printed in Oregon Humanities Magazine Summer 2011
Uprockin' the Rose City
The community that hip hop built
Under a freeway overpass in the waterfront district of Southeast Portland seems like an unlikely place to find hip hop. But through a nondescript industrial door, into a battered warehouse building, then up a flight of dingy stairs and past dark entryways is a room overloaded with vibrant colors, motion, music, and laughter.
The walls are emblazoned with graffiti, a rotating gallery of street art. On a small elevated stage, an artist furiously applies paint to canvas. Breakdancers twist their bodies into shapes that defy both anatomy and gravity. Onstage, a DJ rocking oversize neon-orange headphones and an old-school navy blue Adidas warm-up jacket pushes her dark bangs out of her eyes as she switches records.
In the audience, a group of ten middle school–aged Somali girls in hijab clump together, watching the moves of Uneak, a breaker and yoga instructor. He slows his motions down so they can follow, and soon a line of girls is moving to the pulsating beat, their smiles as bright as the art on the wall.
This is the monthly Zulu Jam, hosted by the Oregon chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation at their Salmon Street Studios warehouse space. Here hip hop is more than a musical genre; it is a culture and a community.
Vursatyl, from the Portland-based hip hop group Lifesavas, lived through hip hop in the Rose City in the early 1980s and says the jam gave him flashbacks. “You can go to a function like the Zulu Nation … event,” he says, “and still feel the innocence and the integrity that made the music and the art form so captivating when we were young. To see young kids doing that now, being involved in it, the little three- and four-year-olds dancing—here they are part of this movement that started thirty years ago, and they are experiencing it from the same standpoint I did. Hip hop felt brand-new.”
Some critics feel that mainstream, commercial hip hop culture is full of violence, drugs, materialism, and misogyny; that it destroys rather than builds community. But since hip hop’s inception in the South Bronx forty years ago, community has always been core to the culture. The United Nations said as much in 2001 when it recognized hip hop as an international culture and signed the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace.
Spoken-word artist Rochell “Ro Deezy” Hart feels that more important than applause and accolades is the support when she steps offstage: “Well beyond the microphone and the shows, I share friendships and alliances with other artists that may lead us to protest something or to simply sit and break bread together and talk about the struggle.”
In fact, Hart credits hip hop with being a culture and community for those who are actively working to improve society. “In an increasingly dumbed-down world which progressively gets more passive and accepting of social and political rhetoric, belonging to a hip hop community has helped me keep my head above the water,” she says.
Dancing on the Edge of Apocalypse
A global industry grossing $600 million, hip hop accounts for sixty million US album sales annually. Hip hop artist Toni Hill says hip hop’s money-making power “has influenced the runways of the fashion industry. It dominates the airways, and it sells everything from burgers to cars. Hip hop has Cookie Monster and Elmo rapping to the beat.” Hip hop was even used heavily in the 2004 elections as a tool to recruit young people to vote.
But hip hop as an influencer of popular culture is a relatively new phenomenon. Hip hop was born almost forty years ago in the South Bronx, then a landscape decimated by the loss of manufacturing jobs, an unemployment rate of 60 to 80 percent among young Black men, and an official policy of “benign neglect” by local and federal elected officials. Fires set by greedy landlords left blocks and blocks of the neighborhood littered with the burnt shells of houses. Jeff Chang, hip hop historian and author of the book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, quotes Dr. Wise, a South Bronx clinic director who called it “a necropolis—a city of death.”
The community’s youth, most of whom were Black, decided that rather than die, they would give birth to a new culture. So they created ways, according to Chang, to dance on the edge of the apocalypse. The four elements of hip hop—DJing, breakdancing, emceeing, and graffiti—were all about making something out of nothing. DJs couldn’t afford music lessons, so they grabbed their moms’ turntables and old records and started scratching. Most of the breakdancers from the South Bronx couldn’t attend Juilliard to study dance, but they were able to make a street corner their stage.
This kind of innovation, change, and inspiration is the essence of hip hop, says Portland hip hophead and community organizer Imani Muhammad, who, though not an emcee, graffiti artist, DJ, or b-girl, says she’s connected to “the heartbeat that created this music.”
“I am hip hop,” Muhammad declares.
Toni Hill sees hip hop as a force uniting a diverse community: “My posse consists of college grads to street-corner thugs, block brothers to mothers raising their young. We are coming from different nationalities, colors, cultures, and creeds, but we share in a movement.” Hill has vowed to raise her infant son in a hip hop community; she’s already brought him to the Zulu Jam.
For emcee Mic Crenshaw, the Zulu Jam embodies the best of Portland hip hop’s past. “I think there is a purity and a hunger that is present—not in all the hip hop music, but in a lot of it here,” he says.
Crenshaw has been part of half a dozen different hip hop groups in the past fifteen years, including the seminal band Hungry Mob. “We had a small scene, so people have had to work together,” he says. “We were more effective being cooperative than completely competitive. … Those relationships still exist from the history we had together. It’s also created an infrastructure for some of these new artists, because they’ve been able to watch us and get support from us.”
Portland’s scene was so small at the beginning, some say there were only two people in town with four-track recorders for producing songs, and well-known emcees Vursatyl and Cool Nutz both attended the same summer camp. It was in this close-knit community, says Vursatyl, that hip hop became his life.
“It was all so huge at the time when I was a teenager,” he says. “I’d walk down the street and see b-boys carrying rows of linoleum. We were there at its inception, and it just kind of enveloped me. I don’t think I could have gotten away from it if I tried.” He searched out the spots in his neighborhood where he could find hip hop. There were two “clubs”—really, people’s garages—“places were the community could gather, from six-year-olds on up, to dance, test their popping and locking skills, get on the mic while munching on some barbecue.”
DJ and emcee Pete Miser agrees, describing the 1980s as an exciting and experimental time in the development of Portland hip hop: “There wasn’t an older generation to tell us what to do or how to do it, so we were all inventing it for ourselves.” Miser, who now lives in New York, admits that not everything they created was good or original music, but it laid the foundation for later success.
Miser eventually became the front man for the band Five Fingers of Funk, a groundbreaking live hip hop band that kicked the door open for hip hop in Portland’s larger music venues. Because of the foundation laid by legendary Portland hip hoppers such as U-Krew, Dynamic Sound Machine, Bosko, Doc Rock, DJ Chill, Cool Nutz, Lifesavas, Five Fingers, Hungry Mob, and more, the 1990s saw hip hop go from incubation to full exposure, where hip hop artists were making enough money to support themselves.
Even as it grew, Vursatyl feels that Portland hip hop stayed rooted in community. “We grew up with park jams, places for folks to speak about what was going on in the community. Hip hop built a platform to address so many things,” he explains. “Hip hop in its inception was such a powerful tool to build community. Because through music and dance, it drew the people.”
Miser agrees that the power of hip hop is, to quote Dead Prez, bigger than hip hop. “Hip hop wouldn’t be that powerful if it was just a musical style,” Miser says. “It’s powerful because it is a culture with rich traditions that can’t easily be undone.”
Miser grew up in the suburbs, feeling isolated from his peers, and found a nonjudgmental and inspirational community in Portland hip hop. “Hip hoppers were all about superpowers: being able to do a windmill, create a painting using spray paint, make up rhymes as you went along, make those crazy sounds with a record being dragged back and forth—and I was in on it! It was awesome,” he says. “I think belonging to the hip hop community affirmed the idea that I should trust my instincts and allow myself to be guided by passion. That I would be rewarded for following my heart.”
But Miser says being part of a hip hop community can also be heartbreaking: “Hip hop is the beautiful result of alienation, oppression, and neglect. If you fall in love with hip hop, then you fall in love with its participants.” But, he says, “Only a small percentage of participants find their way to prosperity. Those who don’t often wind up victims of the alienation, oppression, and neglect. I’ve had way too many friends die tragically, go to jail, be destroyed by addiction, or just become marginalized by poverty and lack of marketable skills.”
Miser says even the negative conditions surrounding early hip hop were used by the community to grow its members’ talents. “Early on, I believe Portland hip hop was able to develop untainted because Portland was … so segregated. Hardly anyone outside of Northeast knew that there was hip hop music in Portland before 1992. Portland’s hip hop scene wouldn’t be as rich if it didn’t have the time to work out some of its kinks on its own.”
Back in the Day
The Portland hip hop scene’s closeness, its relative small size, and its underground nature might well be by-products of the segregation that Miser describes. Darrell Millner, a Black studies professor at Portland State University, says Oregon was established by the Civil War generation as a white homeland where Blacks were not welcome. This is evidenced by Oregon’s founding constitution, which forbade Black people from living in the state, under threat of public whipping. “That clearly had a lot to do with the nature and the dynamics of early Black experience, the notion of excluding Blacks from the area. We haven’t outlived that—to this day, it still has an impact on Blacks in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest,” Millner says.
But despite the prevalence of legal and extralegal racism (Ku Klux Klan members numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and even won seats in the state legislature), the Black population exploded during World War II as Southern Blacks moved to the region to work in war production. In 1915, Portland’s Black population numbered only two thousand; by 1943, it had swelled to twenty-five thousand.
Millner says that in the 1930s and 1940s, Portland became an unlikely entertainment mecca in the country because of the railroads: “We are located between large Black communities in California and a relatively large Black community in Seattle. In those days, you didn’t fly through like you do now; you rode through on the trains. So Portland was conveniently located to take advantage of the traveling Black celebrities and entertainers, because they would stop here.”
This contributed to a vibrant and raucous jazz scene, centered in North Portland’s North Williams Avenue, the heart of the city’s Black community. Clubs would stay open night and day, and you could find all nature of entertainment options. Everyone from Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, and Art Tatum played in that golden era when Black artists knew by word of mouth that Portland was the place to be.
Hip hop similarly united Portland’s Black community. But because of exclusion laws and gentrification, the strong Black community of the mid-twentieth century no longer exists, says Millner. Vursatyl notes, “If you’re an artist of color, how do you tap into that audience when gentrification has spread us out into so many different areas? There used to be a close-knit community here. It’s way more spread out now.”
Racism and discrimination are present in any conversation about hip hop, a culture pioneered by poor, Black, inner-city teens, now embraced and practiced globally by almost every race and ethnicity. Here in Portland, a city with an overwhelming white majority, hip hop audiences often don’t reflect those who founded the culture. Vursatyl says this disparity mirrors the larger music industry, where hip hop artists of color have a fan base that is 80 percent White.
Crenshaw notes that hip hop resonates with so many different people because audiences of all colors respond to compelling stories about the human condition: “Yes, it is a Black thing. But it is also a universal thing. Black people are people. We’re human beings. What we express through our art is a human experience that the world relates to. The world responds to Black music.”
But that’s not necessarily true for societal power structures, which still fear hip hop and its creators. Vursatyl feels the police presence at hip hop shows even today has as much to do with race as with musical genre. “I have toured the whole world, and not often have I seen the police presence like I’ve seen here in the Northwest,” he says. “What does that say about what the police think about what’s going on in hip hop here?”
Millner says this isn’t the first time mainstream culture has given Black music a negative reception. “Jazz is considered to be pretty acceptable and conventional now,” he says, “but when jazz first came along, it got the same rejections that hip hop did—that it was evil, that we have to keep our young people away from it. Everything you heard about hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s was said about jazz culture in the early twentieth century.”
Boots Riley, the emcee of the revolutionary Bay Area hip hop group The Coup, declares, “They ain’t scared of rap music; they scared of us.”
Vursatyl highlights another strong connection between jazz and hip hop: the need to recognize the form’s cultural roots. “I would hate to see hip hop get to the point where people of color are no longer celebrated for what they have done for the culture,” he says. “It’s only responsible to do that. It’s only responsible to allow Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker to go on being celebrated even posthumously in jazz. You have to celebrate those architects.”
Millner says that because of exclusion and gentrification, subsequent generations, including this one, pay a “cultural penalty,” in which being Black in Oregon can be a very isolating and even traumatic experience in which Black culture isn’t reflected back in a positive way. To Millner, hip hop is an opportunity to challenge that: “Hip hop has been in that long tradition of Blacks using culture and entertainment to describe and reveal the dynamics of race in the country. They have used music as a weapon to try to improve their circumstances, and that’s what hip hop has done in its best days.”
Many in the hip hop community have taken up this challenge. The annual Portland Oregon Hip Hop Festival (POH-Hop) was founded in 1995 by David Parks, Steven Spyryt, and emcee Cool Nutz. The vision behind it was to give artists an outlet to share their art with the larger community. POH-Hop is unique because the money generated doesn’t go just to line the pockets of some event promoter; instead, the event has raised funds for community-based projects like the Black Education Center and KBOO Community Radio.
Imani Muhammad also used hip hop to bring the community together when she started the Youth Summit in 2007 in memory of fourteen-year-old Davonte Lightfoot, her former student, who was killed in a gang-related shooting. The weekend gathering drew hundreds of youth who attended workshops led by local and national musicians.
“I realized that in order to pass on knowledge and life lessons, we must meet the youth where they are with music and hip hop culture,” Muhammad explains. “We are dealing with heavy intellectual issues while using hip hop as a teaching filter to convey a conscious message.”
Mic Crenshaw, one of the artists at the Summit, feels that it’s not just the youth who get something out of the experience: “When … I’m actually engaging people in the community in an environment that supports a level of interaction we don’t always have time for in our everyday lives, we all benefit from that.”
Crenshaw has also used hip hop for activism and education. In 2004, he went on a life-changing trip to Rwanda as part of an American Friends Service Committee delegation. At a regional conference on economic justice, genocide reconciliation, and youth empowerment, Crenshaw met delegates from seven African nations. He says he felt echoes of the Portland hip hop community in the cultural expressions and music of the Rwandan people. “The community expression that I saw when I was in Rwanda was that everyone is participating,” he says. “It’s not an audience focused on one person, talking at them. That’s something that’s part of the Zulu Nation events, and I feel as long as that exists it’ll keep people grounded in one of the most important aspects of this culture.”
One of the requirements for being selected as a delegate was doing two years of service work in the United States—a breeze for an emcee who has been a community organizer almost all of his life. Deeply moved by his experiences and wanting to honor the specific requests from the African organizers he met, Crenshaw agreed to send computers to Burundi for a community computer center. As a working artist, Crenshaw didn’t have the money on his own, but luckily, he had a hip hop community behind him.
Crenshaw and his manager Morgan Delaney began a nonprofit organization called Global Fam, which uses hip hop in international assistance efforts. Through Global Fam, Crenshaw worked with Free Geek and Dead Prez to raise money for African Youth Initiative Network, a youth advocacy group in Africa. As a result, a “computer center is up and running to this day in Burundi,” he says. “And that was not the end of the support. The $300 a month for renting the space is a huge sum there, so Global Fam supplements with fundraising we do here.”
Pass the Mic
This sense of community is also important to Vursatyl, one of the most well-known emcees in the Northwest. He feels that it’s the responsibility of experienced emcees to pass along their hard-earned knowledge, so he reached out to Zoo, a sixteen-year-old student in his summer writing class who quotes Einstein and thinks of hip hop more as a martial art than a road to wealth and fame. Vursatyl says he was captivated by the young man’s talent early on: “It shocked me how deep he was.”
For Zoo, Vursatyl’s mentorship couldn’t have come at a better time. The teen was part of the Gangsters Disciples gang, smoking weed and looking at a life with a lot of roadblocks. “It gave me a chance to step away and for the first time do what I want to do and feel comfortable,” Zoo says. “To actually have someone to guide me. To make good music. That’s all I really ever wanted to do, was make good music.”
The first time Zoo performed was at the Zulu Jam. Zoo couldn’t quite find the words to describe the experience. “Aw man, it was special. I just got to rap … I just can’t explain it. I actually felt like a rapper for the first time,” he says, a smile splitting his face.
Vursatyl was in the front row, nodding his head to the beat and smiling like a proud parent. He joined Zoo for one song, but inverted the often ego-driven battle for the microphone by spending his brief time on the microphone giving respect and support to Zoo. He says that’s all a part of the lesson: “I want to teach him from the ground up what it takes to be an emcee. So he can say, ‘All right, I’ll play the back. I’ll play that role, if it means I’m learning how to make it into a career and not just a hobby.’?”
Vursatyl has made it his mission as a mentor to instill in Zoo a sense that hip hop is, first and foremost, about respect—not only respect for himself, but also for the audience, fellow artists, and, most important, the craft. He feels that with the accessibility and ease of technology, many young folks are recording albums quickly, but they don’t understand the true foundation of hip hop. “You can find millions of kids who can rap,” he says. “Fred Flintstone is on TV rapping. Rhyming is no big deal, but to be an emcee is a higher accomplishment, and takes a deeper level of commitment.”
To that end, Zoo writes rhymes, practices his flow, and records tracks at Vursatyl’s studio. They are working on a “project”—Vursatyl won’t say it’s an album, not yet anyway. And Zoo is okay with that. He already feels he has gotten so much out of hip hop and his interactions with Vursatyl. He says that hip hop has not only made him “ten times smarter,” but has also improved the way he feels about himself. “I can actually look in the mirror and feel like I’ve accomplished something,” he says.
When asked to remember a time when hip hop built community, Vursatyl replies immediately, “Hip hop is community.” Looking at Zoo, he says, “Our relationship began with music, but it has transcended that. I’m there to answer questions he has about life, religion, politics. Our dialogue extends way beyond music now.”
Vursatyl turns, speaking directly to Zoo: “You don’t have to look for it, man; you are a living product of the community that’s born out of music.”