Throughout his childhood, Baby Champ — whose name derives from his deceased father, Tyrone "Big Champ" Stevenson — was constantly getting in scraps with other kids. "If you said something about my daddy it would be, like, 'What? Okay, well, it's time to fight,'" said the nineteen-year-old East Oakland native, whose father died when he was in third grade. Champ's mother, always the last stop in a long chain of disciplinary actions, would enjoin Baby Champ to find more productive ways of channeling his anger. Then she would put him under house arrest: no TV, no phone calls, no playing outside after the sun went down. The only thing left to do, Champ recalled, was take apart his bicycle to see if he could reassemble all the parts. Being sequestered at home in this manner would ultimately do wonders for Champ's career.
He was the kind of kid who always liked tinkering with household appliances. He'd pry things apart, loosen the screws, twist off the knobs, and pull the springs out just to see if he could put everything back together in its original form. By the time he turned thirteen, Champ could build a bike more easily than the average person could put together an Ikea nightstand. Then he got the idea of improving on the vehicle's design in homage to the candy-colored Oldsmobile "scrapers" he'd see rolling through his neighborhood in East Oakland. He began adding 22-inch or 26-inch rims, gold aluminum foil (meant to resemble the "spinners" on scraper car wheels), and bright, electric paintjobs. Despite his mother's disapproval ("She was like, 'Don't make no mess, don't get no spray paint on the wall, that better not be my foil'"), Champ became passionate about his "scraper bikes," approaching them with the studied intensity of a craftsman making an abstract sculpture. As a senior at McClymonds High School, Champ launched his own mom-and-pop bicycle boutique, which later inspired a popular rap video and landed him in the sanctified pages of UrbanDictionary.com.
Champ is a bicycle enthusiast with a DIY business model that would garner approval from any punk rocker or Critical Mass activist. The yard outside his mother's apartment is a checkerboard of dirt and scrub grass, with scrap bikes piled in one corner, all in varying stages of disrepair: Some have handlebars but no wheels; some are just skeletal frames with the paint peeled off; some are rusted, while others reflect oily light from the sun. Around the side of the house he keeps seven bicycles that look like part of a modern art installation. There's a beach cruiser with chameleon pain that changes from purple to green, and a street bike with Reese's peanut butter cup wrappers woven in the spokes. Other bikes have similarly flashy accessories: gold aluminum foil; Capri Sun juice boxes; Oreo cookie wrappers; two-toned paintjobs; spray-painted 22-inch rims.
On a recent Sunday, Champ sits atop a washing machine in the basement of his apartment building. He is wearing baggy pants, skate shoes, a green Mack Bee T-shirt (from his friend's Vallejo-based clothing line), and an engineer's cap covered with silver sequins. On his right arm are tattooed epitaphs commemorating both his father and his cousin, who died two years ago when he rode his bike though an intersection in West Oakland, and was struck by an oncoming car. A treble clef and musical notes are scrolled across his neck on the left side. His flashy clothes and winsome smile belie his businessman's nature: Since selling his first bike at age fifteen, Champ has constantly been on the move seeking ways to expand his tiny empire. He currently customizes about five bikes a week by adding spinners and candy wrapper wheel decorations, and even tricking them out with real car stereo systems ($175 for the whole package if you bring your own set of wheels).
Champ calls himself an "opportunist," in the sense that "If I see an opportunity, I'm gonna take it." On this day, he's already gotten called to demo the scraper bikes at the Oakland Museum of California, and at a Father's Day picnic in Mosswood Park. Over the past couple months he's assembled a loose-knit street team called the Scraper Bike Boys, already about thirty men deep. Champ uses an each-one, teach-one approach: He made their bikes, showed them how to do it, then got them to ride around town and advertise his product for free. Thus, the self-proclaimed "Scraper Bike King" is at once a true populist, and a shrewd businessman. Champ figured out how to keep his overhead low by stashing about a dozen bikes outside the East Oakland apartment that he shares with his mother, and the rest at his grandmother's house on 74th Street. The itinerant business model is pretty cost-effective, though Champ eventually hopes to open his own shop (he got a couple complaints from grandma when she began planning for a recent backyard barbecue). For now, his storefront is the web site ScraperBikes.net, where Champ hawks bikes, bike accessories, and apparel, and also cross-promotes his rap group, Da Trunk Boiz. Their song "Scraper Bikes" gained its own cult following without any traditional A&R, and spawned a low-budget music video that's already gotten about two million hits on YouTube.
It's all pretty brilliant. Both Da Trunk Boiz and the Scraper Bike Boys (whose membership overlaps) do everything from a grassroots sensibility. The five crew members shot their Scraper Bike video in somebody's front yard, and on the street outside; the group's demo album, which they mixed and edited in Champ's laundry room, has an equally lo-fi production style (as in, so lo-fi, it's practically no-fi). Last Halloween Champ amassed some fifty bike riders at the corner of 51st Avenue and Foothill Boulevard to ride from East Oakland to West Oakland on their splashy vehicles. He promoted the event on radio station 106 KMEL by proclaiming it the inaugural "Scraper Bike Day" celebration. Making it to the Urban Dictionary was probably their biggest break thus far. The entry for "scraper bike" reads: "A new trend that is a part of the San Francisco Bay Area Hyphy Movement in which people ride their tricked out bikes and go stupid, dumb, retarded while on their bikes ... The term was coined by the rap group Trunk Boiz of Oakland, California."
It's no huge surprise that the scraper bikes are catching on in a period of economic recession, when prohibitive gas prices are deterring many folks — Champ included — from purchasing the actual scraper BMWs. In fact, said the Scraper Bike King — who unwittingly became a bastion of progressive environmental politics in East Oakland — "I have my bike, I don't need no car." He says that recent rap video cameos (for the Federation's "18 Dummy" song and Kafani's "Fast Like a Nascar") helped catapult the scraper bikes to national renown, though he's still trying to get the investment capital to launch his own shop. Even if he doesn't get rich, Champ will surely be remembered for his role in the greening of hip-hop. He said his mother finally gets it.
Culture Spy - April 20, 9:52 AM
Culture Spy - April 13, 12:18 PM