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Photograph by Will Mosher
Straight Up: Matt Iles (left) and Jack Beran bring different skills to So Fresh—Iles knows hip-hop while Beran knows business.

Every Day They're Hustlin'

In Santa Cruz's So Fresh, the hip-hop crowd finally gets its own clean well-lighted place

By Paul Davis

Hip-hop is probably the most explicitly entrepreneurial musical genre to ever exist—so much time and energy is devoted to hustlin' that the distinction between Jay Z or Rick Ross and Warren Buffet may be academic. Whether you're talking about the coke-selling narratives of Ross, the champagne-popping, corporate-exec rhymes of Jay-Z or the DIY, selling-mixtapes-out-of-your-trunk ethos of the underground scene, the genre has always been, to some degree or another, about making your mark in the world and eking out a living from nothing at all.

It's strange then, considering Santa Cruz's vibrant hip-hop community, that no one has attempted to open a shop on downtown Pacific catering to that community. After decades of this perplexing omission—on a street that has boutiques to appeal to every local niche—So Fresh founders Matt Iles and Jack Beran have set out to do that. Calling on the entrepreneurial spirit implicit in the hip-hop ethos, the two opened up So Fresh Clothing, selling hip-hop gear and hard-to-find mixtapes to a community that is largely underrepresented in town.

For Iles, So Fresh is a dream come to fruition. A Santa Cruz local and former Streetlight Records employee, Iles is no stranger to the hometown hip-hop scene. For years, crate-diggers at Streetlight relied on Iles' encyclopedic hip-hop knowledge, whereas to others he was better known as a member of the much-loved local Rec League crew, a fun-loving group that rocked many a house show and warmed up plenty of Catalyst crowds.

"It's what I've wanted to do for a long time," Iles says. "Since high school I've always wanted to open my own business. The idea was always some type of hip-hop store. I feel like it was something that was needed—I used to have to go to San Jose or the bay to get stuff like this."

Iles met Beran when the latter was a UC student reliant upon Iles' sage wisdom with regard to the Streetlight record crates. The two struck up a friendship and traded notes about the need for a downtown store to cater to the local hip-hop community.

"I was going to UCSC and really liked music, went to Streetlight every day," Beran says. "We'd talk about how there was nowhere to buy clothes in Santa Cruz, and we decided we could be the only one—and people could spend their money here instead of spending it over the hill." In the six months since the store opened in July, Iles and Beran's hunch has paid off. "Everyone's reaction has been that Santa Cruz needed something like this," Beran says. "There's been a real warm response for that fact—there's nowhere else downtown where you can get something like this."

As the business' owners and sole employees, Iles and Beran have their work cut out for them. "I worked 11 hours a day for the first two months," Iles says, "that was pretty crazy at first. Now that everything's good, we split the days. It's good, it's time-consuming, but it's all for the best." That hands-on, person-to-person spirit says a lot about why the two opened the shop. "I think it's good to have a smaller shop because the customers know who's going to be there every day," Iles says. "They're going to get good customer service—it's more a person-to-person thing. People go in there and it's not like they're going in a big chain store—there's a friendly feel to it."

Beran and Iles have big plans they're kicking around, including sponsoring hip-hop shows around town or starting a So Fresh record label or imprint. For the time being, though, they're grinding away, getting their small local business of the ground. It's a lot of work, but it's clear that Beran and Iles consider it worthwhile. Indeed, for Iles, the success of So Fresh is not only a vindication of their vision, but of his own life choices. He believes the success of the business relies on the mix of his own hands-on retail experience and Beran's knowledge as a UCSC business grad. "We're both into the same stuff but come from different sides," Iles says, summing up the entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself attitude that has always undergirded hip-hop culture. "It shows that both ends can do it—I was always real hard on myself for not graduating college, but I think this shows that you can still be successful without that."

SO FRESH CLOTHING is located at 121 Maple. St., Santa Cruz; 831.600.7431.

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