Interview: Oakland Hip Hop History and the Current Scene

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Oakland rapper Mistah Fab (Photo: Oakland Local)

Well it hasn't exactly been a banner few weeks for Oakland, what with the city pre-Occupied with a wrenching series of actions and/or inactions (depending on your point of view) against protesters camping on Frank Ogawa Plaza.

So let's send a little good news about Oaktown your way. Last month, our news associate Oakland Local won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California for its multimedia arts and culture coverage of the city’s thriving hip-hop scene.

Clueless square that I am (whatever happened to Vanilla Ice, yo?), I asked Oakland Local writer Eric Arnold to expound on what's currently going on in town, and to put Oakland hip hop in historical perspective. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

So talk about Oakland's place in the hip hop continuum...

It goes as far back as it exists. When you talk to people who are knowledgeable about cultural movements, they'll talk about the West Coast Pop Lock and Boogaloo scenes, which were active in the '60s, several years before Kool Herc had his first hip hop party in New York, in 1973.


If you talk about the origins of hip hop, the New York creation story is a popular myth, but that's only because the Bay Area story hasn't really been told.

That sounds very controversial...

Only to people in New York. But I got that from MC Hammer, who told me he was at Fremont High School in 1965 when the robot was invented.

The same cultural elements that make up hip hop were present in the Bay Area. Hip hop is definitely a term that came out of New York in the early-to-mid 70s. But hip hop itself is comprised of several elements. You have the movement element, dancing, B-boying or break dancing, and also pop locking. You have the rapping element – people were definitely rapping on the west coast way back. You have the oral tradition, the street rap. You have the art aspect of it, the graffiti element. The Chicano-style lettering goes back to the '30s in L.A. And then you have the deejaying element. There are mobile deejay crews dating back to the late 50s and early 60s in South San Francisco and places like that.

So virtually every element that can be associated with hip hop is also associated with Bay Area hip hop.

But a lot of times people will say Motorcycle Mike from Richmond and Too Short from Oakland, were the origins of Bay Area hip hop, the first people to put out rap music in the early 80s.

Talk about some other Oakland rappers that have broken through into popular consciousness.

There's Digital Underground/Humpty Hump. And of course probably the biggest Oakland rapper who has broken through into pop culture history is also the biggest rapper in pop culture history: Tupac. He was born in New York, raised in Baltimore, and came out to the Bay Area. He spent some time in Marin City then came to Oakland before going to L.A.

After Tupac, there's the Hieroglyphics crew, the Del the Funky Homosapien and Casual, Souls of Mischief; all those guys are pretty well known and have pretty much established a benchmark for lyrical underground hip hop. And they're still doing it.

So how is the Oakland scene distinguishable from what's going on commercially and also from what's going on in other cities?

At one time we had a lot of people signed to major labels but that all changed in the mid-to-late 90s. So our scene has been pretty much underground, although it's also been a scene that's been dominated by independent labels. That's been interesting because you also have a history of community, social activism, and sometimes political activism in the Bay Area, and that's definitely had an impact.

But when you talk about the hip hop scene, you're not just talking about rappers and rap music and their relation to what's happening commercially. You're also talking about the graffiti scene. The piece I wrote that was recognized by the SPJ was about a visual art exhibit on aerosol writing, which also has a huge history in the Bay Area.

What's that?

Well some people call it graffiti. There's a lot of controversy among writers over that term, a lot of people don’t like using it. But to laypeople it's definitely known as graffiti.

There was a really landmark exhibit on aerosol at the Joyce Gordon gallery earlier. It brought original Bay Area writers together but also some of the original New York writers, who started off the graffiti thing, way before it became popularized and commercialized.

Talk about the intersection of Oakland hip hop and politics.

Some of the same people who are creators and movers and shakers in the hip hop world in Oakland are also sons and daughters of activists. When your parents are Black Panthers, as was the case with Tupac, you're going to have a very politically evolved worldview, and that's going to come across in your music.

I was just at the Occupy Oakland demonstration and you had David Hilliard speaking, the former chief of staff of the Black Panthers, followed by three local hip hop groups. So even if the music isn't always political, I think there's a direct connection. A lot of what the Panthers did is raise the social awareness and social consciousness of people. And that's definitely translated into the music, into the art, into just how people organize and how they think about the culture in Oakland.

Talk about conscious hip hop and the Oakland scene.

Conscious hip hop is hip hop that is mindful of having respect for people. You won't find a lot of misogyny, little to no use of the N word. People will talk about things other than dances they do, people they're sleeping with, and all the trite things you might find in top-40 rap these days.

Conscious hip hop is part of the Oakland scene, but you have to be careful, because there's also a lot of turf rap produced in Oakland, from the most violent hot spots in the city.

So that also comes out of Oakland. It's not generally defined as conscious rap, although it can be very aware, because it's really the product of its environment and talks about what's going on in those environments. This music is the soundtrack to the hardcore inner city that we're told not to go to, where all the bad headlines about Oakland are generated.

But you also have people who have ideologies that are more developed. Like AshEl/Seasunz, who did this Earth Amplified record, which is eco-sustainable hip hop. And DJ Twelvs who works at the United Roots center, who just ran this hip hop camp that offered free training for kids. So I would definitely say there's a strong conscious rap undercurrent in the Bay Area and Oakland. I don't know that' it's ever been the dominant sound but it's always been there.

The Oakland scene is incredibly diverse.

So if I wanted to familiarize myself with the Oakland scene, where's a good place to start?


Go down to Oaklandish on Broadway and check out the flyers they have, check out
The Layover on 15th and Franklin, swing by Disco Volante. There' s a lot of stuff happening in the downtown and uptown area. SomaR Bar/ Era. It's just a matter of connecting with the scene.