Representing from the 530, Chico delves into hip-hop culture
It’s nearing midnight, and MC Empty Mynd is still hours short of completing the night’s recording session. He has an album due to hit shelves this month, and this could—and in all fairness should—be his big break.
Perspiration dots his brow and the long chain around his neck sways as he leans into the notes. Soft-spoken in conversation, his singing voice is deep and gravely.
“This is cause and effect,” he explains, as producer Jason “J.G.” Gilbert tries out a new beat on the keyboard. “The words are the cause and the chorus is the effect.” The beat’s powerful thumping fills the room.
In rap music, “flow"—how words run together—is second in importance only to the beat, the underlying rhythm that defines the feel of the song, be it aggressive, sensual or reflective. Certain beats are even attributed to the artists who created them. It’s a style that takes skill, but it also allows a lot of freedom. “You can rap in Spanish, or reggae [style],” Empty Mynd says. “Whatever the beat’s calling for. It’s just you and the beat.”
A few of his songs could bear the “gangsta” label, but for the most part this album is all about life, love—and retribution.
Empty Mynd’s real name is David Ward, and two years ago David Ward’s first shot at fame and fortune evaporated before his eyes.
A local label had gotten him a deal with a subsidiary of EMI. But, as the few musicians who make it to label status often find, just having a record deal doesn’t mean you’re the next big thing. In a story that is far from unique, publicity and distribution promises fizzled, as did the CD, Thoughts of an Empty Mynd.
“I was bitter for a good 20 months,” Empty Mynd says. It was his friends who helped him get over it and try again.
His new CD—which has a techno feel and takes cues from Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre—draws from the experience of feeling let down by the music industry, and even by some so-called friends. “The last two years have been really hectic,” he says. “I let it all out on this album.”
It comes as no surprise to local music-watchers that a relatively young genre of music—barely 25 years in the making—would find a niche in the decidedly non-urban town of Chico.
“Rap is just like any other genre now. It’s gotten that big,” observes DJ Rubbaban, Leon Frazier, who for 11 years hosted a hip-hop show on community radio station KZFR.
As further proof that Chico listeners wanted their MTV-style club music, Regent Broadcasting four months ago shifted a low-rated adult-contemporary station to a rhythmic/R&B format, startling REO Speedwagon fans and tapping into a $5 billion industry.
“Besides me, this is the first time [commercial radio in Chico] played local artists,” DJ Rubbaban says. “That’s a major thing for them to play that—for some corporate guy to say, ‘Let’s put a hip-hop show in Chico and get some money’ says a lot.”
Boomer Davis, at 23, is the voice and much of the brains behind Club 96.7.
“I’m pleasantly surprised all the time at the Chico hip-hop scene,” he says. “There’s so much quality in a small town. I get people sending me stuff that I can just take out of the box and put on the radio.
“The local scene’s vibrant. It’s not like a mecca for hip-hop or anything, but they can do it.”
Will, a handsome, sharply dressed man of 26 with an ear for smart rhymes, is one such promising young rapper.
He goes by the moniker The Felon, because, as he puts it, “I got into a bit of trouble back in the day.”
The Felon opened for E-40, a major rapper with six albums under his belt, at The Senator but most often raps freestyle at local parties. He’s influenced by West Coast rappers such as Ice-T and Tupac Shakur, but also Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He’s working on his third CD, Back Against the Wall.
He grew up in Washington, D.C. “I started in the lunchroom,” he says. “You’d get up and rap about your life. It’s all just what you say. If you’re good, you get respect.”
“It’s like poetry, a little bit,” says The Felon, who can put emotions into a rap that he’d never be comfortable speaking in conversation.
This, say hip-hop historians, is how the music started.
Hip-hop is not just about the music. In urban areas, particularly, the genre is indicative of a social zeitgeist that’s been compared to the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Education and employment are among the goals of the politically minded, who have spun some of the bling-bling into political power with Rap the Vote efforts and political-action committees.
The roots of rap have been traced to predominantly black, working-class neighborhoods of New York City in the mid-1970s. As recounted in the Vibe History of Hip-Hop, a DJ would patch a sound system into the power box of a streetlight and play records. “Old school” rap was likely an adaptation of a Bronx street game in which rivals would “boast” to one another in rhyme or compete for the best put-downs.
In 1979, with the airwaves still racially segregated, Sugar Hill Records released “Rapper’s Delight,” around the same time New York DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash were practicing “breaking” into a record and mixing another into it, dropping the needle where they wanted in, scratching in rhythm and shouting out catch phrases. The sound back then was arguably more experimental, with “two turntables and a microphone” generating the beat rather than the heavily engineered studio sound of today’s productions.
It wasn’t until mainstream artists such as Blondie gave a shout out to rap that the music reached a white audience. Even later, it was pop-rap like that of the Fresh Prince and MC Hammer that got the most airplay.
Traditionally, hip-hop is said to consist of four elements: break-dancing, artistic graffiti, rapping and DJing.
The best way to explain it, says Club 96.7’s Boomer, is, “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live.”
Rappers’ nemesis right now is Bill O’Reilly, the TV commentator who somehow convinced Pepsi to pull the plug on an advertising campaign featuring the popular but foul-mouthed rapper Ludacris. It was around the same time Snoop Dogg was edited out of a Muppets TV special.
The situation prompted The Source Magazine of Hip Hop Music, Culture and Politics in its March 2003 issue to declare a “State of Emergency” for hip-hop.
“It’s bigger than rap. It’s real political,” says Empty Mynd, who reads the work of Russell Simmons, who has organized national hip-hop summits to bring power and understanding to the cause.
While Chico’s One Mile is a long way from Detroit’s 8 Mile, audiences here do love the music.
“It’s gone from a genre that basically didn’t exist in town to a genre that has sub-genres,” says Aye Jay Moreno, who plays in the Becky Sagers, which he characterizes as an underground, alternative style of hip-hop. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t really bring anyone but a big-name act here.”
Moreno, 26, was in junior high when Chico rapper Diz Money made a tape and put it on consignment at Melody Records. Now it’s Paradise Lost, on Flume Street, that happily carries music turned out by locals.
DJ Ted Shred remembers when it was nearly impossible to get local clubs to book hip-hop or rap acts.
“Nobody was getting down with the hip-hop,” he remembers of the 1980s and very early ‘90s, even though students were coming to Chico State from urban areas where the music was already firmly ensconced.
Ted Shred, now 36 and not averse to being called “old school,” DJ’d at the Burro Room, by what was then Hey Juan’s on Second Street. New wave, punk rock and disco ruled the stage, and the only way to make rap palatable to the frat boy audience was to put discs from both genres on a turntable and mix it.
“People started packing that place,” says Ted Shred, who was there when Nirvana, Primus, Mudhoney and other bands that later made it big played Chico.
Soon, The Graduate let him spin Run DMC, Whodini, the Beastie Boys and some occasional underground stuff. He did a hip-hop show on KCSC.
Now, “I fly all around the world playing hip-hop,” he says. “It’s all I do; I spin records and listen to records all day.” He tours with Red Bull energy drink promoters as a DJ and recently accompanied Ricky Powell, who’s known as “the fourth Beastie Boy,” to Japan. Old-school rapper Fab Five Freddy has Ted Shred’s CD on his answering machine.
DJ Rubbaban, who began DJing here in the late 1980s, also found it initially difficult to get Chico listeners to open up. Hosting shows on KCHO, he’d try to get labels to send sample discs like they would to a big-city radio station, but “they just thought it was a small, white hick town.”
Meanwhile, “there wasn’t a lot of positive reinforcement in terms of hip-hop. The venues were still resistant.” But at clubs like The Copa in Oroville and Chico’s Madison Bear Garden ("They used to pay us 60 bucks in Bear bucks"), a significant audience began to grow. Rubbaban hosted what he called “Disco Night” at LaSalles but it was really a cover for injecting as much rap as he could into the mix.
In 1991, he began hosting a rap/hip-hop show on KZFR. “I would get death threats,” he says, from people offended by the lyrics or sound—even before he made politics and news a component of the show. “It was really scary to me,” remembers Rubbaban, who hails from South Central Los Angeles, where the rules of opposition are much different. “I wasn’t used to being threatened unless it was to my face.” It lasted 11 years before station leaders in November 2002 decided they didn’t want the hip-hop format and pressured him to resign.
Music promoter DNA met similar resistance when the city of Chico called him to the carpet for booking a show it felt violated the city’s insurance policy restriction of rap and heavy-metal music in the Downtown Plaza Park.
“You can’t take coverage in the park for rap or heavy metal. It’s funny, but it’s also racist,” says DNA, who was cited for the offense. “I said it was hip-hop, they said it was rap. I said, ‘Bring in a musicologist,’ and they said never mind.”
It’s getting easier, but a lot of that has to do with simple capitalism. “I think the clubs are opening more and more to it because it’s dictated by what the kids want,” says Max Sidman, managing editor of The Synthesis, which covers music extensively.
Even big-name artists don’t always realize the crowds they’ll draw in Chico. To the embarrassment of local promoters, both Tone-Loc and Fabolous pulled out of plans to play Chico in recent months. “I’ve never seen phones explode like they did with Fabolous. He’s platinum,” says Boomer, who was in the midst of a ticket-and-CD giveaway when it was learned the rapper wouldn’t show, apparently because his CD was being released that weekend and he had other opportunities.
Today, high-school teachers and college professors bring hip-hop into the classroom as literature or poetry. Students debate the apparent misogyny of some of the lyrics (heavy on the “bitches” and “ho’s") and also contemplate slain rapper Tupac Shakur’s inner struggle as evidenced through his words.
When Empty Mynd does a show for the under-18 crowd, he leaves out the profanity. Chico schools have contracted with him to work with students as a poetry, DJ and rap expert.
Currently living in Redding, the Panama-born artist also speaks against the gang life that he was a part of in Los Angeles. To get out, says Empty Mynd, a former Crip, “You move away, you stay quiet, and every time you go home to visit, you visit the right people.” Even so, he is often greeted by, “Oh, you still alive?”
Now 30, he first came to Chico on Halloween 1992 and decided to stay. “Sometimes, you gotta escape something to do the right thing,”
The “hip-hop generation” consists of African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984, according to author Barkari Kitwana, and is worthy of study as a sociological movement in itself. Some hip-hop aficionados insist that the lifestyle should be applied solely to African-American culture, while others contend that it is a color-blind art open to all. (While most hip-hop artists are black, most of their albums are purchased by white suburban kids.)
Most rap albums have an explicit-lyrics warning, and some songs would make Tipper Gore cringe. Take Syleena Johnson’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go": “Spread you on a futon like Grey Poupon/ Eight inch, nine inch, maybe I’m too long.” Or Missy Elliot’s “Work It,” favored by schoolgirls and named by many music critics as the best song of the year, which includes lyrics such as, “gonna go downtown and eat it like a vul-tcha,” but also, “Kunta Kinte a slave again, no sir; Picture black sayin', ‘Oh, yes a mastah.'”
Often, the songs are introspective social commentaries—think Eminem, KRS-1 or Ice Cube.
“I rap about my life,” says The Felon, who is African American and supports anyone who has a story to tell. “I rap about situations growing up without a father.” Hard times, he says, bring out creativity, and listeners can tell whose stories ring true. “Whoever’s writing the words has to have gone through it.”
Above all, keeping it real—authenticity—is the cornerstone of hip-hop culture.
The Felon and MC Empty Mynd are among the artists who record at Third Eye Family Records, which is located in a back room in the Chico home of J.G., a Sacramento native who moved here in 1997. J.G., 25, counts thousands of dollars’ worth of computerized recording and mixing equipment and several years of experience in that room.
Egg carton foam is tacked to parts of the walls, and a Power Rangers bed sheet serves as a curtain. A feather duster stands by to keep equipment clean. A framed portrait of Tupac graces the wall. A dry-erase board outlines the studio rules: $25 an hour, paid up front; call, don’t “pop up,” and no smoking. The scene is professional yet comfortable.
One of the artists recording today is Malcolm Jackson. He records under the name Mal Capone, and by day he directs Chico State’s gospel choir.
He likes to place the emphasis on R&B-style vocals but also appreciates a good rap. “If you want to get to the top, you’ve got to be able to blow,” he says. “You have to be good to be noticed.”
Another artist new to Chico but already booked for several shows is a female singer, Wizdom. “I don’t really have a classification,” she says, hinting at a bluesy, 1940s feel.
As producer, J.G. provides the all-important beat and makes sure everything comes together in the studio.
“This is the laboratory,” assesses The Felon. J.G. often works until 3 or 4 in the morning getting a track right and then is up a few hours later to work on it again. J.G. also promotes shows. Realizing that the “business” half of “music business” was so important, he decided against a music major. He’ll graduate this spring from Chico State.
“I think it’s real tough for a minority [in Chico] to start taking business ventures out there,” J.G. offers. “I go in [to music venues] dressed nice, speaking right,” he says, but he never makes it as far as when he sends white friends in to do the same.
Also, J.G. says, it seems local authorities offer little leeway when it comes to this style of music. “Certain people, they’ll put a magnifying glass on,” he said.
A partner in Third Eye Family Records is Major Factorz, Nathan Bravo, a 23-year-old Chico rapper who works on the production end as well. Last month, more than 200 fans showed up to his CD release party at The Brick Works. Boomer of Club 96.7 was quick to play the first single from the album Hogg Status, “Poppin’ Collarz,” and listeners responded positively. “As we get vibe on them and calls start happening, we start expanding how much we play them,” Boomer says.
Major Factorz is not African American, which seems to have no bearing one way or another on how he’s received by other local rappers.
“Chico is funny, because it’s real diverse. Everyone comes from someplace different,” says Empty Mynd. “My biggest supporters are the white folks in Chico. My shows, that’s who’s there. A lot of black culture is into the right-now rapper, the one that’s on the radio all the time.” Chico audiences, he says, are more open-minded.
DJ Rubbaban still runs into people who miss his show on KZFR. “People give me more love now than before, and it’s all these middle-class white people.”
“It’s really opened up. People like Eminem have really brought it out,” agrees J.G. “Everyone knows it’s not a fad.”
Last week, says Club 96.7’s Boomer, someone told him, “Eminem gives white guys like you credibility.”
“To me, to be white and like hip-hop, it’s not a big deal,” he says. Its appeal is universal. “I’m a fan and I love the stuff. It’s what I listen to in my car.”
There are several local DJs, such as Thug-E-Fresh, Fay Dog and G-Pek, who mix their own CDs and put them out for general audiences.
The most enjoyable thing is to DJ a party at someone’s home, said G-Pek—Greg Seymour. “It’s so fun to do a house party. It’s a lot rawer, [as opposed to] when people get dressed up to go out to clubs and feel self-conscious.”
Seymour graduated from Chico State last spring after majoring in music. “I was using the turntable as my instrument,” says Seymour, who was encouraged several years ago by DJs Bad Rock and Omar, who hosted open-scratch nights in the late 1990s. “Most guys don’t want other people getting on their turntables. They don’t want you to show them up,” he says. But Chico “was really a positive place for me to come and increase my skill level.”
“I would like to make a living at it, but I don’t know how realistic it is,” he says, “Even if nobody cares, I’ll still be making beats in my bedroom.”
Similarly, Moreno is content to continue The Becky Sagers’ casual presence in Chico, with an underground following and Beastie Boys-style screaming sound.
“Doing it more for fun has kept it really stress-free,” says Moreno, who has sold more than 3,000 copies of a hip-hop coloring book he drew and distributed nationwide. “In my mind, we’re successful because we’ve gotten to play with people we looked up to growing up. Everyone has a different definition of making it.”
Moreno’s music, Scapegoat Wax and the DJ work of G-Pek and Thug-E-Fresh are appreciated by different group of Chicoans that those who follow the work of Empty Mynd and others who record at Third Eye Family Records. Although they have plenty of respect for one another, Moreno says, “I don’t see Empty Mynd’s crowd being into us and the reverse.” It’s a distinction he says is more about musical style than race.
“I’m obviously not going to be a gangsta rapper because that’s not where I’m from,” he says. “It’s more about lyrical structure with me than with content. I focus more on the process than the subject.”
Sidman says mainstream rap and independent, underground hip-hop music “boils down to either you make club jams that people can dance to or headphone jams that you listen to on your headphones.” Either way, “it’s just someone appreciating the music.”
“I think this town’s go sot much talent,” says Sidman, who expects underground hip-hop will grow exponentially to compensate for mainstream rap, which “is starting to stagnate and it’s all starting to sound the same.”
Boomer, of Club 96.7, says that while the structure of radio dictates repetition of the most popular songs, he is afforded a lot of freedom to play what he wants. “Corporate radio is tremendously stigmatized, especially in a college town,” he says. “But if it fits, we’ll play it.” And he’ll also host call-ins on topics like drug use or relationships. “I run a relatively family-friendly show. There’s a lot of things that radio can be used for, and a lot of it is to shine a light on things.”
During “Boomer’s Lunchbox” from noon to 1 p.m. weekdays, and several weeknights, Boomer and DJ Feist-E broadcast rap and hip-hop music mixed live on the radio.
In a series of moves he’s written out well ahead of time, DJ Feist-E deftly flips switches, drops needles down and switches vinyl discs to create a new sound and mood by making two or more songs sound like one. “It’s like rubbing your belly and patting your head,” he says between scratches.
On “Freestyle Mondays,” Club 96.7 takes calls from aspiring rappers with monikers like “Hi 2K,” “C-Mack” and “Dollar Bill.” They choose a beat and rap on a particular topic (say, football), and the best one gets a Play Station 2 game. There are only two rules: no profanity, and, Boomer says, “it’s Freestyle Mondays, not poetry slam night, so if you’re gonna rap, rhyme on the beat.”
Some are just goofing around on a Monday night, but others want to be discovered. “I’ll even send my résumé and photo,” one caller says off-air. “Nobody rocks like this.”
One caller, Chaotic, raps: “Make the girls scream ‘Ah’ like Herbal Essence.”
On Friday nights and, more recently, Thursday nights (a “positive partying” 18-and-over college night in conjunction with fraternities), Club 96.7 sponsors events at the Brick Works. The station brings Sacramento DJs to LaSalles on Tuesdays for a different flavor. “When you change the music, the face of the club changes,” Boomer says.
At 24, DJ Feist-E is known as the only DJ in town making a living—including health benefits—at the craft. “I applied to Brick Works 17 times and they said, ‘No, no, no.’ Persistence pays off.”
“This community is a place where people can explore their niche and find out what they’re trying to do,” Moreno says. There was a time when there was animosity among local studios, but that has for the most part disintegrated.
Rubbaban always encourages aspiring artists to work hard and push their stuff, network and be willing to perform for a paltry $50 a night if it means a chance to establish oneself. He tells them, “Don’t just make a record for the ‘hood. Make a song that people can listen to. … People need to realize this is the music business.”
While there are subgroups within in the Chico hip-hop scene—such as the alternative, underground style and hip-hop with a Latin flavor—it’s surprisingly noncompetitive.
“With the local acts, they have to look at Chico as like a testing ground,” Rubbaban says. “This is a happy community. Just in Sacramento the business is ruthless. If you drove two hours south, the game would be completely different.
“Within the last five years, a lot of the artists started to evolve and come into their own,” he says. “It’s gotten so diverse. It’s not all just, ‘Shoot me, kill me, stab me, let’s have sex.’
“To do music, you make yourself vulnerable,” Rubbaban acknowledges. “It all comes down to wanting people to respect your art.”
Anyone who’s spent any time in the music industry has seen talents gone undiscovered simply for lack of connections.
Eminem, who is now helping new rappers like 50 Cent, was “seen by somebody who was already established,” says The Felon, who studies marketing and advertising at Chico State. “That’s the most important part. If you really don’t know anybody, that road is harder.”
J.G. believes several local rappers are poised to make it in the hugely competitive music industry. “The next three big things are already here,” he says confidently. “We’re just putting together a marketing plan for it.”
DJ Rubbaban still has his bet on Empty Mynd. “I think Empty Mynd has grown so much,” he says.
During a recent recording section, Empty Mynd raps one line repeatedly in an attempt to get the track down: “What’s the dilly with re-la-tion-ships,” with the emphasis on “la.” R&B, he says, is less forgiving than rap, where “you can come in smooth, mellow, off-key.”
J.G. makes it clear this isn’t his favorite song of the album. Empty Mynd’s friends also try to talk him out of the name he’s chosen for the new CD: What the Fucc. Why push the envelope now, when success seems so close?
“Hip-hop is a real tricky sport,” Empty Mynd says. And since the F-word is applied liberally throughout virtually every rap album, it seems contradictory to shy away from it on the cover. Swapping a K for a C he says, was a compromise in itself.
“They definitely can critique,” Empty Mynd says of his studio-mates. “They’re like my Keebler elves.”
He’s going about his spring 2003 release, which will include a DVD, with an entirely different attitude: “I love my music more than I love the money.”
EMI will be handling distribution, but in case the label drops the ball, and to feel closer to the process, Empty Mynd said, “No matter what, I’m gonna push it. We’re doing it big this time around. It’s all a learning experience.”
Now, he says, "I read the fine [print]." "I like all my music, but this time around I have more control. If we fail I’m happy, and if we don’t fail I’m happier."