One Nation, Invisible

The untold story of local hip hop: 1981 to 1996

"I'm originally from Liberia. I lived with [the Master Sgt.] Samuel Doe for six months when I was ten, before I came to the United States. The coup happened shortly after that and he became president. My family was in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast for years. It was just recently, this past December, that my mother came to the U.S.

"In 1999, I went back to Africa. I hadn't been home in 20 years, and I hadn't seen my mom in 20 years. It was something I had to do.

"In the refugee camp where my mom was, the young men, from 10:00 o'clock until 2:00 in the morning, they would go through hip-hop songs. They knew every Tupac song. That's when you know hip hop is global. In a refugee camp, 10 hours from the capital, you're laying in the hut, and outside in the courtyard, they're rhyming Tupac, and they know every single lyric. Then they were taking hip hop and talking about issues in Liberia. For me it shows the power of the art form, the way it can be used to tell your story."

-- E.G. Bailey, cofounder of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association, interview, July 30, 2004

When the woman who took in Prince as a high school kid died last year, her obituaries left out her contribution to hip hop. Bernadette Anderson used to run a teen club called Bernadette's out of the Uptown Minneapolis YWCA, where the workout center is now. Hundreds of kids piled into that space every weekend in the late '80s, dancing to rap records slapped on turntables by DJs Brother Jules, Keke Zulu, and Ralph X. In a way, these parties were nothing more than an extension of what Prince and his friends had been doing in the '70s, throwing concerts in the park or at the community center. In north Minneapolis, the heart of black Minnesota, bands eventually gave way to DJs, who played the first rap hit, 1979's "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang.

People in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been using hip hop to tell their stories ever since. But nobody outside Minnesota was listening until recently. Like Liberians taking up Tupac, kids here took the dance styles and spray-paint art of L.A. and New York and made them their own. One of the first local rap groups, the I.R.M. Crew, got national press when they accused Darryl Strawberry of "shuckin' and jivin'" on their 1987 single "Baseball." It wasn't a hit, though, and by the time another local rapper got national attention, he'd moved to Houston and broke with an album on Rap-A-Lot Records: "Straight from St. Paul but Glockin' G's down in Texas," as DMG put it on 1993's Rigormortiz. These days Outlawz rapper Big Mal, who witnessed his cousin Tupac Shakur being gunned down in Las Vegas, rarely mentions his days at St. Paul Central High School.

In the 15 years between the first national rap concert in Minneapolis (Kurtis Blow at the Northgate Roll-Arena in 1981) and the first "underground" CD on a local label (Beyond's 1996 Rhymesayers debut, Comparison), a cities-wide subculture thrived under the media radar. The speakers in the oral history below are variously identified by such old-school labels as "DJ," "MC," "graffiti writer," or "b-boy," but most were all of the above, or more. They came together at a moment when the only national industry to recruit from their ranks was the one selling and distributing crack cocaine. For these artists, fame inevitably meant something less, and more, than becoming famous in the conventional sense.

The story of this scene has never been told before, so consider this the first word, rather than the last, on the subject. To add a few words of your own and check out more old photos, flyers, and anecdotes, visit the TC Old-School Hip Hop Page at


LST, DJ/producer: Me and [Flyte Tyme studio engineer] Ray Seville were having a conversation about two months ago. I asked him, "Who do you think started hip hop up here?" And as far as the movement being official, I'd have to say Travitron.

Travitron, a.k.a. Travis Lee, DJ: I came here from Brooklyn in '81 to go to college, and I wasn't really a fan of Prince and the Time. But everybody else was. They'd had a taste of "Rapper's Delight," but I couldn't find anyone who knew what scratching was. I'd been DJing since high school, and when I started throwing little parties up here, people actually thought I was damaging the record. Like, "What the hell are you doing?"

Brother Jules, DJ: Travis Lee was one of the guys that really brought New York-style hip-hop parties here. He had the graffiti flyers with the writing that you'd have to sit and stare at forever because you wasn't used to it, trying to figure out what the information said.

Travitron: I thought this was a time warp when I first came up here. New York was maybe 10 years ahead. Even the costumes the black guys were wearing here were pimp outfits, big long jheri curls and stuff. We had just got finished with that.

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