On a recent Friday night in Oakland, Bas-1 was none too happy. He paced back and forth onstage during a showcase at the Black Box, growling into the mike, "I'm having a very bad fucking day today. Yeah, I'm in a mothafucka for real. My great-grandmother who raised me died the other day, and ..." he pauses, pointing toward the back of the room, "that fucking soundman back there disrespected me during the sound-check! So if you want me to go on, you better make some mothafuckin' noise!" The soundman shot a bewildered look at the stage, and then locked his eyes on his mixing board.
Shitting a brick at this point would be quite understandable in the soundman's situation: Bas-1 commands a stage presence far more intimidating than his five and a half feet would at first suggest. And he has this scowl where his eyes get huge and his jaw clenches, resembling a fireplug about to burst. Confrontation is Bas' forte, and he's well-known in the East Bay hip-hop community for calling people on their shit. When the audience, a little overwhelmed by the seething, raw emotion, fails to give the response he's looking for, he shouts, "Oh, what, none of y'all have grandmothers now? Don't make me get old school your ass, because I am hip-hop, mothafuckas!"
Few have the gall to outright proclaim themselves the essence of hip-hop, especially in the sense that Bas means it, which is not as a genre of commercial music, but as a long-standing culture made up of four elements -- rapping, DJing, graffiti writing, and break dancing. Bas-1 is a true urban renaissance man, with skills and knowledge in all four art forms, a distinction that was rare even during hip-hop's seminal early-'80s era. Today, such practitioners are all but extinct.
He pinpoints his first written rhyme taking shape precisely on July 9, 1985, and emceeing, according to him, is where his deepest ability lies. In 1977, at the age of five, he began roboting (a dance style that preceded breaking on the West Coast); he picked up tagging in '84; and he "started dabbing around with DJing 'round about '87, '88." As a historian of hip-hop culture, he's lectured at Cal and San Francisco State, and as a living link between the old school and the present day, he performed as an emcee in November at the Universal Zulu Nation's 28th anniversary, which celebrates the founding of hip-hop's longest-standing crew.
Offstage, Bas-1, who chose his name to identify with Botswana, the once apartheid-riddled country in southern Africa, has another personality altogether. He's good-natured, explanatory, and exceedingly polite, eager to give background details or historical context at any point along the unfolding of his story. The question of how such "uprocking" dance styles as popping, locking, and roboting originated on the West Coast, for instance, elicits the following detailed mini-lesson: "It came from pimps -- a lot of pimps and revolutionists and whatnot. The first group that was really big here in the Bay was the Black Resurgence -- they danced for the Black Panther Party, and the Black Messengers -- I believe they danced for Parliament. They all danced to funk records. Around about '75, you had Live Incorporated, and they battled Close Encounters of the Funkiest Kind. Close Encounters came with the whole 'team' theory, a five-man routine to one song with an actual concept -- they had costumes and everything. We all used to battle as far as who put on the best show. This is what killed off solos, because you looked bigger doing a weaker move when you have four people in unison. We were trying to be like the old Temptations and the Four Tops. Then around about '78, when you had Kraftwerk come out, that's when you had motherfuckas taking things to another level. Then people started speeding up records."
And on and on it goes -- obscure break dancing crews, recently deceased graffiti writers, long-defunct rap groups. Bas is a veritable fountainhead of fascinating local history. Billy Jam, veteran hip-hop journalist and owner of the Hip Hop Slam label, made his acquaintance last year and instantly scooped him up as a radio personality up for his monthly KPFA show devoted to DJing, "Scratch Attack." "Bas is one of these guys who will offer his opinion all the time," Jam says. "If he was your roommate or you went on a camping trip with him, you'd probably want to strangle him. But then if you listen to him for a while, you realize he's making perfect sense. Even though he has this over-the-top personality -- while he's spitting in your face telling you about the real b-boys back in the day -- I've actually come to think he's one of the greatest people I've ever met."
Up until recently, Bas has been something of a secret resource, a behind-the-scenes cat who's had a hand in countless local projects, with few under his own name. His interests outside of rapping -- especially his involvement with Style Elements, the internationally recognized break dancing crew -- and a lack of any proper outlets for his stuff have delayed his introduction to the listening public. But now it's his time to shine. He released his first full-length in November, For the Mentally Astute "Theory of a Throw-up," billed as the first album to explicitly focus on each of the four hip-hop elements. Two more LPs are imminent with his rhyming partner H-Bomb (a duo dubbed BasBombing Soundz): Old Fashion Lyrical Display and Sacred Narcotics. Cytoplasm, the super-group he founded in '95 out of various Oakland entities, will be dropping its debut shortly as well.
Bas is by no means a new jack when it comes to recording -- he learned production in late '88 at the Onion Labs studio, where many an aspiring Oakland group cuts its teeth, including Hieroglyphics. He was also a member of the long-ago-disbanded Evil Empire, and for a while he was partnered with Deon Evans, 2Pac's producer early in his career. He also introduced the Japanese rapper Shing02 to the world, guiding the now highly regarded MC along and making beats for him.
For the Mentally Astute manages what has seemed a damn near impossibility in "back to the realness" rap -- celebrating the original essence of the old school without sounding dated by it. Its 34 tracks are compact and varied, flitting like a mix tape between conceptual rhymes, modernist beats, tales of graf writers who squeal, DJ scratch instrumentals, and snippets from Style Wars, the classic 1984 graffiti documentary. Bas raps with a range of different emotions, most notably anger; something that seems to have been spliffed and jiggified out of both the pop and underground rap discourse. On "Free Your Mind," his delivery unravels into a yell as he spits, "think about how many people have been beaten up to be accepted by the oppressor/ going out like suckas forgetting their fucking ancestors/ rockin' three-piece suits clockin' loot/ whatever happened to revolution? That's right -- Nike owns rights to it!"
According to Bas, in order for a record to be hip-hop, it must illuminate the true principles of this urban art and teach something. "I think that it's a slap in the face for KMEL and certain rappers to claim that they're hip-hop," he says. "You can't necessarily be mad at these people for doing their thing, but you can be mad at them for doing it without integrity. If you're going to get paid, you better do something to show for it. What are you doing for the community? What are you doing that's benefiting hip-hop as a whole, and not just pushing your name? Because of KRS-One making [his anti-meat eating song] 'Beef,' now you got more vegetarians. He made people aware of something that transcended far past his rhymes."
Every chance he's given, whether it's onstage, on the radio show, or on vinyl, Bas invokes the names of the overlooked contributors to hip-hop and gives thanks. He talks a lot about how he had a torch passed to him and now it's his responsibility to keep it lit for others, but Bas is no hip-hop conservative. Rather than wallowing in the past, he uses it as inspiration for injecting new ideas into rapping, dancing, DJing, and graf writing (although he's quick to admit he's still at the student level with regards to graffiti). Hip-hop for him isn't a career or hobby; it's like a spiritual calling; an around-the-clock, do-or-die labor of love. "If you have a healthy work ethic, then your shit is going to sound cool," he says. "It's the reason my projects sound the way they do and look the way they do, because I'm serious about who I am and how I have to come off and be represented. A lot of people died for this culture, and I have to represent them."
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