by Mark Pollard
Spetmber 10 1991
I read in another interview you did a reference to hamboning. Can you explain to me what it is?
When the first Sugarhill Gang record came out and it was on the radio I was already living in Oakland then but there were people who had recently moved out here from the mid west and the south and I remember us saying they had a hambone record out on the radio. My whole thing with that is there’s a lot of elements of hip hop… like the four elements of hip hop is really just a commercialisation and a way to commodify things because you have to put things into easy categories in order to sell it. It’s a lot easier to sell as an invention that kind of slipped and fell together by a series of events that happened in one place than it is to tell it as a history of a people. So that’s something that I feel is left out of hip hop. That was my first connection to rapping [hamboning]. Another more obvious one is beatboxing. That was something that was very much a part of hip hop. I first started hearing the four elements maybe from the early 90s. I don’t know who started that but it’s full of shit to me.Being in Australia, we’re aware of various issues but we may not have specific experience or knowledge of certain events that have shaped American society and hip hop in general. I’ve always wondered about the connection between hip hop in the South and the West Coast styles. Does that have its roots in migration in the 1960’s?
No I think that the biggest migration was right after the war or during the war actually. On the West Coast there were a lot of factories that were building things for the war so a lot of black people moved from the South. They put out calls. People moved to the LA area and the Bay Area. The Bay Area had a black population a little bit before that because this is where the sleeping car porters were stationed. In the late 40’s and ealry 50’s a lot of people moved here for jobs in factories. It was to the point where I grew up in the 80’s we could tell just from… certain areas got populated with black people at different times. I could tell somebody from West Oakland distinguished from somebody from East Oakland just by their accent. People from West Oakland, their accent was more from Texas and stuff because they were more recently arrived. And people from East Oakland had more of a Louisiana type accent.
What do you put the similarities in sound between the West Coast and the South down to?
I put it down to public transportation. A big part of it is public transportation. In New York you got subways and things and you can listen to something on a small radio, a walkman or whatever so people produced music that was more for small radios. So you have less bass, more concentration on the high hats and the snares whereas on the West Coast you really can’t survive, it’s harder to survive without a car. So a car culture developed. We don’t have public transportation in that sense. Relying on catching a bus is not good. You can’t go far distances if you have to work some place far. It’s really hard. Although we do have a bus system it’s not a good one and it’s not a cheap one. So a car culture developed in which younger people had cars and during your transportation is when you are going to listen to your music. You have this car with a big trunk. And the cars that people had were older not because they were trying to floss or anything but because they were the used cars that they could get. So a lot of people had big Box Chevies?? from the 70’s and stuff, so you have things where people are fixing up their cars a little or maybe they’re not and they’re just rolling down the strip, and you’re playing your music and you can put big 12” speakers or 18” speakers in there and listen to your music loud. That’s how you heard new music – people driving past in their car.
Now the thing that really drive those speakers more than a high hat or a snare is the 808. They talk about Jeep systems on the East Coast but usually they’ll have 10” speakers or 8” speakers or 6x9’s and they’ll call that a Jeep system. But a system here meant you had at least two 12’s if not 18’s so the 808 had to kick. And in order for the 808 to kick you had to have a slower tempo because you had to have time for the 808 to hit and expand. So the 808 takes time to really fufill its mission. If you have it going too fast it’s going to be jumbled or else you’re going to have to not have that 808 go as low. That along with people’s accents gave new styles such as Too Short. Something that was going over a slow beat. And what’s interesting now is that things are so bad financially that now people can’t even afford those systems so you are hearing a difference in the music because people are making it for the systems now that are closer to those East Coast Jeep systems than they were to a few years ago. You don’t hear as many people driving by bumping music which is why a lot of the music is very similar now.
Have you noticed groups who have been around for the past decade changing their sound which you would attribute to that?
Well, I mean, for instance, us even. We used to have stuff that was very much riding music like 73bpm and the 808 just booming and you could just ride around with it. But now people don’t have those systems to listen to it in that context any more. The language at which you deliver your rap or ideas delivers as much as what you are saying so if that language doesn’t translate, if people aren’t listening to it the way that you made it to listen to then there’s no reason to listen to it in that way but you can hear it Too Short’s music. You can hear it in new groups coming out of the Bay Area. It’s a lot different. People just don’t have as much money for those systems any more. Things are a lot worse than they even were back then. Those things are considered frivolous to people.
That whole car culture is something you seem to have embraced within your activist activities. I remember hearing a bit about you taking to the streets when Proposition 21 was being voted on.
We had a flatbed truck and basically make it into a stage and we’d get rappers and we’d drive around neighbourhoods and do a show – guerilla theatre. We’d called them guerilla hip hop concerts.
Proposition 21 seemed to get a lot of exposure on a worldwide level within the hip hop community itself. What do you put the fact that it was passed down to?
Well, it didn’t get a lot of exposure right then and there is the point. The way that that came about was that it was a proposition that was snuck on there and they didn’t tell anyone about it. And the description on the ballot made it seem almost like a progressive measure. The description on it was very misleading so there may have been people that never would have voted for it that voted for it. On the other hand, California is a very racist place.
People think because the idea that there’s a music industry and a film industry that those films are liberal, they think when in actuality they are very right wing as far as keeping the status quo and putting black people in a certain light. So even that industry is very right wing. There is a strong right wing movement. That’s one of the reasons it got passed and I’m one of the people that says that people in general are nowhere as right wing as the media tries to make us think. The media is always trying to make people think that people are happy with the way things are going, that most people are happy with the status quo, and that normally isn’t true. In California though you have a lot of people that do benefit from the system. So it passed. Even in the Bay Area where it’s supposed to be so liberal with the hippies and all that sort of stuff when it comes to things that have to do with locking up black people there are many people that even call themselves progressive that come out for locking black people up.
Have there been any obvious changes or incidents since it was passed?
Right away… the way they did it is that it superseded another law that was in the books so it went into effect the very next day and they immediately had people on trial. Right now, it’s being held up in the courts so we’ll see whether it gets put through the whole way. It’s just an extra tool for them to use against people. I don’t think you’ll see it right away on the streets but it’s just a way for them to lock people up for longer.Right. And going back to what you were talking about before, have there been any movies that you think have represented black people as you think they should be?
Let’s see. That’s real hard. I like Crooklyn. I thought that was a good movie.
I mean, I haven’t been to America since I was 4 but to me even Spike Lee’s films seem patronising.
Oh yeah. That’s why I’m only mentioning Crooklyn. My thing isn’t just representing people how it should be. My thing is what viewpoint does it give off. All these movies – whether it’s Menace to Society or Boyz in the Hood – the moral is “Move some place else and everything’s better”. And the message is always “we’re destroying ourselves” and there’s no mention of anything systematic that is going on except in the sense that we’re destroying ourselves and we’re helping the system. There are a lot of people with good ideas out there. It seems to me more than a coincidence why those are the only ideas put out there. Same exact thing that you hear from the news – that problems stem from the people; blame the victim. And that’s basically the problem I have with the movies. So I don’t put it in being representative of black people but what are the viewpoints getting out there, what are the pictures that they are painting as to the reasons these conditions exist.
Is it true that “Me, Jesus and the Pimp…” is getting made into a movie?
Yeah well it’s been made into a novel and there’s talks of it being made into a movie. I have to see what’s going on with that because it could easily be a very terrible movie.
What’s the concept of the book?
It’s exactly the story but fleshed out and I think she added one character, a Black Panther, kind of like a guardian angel type figure. It’s a series of chapters, each coming from the different characters’ first person view.
With the album “Party Music”, is there irony in the title for you considering that most people would think that you don’t have to pay attention to “Party Music” and you have some pretty solid messages coming through?
It’s not ironic to me because the feeling and the way I was introduced both to the music and to the movement…on the music side, my introduction to hip hop I would have to say was in the latter half of the 80s as far as me participating in it – I listened to it when I lived in Pasadena on KDAY and stuff like that, it was going to parties and it was the music they could get people to dance to. You didn’t have any of this hip hop in which people are rapping all off beat and it sounds like sand paper over a steal pipe as the beat. It was things you could dance to and that’s how I got to appreciate Rakim’s lyrics because Check Out My Melody, they could play it at a party.
So you’re also talking party music in the sense that “Fight the Power” is a song of celebration…
Political party. Communist party, revolutionary party, zapatista, whatever you want to call it. It’s also party music. So as a kid my father was a fulltime organiser and it always seemed like we were having parties. There were always card games going, people dancing, people laughing, and it wasn’t until later that I found out these were meetings, not parties. And that the people that were going there were just paid fulltime organisers – these were people form the community coming together to try to work out how to solve a problem. But people rejoiced in the fact that they were doing that so this album kind of commemorates that and puts the fact that I want there to be hope in our struggle. It’s not just all bad in the sense that we need to be depressed all the time but there needs to be hope all the time.Regards
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