Own Thang,” a track was produced by Harlem native Teddy Riley. Sampling C. J. and Company’s disco classic “We’ve Got Our Own Thing,” Hev’s version bops and jives like a dancing fool of the kind that could then be found at the Roxy, The Tunnel, Mars, Nell’s, The World, or the Latin Quarter.
Behind the corporate scenes at Uptown, Heavy was instrumental in getting crooner Al B! Sure signed to the label and landing a young Harlem kid named Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs an internship at the label. “Puffy overwhelmed Heavy with his interests in music, his ambition, and his constant flattery,” author Ronin Ro noted in his book Bad Boy.
Later, the two became best friends and occasional business partners as they pushed the aesthetic of ghetto fabulous, both in their creative projects and their personal swag. In addition, Heavy aided in grooming a new generation of Uptown R&B kids including Mary J. Blige, Soul For Real and Jodeci.
In fact, it was Heavy who convinced Andre to let Jodeci, a young former gospel group who had driven to New York all the way from North Carolina, audition for the company.
In 1990—the same year Keenen Ivory Wayans hired him to write and record a theme song for his new Fox sketch comedy show In Living Color—tragedy struck when Heavy’s dancer and friend Troy Dixon a.k.a. Trouble T-Roy, was killed in 20-foot-fall while on tour in Indianapolis. Hev’s younger cousin and former protégé Pete Rock paid him tribute on the classic jam "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" with his hip-hop partner C.L. Smooth.
Heavy’s third album Peaceful Journey, released a year later in 1991, served as another musical tribute to Troy. Featuring the haunting voices of Jodeci vocalists KC and JoJo on the chorus, the title track sampled the Jacksons’ eerie “This Place Hotel” for an emotional six-minute opus.
Behind the corporate scenes at Uptown, Heavy was instrumental in getting crooner Al B! Sure signed to the label and landing a young Harlem kid named Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs an internship.
In the August, 1991 edition of Spin magazine, producer Prince Paul described the album as, “highly marketable, but def,” while critic Robert Christgau described Heavy as a “groovemaster, fast talker, all-around nice guy.” The album, which also contained the hit song “Now That We’ve Found Love,” became the group’s third platinum release.
That same year, Heavy and Puffy were the promoters behind the infamous CCNY charity basketball game where nine people were killed in a stampede at the overcrowded venue. The tragedy and ensuing legal troubles would go on to haunt both men—both emotionally and financially—for years to come.
In 1992, working with Puffy as the producer, Heavy D. constructed perhaps the bleak Blue Funk, which writer Scott Poulson-Bryant described as “Heavy D's darkest album, full of the pain of love lost and maturity gained.” The album also included the dynamic posse cut “A Buncha Niggas,” which featured one of the earliest recorded appearances by Heavy’s darker-skinned counterpart, The Notorious B.I.G.