Billy Jam

Mothership connections



DRUGS If, while flipping through TV channels, you happened upon the episode of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab in which George Clinton appears, you might be forgiven for assuming that the Godfather of Funk, whose drug use reputation precedes him, was under Dr. Drew’s rehab care. In actuality, Clinton was not seeking any guidance from the good TV doctor. Rather, he was working alongside him in helping Rehab subject Seth "Shifty" Binzer get back on the straight and narrow road to sobriety by producing new music for the fallen Crazy Town singer.

According to those familiar with the 68-year-old funk ambassador and his lifelong body of work — which includes the catch phrase and Funkadelic album title Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound, 1970) — George Clinton doesn’t lie or hide the fact that he has dabbled in mind-altering substances, using them to enhance the experience of the funk. "When you think of drug abuse, you immediately think of something you can’t handle, something that takes you over. So he [Clinton] is into drug overuse, but that is not the same as drug abuse. In one interview he [says he] never got religious until he took acid," explains Ricky Vincent, the Berkeley journalist, college professor, KPFA DJ, and author of the acclaimed music history book Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One (St. Martin’s Press), which includes a forward penned by Clinton.

"He indulges, but he manages it," says Vincent, who has interviewed Clinton numerous times. "Yes, he got arrested [once] for cocaine. But you don’t hear of him going in and out of the hospital because he overdosed and couldn’t control it. He is one of these people that has turned recreational drug use into a part of his lifestyle, and he doesn’t try to pretend that he doesn’t do drugs. George just says, ‘Hey, I get high all the time!’."

Clinton’s party ways are legendary. In Ice Cube’s early 1990s video for "Bop Gun (One Nation)" which heavily features the Godfather of Funk and reworks the title track of Funkadelic’s 1978 One Nation Under A Groove with the refrain "So high you can’t get over it," Cube at first shuns an invite to a party Clinton is throwing, saying, "I don’t know man. Your get-togethers are kind of wild." As anyone who has ever attended a Parliament-Funkadelic or P-Funk All Stars concert can attest, things tend to get crazy onstage as an ensemble numbering a dozen or more players wanders on and off stage. Most of the musicians are in costumes, including the diaper-clad guitarist/musical director Garry Marshall Shider. Donning his trademark fluorescent rainbow wig, lead funkateer Clinton is happy to be at the center of this organized chaos.

From the get-go in 1970 when the group released its first two albums, Funkadelic’s lysergic-drenched psychedelic funk noise was influenced by the rock music happening around it in Detroit and beyond. Clinton admits to taking acid to fuel his and his band’s early recordings at a time when LSD was still primarily a white person’s drug, not one widely accepted by the black community. Without it, Clinton’s pioneering psychedelic funk pioneered might never have happened. "I can’t think of any other way that you could conceive making music about going to the furthest edge of the universe and then turn around and take it to the bottom of the ocean and actually make it a musical party journey … I mean, you got to be a little altered to do that," says Too $hort, who has long drawn influence from Clinton’s music, and whose collaborations with Clinton include the title track of his 1996 album Gettin’ It (Jive).

George Clinton has been around long enough to witness this country’s changing public attitudes toward drug use and abuse. He’s smart enough to see through the hypocrisy of America’s so-called "war on drugs," and is never too shy to loudly address it. A couple of years ago, he wowed a young Def Poetry audience when he read the "poem" "Dope Dog." In actuality, its words are the lyrics to the song "U.S. Custom Coast Guard Dope Dog," from the Parliament-Funkadelic/P-Funk All Stars album Dope Dogs (P-Vine/Hot Hands/Dogone, 1994), which also features songs titled "Help, Scottie, Help (I’m Tweaking and I Can’t Beam Up)" and "Pepe (The Pill Popper)." Clinton left the audience at that HBO studio reading with an observant final line about "the deal on dope": "There’s more profit in pretending that we’re stopping it than selling it."


Aug. 30, 9 p.m., $38

Regency Ballroom

1300 Van Ness, SF

(415) 673-5716

Big Rich


PREVIEW Arriving outside Amoeba Music on Haight Street, Fillmore Rich — also known as the MTV2 rap star Big Rich — is stopped by a total stranger. "Yo! Big Rich. Man, I love "SF Anthem," and "That’s The Business," and all your music," the fan/rapper enthuses, quickly turning the chance sidewalk meeting into an impromptu audition. As the aspiring rapper — who shouldn’t be making any immediate plans to quit his day job — rattles into his second verse, large-framed Rich listens intently. Afterward he offers words of encouragement, and even his phone number, to the upstart.

Big Rich’s Heart of the City (3 Story Muzik) is one of Ameoba’s top-selling hip-hop albums. "I feel like it’s a part of my responsibility to give back to my community," Rich says. "That’s why I call myself Fillmore Rich. It’s not to glamorize anything. It’s just that’s how I feel. All the people I grew up with, they ain’t here no more. I feel like it’s my responsibility to stay here and represent and help where I can. I am the only San Francisco rapper that still has a residence in the neighborhood where they grew up."

This Saturday, Rich will be there when the SF youth AIDS education organization Get Live Stay Live puts on an event at the Bayview Opera House. "There’s [been] a lot of friction going on with my area and Hunters Point," he says. "I’m going to show there ain’t no friction." Rich has two other events booked the same day: he’ll be speaking on a panel at the Bay Area Producers Conference and performing at the car-themed Hot Import Nights mega-event at the Pleasanton Fairgrounds. Catch him if you can.

BAY AREA PRODUCERS CONFERENCE Sat/25, 8.a.m–11 p.m. (Big Rich is part of the "Beats and Rhymes" panel at 5 p.m.), $45. Cathedral Hill Hotel. 1101 Van Ness, SF.

Victory lap



When Special One of the Conscious Daughters raps, "And I know all my folks been patient for this shit" on the Oakland female duo’s new track "A Moment In Rhyme," she ain’t kidding. It’s been 13 long years since she and partner-in-rhyme CMG released their last album, 1996’s Gamers (Priority). So long gone were the previously high profile pair that in 2007 Nas invited the Daughters, along with other forgotten Left Coast vets such as Kam, King Tee, and Threat, to appear on his homage track "Where Are They Now (West Coast Remix)."

The Nutcracker Suite, released in February on longtime associate Paris’ Guerrilla Funk label, is Conscious Daughters’ third album in 16 years. It’s a refreshing return to form for the female duo, who burst onto the national rap scene with 1993’s Ear To The Street (Priority), led by the Paris-produced, funk-fueled riding anthem "Somethin’ to Ride To (Fonky Expedition)." Striking a perfect balance between political hip-hop and street mobbin’ music, Special One and CMG have always won over discriminating rap fans.

"You can call it what you want — we just back," laughs an unfazed Special One, when asked if the new album and upcoming performances should be called a comeback. "It’s a comeback to everybody else, but we never went anywhere," adds CMG. "We been recording and making music the whole time."

The Conscious Daughters pick up right where they left off with The Nutcracker Suite, which includes production by Paris, Rick Ross, One Drop Scott, Fred White, and newcomer Steven King. The album opens with the head-nodding hard funk of "Not Bad But Good," an updated riding track about "the Town" (Oakland). But a few tracks later it veers into thought-provoking territory, with songs that tackle topics head-on from a female perspective. Domestic abuse and California’s spiraling incarceration rates are on the lyrical agenda. "And Arnold keeps building these correctional facilities for youth, women, and crooks and thieves with disabilities," Special One raps in the song "Issues."

Having spent a short stint behind bars herself ("for pot") Special One speaks from first-hand experience. "There’s women, their grandmothers, their aunties, mothers, nieces, and sisters in the penitentiary, just like there are men in the male penitentiary," she says.

One of the new album’s more poignant songs is "Dirty Little Secret," in which the duo urge domestic violence victims to "Get the hell up out that situation before you get killed."

"We have friends who have gone through this for many years, best friends who won’t even tell you [about their abuse]," CMG says when discussing the emotionally-charged song, told in the first-person voice of an angry victim who fights back. "Even though our song is pretty deep about getting this guy back, we are saying what a lot of women want to actually do, and helping them get their frustrations out by listening to our song."

In practice, as well as in their lyrics, Conscious Daughters demonstrate solidarity for their sisters: Nutcracker Suite features cameos from several Bay Area female hip-hop talents, including Mystic, Marvaless, and Goldee the Murderist, whose death last summer from a blood disease was sudden and tragic. Special One says that it’s important for females in hip-hop to look out for one another, since they already have the chips stacked against them. "It’s always harder for women," she notes, "Most female rappers have to balance a career and their family."

Another longtime fellow East Bay female hip-hop talent, DJ Pam the Funkstress of the Coup, is joining Conscious Daughters when they embark on a national tour later this year. (Official details — likely involving Paris, Talib Kweli, Pete Rock, and others — will be announced at

After so many years away, CMG and Special One heartily embrace the work ahead. "We love challenges, and we’re going to have to get out there and do everything all over again now," says CMG.

"It’s a blessing, and we’re confident in our talents," adds Special One.

Hustle in hard times


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U Don’t Hustle U Don’t Eat, the appropriate title of the March 2009 album by up-and-coming Menlo Park-East Palo Alto rapper A.G. Cubano, pretty much sums up the state of the once vibrantly lucrative local rap music economy. Profit-wise, it has steadily slid and deteriorated during the past decade amid an extremely tough and competitive environment, forcing artists into creative ways of generating cash.

"It’s ugly out there," said Walter Zelnick of City Hall Records in San Rafael, which has distributed independent local hip-hop since its beginnings in the 1980s. "Numbers are down all around. The numbers of stores out there are down. I don’t think kids even buy CDs anymore." San Francisco’s Open Mind Music, which closed on Halloween, and Streetlight Records in Noe Valley, which closes Jan. 31, are just two of latest retail victims.

"Just getting in the stores is hard as fuck nowadays. I didn’t realize it had gotten so bad," said Dave Paul, whose prolific long-time local indie label just released the Bay Area artists-filled Bomb Hip-Hop Compilation, Vol. 2, a sequel to the 1994 premier volume, which sold way more than the "maybe 600 or 700 CDs" he expects to move of the new disc.

Zelnick also fondly recalls the golden 1990s when local rap compilations like D-Shot’s Boss Ballin’ (Shot, 1995) and Master P’s West Coast Bad Boyz: Anotha Level of the Game (No Limit, 1995) would sell in numbers that now often qualify as No. 1 on Billboard‘s national pop albums chart. "When [E-40’s group] the Click first came out, they were selling over a 100,000. But then sales for artists went down to 50,000 or 40,000," Zelnick said. Now "average CD sales are more like 2,000. And many people are lucky to sell that."

"It’s not as nearly as easy as it once was out here when we could fuck around and sell 50-, 60-, 70,000 copies independently," said longtime Fillmore rapper San Quinn who just released From a Boy to a Man (SMC) and will soon follow up with the collaborative Welcome to Scokland ( with Keak da Sneak. "I literally grew up in this Bay Area independent rap scene."

Known for his affiliation with JT the Bigga Figga’s Get Low Playaz and more recently for his ongoing feud with his cousin rapper Messy Marv, the 30-year-old rapper is a well-established artist. But even a high-profile performer like Quinn accepts that he will be lucky if he sells the 22,000 that his last solo CD, The Rock: Pressure Makes Diamonds (SMC) tracked on SoundScan. That was in 2006, two long digital years ago. As with many veteran rappers, downloaded music has hurt San Quinn. "The majority of my fans are white boys and Latinos and Asians that have that shit mastered," he said. "And it’s even harder for someone like me who is based out of the capitol of technology here in the Bay Area, home of Silicon Valley."

"Since the selling of CDs in stores has gone down, way down, everyone has had to step up their game," Cubano said. Two months before the release of U Don’t Hustle U Don’t Eat, the shrewd rapper will pave the way with the Feet to the Street mixtape in collaboration with Oakland’s Demolition Men, the accurately self-described "Bay Area mixtape kings," whose trusted brand has helped further fuel the careers of such local rap faves as J-Stalin, the Jacka, and Shady Nate. San Quinn and the Jacka, as well as C-BO and Matt Blaque, are among the names the ever-resourceful Cubano has enlisted for his upcoming releases.

"But then there are so many different ways to make money nowadays," Cubano added. "You can get money out of ringtones. You can sell your songs one at a time for $1 a piece on iTunes or from your MySpace even now. I love MySpace. It is great in so many ways, like connecting with artists straight away and not beat around the bush, waiting for a phone call, or waiting for a nightclub to see someone."

MySpace is also San Quinn’s lifeline where, the rapper said, his music’s daily plays are in the thousands. San Quinn generates money beyond CD and digital music sales. "I do ringtones. I do shows. I have a San Quinn skateboard that I put out through FTC," the rapper said. "On our first pressing we just had, I sold a thousand skateboards at $50 a piece and I get $25 off every skateboard."

He also makes a tidy income doing guest appearances or "features" on other artists releases ("They pay me for a verse"). "I’ve done over 3,000 features," he said of the feat that earned him an inclusion in Guinness World Records for the most collaborations with other artists. Landing on television or video game soundtracks can be highly profitable but also highly competitive.

But for an up-and-coming Bay Area hip-hop artist, it is even more challenging to make a buck. On one recent evening on the Pittsburg/Bay Point-to-San Francisco BART train, Macsen Apollo of Oakland’s V.E.R.A. Clique was putting a new spin on the "dirt hustlin’" sales approach pioneered in the 1990s by Hobo Junction and Mystik Journeymen by walking from car to car hawking copies of his hip-hop group’s CD, keeping a watchful eye out for BART police, in an effort to make some money from his music.

Meanwhile back at the City Hall Records offices and warehouse, where Zelnick works on orders for new releases from local rap cats Balance and Thizz artist Duna, things have changed a lot in a decade. "We’re really at a turning point here," he said. "We’re still here and someone is buying music, but I don’t know how much longer." Last week in the UK, with just a few weeks till Christmas, Britain’s key indie label distribution company Pinnacle Entertainment declared bankruptcy, leaving 400 imprints with no way to get their music into the diminishing number of music retail stores.

"Next year I ‘m going to put out Return of the DJ, Vol. 6 and that will be the final physical release I will ever do," said Bomb’s Paul, who believes the only way for rap artists to make money is to be increasingly innovative and to constantly tour and sell merchandise, including music, along the way. "In the very near future I think the only place left to buy a CD is to go a show. Artists have to come up with new ways to generate cash. I heard of some artists who will sell backstage passes for $300 — or whatever they can get."

Cubano concurs. "If you’re sitting around waiting for that call, it ain’t gonna come," he quipped. "You have to get out there. You gotta be in traffic. People have to expand their hustle. Otherwise you don’t eat."

Noise Pop: Running with Wale


Back in 2006, when Washington DC music veteran Ronald "Dig Dug" Dixon, of legendary go-go band the Northeast Groovers (NEG), first got wind that some rap upstart named Wale (pronounced Wah-lay) had not only sampled NEG’s music without permission but also jacked Dixon’s stage name for his single’s title and refrain, he was not happy. But when Dixon learned that Wale also hailed from the nation’s capital, better known for its go-go scene than its hip-hop, and that the single "Dig Dug" was in fact a heartfelt homage to both NEG and go-go, all bad vibes soon subsided and the young hip-hop hopeful got his elder’s blessing.

In the two years since, Wale’s career has taken off at an accelerated pace. The unsigned artist performed at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, appeared on the cover of Urb, and gathered countless other write-ups and gushing features in such publications as XXL, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, which honored him as one of the top eight new faces to watch this year. And Wale, who has rightfully dubbed himself "the ambassador of rap for the capital," seems poised to live up to all this hype, especially since last July’s mixtape 100 Miles and Running caught the attention and respect of one Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen), who has since produced the still-unsigned rapper.

Wale, who performs at Mighty on Feb. 29 as part of Noise Pop, is taking all of this in stride. Speaking recently by phone as he drove around Los Angeles with his manager, the MC — who was born Olubowale Folarin 23 years ago in DC to Nigerian immigrant parents — proclaimed confidently that talent is what got him to the position he’s in today.

"Lucky?" he asked, somewhat surprised when I questioned him about the recent hype and accolades bestowed on him. "Lucky? That implies that I don’t have talent. I do. And that comes first. And after that, there is some luck….

"My manager is good at his job."

And what label will the much-sought-after artist sign with? "Actually, I may not even sign with a label. I may not need to…. Just wait and see how it goes," said the ambassador, who seems destined to put DC firmly on the rap map.


With Trackademicks and Nick Catchdubs

Feb. 29, 9 p.m., $15–$20


119 Utah, SF

(415) 626-7001

>>Back to Noise Pop page

The return of the return of the DJ


Born from the ashes of New York hip-hop DJ supergroup the X-ecutioners and from a frustration with the current state of turntablism, Ill Insanity are on a mission to return the art of the DJ to its former glory.

Composed of ex-X-ecutioners Rob Swift and Total Eclipse along with younger inductee DJ Precision, the turntable trio have just released their progressive scratch music debut, Ground Xero, on Fat Beats, which includes among its turntable guests fellow former X man Roc Raida, plus Excess and DJ Q-Bert.

Ill Insanity’s ongoing national tour, which stops in San Francisco on Feb. 21 for a performance and a workshop at Guitar Center and a party-rocking throw-down at Levende Lounge, seems less like a jaunt and more like a crusade to its three impassioned turntable ambassadors.

"This is the beginning of us taking the art form back," Rob Swift said, sounding something like one of the Marvel Comics heroes from which his original group, the X-Men, took their name. "And I feel that we are putting it on our shoulders to show people that this is real creative music. And we are educating people about this art form because it seems to me like no one else is really doing it right now."

Speaking a few weeks ago at Swift’s Queens, NY, apartment, which also serves as the group’s recording studio and rehearsal space, the trio had gathered to mourn what they see as a creative lull in the art of turntablism and to prepare for its pending renaissance.

"Basically we were all bored with music, and that’s what brought us together," Total Eclipse said. All three agreed that for several years now DJ battles, traditionally the barometers gauging the advancement of the turntable art form, have been in a decline. "There has been a really poor attendance at DJ battles for the past five years, especially here in the US," said Precision, the 2007 USA DMC Finals DJ battle champion. "And it’s because the art form has slipped so much."

Part of this artistic stagnation, they believe, is because DJs of recent years have been satisfied with merely imitating instead of trying to innovate. "The younger DJs are too caught up with looking up to what came before, so they stop practicing when they master that trick that QBert or whoever has already done years ago," Swift said, "and consequently now everyone is sounding the same."

Precision jumped in: "And a lot of them don’t even know the complete history of the DJ, like that Steve Dee created beat juggling."

In performance Ill Insanity’s setup includes five turntables, three mixers, and computers to operate the Serato program. "What we are trying to do is to use the new technology without dumbing down the art," Swift insisted. "We have much respect for what came before us, still applying the skills of Grandmaster Flash, party-rocking, and so on…. But we’re saying, ‘Let’s do a 2008 version of what’s already been done in the past.’<0x2009>"

And as for the future of turntablism? Swift is optimistic: "There could be a kind of DJ revolution again. I predict that in a couple of years things will go back to the way they were." (Billy Jam)


Feb. 21, 6 p.m. performance and workshop, free

Guitar Center

1645 Van Ness, SF

(415) 409-0350

Where is home?


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"I’ve never been inside here before. I don’t like to come in here, because I feel alienated in my own neighborhood by this place, and that is kind of what this play is about," Danny Hoch said recently. His new solo stage production, Taking Over, opens Jan. 16 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Speaking the day before he flew out West from New York to begin rehearsals with rep director Tony Taccone and looking around in half disgust, the New York–born actor-playwright was seated inside the Roebling Tea Room, a recently opened, funkily decorated but high-end restaurant directly across the street from his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he has lived for the past 20 years.

The yuppie meeting place was Hoch’s choice, as much for convenience, it seemed, as to further emphasize the point of what his new work is all about. "Williamsburg is ground zero for gentrification not just in New York but in the country, because it has provided a blueprint for how fast and how violent displacement and economic development can happen in a short amount of time," Hoch said. "And Taking Over is about how gentrification is really masking the idea of colonialism and how everybody is kind of searching for a sense of home and disconnected from where their home is. And in the kind of neofeudalism that is the new economy of North America, people looking for home wind up displacing people who are home."

As in his previous solo plays, such as the Obie Award–winning Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop — which 10 years ago also premiered at the Berkeley Rep — Hoch channels a myriad of characters of various ages, races, and genders. Embodied with his ever-sharp dry observant wit, these include a major real estate developer, a Dominican taxi dispatcher, a French real estate agent, a revolutionary gangsta rapper, and a New York University student — a "clueless hipster" from Michigan who protests that she feels "like a homeless person" after her parents cut her monthly allowance from $5,000 to $3,000.

Another engaging character is the guy who was just released from incarceration after serving time under New York’s controversial, draconian Rockefeller drug laws. But he’s been gone so long he doesn’t recognize his old hood. "When he arrives they’re shooting a movie on his old block, and he talks to a PA on the movie set and says, ‘When I was growing up here people never came to shoot a movie. People shot things all right — like [other] people or heroin — but not a movie,’<0x2009>" Hoch explained. "And then he points to [a] woman in the window and says, ‘That’s my mother.’ And the PA asks him, ‘Oh, she doesn’t want to come down and check out the movie set?’ And he says, ‘No, she’s still afraid to go outside from the ’80s.’<0x2009>"

According to Hoch, the Bay Area has consistently been the most receptive to his work. "The Berkeley Rep is one of the only theaters, if not the only theater, that would support this kind of show from its inception. A theater in New York that needs to economically sustain itself [is] not going to commission or fund a show at this level about gentrification in New York, because it’s going to alienate their very audience." In fact, for the past 10 years Hoch has been unable to make a living as a writer or an actor in his hometown. "New York stories are no longer viable in New York City because the market is being informed by Americans. This is why you have Subway and Domino’s and Applebee’s and TCBY all over New York City — so that Americans can feel at home," he said.

"Do you know how many vintage clothing stores there are around here and stores that I can’t even identify with what the fuck it is that they are selling?" Hoch asked rhetorically. "How do you economically sustain that? You sustain that with disposable income, not income income. That is how you sustain this many bars and a tearoom like this. I tell you, this neighborhood didn’t need another tearoom. We needed more teachers. We needed a hospital. We needed better schools."


Through Feb. 10, $27–$69

See Web site for showtimes

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2025 Addison, Thrust Stage, Berk.


Year in Music: iFunk?


This year we were consumed by our obsession with the latest piece of technology and the immediate gratification that comes with it. My personal part in this collective cultural obsession hit me one day as I sat on the bus, my multitasking mind elsewhere, my phone in one hand receiving text messages, my MP3 player in the other on random shuffle, playing a song by Project Pat boasting about having "the number one ringtone." And on my lap sat not a laptop, but a relic from another time: a book, an ordinary page-bound, nonfiction book. But as I read, instead of flipping to get a referenced page, I found myself absent-mindedly, or rather, tech-mindedly, tapping my finger on the bold-faced word, unconsciously thinking that I was clicking on a computer screen — confirming my obsession with and dependence on digital technology.

Our obsession drives us to grab the fastest and the newest and consumes us with possessing the latest iProducts, the most recent Guitar Hero, the most up-to-date ringtones, and the hottest celebrity gossip, which we seemingly can never get enough of. Hence in 2007, YouTube videoblogger star Chris Crocker’s "Leave Britney alone" rant, which attracted more than five million hits, was essentially far more popular than its subject’s new album, Blackout (Jive).

But our obsessions aren’t necessarily a bad thing, since they are driven by passion as much as by anything else, and consequently we are experiencing a renaissance of enthusiastic people producing amazingly intricate and imaginative music, blogs, visual art, literature, photography, video — all made and distributed DIY-style. In fact, there is so much being created right now that we can’t even follow, let alone fathom, it all. After all, how can we when it’s possible to create hit blogs, video diaries, and hip-hoperas while multitasking on the bus?

TOP 10

1. The Bay Area’s noncommercial radio stations

2. DJ Yoda, The Amazing Adventures of DJ Yoda (Antidote)

3. Various artists, Soul Jazz Records Singles, 2006–2007 (Soul Jazz)

4. Emcee T’s Yay Area version of The Sopranos intro, on YouTube

5. Zeph and Azeem, Rise Up (OM)

6. Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip-Hop (Rizzoli), by Johan Kugelberg, Afrika Bambaataa, Buddy Esquire, Jeff Chang, and Joe Conzo

7. Copperpot, WYLA? (EV Productions)

8. Ultimate Force, I’m Not Playin’ (Traffic)

9. MF Grimm, The Hunt for the Gingerbread Man (Class A)

10. edIT, Certified Air Raid Material (Alpha Pup)

Graf legend


On Aug. 15, on what would have been the late Mike "DREAM" Francisco’s 38th birthday, his old-school graffiti pal SPIE ONE honored his slain partner in the best way he knew how: by creating new street art, on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac in the Mission.

But it’s not just on anniversaries when SPIE thinks about DREAM, the widely respected Bay Area graffiti artist who was gunned down in the East Bay in 2000. "I think about DREAM every day. A lot of us do. It keeps me going sometimes. He was a positive spirit," SPIE said in mid-November. "And it’s pretty amazing how DREAM’s legacy just keeps growing. He has become this really important figure to a lot of youths out here who may never have even met him." That influence will inevitably grow with the publication of a comprehensive book on DREAM that SPIE and others are working on meticulously.

Like DREAM, SPIE is an integral figure in the history of Bay Area graffiti. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Excelsior–Outer Mission District, SPIE remembers the birth of graf in the city. "The graffiti really took off around ’84 in San Francisco," he recalled. That same year he started bombing, first as a solo artist and later with the crews KKW and ACT, which he joined while attending McAteer High School. "McAteer was very unique because a lot of different kids from different neighborhoods all seemed to gravitate there … from the avenues, Hunters Point," he said of the Diamond District school whose courtyard was used as a "writer’s bench." "Some kids would cut school from Lincoln or Washington and cut up there, meeting in the afternoon. We didn’t have a big fence around the school, so it was very loose to come on and off the campus." Others unexpectedly showed up too. "We knew a lot of folks that would find easy ways to escape Juvenile Hall across the street, and they’d be chilling too at the writer’s bench in their county orange, their sandals ready to run through Glen Park Canyon," SPIE said, laughing.

In 1987, when writers from all over the Bay Area converged on the Powell Street BART station for an informal graffiti meeting, SPIE first met Alameda artist DREAM, who’d already been tagging under various names for a few years. "In the book will be one of the first DREAM sketches that he ever did. It was on his court papers," SPIE said. "He just got caught when he was like 16 years old, and he was sitting in court and did a DREAM piece on the court paper!" In the two decades since that meeting, the laws against graffiti have gotten much tougher, and many youths have been tried as adults. "With just over $400 worth of damage, a kid could be arrested and prosecuted as a felon," SPIE said.

Consequently, for writers like SPIE, who requested anonymity for this story, the stakes are high when they do illegal street art. It’s a lot less stressful for him to do legit pieces like the recent city of San Francisco–sponsored mural on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac, which he did with Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth. The bright, block-long collaborative painting — which includes art by Nancy Pili, Marina Prez-Wong, and Mike Trigger — is, like much of SPIE’s work, politically charged. "Overall, it is about solidarity between communities of color and oppressed people … and a commentary on fences and borders around the world, including the Mexican-American border," SPIE explained. "The fence that goes around the parking lot gave us the basis for this theme about fences, walls, and prisons…. It’s like the gating and jailing of a community."

It’s a timely work, appearing at a moment when San Francisco and its developers seem intent on erasing its underground-art past. "They buffed everything out at China Basin and a lot of other places in the city," SPIE said, concerned about the forces that are "pushing the public artists into the far reaches of the city."

For more information on SPIE, DREAM, and the forthcoming book, go to

Show us the money


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By 9 a.m. on July 28, 13-year-old Bay Area music-star hopeful Nyles Roberson, accompanied by a support group that included his mom and two other family members, had secured a coveted position at the very front of the line outside the doors of the Oakland Convention Center. A full 25 hours later, the doors would finally be opened by the producers of Showtime at the Apollo, who, visiting from New York for the day, would hold this year’s only West Coast auditions for the long-running American talent show that has, over a historic 73 years, launched the careers of such legends as Billie Holiday, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Usher, and Lauryn Hill.

In the next 28 hours, another 374 Bay Area Apollo hopefuls, 75 of whom would be turned away, would patiently fall in line behind Roberson, who goes by the stage name Yung Nittlz. And the music that Yung Nittlz would be performing? You guessed it: rap with a distinctly Yay Area feel. In fact, the majority of those assembled, many of whom had traveled to the large venue adjacent to the Oakland Marriott from all over the Bay after hearing about the tryouts on KMEL, would perform some form of hip-hop, mostly of the popular, homegrown hyphy school.

"There was a lot of rappers to choose from … even more than I expected," chief Showtime at the Apollo judge Vanessa Rogers said following the intense day of some 300 auditions, which wound up at 7:30 p.m. after each act had gotten about 90 seconds to show their stuff. For close to a decade, Rogers has been tirelessly judging thousands of performers for the famed weekly Apollo amateur night, both on the road in select US cities such as Houston and Detroit and back home in Uptown Manhattan. In May, at the most recent tryouts at the Apollo Theater, on 125th Street in Harlem, she judged another 300 hopefuls.

On the morning of the Oakland audition, GGH (Girls Gone Hyphy) from Fairfield jockeyed for position in line and were soon assigned audition number 262. The three confident, upbeat teens — Felicia, Tajarae, and Tajaniique — would dance, rap, and sing over a track produced by one of their moms. "We’re already getting famous. Most of our families are already there," Tajarae said, noting that among the trio’s extended family in the local rap industry are San Quinn, Black C, and Shag Nasty. Farther up the line — which was about 95 percent African American — that snaked down Oakland’s 10th Street was another 707 area code rap artist, Semaj (James spelled backward), who later accompanied himself on keyboards as he spit his original rhymes. In the meantime, East Bay MC Antonio (real name: Mario), who was number five and close to the top of the long queue, took the bold step of performing an a cappella rhyme that he "just wrote late last night" while waiting outside the tryouts.

Farther along the row were Trauma, a colorfully dressed 11-member hip-hop dance troupe who had driven from Stockton the day before. Also camped out from the night before were well-prepared Richmond rap crew Da Trendsettaz, accompanied by their manager-producer, Bay Area rap vet Rob J Official, ready with flyers and promo CD-Rs in hand. With a median age of 18, the quartet’s Mister Trend, Digg, Sticky, and Blank-Blank would pack a lot into their allotted 90 seconds: dwarfed by the cavernous venue and decked out in oversize white Ts, they delivered their entertaining Yay Area–<\d>flavored rap "Strike a Pose" while busting carefully choreographed moves that clearly delighted Rogers and the other two judges from New York, show producer Suzanne Coston and video tech person Joe Gray.

First, however, was Roberson, or rather, Yung Nittlz, waiting at the top of the line and ready to perform for the three judges. Citing fellow Berkeley High School students the Pack as an inspiration, the extremely ambitious and multitalented ninth grader looked older than his years — he writes all of his material and makes his own beats, boasting two albums’ worth on his MySpace page. Before the panel of judges, looking not at all nervous, the teen confidently performed his song "Money in the Air," adding a little carefully planned flavor midway through by throwing in the air a fistful of cool-looking promotional play money — oversize, full-color $5 bills with his image and contact info strategically positioned on both sides, designed at home on his computer.

The next day Roberson was feeling satisfied with the whole experience. "I thought the auditions were great…. I gave 110 percent and I felt like the judges liked my song," he said by e-mail — naturally — adding that "my dream and my goal is to get a record deal." Whether he’ll make it to the Apollo stage this fall remains to be determined. Rogers, who described the Oakland Apollo tryouts as "challenging" (seemingly because of the disproportionate amount of nonrappers the Apollo likes to showcase), said there were about seven acts she was pretty sure were ready for the big time but that her team would need a few weeks to carefully study the tapes back in New York before deciding who would make the trip from the Bay to Showtime at the Apollo.<\!s>*

On the download: Plan B



Who Needs Actions When You Got Words

(Cordless Recordings)

"It’s disgraceful like getting caught pissing in the sink," new British rap talent to watch Plan B spits during one of the many raw, attention-grabbing moments on his stateside debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. Born Ben Drew, Plan B is the angry, guitar-strumming, Cockney-accented East End, London, rapper whose thought-provoking, hardcore lyrics are exactly what hip-hop needs. Born in Forest Gate, East London, 24 years ago, Plan B was raised single-handedly by his mother after his father abandoned them both. The ensuing hardship of growing up is repeatedly funneled into Plan B’s lyrics, including "I Don’t Hate You," directed at his deadbeat dad. Meanwhile his mom’s ex-boyfriend fares even worse in such songs as "Sick 2 Def," in which Plan B fantasizes about finding him "floating in the bathtub with his wrists slit." The rapper further lashes out at the loser sponge of a motherfucker — literally — in "Mama (Loves a Crackhead)." Plan B’s passionate outspokenness against drug addiction recurs in "Missing Links," in which he sadly writes off the countless "best friends" he has lost to "brown smoke and white lines." Musically, Who Needs Actions covers a lot of ground, including its fair share of poppy R&B production values. Plan B is at his most convincing when he simply, bleakly delivers his angry rhymes over hip-hop beats or a raw acoustic guitar. But it’s all good. (Billy Jam)

Going mobile


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On a recent sunny afternoon in Berkeley, the head-nodding rhythms of Barrington Levy’s ’80s dancehall hit "Here I Come" could be heard wafting down Telegraph Avenue. As the outdoor reggae mix continued, the music’s mysterious source soon became evident. Right off the ave on the corner of Haste were two chunky 10-inch JBL speakers, booming. They were attached to the back of what resembled a Mexican ice cream bike painted in bright Rasta colors, which was in fact a unique mobile record store, complete with turntables and a mixer and boasting a selection of CDs, 7-inch records, DVDs, and even T-shirts dangling from hangers hooked on a nearby metal fence.

Propped against the three-wheeler’s saddle and mixing reggae 45s behind the wheels — the turntables, that is — was the pedal store’s owner: longtime Bay Area DJ and former independent music store owner Riddm. Since his retail shop, once a few short blocks away on Bowditch, went out of business after five years, he has taken his vinyl to the streets, where he has successfully eliminated overhead and increased profits. "I definitely make more money on the street than I used to in the store," Riddm said with a smile between cuing up a single of Freddie McGregor’s "Roots Man Skankin" and taking $8 for a local DJ’s mix CD from one of this afternoon’s many customers. "And it makes me feel much better … to be out here … not having the confinement of walls," he said before quickly adding, "Of course, I couldn’t but feel a sense of defeat when I had to close the store."

A well-established Bay Area record collector, Riddm, whose gigs include Tuesdays at Farmer Brown and whose current popular mix CDs are Living in Love and Can’t Get Me Down, is known for such things as compiling the Bay Area Funk collection of local rare grooves for Luv N’ Haight and, of course, for his defunct shop.

On Sept. 1, 2000, Riddm did what most music fanatics only dream of: he opened his own record store, Funky Riddm Records, which was stocked with reggae, funk, and hip-hop and located a few blocks from the UC campus. And there he stayed until December 2005, followed by an immediate additional six months in a cheaper, more out-of-the-way space on Ashby. Running a retail business is always hard, but starting a music store in the first half of this decade had to be one of the hardest challenges anyone could take on. "A year into my business, 9/11 happened, and that really affected the whole mood of retail," Riddm said.

Then came the flood of reissues and bootlegs, which directly cut into Riddm’s collectors’ niche. "I wanted to be the East Bay Groove Merchant to some extent, as far as rare hip-hop was concerned. And I really did have the hookup on original hip-hop," he said. Digital file sharing and free MP3s didn’t help. "It would get a bit frustrating when kids would come in and say, ‘Hey! What’s the name of what you’re playing?’ and then write it down and leave," he explained.

By last summer Riddm had fully accepted that the traditional retail music store model was economically defunct and decided to take it to the streets, or rather first to the Berkeley Flea Market at the Ashby BART station. But he figured he needed something unique. "I wanted to have some kind of sound station where I could play records and CDs. So I hit the drawing board … and went from a wheelbarrow to all kinds of things," he said. One lucky day he "heard the guys from Critical Mass roll by with this big sound system towed on a bike." Riddm was impressed. "So I went to their headquarters or where they used to have meetings at PedEx, or Pedal Express, a green-powered delivery service out of Berkeley, and they were really supportive."

After he saw his inspiration’s old-fashioned three-wheel bike with two wheels in the front, he decided that would be the basis for his new shop’s design: "My main idea was to have the turntables right in front of the steering so that the second you stop steering you can start spinning. You are right in position. You don’t have to go around the back." Over a couple months he designed it and with help from his friend Steve from clothing company Rasta Boom Box successfully built the 250-pound mobile system, 300 with inventory. The mix CDs are the most popular, and Riddm sells CDs and DVDs for $10 or less, 45s for $3, and the T-shirts he designs himself for $15. You can find him at the Ashby flea market on weekends and on Telegraph during the week — sunshine prevailing, he noted.

And what about the future? "I want to get a better van to take it out on the road to more reggae festivals," Riddm said. He was very successful last year when he hit Reggae on the River, among other fests. "What I really love about this now is that I can set my own hours. People always ask me, ‘When will I be out again?’ " he said with a smile. "And I say, ‘When the sun shines!’ … You don’t feel the Jamaican vibe when it’s gray or raining!" *


Tuesdays, 6–11 p.m., call for price

Farmer Brown

25 Mason, SF

(415) 409-FARM


Get in the Vans


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Not surprisingly, a sneaker store was the meeting place for two young members of the popular East Bay hip-hop quartet the Pack, whose slow and smoldering bass-heavy runaway rap hit "Vans," about the "punk rock shoe," has the infectious hook "Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers."

"Me and Stunna went to the same school. So we knew each other," Lil Uno said. "But one day we just both happened to be in the same shoe store … and it was sort of by accident how it all happened." That fateful day in 2005 set the stage for the formation of the four-member Wolf Pack, as they were originally called. On Dec. 19, Jive/Zomba, via the Too $hort imprint Up All Nite, released their national debut, Skateboards 2 Scrapers, an EP with seven songs that features two versions of their "My Adidas"–style sneaker hit for the hyphy age, including the "Vans Remix," featuring the godfather of Bay Area rap himself, Too $hort, plus an appearance by the "Tony Hawk of the ghetto," as the Pack call him, Mistah FAB. The disc should tide fans over until the release of the group’s full-length in April.

Speaking recently by cell phone from Berkeley, on a break from his School for the Performing Arts–tutored lessons, the now-17-year-old Lil Uno continued his sneaker-seeking tale. Stunna "had actually just bought a pair of shoes that I wanted, and I had just bought a pair of shoes that he wanted…. They ran out of his size, and they ran out of my size. So we actually ended up trading a pair of shoes for a pair of shoes." He laughed. "And then later on we end up making a song about shoes. Funny how things happen."

Indeed! But what happened immediately was Lil Uno invited Stunna to a party in San Francisco. It was at that party that he met producer-rapper Young L and rapper Lil B, who had already started recording music together. "The next day they asked me to go to the studio…. It was all four of us. And since then it’s been the Pack," Lil Uno said of the very young group (the oldest member is 19). So confident is Jive in their success that it has designed a limited edition Vans skateboard. Vans, the lucky shoe company getting all the free promotion, is planning a Pack shoe.

Meanwhile, the Pack have been busy. Since forming in 2005, the tireless group has recorded more than 150 songs; put out several regional rap full-lengths, including their Wolf Pack Musik series; been taken under Too $hort’s wing; and used MySpace to full advantage in getting heard.

"They’re inspiring because despite their young age, they are really creative and also really eager about learning about music and the music business," said Taj Mahal Pilghman, general manager, project coordinator, and engineer-producer. "And $hort has really taken the time to let them go in and do their thing and then school them afterwards."

"Vans" was just one of many songs the Pack posted on MySpace. "[‘Vans’] took off. It ran, and there wasn’t really any stopping it," Lil Uno said. His fellow band member Young L, who produced the track, added that "MySpace gets about 25 to 30 percent credit for us getting signed…. But without it, we would have had a much harder time being heard."

Regardless, Young L, now 19, is as surprised as his fellow Packers about the unbridled success of "Vans," which is currently heard in numerous amateur videotaped dance numbers posted on YouTube. "We didn’t think it would be such a hit. With that song we were just having fun, really," the skilled young producer explained. He laced up the track for the minimal hypnotic beat in no time, using Reason and ReCycle software. And the voice that recurs throughout the song saying "Young L" but sounding like "You’re new" (the phase that has become the Pack’s trademark) is a vocal he cranked out on the FruityLoops program.

For the upcoming album, however, he wants to "incorporate more real instrumentation," and at press time, he was meeting with Lil Jon, who will reportedly coproduce it.

Young L, who grew up soaking up the sounds of "Too $hort, 2Pac, the Cash Money crew, as well as Jay Z and Rock-a-fella," doesn’t think the Pack should be stuck to any one sound, as is threatening to happen. "We have hyphy songs," he said from Berkeley. "But I don’t think we are a hyphy group, because hyphy is based on high-energy, hyperactive lyrics and beats, and our sound is more varied than that." One example is the Miami bass–styled track "Candy" on Skateboards 2 Scrapers, which at times echoes 2 Live Crew’s "Get It Girl" and other Luke tunes. "We’ve always been into Miami bass, especially Lil B, who has always been into Uncle Luke," Young L added. "We just love good music!" *