By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Stepping off BART at the Rockridge Station on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I realized that I'd made a big mistake. I had scheduled an interview with the up-and-coming East Bay MC Balance, aka Saeed Crumbler, but had neglected to either describe what I was wearing or ask Balance for a description of himself.
Walking down the station's escalator, I noticed a stocky, light-skinned black male wearing a Red Sox ball cap and talking into the headset of a cell phone. I tried to match this face to the one nondescript press photo that I'd seen of Balance, but the guy standing 10 feet in front of me looked a little too young and not quite gangsta enough to match my preconceptions. Finally, after an uncomfortable five minutes of us tentatively checking each other out, Balance broke the ice, asking, "Yo, are you Sam, the reporter from SF Weekly?"
This exchange may seem like a mundane detail in the life of a (ridiculously unorganized) music journalist, but it's also a perfect metaphor for the relationship over the past 10 years between Bay Area hip hop artists and the rest of the hip hop nation. The latter has approached the former tentatively, expecting someone who looks a little harder, maybe a little bit more like Tupac or E-40. And when the package doesn't quite match the expectations, both have just stood there in some strange limbo, nervously eyeing each other.
This is about to change. After spending the first half of the decade in a vegetative state, local hip hop is being resurrected; they call it the "New Bay." In a rush of post-freestyle adrenaline, Balance coined the term nearly two years ago on the popular radio program Sway and Tech's Wakeup Show on KMEL. Since then, he's watched it become a lightning rod for controversy (the "old bay" did not initially react well), a lame critical crutch ("New Bay" designates nothing besides the obvious: that you're a new artist from the Bay Area), and a marketing gold mine (last year, Federation released the popular New Bay anthem "Hyphy").
As the term has grown in popularity, so has its originator. By most accounts, Balance is not only one of the most talented members of this New Bay bunch (which includes, among others, Frontline, Federation, Turf Talk, and the Team), he's also next in line for national exposure. He was named one of seven "Artists to Watch" in hip hop bible XXLand has been courted by a steady procession of major labels; when I spoke with him two weeks ago, he had recently turned down a deal from Scarface's Rap-A-Lot Records.
The success of Balance and his peers has given the New Bay an air of legitimacy. Their ascent is symbolic of a changing of the guard, an indicator that the local hip hop scene may finally be able to wash away the stink of commercial failure that has plagued it for the last decade and move into a more profitable future. Perhaps most important, Balance and the New Bay are providing hip hop musicians and fans with something they haven't felt in years: hope.
An Oakland native, Balance first tested out his rhyme skills as a student at Claremont Junior High. At that time in the early '90s, the freestyle battle circuit was still in its infancy, and most battles were waged on street corners or in the parking lot after a big show. "I didn't really get in competitions. I didn't have the glory of 8 Mile or nothin'," Balance says, referring to that movie's depiction of large freestyle contests. "It was a little more street than that."
Around this time, Balance also witnessed Bay Area hip hop boom. Artists like Da Luniz, Digital Underground, and Tupac Shakur were in constant rotation on commercial radio and MTV, and it looked as if the scene would remain vital for years to come. "In '94, seeing the Luniz and Tupac get on the radio and get gold records, I thought to myself, 'This could actually happen to me,'" Balance remembers.
But then the bottom fell out of Bay Area hip hop. Although most feel that Tupac's untimely murder in September 1996 acted as an impetus, it's difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the collapse. As we talk, Balance and I theorize that once any scene reaches levels of popularity comparable to the bay's at that time, ideas and inspiration will come from the top down, with everyone imitating the bigger names. Eventually the scene will slip into self-parody and creative complacency. National media and record labels come to expect a certain sound, and once that sound grows old a stigma will hang over that region (ask Seattle how it feels about grunge these days). Whatever the reason may be, the fact remains that no new major-label hip hop artist has risen from the Bay Area in years.
"It's a bummer," Balance says. "I feel like if [the Bay Area was] still in the game, I would've had a spot already. But at the same time, I feel that the best music comes in a drought. And the Bay Area has been in a drought for about 10 years now, and as a result the music being made now has a strength to it. Whether it's Zion I or Federation or Casual, there are obvious benefits in not being successful. It gives you a sense of urgency."