A Tribute to Soul Beat TV, the Black-Owned Network of East Oakland

Commercials on SoulBeat TV now serve as a time capsule to the Oakland of the 1980s.  (SoulBeat)

It's week three of California's shelter-in-place order due to the spread of COVID-19. How deep into your childhood memories are you by now?

Old photos. Ancient notebooks. Video games you haven't played since the second grade. How about that TV show you used to watch back in the day?

Luckily for me, and many others of a certain age and locale, there's an Instagram page paying homage to the old school Bay Area TV station that hosted shows, music videos and Oakland culture.

Soul Beat TV, one of the nation's first African American-owned TV Networks—which ran from 1978–2003, and which was filmed and broadcast from East Oakland—has been revived in Instagram form. Grainy videos from the early '90s, cheesy commercials and comical crank calls from the era that I called a childhood have been made readily accessible.

It couldn't have come at a better time.

In early March, when the coronavius was something Americans were just starting to seriously prepare for, Rynell "Showbiz" Williams started the Soul Beat TV Instagram page.

Showbiz is a longtime radio DJ, formerly with 94.9 KWILD, and currently a host on the morning show with 102.5 KDON. He's also from East Oakland, and grew up watching Soul Beat TV on Channel 37.

"Soul Beat in Oakland was everything," Showbiz says, over the phone. "It was (one of) the first black-owned television network(s)... Before BET. Before TV One. There was Soul Beat. And it was started by Chuck Johnson."

Chuck Johnson was a former Marine who spent some time in Hollywood, where he worked on movies like Dolemite before coming to Oakland and starting Soul Beat.

Although the production was sometimes low quality, the network's appeal was immediate in making something for the people, by the people.

"It was black faces that you saw. It was black businesses that you saw," says Showbiz. "The beauty was all about the Soul Beat commercials."

The corny car commercial where everyone waves on cue. The commercial for Harputs, an urban clothing store in San Francisco that has since pivoted to more upscale fashion . The S-Curl commercial that shows the styles of the time.

At this point, it's incredible that this footage has survived. If you lived it, you may or may not want to travel back then. But for me, it's what the big homies always talked about—so I'm fascinated.

Not just by the commercials, but the commentary from Night Dog, whose no-holds-barred call-in talk show was a Soul Beat TV staple.  The music videos were the soundtrack to my childhood, with lyrics I didn't fully understood until now. Even the background scenes of Oakland, in the music videos and commercials Soul Beat showed, is now rare documentary footage, what with all the changes that have occurred here.

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As far as music, Soul Beat had it covered in more ways than one.

"They made sure they showed all the videos. They broke a lot of artists," says Showbiz. Soul Beat first introduced him to Too $hort, MC Hammer, En Vogue, Seagram, Tony! Toni! Toné! and more.

More important than the rotation of local artists was the fiscal impact. "Soul Beat would play an artist, and people would hear it and then go to a store called T's Wauzi," said Showbiz. "Soul Beat was like the circle of life. They'd play the music and we'd go out and buy it."

That's how arts and culture spread throughout East Oakland, and the greater Bay Area, for the course of a few decades. And it wasn't confined to local artists, either—SoulBeat broadcast early interviews with Michael Jackson and Eazy-E.

But Soul Beat has been defunct for nearly 20 years. Why start an Instagram account now?

Showbiz was simply having a conversation with Atlantic Records' Yancey Richardson, the co-executive producer of Raphael Saadiq's album Jimmy Lee, when he got inspired. Next thing he knew, he was scouring the internet for related content.

"I couldn't find a lot of things about Soul Beat. So, I was like, let me put something together," says Showbiz.

Rynell "Showbiz" Williams
Rynell "Showbiz" Williams, outside the Oakland Coliseum. (Rynell "Showbiz" Williams)

He found some old commercials online. After tracking down some footage of well-known comedian and actor Luenell, he was on to something. He paired that footage with some commercials, videos and footage of Night Dog. And then he got people to tap in.

"A lot of artists from the Bay started following the page," says Showbiz. "First, you've got Raphael Saadiq following, then you've got his brother D'Wayne Wiggins ... and then members from En Vogue." He let off a roster of names including the entire Hiero crew, members of RBL Posse and more.

Showbiz says, "You got so many people following the page because people feel the same way I feel about SoulBeat, and now I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing go."

I let him know that the special thing for me wasn't necessarily the retreat into better times, nostalgia being par for the course for anyone going through what we're going through. But instead, it's the history lessons. The ability to understand what the older kids in the neighborhood would talk about back in the day, but that I hadn't gotten the chance to digest. The commerce. The entrepreneurship. The staked claim of ownership in a town that has always been up for grabs.

Of course, it was out there all this time. I just hadn't seen it curated in this manner, all in one place.

On that note, Showbiz tips his hat, and acknowledges that his Instagram page is simply a tribute, not an official page. He has nothing to do with the family or Soul Beat's ownership. This is a passion project. But he still tries to reach out to people for content, and people reach out to him.

He says Charles Johnson (no relation to former owner Charles Johnson), former host of Soul Beat's hip-hop show, has sent him some photos. Artists have reached out. And the community has been activated.

Like I said, it couldn't have come at a better time.

"While we're in this whole coronavirus time period," Showbiz says, "maybe this can ease somebody's mind for five or ten minutes. Help them think back to happier times."

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