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As smoke wafts above the packed audience at the DNA Lounge and the splintered light of a disco ball swirls across his face, Charizma, aka Charles Hicks, stands with his back to the spectators and his hands by his side. He remains frozen as his DJ, Chris Cut, later to be known as Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak), cues up the opening sample to the local duo's hit, "Red Light/Green Light." It's June 7, 1992, and Hicks and Manak are performing one of their biggest shows to date: a Bomb Hip Hop Showcase featuring House of Pain.
When Manak drops the track's bouncy breakbeat, Hicks springs into action. A boyish energy lights the MC's lanky frame as he hams it up to the audience with an assortment of contorted facial expressions and exaggerated dance moves. He has the seamless flow of Jay Z, the penetrating wit of Big L, and a physical resemblance to a young Will Smith (before the Fresh Prince became a prettily packaged caricature of himself). Later in the show, Manak steps out from behind the turntables to whistle the melody to Pete Rock and CL Smooth's classic "They Reminisce Over You" while Hicks delivers a blistering freestyle. As Manak awkwardly moves his body back and forth – performing what can only be called the white-boy two-step – the crowd explodes with applause, and you can detect smiles escaping the duo's faces.
A year and a half later – Dec. 16, 1993 – Hicks would be shot dead, murdered in broad daylight in front of an East Palo Alto church. At that time, having recently emerged from a tumultuous relationship with Disney subsidiary Hollywood Basic, Hicks was making some of the most dynamic music of his career, and many considered him one of the Bay Area's finest MCs.
But while other young, black, and slain rappers have been canonized in an endless procession of songs, films, and biographies, Hicks' death has caused only a ripple outside of the local music scene. To the record-buying masses, his murder was little more than a sad statistic and a fatal cliché, making him just another a dead rapper amongst the thousands of young men whose lives were lost to gun violence. As such, he has barely warranted a footnote in hip hop history: He only released one single during his lifetime, and subsequent years have yielded a mere handful of additional songs.
But Hicks' influence on the underground hip hop community has been considerable. He not only directly influenced some of the Bay Area's best MCs – he was the first person to give Foreign Legion's Prozac a microphone – but also inspired Manak to form the label Stones Throw Records, which has released some of underground hip hop's most creative material and has functioned as a barometer for trends within the genre. In fact, it was the lessons that Manak took away from his and Hicks' failed relationship with major labels that helped establish his own imprint's indie ethos, an ideology that stands for giving musicians nearly total artistic control, and that underscores such classics as Quasimoto's The Unseen and The Funky 16 Corners compilation. Now, with the release of Big Shots, the long-awaited full-length debut of MC Charizma, the influence of Stones Throw's patron saint is finally coming into focus.
Charles Hicks was introduced to Chris Manak in 1989 when the two were living in San Jose. Manak, who had recently graduated from high school, was three years older than Hicks and was a full-time DJ and hip hop producer. Even back then, Manak had a preternaturally attuned ear for talent, as well as an eclectic musical taste that would later become his trademark; he loved sampling rare '60s psychedelic tunes and other idiosyncratic stuff that was not traditional source material.
Hicks encouraged Manak's experimentation, and discovered his own voice while rapping atop Manak's beats. Like all of the great MCs', Hicks' microphone presence was a seamless extension of his personality: enthusiastic, personable, fearless, and funny. "Charizma was really the first MC who had exactly what I was looking for," says Manak. "He was amazing."
After working out a few songs in their parents' homes, the boys recruited Manak's friend Jeff Jank, who had a four-track and a sampler and allowed them to record in his basement. They put together a demo and began shopping their songs to various local radio stations. KUSF in particular was receptive, and it put one of the songs into rotation. DJ Design, an old friend of Hicks and DJ for Bay Area favorites Foreign Legion, remembers hearing the MC for the first time: "I was impressed that he was doing hip hop that was just as good as what you'd hear on [commercial] radio at the time. ... He could construct choruses and write a really catchy song. He knew song structure way before the rest of us did."
Upon hearing the demos on KUSF, Matt Brown – who was managing DJ Shadow at the time – signed on as the duo's manager, and things rapidly escalated. Hicks and Manak established themselves as the one of the premier live acts in the Bay Area, and before Hicks turned 18, he had performed in the esteemed and influential Gavin convention, the area's pre-eminent industry event, and numerous Bomb Hip Hop showcases. By the time Hollywood Basic approached them about signing a record contract, Hicks and Manak had developed both a substantial fan base and an artistic aesthetic.
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