Personality Crisis

As commercial hip hop radio becomes tired, turf wars flicker out, and the underground diversifies, does the Bay Area have its own identity anymore?

Next time you ask somebody where hip hop's going, ask yourself, "Where am I going?"

Mos Def, "Fear Not of Man"

It's been nearly four years since the costs of hip hop regionalism, marked by commercial pigeonholing, and, indelibly, the murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Biggie Smalls in 1997, finally caught up with its commercial rewards, first heralded by 2 Live Crew's 2 Live Is What We Are and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. Today, global-minded industry consolidations are hammering regional programming differences out of commercial hip hop radio, even as an embarrassment of riches in terms of genre-pushing diversity seems to be springing up in every city and suburb.

Oakland's Hieroglyphics, on the leading edge of Bay Area hip hop's independent movement.
Jacob Rosenberg
Oakland's Hieroglyphics, on the leading edge of Bay Area hip hop's independent movement.
Local hip hop DJ, writer, and activist Davey D.
Local hip hop DJ, writer, and activist Davey D.

Like many hip hop communities, in the midst of these changes the Bay Area is being forced to reconsider its identity -- in particular its proudly independent status, and the nature of collaborations with other regions like L.A.'s label-heavy scene. Further, it's been forced to rethink the definition of "independent" and "underground."

Ten years ago, those issues weren't so murky. From 1979 to 1987 or so, a commercially pre-eminent, so-called "New York" hip hop sound codified (somewhat artificially) the work of artists from what were fiercely distinct boroughs. In the year 2000, a national commercial hip hop sound -- and perhaps even a stiffly parametered national "underground" sound as well -- seems to be codifying from the selected work of artists from what were, especially from the late '80s to the mid-'90s, fiercely distinct regions musically.

"I've been around the country and I can close my eyes and I can tell the company that owns the radio station by listening to the format -- versus knowing what city I'm in, because it all sounds the same," says Davey D, author of The Hip Hop Chronicles -- It Was Here Before You Came, which focuses on hip hop music and culture before rap records were released. As a Bay Area radio host, DJ, and activist for the hip hop community on listener-funded KPFA-FM (94.1), as well as the otherwise decidedly commercial KMEL-FM (106.1), and as one of the nation's most prominent independent hip hop information Webmasters (www.Daveyd.com), D straddles the seeming chasm between hip hop's community-based roots and its ever-swelling market base.

Industry consolidation, D argues, is at the root of commercial homogenization. "The record industry will sound the same only because radio tends to be owned by the same people, so radio starts to program in such a way that what you hear in New York you hear in Philadelphia, with very little reflection of local scenes," D says.

"I think what has happened is that hip hop has grown," says Hieroglyphics producer Domino, who also runs the group's independently distributed label (at www.heiroglyphics.com). The growth of the medium, he argues, has not only yielded standardized commercial sounds, but expanded the audience for less commercially oriented acts as well. As a result, regional rivalries (never a Hieroglyphics motif anyway) have become less engaging for the average listener. "People are always gonna shout out where they're from and talk about where they're from," he says. "But I don't think that there's any type of rivalry anymore. I just think that the pie is big enough for everybody. Even on a pop level ... [the success of commercial hip hop] has made the pool of people who like underground, independent hip hop even bigger as well. ... And I think that everyone is kind of accepting everyone now. Hip hop has gotten to the point that the exposure is equal, in a sense, for everybody."

Hip hop, now in its 20s, has actually sired a prolifically growing family of scenes. Hungry young artists are popping up everywhere, with palettes often strikingly distinct from their parent artists'. In the Bay Area alone, "God, there's so much, there's really no one sound at all [anymore]," observes Billy Jam, a Bay Area (via Ireland) hip hop DJ/journalist/producer whose mixed-media company, Hip Hop Slam, has been nurturing local noncommercial hip hop since 1986. "In the late '80s you could say there was an Oakland sound ... which was more of the playa-gangster, i.e., 415 featuring Richie Rich, Poohman, Too $hort, all these people like that.

"[But then] Del and the Hieroglyphics come along in '90, '91, and then you have people like Digital Underground from Berkeley-Oakland, and Father Dom from Oakland, who was doing kind of a jazzy thing." From there, the local soundscape exploded across the spectrum, making classification an uphill battle for the organizers of hip hop's file cabinets.

Domino recalls the Hieroglyphics' initial impact on the region's hip hop identity. "I think ... we were the first to kinda be doing something else other than like the regular pimp, you know, mack mentality that ... was the only thing that the Bay Area was known for. ... So when a lot of people were trying to talk about a Bay Area sound, it got difficult to say 'a Bay Area sound.' What's that, when you've got people like Too $hort and E-40, but then you've got the Heiroglyphics?"

Bay Area rap artists emerging in the early to late '90s as a whole consistently drew inspiration from across the musical spectrum. This forced bay-boosting critics to reclassify the Bay Area hip hop aesthetic as more of an independent-minded mentalityinherited from Too $hort, E-40, and others, rather than an actual soundthat lined up with those pioneers.

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