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How Bay Area Hip-Hop Found Its Sound in the 1980s

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In the mid-1980s, after years of street dance, DJing and graffiti sharing equal space, rapping took center stage. The Bay Area’s bass-heavy sound would arrive at the end of the decade. (Clockwise from top left: Too Short, MC Hammer, Dominique DiPrima, Club Nouveau, and Motorcycle Mike.) (Steve Ringman/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images; Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; SFSU Television Archives; Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Hodisk Records)

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.

It’s a wintry January evening when Bas-1 brings me to Del the Funky Homosapien’s house in the East Bay. For much of the afternoon, Bas — the Oakland native who’s worked with Digital Underground and released his own solo records — has schooled me on the origins of the Bay Area hip-hop sound.

Bas lists numerous rappers from the ’80s, and not just Todd “Too Short” Shaw, the East Oakland rapper who famously hustled homemade cassette tapes. I’ve never heard most of the names Bas mentions: MC Chocolate Milk, Windell Baby Doll, Davy Def, Buddy Bean, Reggie Reg Rock Ski.ter, M.C. Tracy, Rock Master Fresh, Nic Nack, Kimmie Fresh, and the Acorn Crew with Grandmaster Fresh (a rapper later known as “DJ Daryl” Anderson, famed for producing tracks like 415’s “Side Show” and 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”).

Many of these early Bay Area rappers never put out a commercially available record. Instead, their work is mostly confined to locally distributed cassette tapes — collectors call them “gray tapes” — that are now nearly impossible to find. They publicly broadcasted these tapes throughout neighborhoods, utilizing boomboxes and car stereos as well as stereos at house parties. “None of them sound like Too Short,” says Bas. “Some of these people didn’t put out recordings, but they were known.”

Throughout the 1980s, Bay Area hip-hop was an artistic movement struggling for a distinct identity. The first half of the decade was defined by street dance and aerosol art as much as rap and DJing. But as local youth began to absorb the sounds emanating from national hotspots like New York, they created a distinctive style all their own — one that would make a global impact in the years to come.

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At Del’s house, Bas queues up an extraordinary live video clip of Mac Mill, Emperor E, and DJ Anthony “K-os” Bryant performing at Festival at the Lake, a now-defunct annual event held at Lake Merritt, in 1988. (Alex “Naru” Reece, who organized the showcase where Mac Mill performed, clarified in a follow-up conversation that it didn’t happen during Festival at the Lake. He also says the showcase was filmed in 1986 for a 1988 video compilation.)

Mac Mill and Emperor E go back and forth, trading sound effects and dense Oakland slang as K-os cuts and scratches copies of Long Island band Original Concept’s deathless bass classic, “Knowledge Me.” Bas praises Mac Mill’s unusual “Arabian” style, which the latter deployed nearly a decade later with the 1995 single “Arabian Hump.”

Then, Bas-1 calls Chris “CJ Flash” Jourdan, an OG who worked with Timex Social Club, the Berkeley teen band whose 1986 electro-funk classic, “Rumors,” represented the first national breakthrough for Bay Area hip-hop culture. As Bas broadcasts CJ Flash’s voice from his phone through Del’s stereo equipment, CJ Flash spends the next hour or so describing a fledging scene where poppers and boogaloo dancers, not rappers or DJs, were the prime attractions.

These ensembles drew from a street-dance tradition that dates back decades. Their kinetic performances ignited crowds at high schools, house parties, and public spaces like Justin Herman Plaza and Union Square in San Francisco and UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Battles even took place on the street, with crews traveling to different neighborhoods around the region to seek out rivals. “You could meet with people on their turf and get down, and hopefully not get thumped in the process,” says CJ Flash. Many Bay Area hip-hop pioneers got their start in dance crews, including Club Nouveau’s Jay King (who pop-locked with The Unknowns), DJ King Tech (who was known as Wizard, and danced with Master City Breakers), and Flash himself (who performed with UFO).

By contrast, rapping was a relatively new and undeveloped skill, the lowest element on the hip-hop totem pole. “Anybody could rap. Anybody could say a bunch of basic rhyme words with no style and flavor,” says Bas, noting as an aside that “most folks couldn’t understand the lyrics anyway.”

How is a discussion about street dancers connected to an exploration of the Bay Area hip-hop sound? It’s important to understand the conditions under which the genre emerged locally.

Turntables, Casios and Homemade Tapes

As KQED’s Eric Arnold explains in “The Bay Area Was Hip-Hop Before There Was Hip-Hop,” foundational elements such as spoken word, funk, and rhythm & blues existed locally well before New Jersey trio Sugarhill Gang arrived with “Rapper’s Delight” in the fall of 1979.

At the same time, the Bay Area was not the Bronx, where breakbeat culture catalyzed and fermented. Bronx DJs, MCs and B-boys like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, the Rock Steady Crew and many others gained renown among mid-’70s New York youth long before “Rapper’s Delight.” By contrast, as CJ Flash explains, it took much of the 1980s for Bay Area youth to develop the cadences and rhythms we now associate with modern rap.

Back then, enterprising musicians couldn’t purchase studio software and distribute their own music on an internet platform like Soundcloud. Recording equipment was expensive. An unsigned artist needed the financial and business expertise to manufacture vinyl and cassettes with artwork, much less convince record stores like Leopold’s Records in Berkeley to carry them. (Recordable CD-Rs weren’t widely used until the 1990s.)

This helps explain why so many rappers utilized turntables and Casio keyboards, and then recorded their songs using the microphone input on relatively cheap stereo equipment. Captured on recordable cassettes like Maxell and TDK, some of these “gray tapes” simply had stickers with handwritten titles. More often, they weren’t labeled at all.

A box of handmade Bay Area rap tapes, part of Naru’s home archives. (Mosi Reeves)

In those days, Too Short was an outlier, a Fremont High School student who canvassed East Oakland spots like Arroyo Park, selling copies of “Game Raps” at a few dollars a pop. Since Short was originally from Los Angeles, he relied on rap partner Tony “Freddy B” Adams to show him around the Town. The duo made customized tapes for local drug dealers and players in the city’s nightlife — now known as “special request” tapes — shouting out the customers’ names in their raps.

“Short was a hustler,” says CJ Flash. “He had a style of telling stories that was so outlandish and so funny that word got around.” Short and Freddy B developed the trademark “Biiiiitch!” catchphrase, and Short has often said that he and Freddy B intended to get famous together. Unfortunately, Freddy B was in prison when Short released his landmark “Freaky Tales” tape in 1987. (Adams is now a minister at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Fairfield.)

Too Short in 1984, at the age of 18. (Katy Raddatz/San Francisco Examiner/Bancroft Library)

Others like Sir Quick Draw, Mac Mill, and Chief Naked Head (later known as Premo; he passed away in January of 2023) simply gave away their tapes or let friends copy or “dub” the originals. As Richmond rapper Magic Mike explained in a recent interview with Dregs One, dubs of his tracks circulated as widely as Germany. “It was more or less trying to make a name for yourself…you had to make a tape,” adds CJ Flash.

Most importantly, Bay Area hip-hop in the ’80s was a primordial soup of youngsters figuring out what the local sound would be. The answers wouldn’t arrive until near the end of the decade. “The Bay Area was behind,” says CJ Flash, comparing it to more advanced regions like Los Angeles, South Florida, and New York. “We never thought about radio.”

‘A Pivotal Moment’

Alex “Naru Kwina” Hence remembers the first time he heard the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” as a 14-year-old preparing to attend Oakland High School. “When the song went off, everybody ran outside, like, ‘Did you hear that song?!” he laughs, calling it one of the best moments of his life. “It was a pivotal moment, bro. We literally started rapping the song and trying to remember it.”

Naru called himself Sir Quick Draw, an alias inspired by Hanna-Barbera cartoon Quick Draw McGraw as well as the fact that, as a runner, “I was hella fast.” He took inspiration from Kurtis Blow, the Harlem rapper who scored major hits like 1980’s “The Breaks.” And Naru almost immediately began recording his voice on tape. His first original song was “The Caveman Rap,” which was inspired by Brooklyn rapper Jimmy Spicer’s 1980 single “Adventures of Super Rhyme.” Naru can still recite those verses from memory: Now people come and take a trip in time with me / Back to that sweet year one million B.C.

“I still got that old-school flavor, man,” he admits. “Hip-hop was more fun for me back then.”

Naru Kwina, who recorded under the names Sir Quick Draw and Em Cee Quick, poses with his home archives. (Mosi Reeves)

But rap in the Bay Area didn’t take off right away. “Most people would rap other people’s songs. They’d just repeat what they heard on the radio,” says Naru. Aspiring MCs honed their craft by congregating at Eastmont Mall, “trying to impress the girls, and getting our names on our derby jackets.” And when Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius of Love” dropped? “Everybody rapped over that joint, man. Too many people.”

It’s worth remembering that hip-hop was a phenomenon developed essentially by Black and Brown children. Rapping, pop-locking, spray-painting aerosol art on neighborhood walls, even DJing: These were youthful forms of play and creative expression.

Bas, who grew up in North Oakland, remembers popping and “roboting” at Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf in the late ’70s as a child. “You have people like Ben [James] from Live Incorporated doing pantomime and roboting,” he says, noting one of the better-known dance crews. Dancers competed for attention and tips that they could spend on Snickers bars and arcade games. “Battle-wise, you had to have skill and talent to a certain caliber in order to truly be out on the Wharf or on Market [and Powell] in front of the cable cars,” he says.

A street dance crew called The Vita Family perform at Pier 39 in 1986. (Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Local newspaper stories focused on the emergence of hip-hop as a youth obsession. Enterprising teachers incorporated it into their lesson plans. On high-school campuses, fledgling DJs like Joseph Thomas “G.I. Joe” Simms Jr. at El Cerrito High School and groups like the Devastating Four proliferated. At house parties, mobile DJ crews spun the latest electro, boogie-funk, and rap hits.

Gatherings at schools, churches, and community centers typically reserved a few minutes for fledgling local rap and dance crews to perform. This was also the era of the Reagan Administration’s “Just Say No” campaign, and kids were often asked to help spread an anti-drug message through raps. “Inspired by rapping groups such as Sugar Hill, Run DMC, Jeckyl and Hyde and Mell (sic) and the Furious Five, teen-agers create their own raps mostly for fun and to bring attention to themselves,” read a June 29, 1985, story in the San Francisco Examiner.

In the first half of the decade, street dance remained a focal point. Double Dutch jump-rope competitions sponsored by McDonald’s drew thousands to Lincoln Square Center in Oakland. The San Francisco Street Breakers held a fundraising benefit, “Super Break Sunday,” at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts in 1985.

Ironically, street dance “got played out” after the success of Hollywood movies like Beat Street and Breakin’, and rap music moved to the center of hip-hop culture. Quickening the process were concerts by Black music stars like the Fresh Festival, the first national hip-hop tour, with headliners Run-DMC at the Oakland Coliseum. Local radio tentatively began to experiment with rap, notably KMEL-FM and its mix DJs such as Michael Erickson and the late Cameron Paul.

A flyer for the Fresh Festival, which arrived in Oakland in 1984.

“By 1985, there was this incredible scene in the South Bay,” says Adisa “The Bishop” Banjoko. As a teen DJ in San Bruno “who looked like Urkel,” he remembers traveling far and wide to buy records, from Creative Music Emporium in San Francisco to T’s Wauzi in Oakland. Meanwhile, nightclubs like Mothers and Studio 47 brought a fusion of hip-hop, freestyle and techno. “San Jose had underage hip-hop teenage clubs, and no other city had those,” he says. (Banjoko later became a rapper, a journalist, and now promotes jiu-jitsu, meditation and chess with his company 64 Blocks.)

Back in Oakland, Naru continued making tapes. “I come from a musical family. My cousin’s the Maestro” — a.k.a. producer Keenan Foster, who has worked with Too Short, Dru Down, and Askari X — “and a lot of my family sings. I got a drum machine, a little Yamaha keyboard. I would play my bass lines. We had double-cassette decks.” He collaborated with Taj “Turntable T” Tilghman, “who was dope on the turntables.” Turntable T eventually bought a Roland TR-808 drum machine, the instrument du jour for def beat MCs. “When that 808 came, that was it. Everyone loved that deck. Boom!

“Gray tapes” that circulated weren’t the EP and album-length releases we’re familiar with today. Some tapes only had one song per side; or maybe just one song on one side, period. Artists were judged not only by their ability to rap engagingly for several minutes, but also to chop up a familiar beat like Whodini’s “Friends,” transforming it into something fresh and original; or even make rudimentary 808 beats. For example, Too Short drew attention for “rapping the longest,” as Bas explains, leading to songs that lasted eight or nine minutes.

Adisa Banjoko in the 1980s. (Courtesy Adisa Banjoko)

“Those tapes were everywhere. Everyone was trying to see what was possible,” says Banjoko. In 1987, he began making raps under the name MC Most Ill. His first song was “Rhyme Junkie.” “The truth was, some of it was really cool but a lot of it actually also sucked, because [the art form] was brand new. … The quality control was not there.”

On August 18, 1984, the San Francisco Examiner published an article called “Rapping with Too-Short,” the first story on the 18-year-old prodigy. Pacific News Service journalist Anthony Adams called Short’s songs “preacher-like yarns over pre-recorded music,” and noted that one of them was about automaker John DeLorean, whose conviction for cocaine trafficking made national news. Short claimed he and his partner Freddy B sold over 2,000 tapes.

The Chronicle-Examiner also frequently interviewed Dominique “Lady D” DiPrima, a New York transplant and San Francisco State University student who rapped, sung, and organized events. DiPrima possessed a rich family pedigree — her father was the jazz writer Amiri Baraka, her mother the beat poet Diane DiPrima. In late 1984, KRON-TV recruited her to host Home Turf, a Saturday-afternoon program that became appointment viewing for local teens.

“Everyone had a crush on Dominique,” says Naru, giggling.

Dominique DiPrima, pictured here hosting a 1987 episode of ‘Home Turf’ on KRON-4. (SFSU Television Archive)

The First Bay Area Rap Record Opens the Floodgates

One of the under-acknowledged aspects of early hip-hop is the way elder Black musicians shepherded young artists into the recording industry.

The late Sylvia Robinson, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, initially emerged in the mid-’50s as one-half of Mickey & Sylvia, who scored a national hit with “Love Is Strange.” As a ’70s solo artist and producer, Robinson made slinky, Eartha Kitt-like erotic disco capers such as “Pillow Talk” and “Sweet Stuff.” After discovering hip-hop when she heard DJ Lovebug Starski at a party, Robinson formed Sugar Hill Records, and turned three rapping teens she found in New Jersey into its first act, the Sugarhill Gang.

This process of soul veterans working with young people resulted in independent 12” singles that mirrored — if not yet accurately capturing — the nascent rap sound at a time when big companies virtually ignored it. With his Mercury Records contract, Kurtis Blow was the only act with a major album deal. A handful of other pioneers like DJ Hollywood scored one-off 12” deals.

A similar process played out in the Bay Area.

The first Bay Area rap record is widely considered to be Phil “Motorcycle Mike” Lewis and the Rat Trap Band’s “Super Rat,” a 1981 boogie-funk single notoriously released by East Oakland heroin kingpin Milton “Mickey Mo” Moore’s Hodisk Records. The name “Hodisk” was a cheeky reference to his onetime side business as a pimp. (Moore has since reformed and is now a pastor in West Oakland.) In fact, Mickey Mo boasts in his 1996 autobiography The Man: The Life Story of a Drug Kingpin, “Hodisk Records became the first record company on the West Coast to release a rap record.” (The first L.A. rap record, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s “The Gigolo Rapp,” was also released in 1981.)

Mickey Mo has another claim to rap lore: In 1980, he helped finance an Oakland Coliseum concert headlined by L.A. funk band War, with the Sugarhill Gang as a supporting act. Journalist Lee Hildebrand’s pre-concert interview with the Gang in the Oakland Tribune was the first mention of rap music in the local press. A second funk-rap novelty, Steve Walker’s “Tally Ho!,” also appeared in 1981. In 1983, San Francisco’s Debo & Brian released the electro-funk EP This Is It. The momentum had started.

“I had made this vow that I would never ever do anything having to do with rap,” laughs Claytoven Richardson. During his long career, the Berkeley-born, Oakland-raised Richardson worked with Aretha Franklin, Kenny G, Whitney Houston, Elton John, and Celine Dion. But in the early ’80s, he was best known as a singer, producer, and arranger with hot dancefloor jazz-funk bands like Bill Summers & Summers’ Heat. His anti-rap stance reflected the music industry at large in the 1980s. “Nobody had the foresight to see that it would morph and change and do the things that it’s done,” he says.

Claytoven Richardson pictured in March 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Steven Simione/Getty Images)

Still, Richardson couldn’t avoid the increasingly popular genre when he scored a production deal at Fantasy Records, the onetime Berkeley jazz label also known for innovative acts like Sylvester and Cybotron, as well as one-off singles generated by a “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” philosophy.

One of the records Richardson produced in that anything-goes environment was Mighty Mouth’s satirical complaint, “I’m All Rapped Out.” (He wasn’t the only one annoyed over rap; perhaps out of wishful thinking, a 1985 San Francisco Chronicle article referred to the “fast-fading hip-hop scene.”) A vocalist named Lawrence Pittman didn’t show up for the session, so Richardson performed the lyrics himself. However, Pittman showed up to rap on Mighty Mouth’s second single, “The Roaches,” which parodied Whodini’s electro hit, “Freaks Come Out at Night.”

Other scattered local raps appeared between 1985 and 1986. Former boogaloo dancer Jay King, just home from a stint in the Air Force and splitting time between Sacramento and Vallejo, formed a group called Frost and released “Battle Beat.” His friends Denzil Foster & Thomas McElroy produced it, as well as another electro-rap track, Sorcerey’s “Woo Baby.” Pittsburg rapper James “Red Beat” Briggs issued “Freak City,” which was later remixed by N.W.A. co-founder Arabian Prince. And there was Rodney “Disco Alamo” Brown, from Richmond, whose 12” “The Task Force” is an early example of Bay Area rap chronicling street life.

Too Short, pictured at his manager’s house in Oakland on September 21, 1987. (Steve Ringman/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Most importantly, Too Short’s rising buzz led to a deal with deep East Oakland entrepreneur Dean Hodges’ 75 Girls label. Released in 1985, the resulting Don’t Stop Rappin’ was the first official album by a local rapper. While fans of a certain age still treasure protean electro-funk tracks like “Girl” — which E-40 referenced on his 1998 hit, “Earl, That’s Yo Life” — the album couldn’t compare to his raunchy and wickedly hilarious “special request” tapes.

It was during this period that Naru finally got his chance in the studio. Since 1984, UC Berkeley station KALX-FM served as home to “Music for the People,” a Sunday-morning community affairs and music show hosted by the late Charles “Natty Prep” Douglass, as well as DJs like Billy “Jam” Kiernan (who also broadcast on San Francisco State University station KUSF-FM), David “Davey D” Cook, and funkster Rickey “The Uhuru Maggot” Vincent. When Naru won a 1986 rap contest hosted by Billy Jam on KALX, he earned a deal with Bay Wave Records, a local imprint distributed by Hollywood-based Macola Records. Richardson was hired to produce the session.

“[Quick Draw] was a great rapper. He had a lot of great lyrics and ideas,” says Richardson. On “Rapaholic,” Richardson and session engineer Michael Denten (who later worked with Spice 1 and E-40) accompanied Quick Draw’s dexterous and energetic raps with sharp-angled percussive edits and sound effects reminiscent of The Art of Noise and Mantronix.

“Respect to Claytoven,” says Naru, who not only continues to make music but also owns a company, Hip Learning, that promotes childhood education with rap. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with the “Rapaholic” experience: “They made the record sound hella more polished. It was [supposed to be] a little more underground than that.” However, he adds, “[Claytoven] taught us a lot in the studio about the mics they use and how to mix. It was a good experience.”

A photocopied flyer advertising Sir Quick Draw’s single ‘Rapaholic.’ (Mosi Reeves)

A Radio Breakthrough — And a Kid Named Hammer

As the trajectory of Bay Area hip-hop waxed and waned, three catalyzing moments brought the scene into focus.

The first was an R&B track. Timex Social Club’s “Rumors” captured the pulse of Bay Area youth culture, from Marcus Thompson and Alex Hill’s skittering electro-funk bass and drums to singer Michael Marshall’s distinctly regional accent and coy recitation of schoolyard gossip (“Did you hear the one about Michael? Some say he must be gay…”) Produced by Jay King and Denzil Foster and released on King’s Jay Records in February 1986, it mushroomed into a top ten Billboard pop hit and dominated radio all year.

But by the summer, Timex Social Club was falling apart and trading accusations with King over money and credit. The group’s only album Vicious Rumors — by that point it was just Michael Marshall — featured drum programming from CJ Flash and a shout-out to KALX’s Natty Prep, who helped break “Rumors” on his “Music and Life” show. Marshall retreated from the spotlight before re-emerging as the hook man on the Luniz’ 1995 smash “I Got 5 on It.”

After breaking with Timex Social Club, King formed a group called Jet Set and signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records. The group changed their name to Club Nouveau before debuting with the single “Jealousy.” A follow-up, the Bill Withers cover “Lean on Me,” went to number-one on the Billboard Hot 100, while Club Nouveau’s debut album Life, Love & Pain went platinum.

Singers Samuelle Prater, Jay King and Valerie Watson of Club Nouveau performs at the U.I.C. Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois in August 1987. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

King’s growing stardom rippled across the Bay and reached Felton Pilate, the Vallejo keyboardist, singer, and producer best known as a driving force in Bay Area funk stars Con Funk Shun. The two had already worked together on King’s onetime rap group Frost; Pilate engineered that record. Pilate soon added one of King’s projects, Sacramento R&B/rap group New Choice, to a growing slate of projects he produced and engineered at his Felstar Studios.

Felstar Studios was the culmination of work he had begun while not touring and rehearsing with Con Funk Shun. At his home studio on Sandpiper Drive in Vallejo, Pilate helped assemble records for fledgling local artists. “I never thought of myself as just a studio,” he says, where he simply records his clients. “I have a little experience here. I’ve got several gold albums. Here, let me pass on some of this knowledge.” When asked if he considered himself a mentor, he demurs, even though that’s arguably what he was.

When Pilate opened Felstar Studios on Sonoma Boulevard, his trusted associate was James Earley, a young engineer whom he credits for adding a more contemporary sensibility to the Studios’ output. Among the locals who came to them were M.V.P., a family trio consisting of Earl Stevens, Danell Stevens, and Brandt Jones. Their 1988 12”, The Kings Men, also included Tanina Stevens and Angela Pressley, who called themselves Sugar ‘N’ Spice. The members of M.V.P. updated their stage names to E-40, D-Shot and B-Legit, added Tanina as Suga T, and evolved into The Click, arguably becoming the most famous rap group to emerge from Vallejo.

M.V.P., a 1988 Vallejo rap group featuring Busy D, E-40 and Legit (L–R). The three would later add E-40’s sister Suga T and become known as The Click. (Gerry Ericksen / Rushforce Records)

In 1986, Pilate and Earley both had solo deals at Berkeley’s Fantasy Records. It was there that Pilate met a former Oakland A’s batboy named Stanley “Holyghost Boy” Burrell through Fantasy Records producer Fred L. Pittman. “Fred would often hire me to do keyboard arrangements for him,” says Pilate. When Pittman asked him to play keys for Holyghost Boy, Pilate responded, “Hey Fred, why don’t you let me take the reins on this?”

As a classically trained jazz and classical musician, Pilate didn’t think much of rap, even though Con Funk Shun not only included a rap verse on a 1982 single, “Ain’t Nobody Baby”; but also made “Electric Lady,” a 1985 hit produced by Larry Smith of Whodini fame that landed in the top five of Billboard’s Black Singles chart. “Musically, I wasn’t a fan, but as a producer, I said, ‘I can do this,’” he says. “Like everyone else, Con Funk Shun wanted to be relevant, and rap was all over the radio.”

The tracks Burrell brought to Pilate consisted of him rapping over sparse Yamaha RX5 drum-machine parts. Pilate responded by going into “study mode.” He listened to the rap stuff that was getting airplay like Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew. As a result, the skittering percussion on Burrell’s “Let’s Get It Started” is reminiscent of the go-go-inspired arrangements on Doug E. Fresh hits like “The Show” and “All the Way to Heaven.”

MC Hammer films the music video for ‘Let’s Get It Started’ at Sweet Jimmie’s nightclub in downtown Oakland, March 19, 1988. (Deanne Fitzmaurice/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

“My thing was to make it more music-driven than beat-driven,” says Pilate. In many cases, he simply “listened to what [Burrell] was talking about and wrote a straight R&B song underneath it.” He also gives credit to Earley, who helped refine the drum programming and brought “that younger ear” to the project. They incorporated stock horn stabs from a battery of Juno, Roland, and Yamaha drum machines. Meanwhile, Kent “The Lone Mixer” Wilson and Bryant “D.J. Redeemed” Marable added rhythmic scratches by cutting up Curtis Mayfield and Beastie Boys records.

After the demos were finished, Fantasy Records dropped Pilate, Earley and Burrell from their deals. “They weren’t really sure how to market any of us,” says Pilate. Then, he chuckles, “The next time I ran into the Holyghost Boy, he had changed his name to MC Hammer.” After forming Bustin’ Records in Fremont with financial help from Oakland A’s ballplayers like Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy, Hammer turned the Pilate demos into three 12”s — “Ring ’Em,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Let’s Get It Started” — and the 1987 album Feel My Power. “I was like, man, those were rough mixes! You were supposed to come back and let me fix that!” Pilate laughs.

Everyone involved in Bay Area hip-hop has vivid memories of MC Hammer blowing up. Near-mythical stories of his local takeover abound, like attending local concerts surrounded by a massive crew; or tearing up the dance floor at The Silks, a popular nightclub in Emeryville.

MC Hammer and Fenton Pilate in modern times. Pilate engineered and co-produced MC Hammer’s first recordings. (Courtesy Felton Pilate)

Today, it’s worth revisiting Feel My Power and 1988’s Let’s Get It Started. Released after Hammer signed with Capitol Records, Let’s Get It Started found Hammer and Pilate remixing those original demos while adding vital new tracks like “Pump It Up.” The results are bombastic and vibrant dance-floor jams as ecstatic as anything by Kid ‘n’ Play and Salt-n-Pepa. Hammer’s subsequent leap into pop superstardom with 1990’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and the ubiquity of “U Can’t Touch This” obscure just how great those early tracks are.

Eight Woofers in the Trunk

MC Hammer’s major-label arrival in 1988 capped a year of Bay Area hip-hop on the cusp of national exposure.

After Too Short issued Born to Mack in the fall of 1987 on his Dangerous Music label, Jive Records picked it up. (Dangerous Music also issued Dangerous Crew, a compilation of vital Bay Area acts like Spice-1, Rappin’ 4-Tay, and the female duo Danger Zone.) Digital Underground’s playful and psychedelic “Underwater Rimes / Your Life’s a Cartoon” led to a deal with Tommy Boy. Local talent waited in the wings, including rapper/producer Paris (A.T.C.’s “Cisco Jam”), Sway & King Tech (Flynamic Force EP), Dangerous Dame (“The Power That’s Packed”), and MC Twist and the Def Squad (“Just Rock”). And the late Cameron Paul, known for his “Beats & Pieces” breakbeats, remixed Queens trio Salt-n-Pepa’s 1987 track “Push It” into a global phenomenon.

Cameron Paul reveals his mixing secrets.
Cameron Paul, who provided the spine of New Orleans bounce music with ‘Brown Beats’ and recorded a smash-hit remix of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push It,’ was also a prominent club and radio megamix DJ in San Francisco. (YouTube)

Incidentally, the first local group to score a major label deal wasn’t Hammer, but Surf MCs, a Berkeley group that Profile Records promoted as a Beastie Boys-like rap/rock crossover. Their 1987 album Surf or Die proved a flop.

Yet the third moment that catalyzed Bay Area hip-hop wasn’t a singular record like Timex Social Club’s “Rumors,” or an artist like Hammer and Short. It was the sound of walloping, all-enveloping bass.

Made for surgically enhanced car and jeep stereos, the bass colossus is as much a feature of hip-hop in the mid-’80s as the pounding Roland TR-808 machine, from Rick Rubin’s production on LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” and T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” to Rodney O and DJ Joe Cooley’s “Everlasting Bass” and Dr. Dre’s work on Eazy-E’s “The Boyz-N-The Hood.” It also mirrors the crack-cocaine epidemic that began to blight and distort communities across the country. As street life turned treacherous, the specter of the hustler, and whether to become one, cast a growing shadow.

“Then the new style came, the bass got deeper / You gave up the mike and bought you a beeper / Do you want to rap or sell coke? / Brothers like you ain’t never broke,” Too Short memorably rapped on his 1989 hit, “Life Is…Too Short.”

Banjoko recalls how the presence of gangs transformed local shows. “You would see a bunch of people dressed up together [in the same gear], and you might assume they were a rap or dance crew. They were young drug lords,” he says. “You could get trampled, beat up or robbed by any of them. I remember 69 Ville being massively deep at the Fresh Fest and the [Run-DMC] Raising Hell tour. They were terrifying, straight up. You were going to tuck your chain, you were going to take your Kangol off, or they were going to take it.”

Hugh EMC, the San Francisco rapper whose 1988 single ‘It’s the Game’ unflinchingly chronicled street life. (Soul Sonic Records)

Rap imagery became more honest and explicit. Some like Richmond rapper Magic Mike, San Francisco’s Hugh EMC (“It’s the Game”), and Oakland’s Hollywood (“Gangster Rap”) seemed to embrace the hustler ethos, while cautiously adding verses about the consequences of that lifestyle. Then there was Oakland rapper Morocco Moe, whose “Task” criticized how law enforcement brutalized communities in the War on Drugs: “Their intentions are good/But their actions are wrong.”

“Every Black neighborhood was infested” with crack, says Vallejo producer Khayree Shaheed. “There was an influx of money coming into young Black men, but there was also a lot of death occurring.” The epidemic also marked his entry into the world of rap.

As a descendant of the Bay Area’s vaunted funk tradition, Khayree spent the ’70s and early ’80s playing bass guitar for bands like Grand Larceny, Body Mind & Spirit and Touch of Class (with keyboardist Rosie Gaines, who later joined Prince & the New Power Generation). His travels took him across the U.S. and even to Japan, where Touch of Class lived and performed for several months. (Though his bands made demos, there are no official recordings to date.) When asked about the first time he heard rap, Khayree cites “jazzoetry” ensembles like The Last Poets, not the Sugarhill Gang. And as a youth growing up on Lofas Place in Vallejo, he spent plenty of time following Con Funk Shun, hoping to apprentice with the biggest band in the city.

Vallejo musician Khayree Shaheed, playing bass onstage in 1979. (Courtesy Khayree Shaheed)

Khayree was in his mid-20s when Rod “I.C.E.” Andrews and Dan “Luvva D” Morrison a.k.a. the Luvva Twins brought Khayree a demo they had made on a Casio keyboard, “Hubba Head.” The song title was slang for a crack addict, and the duo described the “hubba head’s” descent into addiction with charismatic punch. They arranged the music and rapped most of the lyrics, while Khayree dropped a short verse and added guitar.

Khayree had already spent time at Pilate’s home studio, honing his writing and production skills. (“I always enjoyed working with him,” says Pilate.) Now, he brought “Hubba Head” to Pilate, and the two prepared it for release. Setting up his own label, Big Bank Records, Khayree distributed two hundred copies of the 12” to DJs and influencers. “The record was super popular in the streets,” says Khayree.

After “Hubba Head,” Khayree began working with Jay King, a fellow graduate of Vallejo High School. The opportunity to write and produce New Choice’s 1987 single “Cold Stupid” and most of the quintet’s 1988 debut, At Last, gave him important experience on a major project and financial stability. By fusing bass, funky R&B and hip-hop breakbeats, New Choice reflected a parallel R&B movement that both influenced and was inspired by the hip-hop scene. Similar Bay Area acts included Oakland’s Tony! Toni! Toné!, who parlayed backing sessions for Sheila E. and Tramaine Hawkins into a major-label deal.

Flush from his experience with New Choice, Khayree was ready to start his own company. “I’m listening to EPMD’s Strictly Business,” he says, inspiring the name of his second label, Strictly Business Records. He knew that Mike “The Mac” Robinson, who also grew up on Lofas Place, was a rapper. Robinson hailed from a musical family: his uncle Steve “Silver” Scales was a well-traveled Vallejo funk percussionist who played with Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and the B-52s. (Though it would be a delicious coincidence, Scales didn’t perform on “Genius of Love.”) Khayree encouraged Robinson to take music more seriously. Meanwhile, Robinson’s mother drew the memorable Strictly Business logo: an open briefcase, ready for business.

In 1988, Khayree released The Mac’s three-song EP, “I’m Ah Big Mac.” Heard now, what immediately stands out is the unique tone of the bass. “We used synthesizers that had dumb-fat bass lines,” explains Khayree in reference to himself and Too Short as well as future Bay Area colleagues like Ant Banks. By comparison, he says, other regional scenes relied on a “natural” bass guitar or samples from records. “You feel it through your whole body. … You can get it with a bass guitar, depending on how you EQ the bass and what you run your guitar through. But you’re never going to touch the subs and the depth of a Minimoog, of the Oberheim Ovx, or the Roland Juno 106.” The EP’s highlight is its B-side “The Game Is Thick,” which centers on a sample of Prince’s “D.M.S.R.”

Khayree and The Mac (L–R), pictured on the cover of The Mac’s ‘The Game is Thick.’ (Phil Bray / Strictly Business Records)

In 1989, Khayree remixed and re-released “The Game Is Thick” as a standalone 12” with a memorable cover photo: Khayree looking super-clean in a grey suit, clasping a briefcase, with The Mac in a red-and-black bomber jacket. Khayree calls the style “pimping.” “We didn’t mean pimping so much as getting prostitutes to work,” he explains. “It’s an attitude, and it’s a musical style.” The “game” is a metaphor for life in the Black community. Street slang illustrated complex situations, whether it was dealing with the repercussions of a raging crack epidemic, or simply navigating the tensions of everyday living. Meanwhile, The Mac’s “cool, silky, pimpish” flow and Khayree’s synthesized bass production proved a clear predecessor to the ’90s mob-music sound that took over Bay Area rap.

Upon release, “The Game Is Thick” didn’t make a major impact, and most copies went to local DJ pools. “We promoted records out of the trunk,” says Khayree. “We went from Bobby G’s Soul Disco in San Francisco to [Rico Casanova’s record pool] The Pros in Oakland.” Still, “The Game Is Thick” remix received a mention in Davey “D” Cook’s April 7, 1989 “Beats & Breaks” column for BAM Magazine. “Let me tell you, it’s hyped to the max,” Davey D wrote.

With Khayree’s encouragement, the Mac taught himself how to produce music with synth keyboards. He also introduced Khayree to another Vallejo artist, Andre “Mac Dre” Hicks, who became Strictly Business’ second act. By the time The Mac was shot and killed on July 23, 1991 in what Khayree calls “a case of mistaken identity,” the two had recorded dozens of tracks and released a third and final 12” protesting police violence, 1990’s “Enuff of Tis Sh-t!” One of The Mac’s beats posthumously appeared on Mac Dre’s 1993 track, “The M.A.C. & Mac D.R.E.

Khayree with Kool Moe Dee at the 1988 BRE Conference in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Khayree Shaheed)

“Mike had a big, big loving heart,” remembers Khayree, sounding wistful. He emphasizes how The Mac left behind a daughter, “Mac” Reina Robinson, and a pregnant girlfriend who gave birth to his son, Mike. At one point, Khayree plays a voicemail of The Mac passionately singing a funky, swinging hook, as if to counteract the stereotype that rappers aren’t musicians. He talks about how The Mac’s way of playing simple, evocative keyboard notes for maximum effect echoes in the work of his famed protégé, Mac Dre. “I miss him,” he says.

Sponsored

Bay Area rap broke wide at the end of the decade, leading to a 1989 story in the New York Times, “Rap by the Bay: Oakland Emerges as a Force in Pop.” Not every local pioneer who laid the groundwork would enjoy the fruits of that success. But their stories are essential to understanding how local hip-hop came of age, and everything that came after.

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