Jesus El stares into the camera as I video interview E-40 at Youth Uprising in Deep East Oakland. (Jacky Johnson)
The Bay Area's hip-hop culture is as rich as the soil from which it grows. We should value it like the property in the region.
In the bedroom closet of this little apartment I’ve been renting for just over a year (in Sacramento because the Bay is too damn expensive), I’ve got a little bit of that history tucked off in a shoebox. It’s full of printed photos and digital images archived on external drives. It’s my stash of golden nuggets that I’ve mined during my 15-plus years of being a documentarian, and lifetime of soaking up game in the Bay.
Since our rich Bay Area hip-hop culture will be center stage this coming weekend, I figured it’s time to share a little bit of the wealth.
Verzuz, the online musical battle series backed by mega-producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, is scheduled to feature Bay Area superstars E-40 and Too $hort on Saturday, Dec. 19.
Just after the event’s announcement on Sunday, a virtual chat room titled “The Bay Is In The Area” on the all-audio social media app Clubhouse got a surprise appearance from Mr. 40 Water himself.
E-40 Fonzarelli explained that during the upcoming battle he’ll be wearing his rapper hat, so he can’t be “the goon with the spoon,” for catering purposes. He said his Bay Area rap Mount Rushmore includes himself, Too $hort, Mac Dre and MC Hammer (with a nod to Tupac, but Pac is also on the overall hip-hop Mount Rushmore, so there's that).
I asked 40 Belafonte about his 1996 track “Record Haters,” (a diss to Brooklyn rapper AZ and NBA star Rasheed Wallace), in which Uncle Earl says, “My niggas 3X Krazy laced me/ Taught me how to say ‘fa sheezy.’”
My question: did 3x Krazy, a popular East Oakland rap group from the late ’90s and early ’00s consisting of Keak Da Sneak, Agerman and Bart, really teach The Ambassador how to say “fa sheezy”?
Mr. Charlie Hustle confirmed that they did indeed. And then The Ballatician went on to explain how that term gave birth to a new way of speaking, one that's evident in Lil Wayne’s usage of “Lil Weezy,” Kanye West’s moniker of “Kanyeezy” and more.
It was a preview of the larger lesson on the etymology of popular slang we’re sure to get during the upcoming battle.
Earl Stevens told the attendees of the chat that he “hardly has enough time to eat a pistachio,” so he'd have to exit the convo. It’s true—the 53-year-old fixture from the hillside in Vallejo dropped multiple albums in 2020, and he’s working on an album with Snoop, Too $hort and Ice Cube for 2021. But before he left the virtual room, he mentioned he’d be posting old photos ahead of this weekend’s battle, just to let people see a bit of his story. Which is lightweight our story. Our culture.
It got me to thinking about that collection in my closet.
It’s not all there. I’ve lost all the airbrushed shirts. And I’m wounded because those size 38, baggy Girbaud jeans with the straps that I wore when I weighed 140 pounds would probably fit well right about now. But at least my video of Stomper goin’ dumb still exists.
Arguably my most important stash of printed photos is from October 2005. A little more than a month after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, there was a Saving Ourselves S.O.S. Hurricane Katrina Benefit concert held at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland in effort to support folks in the south.
Backed by Comcast Cable and The First African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church of Oakland, the event was organized by former Oakland City Councilperson Desley Brooks, the late trumpeter Khalil Shaheed and Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Dwayne Wiggins. The show featured jazz greats Bobby Hutcherson and Nicholas Payton. Hip-hop and R&B artists like Spice-1, EA-Ski and Jennifer Johns were also in the building.
It was one of the first events I ever covered.
En route to the show I hit the Walgreens on 14th and Broadway and liberated two disposable cameras. I had a digital video camera and a small voice recorder too, but those have since vanished. All that’s left are the photos from the disposable cameras.
Within the stack of image after image of people in airbrushed T-shirts is a photo of Keak The Sneak—wearing an airbrushed T-shirt of himself. I took the photo right after he told me about his family roots in Alabama, and why the event meant so much to him.
There’s also a photo of rapper San Quinn in the dressing room, surrounded by his folks from the City, including Big Rich, Ya Boy (also known as Rich Rocka) and Bailey, whose song “U C It” (featuring J. Valentine) was getting a lot of spins at the time. After the photo, I recall Quinn pulling me aside and suggesting I interview a firefighter who was in the room—saying he was the real star.
The night ended with a good friend of mine, Jesus El, being harassed and arrested by the Oakland Police Department. The overly aggressive officers made for an anti-climatic ending to the evening, and simultaneously exemplified another aspect of Bay Area hip-hop culture.
But what came from that night was a small sample—a couple of golden nuggets—of what the culture was like at the time. (My Lord, did we really wear that many airbrushed shirts?)
It also shows the importance of someone valuing the story of the Bay Area's hip-hop culture. And with that said, I'm kicking myself because there should be so much more.
I should have the video I shot from the night before Husalah turned himself in to face federal time. I should have the photos from that evening I sat in on a studio session with a group of youngsters named Poplyfe, which featured a vocalist named Kehlani. I should have the tapes from the day I interviewed journalist Davey D, when he told me about Tupac living on the other side of the Lake—a conversation that lasted two hours and concluded with me going to the Federation’s video shoot for the song “18 Dummy,” on Alameda's Naval Air Station.
I’m hella salty about all the stories untold, photos unpublished and videos unshared, because I know each tale pushes the value of the culture that much further.
My hope is that the event not only pushes our region a step further down the path of the recognition it deserves, but also inspires other folks to dig in their crates, closets and computer chips and share some of the cultural riches they're sitting on.
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