"People go, "What is hip-hop?' Hip-hop is all-encompassing," says Carlos "Solrac" Mena. "You can classify rap," he adds, "but hip-hop is more than just rapping to a beat."
A native of Brooklyn, Mena grew up around hip-hop, or rather, hip-hop grew up around him. As a child, he remembers listening "late at night, with the radio by my pillow" to pioneers like Special K and Teddy Ted on the radio. "When I heard "Rapper's Delight,' that was the first epiphany I had. But then, when I heard [Run-DMC's] "Rock Box,' I said, okay, this is a viable art form. That really got me excited."
After moving to the South Bay in 1989, Mena noticed "there was a little bit of a scene going on, but it was sporadic." He hooked up with MC Milo, and producer/DJ Selector G to form 10 Bass-T, whose 1996 album Do You Know the Way? stands as a classic example of indie Bay Area underground hip-hop. Mixing poetic verses with big beats, turntable scratching, and live instrumentation, 10 Bass-T rode the wave of the local, fusion-minded, "acid jazz" movement, along with Alphabet Soup and the Broun Fellinis. The group made some noise with the single "10 Bass Hit," but finding venues in the South Bay willing to put on hip-hop concerts was difficult, Mena says. In early 1997, 10 Bass T hosted a groundbreaking series of shows at the Elbo Room in San Francisco, accompanied by the Butta'Breaks band, and featuring then-rising stars like Midnight Voices, Mystik Journeymen, Hobo Junction, Peanut Butter Wolf, Aceyalone and Project Blowed, Latyrx, and Dave Ellis.
After 10 Bass T broke up, Mena eventually moved to Oakland, where he opened up Casa Mena studios and quietly began doing remixes for the likes of Karl Denson. But after two years of keeping a low profile, he says, "I just got this bug." He decided to turn Casa Mena into a record label, and started making songs with local artists and musicians. The label's first release, a compilation entitled Hip-Hop Meditations, scheduled for this fall, is nearly complete, except for a planned collaboration with Speech of Arrested Development. In the meantime, Mena has been drumming up local support with a weekly event at Oakland's Black Box (1928 Telegraph Ave., 510-451-1932), which concludes tonight, Wednesday (8 p.m.), with Casa Mena's official launch party. Alongside Mena -- who performs solo, with a DJ, and with bata drummers -- the events have featured poets, MCs, percussionists, Afro-Cuban folkloric dance troupes, jazz players, and singer-songwriters, ranging from Marc Bamuthi Joseph to Noe Venable to Feenom Circle.
These days Mena considers himself an elder of the hip-hop community, a man on a mission to spread knowledge to the younger generation that may not know what the art form was founded on. "I'm strictly motivated by keeping the culture alive and teaching people what hip-hop is about," he relates, "because you don't hear [real hip-hop] on the radio, you don't see it on TV." Recently, he says, "I performed at a high school in front of three hundred kids, and I said, "How many people love hip-hop?' About two hundred and fifty of them raised their hands. And then I said, "How many of you love hip-hop culture?' And like, ten of them raised their hands. They were cognizant of the fact they didn't know what it was. I said, "Do you guys know what hip-hop culture is?' and like, two people raised their hands. I was, like, "Wow. '"
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