Hip-hop history "Thirty years of hip-hop in the River City)

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Nov 8, 2002
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By Josh Fernandez
[email protected]

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...................................................................