Hip-Hop Made Me Do It 

Worn Down

Seeking a commemorative Don Imus-NCAA T-shirt? Well, you can forget DeezTeez.com. The San Leandro silkscreener and purveyor of wearable Adam Sandler humor recently pulled its "Rutgers ... Nappy Headed Hoes Basketball Team" shirt off its Web site after a group of activists launched an online protest rally and stormed a Berkeley retailer earlier this month.

The navy-blue shirts, which depict a basketball with a picked-out Afro, sparked the ire of some Cal students and staff, who recently walked en masse into T-Shirt Orgy, a basement shop within the Bear Basics store on Telegraph Avenue, and demanded that the "nappy" shirt come down. This, of course, was after radio blowhard Imus and his sidekicks were exiled for calling members of Rutgers' championship women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" and "jigaboos."

Deez' owners don't view the shirts as racist — it's all 'hood to them. Their designs regularly crib from hip-hop lyrics: "Where My Hose At?" shows up next to the depiction of a firefighter. "Nuthin' But a G-String," which accompanies a burlesque dancer, plays on a song title from Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic. Another Chronic song, "Deeez Nuuutz," apparently inspired the company's name, not to mention a squirrel shirt that says, "Have You Seen Deez Nutz?"

Deez, according to its Web site, was started in 2003 by four college dropouts. Their success selling bawdy humor has allowed them to create a spacious shop with two offices, a loft, and a printing bay. They weren't the only ones to exploit the Imus scandal, but retailing the shirts near Cal was bound to draw some attention. When Brandelyn Castine, an Oakland poet and activist, saw the shirts at T-Shirt Orgy, she asked a floor manager to take them down. The manager gave her the brush-off. "I was told 90 percent of the shirts were offensive and they were not going to take it down," she said.

In a fit of online activism, Castine took her cause to social networking site Facebook.com. Overnight, she rallied more than two hundred supporters, who called and e-mailed the store. Within a day, the shirt was gone, but the following week, students complained that the store was displaying T-shirts they found even more offensive. One depicted a mass lynching (of Protestants by Catholics); another had a clown face that struck some as a little too Amos 'n' Andy.

When seventy or so protesters showed up at T-Shirt Orgy early this month, manager Jonathan Fernandez didn't try to confront them. Instead, he walked around the store, taking down nine shirts the group deemed offensive. One was a Deez creation depicting a cartoon border jumper with the slogan "Go Diego Go."

"I was surprised; I thought it was going to be a battle," Castine said.

Fernandez says he simply made a business decision. "I had seventy unhappy people, many of who've shopped in the store in the past," he said. "I run a retail business, not a library. I'm not trying to have the greatest collection of obnoxious shirts in the world. It's not worth it. "

He also agreed to carry shirts from protester Leandrew Robinson, whose company, Ragamuffin, makes black-nationalist and hip-hop gear. "I would always rather have a positive message then an negative one," Fernandez said.

That soothed some anger, but the battle over Deez was still heating up online. Along with some news about the controversy, Deez posted on its Web site the e-mail addresses of sixty people who'd complained, and encouraged patrons to respond. An excerpt of the suggested response: "If you are offended by their tshirts then don't go to their web site and don't purchase one. ZERO tshirts will be brought down due to your protest."

But more than a few Deez fans departed from the script, dropping defensive F-bombs and threatening to piss on the protesters, who, at last count, numbered more than 560 on Facebook message boards.

Castine and her cohorts then wrote to the mayor of San Leandro and the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, complaining that Deez' actions had led to personal attacks against them via e-mail. "I didn't have a problem with them attacking me," Castine said. "My problem was when they started to attack students."

It's unclear whether the letters prompted any official action, but the protesters' e-mail addresses seem to have been taken off the Web site. Deez, meanwhile, continued to defend its shirts in an e-mail to the Express. "We simply created a tshirt based on an actual event and it is up to the person viewing it to decide if it's something they want to purchase."

Although Deez apparently wanted "No More Drama," the company has demonstrated that it's capable of colorblind satire. To wit, a cartoonish shark T-shirt. The slogan: "It's Good to Be White."

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