Paris, the self-proclaimed Black Panther of Rap, was scheduled to make his first San Francisco performance in more than three years. Rap fans were thrilled. The police were not.
Big surprise: Adorning Paris' latest album, Guerrilla Funk, is a staged photo of a bullet-riddled San Francisco Police Department officer, hanging out the window of his blood-spattered cruiser. The image was echoed on promotional fliers for a March 22 gig at the DNA Lounge, part of a West Coast tour of Priority Records artists.
Capt. Michael Yalon, commander of the SFPD's Southern Station, says that when he learned about the gig, he drove to DNA a week before the show and informed club owner Tim Dale that he'd revoke the club's entertainment permits and shutter it if any violence accompanied the show. Putting Dale on notice, Yalon cited a February shooting incident at the Sound Factory, during a Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls) show. The not-so-subtle arm-twisting led Dale to cancel the Paris show.
“He said there could be serious ramifications,” Dale says. “I couldn't risk the club on just one show.”
Dale was so shaken by the police captain's visit that he canceled a second hip-hop event, a repeat performance of a show that had gone off without a hitch in February.
Meanwhile, a local promoter shopped the Paris show over to numerous Bay Area nightclubs: 177 Townsend, the Trocadero Transfer, the On Broadway and the Fillmore in San Francisco; the Cactus Club, the Oasis and FX in San Jose; and the Berkeley Square in Berkeley. All said no thanks.
“They said the cops weren't too keen on Paris,” says Dan DeVita, an artist-development representative at Priority.
Paris encountered similar booking problems throughout California. In four of the seven cities on his tour, police intervened to stop the show. In Sacramento, the maneuvering of the police and the board of directors of the local Elks Lodge, where Paris was to perform March 24, approached high farce.
Over the course of six weeks, the cops and the lodge board — most of whom are retired police officers, the show's promoter says — used every conceivable means to cancel the performance: rumors of gang members in the bands, fire codes, dance permits, sound levels, occupancy limits. Finally, in the waning hours before the show, one police captain spoke honestly. “They said one of the reasons was Paris spoke in a derogatory way about the police,” says Staci Bush of Request Line magazine, which was helping to organize the show.
The same week, clubs in San Diego and San Jose canceled Paris' show in apparent reaction to police pressure. Only Phoenix and L.A. allowed the rapper to play. The only Bay Area venue to host Paris was in predominantly white, middle-class Walnut Creek. All three shows went down peacefully.
“What is this — some kind of police conspiracy to kill rap?” hollered New York publicist Bill Adler, who was hired by Priority to help Paris and the label respond to police harassment.
The crackdown on Paris reprises the national police campaign against Priority artists N.W.A (Niggaz Wit' Attitude) in 1989 after the group released its “Fuck tha Police” track. During that controversy, police pressured venues in eight cities to cancel N.W.A shows. Priority even received a letter from the FBI expressing its disdain for the song.
Never one to mince words, Paris calls this police offensive business as usual. “It's convenient for people to turn their backs on rap,” the Oakland rapper says from the Emeryville offices of Scarface Records, the recording label he founded in 1992. “But it will come back on them. When the Arbitron ratings come out, we'll see who jumps to attention. I don't need commercial radio or clubs. People go platinum on word of mouth. The street will always dictate what the clubs do.”
The police assault on Paris' tour was largely the result of his over-the-top imagery. One might even say it's wish fulfillment. But the Paris saga also reveals a broader crisis confronting hip hop. Rather than listening to the street, as Paris says, club owners have become deeply fearful of it. The police succeeded in pressuring club owners because they've become fed up with what they see as the inexorable link between rap and violence.
Surely an oversimplification. But the fact remains: Practically every Bay Area club has banned rap. So who's to blame? The cops, whose proactive tactics have brought new meaning to the concept of prior restraint? Greedy promoters, who bleed audiences of clubgoing cash but spend little of it on security? The few troublemakers who jump off with guns and knives — mostly outside clubs? The media, whose Forrest Gump-like understanding of hip hop has stigmatized it as the music of thugs and criminals? Or the lyrics, which sometimes portray violent revenge fantasies but aren't accorded the sort of ironic distance from their subjects that we automatically extend to heavy-metal artists and Hollywood film producers?
Just what in the hell is killing live hip hop? And how can it be pulled back from the brink of extinction?
Young men were shooting their guns in the street February 18 outside Illusions, a SoMa hip-hop club. The crowd was in a state of panic. An apparent target of gunfire dashed to his car and screeched off into the night. A few blocks away, the terrified driver broadsided another car, killing its driver.
The trouble had begun hours earlier when an Illusions doorman refused to admit 10 young men who didn't meet the club's dress code. The brace of males allegedly came back with an arsenal, shattered Illusions' windows and fired their weapons.
Incidents like this occurred nearly every weekend at Illusions, Capt. Yalon says, relating the time his officers were caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs outside the club. “If you look at the facts and figures, more violence and crime happens at rap shows than at other events,” Yalon says in the clipped tone of a career cop. [page]
“Thug life” rhetoric and imagery has become an integral part of rap culture, simultaneously increasing rappers' outlaw appeal and fostering a general backlash against the music. Ask anyone in the law-enforcement or nightclub business and they'll gladly share tales of ultraviolence to explain why they're down on rap. Here's a few:
A year and a half ago, about 20 fans rushed the backdoor at the Oasis, another SoMa club, and began climbing the walls prior to a show by Gang Starr. The performance was delayed and eventually canceled because the crowd was too unruly. When the house lights went on, the crowd rioted. Cash registers bolted to counters were uprooted and tossed at employees, along with projectiles like tables, chairs and glasses. The bar manager was savagely beaten by a crowd of patrons screaming, “Kick him! Kill him!” and breaking bottles over his head. The few terrified employees who escaped injury locked themselves in the liquor storage room with the evening's proceeds and cowered, one clutching a .357 magnum, until the police cleared the club.
“I've lost my faith in hip hop,” says the Oasis' bar man-
ager, who requested anonymity. “I've given up on that whole groove.”
A year earlier, says Capt. Yalon, a woman was stabbed to death outside the Trocadero after she and another patron were ejected for fighting.
Last April, a tourist from New York was shot in the back when two drunks, ejected from a rap show at the Sound Factory, came back seeking revenge, according to the club's attorney. Between March and August of last year, two Oasis doormen working rap shows were attacked, one stabbed in the chest, the other shot twice in the stomach.
Over in the East Bay, the Berkeley Square endured numerous brawls and shootings at its rap shows, according to Bailey Pendegrass, the club's booking agent. Security guards cleared a crowd with tear gas at a Raw Fusion show last year after patrons ran amok, breaking every mirror in the establishment. Pendegrass says he even caught a guy trying to sneak a submachine gun into the club.
Two months ago, the club lifted a self-imposed ban on rap and allowed a group of college kids to hold a private party featuring the music. But the event dissolved into chaos within an hour. Shortly after the bouncer ejected all the patrons, one of the partygoers shot two people in an adjacent parking lot.
Even hip hop's staunchest advocates admit that violence at shows is out of control. “A majority of the time a rap concert is given, something goes wrong,” says Herm Lewis, a community activist, record producer and promoter. “There are different groups coming from different neighborhoods, and a lot of them have conflicts going on — rival gangs and all that. A lot of young kids have been heavily influenced by the negative things rappers are rapping about and come to misconduct themselves.”
And rappers know too well the threat violence poses.
“I don't go to a show unless I have to,” says Maine-O of the popular San Francisco group 11/5. “We know what can happen.” Even the six-foot-six-inch Dre Dog is wary of attending concerts. “Whenever I go to a show I just hope it doesn't pop off,” he says. “Even if the cops are there, if it's got to go down, it'll go down.”
As rappers concede the problem of violence at shows, they stress that the music is a victim, rather than a source, of the brutality in American culture. “Violence is everywhere,” says E-Sic of Cold World Hustlers. “Yeah,” his bandmate Big Vic interjects. “You go to a basketball game and there'll be a fight.”
Not surprisingly, cops see a more direct link between rap and violence and have banished the music from many Bay Area clubs.
Three years ago, Capt. Yalon acted in concert with the state bureau of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to yank the permits at the Trocadero Transfer, effectively closing it. During negotiations with the police to reinstate the permits, the owner and his attorney agreed to ban hip hop.
“It was a mutual decision based on the collective wisdom of the San Francisco Police Department and the owners of the club aimed at ensuring the continued viability and survival of the club,” says general manager George Lazaneo, as if reading from a prepared script.
The “mutual decision,” Lazaneo later admits, was more than little one-sided. “SFPD has the upper hand in all negotiations,” Lazaneo says. “They can put you out of business for a month and because this is a cash-flow business, that will take you three to six months to recover. Everyone feels their licenses are at risk. There's an air of paranoia among club owners. There's definitely a chilling effect.”
During the negotiations, police presented to the club's owner a six-inch stack of police reports detailing violent incidents that occurred at rap shows. Lazaneo keeps the reports handy to remind himself and anyone who asks why he can't stage hip hop anymore. On cue, he can recite six or seven examples of violent incidents stemming from rap performances, providing the ages of perps and victims, the date of the incident and the club involved.
Capt. Yalon allegedly used the same “negotiating” techniques with the Oasis, which reopened its doors last month as Club 278 11th Street. After a 30-day suspension of its liquor and entertainment licenses, the owner had several discussions with the police, according to co-owner Mark Herlihy. The end result? No rap. “There was a subtly spoken police message that I personally find racially insensitive,” Herlihy says. “They want to keep hip hop out of San Francisco clubs.”
Capt. Yalon denies intimidating club owners or targeting rap. “But we're not above telling a club owner of his or her obligation to provide proper security,” he says. When it was suggested to Yalon that the level of fear he strikes in club owners doesn't gibe with the image of a police captain gently reminding clubs about security, he simply laughed. Later, he admitted that the series of club raids and license suspensions he helped orchestrate with ABC over the past year probably engendered a new level of respect for the police. [page]
“Those club owners who're more interested in making a profit than watching out for the safety of the public have every reason to fear me,” Capt. Yalon says.
But Yalon isn't the only cop in town targeting rap. In October, a co-owner of the now-defunct Crash Palace, formerly the Kennel Club, complained that police in the Western Addition told him not to book rap acts.
And last February, In-A-Minute Records, a San Francisco label, learned that cops can shut down a show even after a promoter has cleared all the hurdles and booked into a club. The label had organized a show at the 915 Columbus Avenue club, featuring a coterie of its rap acts — Pooh-man, RBL Posse, Totally Insane, IMP (Ill-Mannered Posse) and the Dogg Pound Posse. The show was unusually important for the artists because the Gavin music-industry conference was in town and scouts from major labels were expected to attend. In-A-Minute exec Jason Blaine had arranged limos and radio spots, and had invited record executives from Los Angeles and New York. He had even hired off-duty SFPD officers to augment the club's security. His acts were going to get the attention they deserved.
But on the day of the show, police told Blaine that the club lacked an obscure permit — so obscure Blaine can't remember what kind of permit. Funny, Blaine thought, the club had showcased a big rock show the night before without that permit. But his protestations were in vain. The cops killed the show. “They were just afraid of all the kids from the projects coming onto their turf,” Blaine says.
Across the bay, cops aren't nearly as subtle about gagging hip hop. “It was plain and simple — they told us not to do any more rap shows,” says Bailey Pendegrass, Berkeley Square's booking agent. Pendegrass says the club's owner, Omar Nashir, was so well acquainted with the problems associated with rap that he was more than receptive to the police demand. What's telling here is that Nashir manages one of the Bay Area's up-and-coming rap groups, Aztlan Nation.
While some clubs bend to police pressure, others voluntarily ban rap. This was the case at San Francisco's Cat's Grill and Alley Club, the Sound Factory and the DNA. Cat's dropped rap after a record-release party in 1993 concluded in an all-out riot, leading the cops to cordon off an entire block. The shooting at the February Notorious BIG show led Dave Dean, Sound Factory's owner, to ban hip hop indefinitely, and DNA owner Dale cited the Sound Factory incident as a reason for eliminating rap from his venue.
“The hip-hop community simply can't behave itself right now,” Dale says.
But there's no such thing as “voluntary” when a cop is breathing down your neck. Especially in SoMa, the police are devilish in the way they intimidate club owners.
When Capt. Yalon learned that Dale told the press he felt pressured into canceling the Paris gig, the policeman apparently decided to let Dale know he knew he was yakking. “He told a cop who he knows is a friend of mine and who he knows hangs out here that he knew I was talking to the press,” Dale says. “The officer came down here and told me as much.”
Later, after SF Weekly requested that Dale pose for a photo to accompany this story, Dale felt compelled to call Yalon and let him know he was making himself a focus of the story. After talking it over with Yalon, Dale called back and gave the go-ahead for the photo shoot.
As more and more clubs close their doors to rap, the Warfield is opening itself to Ice Cube, an immensely popular rapper — and former member of N.W.A — and Da Brat on April 8. “Everyone is watching this show to see if it's still possible to do rap in San Francisco,” says Lazaneo of the Trocadero Transfer.
Bill Graham Productions, which is presenting the show, is known for its tough security at all events, although no representative would discuss the strategy for the Ice Cube show on the record.
Unfortunately, other promoters and club owners are not so cautious. Rappers say there are too many shady promoters who opt for skeletal, inferior security systems because they're unwilling to let the expense cut into their profits. And club owners new to rap are often ignorant of even the basic minimum of security needed.
“A fear of violence is not unwarranted, but there are easy ways to take care of it,” says David Paul, editor of the Bomb zine and a respected promoter. Even the simplest precautions — bag searches, pat downs — can make all the difference. Search everyone, including the group and its crew (rumor has it that someone from Biggie Small's posse fired the gun at the Sound Factory). Don't stage any under-21 shows — unless, as Big Vic from Cold World Hustlers jokes, “you've got security inside and out, helicopters, metal detectors, dogs.” Keep a guard backstage and at every door to prevent bum-rushing. And if you really want to run a tight ship, hire a Nation of Islam security force.
“Brothers in all black communities respect their presence,” says Herm Lewis. “If they're there behind a rap concert, nine times out of 10 there ain't going to be no negativity jumping off.
“The guy giving the show at the Bayview Opera House, he said he had to pay $750 for 12 Nation members, but $600 for just two off-duty police officers in uniform. I figure, anytime there's going to be a large showing of black folks, the police are going to be there anyway — so why pay them?” Lewis jokes. [page]
Many promoters assert that community-based security is the best bet. “We often use our friends,” says hip-hop promoter and DJ Efrain Oliva. “When they're involved with the scene, it's easier for them to get people to chill. They recognize their faces, so they listen more and it promotes a better vibe.”
Hiring goonish bouncers or a squad of off- duty police officers can just make things worse. When SFPD black-and-whites lined up outside the DNA for a Gang Starr show last year, ticket holders waiting outside could feel the tension instantly mount; later that night a hip-hop critic got a beatdown because of something he had written about Jeru the Damaja, the opening act.
“So much of this is just the environment,” says promoter and DJ Billy Jam. “There's nothing worse than a bad vibe, which is often created by the police themselves. Kids see cops and they get tense and start fronting. Then you know something bad is going to happen.”
Some club owners complain that adequate security is too costly. Sound Factory owner Dave Dean spent $3,000 on a squad of SFPD officers to stage his successful Ice Cube show last year. “From a business point of view it isn't worth it,” Dean says. “You don't make enough at the bar to make up for the amount of security a rap show requires.” Because the majority of violent incidents happen outside the shows, even the best club strategy is not enough. “I could have an army of security and things would still happen,” says Tim Dale. “How do you stop a drive-by?”
The task of providing adequate security grew even more challenging in January, when the Police Department temporarily suspended its 10-B program at nightclubs, which allowed owners to hire off-duty cops. The departure of the officers coincided with violent incidents, leading to charges that the cops were trying to undermine the nightclubs. “They pulled back the off-duty cops to ensure that there'd be problems,” says Dave Ravetti, owner of the now-defunct Illusions. “They set everyone up.” Illusions folded last month when the landlord revoked the club's lease in reaction to the mounting violence.
Regardless of the cause — fan violence, bad security or police intimidation — the effect is undeniable: Rap has virtually dis-appeared from Bay Area nightclubs. “You just can't find a rap show in Berkeley or Oakland,” Pendegrass says. In San Francisco, eight of the nightclubs that once showcased hip hop are either no longer booking such acts or they've closed.
In fairness to the police, it should be noted that they haven't limited the focus of their enforcement activities on rap. Raves, populated largely by white kids, came under equal attack during their heyday. And in SoMa, where a large number the city's nightclubs are concentrated, Capt. Yalon is known as an equal-opportunity hardass, cracking down on all nightclubs regardless of entertainment format. In fact, his officers recently accompanied ABC agents into the posh yuppie eatery Eleven, where romantic couples sipping wine with their dinners were carded.
But make no mistake: Racism colors attitudes about rap. When violence occurs at a rap show, cops and club owners assume it's an unavoidable result of the music, and some form of censorship is deemed appropriate. But when violence occurs at a rock or metal show, it's seen as an unfortunate anomaly.
After a Bill Graham Productions security guard was savagely stabbed to death at a heavy-metal show headlined by Danzig in San Jose last December, no one considered a ban on metal. BGP even rebooked Danzig for a Warfield gig last month. But a few weeks ago, a minor scuffle on the street during a hip-hop DJ night at Club 181 drew a swift police response and the club is temporarily banning its popular hip-hop nights on Thursdays.
A better example of the double standard can be found in how the Trocadero Transfer responded to a violent melee at a punk show March 5. After a patron spit on Lee Ving of Fear early into the performance, the enraged singer led his band off the stage. Combat boots stomped in protest, catcalls commenced and soon the angry patrons were trashing stage equipment, ripping toilets apart and brandishing them at club employees, hurling horseshoes (that's right, horseshoes) and slashing the tires on Fear's van. But this was a punk show, with a lily-white crowd. Not only did the police turn a blind eye to the violence, but the club owners actually invited Fear back for a second show — and sent out a press release making light of the event.
“What it boils down to is police see a bunch of black, Latino and Filipino faces in backward baseball caps and sneakers and the generalizations and the stereotypes come into play,” says Oliva. “The crowds I get to some of my shows and parties are made up of college students — and are probably better educated and better employed than the white techno rave crowd. But the police see minorities and they automatically think, 'gang infiltration.'”
It's Thursday night at CafŽ Du Nord and people are queuing up in front of the tony Upper Market jazz club. Heads turn as a hip-hop kid with a giant 'fro walks past the line carrying his sound equipment. “Who's playing tonight, anyway?” says one woman. The kid drawing the looks is Boots, and his group, the Coup, a Marxist hip-hop trio from the East Bay, is the first of its kind to be scheduled at the venue. It was nearly impossible to get a show anywhere else in the Bay Area to promote their new record, Genocide and Juice. Though Du Nord generally features jazz and hip hop/jazz, booker Nancy Meyers was willing to take a chance on the Coup. “They're more political than your average hip-hop group,” Meyers says. “I thought it would be an interesting change.” [page]
The jam-packed crowd is quite a mix — black, white, Latino and Asian hip-hop heads intermingle with the Du Nord's black-rayon-clad regulars and clean-cut diners. It's so incongruous that the vibe is great. Despite bad sightlines and poor sound, the Coup captivates.
Then Boots says in an aside, “There are police in the house. Don't they know this is a cool show?” It was a cool show. The cop in question was actually outside, preparing to tow Boots' car, and Meyer was merely signaling the rapper from stageside.
The following Saturday, on the opposite side of the city in Hunters Point, local rap groups including 11/5, Under Da Influence, Cold World Hustlers and RBL Posse are doing two afternoon sets at the Bayview Opera House. It's nearly 5:30 pm and the Nation of Islam security force is ushering the crowd out. “It's been going on all day,” says a smiling Herm Lewis, “with no drama.” That's despite the fact that three of the groups performing are from Oakdale and three from Harbor Road — two neighborhoods experiencing a mini feud. Things are calm until an unmarked cop car pulls up into the traffic jam out front. Suddenly one young guy is handcuffed against the door. Meanwhile, the remaining stragglers just start heading home.
“They say you can't do rap shows without violence, but look at today,” says one concert attendee. “Still, if even one muthafucka had done something hella stupid, they'd use it as an excuse to ban rap shows here forever.”
For every show or DJ night that's been marked by an episode of violence, an equal number pass without incident. The few rap shows that were recently booked in San Francisco — Tha Alkaholiks and the Nonce at Club 181; Digable Planets, Spearhead and Public Enemy at the Fillmore; and Organized Konfusion, Common Sense and the Beatnuts at the DNA — all went off peacefully. Informal Nation put on the best parties in town for the past year and a half, with only three minor scuffles — two of them drink-throwing bouts between girls. And Deco, a hip-hop bar in the Tenderloin, is one of the liveliest small clubs in the city, with jumping hip hop, soul and reggae DJs every night of the week, and the occasional live act.
What makes the difference between these peaceful events and the disasters? Besides security, there's the all-important good vibe. The venue itself is key — you want one with a good layout, a strong sound system and an efficient admission strategy. “If people have been waiting for an hour just to get in, they're in a bad mood before anyone even gets onstage,” says David Paul. Paul keeps the crowd happy with constant entertainment — breakdancers, videos and DJs — preshow and between sets. Herm Lewis even “blesses” concerts before they start. “When I'm hosting, I come out on the positivity tip, talking about stopping the violence and increasing the peace. If I notice any negativity during a show, I'll get back on stage and try to calm things down.”
But the audience breakdown is most important. Promoters prefer a true hip-hop nation crowd — multi-racial, evenly divided by gender. Attract too many guys, and a fight is almost sure to break out. “The main prob-lem I saw is that
we'd have about five
girls and 40 to 50
guys,” says Berkeley
Square booker Bailey Pendegrass. “Come around midnight, many of the guys would realize they weren't going to get laid and things would get ugly.”
Good promoters cherry-pick their audience just like their bands, selectively fliering specific neighborhoods and college campuses, handing out invites at clubs and dropping them off at stores like Behind the Post Office and X-Large. “I'd never advertise over the radio,” says Oliva. “The way we do it, you get a true hip-hop crowd — peaceful, multicultural people who are really there for the music. Once it's on KMEL, it's over.”
Ironically, KMEL is not too keen on radio promotion, either. When the station participates in ticket giveaways, it won't disclose the location of the event. And according to assistant programming director Michael Erickson, the station has severely restricted the number of rap events it promotes over the air in light of the Notorious BIG event.
“The state of hip hop has become so negative and unsafe we find that we are better off not getting involved in those events,” he says.
Blame it on bad promoters. Rap is rife with shady, fly-by-night perpetrators who care more about making a buck than about the music. These are the people who cut costs on security, who rent shitty sound systems and even advertise groups on posters that aren't even scheduled to perform. The day Hip Hop on the Green was supposed to take place last summer — which was abruptly canceled by the police — Billy Jam arrived at Berkeley's Aquatic Park to find there wasn't a stage. The previous year, the crowd had to watch the show through barbed wire.
“You wouldn't believe what these guys try to pull off,” says Mr. C of the RBL Posse. “They won't pay you, they'll book you for out-of-town shows that fall apart and they won't even get you a hotel room — and if they do, it's just so they have someplace to bring the girls.”
Poorly run shows piss off the artists, who sometimes take it out on the crowd (“Frisko is weak!”), which then takes it out on itself. Unfortunately, as Jam says, “there is a certain disorganization that is prevalent in rap.” Blame it on Hip Hop Standard Time — about two hours late. Most groups don't have a stage manager to get them to the church on time. The Leaders of the New School arrived at their recent Crash Palace gig at almost 2 o'clock in the morning. They assumed it was open till 4 am — like clubs in New York. [page]
“In addition to everything else hip hop is — real, honest, political — it's also supposed to be part of showbiz,” says Broun Fellinis manager Michael Wharton, in reference to a spate of sloppy, abbreviated shows. “At root, people want to have fun. That's why they pay the money.” Still, stellar sets by acts like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, the Goats, the Roots and locals like Souls of Mischief, Spearhead, Midnight Voices, Conscious Daughters and Ras Kass more than atone for the dis-appointments.
But as the crackdown on hip hop continues, where will these artists be able to perform? Who will get to see them? Persecuted from the get-go, rap has always had a strong underground element. Every time another media-hyped “controversy” — N.W.A, Ice-T and “Cop Killer,” Sister Souljah — comes around, the genre takes another subterranean dive, and grows bigger than ever. The street will always dictate success more than radio, more than the Box or MTV, more than big tours.
“These crackdowns come in a cycle,” says promoter David Paul of the recent Bay Area flap. “Every year or so, hip hop takes the heat and most clubs won't touch it. I think it's better for hip hop that it's going underground — it was getting a little too mainstream.”
Most of the fans interviewed for this article assert that the local hip-hop scene is still going strong. You just have to know where to find it — the floating DJ parties, the rented-out warehouses and out-of-the-way clubs. Artists and promoters are being adventurous and seeking out new, often unusual spots. “It's like a chess game,” says Efrain Oliva. “You strategize and track the cops' movement. You think, Well, they were here, so I'll make my next move there.”
“I don't want to put that information in the paper,” says KMEL's Alex Mejia when asked which local clubs still do hip hop, “because I don't want to see some heads show up and ruin things. You have to keep it on the underground.”
Meaning, it's not just the cops promoters and fans are hiding from, it's other rap fans — what one promoter dubbed the “Raiders jackets and pager crowd.” Despite the general population's negative perception that all hip hoppers are a bunch of gun-toting gangstas, in reality a large part of the hip-hop nation ethic is all about peace and diversity. San Francisco is known for its vibrant and truly multicultural hip hop and hip hop/jazz scenes, “a mini nirvana,” as a visiting New Yorker described it. “You don't see crowds like that on the East Coast, and you'll never see something like that at a rock show,” he argues.
Many hip-hop heads, who often differentiate between “hip hop” and “rap,” argue that one small subset — the street kids — are ruining things for everyone. They complain that the cops are painting everyone with the same brush. “They're so ignorant,” Efrain Oliva says. The troublemakers are a small element — people coming in from Richmond and East Palo Alto to go to the Oasis or Illusions or DV8.”
Oliva continues, “I won't do hardcore because the more hardcore the music, the more hardcore the crowd. I don't want to put myself in danger, I don't want to put my audience in danger and I don't want to get a hip hop-friendly club owner in trouble.”
“You can get a tough crowd at certain shows,” agrees Billy Jam, “because you'll get predominantly guys and they're rivals at odds with each other depending on where they're from. But I find disturbing the attitude to keep them in the ghetto or the projects where they won't cause any trouble.”
The class conflict is more noticeable in the Bay Area because the local rap sound is predominantly considered street and gangsta. Thus local rappers can't get a show in their own hometowns. Rappin' 4-Tay (the Fillmore), E-40 (Vallejo) and Dru-Down (Oakland) blew up big and got signed with enormous bonuses in the past year, but none of them could get anyone to put on a real show in the Bay Area. Promoters and club owners feared that a projected pimps-'n'-players audience would get itself — and them — into trouble.
“I won't touch a rap act from the Bay Area because of posses and their neighborhood loyalties,” says Oliva. “If you tell a club that you want to do a local group, they just laugh at you.”
The back room at Premiere Production Studios in Bayview Hunters Point is brimming with local rappers: Dre-Dog, the Cold World Hustlers, 11/5, Mr. Laid, Under Da Influence. The most beautiful little boy is walking around smiling and waving at everybody.
Someone asks if anyone heard that the DNA put on a show called Best of the Underground. “Wha?!” asks a puzzled Dre-Dog. “I didn't hear about that. Did any of you all?” No, everyone says. “Well then, how can you have
a show called
the Best of the Underground when none of us heard about it?” he asks. “We're it!”
The banishment of live hip hop hurts these guys the most. Because of where they're from and the crowds they'll draw, they can't get any gigs. As a result, they're unable to flex their live skills, drum up local support or make ends meet. “These contracts we have with rap labels pay us twice a year,” complains E-Sic of the Cold World Hustlers. “Shows are the food on our table,” adds his bandmate Big Vic.
The last time local rappers got steady gigs was in September and October when the Nation of Islam organized a tour of sorts in neighborhoods like the Fillmore and the Western Addition. “I thought it would be a good way to go throughout the neighborhoods and help unify us and convince people to stop killing each other,” says Sister Jayvon Banks of the Nation of Islam. “The one thing all the neighborhoods have in common is they all have a rap group.” [page]
The concept turns the notion of live rap as automatic trouble on its head. The rap groups saw the Nation of Islam events as a way of building bridges between warring communities and defusing an obstacle to performing live. The six shows drew upward of 1,000 people and under the watchful eyes of Nation security no one popped off.
But ultimately, there's no simple solution to the recurring cycle of violence and crackdown. What's killing live hip hop? As Paris says, “All it takes is one fool with a gun.