Thirty years of hip-hop in the River City
Arco Arena is packed. In the parking lot, a group of young black men, maybe in their late 20s, wearing colorful basketball jerseys, do-rags and baggy jeans, walks toward the security entrance with the forceful swagger of a crew that’s been raised by the hands of hip-hop. As the security guard waves the metal detector over their clothing, one of the men asks with a certain belligerent innocence, “Hey, you seen any bitches around here?” The security guard snickers, and then ushers the men through to the arena, where New Orleans’ Lil Wayne, a.k.a. Weezy, is about to hit the stage.
Weezy’s cantankerous, stream-of-unconsciousness (“Fuck you, nigga, mothafuck you,” he snarls on the aptly titled “Fuck You”) earned him four Grammy awards this year and enough international media attention to make Paris Hilton jealous. Some say that Weezy’s approach to rap music—his eagerness to embrace America’s obsession with violence, misogyny and currency—is the antithesis of genuine hip-hop, the grassroots culture that was crafted by poverty, creativity and the desire of urban youth to express themselves in a new way.
But whatever your take on what hip-hop is or isn’t, it can’t be argued that Arco Arena tonight isn’t impressive.
Inside the nearly sold-out arena, the mass of mostly Caucasian teens is abuzz with hormonal energy—the girls wearing two sizes too tight and the boys three too big. As Weezy slaps his voluptuous dancer’s ass, two white teenage males in the audience take off their shirts and dance rhythmlessly against the beat. As Weezy raps, Auto-Tune distorts his voice into a synthesized, robotic warble; images of stacks of money flash across the giant screen behind him and, as an explosion from the stage curls into a miniature mushroom cloud, one can’t help but wonder: How did we get here?
In short, we got here slowly. In Sacramento, rap music goes as far back as 1980, when local kids began monitoring the East Coast hip-hop movement. Eventually, the River City would play a major role in the worldwide hip-hop movement, peaking in the 1990s with hardcore gangster-rap artists like Brother Lynch Hung, X-Raided and C-Bo in one arena and more socially conscious, party-vibe artists like the CUF, Socialistik and Blackalicious in the other.
But, in the beginning—1980—there was just 10-year-old Julian Kelly. He sat, day after day, in his family’s North Highlands living room with his eyes glued to the television set. Instead of watching Sesame Street, little Kelly was processing this new hip-hop culture that was starting to take shape in New York City. He watched and listened closely to what was going on in the East Coast on television and videos. He took very explicit notes. The intake of the hip-hop movement in Sacramento was slow, but when it hit, it hit hard.
Some actually trace rap music back to the 1800s with the West African griots, or bards. The griots were poets—tale spinners who utilized wit and topical knowledge to entertain and captivate a crowd, much like a modern-day rapper would. But modern rap—the rap we think of today that blares from car speakers and headphones, that changes the way people speak and dress—really jumped off in the 1970s.
As the story goes, a Jamaican kid by the name of Clive Campbell moved from Kingston to the Bronx where he would try his hand at deejaying, incorporating reggae into his sets. New Yorkers, however, weren’t all that into reggae. But Campbell, who called himself DJ Kool Herc (after his grade-school nickname “Hercules”), adapted quickly to the crowd’s preferences. With two turntables and a mixer that allows the deejay to switch quickly and seamlessly from record to record, he decided to cut the breaks—the short, heavily percussive and climactic parts of a song—from hard-funk, Latin and rock ’n’ roll records. He played breaks from each record using two identical records (when one break ended, he switched with his mixer to the next break before the song lost its climax). This deejaying technique produced an intense, drum-heavy, hardcore new sound. The breaks contained the organic, mesmerizing drums of a traditional African festival, but that sound—hard, energetic, young—resounded perfectly against the cool concrete walls of the inner-city block.
What began as a deejay adapting to a new crowd in a new land became a deejay calling out to the crowd in slang-driven, sing-song rhymes: “Yo, this deejay Markie D, in the place to be, spinning the records for everybody.” The crowd would respond to these syncopated rhymes (emceeing), and the party would start to sweat with zoned-out dancers (break boys, or B-boys) who were captivated by the driving rhythms. Eventually, Kool Herc handed over the emceeing duties to his friends Coke La Rock and Clark Kent while he manned the turntables. The trio called themselves Kool Herc and the Herculoids—the first rap group.
In the coming years, rap offered urban youth of New York City a chance to let loose, to party and to be a part of something exciting, something new and wild—a revolution of sorts. Rock ’n’ roll had already become too big for its own good, and at that point it was no longer an outlet for urban expression. The disco music of the ’70s had evolved into a glamorous, coke-fueled freak show. But rap music, well, it was organic. It happened in the parks and on the sidewalks, and the only tools you needed were two turntables, a microphone, a voice and a steady flow of electricity.Growing pains
Still, the question remains: How did rap music and hip-hop get from the Bronx to the West Coast? The Sugarhill Gang is often credited (falsely) as being the first rap group, but their 1979 hit single “Rappers Delight” simply marked rap’s entry into the mainstream. Others credit gang members for bringing New York raps from prison in the East to the streets of the West.
KRS-One, a Brooklyn native who grew up in the streets of the South Bronx, says there’s not much actual documentation as to the migration of hip-hop from the Bronx to the West Coast. “I have my theories,” he says, pointing to the Universal Zulu Nation, founded by New York hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. The Zulu Nation incorporated many aspects of the Nation of Islam and applied them to hip-hop, giving the culture a rigid set of rules to adhere to, a backbone.
“Ice-T was a part of Zulu Nation … and Bambaataa [was] sending Ice-T knowledge about hip-hop from New York—and [Ice-T’s deejay] Afrika Islam was from New York,” says KRS. “In addition to that, gang culture was very high in L.A. in the early ’80s, and Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation’s whole platform was to curb gang violence—to give the youth something else other than a violent organization.”
Another theory comes from Davey D, the Oakland-based hip-hop historian. While Davey D certainly has the credentials to help track the westward path of hip-hop, KRS-One warned that the UC Berkeley-educated scholar has a slightly Oakland-skewed take on hip-hop history.
With that in mind, Davey D says there was no migration of hip-hop from East to West. Instead, he maintains that hip-hop was already here—“here,” of course, meaning Oakland.
“There was already a dance culture here that had nothing to do with the Bronx,” Davey D explained in a recent phone interview. “People were already doing that stuff … and if you’re looking at it from a standpoint of ‘Kool Herc and Bambaataa showed up out here and blessed the area with hip-hop,’ you would be looking for a long time, because it just didn’t happen that way.”
Others, like Sacramento’s Julian Kelly—no longer a 10-year-old kid, but still just as obsessed with hip-hop—cite the influence of Michael “Mixxing” Moore and Tony Joseph, two New York deejays who moved from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1980s with hearts set on commandeering the West Coast scene. The pair both got radio shows on stations KJLH and KACE, which eventually became the highest rated radio shows in the area. They had a hunch that New York rap would take flight in Los Angeles, and they were right.
Right around the time Moore and Joseph were settling in Los Angeles, Kelly took on the moniker MC Prince Julian. People in Northern California still listened to mostly rock and heavy metal. “People didn’t understand [rap] back then,” Kelly recalls. But he was fascinated by the elements of hip-hop: break dancing, emceeing, deejaying and graffiti writing. At 14, he was no longer just Julian Kelly, he was MC Prince Julian, the rapper. He teamed up with MC Romeo and formed the Beat Boys, one of Sacramento’s first rap groups. They dropped their first album as the Beat Boys (Who Rocks the Show) on Macola Records, a record plant where artists could cheaply press vinyl. The local scene quickly shifted gears. In 1985, the Triple Threat Three laid down “We Love You Marvin” and The Royal Mixers & Rappin Crew cut “Lonely Cries.” By 1989, when the Beat Boys split up, the hip-hop movement in Sacramento had found its feet.
Throughout Sacramento, hip-hop crews started forming. At Kennedy High School, students Timothy Parker and Kevin Mann formed the Tuff Crew, a seminal duo, to say the least. They were the most skilled rappers at the school, but eventually, their styles diverged, representing the two sides of the River City’s rap coin. Parker changed his name to Gift of Gab; his group Blackalicious is now internationally known for its artistic and melodic take on rap. Kevin Mann adopted both the moniker Brotha Lynch Hung and the gangster-rap lifestyle. Despite their different approaches, the pair have at least one thing in common: a prodigious talent behind the microphone that granted Sacramento its first credibility in the world of hip-hop, within two completely different genres.
The music of Brotha Lynch Hung is what Jeff Chang remembers when he arrived in Sacramento in 1989. Chang—the award-winning author of 2005’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and co-founder of the indie label Solesides (now Quannum Projects)—later went on to help launch the careers of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious and Lyrics Born. The local scene was in full bloom when he arrived.
“I was doing a radio show at KDVS (90.3 FM) and promoting it at the Tower on Broadway with hip-hop top-30 lists,” he recounts. “Through that, I began meeting folks like Cedric “CedSing” Singleton of Black Market Records who was managing a cat named Homicide. There were a number of other groups … many whose names slip my mind now, but who were putting out singles and albums and cassettes. One of them—Fonke Socialistiks—was signed to Priority Records and had an album out. They may have been the biggest group at the time. At [KSFM 102.5], there was a deejay named James Presley who had a mix show late at night. He was the only guy to really play the real underground stuff on commercial radio. We became good friends. In Davis, Paris had just been kicked off the air at KDVS.”
Chang explained that Paris, a fellow KDVS deejay (and the controversial rapper whose single “Break the Grip of Shame” was banned by MTV) one day decided to play an uncensored Public Enemy track on the air. When a “racist goon” called in to complain, Chang said, Paris cursed him out on the air. Word of the incident got around to the management, and Paris was fired. “And that’s why Paris was someone we all looked up to,” joked Chang.
He also remembers the biggest hip-hop fans in Davis at the time. “[They were] two teenagers, one named Josh, and his best friend, Stan, who went by the names DJ Shadow and the 8th Wonder. I met them when I started [deejaying] at KDVS. … At the same time, I met a bunch of other guys—who would become Chief Xcel from Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, the Gift of Gab, and Lateef the Truth Speaker; and we formed Solesides, now called Quannum Projects. These fools were winning all the ‘name that sample’ contests, so I had to disqualify them. Instead, we became a crew.”
Chang and his crew all graduated from UC Davis and/or moved out of the area, thus ending a very special era in Sacramento’s hip-hop history. However, a new and very different era was just ushering in.Multiculturalism and the Lynch mob
By the time Chang moved out of the area to pursue a career in journalism in the early 1990s, the hip-hop scene, worldwide and locally, had come into its own. It was as if a blimp full of electrified paint had exploded across the planet. The world, seen through the lens of hip-hop, appeared colorful and a more than a bit frantic, like a living Jackson Pollock painting.
In the East, groups like A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, EPMD and Nas flooded the airwaves with a new kind of rap—smoother, more jazz-oriented and less abrasive than the jerky, electro-based music of rap’s inception. The rap music of this era wasn’t just about the drums; it took shape with melodies and softer vocal inflections. On the West Coast, groups like L.A.’s the Pharcyde were just getting ready to unleash a new brand of good-time, hyperactive spaz rap upon the nation.
In Sacramento, certain elements of the hip-hop scene turned violent, weird and ugly. “4 Teens Arraigned in Meadowview Woman’s Death,” a Sacramento Bee headline blared on June 9, 1992. A group of gang members stormed a woman’s house looking for her son. While they didn’t find the son, one of the gangsters shot and killed the mother. Anerae Brown, a.k.a. X-Raided, a notorious gangster rapper from Sacramento, was jailed for murder. While in the Sacramento County jail, Brown released the album Xorcist, which he recorded over the phone. The album sold about 14,000 copies and left a deep brand on Sacramento, giving it an image as one of the hardest cities in the music industry.
Riding the wave of notoriety, Brotha Lynch Hung signed with Black Market Records and released his debut album, 24 Deep, which detailed his life as a 24th Street Crip gang member. This album would put a stamp upon Sacramento that read: “This city is really not to be fucked with.” His verse on “Locc 2 Da Brain” on 1995’s Season of Da Siccness explains why:
“I have my 12-gauge pump decorating niggas brains.
Nigga nuts and guts is how we get sick them Northern Cal slayings.
That locc to the brain shit ain’t no game, it’s a gang.
Them niggas that killed they mama for some fame it ain’t no thang.
It ain’t no way, I dump and let them niggas live,
cuz where I’m from we walkin’ up on ’em
bustin’ them reps up in them niggas ribs.”
Like it or not, Sacramento owes much of its hip-hop cred to violence. But as the grisly, hardcore, gangster-oriented rap music was making a name for Sacramento, a more underground, socially conscious style of rap was emerging that was just as fiery and passionate as its more thuggish counterpart, without the misogyny and violence. The movement would be dubbed “backpack rap,” because its participants carried around spray paint for graffiti and pads of paper for writing rhymes in their backpacks.
Sacramento’s Chuck Taylor and his group, Fonke Socialistiks, signed with Priority Records in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Taylor moved back to Sacramento after being disgruntled by the industry’s “make some singles for the ladies” standards. He wanted to rock, not romance. So he ended up dropping the Fonke from the group’s name and went with the moniker Chuck Taylor, or Chuck T. With their sociopolitical message, Chuck T., along with his groupmates—emcees Spek, Lock and turntablists DJ Crook One and Frank Nit (who later joined up with Deftones)—took the city by its ears and didn’t let go for many years to come.
“[In 1993] we weren’t able to book hip-hop shows on our own, so we would do shows with rock groups,” says Chuck T. “We rocked with Funky Blue Velvet, Papa Roach, the Deftones.”
After being down south for a while, Chuck T. got the idea to start something like L.A.’s Good Vibe Café—an open-mic/social for hip-hoppers—in Sacramento. So Alive and Kicking publisher and local music promoter Jerry Perry let him book a night at Bojangles. “He was giving us a chance where he wasn’t giving anybody else a chance,” says a thankful Chuck T., “so we started doing Monday night hip-hop.”
Also in the mid-90s, Harley White Jr., now known mostly as a jazz musician, along with the group Conscious Vibes, hosted a successful hip-hop night at Café Montreal in Del Paso Heights. Chuck T., Verbatum and other local hip-hop groups finally had a venue. The Universal Zulu Nation opened a chapter in Northern California and orchestrated B-boy and emcee battles at Sacramento State, giving the burgeoning scene structure.
Things had fallen into place. The city was alive with not just hardcore gangster rap but all the elements of hip-hop: graffiti artists, deejays, emcees and B-boys. The streets bumped with rap music, be it Brotha Lynch Hung’s vicious, 40-ounce-fueled diatribes, the mellowed vibes of Verbatum or the politically charged rap of Socialistik.
It wouldn’t last long.
In 1996, Oakland, California’s Tupac Shakur was shot dead on the street. Shortly after that, Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in a drive-by shooting.
While these violent acts were geographically far from Sacramento, they hit home. With the whole world watching, the hip-hop industry’s growing pains were apparent. The media frenzied East Coast-West Coast beef, for all its glorification and hype, fragmented hip-hop. As a new generation embraced the music, arguments over authenticity broke out. Socialistik toured the country at the time, trying to build momentum on the national scene. But in 1999, Frank Nit left the group to join the Deftones. Socialistik pretty much dissolved. “There was a bunch of [more established] groups performing, and they were all skeptical on these younger cats coming in,” says Chuck T.
Pete Bettencourt, of the now legendary Sacramento group the CUF, was one of those “younger cats.” “Back then, it seemed like there was Chuck T., E-Train, Soul Clap—and all those guys were established in the early ’90s,” he remembers. “We were the outsiders, and we had to kind of, like, earn our way in.”
Race and gender also played roles in hip-hop’s evolution. Hip-hop wasn’t just for inner-city black kids anymore.
“We were the only group at the time that had any kind of mixture in it,” Bettencourt says. “N8 [the Gr8] looks like he’s Puerto Rican or something. Crush is black, R.J.’s black and I’m Mexican—so we looked like a ragtag group, like, who the fuck are these guys?”
DJ Epik, of the group Verbatum, recalls having to prove himself as one of the first local white guys on the scene. “I felt at many times that people doubted me,” he says. “But then they hear my music.”
Hip-hop was now fair territory for any race and, as it turned out, gender. In Sacramento, one of the most successful female rap artists to emerge was Marvaless, who released her first album, Ghetto Blues, on Awol Records in 1994. She’s cranked out a new release almost every year since.
As new technology made it possible for just about anyone to cut a rap song and upload it to potentially millions of listeners, the argument over what was hip-hop and what was not intensified. When B-boy Mahtie Bush arrived back in Sacramento in 2000 after a stay in Las Vegas, he began dabbling as an emcee. Bush spent his days mastering his craft while the culture of hip-hop changed before his eyes. “Back in the day, if you wanted a name you had to battle someone or pass out demos or throw your own show. You had to create your own name,” says Bush. “Now you can be on MySpace and just bulletin the shit out of everybody.”Long live hip-hop
By the time 2006 rolled around, the hip-hop scene in Sacramento, by most accounts, was dead. Police closed down shows whenever there was even the slightest hint of violence—and occasionally when there were no signs. Venues weren’t willing to take such risks when they didn’t really need hip-hop dollars to support their establishments.
Meanwhile, rap music went commercial worldwide. Creative groups such as New York’s De La Soul were no longer represented on the Billboard charts. Innovation was replaced by acts that were more easily digested by the masses. Money, sex and drugs—the three things curious teenagers desire the most—became hip-hop’s operating motif.
Rappers lied about their gang affiliations and filmed every one of their videos on location at a swimming pool filled with champagne and “bitches.” In 2000, things really took a turn for the embarrassing when New York’s once-respected Nas released the yawn-inducing but telling Hip Hop Is Dead.
In Sacramento, where rap venues had shriveled on the vine, the CUF headed out of town whenever they could. “We lived in Portland [Oregon] for a while, L.A. for a while; we got signed as Deep Fried Funk Brothers,” says Bettencourt. “It was one of the most successful times, but in town everybody thought we stopped or broke up or whatever.”
As a veteran of Sacramento’s roller-coaster hip-hop scene, Bettencourt speaks with some nostalgia, and sometimes with disappointment. “It’s funny reading some of the articles, the emcees that come out saying ‘We’re Sac kings’ or whatever and I’m like, ‘Man, you guys don’t understand how much you’re not.’ Back in the day, when we were coming up, I would have never said that, because there were people like DC Ray, Brother Lynch and C-Bo.”
Emcee battles became anachronisms as the Internet started to make it dangerously easy for people to claim street cred without actually earning it. The art of B-boying, emceeing, deejaying and graffiti writing has given way to MySpace and Verizon ring tones. By 2007, the scene had almost completely stagnated.
Still, there are positive signs that Sacramento hip-hop is making yet another comeback. One crew of new jacks in their early 20s understands the importance of paying homage. Collectively, they call themselves the Neighborhood Watch—Plush Lush, Dahlak, Random Abiladeze, PSFU, New Skool Enk, the Covenant, DJ Oasis, 5th Ave and the Hi-Lifes. Dressed in brightly colored 1990s throwback gear, they respect the foundation laid by DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, yet are still willing to put their own twist on it. In a gesture of thanks, State Cap. even brought Chuck T. out of a short hiatus. State Cap.’s Erick Cummings, a.k.a. Bosse, says, “I asked him if he wanted to do a show with us at Capitol Garage. I heard his name before … and I liked his music a lot. One thing we like to do is pay homage to people who were doing it before us, you know?”
In the city, hip-hop’s vibe appears to be on the rise once more. This year alone, a remarkable crop of talent has emerged: There’s Chase Moore, an emcee with one of the biggest buzzes since, well, Doey Rock, whose outstanding Mind Candy album recently hit the streets. There’s Random Abiladeze, the poet/emcee who uses his mind as another element of hip-hop. And Cawzlos, who parlayed his experience as a graffiti artist into a career in marketing and promotion. MC Prince Julian, now known as Sub-Zero, was just added to the West Coast Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. And there’s the up-and-coming producer Lee Bannon, who seemed to spring out of nowhere (well, Roseville, at least) onto the national hip-hop circuit. Bannon’s clean production, which recalls an Ali Shaheed Muhammad of the future, just might shape a new Sacramento sound, which he describes as “that Midtown vibe … real mellow, you know?”
Yeah, hip-hop is changing. Fortunately, DJ Kool Herc proved that hip-hop was built on adaptation to change and that ingenuity is the mother of all invention. And, as the now 35-year-old Bettencourt says, “You just have to find a way to embrace it.” Which is exactly what his fellow CUF member’s son, Lil N8, is doing. “He’s a legitimate outcome of what the culture is because he’s been in it from day one—and he slays people that have been on the scene forever,” says Bettencourt. “[Lil N8 is] still into the hyphy shit, but he makes beats, he raps, he can dance, he can draw. … He’s 13 now and he’s scary. … He has a lot of culture and he knows his stuff.”
On stage at Arco Arena, multimillionaire rap star Lil Wayne pulls up a stool. A guitar rests on his lap, he plucks modestly on its strings, so as not to make an actual sound. He’s covered in tattoos, wears sunglasses at night and sports a toothy smirk that says, “Damn, I’m rich.” With each move Weezy makes, the crowd becomes increasingly ridiculous with joy. A girl nearly jumps out of her tube top at the first crackle of his electrically manipulated voice. As Lil Wayne waves his hand over Arco Arena, he’s no longer a rapper, he’s a magician, his audience held captive by the unrecognizable beast hip-hop has become.