hree decades ago, Rono Tse helped make music history.
On Feb. 4, 1992, the musician, rapper poet Michael Franti—Tse’s partner in the alternative-rap group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy—held a press conference to announce their latest single, “Language of Violence.” They were accompanied by the late activist Barbara Cameron of the Community United Against Violence, award-winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs, and Namane Mohlabane and Neico Slater of the Oakland Men’s Project. It marked the first time a major-label hip-hop act mounted a marketing campaign around supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
“Language of Violence” is a vivid depiction of a young man being bullied over his sexuality. In the second verse, the assailant who beat up the teenager is sent to prison and assaulted himself. Franti’s allegory may be coarse, but his intentions are clear. And he wrote them during an era when gay bashing was a prominent theme in hip-hop’s emerging “hardcore” sensibility. Mere months after the release of “Language of Violence,” Brand Nubian topped the Billboard rap singles chart with “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down,” a funky jeep-beat track on which the New York trio brags, “I ain’t down with gays.” It percolated in clubs and MTV shows like The Grind for months.
By comparison, “Language of Violence” generated fleeting discussion. Too often, it was lumped in with a laundry list of sociopolitical topics Franti aired on Disposable Heroes’ only album, Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury. But in LGBTQ+ newspaper the Bay Area Reporter, critic Jim Fouratt hailed the duo. “Rap and hip-hop were almost completely co-opted of their radical imperative by the mass marketing of gangsta rap with its virulent fag-bashing/woman-hating/pimp sensibility on the one hand and by Hammer-esque pap on the other,” he wrote, purposely reducing hip-hop to oft-damaging media stereotypes. “Finally, heterosexual men are realizing that homophobia hurts them and their relationships as much as it does queer people.”
The historic nature of Disposable Heroes’ “Language of Violence” has been lost to time and fading memories. When asked about the song now, Tse simply says, “If I were to tell you I don’t agree with being gay, I would be a hypocrite. Growing up in Chinatown, we used to have a lot of white kids who’d write in the bathrooms, ‘Chinaman go home.’ [Seeing that] at a young age, you would feel really bad. Like, who are these people? I’ve never met them. Why do they hate us? So it’s really about helping and caring for other people who don’t have that voice, or who might not have the strength to stand up. Sometimes you have to stand up for people.”
Today, hip-hop is filled with rappers embracing shades of queer identity, including superstars like Lil Nas X and Cardi B. Yet homophobic toxicity from the heteronormative men who are the face of the genre, including Migos and DaBaby, remains common. Then there’s Kendrick Lamar: he shows love and compassion for a transgender family member on his controversial “Auntie Diaries,” yet can’t help but deadname him and recite homophobic slurs. Clearly, too many of rap’s movement leaders struggle to express what Disposable Heroes did years ago: that LGBTQ+ community consists of human beings who simply deserve to live and love in peace. “Is it my lifestyle? No,” says Tse. “But I can’t judge them. That’s their life.”
Meanwhile, Rono Tse’s story is more than just the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The 56-year-old doesn’t dwell on being one of the earliest Asian American performers to achieve mainstream visibility in hip-hop music. He’s too busy moving forward.
n a recent Saturday evening in April, Tse led a group of friends to the Capitol building in Sacramento. They planned to shoot a music video for “Panther,” an operatic, sharply political track by Sacramento rapper The Gatlin, Oakland rapper Hyfe of Dem Lifaz (who passed away in March) and teen R&B singer Leem. Tse assembled them for his Black China Productions, and the song promotes his new venture: the edibles brand Panther Product. (It’s produced by DJ Behold, a.k.a. Commissioner Gordon.) Unfortunately, hundreds of teens in fancy dress occupied the Capitol steps, posing for prom-night pictures. “We picked the best time, huh,” Tse said ruefully.
Undaunted, the crew wandered to a side street, setting up shop in front of the Jesse M. Unruh Building. There, videographer Bubsop filmed The Gatlin and Leem posing and lip-syncing to a backing track played off an iPhone. Tse directed their movements. Observing the action were Dana McMillan, daughter of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale; and Aaron Thompson, who runs the cannabis incubator Pack Bros. Thompson—a music manager and business entrepreneur who has worked with MC Hammer and No Limit affiliates Steady Mobb’n—is helping with Panther Product.
Tse says that McMillan is assisting as well, but she downplayed her role. “It’s Ron’s vision, and he’s gathering up [Panther] children to help as well,” she said. McMillan explained how, as Black Panther kin, she is representative of a Bay Area tradition.
“We have a memory of how it was. Some of us went to the Panther school. We had yoga, meditation. All the teachers are of African descent,” she said. “We don’t want to hand down anger, we want to hand down wisdom.”
Panther Product is the latest manifestation of Tse’s restless creativity. He has worked in carpentry and construction. (I remember encountering Tse selling wood furniture at Berkeley Flea Market in the summer of 1994.) He opened the now-defunct Love Always Child Care Center. He co-owned Kuwa, a Southern-Caribbean restaurant in Old Oakland, with acclaimed chef Reign Free and a third partner.
“It’s like therapy, talking about all this,” Tse says later. “It’s like seeing the whole timeline of my life.”
orn in Hong Kong, Tse emigrated to the U.S. at the age of two. His father worked in the import-export business, and his mother owned a beauty salon. (One of his cousins is Hollywood screenwriter/producer Alex Tse, whose credits include Watchmen and Wu-Tang: An American Saga.) Tse grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and he can recall the impact of the Golden Dragon shootout, a September 4, 1977 gun battle between rival youths that resulted in five deaths and 11 injuries.
When Tse was a freshman at Woodrow Wilson High School, he joined a Filipino gang called Dos Perros and planned to kill a rival. He says that when the day arrived, “The teacher tackled the [other] student, and then all the kids started screaming, ‘He’s got a knife!’ I ran out [of the classroom] and thought, this is so stupid. This is my class. Everyone knew me.” He was kicked out of Woodrow Wilson and reassigned to a continuation school. Chastened, he pleaded with S.F. district officials to give him a second chance. “I had to wake up,” he says now. “[I was on] a road to a dead end. You’re either going to die from violence, kill somebody, or end up in jail.”
Tse was allowed to enroll at Balboa High School, where he flourished. He notes with pride that he was a receiver on Balboa’s 1984-1985 varsity football squad, which won the city championship. After graduating, he briefly attended College of Marin and studied Haitian and West African dance before relocating to Oakland. “The warehouse, co-op living scene was getting big,” he remembers.
Throughout, Black music was a constant in his life. “It’s crazy how soul music and that experience touched me. ’Cause my cousins used to look at me crazy,” he laughs. As a kid, he listened to Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind & Fire. Later, he frequented Frisco clubs like 1015 Folsom, Club Nine and DNA Lounge. It was at one of those clubs where Tse met Franti, a student at the University of San Francisco. The two formed the Beatnigs along with Kevin Carnes, Andre Flores and Henry Flood, blending percussive noise and a punk ethos with Franti’s spoken-word raps. (Troy “Crack Emcee” Dixon later joined as a touring member.)
In 1988, the Beatnigs released an acclaimed self-titled debut on Alternative Tentacles, the San Francisco independent label founded by the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. Their single, “Television,” became a college-radio hit. (In 1991, Disposable Heroes reworked the song as “Television, the Drug of the Nation.”) The New York Times described them as “a powerful conglomeration of taped sounds—speeches by Malcolm X, for instance—industrial noise made with saws, sirens and oil drums, and a conventional rhythm section.” During performances, Tse thrummed percussively on tire rims and thrilled audiences by generating sparks with grinder chainsaws.
“[Movement] was a natural thing,” he explains. “I never sat down and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to put this sheet metal with chains and a grinder to get the visual.’ It was 100% creative expression and letting the vibration take you on a journey.”
After the Beatnigs fell apart in 1990, Tse and Franti worked on demos, with Tse financing the sessions through maxed-out credit cards. They fell under the wing of Bay Area musician and activist Mat Callahan of the Looters, who gave their material to Island Records owner Chris Blackwell.
“I had a critical view of the music industry,” says Callahan, who is now based in Switzerland, via email. “I didn’t fall for the industry’s BS and encouraged Michael and Rono to always be on their guard.” In the liner notes for Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, he’s credited as “voice of reason and conspirator in treason.” “I saw my relation to Disposable Heroes as political work, the work of fighting suffering and injustice,” he adds.
Franti and Tse assembled Hypocrisy with engineering and mixing help from Consolidated’s Mark Pistel and Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto. Touring members included bassist Charlie Hunter—who later became a popular jazz guitarist—and drummer Simone White. Franti was the stentorian front man, a poetic truth-teller in the vein of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Gil Scott-Heron. Tse was the power tools-wielding sideman with “the crazy dance moves,” as one writer put it. Together, the group generated a dynamic live presence.
Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury earned considerable attention in the mainstream rock press. Bono from U2 began playing “Television, the Drug of the Nation” at the beginning of concerts on their Zoo TV Tour. U2 then brought Disposable Heroes on as an opener on for several Midwest dates.
“Man! You want to talk about professionalism!” exclaims Tse. “It’s a different vibe when you’re playing at that championship level.”
But Hypocrisy failed to resonate among a hip-hop audience that preferred hot sounds like New York boom-bap and West Coast G-funk. The Source magazine didn’t even bother to review it. Hypocrisy has sold 90,000 copies on Soundscan to date, according to MRC Entertainment.
n some ways, Disposable Heroes were a product of as well as ahead of their time. As part of a wave of early ’90s “alternative rap” acts, they struggled to attract Black and Brown listeners. And, unlike peers like Arrested Development—the two acts often played shows together—Disposable Heroes didn’t have radio hits. Still, they drew influential fans. The late Hal Willner, a longtime music producer for Saturday Night Live, asked Franti and Tse to work with iconic beat poet William S. Burroughs. The resulting 1993 Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales is an alterna-culture curio, pairing clanky, jazzy, irony-laden breakbeats with Burroughs’ droll spoken-word witticisms.
In 1993, Franti and Tse began work on a Disposable Heroes follow-up to Hypocrisy. “Michael used to say, ‘Hey, we want more of our people—Black people—to come to our shows,’” says Tse. But how to do it? Tse wanted to bring in Mystik Journeymen, an Oakland rap duo he was mentoring, to help write songs. But the process eventually broke down in arguments over the group’s direction.
Tse says Franti and Island Records offered to buy his rights to the Disposable Heroes name, but “They gave me a real low number, and I said no,” Tse says. Franti then formed Spearhead, fusing sociopolitical lyrics with rock, soul, reggae and hip-hop sounds. In 2008, he scored a No. 18 Billboard hit with the Sly & Robbie-produced “Say Hey (I Love You).” (Franti wasn’t available to respond to questions for this story.)
After Disposable Heroes split up, Tse turned his attention to Mystik Journeymen. He helped the duo score a publishing deal with PolyGram. He formed a crew of rappers called Black China and assembled a 1994 showcase at Crash Palace in San Francisco.
“We hung out basically every day,” writes Corey “Sunspot Jonz” Johnson via email. He’s one-half of Mystik Journeymen alongside Tommy “Luckyiam” Woolfolk. A deal with London Records seemed in the offing, but the label didn’t care for the duo’s “underground” sensibility. Johnson and Woolfolk then formed the widely influential Living Legends rap collective.
“But somehow that independence led to cutting off everyone business-wise, including Rono—which sucked because for a long time he was my best friend as well as a business partner,” Johnson explains. “But to this day I still owe a lot to Rono. He showed me a lot of game.”
Tse continued to cycle through projects. He turned Black China into a hip-hop soul collaboration with a local singer. The duo performed shows in the latter half of the ’90s and recorded demos that never saw release. He started a company with producer Stan “Quaze” Harris called SQBCE (Stanley Quaze-Black China Entertainment). They landed assignments with Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle imprint before splitting over a business dispute. In 2006, Tse executive-produced Saafir’s album, Good Game: The Transition. But even that experience left him disheartened at not getting enough credit for financing the album, he says.
“The mistake I made is that I didn’t have contracts on people,” he says of his challenges in the music industry. “You realize once you get people in there and to that platform, they don’t look out for you after that, y’know?”
But Tse’s career shouldn’t be looked at as a half-empty glass. The impact of his two pioneering industrial groups, the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, echoes through modern rap names like JPEGMAFIA and Death Grips. He toured and hung out with some of the biggest acts of the 1990s, including U2, Public Enemy, Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth. He mentored Mystik Journeymen, one of the key figures of the indie-rap era. Most importantly, he demonstrated how hip-hop can draw participants of all colors, races and genders without being compromised or losing its Black-centered origins.
And, as the fledging Panther Product enterprise shows, Tse is still dreaming big. “I always look at things real positive,” he says. “It’s different because now I own everything, and I’m building alliances with our team…I’m so blessed to be around all races of people.” Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.