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Big League Chew

Our music editor sinks his teeth into local hip-hop history and some tracks off Rec-League Records' definitive compilation of the current Santa Cruz scene

By Mike Connor

'Check this out," says native Santa Cruzan and KHDC DJ Kazzeo. "What you're listening to right now is called the progression of hip-hop in Santa Cruz County. There's a lot of new cats out there coming up, doing their thing, and all respect due, but, before you know the future, you gotta know the past."

Kazzeo is introducing his own track, "Hip-Hop 101," on a new compilation of Santa Cruz hip-hop from Rec-League Records called Season One. The track is less than a minute-and-a-half long and highlights three songs--"Straight From the Asphalt" by Asphalt Legion, "This Is for Suckers" by MC Groove and "Painstorm" by BC Chill--but it is significant as a link to a local history of hip-hop music.

Because by now we already know that all the MCs on the compilation were influenced by early hip-hop heavyweights from the East Coast--Nas, De La, KRS-One are a few name-droppable favorites. But by connecting what MCs are doing here and now to what hip-hop heads have done here in the past, the Rec-League compilation establishes for the first time a truly unique, geographically based identity for the contributing artists.

"Kazzeo's been helping us out in our quest of this new generation," says Matt Iles, a.k.a. Mattyeye, who produced the compilation. "It makes me feel like I'm part of something, not stuck in this 'new wave.' Santa Cruz hip-hop has an actual history, and that makes it feel like there's more depth to it all."

Specifically, Iles points to three generations of Santa Cruz hip-hop: the current one, led by acts like Lost and Found Generation, Proe and the Moonies; the previous one from the mid-'90s built around Palookaville showcasing the Jedi Knights, Wanamu and the Rogue City All-Stars; and the generation before that, populated by people like Kutmasta Kurt, Kazzeo and Asphalt Legion.

Kazzeo goes further, tracing the lineage back to 1981, when a guy named DJ Bubba G. Scotch starting spinning hip-hop at a Salinas radio station called KUBO.

"That's where a lot of guys from my time frame got inspired by--one of them being Kutmasta Kurt, and he took that inspiration and began doing his own show on KUSP, I believe in '85."

Of course Kutmasta Kurt would go on to work with rap stars like Kool Keith, the Beastie Boys and, most recently, Linkin Park. But before he left Santa Cruz in 1990, when he was still in high school, he had already produced solo albums for himself and MC Groove on his own independent label. Kurt made it look easy, and others followed his lead.

Over the years, Kazzeo watched the hip-hop scene go through cycles of popularity and dormancy--growing in the late '80s and then crashing when the rise of gangsta rap drove up insurance rates for hip-hop concerts. In the early '90s, Jason D. hosted an underground hip-hop show on KZSC called "Wyze Up," and in '91-'92, Kazzeo and others started booking their own shows, bringing acts like Cypress Hill, Tim Dog and the Fu Schnickens, while throwing community dances at the Jade Street Hall and the Vets Hall.

Kazzeo says that Palookaville was a major force in reviving the hip-hop scene during the mid-to-late-'90s, which of course went down when Palookaville did in '01. Since then, there have been plenty of hip-hop shows at the Catalyst, and minor resurgences of local hip-hop in the form of freestyle battles and local showcases.

The Rec Center

Over at the Rec-League Records studio, a.k.a. "The Rec Center," a.k.a. Iles and Rob Rush's house, a joint effort to establish a foundation for the hip-hop scene is under way. They're banking on the idea that collaboration will lead to more than the sum of its parts--not to mention a studio bigger than the one they currently have set up in the backroom of their house, where a closet serves as the sound booth.

"We're trying to build a real studio in Santa Cruz with Lost and Found Generation," says Iles, "something we can have for when artists come into town. If we're going to do collaborations, they can come in there and it's a real, spacious place, the full setup--right now it's just an office space in our house."

Iles hopes to one day quit his day job and cultivate new hip-hop music full-time. In the meantime, he's spearheading projects aimed at rekindling a lively hip-hop scene in Santa Cruz--projects like the Season One compilation.

"It kind of felt grounded," says Iles. "I feel like this compilation of local hip-hop is a big thing because no one's ever really come out and done it right."

It's hard to say what "right" is, but it's clear that it has to represent the diversity in Santa Cruz hip-hop fans.

"The thing about Santa Cruz is," says Kazzeo, "being that there's such a diversity in ethnic cultures here, you see all sides of how hi- hop is interpreted. There's gansta rappers, backpackers, politically conscious people and oddball off-the-wall stuff, but it's always been solid in sense that there's a following and interest in it, as far as shows go."

And as Kazzeo says in the Hip-Hop 101intro, "I'm happy to see the new generation doing their thing, keeping it alive, keeping it going, yo, you guys definitely gotta hold it down, you know what I mean?"

We do, and they are. What follows is a handful of highlight tracks on the new compilation.

Cumulus--'Do What You Feel'

"I want y'all to just do what ya feel/ Don't really give a fuck if it's fake or it's real," sings Cumulus in the chorus of this whistleworthy little ditty, thus casting aside prudish, insular definitions of hip-hop--definitions that might preclude respect for, say, a funny white kid from a West Coast beach town claiming he's an "underground rap star who done ball like tether." As to the eternal question "Why Am I Here?" Cumulus has the definitive answer: "I'm not here to make no hit like 'Hey Ya,' I'm here to let ya know what I be like De La." Clean, simple and situated. Only thing we couldn't figure out is how the Sentinel made it into one of the rhymes, because everybody knows they hate hip-hop.

Proe--'Who the F#ck Is Proe?'

The artist formerly known as Prolific from Duce Company is easily one of the most talented MCs and producers in town, and this song represents a lunge at Da Club circuit, a much bigger pond where anyone who's never been to Santa Cruz will have to ask themselves the namesake question. His answer begins with an anonymous looped lute riff, followed up with a boom-bap beat distorted to sound like a human beatbox and some sexy horn blasts, giving a surprisingly jiggy song a grounded, organic feel. His flow is essentially perfect, with an easily recognizable vocal style, his cadence laid back casually behind the beat but always on time. He defines himself as progressive ("Maybe ahead 'my time/ I should hop to da future"), yet modest and simple: "This is me at my most simplistic:/ Fuck a battle, make a song dope enough I wanna listen."

Rob Rush--'People Like Me'

It's an ode to the everyman, starting with some self-conscious opening banter spoken over a jazzy swagger of a beat and the occasional horn blast, setting the stage for a rant that is, in terms of both style and content, antithetical to the hardcore posturing of mainstream rappers. Rush proceeds to piece together a litany of thoughts in defense of the everyman: "I strike up the middle and live in the now/ Write for the little man, give it some style," sharpening his rhymes with some philosophical edge: "I say knowledge of self/ I mean all of your self/ And not just the piece that you're calling yourself," all the while keeping it real like an Streetlight-employee-cum-rapper-in-Santa-Cruz should: "See people like me like it all to an extent/ From depressing and emo to a party event."

Sayre, Coley Cole and Rob Rush--'To All of the ...'

Some of the best rhymes on the compilation can be found in this disco joint, which is no big surprise considering the MCs on the track--Sayre, Rob Rush and Coley Cole need no introduction for people familiar with the local scene. They pick apart "all of the wick-whack that wanna be abstract." Unfortunately some of the lyrical gems are delivered fast enough to be completely unintelligible, and are further buried beneath overambitious production. That said, lines like "That third eye won't help when you're head's buried in the sand/ Y'all adopt that ostrich-pose, I'mma keep my B-boy stance" by Sayre and "Do it right and paint a picture of your life and how you live it/ Grab the mic and let 'em know, if people clap then people get it" keep the message intact.

Matty Eye--'Passion for Rappin'

If it were possible to suck every last bit of pretension out of an MC/producer and put him on the mic, he'd probably say something like, "I try to live my life just as fresh as could be/ and I'd be lyin' if I said no one was fresher than me." The beat is simple--no flashy intro, no cocky outro, just quirky bleeps and some funky buzzing bass. Matty Eye is the no-frills MC on this compilation, telling it exactly like he sees it: "As I grew up and I saw the way the world worked, jerks got the breaks and most of the perks." He's a nice kid though, and what does he get for it? "My album's not hot, it's just a little overfrigid."

Proe and Bob Clean--'The Blues'

Built around a wailing blues guitar lick, this existential lament rails against the "everyday same thing," the "hectic, repetitive skipping record pull-your-hair-out bullshit" and the Jack-and-Coke's that help to blur the jagged edges. Both MCs spill a stomach full of guts here, with haunting layers of vocal harmonies adding pathos and tension to some of the best lines in the song, which Proe sums up nicely: "Scuffed and bruised in the same old shoes/ Same gear, different beer--to beat the blues."

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From the December 22-29, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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