One Nation, Invisible
"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 www.complicatedfun.com.
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.
T.C. Ellis, a.k.a. David Ellis, MC/producer: I grew up playing drums in bands. We had our band called Touch that was coming around at the same time Prince was playing in Grand Central in Minneapolis. We were looking up to those guys.
Robert Martin, Flyte Tyme trumpet player: That was our thing back then. It wasn't no gangs. That's what the gangs were: bands. There was a band on every other block. And that's how tough you were back in the days, who had the baddest band.
T.C. Ellis: Did you hear my first song, the "Twin Cities Rapp"? Basically, it tells the story of the music scene:
[rapping] Prince and André Cymone were the tightest of all
When they played in Grand Central on the Nicollet Mall
Prince proved that music was an art
Song after song, started topping the charts
He helped out friends he knew along the way
He produced the Time, yes, Morris Day
The Time as a whole, unbelievably strong
Jimmy Jam and Terry wrote their own songs
How did Prince feel? He said, "Hell, no!"
So Jimmy Jam and Terry decided to go
They did well on their own, like you might guess
Check out Janet Jackson or S.O.S.
That's the first rap song that I ever put out. And it was the first hip-hop 12-inch single from the Twin Cities area.
Travitron: Actually, Kyle Ray put out the first rap record in Minnesota. Only a few people have that record. It was based on "Rapper's Delight." He's passed away. He DJ'd at the Fox Trap and KMOJ [FM 89.9].
Kel C, a.k.a. Kelly Crockett, b-boy/MC: I would say the first known local rapper was me. My cousins were doing some flows and stuff, but they were kind of just doing it amongst their football buddies. To actually go out and say that this is what I'm doing for a profession, I don't remember too many guys doing that.
The first time I performed was at North Commons Park in 1981. They had some kind of talent show there, and I went up there and did a rap. I was probably about 15 years old. Rap wasn't popular then.
Delite, MC/DJ/producer: At the time, there wasn't a huge audience for rap, but I think there were a lot of people that were just curious because it was a new form of music.
Kel C: My uncle Roy Crockett managed a nightclub downtown called the Fox Trap, and my brother started DJing there in the '70s. My brother and some of my cousins, along with Kyle Ray, one of the founders of KMOJ, these were all people that I was around coming up as a young person. André Cymone's my cousin, so I seen Prince and Jimmy and Terry and all these guys playing in my Aunt Bernie's basement on a regular basis. My brother got in the DJ record pool, and that's where I kind of got my jump on hip hop: hearing them records he was getting from the East Coast.
Travitron: One of the first national shows here was between '81 and '82 with Kurtis Blow and this guy by the name of DJ Divine. It was at a roller-skating rink over north on Plymouth called the Northgate, which is now an employment center.
Kel C: We were roller-skating until it was time for Kurtis to perform. He actually didn't even come out of the DJ booth, but there was a window up there where you could see him. Me and a buddy of mine, we went into the booth after he got through, and we threw a few rhymes around with him.
Delite: When Kurtis Blow came back in '82, he held a rap contest at an old Minneapolis club [in the Seward neighborhood] called Duffy's. I remember being about 14 years old, and I actually won the contest. I won a hundred bucks and a bottle of champagne, which I was too young to drink.
Travitron: Grandmaster Flash played at Duffy's in '82. There's a picture of me and him shaking hands right outside the projects, back when KMOJ was in an apartment. We had met each other before in New York at parties. They called them beat parties then. Flash was like a wanted man there. That's how dangerous rap was in New York. I mean, people wanted to kill him. In New York, if you had a bad party, people were almost given liberty to take your equipment. When they said, "Shoot the DJ," they meant shoot the DJ.
Disco T, DJ: Travitron was the godfather. If you had a party on the night Travitron had a party, then your party wasn't getting packed. The best thing you could do was wait until his flyer come out, and try to throw something a week later.
Travitron: There were a lot of private parties because rap really wasn't accepted in the clubs. You couldn't get an established place. You'd have to rent out something, like the Electrician's Hall.
I had a club called Club Hip Hop in St. Paul on Selby that was notorious. I just got a warehouse and had my buddies spray-paint it. One of the guys who spray-painted it was Roger Cummings. His name was Roger Dodger. He sprayed up the place. And that was right across the street from a place called the People's Choice.
Club Hip Hop was rocking, man. The floors actually used to vibrate.
Verb X, DJ: That place had a floor that danced with you. I mean, it jumped. You always felt like you were going to go through, and they were all like, dude, don't worry, just do your thing.
Travitron: Anywhere I could rent a place out, I'd put on a show. Sabathani, Lyndale Community Center, North Commons. I started giving parties at the Great Hall, at the U of M, and I was getting 700 kids there. I put myself through college doing that, from '81 to '86.
Disco T: The Coffman Union was so close to St. Paul that a show there kind of turned into a Minneapolis-St. Paul thing.
Sugar Tee, a.k.a. Terry Burks, MC: I believe my first performance with Travitron was at the Inner City Youth League. There were no women doing it at the time.
Travitron: Sugar Tee, she was one of the first female rappers. She was good. She was part of the TNT Breakout Crew, which was me, her, Mark Miller from Northern Lights, and Travis Mitchell. Terry was in high school.
Sugar Tee: I was 13. I was rapping about guys, probably. Just a little bit about me, and about how guys liked me. I called myself Sweet Tee at the time, so it was like: "I'm Sweet Tee and I'm five foot three/All the boys just look at me/Some say I'm cute, some say I'm fine/Some I rapped to, I blew their mind."
I teach fifth grade now, and I still show off for my students, because they think they can rap, too.
Freddy Fresh, DJ: It wasn't like rap music was on the radio. The record stores had barely started carrying it. The black community was hip because they had family in New York, Chicago, and Florida, and they would send mix tapes to each other. You had these 10-year-old kids with the hippest music in the world on cassette tapes.
Gage, promoter: At that time my family lived in Brooklyn Park, and that's funny, because that'd be a shameful thing to say as far as the whole street credibility thing goes. But keep in mind, Brooklyn Park has a lot of apartment complexes. Back in the '80s, with the welfare system in Minnesota and all the jobs that were available, you had families that were coming from California, New York, Chicago. And they were all coming to Brooklyn Park. There was this subculture of kids coming from all these different places in the country, and they would bring the fat laces, the Kangols. But because there was no place for black kids to hang out in Brooklyn Park, we would go to north Minneapolis where there was hip-hop parties being thrown by DJs like Rocket T, Ray Seville, and Lazy T.
Brother Jules: Clarky the Whop-Master was another one throwing parties over in St. Paul. His thing was, he would throw all the popular DJs' names on the flyer without their consent, so everybody would think that was the place to be. Then cats would be like, "Dude, you're DJing?" "No." "Well, your name is on the flyer in the 'hood." That was ingenious.
Disco T was notorious for renting hotel rooms and having concert-sized speakers in there, like 10 bass bins and high-mid cabinets for a little ballroom. The ceiling would be shaking. People would come out of there with white dust in their hair.
Disco T: Pretty soon the city was chopped up. I was probably labeled as a north side DJ. Tim Wilson was representing the south side. Whop-Master was representing St. Paul. And Travitron, he could go anywhere. He had humility. Whereas the rest of us probably got into fights.
LST: We actually always got along, but battles made money.
Verb X: Smokey D and Kid Delite, they were the first cats that would take routines off popular songs and commercials. There was this one St. Paul cat called MC Double D. He got them guys a couple times, man, and then they just came back. It was at the Electricians' Hall, packed crowd, and these cats were doing The Brady Bunch, but rapping on it, dude. I was like, damn, these motherfuckers came over to St. Paul to dis this cat in front of his own crowd. It was one of the best things I've ever seen.
Delite: It was basically a dis to the whole city of St. Paul: [to the tune of The Brady Bunch theme] "Here's a story/Of sucker MCs/Who be biting and reciting all the time/They were all punks/Trying to come together/So they could bite our rhymes."
Verb X: It was on a Sunday, too, so everybody went to school the next day talking about it, and I'm sure [Double D] got no peace about it.
Disco T: One time, I was DJing in St. Paul for a Whop-Master function. We rocked the crowd, and afterward we were loading up the gear outside. I put my stuff in the car and I looked up, and there's this guy in a wheelchair rolling around the corner, talking about "There they is! Get 'em!" Next thing you know there's 10 or 15 big-ass St. Paul guys walking around the corner. "Y'all from Minneapolis. What y'all want over here?"
Whop-Master came out, and he kind of saved our asses that night.
Tim Wilson, owner of Urban Lights Music: One of the last park parties we did was a battle between our crew and LST's crew at McCrae Park. Everything was fine, but the problem came with the bus line. We must have had 500 kids that night, right there on 47th and Chicago at midnight, and the bus driver panicked. He seen all these kids waiting for the bus, and just drove on.
That was the last bus of the night, so you got all these kids who came from the north side, some from St. Paul, and nobody could get back home. So everybody decided they wanted to riot and loot that little area where Ken and Norm's Liquors is. The owners of all the businesses went to McCrae Park, and they were like, "We can't have these types of parties going on," and the park board shut them down all over the city. To this day you can't really do a party in the park.
Travitron: The majority of people got into rap through breakdancing.
Damon Dickson, b-boy: When breakdancing broke out in New York, it was on the news. They were like, "The police were called to a spot in New York where gangs were getting ready to battle, and when they got there it was quite awkward that they weren't really fighting. They were dancing against each other." People here were watching this, and we were like, "What?"
Truth Maze, a.k.a. B Fresh, MC/poet: The first time I saw somebody "pop" was this guy named Terence at North Commons Park, in the gym. This had to be the summer of '80, and I remember the song he danced to was "S.O.S." by the S.O.S. Band, a funk instrumental. His whole body vibrated. I lost my mind and I ran back home, trying to explain it to my mom.
Siddiq, a.k.a. Brent Sayers, a.k.a. Stress, co-owner of Rhymesayers Entertainment: Kel C was the cat that basically taught me breaking back in the day, even before we started rhyming.
Truth Maze: Kel C went away to Cleveland, and when he came back, he was breaking. He turned us on to that, and I lost my mind again. Popping was a lot easier, in the sense that you didn't have to think about getting too physical. If you could already dance, that was one thing. But could you dance on the floor?
Damon Dickson: We started doing the footwork, the spinning on your shoulders, the windmills with your legs. Everybody was trying it. Then a guy came up here from down South who was really good at it, and he was showing everybody in the neighborhood. Somebody's cousin, I can't remember his name.
Truth Maze: There were female breakdancers in number back in the day.
Freddy Fresh: They had a breakdancing competition in 1983 or '84 in downtown St. Paul where they had mats. KDWB [FM 101.3] was hosting, and they'd been advertising it for weeks, so all the b-boys were down there. Everybody knew that they didn't play any hip hop on that station. So when they played Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," and we're thinking, hey, maybe they're going to get into the Boogie Boys, or play the Fat Boys or Kurtis Blow. Nothing. They played "Let's Hear It for the Boy."
LST: I was one of the first hip-hop DJs to get into a disco. I was underage, but they started a thing called Club Wild Style down at the 7th St. Entry, so every Saturday afternoon between 3:00 and 7:00 they'd open the door. That was the only club doing that at that time, between '84 and '86.
It was heavy breakdancing, some rapping. People like Kel C, they were in there doing their little rap thing.
Kel C: I was in the International Breakers in '84 when the Rock Steady Crew came up from New York. They were doing a tour and they heard that we was real good, so we battled them at First Avenue. At the time they were the best breakers in the world, so nobody could believe it when we won. We couldn't believe it.
Damon Dickson: Me and Tony Mosely started dancing in a group called 2 Be Rude. The "u" was a tongue. In 1983 we were hired to help pick people to be on the set of Purple Rain, and we wound up dancing in the bathroom at First Avenue. It was like us and maybe 15 other people, girls and guys, just dancing to hands clapping and feet stomping.
Prince happened to walk in with his bodyguards, and we're doing these moves. He just kind of looked at us, stood there about five minutes, and turned around and walked out. I was like, "We might be in trouble, dude."
Later that night we were given a tape and told to have seven routines ready for the next day. That's how we got to be in Purple Rain. Our scene was the balcony shot where there are five guys doing these moves to the Time's "Jungle Love" and "The Bird" in silhouette. One guy's got a police hat on, and the rest are in jheri curls and short hairdos with waves. That's us.
T.C. Ellis: Prince didn't really want to deal with rap. I was like, "Prince, man, this is the new thing coming." He was blowing me off. Have you seen the movie Graffiti Bridge? I'm in that. I'm the one bugging Prince about letting me rap. That's a true story except it happened over five years rather than a couple of days.
Verb X: Prince wasn't really doing anything for the hip-hop scene. He was trying to rework it in his own image, and that's not what hip hop is about. T.C. Ellis didn't get any love here, dude. None of those cats.
Brother Jules: Prince always wanted to be a rapper, to tell you the truth.
Travitron: To me, hip hop was for all those folks who said, "Forget Prince."
Tim Wilson: "Twin Cities Rapper" was probably the first rap record out of the city. Then came the I.R.M. Crew.
Dwayne Carter, a.k.a. D.C., DJ/promoter: They were the first local group where you'd go to a party and hear their record. Travitron and all the rest of us DJs was playing them.
Kel C: I had left the International Body Breakers, the crew I was breaking with, and started rapping on my own. I was just getting my name when a guy named Charles Lockhart had an idea to go ahead and form a rap group.
Charles Lockhart, I.R.M. Crew manager: My son [Gage] told me, "Dad, you should get involved with rap music." He knew some people that could really rap. I told him to introduce them to me. It started with Curtis Washington, who was TLC in the group. Curt knew Kelly Crockett, Kel C, and Kelly knew Doug Shocklee, Devastatin' D. Then Gage said we need a beatboxer, and that's when they got Billy, who was B Fresh.
Gage, MC: Later I was like, "We need a DJ," so they got Calvin Jones, Cuttin' Cal. When Cal made his exit, Michael Mack came in.
Charles Lockhart: What I did was, I decided to press the product myself. There was a local pressing plant that did albums, so I hooked up with him, and this lawyer gave me the money to get the record pressed up. This was the one with "Uh Baby" on it, "Diseased America," "I Dream of DJs," and, I think, "R U Ready 2 Change the World?" Jevetta Steele sang the hook on that. It was a mini-album called The I.R.M. Crew.
Kel C: I was already calling myself the Immortal Rap Master. I said we could be the I.R.M. Crew, the Immortal Rap Masters, and they liked that.
Charles Lockhart: We did our record-release show at First Avenue. [Club manager] Steve McClellan was real friendly to rap back then, so he gave me the front room, and I really hyped it. I had all the hot DJs--DJ Cowboy, Kid Delite. When the group came, they arrived in a limousine.
Kel C: We got out the car, and the line was all the way down to Hennepin on one side, and all the way down to Eighth Street on the other side. We had these new outfits that we had just bought. We thought it was cool when girls grabbed on your clothes, but we were broke, so the clothes that we had on, we couldn't afford for them to get ripped. We were angry when girls started pulling. Like, "Get off of us!"
Truth Maze: The I.R.M. song I liked best was "Uh Baby," because we made it up on a dance floor, dancing at a party.
Kel C: It was about the girls at that particular time that we all loved. I did a version of Prince's "Darling Nikki," but twisted it around to a girl's name, Jenny. Actually, Jenny is my oldest son's mother. At the time I was writing this, she was pregnant with him. He's 18 years old now, Little Kelly. He's a rapper, too.
Truth Maze: We knew the music. We knew what was moving in the clubs and on the street. But what I noticed early on with I.R.M. was that the production was being handled outside of us, even though we had ideas. We got with the guy from the Information Society as producer, Paul Robb. We basically produced some stuff that wasn't going to sell for us.
Paul Robb, producer: I'm pretty confident the record would sound cheesy today.
Tim Wilson: I.R.M. got national distribution with K-tel, and at that time, to be honest with you, K-tel had no business putting out rap records.
Kel C: Gang Starr, with Guru and DJ Premier, had signed to K-tel at the same time. These guys were a good group, so we pretty much thought, "This is it."
Charles Lockhart: When K-tel took over, their distribution network was not savvy. I went to Tower Records in New York, and they had I.R.M. in the blues bin. When I went out to L.A., clubs were playing the record. But K-tel didn't have the respect of the industry. I talked to the buyer at Tower, and he says, "Well, Charles, we like your music, but why did you sign with--" They called them "Kiddie Tel" back then.
Kel C: When we were young, we blamed a lot of things on Charles, and we shouldn't have. Charles gave a whole lot to our group. He invested a whole lot of time, a whole lot of money. He could have potentially broke his whole family up, his real family for his rap family. He just didn't know about the music business at the time.
Charles Lockhart: Billy didn't have a place to live. He was living with me at my house in south Minneapolis. My wife was complaining, and I said, "Look, I'm going to take care of the kid." He moved in with me, the whole nine. He said to me, "You know, Charles, I'm going to become Truth Maze. That's my name. I'm going to go on my own. I'm going to be independent."
Kel C: Even though we hadn't really blown up, we were ghetto famous here in Minnesota. We felt it. I got burnt out with the women and doing certain things that go along with the music business, and I'm sure everyone knows those type of things. So I left the group and went to church.
Charles Lockhart: Kel C said to me, "I'm not interested in doing it anymore." I'm going to be real straight with you. Back in that day I was smoking weed. I was bummed out because of what K-tel did to me. I kept my printing job, but I was bummed out because I took the wrong move signing with those turkeys, instead of sticking with the program of being independent the way Brent [Sayers, a.k.a. Siddiq of Rhymesayers Entertainment] did.
Siddiq: At the time, for me, hip hop wasn't that calculated. I was more submersed in just being there than I was in doing anything. I wasn't concerned with the business aspect of it. I was like, "Oh, that's dope, DMG's on a Scarface album."
Brother Jules: DMG [Detrimental Gangxter] was a St. Paul cat that went and signed with Rap-A-Lot Records out of Houston.
Verb X: I actually went to school with DMG, and did a couple tracks on his first demo. I remember that was just a big deal around our high school: "Dude, Harold got signed!"
Jason of the Fila Crew, MC/producer: They had a rap contest at Glam Slam in '91, and one of the judges was Scarface of the Geto Boys. DMG didn't win the contest, but I guess Scarface liked his style.
DMG, MC: Scarface gave me his number and told me he'd get back with me in three days. To be honest with you, I thought he was lying. But three days later he called and asked me could I come out to Houston. And I was like, "Hell, yeah."
Carnage, MC: I liked the DMG tape. I would never have guessed that this dude was from St. Paul. It was one of the better Rap-A-Lot albums to come out around that time.
Stage One, graffiti writer/DJ: DMG was one of the first real artists that could have a face and a name, wasn't a cartoon or nothing, and was signed to a real hip-hop record label that really did something.
Before that was MC Skat Kat. Remember Paula Abdul when she had that little cartoon cat? That was Delite, man. He was from here.
Tim Wilson: Before he became MC Skat Kat, Derrick Stevens was in a group called Soul Purpose with Danny Young, who still DJs around town as Dan Speak. I put them out on Jerry Sylvers's label, Wide Angle Records.
Dan Speak, DJ/MC: Wide Angle's fame was in the dance scene, because their biggest meal ticket was Information Society, with Paul Robb. That group went on to sign with Tommy Boy.
Delite: We came out with the Soul Purpose single in 1989, and it was because of that record that I got to work with Paula Abdul. Her producer was in town, and he heard the record on KMOJ. He called up the station and said, "The DJ just said that was hometown talent. Can you tell me who this guy is?"
Tim Wilson: They went into a studio here and cut the rhyme for "Opposites Attract."
Delite: The video came out, and it was different. Just seeing the animation, him moving his lips to my vocals, that was really weird. But I thought it was a great video.
I didn't meet Paula Abdul until after that record had been released. They wanted to do an album after the success of the single, and I remember sitting up in this executive meeting. Here I was, this 20-year-old kid not knowing too much about the music business, but I remember telling them, "The way you guys want to market this is probably wrong." They wanted to market the cat to Paula's audience, and I told them, "What you have to understand is, a good percentage of Paula's audience might not even be into rap music."
Tim Wilson: The MC Skat Kat record came out and flopped. Derrick spent two, three months out in L.A., and next thing you know, he's back, and blew through the advance. He went on to KMOJ and B96 (FM 96.3).
Verb X: Skat Kat, that was kind of cheesy, but it was still hip hop.
Roger Cummings, a.k.a. Roger Dodger, b-boy/graffiti writer: When Spain went to different parts of South America, they put their flag up to say, "Yeah, we were here." It's kind of the same thing in graffiti. We left our mark. That's basically what we did, without raping and pillaging.
Peyton, a.k.a. Mackin' Me, graffiti writer: I moved to the North Side in '84, and that's when I saw a couple of tags by a guy named Karo. He would tag the 5 line, which was the bus I used to ride on. There were always different tags around, but that was the name that stuck because he was all-city. He had tags everywhere.
D. Tekh, producer: A lot of my early hip-hop experience was just going up to Northstar Elementary School and looking at all the graffiti.
Peyton: I saw a documentary called Style Wars on Channel 2 in '84 or '85. I originally tuned in to watch the breakdancing, but the movie is mostly about subway bombing [large-letter graffiti]. I started watching it, and I became totally intoxicated by it.
The very next week I did my first piece. I went out and bought a few cans of spray paint and found a location. I guess it's safe to say where now. It was at Northstar Elementary School. The piece was entitled "Bustin' Fresh," and it was a very clean, straight-letter style. I used only three colors: red, white, and black. I had a primer, which was gray. I didn't know what the hell I was doing at the time, so I did this huge piece and I ran out of paint. Half of my background ended up being gray primer.
I wasn't the first one to do it. The very first person to do it was a guy named Viper.
Slug, a.k.a. Jest, graffiti writer/MC: I remember when Smak took over the South Side. He literally owned every fucking block in a four-square-mile area. He did this huge piece right on the side of South High School. Everybody's afraid to hit schools, because you're going to get caught, because kids are going to talk. But he did this fucking bold, amazing, in-your-face piece on the side of South.
A little before that, my friend Mark did a huge piece on the side of [Minneapolis Central High School], after Central had closed. Between the big Zorro piece going up on Central, and the big Smak piece going up on South, that's what really made a lot of kids want to be part of graffiti.
I Self Devine, graffiti writer/MC: I grew up in L.A. where the earliest forms of writing were the Mexican gang pachuco writing. I remember one of the first times I came to St. Paul for Rondo Days, I saw Balam from Los Nativos doing airbrush, and he reminded me of some of the homies from back West.
I moved here in the summer of '89, and when I got here, I saw remnants of graffiti. I could tell that something did exist, but it wasn't as prevalent. What I found out later on was that there had been a bust.
Peyton: My crew, the Wildstyle Cru, we robbed a paint store, Glidden Paint. We got away with a lot of paint, but half of us got caught. We were just total amateurs.
Roger Cummings: We were putting the paint in Viper's car, and I went to go get another car from down the block. When I came up, the police pulled behind me.
Peyton: The cops pulled those guys over, and lo and behold, they had a few bags of paint with them. So the cops just put two and two together, a couple bags of spray paint, a paint store a couple hundred yards away. We saw that, and we kind of went and hid behind the woods for a little bit. The ones who got caught really had to bear the brunt of that whole robbery. The ones who got away, we pretty much got away. That kind of broke the crew up. We went our separate ways after that.
Travitron: This guy, his name was Allen Bell. He used to do The Hip Hop Shop show with me on KMOJ. He graduated from Washburn, and a couple weeks later, he was shot on the street. We used to call him the Gator. He was the first victim of a drive-by shooting.
Jason of the Fila Crew: That had an effect on all of us. To this day I can't imagine why someone killed him.
LST: The thing that wrecked our business doing community centers and park parties was gang violence. Drugs started coming into the scene in 1987, and that was it. It was through.
Gage: I think that we, as a generation, became pretty impressionable. We were too much influenced by the media. We had no identity. We were just some kids from Minnesota. And then all of a sudden, you meet this cat with his pants sagging. He's got this interesting way of communicating. And you take it in. I'd say, as far as the whole gang thing, the cats that were pushing drugs were from out of state.
Ron Edwards, activist: The first cartels started showing up from Omaha, actually. Most people don't know that.
LST: There really was no trouble until 1987. There were no fancy rides up here. Pretty much the people that had fancy rides were pimps, and they were in the club scene, in their mid-20s, in the Alexander O'Neal era or whatever. Younger people, they took the bus everywhere. They went to the Roller Gardens. And if they weren't doing anything else, they'd go to some party on the weekend.
Truth Maze: It was crack, man. Crack did it. The gangs were here. The Bloods were here since about '81. I myself was a Blood. The Crips didn't come up here until a little later, somewhere around '86, but I heard rumors that they were visiting earlier. Then all of a sudden you had a large increase in the late '80s.
I swear, it was like this: One day you seen people breakdancing and kicking it and trying to be DJs and trying to MC. The next day, they had huge pockets of money. Then everybody's attitude started changing.
Slug: It wasn't long before the gangs started treating the b-boys like the b-boys were just another fucking gang. Before you know it, now, due to my affiliation with no gangs, I'm being put into a gang, and once again I have to watch my back at parties.
Musab, a.k.a. Beyond, MC: My cousin dying was very decisive, because it was so close to me. I could have been there. It was in our place. He was murdered, shot execution-style in the back of the head. Nobody really knows what happened. It was one of those unsolved things. But we was into a lot of stupid shit. And I was like, I want to do something else. I want to be here for my kids. So I said, what am I good at? I'm smart but I don't like school. I can rap.
Truth Maze: I got out after my dad died, really. I was like, maybe that's what's going to happen to me. He got shot in north Minneapolis.
Peyton: Truth Maze, he's kind of the Afrika Bambaataa of Minneapolis. When he was still in the I.R.M. Crew, he actually started MBBO, the Minneapolis B-Boy Organization. He was trying to get the whole hip-hop culture of Minneapolis united under one umbrella.
Gage: He called this meeting in North Commons Park. All these kids came out, and he was like, "We're going to start this organization." We had the little signs down, you know, "love," "strength," and "peace." Then you'd go to the Shirt Shack downtown, and get your hat with the insignia on it.
Truth Maze: I didn't really know where it was going. It was linked with all of the energy behind me being B Fresh, part of the I.R.M. Crew. I think it was something being dreamed about, even if it was in the most silent way. 'Cause we didn't know what we were doing, except trying to get together and do something other than fight and trip.
Slug: As a child, I got to talk to Truth Maze maybe five or six times face up. This was way before Atmosphere, way before the Micranots. It was like being in the presence of a god. He had such an energy to him. He always smiled. Anything that he said to me, I decreed as law, and I would take back to my friends, Mark and Adam, and we would live that way.
Truth Maze: Truth Maze was born in '87, after being very depressed in dealing with the streets. Because, yeah, I ended up out there trying to get my money, too. I had my own stones to kick in my own path, just because of the karma of my life.
I Self Devine: I met Truth Maze in Powderhorn Park on the 4th of July. I grew up pretty Afrocentric, so every time I saw brothers with dreads, I gravitated toward them. Like, "Who are you? Where you from?"
Truth Maze: I remember doing a show with the Metro Unit, who [I Self Devine] was with then. He seen me, I seen him. And I was like, "Who the fuck is that dude?" He was like, "Who the fuck is that dude?" It was instantaneous. I left my group to form the Micranots with him and DJ Kool Akiem.
I Self Devine: Micranots pretty much came into existence around the winter of '91. I had gotten into some trouble with the law, and a few other people that were in the Metro Unit were involved in this activity as well, and all of us went to jail. It was attempted murder. We were just doing dumb stuff. We tried to rob somebody.
I actually did a year at the workhouse on Plymouth. I wasn't able to play tapes there. I had no music, but I had a pencil and pen. I had a poetry class, so I just did poetry and read. I would write raps, but I wouldn't say them or project them, because then if everybody knew I rapped, I would have to rap all day.
I wrote all my raps in my cell, quietly. So the first time I performed some of the stuff I wrote in there, I had no breath control.
Verb X: When I Self Devine moved to Atlanta in '94, the scene kind of died out a little bit. He was kind of the driving force. Abstract Pack was too young. Phull Surkle were in and out of juvie and jail.
Global Lance, b-boy/MC: After we formed Phull Surkle in '91, '92, we were doing a lot of rock shows at the old Mirage. We played all kinds of hole-in-the-wall rock bars with different punk bands and rock bands. We did that Minneapolooza, a little Midwest tour that went through 10 states. Back then, that's where the people were. We didn't care who was in front of us, as long you were there.
Eyedea, b-boy/MC: Phull Surkle was really intimidating. They still are. Those guys are still fucking scary.
Carnage: Gene Poole just looked crazy to me. He looked like he was going to jump out of his skin and start slicing up everyone with razors and shit. I didn't think his CDs lived up to his performance. Lance was intense, too.
Global Lance: We hooked up with Casino Royale from doing all them rock shows. I met [bassist] Erik Fratzke on the bus. He already knew the other two guys. He was like, "I got a little three-piece. You want to come sit in?" Boom, we went over to the rehearsal spot and sat in for a day, just freestyling. We did that for about a month, and then we just started gigging out.
Jennifer Downham, DJ and Groove Garden host at KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7): I saw Keston and those guys playing with Lance and those guys at the Loring Café, and I went up to them and said, "You guys are like Medeski Martin & Wood, but with rappers." John was like, "You know who Medeski Martin & Wood are?" I said, "Yeah, you want to come on my show?"
Global Lance: We hadn't heard any music like that before we started doing it. The Roots, I don't know if they had come out yet. But that doesn't even sound like us. We were more like acid jazz. We weren't influenced by nobody.
John Keston, keyboardist: That was the first time we'd collaborated with rappers. We were playing the same sort of stuff that a DJ might produce, the beats. It started out as jams, but then we would eventually arrange these pieces.
I don't know if there was a culture clash. There were behavioral clashes sometimes. There were times where we had gigs arranged and those guys didn't show up, and later we found out maybe it wasn't their fault. Maybe it had to do with them being arrested.
Eyedea: The beginning of Rhymesayers was just basically this huge rap group called Headshots. It was kind of like Wu Tang Clan, with all these different subgroups and solo artists that performed and hung out together. The first night I saw them was at Jitters, this half-café, half-bar. Concepts, which was the other big crew at the time, went up there to battle Headshots. That was the first thing I saw: Beyond, who's now called Musab, battling Vibes. Aries was his name at the time. It was really aggressive. I remember one dude walking away, and it looked like he was crying. "I can't rap, I can't rap."
R.D.M., MC: We had such a deep crew, you know--Urban Atmosphere, Black Hole, with Felipe of Los Nativos, the Abstract Pack, Phull Surkle. In any competition, one of us always took it.
Rek the Heavyweight, a.k.a. Spawn, MC: When I met Slug, he was two years younger than me. He was going to junior high school, and he'd always walk in front of my house and give me the finger. I'd chase him down the block. It was a daily routine.
He wanted to be a DJ, and I was going to be an MC. But I was like, "Man, you can rap, too. You should start rapping." So we both started writing and we made a few things on two turntables and a tape player. At first we were called Mental Subject, then Arhythmic Culture. Then we became Urban Atmosphere, and then Atmosphere.
Slug: Beyond [Musab] was the dopest in Headshots, easily. And not only that, him and [producer] Ant, they had a fucking library of shit, whereas Urban Atmosphere had maybe six songs, and Abstract Pack had maybe seven. So Musab is like, "Dude, I got 40 songs."
Ant, producer: We went through a couple studios on [Musab's] Comparison, actually. We went to one studio, and it was just a bad experience. So Siddiq was like, "You know what? I'm just going to buy a studio." To me, that's how Rhymesayers basically started, was Siddiq saying, "Fuck everybody, we're just going to do everything on our own."
R.D.M., MC: Stress [Siddiq] opened up his house to everyone else, man, him and Dave [David Fowlkes Jr., president of Davin Wheel Co.]. We called him Super Dave. You know those rims on cars, where they keep spinning when you stop? Dave invented those. He's out in L.A. living it large.
Slug: Comparison was one of, if not the, first local underground rap CDs. The Micranots had made tapes. I.R.M. had made vinyl. But CDs were still somewhat like, "Oooooh! A CD!"
Musab: What Comparison did was show everybody how to make their own album. I don't care what people want to say. You're using my blueprint, man. I did it. I taught you how to do it.
Eyedea: I was rapping, but I was, like, 12. We were basically into hanging out and doing drugs. I started getting down with Grandma's Crew because they were partying, you know. And they were like, "Oh, you rap a little bit? That's cool. We hang out with the best rapper in the world."
R.D.M.: Sess [Herbert Ford Foster IV] was like a Rakim. He was ahead of his time.
Eyedea: Max [DJ Abilities] used to have these big house parties when he lived on Marshall. Everyone would come. Sess, Phull Surkle, all the St. Paul heads. Sess was rapping about everything he could think about. That was why he was the greatest freestyler ever. I thought that's what freestyling was, and I still can't do what he was doing back then.
Sess was in Abstract Pack. He was like a rock star. If he was alive, he'd be famous. He had his nose pierced. He was this cocky, strong personality. But he was a weirdo. He played D&D games. He invented his own role-playing game. He'd play it every so often, and invite whoever to come play it. He had this whole universe that he created that he was the god of. I only played once with him, and this was the last time I saw him before he died, actually. The day I played, [the role-playing scenario was this]: He owned all these casinos, right? What he wanted us to do was rob his casino, give him 80 percent of the money, and he collects the insurance money.
He was just a very inventive human being. Rather than play you a song that he recorded, he would put in a tape of the beat and perform it for you while he was driving you around in the car. He was just always rapping. He was basically never off the mic. He liked to party, and that was evidently the downfall of the whole thing.
R.D.M.: Herbie died because of a car accident, a drunk driver. I didn't speak at the funeral. The Pack was just the pallbearers. Man, the story is so ill. His girl Tamara called Glo [Glorius of Abstract Pack], and Glo called everybody else early in the morning, before I went to work. He's like, "Man, they said Sess died." Just like that.
I'm like, "Dude, you better quit playing," 'cause Glo was always a clown. I went over to the house, and I'm hearing screaming, "No! No!" I open the door and everybody's crying. I'm like, "Dude, don't be believing stuff when you didn't see it for yourself." 'Cause I don't believe it.
The whole Pack was there, and we drove down to the morgue. It was 7:00 o'clock a.m. They said he was pronounced dead around 2:00, 3:00 a.m. They brought us back there, and opened up the door, and there Sess was on the metal table, with ice around him. You could still see the blood from his ear, or whatever. And the sight...like, when I'm looking at that cover that's covering his body, there's a big indentation where his stomach is. That's what they were hiding. 'Cause he was in the back seat with a speaker box when the car crashed, and it crushed his insides. We're looking at him, and you know, he basically just got killed, and he doesn't even look dead. He looks like he can just get up and walk away, like, "I fooled you all, fools."
Eyedea: His song "Just Think" is the one that always makes me cry when I hear it. He's just talking about being broke and having to do foul things, and he's like: [riffing on Clarence Carter's "Patches"] "I'm depending on you son/to pull your family through/I could give a damn what you've got to do/You could get to jacking/Or even selling pearly gray/But you've got to get that loot today/I won't be here tomorrow and the rent was due yesterday, yesterday."
To me, that's amazing songwriting. "You got to get that loot today, 'cause I won't be here tomorrow and the rent was due yesterday." That's just like, damn. He's an amazing person. He died when he was 21.
Truth Maze: I went to Atlanta after I broke with the Micranots. I started studying more. I became a vegetarian, a vegan. I was practicing yoga. I was just searching, man. I had played drums my whole life, and I started getting in touch with what was going on down there in what would now be called the neo-soul scene. I was writing more songs, writing spoken word. Then I moved back here in '96 and discovered how to make it work with music. Whatever it is--lyrics, a rap, a poem, spoken word--I've discovered that we're doing something that's directly connected to a tradition going back to the Harlem Renaissance. I've connected to music my dad listened to.
Peyton: At Juxtaposition Arts, my organization with Roger Cummings, a lot of what we teach is graffiti. We don't separate the spray can from the paintbrush. We try to teach it as just another medium of art.
T.C. Ellis: Around '95 I opened a recording studio in an office building that was part of the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. In the wintertime, all the kids would hang out in the skyway, so they was always coming to my studio, saying, "Can you let us use the studio? I'm the best rapper."
One day, a client didn't show up, so I opened the studio to these kids. They were extremely talented. I was just blown away by what they were doing. Then after that, they wanted to know, "How do you copyright?" They were bombarding me with questions. I realized these young people are motivated to educate themselves through learning about the music industry. Me, I had gotten kicked out of a couple different schools in my time, so I had a kinship to the experience that these young people were dealing with. I talked to Dr. Wayne Jennings, an education innovator. I told him what I saw, and he mentored me and helped me put together a program for these kids, the High School for Recording Arts.
I Self Devine: One of the things that kept me doing this for so long is that I remember the faces of those people who were so talented, but never really made it.
Stage One: There's a whole generation of people whose dreams got shot. I know people that are just now seeing that "Okay, man, that stuff I did when I was a kid, I could have turned that into something." A lot of dudes at that time that were very talented, a lot of dudes I looked up to on the graffiti scene, started going to jail around '89, '90. And they just now coming home. Just now. And they're like, "Wow, you're still at it." And my thing is, it's not too late. It's never too late.
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