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How the Rap Group 51.50 Put Marin City on the Map

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As Marin City's most active rap group, 51.50 had a revolving door of members — based, in part, on who was in jail at the time. Pictured here are Los the Jackal, Klark Gable, B.M.F.D. and Tac. (Courtesy Darren Page)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.

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efore Ryan Rollins became Ryan D of the rap group 51.50 Illegally Insane, he was a kid from a musical, churchgoing household in tiny Marin City, just north of San Francisco. His mother taught piano lessons, and he sang in choir. “We always had pianos in the house, I was always around music,” says Ryan, who today lives in Fairfield. “But as soon as the breakdance era hit, I was breaking.”

Breakdancing soon led to rapping, and Ryan bought a Roland TR-808, the drum machine whose percussive possibilities catalyzed the development of hip-hop. He soon linked up with one of the only other kids in Marin City with an 808: Darren “Klark Gable” Page, with whom he’d start the greatest rap group ever to come out of Marin City.

51.50 never hit it big, but they existed at an important time at the crossroads of East Bay and North Bay rap. Some members launched a group with Tupac Shakur, one of the world’s most legendary rap artists, who lived in Marin City for a time. And throughout the 1990s, 51.50’s raw, honest street anthems sold consistently at independent stores in the Bay Area and beyond, putting their small, predominantly Black city on the map.

One Nation Emcees: Klark Gable, Ryan D and Tupac Shakur. (Courtesy Darren Page)

From a Rich Tradition

Marin City, a community of 3,000 just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, was built in 1942 to accommodate workers at the WWII-era Marinship shipyards in Sausalito. Many current residents are descendants of those workers, some of whom moved from the South as part of the “Great Migration” of African Americans throughout the 20th century. An outlier within white, affluent Marin County, Marin City still has a disproportionately high percentage of Black residents today: 25%, compared to 3% in the county overall.

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“They came from a rich tradition of culture and music,” says Felecia Gaston, author of the book A Brand New Start… This Is Home, which explores the artistic and cultural history of Marin City. “They kept their traditions a lot, starting off with gospel groups, so those traditions carried on and passed down generation to generation.”

In the world of hip-hop, Marin City is mostly known as the one-time home of Tupac Shakur, who lived there briefly in 1988 with his family. In such a small town and with hip-hop only just becoming a global phenomenon, it was perhaps inevitable that Shakur and the two 808-owners would link up. Gable, Ryan and Shakur soon formed a group, calling themselves One Nation Emcees.

“The rap game was new back then—we were just exercising our skills,” says Gable of these early years. Ryan is slightly less effusive: “I don’t wanna say I was dope as Tupac,” he says, “but I think I was dope as Tupac. Of course, any rapper should think you was dope as anybody if you’re worth any of your salt.”

(L–R) Klark Gable, B.M.F.D.,Los tha Jackal and Tac in Marin City’s Golden Gate Village public housing project. (Courtesy Darren Page)

‘Come Out of Jail and Straight Into the Studio’

After making a few recordings with Ryan and Gable (“Never Be Beat” and “Fantasy” survive from this era), Shakur drifted to Oakland, and Ryan went to prison, where he reconvened with an acquaintance named Kendrick “Riq Roq” Wells. Wells had an idea for a record label, and he wanted both Ryan and Gable to be involved.

“We built a studio first, and then we had to start a group,” says Gable. “You can’t start a label without a group, obviously.”

After working with various rappers in Marin City, Ryan and Gable — with Wells as their new manager and label boss — completed the core trio with rapper Tac and became the first act on Wells’ ARRogant Records. (Other signees would include Sacramento’s Mayjor Playahs, Pittsburg’s Super Natural Ghetto Starz, and San Francisco’s Raffi & the Righteous Posse.) With few venues in Marin City besides the local recreation center and the annual Marin City Festival, the group performed mostly in Sonoma County, San Francisco, and Southern California.

Ryan always envisioned 51.50 as a “Wu-Tang type of thing, but West Coast,” and various collaborators orbited the core trio throughout their existence. Rappers B.M.F.D., G-Amp, and Los tha Jackal were regular collaborators, as was singer Levy Love, who helped the group develop a smooth, soul-inflected style that stood out even in the wildly creative crucible of ’90s Bay Area rap.

51.50’s nebulous membership policy was a product of creativity as much as necessity. “The jail was a revolving door to our studio,” Gable jokes. “Come out of jail and straight into the studio, don’t waste no time—that’s how it was.”

51.50, in fact, was one of the earliest artists to record a song from jail — almost. When Ryan was still behind bars and the group was workshopping the songs that would make up their 1992 debut Games People Play, he called the studio with a verse he had just written, and Gable instantly cooked up a sumptuous, Sade-sampling beat.

“It was so deep, it’s not the typical gangster rap, you know what I mean?” says Gable. “When he got out of jail and we went to record it, I’m like, something’s missing. It doesn’t sound as deep and dramatic as it did when he called.”

Intent on using a real phone rather than simply distorting Ryan’s vocals, the group found a contact in jail and had Ryan deliver his verse to jail from the studio. The final recording, “Green & White,” came out in 1992, the same year as fellow Bay Area rapper Mac Dre’s Back n tha Hood EP, perhaps the most famous rap recording made from jail and generally cited as the first.

51.50’s debut album ‘Games People Play.’ (ARRogant Records)

Makin’ Legal Money

Games People Play stood out in the Bay Area rap of the time not only for the group’s “crazy” identity but for the music’s lush, textured sound, which contrasted with the low-slung mobb music sound coming out of the East Bay. The 1995 follow-up Crazy Has Struck Again featured a larger cast of collaborators, and comes closest of 51.50’s releases to the free-wheeling camaraderie of Wu-Tang’s contemporaneous sound.

Following two more albums — 2000’s A.W.O.L. Missing In Action and 2002’s Back From The Asylum — the group folded after Tac suffered a stroke in 2004 that caused him to lose much of his memory and many of his motor functions. The group played its final show in 2010 in Fairfax, but it was clear Tac could no longer perform. “I didn’t know how bad it was until that show,” says Gable. “He didn’t know any of the words.”

Of the core three 51.50 members, only Gable still makes music. Ryan has worked for C&H Sugar in Vallejo for nearly 20 years, and claims to have simply lost interest. “I knew what it takes to be a dope rapper,” he says, “and I don’t have that drive anymore.”

Yet Ryan says “a lot of people have been reaching out lately” — not to hit him up for features or to ask about 51.50, but to ask about Tupac.

Though Ryan and Gable’s collaboration with Tupac lasted only a few months, they were present for one of the saddest and most controversial incidents in both the late rapper’s career and the broader history of Marin City: the fatal shooting of 6-year-old Qa’id Walker-Teal at the 1992 Marin City Festival, at which both 51.50 and Shakur performed.

‘I Stopped Talking to Tupac’

By 1992, Shakur was an established music and film star, having just starred in the thriller Juice and released his debut album 2Pacalypse Now after a stint with the popular Oakland rap group Digital Underground. “He was still coming through the hood, we were still calling him and he was picking right up,” Gable says of Shakur. “But when he was doing that, of course now he was being interviewed on MTV.”

After leaving town, Shakur expressed negative sentiments towards Marin City in the press, which angered many locals. According to Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson, the rapper agreed to perform for free at the 1992 edition of the annual Marin City Festival as an apology to the local community.

It quickly became clear not everyone would accept his goodwill gesture. “He’d be down there hanging out with us, chilling,” says Ryan. “But you know, it’s one cat over there looking at him side-eyed.”

In happier times: Ryan D, Tupac Shakur, Ray Luv and Klark Gable. (Courtesy Darren Page)

According to Gable, a group of drunk locals decided to instigate a fight with Shakur while 51.50 was performing onstage. No one seems quite sure who fired the shot that killed Walker-Teal, but the bullet came from a gun registered to Shakur.

“Nobody even brings a gun to the festival,” says Gable. “You know what I mean? And so when that happened, I stopped talking to Tupac.”

Tupac was fatally shot in 1996 in Las Vegas at the age of 25, and a suspect in the long-running case was recently charged after decades of speculation and controversy. “I still didn’t have no love for him when he passed,” says Gable. “For that to happen, that eats me up. And the little kid that died, everybody knew him. Everybody loved him.”

(L–R) Tac, Ryan D, and Klark Gable in a recent photo. (Courtesy Darren Page)

30 Years Later

These days, 51.50’s music lives on through streaming services, grainy YouTube footage and old cassettes and CDs, traded among collectors. Their members, meanwhile, have gone in different directions.

B.M.F.D. became a pastor in Colorado, to the surprise of Ryan and Gable, who remember him during their Marin City days as a hellraiser—“the kind of cat you had to babysit.” G-Amp passed away in Humboldt County in 2021 after suffering a heart attack and subsequently being struck by a car. Wells passed away last August, and the remaining group members all met for the first time in years at his memorial service last month in Sacramento.

“You know, that’s life,” says Gable. “Being a Black man, you know. Fortunately none of us got shot. Still here dying of natural causes. But there’s still a few of us. We just linked up for Kendrick’s memorial. I don’t remember the last time all of us were together like that. It’s been years, but it’s always all love.”

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