The moment came smack in the middle of a hip-hop show at Blue Fin that starred gifted MC Scarub of Living Legends, supported by a strong line-up including Monterey’s Joint Venture, Redwood City’s Rahman Jammal and the Bay Area’s Bash Bros, - a moment that might define Monterey County’s relationship to hip-hop.
The show’s promoter, Esik, while rapping on stage with compadres Jamaal and Fritzo, took note of Blue Fin’s popular patio overlooking Cannery Row, packed with smoking clubgoers. Not breaking from his rap flow, he bolted off the stage, cut through the audience, ran to the patio doors, peeled back the curtain, knocked on the glass and aimed his rap at the loiterers. The he ran back to the stage.
The whole move took less than eight frenzied seconds, but said volumes: What are you people doing out there?! The action is in here!
Monterey County is home to a busy hip-hop scene, but one that faithful fans might describe as, per Talib Kweli’s song, a “Beautiful Struggle.”
“Here’s a little Story…”
While communities scratch to keep arts education in schools, hip-hop kids have been educating themselves and each other in dance, music, writing and art, without adults, for decades.
Hip-hop, which is not just a music but a culture, first arose in the Bronx in the 1970s. The music, originally called “graffiti rock,” spawned from Jamaican reggae toasting and club sound-system DJs; the oral storytelling of West African griots; jazz and beat poetry from the likes of Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets; Latin and Puerto Rican music; funk; and, yes, even disco. Its pioneers included Jamaican-born DJ Kool Here, former gang member-turned-artist/activist Afrikaa Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation, and the originator of record scratching, Grand Wizard Theodore. In step with the music, b-boys (and a few b-girls) performed the rhythmical acrobatics of breakdancing. Outisde, on resting subway cars and barren walls, graffiti artists (kids really) were spray-painting the colorful urban frescoes that many New Yorkers saw as blight, though the art world, seeing something else, devoured it like it was Next Big Thing. And it was.
Those four elements of hip-hop – Djing, MCing, graffiti-writing and b-boying – were the four ingredients of a global culture revolution that today commands the attention of mllions of worldwide and possesses libraries of musical history, of which Monterey County claims its own humble portion.
“Hip and hop is intelligent movement” – KRS-One
Though hip-hop originated in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York, its most visible practitioners in Monterey County are not black – not anymore. That’s just a fact of Census, population and migration. It’s testament to hip-hop’s resonance that it’s been adopted by the young, local Filipinos, Mexicans, Samoans, Tongans, Koreans, Caucasians and those of mixed ethnicity, who keep it alive and present.
The musicians who reside here work day jobs as waiters, security guards, mechanics and bank tellers. But after work, they change into their Adidas sneakers, fitted baseball caps and sloganed T-shirts, bare tattoos and wristbands, and transform into Supe-1, Billy Bud Toker, Shogun, Mr. English and Sleyv, in groups named Tongan Outlaws, Pojekt SEER and Baktun 12. They form a small contingent who, in various combos, create a beautiful, propulsive, danceable racket.
Pete Morris, aka The Saurus, is a two-time battle MC winner of Scribble Jam, the Superbowl of underground hip-hop, as well as the World Rap Championships. That’s four championship rings on the hands of a man who lives in Pacific Grove.
“The Saurus is one of the sickest artists I’ve heard in my life,” says Redemption battle series promoter Christian Sanchez. “”Not many people from our area know about him. But when he performs [elsewhere], thousands come.”
MC J. Scrawls and DJ Mike J of Joint Venture are relatively new to the game but advanced in their music skills, fusing creative samples to passionate and articulate lyrics.
“I’ve had confidence issues throughout my life,” says Scrawls. “But there’s something about the cadence and confidence in it. Listening to hip-hop, [I’m] ready to face the world again.”
MC and Herald writer Marcos Cabrera is one of a dozen members of Salinas agit-hip--hop collective Baktun 12, which he says has been quiet on the performing front, though one member assembled the recent Salinas Music and Art Summit, while Cabrera conducts spoken work workshops with local youth and co-produces Wednesday’s poetry slam at East Village, in addition to maintaining his blog on local hip-hop.
Esik, aka Erik Melland, of Seaside, was founding member of the uplifting reggae-rap group 40831 before splintering off to form the similarly spirited Realization. He recently went solo and formed another side group, Projekt SEER, with Ghambit, IQ and Marty Slims. But his biggest impact may come from the many hip-hop shows he puts on – with all four elements of hip-hop present – stacked with local and Bay Area artists.
Esik’s former bandmate in 40831, Chiefa (Tsali Earnest), also from Seaside, is part of a collective called the Undahoggs Tribe, made up of an ethnically mixed team of MCs, DJs, videographers, drummers and Polynesian hakka dancers.
“We used to go guerillaed out [on marketing},” says Chiefa. “I got a letter from the D.A. of Watsonville saying they’re going to charge me for every flyer I put up. The cops in Monterey said I couldn’t put up [posters], but I could hand out flyers. They want to keep it quiet.”
“I make moves and shake fools” – Le Vice
While Esik and Chiefa play multiple roles performing in and assembling shows, others have stepped up to throw shine on performers. Brian Conway and Maya Freeman recently threw their first show July 17 at Planet Gemini under the conjoined moniker Freeway Productions, and it was doozy of a party, kicked off by Seaside’s Hanif Wondir of Portland crew Animal Farm and former Monterey/current L.A. group Ostrich Head to celebrate the record release of Forrest Day, who includes several members with local roots.
Music booker and indie rock denizen Tobin Peregrina says he’s interested in testing out some hip-hop shows. “Maybe I could get all the struggling hip-hop artists in the county in one show.”
Before breakdancing resurfaced on So You Think You Can Dance and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, Christian Sanchez and Project Redemption were practicing and teaching the acrobatic art. Their Redemption events, Like Esik’s shows, assemble the four elements of hip-hop on an impressive scale.
“The first three Rredemptions drew about 250 to 300 people each,” he says of battle competitions that took place at Sand City’s Fit Athletics and the Filipino-American Hall in Monterey. “For Redemption 4, we’ve got Gift of Gab from Blackaliscious, Lateef, Quantum Squad…[break-dancers] Casper from New York’s Boogie Bratz, and Thesis from Knuckleheads Cali.”
Project Redemption is tight with the Infamous Night Rockers, a local dance crew in the tradition of MTV’s ABDC, who recently previewed a routine at Blue Fin that got them into the International Dance Challenge in Orland, Fla.
“I love everything about hip-hop,” says INR choreographer Tiffany Macugay of Marina. “Where I work, in Carmel, they have a [negative] outlook on it because of what they see on TV. A lot of people who say they don’t like hip-hop actually don’t know what it’s about.”
That doesn’t describe Monterey’s Basic Lee, who performs at Esik’s shows. He’s photographed Mos Def, Lil Wayne and hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics. But he’s also often billed on hip-hop shows for his graffiti art (acrylic paintings for indoor venues), which he creates during the show, inspired by the vibe.
“The greatest graffiti guy that I met around here is Caveman,” says Sanchez. “He was one of the dopest. He’s from Pacific Grove, but his art’s been shown in Paris and been featured in magazines.”
That’s a deep bench of youth and creativity on the side of hip-hop. Now all they need are places to play.
“You gotta fight for your right…” – Beastie Boys
“We’re getting lots of shows, Blue Fin especially,” The Saurus says by phone from Las Vegas, where he’s competing in the World Series of Poker.
The recently resurrected venue is cementing a niche as the go-to spot for the best locally sourced hip-hop shows in the county. But other venues are not sleeping on the waking scene. Anthony Lane promises more hip-hop and live music at his Planet Gemini, and even bigger names at his Fox Theater in Salinas, includijng the powerhouse bill of Too $hort and E-40 on Aug. 7. And there are whispers of a hip-hop nostalgia show coming our way featuring Kid N Play, Rob Base and Chubb Rock.
While Monterey’s Hippodrome has long served as a satellite for Cali rappers like Andre Nikatina and DJ Quick, the divey Mortimers and Fogtown Bar & Grill in Marina have recently been tapped as a centrally located venue that draws cats from Seaside, Marina and Salinas, CSUMB’s Black Box Cabaret hosted Pharcyde in 2005 and, recently renovated, looks poised to deliver more underground hip-hop to savvy students. The Castle in Soledad stirs mystery and musing in people on the Peninsula for its web presence and sporadic bookings like Krazie Bone and Candyman.
In addition to live shows, local performers and promoters have an arsenal of outlets to keep them front and center, some higher caliber than others.
“KNRY has a reggae show,” Esik says. “They support local hip-hop for sure. The one hip-hop station Monterey has now does not support local hip-hop.”
He’s referring to KDON 102.5. Their recent set list showed a who’s who in Top 40 rap and R&B including Drake, Will.I.Am and Rhianna. But on Sundays, for two precious hours, their project Hip-Hop show, hosted by DJ Savvy and Statik Selektah, dives deep into the underground, pulling up jewels from Zion I and Grouch, Scarub, Gangstarr, Brother Ali, Hieroglyphics, and even homegrown acts like Para La Gente.
Public radio, including several shows broadcast from Stevenson School on KSPB 91.9FM, and KUSP 88.9FM’s “The Phixx” out of Santa Cruz, has long supported underground hip-hop. KHDC 90.9FM’s Wednesday show, hosted by Cazzeo, is regarded as a Salinas institution. But many local rappers have given up on commercial radio.
“En Fuego 97.9 put on [local rapper] Chinky 1,” says Undahoggs’ Pezy. “Then they went under. Happens all the time.”
It also happened to KMBY 103.9FM X Revolution. Now that it’s a classical music station, hip-hop promoter Chiefa of the Undahoggs Tribe remembers it as a “bad-ass station. It was beautiful.”
Hip-hop artists have a found a vital platform for expression in the Internet.
“MySpace is still pretty big,” says Keno, a young MC originally from Salinas. “It’s still relevant. But a lot of people are starting to use BandCamp. It’s a dope site. You can upload your music, keep track of plays, visits, who downloaded your stuff.”
“The Internet is an oasis of outlets,” Hanif Wondir says. “Back in the Yo! MTV Raps days, it was like, ‘Where do I start?’” A proponent of BandCamp and SoundCamp, he says the flood of online entrants has challenged artists to create better content in order to compete for visitors, while certain bloggers have stepped up into their own.
“Bloggers are influential right now,” Keno says. “And Twitter links you directly to artists.”
Mixtapes are primarily CDs (the sub-genre originated on cassette tapes), but even when they’re made available as downloads, they are still called mixtapes. The largely unofficial and sometimes legally dubious CD compilations channel music straight to fans from the hands of the artist, and often break new talents.
“Ring the alarm” – The Coup
Five years before mainstream America was shocked – shocked@ - by the 1993 video of the Rodney King beating, NWA was railing about L.A. police violence. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, but a full decade earlier, KRS-One had rapped about bovine drugs and the FDA in his song “Beef.” Last Saturday at Mortimers in Marina, San Jose’s Rahman Jamaal rapped eloquently and angrily about gender issues, imagining how men might feel if God pulled a social and psychological switcheroo.
The grind of going to work every day, political and corporate malfeasance, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, staying true to one’s self…these themes are the territory of underground hip-hop. Sure, there’s the rah-rah machismo and self aggrandizing and sex talk, but these are primarily young male musicians we’re talking about here. On the whole, underground hip-hop is aligned with conscious living and actions and chooses its words and subjects accordingly.
The diversity of Monterey County’s hip-hop practitioners is matched in the diversity of the music. There’s the party surf-rap of Moss Landing’s Hallway Ballers, Salinas’ ska-rap-rock of Cali Nation and reggae-rap of Dubwize, the ambient experiments of Hidden Library, the “nerdcore” schtick of Pebble Beach’s MC Lars and Monterey’s Rob Hustle, socio-political fire from Para La Gente and Baktun 12, the backpack rap of Joint Venture. That kind of creativity is gold. But to mine it, one must dig.
“Momma told me never stop” – 2Pac
The story of hip-hop is vast and vigorous. For some moments, you just had to be there; but some short cuts exist that will help newbies catch up on the action.
Jeff Chang’s definitive Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a deeply researched-but-fun American Book Award-winning chronicle that wades deep into the history of hip-hop without turning into a textbook. Subway Art, by photographers Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, captures the grimy conditions and stunning productions of early graffiti culture; while Graffit World, by Nicolas Ganz, shows the global reach of that culture. In the realm of film, Wild Style (get the 25th-anniversary edition) reigns as the first hip-hop classic, followed by the slightly more polished Bat Street; gritty and lively documentary Style Wars focuses on graffiti while capturing the birth of the bigger culture; and the new Planet B-Boy travels the globe - even the DMZ between North and South Korea – in search of its offspring. For a dazzling immersion into DJing and turnbalism, Scratch can’t be touched. And the kinetic and frenetic breakdancing series, Freestyle Sessions, packs more action than John Woo on Red Bull (which is, by the way, a big supporter of hip-hop events). Even Flashdance shows flashes of breakdance pioneer Crazy Legs.
Hip-hop magazine The Sourcelost much of its credibility due to poor management, but other monthly publications have been quick to fill its void, including XXL, URB from L.A. and Ego Trip.
In the online realm, websites and blogs like AllHipHop, 2DopeBoyz, OkayPlayer, WakeYourDaughterUp and UrbanDictionary have taken rootst.
The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame also honored hip-hop recently, bestowing honors on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, alongside Patti Smith and REM. If that’s not validation of an American artform, I don’t know what is.
“If hip-hop should die before I wake…” – Nas
I suppose it’s a lost cause to try and sway the unconvinced to revisit the hip-hop world. It’s been around a long time in the lives of us adults. For the young it’s been introduced to the same entity.
Some of the most high-profile examples of so-called “hip-hop” have been surgically attached to images of excess, violence, greed, homophobia and misogyny. That co-opt job, exacerbated by music and media companies, has spawned the term “real hip-hop” amongst those who know to separate the vibrant and artistic world of underground hip-hop from what true heads consider commercial crap.
“I don’t listen to the radio.”
This was said, virtually verbatim by local MCs The Saurus, Pezy and J. Scrawls. Ice Cube expressed the same sentiment in 1990 in his song “Turn off the Radio,” and Nas seconded the notion on his angry 2006 “Hip-Hop is Dead.”
Music and media executives have long been white guys with expensive educations- not the best arbiters of a largely urban, underclass, black and minority artform. They’ve made decisions and set precedents, in the name of money, that have drowned out the rigorous conversation that hip-hop should be. The music once shook up the FBI, rallied the masses to “Fight the Power” and during the Bush’s reign, to “Impeach the President,” and harnessed music, video, celebrity and the Internet to propel Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid. How did it arrive at superficial superstar Drake?
The underground is where it’s at. Monterey County’s small profile on the maps of touring musicians has hampered local artists (a big name draws big crowds who are then exposed to lesser known opening acts). The elements are in place for a scene to flourish here, but the music-goers are distracted or impaired. The Scarub show at Blue Fin was a perfect example. The handful of hip-hop heads were humbled and giddy to witness, live, the talent of an MC from the Living Legends crew.
At the same time, across the expansive club, in the opposite corner, a danceclub DJ spun Top 40danceclub jams amidst danceclub laser lights to a capacity crowd herding like cattle.
There’s a strong sense of tribal pride in the underground hip-hop community. They know they’re fighting the good fight – the Rebels versus the Empire – and believe in what they are doing, trust their intentions and write with good will. But they are perplexed at weak turnouts to strong shows. They encounter the brainwashing of corporate music as crowds prefer simple hooks over thoughtful lyrics. They shake their heads when people characterize hip-hop as a debased music. It’s one of the biggest and longstanding fallacies in pop culture. Hip-hop heads know the original slogan of hip-hop: peace, love, unity (and fun). Watching it get subverted from on high as gangsterish, money-hungry and salacious has been slow agony.
Hip-hop is not dead. It didn’t die in the ‘80s, when people were calling it a “fad” and “noise.” It didn’t die when MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice shaved lines in their heads. It didn’t die when McDonald’s and Volkswagen deemed it safe enough to use in commercials. It didn’t die because Nas said it did.
Hip-hop lives among us, on our level, in faithful preachers like Esik and PLG’s Cambio, in soldiers like The Saurus, in innovators like Seaside-raised Alex Lee & Le Vice, in street reporters like the Undahoggs, in entertainers like Billy Bud Toker, in experimenters like Hidden Library. Hip-hop is a diary of ordinary life, told with extraordinary creativity. It’s all around us. It’s a reflection of who we are.
Hip-hop slang changes with the fickle regularity of Monterey Peninsula weather, but here are some definitions that will get you on the good foot – I mean, up on thangs.
MC: A good rapper, one who can “move” the “crowd.” Sometimes defined as “microphone controller.”
DJ: Literally, “disc jockey.” In hip-hop, one who spins records to create the musical bedrock upon which MCs perform. See also, “turntablist,” a DJ who performs complex manipulations of records, unaccompanied by an MC.
Breakbeat: A sample of a piece of music that’s looped continuously so that a rapper can rap over it.
Underground: Culture that exists on the periphery or beneath the mainstream.
Fresh: Good, cool. See also, “dope.” “sick,” “Ill.”
Wack: Opposite of fresh.
What’s good: What’s happening.
Spit: Rap. See also, “flow.”
Freestyle: Improvisational or a capella rapping. Back in the day, rapping just for the sake of rapping.
Homie: Homeboy, buddy, friend. See also, “cuz,” “peeps.”
Battle: Competitions in which MCs, DJs, breakdancers or beatboxers compete for bragging rights and practice.
Killing It: Performing exceptionally.
Hustle: Work. As in: “Don’t knock my mixtape hustle.”
MIxtape: A compilation CD (formerly cassette tapes) made by DJs that includes remixes and unreleased joints.
Joint: As it relates to music, a song or album.
Hold It Down: Keep something alive and thriving.
Represent: To claim and voice your affiliation, including city, region, or crew.
Recognize: Take note.
Cipher: An informal gathering, usually in a circle of MCs who rhyme together for entertainment as well as hone each other’s skills.