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[whitespace] The Moonies and Duce Company Nothin' but a G Thing: The Moonies and Duce Company are two of SC's most popular hip-hop acts.

Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Yo! Santa Cruz Raps

Santa Cruz's growing hip-hop scene ain't just for the underground anymore

By Mike Connor

KIDS THESE DAYS, making all this ruckus! Scratching records of other people's songs and calling it music? And the whole rapping thing--when will that go out of style already? Help, I'm a crotchety old Deadhead and I can't keep up!

Sorry, old timer, but Jerry can't save you now. It would take a Deadhead Nation of millions to hold Santa Cruz hip-hop fans back as they fill up house parties and local venues--the Aptos Club, the Mediterranean, the 418 Project, even the Catalyst.

This fast-growing scene is completely shattering the oft-held perception that Santa Cruz is a town full of nothing but twirling hippies, as local cats with MC names like Prolific, Genelec, Sayre and C-Smoke tear up the mics; kids come out to breakdance with helmets and kneepads; circles open up to let B-boys and B-girls pop and break.

Because, silly rabbit, hip-hop isn't just for urbanites anymore; the culture and style has made its way across the country from New York to L.A., and around the globe to Europe, Japan, and pretty much everywhere else where you can find a radio these days--and finally landed in our sleepy little beach town.

The scary thing for those of us who were Krush Groovin' back in the '80s is that kids young enough to be weaned on the hip-hop sound are now old enough to make music themselves. The so-called "hip-hop generation" is coming of age, B-boys and B-girls pouring out of high schools into every crevice of society--including the music biz.

Right here in Santa Cruz, kids are armed to the teeth with beat-making machines, records, turntables, PAs and a buttload of skillz--in other words, everything a body needs to crank out dope hip-hop music. Right now, the up and coming scene is brimming with young talent--some still in their teens--motivated and excited to be doing this hip-hop thing.

MC Sayre Talkin' 'Bout His Generation: MC Sayre is part of the Lost and Found Generation, a group of local DJs and MCs.

Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Let's Do This

The best part is, they're doing it together. We're talking sticky-sweet stuff here--there's so much love flowing between these dudes, it's hard to imagine that some of them came up battling.

Take 21-year-old Sayre Piotrkowski a.k.a. MC Sayre, a transplant from Petaluma. He came up in high school battling at raves in the Phoenix Theatre, where MCs would square off in a sort of verbal boxing match, trying to one-up each other with freestyle rhymes, and he wasn't often impressed.

"It's the most homoerotic thing in the world, watching a battle," explains Sayre. "I mean it's 90 dudes watching a dick contest, you know? I've been to one or two battles when people really had skills, but most of the time it's cats that shouldn't be freestyling. It's so male, so confrontational; it's the antithesis of everything sexy. And I think music has to be sexy if it's gonna be any good. Battling is the equivalent of guitarists who play the most notes in a second. It's like the difference between Eddie Van Halen and B.B. King--Eddie Van Halen can play his guitar, but he ain't B.B. King."

In Santa Cruz, things are different. Derek Delong and Ryan Haile (a.k.a. Prolific and Omen) of the SC hip-hop trio Duce Company, for instance, say they stay away from battle rap. With strong female vocals coming from Natalie Singly, Duce Company takes a more soulful, melodic approach to its music.

"We're not really the battle MCs," says Prolific. "I used to, back in the day. But if you make friends with local groups, they got your backs. And no one sounds like each other, that's what's really cool. It's not like there are 20 groups all combating. We're all friendly and cordial, we all hang out. Rap beef in Santa Cruz is unheard of, and that's tight, because I'm a well-mannered fellow, I think. Don't want beef."

"Yeah," adds Omen, "we're vegetarians when it comes to music."

Chase Mason a.k.a. C-Smoke, who was born and raised in the Santa Cruz area, also recognizes the comaraderie, and breaks it down in utilitarian terms:

"A lot of people in Santa Cruz are serious about this music thing," says C-Smoke, "and we know most of 'em because this city is so damn small. But it's like, however many cats is out there, that's how many chances we have. If they know you're tight, they're gonna think about you. It's another hook in the water, and there's a lot of hooks in the water. There's a lot of undiscovered talent up in this town."

Santa Cruz Is Blowin' Up

Blowin' up, brimming with talent, getting famous--however you wanna say it, former local groups like the Jedi Knights and Thunderhut have already moved on to bigger and better things, including record deals. And still, this town has plenty of hard-working hip-hop groups trying to make it happen, usually working day jobs, saving up for some precious time in the studio; or, more often the case, saving up to buy home studio equipment, setting it up and making music from their bedrooms. Because once they've got at least that first demo, their chances of getting gigs get a whole lot better.

Sayre is making records and doing shows with the Lost and Found Generation, a crew of DJs and MCs living in and around Santa Cruz. His music is varied and eclectic, always poetic, and often weirdly emo with dark, psychedelic undercurrents--it's hip-hop on the avant-garde tip. Sayre is perfectly happy making music in a small studio tucked away in his house, as are many local acts.

With a phenomenal CD released by the Internet label Hip-Hop Infinity, Evan Gatica and Romelo Delossantos a.k.a. Genelec & Memphis Reigns are teetering on the brink of ... well, whatever fate awaits ridiculously talented underground hip-hop artists. Dark and heavily drenched with strings and moody Middle Eastern flavors, they produced their full-length debut Scorpion Circles on Genelec's computer, and it's easily as good as most anything else out there.

But don't expect to see them on MTV or mainstream radio, which always seems to be too crowded with Ricky Martins and Christina Aguileras. (Ungh, I feel a "crotchety-old-man rant" welling up right now, but ... Must. Keep. Writing.) I have yet to see the next Jay Z or P. Diddy (read: mainstream hip-hop) coming out of Santa Cruz, and only echoes of really hardcore gangsta rap--probably because most of the kids in Santa Cruz aren't really gangstas.

"I don't not like gangsta rap," Prolific explains, "but we couldn't really do gangsta rap. We couldn't be gangsta rappers." His partner Omen breaks it down thusly: "I can't look too hardcore driving through the suburbs in my parents' car."

But C-Smoke can attest to the presence of at least a bit of gangsta rap in our sweet little innocent town. He talks about gang-banging, claiming sets and getting his street stripes. And yeah, it gets into his music.

"I just started writing rhymes and I started to get my own style," says C-Smoke. "Now you can't even tell what the hell I am, I got that Southern taste, that Killa Cali Gangsta, the East Coast twang ... Whatever you want, I got 31 flavors in this bitch ... but I just feel the folks that put their emotions into rapping. That nigga Tupac hit me, 'cause he could bleed on paper. I felt it to my soul, some of the things that 'Pac was rhyming about."

With hits like "Move Bitch," "I Wanna Lick You" and "Fatty Girl," MCs like Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris aren't exactly known for their socially and politically conscious lyrics. Matt Iles a.k.a. Mattyeye of the Moonies crew explains the appeal of Ludacris and his ilk: "No matter what it is, people do their thing. Hip-hop has such a broad array of types ... Like, Ludicrous is great. Sometimes people just wanna get crunk--I mean, he's talking about the most horrible things, but you can't help but laugh. It's an escape into this fucked up world, and at the same time, it makes me think about the way things are."

Vinnie Rossi (a.k.a. Vince the Bard) has a slightly different take. "Sometimes," Vince propounds, "you just wanna shake your ass and get drunk."

Santa Cruz MCs
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Crew Cut Ups: Did we mention Santa Cruz MCs are stone-cold hard?

This Ain't Research Rap

In the early '90s, when the mass media's campaign against gangsta rap was peaking, a slew of rappers started kicking more socially and politically conscious rhymes. What with rappers like KRS-One lecturing on college campuses, hip-hop is fast becoming the new darling of college professors, who in recent years are beginning to extol the virtues and political potential of the hip-hop movement. But the truth is, most of the hip-hop going around these days is only political in the Foucaultian sense--where everyone's every action is political.

Sayre says that the lack of political preaching on the mic in Santa Cruz is a reflection of a general trend in hip-hop.

"I think with few exceptions, politics has become something to hide behind, to hide the fact that [the music] is whack," says Sayre. "People's compulsion to make hip-hop really political is problematic. Realistically, anything born of poor or oppressed people is very political. All good hip-hop has pathos in it, and it doesn't take a very large leap to find the causes of it. But it's not hip-hop's job to tell you why I feel angry, why this music has to sound like the apocalypse. The music's job is to be dark, angry and sound like the apocalypse, and if someone else wants to look into that and find meaning in it, they can go ahead and do that."

Prolific says he's dabbled with putting politics in his music, but thinks there are others who can do it better. "There's a lot of people out there, that's their skeeze and they do it well. I don't know if I could completely say what I want to say ... I definitely have my own political views, but we never really got to that category of hip-hop music."

By far the most charismatic act in town, the Moonies are all about knocking hip-hop off its high horse while reveling in--and at the same time making fun of--their B-boy personas. It's an accessible mix of hip-hop and humor, and it's pretty much a party on the stage when these guys come on, rapping about the things you'd expect a bunch of 20ish dudes should be rapping about: "We preach our personal beliefs and personal politics," explains Nicky Fleming (a.k.a. P. Soup).

Rob Rush completes the thought: "But the overall theme is self-expression, like 'this is what I think and this is how I get along with my day.' Most of our songs, I would describe them as light social commentary. A lot of people, when they first start making records, they start out really dark and try to tackle large concepts after they've taken a couple political science classes, but I just don't feel qualified to do that."

Mattyeye explains the vibe of their homegrown music. "It's like our song 'Smilin' in Public,' which is about people walking around with hard faces and feeling bad about everyday life. We're just trying to lighten it up a bit. Hip-hop is all about acting tough, but we live in Santa Cruz and it's not all that bad here, you know? Hip-hop shows are supposed to be fun," he says, before turning to Rob Rush and adding: "Your mom gets down at our shows."

Kid-Created, Mother-Approved

The following is a public service announcement to all the parents reading this, brought to you by one of your local hip-hop big shots: "I can't lie; hip-hop is my life," confesses Prolific, who also makes beats and songs on his computer at home. "Without hip-hop, I'd probably be in jail or something."

The overwhelming sentiment among local MCs is one of dedication to and love for making music. Mike Ross says it's all about heart. "When you flow from the heart, I feel like, 'I'm so glad I wrote that shit,'" Ross says. "You read it and you get the chills, like nobody can take this from me, this is the sickest shit, and you wanna show it to your homeboys. That shit is therapeutic."

"I can't wait till all I do is write rhymes. I will be one happy brother. I ain't saying I gotta have a million dollars. As long as I'm living cool, hey, I shot for the stars but I landed on the moon. Point is, I'm still above cloud nine."

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From the November 13-20, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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