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DIRT HUSTLIN': Oakland's New Underground



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Dirt Hustlin':
Oakland's New Underground'

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This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1998.

The setting is one of several large East Oakland warehouse spaces that houses an assortment of artists and musicians. With a scattering of fanzines, Nintendo games, a fax machine, musical accessories, posters, skateboards, ripped couches, and an open kitchen area stacked with packs of Top Ramen and dirty dishes, it has all the makings of a punk rock household. The nine young men who share this humble live-in/work space are all struggling artists passionately pursuing an underground music form that neither parents nor commercial radio seem to understand. On a wall hangs a poster from one of their shows. Its defiant bold type reads: FUCK THE MAJORS.

It's gotta be punk rock, right? Not! It's underground hip hop, Oakland 1990's style, and it's a far cry from the media-driven image of all rappers being materialistic, gun-toting gangstas with rolls of $100 bills stuffed in their pockets. Welcome to the modest East 14th Street headquarters of Mystic Journeymen, their indie label Outhouse Records, and their crew of struggling musical cohorts, the multi-talented Murs, The Grouch, G.U. Senshi, Gabe, and The Gypsies featuring Aesop, Eligh, & Khalil, all of whom have their own independent projects and all of whom look to the Journeymen as role models.

Through years of applying their punk-styled DIY ethic the stubbornly independent and internationally successful Journeymen duo, comprised of Tommy and Corey, have proven that it's possible to control your own art, maintain your integrity, and even make a living at it. Since forming in 1991 the tireless two have earned their street credibility through such innovativeness as organizing from scratch their own tours of Japan and Europe, publishing the fanzine Unsigned & Hella Broke, releasing numerous indie records & tapes, maintaining a web site, and putting on a slew of concerts and showcases which have included the afore-mentioned "Broke Ass Summer Jam II" [the David & Goliath poke at KMEL's Summer Jam] and their infamous "UHB—Underground Survivors"series. These underground parties took place during a particularly "hella broke" period in the pair's career when the funny-but-true price of admission was 99cents and a packet of Top Ramen. The noodles fed them while the money paid off such things as overdue PG&E bills.

Nowadays things seem a lot easier for the Journeymen. The two, along with DJ G.U. Senshi and emcee/producer The Grouch have just returned home from a successful month long tour of Europe with change in their pockets. Shortly before returning from the six-country trek Corey spoke by phone from Amsterdam. "I was sitting in the sun on the French Riviera the other day just kicking it. I never imagined that I could do this. It's coming to the point where we can actually do this and survive without worrying too much," he said impressing that everything they've earned they've worked very hard for. "You've got to do it all yourself. Fuck waiting around for muthafuckers to come along and give something to you. It just won't happen. Do it yourself."


This diehard DIY, middle finger to the music industry type attitude is shared by all of the warehouse's occupants. Along with countless other Oakland rappers including such hip hop collectives as the eight member Hobo Junction, including Saafir, The WhoRidas, Eye Cue, Big Nous, Poke The Martian, Third Rail Vic, Mahassin, & D.A. and the recently returned Hieroglyphics camp, including Del, Casual, Souls of Mischief, Pep Love and J-Biz, these young Oaklanders comprise a strong musical movement that is centered in the East Bay. "There's a definite underground hip hop scene. You've got folks like Mystik Journeymen and the Hobos out on the corner everyday selling their tapes," commented Oliver "O-DUB" Wang, a hip hop writer and DJ at UC Berkeley radio station KALX.


On Telegraph Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the radio station, on any given day you'll inevitably find such artists as Aesop or Eye Cue "dirt hustlin" [selling] their latest low-fi, home-recordings. Dirt Hustlin, Eye Cue's latest tape is an autobiographical description of this grassroots approach to street distribution, one that eliminates the middleman. "Dirt hustlin is part of our life. We pick the spots to sell tapes like Telegraph Avenue or wherever people into hip hop are. I used to put it down at Bayfair Mall in San Lorenzo but then security kicked me out," said Eye Cue who sells anywhere from five to fifty tapes in a day, adding that, "If you've got transportation and a constant supply of tapes you can make a living." Earlier this month, outside the Hieroglyphics show at the Maritime Hall, Aesop sold forty copies of his latest tape, "Top Secret." At $8 a pop that's a lot of Top Ramen. "That was a particularly good night. Sometimes I sell hardly any," said the Fresno native a few mornings later while kicking back on one of the warehouse's well-worn sofas. Khalil, who was up late the night before playing around with some jungle beats, has left to take AC Transit to the other side of town. Murs, the house's reigning freestyle champ, is still asleep in one of the overhead wooden loft spaces. Seated with headphones at the non-soundproofed, simple but functional home studio, is the dreaded Eligh, an LA transplant, busy producing some tasty hip hop beats. The rest of the crew is out of town or still in Europe.

The 22-year old Aesop, who took his name from Aesop's Fables, is more than happy to discuss his life's main passion—hip hop. "Rap is a thing you do. Hip hop is something you live," he said paraphrasing KRS-One and pausing to smoke on his beedie. "Hip hop is truly life. It's the drive that keeps you doing what you do. It keeps me making my tapes when I don't really have food to eat," he said. Aesop, an avid skateboarder, who defines hip hop as "a vibe more than anything," embraces all aspects of hip hop culture from deejaying, graffiti and breaking to emceeing. Naturally then he has a problem with people who call themselves MC's but don't perform live: "I think that's retarded. It's like driving a car without a steering wheel. An MC is a master of ceremonies, that's what it means, so you have to perform live." Giving major respect to a list of locals hip hoppers like the Journeymen, Hobos, Hieros, Eclipse 427 from Fremont, Mic T and the Cyto-P crew, Aesop demonstrates a strong solidarity that's common among this new hip hop underground.

Oakland female rapper Toy, a.k.a. Combless Negro Child, is similarly supportive of her struggling hip hop contemporaries. Three years ago she put on her first in a series of "Underground Payin' Dues," the "non-alcohol, all-bud" showcases, with a dozen performers including Mystik Journeymen, The Derelicts, Runaway Slaves, and B.L.A.C.K. "What we all have in common is struggle, real talent cos you've got to sound original, and no money," chuckled the tough-skinned 24 year old New Jersey born rapper who can match any of her hip hop brethren when it comes to dirt hustlin for her art form. Durling September's Gavin-sponsored music seminar, "The Sessions" in Oakland she somehow worked her way past security backstage to talk to and get a photo taken with Jesse Jackson and Chuck D. If she hears of a hip hop event, such as the recent Gavin seminar in New Orleans, she's there. Another recent trip included going up to Vancouver with Kofy Brown to perform at The Web. Most weekends you'll find her dirt hustlin her latest CD at the Laney Flea market. "I set up my table with my CDs, my African jewelry, and my paintings. With the money I make, I feed hungry kids and smoke bomb," she laughed coughing on a freshly lit blunt. On how she originally funded recording & pressing up her first 1,000 CDs, she explained, "Last year I was working at the Oakland Tribune doing telemarketing, In eight months I made $11,000. I used $4,000 of it just to live and the rest for my music." She describes her music as, "Some underground reality life shit... but it's all me. I don't have a man or some other person writing my stuff for me and I don't try to be mainstream." After ten struggling years of doing this, she's long given up on the idea of some major label coming knocking on her door.


"There's been a movement back to the underground cos it's become evident that the kind of support systems from majors have dried up. So folks are realizing that going independent is the way to go," said writer/DJ Wang. More to the point is Hobo Junction's Saafir who said, "Majors don't give a fuck about the art form. They just want to make money. For example I never knew a major label to throw a barbecue with an open mike for hip hoppers." Saafir, who described his current deal with Quest/Warner as "in hiatus stage," has just released a single under the pseudonym of Mr. No-No on the Oakland collective's tiny independent Hobo Records. Additionally he and the other Hobos are busy planning a web site and a future fashion line. "Our goal is to be self independent manufactured and distributed," he said.

Meanwhile the internationally acclaimed Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, who recorded three albums for Elektra Records (one of which was never released), is equally blunt about his former major label deal as well as his current financial status. "I'm broke as fuck right now. I ain't got a dollar to my name. You know I ain't never seen no royalties from Dobalina," he said referring to his 1991 single "Mistadobolina" which became a Top 40 pop hit in places as far away as Australia. Regarding how Elektra finally dropped him, he bitterly recalled, "I was calling and calling but they never even took my phone calls. Then one day I finally got a one-sentence letter telling me I was terminated, dropped. That's cold."

Fellow Hieroglyphics members Casual, Extra Prolific, and Souls of Mischief each suffered a similar fate when Jive Records in New York abruptly dropped all three acts. "I'm sour about major labels but that's only cos my experience was bad," said Tajai of the Souls, adding that, "Actually I'm glad that we're independent right now. It gives us more control. I think that other rappers who've made it should be setting up their own labels but doing it the right way. Not like Motown was or the way Death Row is ripping off artists left and right," he said.

Domino, the Hiero's producer and manager, is also happy with their newly forced state of independence. "It gives you a lot of freedom. For example you can go in and record a song today and release it next week; not like with a major," he said. And even though funds are tight he's already turned downed several major deals. "We tell people point blank that we're not interested now. If we gave in we'd be right back in the same situation," he said noting that, "It's funny but artists we know like KRS-One or De La Soul envy our situation. They say you guys are really lucky because it's not often that an artist is on a major label first, gains some success, and then gets off the major still with some selling power. We're so lucky to be able to be independent and still have people wanting us. And I think if we gave that up just to get a hundred thousand up front we wouldn't be too wise," he concluded.

In the past year the Hieros have been busy recording together as a 'family' group. Their comeback show at the Maritime on March 6th featured a group performance from Del, Casual, and Souls featuring tracks such as "Oakland Blackouts" from next month's anticipated indie Hiero-family release. Following this joint effort throughout 1997 and into '98 will be individual releases from each act. For right now however the broke Del plans to go in the studio to rush-record a tape that he plans to hawk on the Avenue to earn some immediate cash. Certain diehard fans are shocked at the idea of this legendary hip hop figure 'dirt hustlin.' "Niggas be tellin me 'Don't be on the street. You're Del!' Yeah but Del's broke right now," he laughed loudly.

Luckily this financial situation is only temporary since the forthcoming Hiero album is guaranteed to blow up based on the collective's strong fan base, many of whom communicate with the group through their web site, "People from Minnesota came to the show at the Maritime cos they saw it on the Internet. Also the Internet is like us owning our own store where people from New Zealand or wherever can buy stuff," said Tajai. It's "net hustlin'" if you will. "We went to our PO box last week and we had 100 pre-orders for the sampler tape that we were passing out as a promo. The Net has us surviving cos we don't have a lot of other income besides shows," noted Domino.

Ironically today's dirt hustlin' approach was pioneered back in the early eighties by Oakland's Too $hort, the infamous "player" who popularized the "biiiiiiiiiiiiiitch" word with his notoriously misogynist raps in which he rhymed over funk fueled bass tracks geared for listening to in one's ride. While many of today's dirt hustlers may share $hort's early entrepreneurial vision, their sound is a whole other matter. "A lot of people define my sound as East Coast cos my beats don't have keyboards in them and cos I'm not rhyming about dank all the time," said the Hobo's Eye Cue. Mystik Journeymen, Souls of Mischief, and countless other more abstract sounding Bay Area hip hop acts including the Solesides Crew, Twisted Mind Kids, Various Blends, Rasco, 99th Demention, Sacred Hoop, Homeliss Derelix, Bored Stiff, and 10 Bass T, have all received similar reactions since they don't fulfill the stereotypical Bay Area gangsta/reality rap expectations. Additionally there's Oakland groups like The Coup who, according to rapper Boots, "are caught in between styles in a lot of ways which makes our fan base quite diverse." Another label casualty The Coup, who were dropped by New York's Wild Pitch Records, plan to release the single "The Shipment" in June on an as yet unknown label.

Meanwhile East Oakland rapper Slim says that on his forthcoming debut he, "Tries to stay away from the 'nigga this and nigga that' and the 'kill a hoe' type of rap. I really think that rap fans are ready to listen to something new. It's time that we progressed." College radio DJ and rapper Kasimu Itep agrees. On his summer debut the Oaklander promises, "a revolutionary metaphysical funk flow... radical in its perspective with a spiritual undertone". Itep, who volunteers in the non-profit Juvenile Hall program "EBO Village," blames gangsta rap for many of today's social ills. "It's popularity," he says, "is cos it's a big money maker so those who don't have the best interest of the hip hop community as an art grab a hold of gangsta rap and exploit it. To an extent it's selling drugs to the community. I don't care what anyone says. Music and all forms of art affects the subconscious. It's advantageous to the oppressors to push this kind of music."

Promoting a similar consciousness is Oakland's New Upper Room, located at 1249 34th Street, near Fruitvale Bart station, where events & booking manager Mustafa Adams says, "We're not into any negative rap at all... the language and the whole thing. Also we're non-alcohol and non-tobacco and that tends to gear a certain type of crowd." The club's diverse program includes poetry, hip hop, jazz, reggae, soca, and spoken word sessions. Popular afternoon Q&A sessions have included De La Soul and just recently KRS-One. Many within the local hip hop community, especially in the aftermath of the deaths of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, believe that the predominant Bay Area gangsta/reality rap will start to wane in popularity, but that it will never fully disappear. "People are starting to look towards something more positive," observed Mystik Journeyman Corey. "The problems are economic, not musical though," he said adding that he believes the most important thing for any artist to do is to carefully take control of his or her own destiny.


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