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[whitespace] Major Liegue A Liegue of Their Own: Major Liegue will be one of the artists performing at Saturday's hip-hop expo.

Underground Sound

San Jose's hip-hop culture is showcased at an all-day expo

By Marianne Messina

A WALK DOWN the cellar steps of the converted house on San Carlos Street that holds Elements Boutique takes you into the heart of hip-hop culture. On any given Saturday afternoon, any number of "celebrities" from San Jose's hip-hop underground could be passing through. These are artists from what store owner Wil calls "the four basic elements of hip-hop: DJ-ing, breakdancing, MC-ing and graffiti."

Fresh, a diminutive, soft-spoken youth, is tucked against the far wall behind his turntables. "These turntables are like instruments to me," he says softly. Fresh has been a turntablist for 10 years, and in 1999, he carted his "instruments" up to San Francisco's Maritime Hall for the world-class competition held by the International Turntable Federation. He placed third.

Fresh points to the speed control of one turntable. "You can make notes, like playing the piano." He finds an appropriate spot on the record, lets it turn, then stops it, softly setting his finger on the vinyl so that a single note sounds. "There's C," he says. He adjusts the speed slide. "There's B." Then, licking his fingers, he proceeds to put a series of these notes together into a crudely fascinating melody, rapidly shifting the speed control and finger-riding the record.

THE HIP-HOP CULTURE often congregates around battle events: DJ battles where the DJs "use words off the records to dis each other," and B-Boyz battles: breakdancing competitions. B-Boy Jay Rawk of the breakdancing crew Style Elements stands at the front of the store. Battles maintain the state of the art, according to Rawk. Without battles, "there's no edge there."

About two weeks before a battle, he will practice for close to four hours a day. And then "there's a thing called mental practice. You picture every little move in your head," he says.

He drops a compilation breakdancing video into a nearby VCR. "I have a bendable style," he says, pointing himself out on the video. Rawk does a lot of moves where he twists up his legs like a human pretzel. He explains how style grows out of body type, how his long legs shaped his style. "When I was 17, I did it like eight hours a day," Rawk reports.

Back then, Rawk wasn't sure he would ever develop his own style. He copied a lot of the great dancers. "It's one thing to be inspired by someone," Rawk explains, differentiating between the imitative learning process and blatant "biting," that is, trying to pass someone else's moves off as your own. "That's disrespectful," Rawk proclaims.

As he continues studying the tape, he points to a dancer on the tape, rattles off a brief bio and expresses awe at the dancer's old age--in his 30s. "His doctor told him he shouldn't do this anymore." It's odd to hear 24-year-olds talk about "when they were young," and in a way, hip-hop culture is a young culture, or at least moved along by the young. But Fresh and Rawk, both in their 20s, talk of making a career of what they do.

THE OWNERS of Elements Boutique, Wil and Warren, are a few years older than their patrons, but they show no signs of shedding their hip-hop ways. Wil loves the part of hip-hop that is about self-expression. When you talk to the artists--the DJs, MCs, bands and B-Boyz--you can hear it: the need to develop personal style within a given structure.

"We got our own little flavor," Wil continues. "You take a style and then 'you freak it' or 'you flip it.'" B-boy Rawk is "flipping it" by having one pant leg rolled up and one down.

Wil was part of the first wave of hip-hop--kids sitting around with their parents' jazz records trying to "mess with it and party." For, as Wil points out, the heart of hip-hop is the party. A good DJ, for example, is "someone who keeps the crowd hopping."

Russell Potter, author of Spectacular Vernaculars, likens the hip-hop movement to the bebop movement in jazz, a youthful, freewheeling departure from an established form. Like Wil, Potter has great respect for both the expressive and partylike elements of hip-hop. "If you want to look at poetry in the late 20th century," he says, "hip-hop is it."

Hip-hop production often uses "samples" of other recordings, stringing the bits together or repeating them in loops. Potter sees this as a kind of "reclamation" process. "When hip-hop goes back to look for things to sample, it's a way of invoking musical history, taking old things and making the new." In that way, it operates much like jazz, working off a sort of tension between acknowledging both the "culture" and individual expression.

ACROSS THE VALLEY, in a Campbell office, young dotcommers at Ultravibe.com are "spreading the love" of hip-hop in a different way. One of the sponsors of this year's SoFA festival, the 2-year-old website exists to promote hip-hop, electronica and alternative music by warehousing band profiles, sound clips and video clips on the Internet (they intend to videotape every band performance at SoFA and mount the tapes on their site).

The group has incorporated a Saturday hip-hop event called Underground Sound 2000 into the festivities this weekend. Many of Ultravibe.com's twentysomething co-partners grew up with Elements Boutique owners Wil and Warren, and most are hip-hop artists in their own right. Ultravibe president Paul Finck is himself a DJ. His hip-hop group, Major Liegue, features a live band, B-Boyz and two MCs, one of whom, Tony Deale, also handles band submissions at Ultravibe. The other, MC Ton' Foolery Jeckyed, Tony to his friends, has been MC-ing for 10 years or so, "ever since I was a kid," and Major Liegue is really his first time as part of a live band that works and writes together.

MC-ing, it seems, involves a lot of lonely work behind the scenes, without a band or even beats to practice to. As a wordsmith, Tony will often write five or six drafts, trimming away nonessential words and filler material, so that everything he has to say is "100 percent." When he's got something he can work with, he "takes it to the mirror" and tests every train of thought for presence and impact.

Right now, Major Liegue is putting together a CD with Jerry Da Hermit, a producer, beatmeister and turntablist. Da Hermit (who will be turntabling at the SoFA hip-hop event along with Fresh) is also in the band Insolence, recently signed to the Maverick label. (See story on page 34.)

In addition to producing, Da Hermit has contributed some custom beats for Tony to rap over. These intimately tailor-made beats are a new experience for Tony, and he is ecstatic. When he thinks about the Liegue's upcoming gigs at the Cactus Club and the SoFA festival, and how everything is coming together, he has trouble sleeping. He, too, calls hip-hop "his culture," and is working to make it endure.

During the SOFA eight-hour marathon of DJs, B-Boyz, bands and MCs scheduled to appear at Club 369, the "celebs" from San Jose's hip-hop underground will come to light, young artists taking the first tentative steps toward believing that "their culture" might be appreciated by a wide audience, not just the young, and that they, like storeowners Wil and Warren and dotcommers Paul and Tony, might be so bold as to hope for careers in something they love.

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From the September 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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