Davey D is pictured here hosting his radio show on KALX in 1990. In the very early years of Bay Area hip-hop, Davey D says, the culture was still finding its place in society, and had yet to be defined. (KQED)
Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.
He currently co-hosts KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio and serves as a professor of Africana studies at San Francisco State University, where he teaches popular courses on hip-hop and African American music. Working with historian Jeff Chang, Davey recently co-published the book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2021). (Both Davey and Jeff are advisors for KQED’s That’s My Word.)
Originally from The Bronx, New York, Davey D was there when this thing we call hip-hop was in its nascent form, before it even had a name. When he arrived in the Bay Area in the early ’80s, one of his missions as a UC Berkeley student was to lend some insight to this burgeoning culture. So he put on a few events, one of which was The Day in Hip-Hop on Oct. 24, 1984.
Footage of The Day in Hip-hop shows dancers, rappers and DJs performing in front of a captive audience, as they get a crash course on what would eventually become the most popular music in the world. The films are housed in UC Berkeley’s archives. Fortunately, a few clips have been uploaded to YouTube by Jim Richards. With the 50th anniversary of hip-hop at the front of mind, I spoke to Davey D about what the culture was like back then and how far it has come.
Below are lightly edited excerpts from my conversation with Davey D.
PENDARVIS HARSHAW: The objective of this interview is to talk about a video specifically from 1984 at UC Berkeley on Sproul Plaza with you DJing. I saw the fresh cut, and you had your name on your shirt. It’s an early iteration of what hip-hop looks like in the Bay Area. It's just a moving piece of footage. Can we talk through it while we watch it real quick?
DAVEY D: So you got [the MCs] Commander C and Diamond D from Berkeley and Richmond. They were The Dazzling Two. And that graffiti that you see, that’s me.
You did the graffiti too?
Yeah, I did the writing. I was never a graff artist, but I did do that. We were trying to do a showcase, and bring to the campus and celebrate this thing that was burgeoning. So what you see in the video is me, with a cut-off sweatshirt that has my name on it. You also see a guy named Patrick Norwood who is out of L.A. and was a good DJ. We had a crew called the New York/L.A. Connection because they were from L.A., and I was from New York. And we bought out some dancers. We brought out these artists. And it had to be several hundred people there watching as we did this thing. And it was just a day to remember, it was exciting.
When you look at it now, it’s kind of basic what we were doing. My scratches weren’t all that and the raps weren’t all that. But you know what? They were entertaining and could hold their own. I passed out a leaflet that explained what hip-hop was. They were on pink pieces of paper. And I think UC Berkeley filmed this as well, and they have it in their archives. We did another one several months later, and that one you actually have me rapping with a number of people. And we did an anti-apartheid song called “South Africa It’s Just a Matter of Time.”
Back in the day, I started out as an MC. I became a DJ when I moved out here. People just weren’t MCing like that when I first came out here. So I had more of an opportunity to do what I liked by DJing, versus getting on the mic and doing what the Dazzling Two were doing. I wonder whatever happened to them.
I’m watching the video, and the audience is kind of stunned. Sitting there, jaw dropped.
They were watching because they hadn’t seen it. This was before the Fresh Fest [in December 1984, the first national hip-hop tour with Run D.M.C., Whodini and more]. So you didn’t really have performances like this. This was a treat for a lot of people. They might have seen something on a TV show, [or] Beat Street the movie or something, but they hadn't seen this up close and live. That’s why we wound up doing a second one. People were like, “Man, you all got to do that again.”
If we’re saying that the start of hip-hop was ’73, then 10 years later you have people rapping in French. And you have this spread to the West Coast.
Well, that’s one way to look at it. Or the other way is to understand that Indigenous folks, and in this case when I say “Indigenous” I’m saying people that come from Black communities — you know, “the hood,” so to speak — we always had these expressions. And so hip-hop had two types of responses. If you talk to Commander C and Diamond from the Dazzling Two, and you tell them about rap, them being from [the East Bay], their response wouldn’t have been, “Oh wow, this is great. How do you do it?” Their response would have been more like, “Oh man, that sounds like something my uncle used to do.” Because there would be a reference point. “Oh man, it sounds like some hambone. That sounds like some pimp talk,” right? They’ve already seen people rhyming. They saw a Dolemite movie. They had an uncle that would talk slick like that.
How [hip-hop] was packaged may have been new. Like, “Oh, I never thought to do it over beats like that.” But the concept wasn’t new. Then you have other people who’ve never seen anything like this. And their reference point then becomes, “What did I see on TV?” And if you’re telling me this is a New York thing, then I want to soak up everything that came out of New York. Whereas, I think a Richmond and Oakland cat was like, “This is good. I’m going to integrate this New York style with things that I’ve already done.”
So if you listen to those guys, to their credit, they didn’t try to sound like they were from New York. They still sound like some cat from Richmond in ’83, ’84. And I think that’s a testament to the Bay. [It] has its own identity… They didn’t feel like [they] needed to follow a prescribed path.
You have to understand that there’s no YouTube at the time. Most people never saw a video like this until years later. This wasn’t on Channel Two or ABC or anything like that. This was something that [you] had to be there [for]. So for a lot of folks, they hadn’t seen this whole package until that day… And that’s what made it special. And I think if you were there, what I recall was the energy. There was a vibe. And it was almost euphoric, especially once the dancers got on.
The dancers turned it out. There’s a scene where the dancers line up. You think it’s about to start, and then they drop their pants and they have pants under their pants. And you see their uniforms, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s about to go down.’
But you also got to remember, in the Bay dance expression has been around for a long time too. They’re doing breaking, right? But there was a Bay style of dance that is — big shout out to The Black Resurgents and The Messengers, and all those groups. The Black Resurgents just celebrated their 50th anniversary. They were doing the boogaloo, and they were strutting, and they were roboting.
So these guys [on campus] were breaking, they weren’t doing Bay traditional dances, and we can get into why that was the case: Because [some of] those guys who came out of that dance era that actually predates hip-hop in New York had aged out. They were older, doing other things. And the fascination of hip-hop out of New York was really through the visuals of dance.
I should acknowledge the fact that the elements that are hip-hop were present even before 1973 in the Bay Area, right?
We’ve always danced. Percussion has always been our thing, right? Black people are the people of the drum. Native folks are people of the drum, so the drum is not foreign. And rhyming has been around for a very long time. Having all those elements put together in a package like that had not happened. So again, It’s not “either or,” it’s “both and.”
One of the big things that jumped out at me about the video is that it’s at Sproul Plaza, and this is the home of the Free Speech Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. Having this event at that same hallowed ground, does that bring some type of legitimacy? Legitimacy is a loaded word, but does it bring some weight to it?
I don’t think people were thinking of it at that time. I certainly wasn’t. The reason we did it at Sproul Plaza was because that’s where all the Black folks hung out, the fraternities: the Alphas, who were probably the biggest one. And the Kappas, when they did their step shows, they did it on Sproul Plaza, right? Sproul Plaza is right there at the entry of the campus, so if you want to get maximum people, you’re going to do it on Sproul Plaza. The second one we did down in Zellerbach, but it wasn’t like, “Aw man, the Free Speech Movement happened here, let’s do it on Sproul Plaza.”
And you said you passed out a flyer there.
Not a flyer, but a piece of — it was an article that I wrote explaining what hip-hop was.
A one-sheeter, right?
A one-sheeter, yeah.
Why would you need to pass on a one-sheeter explaining hip-hop?
Because people didn’t know at that time, and you wanted to make sure they had it. What are you watching? Why are you watching this? So, again, for many people that was the first time they saw something live like that. We take it for granted now, but in 1984, you didn’t see that like that. There wasn’t no [hip-hop] block parties here. So this was the first time for a lot of people. And we wanted to make sure that they had an understanding.
My mom was mad because she said, “You didn’t put your name on it.” She’s like, “Put your name on it so people know that you wrote this, I don’t want nobody taking your stuff.” And I was like, “Nah, ma, they seen me pass it out.” But it became important because a lot of people did use that article. It showed up in the San Francisco Chronicle. There were people that quoted from it and didn’t know where it came from. I seen it on websites years later, right? But, you know, it’s actually on my site now. I was asked to write it for a magazine, so I rewrote that and added to it.
In the early days, how did hip-hop culture spread to the Bay Area?
It spread the same way that it does everywhere else where Black folks are. First, we have to ask the question: What parts of hip-hop? So you have to get a graff writer in here to break down how they were passing along secrets and understandings and cultural aesthetics. You know, somebody like Refa One.
I think us as DJs, there’s a whole path that we took, right? … So I’ll give you an example: There was a guy named Quickie Kev who was on the campus, and I was the main DJ, but Quickie Kev came out of L.A. and he knew how to scratch. His scratch was picked up from [the radio station] KDAY. And at that time, they had a bunch of DJs on there. Tony G. Joe Cooley, right? So there was an “L.A. Fast Scratch,” that’s what we called it. And he picked that up, and he was vicious on it. So whenever he did a party, people were sitting around like, “Man, how do we do that?” So that became one way some of that trickery was passed along. Much of it was seeing somebody who had a skillset, and they would pick it up.
Was there a point in the late ’80s, early ’90s where you could pinpoint and say hip-hop had irreversibly established itself?
When Beat Street came out, I think there was no turning back. Shout out to Harry Belafonte and all those people who put it together. I know we had Krush Groove, and Wild Style had come out prior to that. But I think Beat Street because it was such a mainstream thing, it was the one that was for people who grew up with that in New York — this was a validation. I think there was no turning back at that point.
I remember, I was at a place called the Promenade, which is next to Marble Hill Projects in the Bronx. And my crew was doing a party. And I remember sitting there like, “Wow, look at all these people here.” And I said, “I wonder if people around the world know what we’re doing.” This is incredible. It just hit me. And within two years time, “Rapper’s Delight” came out and that was irreversible there.
So, one more question on my end: 50 years from now, hip-hop is...?
Hip-hop will be a continuation of Black expression, it ain’t going nowhere. We’re gonna stop singing and vocalizing ourselves? No. We gonna stop dancing? No. Are we going to have different rhythms? Absolutely. You can have a crunk beat, boom-bap beat, hyphy beat, underground lo-fi beat, jazzy beat, right? You can have those 808 beats, Miami bass beat. There’s like 50 different beats that you can find within hip-hop. There will be new beats 50 years from now. It might not be called hip-hop, but it’s still going to be here.
It will never leave because hip-hop at its core is the expression of people who want to build community with one another. Who want to lose themselves in other ways, to express themselves and not be limited to what society says is valid expression.
The key for us is, can we connect the past with the present? And can we connect the past and present to the future? That’s our job. So we’re here to open your mind, and as Black Moon would say, “get you open.”
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