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Peanut Butter Wolf on San Jose Hip-Hop in the ’80s and ’90s

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(L–R) Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf on top of San Jose State parking garage, 1992. (Outtake from 'Big Shots' album cover shoot.) (Theresa Castro)

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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eanut Butter Wolf is a San Jose legend. As a DJ, producer, archivist and record label owner, his contributions to Bay Area hip-hop loom large — even after a move to Los Angeles to run his label, Stones Throw, which has released undisputed classics from MF Doom, J. Dilla, Madlib and many others. He’s chronicled and reissued more early San Jose rap than anyone, and his own 1998 solo opus My Vinyl Weighs a Ton still goes hard.

Here, Peanut Butter Wolf reminisces on growing up in San Jose in the ’80s and ’90s; the dedication required to discover new hip-hop in those early years; and the serendipitous circumstances of his early collaborations with South Bay rappers. This interview with San Jose’s David Ma (Needle to the Groove Records, Dad Bod Rap Pod) has been edited for length and clarity.

With a Planet Patrol 12” single at friend Steve’s house, Christmas 1982. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

David Ma: What was your musical experience growing up in San Jose?

Peanut Butter Wolf: My musical experience started with my parents showing me the music they liked, which was mainly classical, showtunes, swing and country. They belonged to a “record of the month” club where they paid a monthly fee and could choose a different record to be mailed to them each month — Beethoven, The Sound of Music, Frank Sinatra, John Denver. I liked the music OK, but I also liked getting the box in the mail and opening it up. Then my mom would let me get a 45 every now and then, and when Saturday Night Fever came out, I was hooked on that sound.

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My second-grade teacher would also show me music. I found out about The Sylvers, The Jacksons, Heatwave and others from him. By age 9, in 1979, my best friend Steve and I were buying 45s every weekend at Star Records. We’d save our lunch money and buy a record or two, play some video games, buy some baseball cards and get a junior whopper at Burger King. The owner would be impressed that these little kids knew the latest songs even before she did, and she told me “When you get old enough to work, I’m gonna hire you.” She eventually did.

Second-grade teacher Mr. Bowman, who introduced Chris to funk, soul, and disco in 1977. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

When did hip-hop enter your consciousness? And, to the best of your memory, what was the reaction to hip-hop in the South Bay?

It started for me with “Rappers Delight” and “The Breaks.” Those were my favorite songs of the year. That’s when I discovered 12” singles, which cost $4.99 compared to 99¢ for a 45, so we’d only buy those if it was something we really liked. And stuff like “Double Dutch Bus” was rap to us too. We didn’t really know the difference. After “Rappers Delight” took off, funk and soul artists tried rapping too, and we loved it all: “Fantastic Voyage,” “Square Biz,” “Rapture.” But also thanks to the success of “Rappers Delight,” the label that they were on, Sugar Hill Records, was really the only “hip-hop” label that got distribution in the stores we went to in San Jose. We bought records by Grandmaster Flash, Treacherous Three, Crash Crew, The Sequence, West Street Mob — basically anything on that label we could find. And when breaking got big in 1984, it helped bring rapping, DJing, and graffiti to the forefront as well.

Movies like Breakin’, Beat Street, and Wild Style were so exciting. We’d go to Chuck E. Cheese to witness breakdance battles. And our VCR would always be ready in case there was breaking on the news. We’d even tape the TV commercials that had breaking in them — Mountain Dew had one, and Sprite. And shows like Soul Train, cable access video shows like Magic Number Video with Isaac Stevenson and Night Flight, college radio stations like KZSU with Kevvy Kev, KSCU, and KSJS. We’re talking mid ’80s. When the pilot episode of Graffiti Rock came out, we were so excited and recorded it on our VCR and kept watching it over and over. I remember at the end, Shannon does a hair flip with her beads, and they hit one of the members of Run-DMC in the face and we’d watch it over and over on slow motion. But we had to find every song in that episode (we knew most already).

Listening to records at his friend Steve’s house. Christmas, 1982. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

What was your main mode for discovering music in a pre-internet era?

In the early ’80s, most of our favorite stuff as pre-teen kids was on radio station KSOL, but only getting played rarely, at night or on the weekends. You could hear stuff like that at Cal Skate, which was a roller rink in Milpitas. We were friends with an older guy David Gillespie who would let us borrow his albums so we could record them too. Besides those few 12”s that we’d sometimes buy, we were still mainly buying 45s. And sometimes the 45 would be sold out, so we’d have to record it from the radio until it was available, because otherwise, we couldn’t hear the song “on demand.” But when you do that, you miss the beginning and ending of the song because the announcer is talking over it, and God forbid, you’d never want that. But we were too young to go to clubs or live shows, so we didn’t really have much of a way to hear hip-hop in San Jose besides the record stores, mix shows on KSOL, and word of mouth from friends with older siblings.

Star Records shopping bag. Year unknown. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

Seems like you mostly DJ now at gigs, but I want to know about your early beatmaking — for example, the stuff you did with Charizma. Tell us about who your production influences were at the time.

This was around 1984, so I was really influenced by stuff like “F-4000,” “Sucker MCs,” “What People Do For Money,” “Alnaayfish,” “The Show,” “Request Line,” “Fresh Is the Word,” “King Kut,” “Techno Scratch,” “Roxanne, Roxanne,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Beat Box,” “What Is A DJ If He Can’t Scratch,” “Five Minutes Of Funk” and others. The stuff with just a drum machine and scratching appealed to us the most. We didn’t wanna play keyboards or bass at that point. We just wanted hard drums, rapping, and scratching. The whole point with the second wave of hip-hop that started with the drum machines and scratching was that we didn’t like hip-hop with a live band anymore, like the stuff on Sugar Hill Records that we loved a few years before. It was all about Run-DMC and the stripped-down, hardcore sound.

Tell about when you made beats; the equipment you used, what the process was like, what samples you looked for. Were you trying to emulate anyone? Were there other San Jose producers you interacted with?

I guess that depends on which years. The early drum machines I used were the Mattel Synsonics and then the Boss Dr. Rhythm. The early recordings were done live, with the mic, turntables, and drum machine all plugged into my Realistic mixer from Radio Shack. If you messed up with any of the elements, you’d have to rewind the tape and start all over. And then the Casio RZ-1 that I bought in 1987 when I was in Long Beach, which was later Prince Paul’s signature sound. It was strictly drum machine and scratching. I always wanted an 808, but couldn’t afford one. Then, in 1989, I bought my first real sampler: an Ensoniq EPS workstation. I used that throughout the ’90s. It was the same sampler that RZA used for all his early classic albums and sounded really raw. In those years, I really loved Marley Marl, the Bomb Squad, and the 45 King. And I was really impressed with a local hip-hop producer DJ Divine, who later changed his name to Raleem and then eventually became Assassin. And of course, King Shameek was a big influence because I loved his beats, but also because he moved to New York and “made it.”

A doodle of Chris by his high school classmate Rick Gray. Piedmont Hills High School, 1985. (Illustration by Rick Gray)

Let’s get into more obscure San Jose rap that made an impact on you yet doesn’t get brought up often. Do you remember the Members Only crew?

Of course, I do. They were a major influence because they were the first hip-hop group from the South Bay that I knew about, and the songs were dope. They were all college students at Stanford University and their DJ Markski was the older brother of my friend Todd from high school. I was so excited when their record came out. I was already listening to Kevvy Kev’s hip-hop radio show “The Drum” every Sunday from 6-9 p.m., and I’d learn about all the underground stuff. My parents were divorced at the time and every Sunday, I’d go to my dad’s house, so I’d listen to it in the garage. That was the only place that had a radio besides his car. We’d play pool in there. I remember one time Kev played the bonus beats of the song “Request Line,” and it had a little vocal sample that said “Hello, hello, hello… hello…,” and it repeated over and over, and my dad said, “This isn’t real music. Anyone can do that.” I got so mad. But Kev was one of the rappers in Members Only, and Jonathan Brown was one of the other MCs in the group, and Jonathan had his show on KZSU at 9 p.m. We bought the record and taped the video off of “Magic Number Video,” and recently digitized it and gave it to Jonathan, and he was so happy. He uploaded it to YouTube.

 

There was a sizable bass and electro scene in the South Bay. Tell us about Jonathan Brown — who he is, what he did, and why he shouldn’t be left out of the history we’re discussing.

Yeah, San Jose in particular felt like a sister city to Miami. Latin Freestyle music and Miami Bass music really connected with an audience in San Jose. MC Twist was also the first rapper from San Jose to sign with a well-known label, Luke Skyywalker Records, which was from Miami. I didn’t know about him working at Star Records, but I remember him coming in and people being in awe. Before even hearing the music, there was a buzz about him being the first rapper from San Jose to get signed to a label we all knew about.

Jonathan Brown was one of the rappers in the Members Only Crew in 1985, but he gravitated more towards bass music. He released records that sounded like lo-fi Egyptian Lover. I wasn’t really into them at the time because I was all about my New York hardcore rap, like Schoolly D and Just-Ice and Ultramagnetic MCs, stuff like that, but my best friend Steve bought his Bass Creator album. Years later, I really liked it. I tried unsuccessfully to release his music on Stones Throw as a reissue, other than the Bass Creator song on a compilation I did. But Jonathan is super prolific. He has hundreds and hundreds of songs.

Chris Cut and MC Cool Breeze in the back of a Suzuki Samurai on the way to a performance, 1986. (Dave Gatt)

Can you tell folks who Cool Breeze was? I know you two had even recorded some songs together.

So, the first group I was in was called The Slobs. It was MBJ (Miles) and CKB (Kamaal) on the rhymes and me on the beats and cuts. The Fat Boys had just made it, and the MCs I worked with were both big guys, so they thought “If the Fat Boys can do it, so can we.” Miles was truly the first guy to believe in himself and believe in me, and he borrowed a drum machine from a friend and gave it to me so I could make beats. He had the most ambition of all of us, but not so much talent. He later went solo because CKB never took it as serious, and he changed his name from MBJ to Cool Breeze.

We recorded our early demos at King Shameek’s house; he was in a group called Def City Crew with this MC named Landon Green. Shameek always told us we were all gonna make it, and then he moved to New York and became the DJ/producer for Twin Hype, and did beats for King Sun and other rappers. None of us could believe it.

Before I moved to Long Beach for college, this DJ on KMEL named Alexander Mejia heard our demo and hooked us up with a show opening for a freestyle artist named Trinere. We were so excited. It was around 800 people, definitely the biggest audience we played for up to that time. Then I moved, and Cool Breeze joined the army, and also moved, and we lost touch. Years later, I found out he committed suicide.

The Eastside Prep Boys were around in the mid-’80s and made a name for themselves. Yet they’re also forgotten when it comes to San Jose history. Can you tell us who they were?

So around 1985, I worked with an MC named Marky D, who later changed his name to Marky Fresh since one of the Fat Boys was named Marky D. Then there was an MC in New York named Marky Fresh who worked with the 45 King. But my Marky had a really deep voice, like Spyder D, even though we were only 15. I was really excited to record with him, but I could never get him to write down rhymes. He always freestyled his way through it. When “Roxanne, Roxanne” came out, we did an answer rap to it. And even before me getting a hold of drum machines, I had him rap over the instrumental of the new wave song “Sex” by Berlin. He never really seemed that worried about becoming a rapper as a career or anything, but was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He also got into mobile DJing high energy and freestyle music, and then eventually became a nightclub security guard and then an Ultimate Fighter. Decades later, I released a 7” of one of the songs under the fake name “Eastside Prep Boys.” I used the Mattel Synsonic Drums which were a drum machine/electronic drums you could buy at Toys R Us. And the scratching was terrible.

San Jose is interesting in that two of the most beloved early rap groups from the area have similar names — Homeliss Derilex and the Dereliks. When did both come on your radar? What are the main distinctions between the two? You even have a song with 50 Grand. Tell us about it?

Well at the time, they had beef, and I was friends with the Homeless Derilex so I couldn’t listen to the Dereliks. But the Homeless Derilex sounded more like a Gang Starr influence, and the Dereliks sounded more like a Hiero influence.

Did you ever hear that Raised By Seuss reissue from a few years ago? They were from Sunnyvale, supposedly. Any reaction to their music? I know plenty of folks for your era who speak of them highly.

Raised By Seuss was partly brought to my attention by DJ Pioneer, who also knew DJ Raleem. I think out of all the rappers I was working with in San Jose around 1990, besides Charizma, they got the more playful De La Soul, KMD and bohemian influences that I had, more than anybody else. DJ Pioneer was doing their beats. He was another great producer, and I actually liked the songs they did with him better than the ones with me. In those years, I was so concerned with making stuff sound “different” that some of my beats didn’t have that funky, soulful, hip-hop essence. Pioneer always had that. Raised By Seuss really only came to my house a few times to record, but cool cats. For one of the songs I did with them, I ended up developing the track more and eventually gave it to Charizma for a song we did called “Ice Cream Truck.”

 

How was gangsta rap received in San Jose? How did it strike you? I think you produced a gangsta rap group as well — tell us about them, if you remember.

People loved gangsta rap in San Jose in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That was definitely selling more than the East Coast stuff. I liked the early East Coast gangsta rap, but we just called it “hardcore.” Stuff like Schoolly D, Just-Ice, Boogie Down Productions’ first album. Gangster rappers around the country were really into the Criminal Minded album, and even Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full, EPMD and Public Enemy. Gangsta rap would sample their voices for choruses and make beats that sounded similar, but the whole G-funk sound that grew out of the gangsta rap thing — I wasn’t really listening to it all that much when it was happening. We played a little bit of NWA and Eazy-E on the radio, but we also felt a responsibility to play stuff that hip-hop fans in San Jose didn’t really know or have access to. I also wasn’t interested in really making that music, because I was so excited about digging in the crates and finding rare, weird shit to sample. G-funk was more crisp synths and drum machines, and well-known early ’80s funk like Zapp and One Way. Which was the music I loved when it was happening, but by the early ’90s I was looking for a new sound. And I also didn’t relate to the lifestyle.

I was in college and getting really curious about and attracted to stuff like the Universal Zulu Nation and the 5 Percenters. But this more street group called the Siggnett Posse found out about me through Charizma’s dad, who played in a reggae band with this guy who knew them. They didn’t know any producers, so they were introduced to me. One of the rappers was from San Francisco, and the other was from Oakland, so they called their crew BSB, which stood for Both Sides Of The Bay. They sounded more like Totally Insane, Rappin’ 4-Tay, MC Breed or Paperboy, but it had a 408 connection because of me. I made the beats at my house in San Jose; we tracked the music and their vocals in a studio in San Jose as well. The main rapper, J-Wanz, was the nephew of Victor Willis, the lead singer and songwriter of the Village People. After we released that tape, Victor called me and wanted me to produce his solo record with hip-hop sounding beats, but I never followed up. I wasn’t sure how that would sound, but looking back, “YMCA” was my favorite song when I was 7, so maybe I should’ve just tried it.

One of our favorites, and one of the best turntablists on the planet, is D-Styles, who lived in the South Bay area for a minute. Can you tell us about when you two crossed paths?

Back in around 1985, when I was in high school and had 2 turntables and a mixer, D-Styles went to middle school with my younger sister. I’m guessing she told him I was a DJ. The way I remember it, my sister brought him over to the house and into my room, and she asked me to show him how to scratch. I was a little protective as the older brother, and didn’t want her talking to guys, even if she said they were just friends. So I didn’t wanna show him all the turntable tricks I learned. Back then, at our age, there really was no way to learn how to scratch other than listening to records and trying to mimic what the DJs did on record.

 

Tell us about your DJing experience with one another, as one of a few who experimented with it at the time.

“Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash” was one of the first songs we’d all try to learn, and then “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren, “Rockit” with Grandmixer DST and “Techno Scratch” by Knights Of The Turntable. “Looking For The Perfect Beat” confused us, because it sounded like scratching, but it didn’t sound like a human did it; it was more robotic. But there was “What Is A DJ If He Can’t Scratch” by Egyptian Lover, “Reckless” with Chris “The Glove” Taylor, “Surgery” by the Wreckin’ Crew. Those years in 1982–1983 really made me want to learn how to scratch. I didn’t even care about mixing. I’d go to parties and school dances where Jazzy Jim or D’Jam Hassan or Joey J. Rox was DJing, and literally ask if could get on their turntables and show the crowd that I knew how to scratch.

Looking back, it was really bold to the point of insulting for me to do that, but I didn’t know any better. I was 15. And there weren’t really felt slipmats that you could buy, so we would use the rubber platter that came with the turntable and try to scratch with that under the record. It would ruin my records. And I couldn’t really afford Technics 1200s until the mid-’90s, so even the scratches I did on the songs with Charizma in the early ’90s were done with a Fisher turntable that didn’t even have pitch control and a Radio Shack Realistic mixer. I taped my library card to the crossfader to be able to scratch faster, but even then, you could hear the static as it was happening. By around 1986 when DJ Cheese and Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money came out, transforming and chirping and doing all these difficult scratches, I tried to use the on/off button on my mixer and I’d have these terrible calluses on my thumb and index finger.

It would literally hurt to scratch, but we were committed. We’d use WD-40 to try to make the mixer less sticky so we could scratch faster. The WD-40 helped get rid of the static, too. But back to D-Styles — when I later heard about him joining the Skratch Piklz in the late ’90s and being one of the only DJs who could hang with Qbert, I was so proud that a guy from San Jose that I personally knew made it so far with scratching. By then, he was obviously way better than me with turntablism, and has been ever since.

‘Peanut Butter Breaks,’ a self-released 1994 instrumental LP, was funded by San Jose Latin freestyle label Upstairs Records and distributed by San Francisco rare groove reissue label Ubiquity Records. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

D-Styles was also part of the group Third Sight when they were active here in San Jose. What do you remember about them when they dropped?

I loved that record. I was working as the hip-hop buyer at a record distributor in Burlingame called TRC Distributors, and I got that record into stores all around the world. I got the Dereliks and the Homeliss Derilex into stores around the world as well. TRC was a mainly vinyl, mainly house and rave music distributor; I called and asked if I could start a hip-hop division, and they gave me a shot. New York stores generally didn’t care about San Jose rap, or Bay Area rap in general, but I got a lot of these underground West Coast indie hip-hop records to stores up and down California, and eventually the UK, Germany, Australia and Japan. I would buy magazines dedicated to DJ culture, and there would always be ads for record stores in the back. I’d cold-call them all and ask if they liked hip-hop, and many were receptive. Some of my bigger successes were Dr. Octagon, Jurassic 5 and all the Qbert battle records.

Some stores would take 50–100 copies of these records at a time. I’d literally play them all the new underground records I had in stock over the phone, and they’d order them that way. Also, at the time, people would order all of their major label and indie label hip-hop from East Coast distributors, but since the Rainbo Records plant was on the West Coast, I had access to a lot of the major label records before the East Coast ones. So all these stores around the world who wouldn’t give me the time of day at first started buying things from me like like Cypress Hill, The Fugees, Biggie, and Pac. I’d convince them to pad their order with the underground shit I would recommend, and they eventually learned that a lot that stuff would sell well too. And in Europe, Asia and Australia, there was a genuine love for the weirder stuff.

 

I did the “Step On Our Egos” EP in 1995, with beats by me and all San Jose MCs, and it was released by South Paw Records, which was started by an A&R of Delicious Vinyl. He heard by record Peanut Butter Breaks and offered to put out an EP with me. I was excited to showcase my beats with my favorite South Bay rappers. At the same time, two different UK labels signed me to non-exclusive deals to do records for them. This was when DJ Shadow was getting really big over there, and labels were looking for more of that Bay Area “trip hop” sound. We all hated that generalization, but long story short, DJ Shadow was wearing a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf T-shirt in his promo pictures and the press and labels over there all started searching for me. I remember getting a call from Madonna’s manager who told me she read about me in a UK magazine and wanted to consider me for a remix, and asked me to send a copy of my music. When she heard it, she passed.

First round of Stones Throw logos submitted by Matthew Clark, 1996. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

Can you touch on Dave Dub? He’s a San Jose stalwart and you put some of his early stuff on Stones Throw.

I love Dave Dub. He was in a crew called The Underbombers with Persevere. I put out his stuff on my EP Step On Our Egos, then later on My Vinyl Weighs A Ton along with Zest The Smoker and others from San Jose. I think I originally met him through this kid Sid, who hung around my younger brother (8 years younger than me). Sid lived with his mom in the same condo complex where I lived with my mom, and Sid used to come over my house and sometimes hang with Charizma and I. He later changed his name to Tape Master Steph and he got the same sampler that I had, the Ensoniq EPS, and started making beats for Dave Dub, Zest, and others. But Dave was and is very talented. I just did a remix for Dave Dub and Myka 9, and we’ve been talking about possibly doing an album together.

First production on vinyl: Lyrical Prophecy, 1990. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

We need to talk about Lyrical Prophecy. Tell us about your experience with them. It was your first credit, right? As Chris Cut?

I was DJing on KSJS on their late night hip-hop show called Project Sound, and the program director Kim Collett and the assistant director George Headly were working on this record with a San Jose hip-hop group that sounded like they were from New York. One MC in Lyrical Prophecy was named Quiz One; he was an intimidating 6’5” and 300 pounds. The other MC was named Double Duce. Twenty years later, his son actually did the beats for an album with Phife right before Phife passed away. And Raleem was the producer. I loved what I heard from them and somehow got to go to the studio with them. Raleem was open minded enough to let me add my own ideas over the songs ± some samples and scratches — and even eventually gave me co-producing credit on them. Before we pressed the record, something happened where Double Duce’s raps were recorded over by another MC named Deshee. Deshee was very abstract and lyrical and people compared him to Rakim because of his voice. Even his speaking voice was similar, so none of us ever felt like he was biting.

So me and Kim and George each pitched in $500, and for $1,500, we were able to press 500 units. My dad loaned me the money so I could be part of this business venture, even though he always told me, “You’ll never make it doing music. There’s only one Michael Jackson. There’s only one MC Hammer.” I told him “I don’t wanna be either of those guys. I wanna do underground music.” Ironically, the record we made was called “You Can’t Swing This,” and later, Hammer came out with “U Can’t Touch This.” We were sure that he got the idea from us, but looking back now… highly doubtful. It was just a popular Bay Area hip hop saying.

Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf by the San Jose train tracks, 1991. (Theresa Castro)

Some of the timeless hip-hop from this area and era is the stuff you did with Charizma. Can you please tell us your origin story as a duo?

We had just put out the Lyrical Prophecy record and we didn’t know how to distribute it or promote it. I made up a promotional “goals” one-sheet, and it was stuff like “Get on In Living Color, Rap City, Yo! MTV Raps and The Arsenio Hall Show, get written up in The Source,” all stuff that was only possible if we were on a big indie label or major label. We got one write-up in a magazine called Dance Music Report, but coming from the Bay and making New York sounding hip-hop wasn’t the move. We didn’t even master the vinyl — we didn’t know what that was — so it sounded really lo-fi and muddy. But what I did notice was once we had a record out, every rapper in San Jose who was into the same stuff we were into (YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers, Ed O.G., Gang Starr, Public Enemy, De La Soul) found a way to get in touch with me because we actually had a record out. I was meeting so many rappers in 1990 that I wanted to do a West Coast version of Marley Marl’s In Control by doing songs with all the rappers I knew. And Charizma was one of those rappers. It was hard. I was living at home with my mom and brother and sister, and I worked and went to school, so it made scheduling having rappers come over the house challenging.

There were no cell phones or email, so you just had to get a hold of people when you were home and they were home. One day, my friend Kermit from high school brought Charizma to my house. It got confusing because Charizma also had a friend named Kermit who became our hype man and dancer for our live shows. Charizma had way more drive and focus and excitement than all the other rappers I was working with, but I wanted to at least get a few songs from each rapper, pick the best one from each of them and put out the compilation. When Charizma asked to come over, a lot of times I’d be like “I can’t do today. So-and-so is coming over.” And Charizma said, “I hear ya, but I’m the best of everyone so eventually you’re gonna drop everyone else and focus on me.” And it worked. He planted that seed.

(L–R) Charizma, Peanut Butter Wolf’s dad, Charizma’s dad and Peanut Butter Wolf at Charizma’s house, 1992. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

What do you know about Charizma’s group, II Def II Touch, before you guys linked?

I didn’t know about II Def II Touch before I met Charizma. They lived in Milpitas and I lived in Northeast San Jose on the border of Milpitas. So we were really close, but they were in high school and I was in college, so kind of a different scene. But when I first met him, his name was Charlie C and my name was Chris Cut. I eventually met the other MC in the group with Charizma and he was cool too. I think his name was Ty or Tyadi. His dad or his uncle was in The Natural Four, who were an R&B group that worked under Curtis Mayfield. The original business card Charizma gave me was for II Def II Touch, I think.

Charizma and Chris Cut’s first demo, 1990. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

What was the recording process like? Did you guys have similar taste in other artists?

Some of our mutual rappers we loved besides the ones I mentioned above were Lord Finesse, Brand Nubian, The Juice Crew like Masta Ace and Craig G, so on and so on. Charizma loved Special Ed. That was his favorite. The recording process was that I’d work on beats on my own in my Ensoniq EPS sampler and then show them all to him and he’d pick his favorites. Charizma knew how to make beats too, but he never pushed his beats on the project. He gave me full creative control. He would pick vocal snippets and sound effects and stuff like that, but the tracks were all me and the lyrics and vocals were all him. We were a group for four years before he passed away.

Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf’s first and only German tour as a group in 1992. With Money B, Hi-C, and Hollywood Records A&R Casual T. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

I know you’ve spoken about this before, but for this piece I think we should include it. Please tell us what occurred with Charizma, and take us back to the day or moment you found out.

In December 1993, we were supposed to go to a recording studio and lay down a song. He left a voice message on my pager that he wasn’t gonna be able to do it because he had something to take care of. He was killed shortly afterward that day, in broad daylight. He was in East Palo Alto and someone tried to rob him, and he resisted and he was killed. I believe a reverend witnessed it and called 911.

You mentioned Star Records; what were your other local music haunts back then? Describe for us what that bygone era was like for you.

In the late ’70s, there was a store called Wheatstraw Records that was close to Olivera Egg Ranch, where the 45s were only a dollar. Star Records was around back then too, and was really the main one in San Jose because they specialized in all styles of dance music — funk, soul, disco, electro, rap, freestyle, Hi-NRG, new wave. There was also Leopold’s across the street from Eastridge, where the 12” singles were $3.89 instead of $4.99, like everywhere else. And the San Jose Flea Market used to carry mixtapes and bootleg cut-up records, which were basically megamixes made by DJs on multi-track tapes pressed onto vinyl. Some of them had scratching too. By the late ’80s, Tower Records in San Francisco was the only store we knew that carried Ultimate Breaks & Beats, and that was a huge deal. But yeah, overall, Star Records was the best.

An electro mixtape made by Chris in 1984. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

Tell us about your decision to move to Los Angeles. What did you encounter there that perhaps San Jose lacked?

I actually first left San Jose in 1987, to go to college in Long Beach. I had been going to Newport Beach every summer for week or two with my friend Steve and his family, and I fell in love with it. I always wanted to move to Southern California, but it seemed more like a dream I’d never follow through with. After a year in Long Beach, I got homesick and moved back, but I loved that they had a radio station that played hip-hop 24 hours a day. I moved from San Jose to San Mateo in 1995 to be closer to TRC Distributors as the head of their hip-hop department, and then I started Stones Throw in 1996 in San Mateo. I moved to San Francisco a couple years later and stayed there until moving to L.A. in around 2001.

Stones Throw was pretty much strictly hip-hop when I moved to L.A., but I did sprinkle in some other stuff. With time, I started putting out more and more funk, soul, electronic, jazz and post punk. But one of the main reasons I moved to L.A. was to be closer to Madlib, who lived in Santa Barbara at the time. When I moved to L.A., I basically brought him with me. But yeah, I loved the DJ and club scene and live music scene in L.A. as well. I found myself DJing there a lot when I lived in San Francisco, and they really embraced me at clubs like the Root Down, Firecracker, and some others.

Second round of logos by Matthew Clark, including the one chosen to be ‘official,’ 1996. (Courtesy of Peanut Butter Wolf)

In general, what do you think people should know about San Jose’s early rap history? Are there any misconceived notions of San Jose’s early rap scene that people should know about?

San Jose was not a hip-hop city in the ’80s. It was hard to hear the music in clubs, record stores and radio stations until the ’90s. But the scarcity of it made the few of us who were freaks for it try harder to find it. I bought a lot of scarce hip-hop 12” records in the 99¢ bin at Star Records. The labels would send Star a promo, and they would pass on ordering it, and they’d sell the promo in the 99¢ bin. I went there every week to grab those before anybody else did, and made mixtapes with the hardcore New York rap for my high school. Kevvy Kev played it once a week from 6-9 p.m. and if you didn’t make it a priority to hear it, you had to wait another week. That was our hip-hop experience.

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