Editor’s note: This story is part ofThat’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.
“People in the house, this is just for you/ A little rap to make you boogaloo”
—The Sugarhill Gang, 1979
Grandmaster Caz, the Bronx pioneer who ghostwrote the Sugarhill Gang’s groundbreaking 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight,” once said, “Hip-hop didn’t invent anything. Hop-hop reinvented everything.”
That statement rings truer than ever as we approach the 50th anniversary of Kool Herc’s first party in the Bronx, where the globally influential music and culture were born. And it especially rings true here in the Bay Area.
Hip-hop wasn’t fully formed in 1973. In fact, it didn’t have an official name until 1982, the year the Village Voice published a profile of Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa. Before Bambaataa joined the Black Spades street gang as a teenager, he hung out at the local Black Panther Information Center, and “his political leanings were encouraged by the appearance of songs like ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ by James Brown and ‘Stand!’ by Sly and the Family Stone,” Steven Hager wrote.
In other words, two of the three cultural influences cited in one of the earliest known print references to hip-hop are from the Bay Area. Oh word? Say that then.
No one would dispute that hip-hop emerged from the Bronx, or that James Brown was one of its godfathers. But the impact the Bay Area had on hip-hop’s early sound, aesthetic and ideology is less widely recognized. A thorough exploration of the Bay’s cultural and political movements of the 1960s and ’70s strongly suggests the Bay was hip-hop before there was hip-hop.
Consider this: Before he became a funk superstar, Sly Stone was a fast-talking radio personality whose on-air patter, laden with hep phrases, took the form of rapping before rap music. When it came to dance, the Bay Area had boogaloo, robotting and strutting, whose innovative moves preceded b-boying by almost 10 years. (There’s even evidence of breakdancing crews at local talent shows prior to nationwide releases of Breakin’ and Beat Street.)
Consider also that the iconography of hip-hop was shaped by Bay Area activists, as well as street-level archetypes of badmen and tricksters whose legend became urban folklore. A key reason the Bay Area became an early adopter of hip-hop was because its culture not only anticipated its arrival, but contributed to its essence during its developmental stages.
The Black Panthers lay hip-hop’s ideological foundation
Hip-hop began as an underground artform created by inner city youth with few resources, who were dynamic in how they expressed their style and identity. Much of its ideology and political viewpoints were shaped by the Black Panthers, who were founded in Oakland in 1966 and grew to 38 national chapters within two years.
The Black Panthers had a distinct influence on people like dancer Will “Mr. Penguin” Randolph, an early practitioner of boogaloo and co-founder of the dance crew the Black Resurgents. Randolph, who grew up in East Oakland, remembers how the Panthers used culture to engage young people and push their revolutionary message.
“They had all these rallies with Elaine Brown and different people, and the Black Resurgents were the unofficial official dance group,” Randolph says. “And they would use us to draw the adults in to talk about the city's plight politically. It was just phenomenal.”
“You have to consider that the Black Panther ideology was steeped in, as are most cultural ideas, in the music of the day,” Randolph says. “The grittiness of the blue collar town of Oakland, and the rise of the ideology of the Black Panther Party, and the rise of the funk music of the town all came together.”
In the hip-hop era, children of Black Panthers like Tupac Shakur and Digital Underground’s Money B — known as “Panther cubs” — would be the ones to carry the Panthers’ vision for Black liberation forward. There’s no “Rebel of the Underground,” an early agitprop Tupac song, without the Black Panthers. No “Break the Grip of Shame,” the classic 1990 single by San Francisco rapper Paris, either.
Hip-hop activism’s cornerstone issues, police reform and the prison-industrial complex, contain obvious through-lines back to the Black Panthers. In 1966, the Panthers’ manifesto, the Ten-Point Program, stated, “We Want An Immediate End to Police Brutality and the Murder of Black People,” followed by a call for “all Black People (to) be released from the many jails and prisons.”
N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” seemed outrageous in 1989, but became prescient three years later, when LAPD officers were caught on video beating Rodney King. Political rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-One often harbored strong anti-police views, which were shared by such less-likely sources as New York’s L.L. Cool J and Houston's UGK, on down to Vallejo’s The Mac.
Before the NYPD killing of Amadou Diallo inspired the Hip Hop for Respect project in 2000, the 1995 death of Aaron Williams in SFPD custody led to hip-hop activist organization Third Eye Movement protesting the SF Police Commission, and later resisting California’s Juvenile Crime initiative, Prop. 21. In 2009, Mistah F.A.B., Boots Riley and other local hip-hop artists took part in protests against Oscar Grant’s killing by BART police.
Over the past decade, activists have rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s no coincidence that the phrase was first coined by Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, in Oakland, the home of the Panthers.
Before conscious rap, funk brought the message
In the Bay Area, funk music was inextricably linked to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s. Beyond the Black Panthers were the Brown Berets, the Third World Liberation Front and the anti-Vietnam War movement, all animating young people to fight against an oppressive social order. One artist that emerged from this climate and eventually became one of hip-hop’s major influences was Sly Stone. A Vallejo-raised champion of multiculturalism and progressive social values, Sly transformed Black music during the ’60s and ’70s.
Sly’s records often contained social commentary that mixed the personal with the political. “Stand!” is an anthem of self-determination positing that freedom is attainable “at least in your mind if you want to be”; Sly released similarly-themed songs like “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Underdog” and “Skin I’m In.”
In addition to his contributions to hip-hop’s lexicon — Sly and the Family Stone’s album Fresh predates hip-hop’s popularizing of the term by at least a decade — there’s the music itself, which has become part of hip-hop’s genetic code. According to online sample databases, Sly and The Family Stone’s music has been sampled an astounding 967 times — up there with James Brown and the Meters.
Family Stone bassist and Oakland native Larry Graham’s slap-bass technique, prominently displayed on 1968’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” became a defining characteristic of funk, later used by musicians like Bootsy Collins as well as Chic’s Bernard Edwards, whose “Good Times” bassline would later drive “Rapper’s Delight.”
Sly also created a template for the artist-producer and independent label entrepreneur. He produced other artists for his short-lived Stone Flower label, often playing every musical instrument. His production of Little Sister’s “Somebody’s Watching You” became the first Top 40 hit to use electronic drums — a staple of nearly all hip-hop production.
“I feel like particularly with Sly, [he’s] part of the whole kind of mashup of the streets and the church,” says Lateef Daumont, a Panther cub best known as hip-hop artist Lateef the Truthspeaker of the Quannum collective. “They just had all of the things that would be blueprints for hip-hop later on — even business-wise, in a lot of ways.”
“Sly was the integrationist,” says author and educator Cecil Brown, a Berkeley resident during the ’70s who taught at Merritt College’s former campus on Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way) in Oakland. “Also, Sly had an element of militancy in him, too, that was not flower power, you know? It was like, ‘We got something that is going to make us feel better, and that belongs to us.’”
Remarkably, Stone was able to cross over to the pop charts while maintaining an unapologetically Black identity. In a 1974 clip from The Mike Douglas Show, Sly is asked if his young, white middle-class fans know what he’s singing about. “Yeah, they know,” he says. Hip-hop exemplifies the same paradigm: It appeals to white youth precisely because it offers entry into a different cultural space, with its own reference points and vernacular.
Just as The Coup’s Boots Riley performed his song “Underdogs” during the Occupy Oakland demonstrations of 2011, Sly occasionally performed at Black Panther rallies while living in Oakland. His ear-to-the-street perspective, containing equal parts optimism and cynicism, is evidenced by the No. 1 album There’s A Riot Goin’ On, released in 1971. As cultural critic Okla Jones wrote on the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary, “America was a nation in transition, feeling the effects of the previous decade. The shadow of Dr. King’s assassination loomed over the Black community, and the Vietnam War divided an entire country. What Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album did was give a voice to a new generation yearning to be heard.”
This dynamic — young people speaking their minds and determining their own identities through cultural expression — not only defined the early ’70s but connected the funk era to the rap era. Once you depart from the New York-centric breakbeat aesthetic, funk becomes the defining element of hip-hop’s sound, particularly in the Southern United States and parts of the Midwest, and especially in the Bay Area.
Before breaking, the Bay had boogaloo
The dance style known as Oakland boogaloo began in the 1960s with R&B and soul as its soundtrack, but the emergence of funk raised the bar for creative expression. “The thumping of the bass and the snapping of the snare drum and the thumping of the bass drum, you started to see people doing this free-form movement, with a hit and with body contortions,” says Will Randolph, whose group the Black Resurgents once performed during a 1977 Parliament concert at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, where they emerged from the iconic mothership in front of more than 10,000 fans.
“When you talk about hip-hop dance, primarily people think of breaking and popping,” Randolph says. “When you talk about street dance on a nationwide level prior to hip-hop dance coming out of primarily New York, you have this whole West Coast sea of dance and street dance. The Bay Area in particular is really the debut for hip-hop.”
From the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, years before hip-hop had a name, Oakland groups like the Black Resurgents, One Plus One, the Black Messengers and Pirate and the Easy Walkers perfected moves that would become part of the hip-hop dance vernacular.
“What I’m saying is that boogaloo, robotting, and strutting dance styles predate hip-hop as a culture, as a name, and even hip-hop dance as an artform,” says Randolph. (In 1990’s “U Make Me Want Some,” Mac Dre’s mentor and namesake The Mac even raps: “You can do the boogaloo / Like they used to do in 1972.”)
As boogaloo branched off into Richmond robotting and San Francisco strutting in the mid-1970s to become the predominant form of urban youth culture in the Bay Area, dancers adopted the sartorial flamboyance associated with pimps, incorporating top hats, canes and pointy-toed shoes into their aesthetic. White gloves created a mesmerizing effect under blacklight during performances in dark halls.
Fueled by talent show competitions, which brought local fame and popularity, the artform continued to develop into the early ’80s. Synchronized group routines, costumes, and stage props all became part of the mix. Most routines developed for competitions were performed just once. Some groups practiced in secret so no one could steal their moves. (The Black Resurgents were an exception; they were known to practice in front of an open window, often drawing crowds from their neighborhood.)
Coded signals between dancers would indicate they were participants in the same culture and ready to battle at a moment's notice, such as popping one’s collar — which later became a signature hallmark of Bay Area hip-hop expression. Being known as a boogaloo, strutter or robotter also conferred social status, and could give practitioners a ghetto pass through hostile territory or nullify threats of violence altogether.
As boogaloo spread in the latter half of the ’70s to San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles, a move originally known as “The Oakland Hit” became the “pop,” and blended with the locking style indigenous to Southern California. Pop-locking was born.
But the Bay Area’s contributions didn’t make the history books. In 1979, the Electric Boogaloos appeared on Soul Train and were erroneously announced as the originators of boogaloo by host Don Cornelius. Boogaloo also spread to New York through Bay Area dancers like Jerry Rentie, who served active military duty there, but wasn’t recognized as a distinct style by New York rappers like Run-DMC, who said “let the poppers pop and the breakers break” on 1984’s “Rock Box.”
The Northern California origins of popping became further obscured when breakdancing arrived on the West Coast in the early ’80s, and boogaloo, strutting, robotting, popping and breaking were all subsumed into the amalgamation of hip-hop dance. In “West Coast Pop Lock,” a 1982 hit for Ronnie Hudson that most know as the hook of Tupac’s “California Love,” Hudson shouts out Los Angeles, Watts and Compton — with no mention of Oakland at all.
Pimp culture becomes pop culture
Another key influence on hip-hop was Richard Pryor, who moved to Berkeley in 1969 and soaked up the city’s counterculture vibe. Pryor performed locally at venues like Laney College, and, similar to Tupac, key parts of his development came from the Bay Area before he moved to L.A. and became a superstar.
Pryor has been sampled in rap more than 400 times, which speaks to his street-level Black cultural perspective that placed more emphasis on barbershops, juke joints and strip clubs than churches and schools. And it was Pryor’s involvement in a 1973 movie, filmed in Oakland, that would cement his relationship to Bay Area hip-hop.
The Mack is ostensibly a cautionary tale about the rise and fall of a pimp named Goldie (Max Julien), yet it glorified the illegal sex trade and the flamboyant pimp lifestyle. The movie's lead was based directly on the notorious Oakland pimp and drug dealer Frank Ward, and infamously featured several real-life pimps and sex workers, in exchange for cameo roles for Ward and his brothers.
In The Mack, Pryor played Slim, Goldie’s partner. Another character, Fat Man, coincidentally had the same initials as infamous Oakland drug kingpin Felix Mitchell. With Goldie’s brother Olinga as a Panther-esque Black nationalist, the film’s subtext hints at the real-life tension between the Black Panthers and Oakland’s gangster underworld. It’s a dynamic that foreshadowed the divisions between conscious and gangsta rap, and predated the way Tupac and many Bay Area rappers mixed elements of both.
When Melvin Van Peebles’ directorial debut Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released in 1971, Panther leaders used their widely circulated newspaper to encourage Party members to see the film, which also featured the all-Black East Bay Dragons motorcycle club. “No distributors were supporting it,” says the Lumpen’s Dr. Saturu Ned, who worked in the Party’s newspaper office before he became a musician. “Because of the Black Panther Party, millions of people went to see the movie.”
Sweet Sweetback birthed the so-called blaxploitation films of this era, championing a gritty view of street life with an undercurrent of anti-authoritarianism. The genre became a key reference point for hip-hop, along with the Panthers’ messages of Black power and resistance.
Hip-hop’s inspiration from the criminal underworld
Without a doubt, one of hip-hop’s overarching themes has been the criminal underworld and the archetype of the pimp/player/hustler as hero and ghetto superstar. This, too, has significant ties to the Bay Area, and especially Oakland, which counts among its rap classics MC Pooh’s Life of a Criminal and Too Short’s Born to Mack.
In the Bay Area, a systemic devastation of Black neighborhoods created a formula for poverty. Blue-collar industrial jobs left after World War II, and the “urban renewal” of the ’60s and ’70s demolished homes and businesses in San Francisco as well as Oakland. For some, the underground economy became an appealing means of upward mobility.
Felix Mitchell operated out of the San Antonio Villa, a.k.a. 6-9 Ville, in East Oakland, which became the headquarters for the “69 Mob,” a criminal organization that established a nationwide heroin distribution network and employed young children as lookouts. The housing project’s notoriety extended well beyond Mitchell’s death in 1986: in 1992, the rapper Seagram released the single “The Ville,” which references “the M.O.B.” — an acronym for My Other Brother, the “official” name of Mitchell’s gang.
In the ’70s, the Black Panthers operated a school and community center just a few blocks from 6-9 Ville. This led to conflict over control of the neighborhood. Ned recalls that intakes at the community center for heroin overdoses were common, while the Black Resurgents’ Randolph, who lived nearby on Sunnyside and 82nd Avenue, remembers gun battles sometimes erupting between the two factions.
In the post-Felix Mitchell crack cocaine era, rapping about pimping, drug dealing, drive-by shootings and sideshows all became part of Oakland’s hip-hop lexicon — see Dru Down and the Luniz’ “Ice Cream Man,” Richie Rich’s “Sideshow” and “Half Thang,” or Dru Down’s “Pimp of the Year,” which stayed on the Billboard charts for 24 weeks and would often evoke boisterous sing-alongs when played in local clubs.
Mitchell himself had reportedly popularized drive-by shootings, becoming one of the inspirations for the Nino Brown character in the 1991 movie New Jack City, which featured a hip-hop soundtrack.. And Mitchell’s rival, Milton “Mickey Mo” Moore, financed the first rap record to come out of the Bay Area: Motorcycle Mike’s “Super Rat.”
So while Philadelphia’s Schooly-D and L.A.’s Ice-T are often credited as the first gangsta rap artists, the genre has been heavily influenced by Bay Area criminal icons like Moore, Ward, Mitchell and San Francisco’s Fillmore Slim. Just like the Panthers predated conscious rap and progressive politics, the Bay basically been gangsta for years.
Afrofuturism is at the heart of hip-hop’s imagination
Not all hip-hop artists follow a street playbook. Nearly as influential as The Mack was Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic Space is the Place, filmed at locations in Oakland, including the current Merritt College campus. Its origins date back to a 1971 lecture course given by Sun Ra at UC Berkeley, titled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” The film’s convoluted plot depicts Ra as a time-traveling jazz musician who engages in a game of tarot with an “overseer” to decide the fate of the Black race. Ra eventually wins the contest thanks to his use of sound vibrations during a free jazz concert, boards a spaceship joined by young African Americans he’s recruited from Oakland, and travels to a better world.
Afrofuturistic themes in Space is the Place not only preceded Parliament’s Clones of Dr. Funkenstein and Mothership Connection albums, but established a cultural precedent for those themes to be revisited by hip-hop, first in the electro-funk era, and subsequently through abstract, esoteric, spiritually and conceptually minded rappers and producers. In the Bay Area, Hieroglyphics’ Del the Funky Homosapien would imagine dystopian futures worthy of anime treatments; Blackalicious’ work would contain themes of technology as a means of liberation; and Zion I’s lyrics would reach towards spiritual enlightenment.
Sun Ra was part of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the 1960s, which began in Harlem but was grounded in the Bay Area. Influential author, writer and BAM co-founder Amiri Bakara moved from New York in 1962 to teach at San Francisco State University; in 1964, he worked with a young graphic designer named Emory Douglas on set design for a play in San Francisco. Three years later, Douglas met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at the Black Door, a Black-operated theater known for presenting avant-garde productions, and became the Black Panther’s minister of culture.
Douglas’ revolutionary illustrations were featured in the Panther newspaper, and went on to influence politically-minded graffiti artists and muralists worldwide, including in San Francisco’s famed Clarion Alley. The Coup’s logo, depicting a mother carrying a child in a sling while holding a rifle, is a direct descendant of Douglas’ work. And during the late ’80s, a flourishing of political graffiti around the anti-apartheid movement crested into bold statements against police brutality and Christopher Columbus by Bay Area aerosol legends Mike Dream, Spie and the TDK collective in the early ’90s.
Baraka later became a founding board member of Oakland’s Eastside Arts Alliance, whose annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival in San Antonio Park has featured hip-hop freestyle rhyme and dance cyphers, live painting in honor of Mike Dream, tributes to boogaloo, and performances by The Coup and the Last Poets’ Umar Bin Hassan. Meanwhile, Baraka’s daughter Dominique DiPrima would become the KRON-TV host of the popular Bay Area hip-hop show Home Turf.
Spoken word, feminism
From the Black Arts Movement lineage comes a local emphasis on spoken word poetry and alternative theater. This legacy of artistic expression ultimately connects pioneering poet/playwright Ntozake Shange to the hip-hop inspired Oakland poet Chinaka Hodge, and to the field of hip-hop theater explored by Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the Bay.
In her 1976 choreopoem for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, first performed at a lesbian bar on Solano Avenue in Albany, Shange foreshadowed women in hip-hop’s existential struggle with sexuality, self-affirmation and self-love while dealing with misogyny, toxic relationships and Black female identity. In “No More Love Poems pt 1,” Shange’s Lady in Orange describes “being left screaming in a street full of lunatics whispering slut, beeitch…” — pronouncing the word with the same drawn-out intonation as Too Short would a decade later.
These same themes are present to some degree in the music of Bay Area women in funk — a list that includes Little Sister, Sugar Pie DeSanto, the Brides of Funkenstein, and Betty Davis (who recorded her first two albums in San Francisco with Bay Area musicians). The Pointer Sisters, the Oakland group whose career began with the self-affirming hit “Yes We Can Can,” would later be referenced by Ice Cube, the Treacherous Three and Salt-n-Pepa.
As SF State professor and cultural anthropologist Dawn-Elissa Fischer points out, the tradition extends even further back. “Some of the ideas that Angela Davis and Patricia Collins write about in terms of the impact of blues women — when we talk about the Panthers, we want to remember, while there are obvious ties, there’s this longer tradition of posting, boasting and rapping in the work of blues women in the Bay Area and elsewhere.” The same ideas and themes of the blues era, she says, were magnified and amplified during the funk era, and again in the hip-hop era.
Fischer, a contributor to The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap and an advisor on KQED’s That’s My Word, regularly studies funk music as well as contemporary rap in her work, connecting dots between generational movements. She maintains the funky divas of the 1970s provided not only an artistic blueprint for rappers like the Conscious Daughters to talk about gender, sexuality and reproductive rights, but an aesthetic influence as well. Local emcee Coco Peila, she says, is an example of both, along with Mystic, Suga-T and Ryan Nicole.
In looking critically at the intersection of funk, boogaloo, and the Black Panthers, Fischer says, “There was a lot of labor, gender and sexuality components of all of these movements, and specifically various forms of Black power. And Black women are a critical part of this paradigm.”
The legacy of these movements is not only part of hip-hop history and American history, but Bay Area history specifically. What made these movements so significant and generational in their influence was their intersectional longevity. Funk, boogaloo, and social movements all spoke to each other throughout their existence. That dialogue has become a longer discussion with the advent of hip-hop, which, as it's evolved, has carried along with it the aesthetics of past movements — be they Afros and boots, Black Power salutes, or tick-tocking robot moves over bass grooves.
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