Inside the cavernous Historic Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland, about twenty people are watching a documentary about the underground Bay Area hip-hop scene right before its stars perform at the decade-old Broke-Ass Summer Jam. Shot by Kevin Epps of Straight Outta Hunters Point fame, Rap Dreams shows then-unknown Mistah F.A.B. laying down vocals in a studio, before Oakland's Balance discusses his start in the game and how he used to press up his own CDs and hand them out for free, just to get a buzz going.
The practice of "dirt-hustlin'," as it's called, is a time-honored tradition in the Bay Area music industry. With no major-label infrastructure to support the hundreds of independent rap artists trying to make a name for themselves, rappers, DJs, promoters, and producers have had to be creative, engineering DIY schemes and networking with other like-minded individuals.
No one knows the dirt-hustle game better than the Living Legends, who first came on the scene about twelve years ago. Their saga began with Mystik Journeymen (Sunspot Jonz and Luckyiam.PSC, who used to sell tapes in front of now-defunct Leopold's Records on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, using the proceeds to finance further self-made recording efforts and, maybe, get a bite to eat. The Journeymen were soon joined by other aspiring artists: the Grouch, Eligh, Bicasso, Scarub, Asop, and Arata, who became the Living Legends collective, and began throwing "Unsigned and Hella Broke" warehouse parties at their spot at 4001 San Leandro Boulevard, where the cost of admission was a pack of Top Ramen. The parties soon gave birth to Broke-Ass Summer Jams, all-night hip-hop extravaganzas featuring the Legends and other underground hip-hop acts an alternative to the ultracommercial fetes promoted by KMEL.
Flash-forward to 2006, and the Living Legends have become one of the most celebrated underground hip-hop acts on the planet. In addition to touring North America several times, they've built up followings in Australia and Japan, and while they're no longer hella broke, they're still unsigned. Actually, they're fully independent, with their own label, Revenge, and still 100 percent committed to the dirt-hustlin' ethos.
This year marked the tenth anniversary of Broke-Ass Summer Jam, and to commemorate, the Legends took the show which last occurred at a sold-out Fillmore in 2003 back to Oakland, where it all began. Downstairs in the ticket booth, Jonz serves walk-up buyers and gives directions to guest artists on his cell phone. He reminisces about the first show, held at long-since-shuttered East Oakland sports bar Flankers: "There were hella gangsta-ass fools at our show." Perhaps surprisingly, he adds, "They was into it. They felt it." The impetus for the event was formed, he says, when he and the other Legends realized that "Summer Jam was never gonna let nobody like us perform. We're not mainstream."
Broke-Ass Summer Jams along with Underground Survivors, an ongoing Journeymen-produced showcase at La Peña gave sub-mainstream hip-hoppers hope and opportunity, becoming a cultural institution along the way. "People grew up on this," Jonz says. The anniversary show represents "ten years of building a community constantly," he says, and the outlet is still needed. With the ascension of hyphy to mainstream recognition, he laments, "hip-hop has gotten pushed out of the Bay right now."
About a half-hour later, the audience has barely begun to filter in, which is a shame, because they're missing an informative, Commonwealth Club-worthy forum with Bay notables including Jonz, Domino of Hieroglyphics, radio personality and webmaster Davey D, East Side Arts Alliance's Maisha Quint, and Rono Tse, formerly of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
The forum's focus was guerrilla marketing techniques for the underground DIY artist, and the sparse crowd got an earful or two. Domino broke down how the Hieroglyphics empire started with four-track demos and led to major-label deals that collapsed because "they felt like we were expendable." Despite gold albums and nationwide recognition, "we didn't have anything to show for it," so they went the dirt-hustlin' route. They now own their own label, their own masters, and their own eight-thousand-square-foot building in East Oakland. "We went out there and got on the grind, basically."
Davey D was similarly illuminating, explaining how PBS wouldn't let him use footage from Rap City Rhapsody, a documentary he had helped put together for free. "This is shit we did, but somebody else owned a piece of it," he said. After getting fired by KMEL, Davey made sure he got a piece of everything he was involved in his latest hustle being cell-phone podcasts.
Later that night, the independent hip-hop spirit proved quite alive, as the building filled up and a succession of underground hip-hoppers rocked way harder than most corporate-sponsored shows. The Living Legends particularly Eligh were awesome, displaying an amazing amount of energy and crowd control. But the emotional highlight was a poignant appearance by Saafir, the onetime Saucee Nomad and founder of Hobo Junction, who rapped classics like "Light Sleeper" and "Battle Drill," then announced he was recovering from spinal cancer. Who needs the real Summer Jam when you can experience poignant moments like that?
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