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On February 12, 1990, rapper MC Hammer arise his third album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em. Thanks to the mega-hit “U Can’t Touch This,” it would go on to absorb 21 nonconsecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard charts—still the alone rap anthology to accomplish this feat—and charcoal one of the top bristles acknowledged rap albums in history. It was additionally the aboriginal time a rap anthology was nominated for Anthology of the Year at the Grammys.
The afterward month, on March 20, rap accumulation Digital Underground arise its admission album, Sex Packets, propelled by the hilarious, abominable “The Humpty Dance,” which went platinum. Aloof a few weeks later, on April 3, accession amazing admission anthology was released, En Vogue’s Born to Sing, which featured the hit song “Hold On” and alien the apple to still-unmatched vocal-harmony pyrotechnics.
On May 8, R&B phenoms Tony! Toni! Toné! arise their additional album, The Revival, scoring above hits with “Feels Good,” “It Never Rains (in Southern California),” and “Whatever You Want.” Finally, on September 11, Too Short, the “godfather of Bay Breadth hip-hop,” arise his fifth flat album, Short Dog’s in the House, which went platinum and featured the hits “Short but Funky” and the Donny Hathaway–inspired “The Ghetto.”
The accepted cilia amid these bristles 1990 releases? All the artists trace their agreeable roots to Oakland, California. The Tonies, MC Hammer, and Money B of Digital Underground are all Oakland natives, as are Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the assembly aggregation abaft the Tonies’ aboriginal two albums and the conception of En Vogue. While not Oakland-born, Too Short abashed to “the Town” from L.A. with his ancestors aback he was a teen.
How did all these cultural touchstones arise to accomplish Oakland the centermost of atramentous accepted music 30 years ago? There’s not one all-embracing answer. For one, as Digital Underground founding affiliate Money B credibility out in an interview, this was a cardinal aeon in hip-hop added broadly: “Go from ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91, and ’92 and aloof attending at all the hip-hop albums that are classics.” Comparing this aeon to 2019, he says, “Last year, maybe 100 times added albums came out, but how abounding abstract came out?” Nonetheless, several forces—not alone musical, but additionally political, geographic, and ideological—converged to advance Oakland into the civic cultural zeitgeist in 1990.
The Bay Breadth has connected been accustomed as accepting an absolute spirit, of accomplishing things a bit abnormally than the blow of the country. Whether it’s the free-loving hippies of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury commune and Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue who afflicted the accessible burning of adulterous drugs, or the acceleration of the active Atramentous Panther Affair in Oakland, the Bay Breadth is breadth abounding bodies accept arise in the accomplished half-century to blade the cachet quo.
These political and amusing movements afflicted Oakland’s music scene: Abounding bounded musicians advancing up in the 1980s had claimed ties to the Atramentous Panther Party, such as accepting a ancestor who was a affiliate (like Money B and Tupac, who affirmed over this aback Tupac abutting Digital Underground) or actuality a almsman of the Panthers’ acclaimed chargeless breakfast affairs (like the Tonies’ D’wayne Wiggins). As cultural historian Rickey Vincent, columnist of two acclaimed books on alarm and body music, says, “Oakland’s ties to pop adeptness are abstruse with the active Atramentous Power freedom milieu.”
The Bay Area’s bequest of political activism—the Panthers as able-bodied as the Women’s Liberation movement and the Chargeless Speech Movement that originated at UC Berkeley—was affecting for the region’s music, said Digital Underground founding affiliate and Berkeley built-in Jimi “Chopmaster J” Dright in a 2015 interview. The Bay Breadth additionally boasted an all-embracing arrangement of artists in the 1970s, including Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Sly and the Ancestors Stone.
“We’re not aggravating to be like the East Coast. We’re not aggravating to be like anybody. We’re on the bend of the world,” Vincent says. “Oakland was accepting of bodies that did things in an aboriginal way.”
The Bay Area’s cultural assortment and eclecticism additionally accept a downside, says Denzil Foster. It’s never a acceptable affair commercially for a abode not to accept a characteristic complete associated with it. “I anticipate [cultural eclecticism is] what fabricated the Bay Breadth adapted but fabricated it harder [for] bodies to butt on, like the industry,” Foster says. Unlike Seattle with its grunge sound, the Bay has never had that one defining style.
However, there was a faculty aback in the backward 1980s that musicians from the arena had to arise with a beginning sound. Bay Breadth artists were never agog on battling the “originators,” decidedly in hip-hop, says bounded hip-hop DJ and announcer Davey D. Actuality so physically abroad from New York, Bay Breadth rappers didn’t feel burden to accommodate to the complete that was the sonic adapt for hip-hop. “If you said New York was a lion, L.A. was a lion, the Bay would be a tiger. … It’s not gonna be the king, but you’re not absolutely gonna alloy with it too much,” he says.
Oakland’s hip-hop arena was never activity to battling that of New York or L.A., but at least, as Davey D puts it, the Bay didn’t accept “a second-city complex”—the abhorrence of not barometer up to New York, like Chicago or Philly did. Oakland rappers didn’t feel apprenticed to New York to accord validation aloft them. Booty Too Short, for example: “He’s not aggravating to ingratiate himself with New Yorkers,” Davey D says. “They booed him at his anthology affair in New York. But what Short knows, what bodies afterwards activate out, is that everywhere abroad about the country, they admired it,” decidedly in the South. “So the Bay artists actual apprenticed were able to accept that there’s added to activity than aloof New York, because they’ve already existed that way.”
Too Short additionally created a arrangement for rappers from the South and added regions, Davey D says. Not alone did artists abroad like his relaxed, “folksy” rapping style, but “he let bodies apperceive that they can be themselves.” Alike amid Oakland-based rap artists, one would be hard-pressed to brainstorm three styles added audible than those of Too Short, MC Hammer, and Digital Underground. As Vincent says, “Too Short’s amount constituency is the East Oakland artery arena breadth the mack is the hero,” while Hammer was added “wholesome” and acceptable for white audiences. Davey D adds, “People were accustomed to accept their lanes.”
And Digital Underground absolutely had its own, third lane. Chopmaster J recalled that the accumulation originally aspired to be “the Atramentous Panthers of hip-hop,” but Accessible Enemy had already taken that slot. They additionally admired the hippie vibe, but saw that De La Body had the daisy adumbration on their admission anthology cover. “So we aloof absitively to be ourselves, which was an all-embracing blend.”
Still, as Money B says, stylistic assortment wasn’t a abnormally Bay Breadth thing, but rather an accepted aphorism of hip-hop at the time: “Back again it was not OK to be a biter or copy. If somebody was accomplishing a style, you couldn’t do it,” or you’d get no respect. What was altered to the Bay, abnormally Oakland, however, was a adeptness of hustling, he says. Given that there were no nationally accepted Bay Breadth rappers until the backward 1980s, there was a faculty that advancing artists had to acquisition a way to put out annal themselves. This is why the Bay Breadth has been so acerb associated with the absolute hip-hop scene.
Money B remembers witnessing Too Short’s progression, “from affairs tapes in the adjacency to absolutely distributing tapes through almanac food independently, to absolutely acute an absolute record.” For him, Too Short was the adapt for absolute rappers. And aback he assuredly got a accord with Jive Annal and recorded his best acknowledged album, 1989’s Activity Is … Too Short—and Money B saw the Tonies and MC Hammer authoritative moves with their aboriginal albums—he assuredly started to accept a rapper didn’t accept to be from New York or L.A. to accomplish it big.
Too Short wasn’t the alone self-made Oakland artist. Davey D addendum MC Hammer’s “hustling aesthetic,” suggesting he was a hip-hop administrator years afore Diddy or Jay-Z were domiciliary names—he and his brother bought stakes in the accouterment aggregation Troop and began aperture authorization food in bounded malls. Similarly, hip-hop historian Jeff Chang remembers Hammer, aloof like Too Short, affairs his tapes on assignment in bounded almanac stores. Hammer may not accept had the musicianship or raw aptitude of the Tonies, En Vogue, or Shock G, but he had, as Chang put it, “universes added appearance faculty [as an entertainer] than all of them put together.”
If there’s a accepted denominator amid the styles of these bristles albums from 1990, it’s alarm and soul. “Too Short, Hammer, Digital Underground, [the San Francisco–born rapper] Paris—they’re all based on the funk,” Vincent says. And this didn’t administer alone to Oakland’s rap scene: “We were all babies from the alarm era,” says ex-Tonies frontman Raphael Saadiq. Both Saadiq and Vincent anamnesis that Marvin Gaye’s acclaimed alive adaptation of “Distant Lover” was recorded at the Oakland Coliseum in 1974, where, as Vincent says, the army screamed so loud that the speakers blew out.
Saadiq draws a absolute bandage from alarm and body artists to the music of ceremony of the Oakland artists: For Too Short and Digital Underground, it was Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic; for MC Hammer it was Rick James (“U Can’t Touch This” sampled James’s “Super Freak”); for the Tonies, it was Earth Wind & Fire, the Commodores, and Delfonics; and for En Vogue it was the Supremes. All of his peers, Saadiq concludes, were “trying to actor our alarm heroes.”
Three years afterwards the alive achievement of “Distant Lover,” George Clinton and P-Funk landed the mothership in Oakland. By this time, the accumulation had already denticulate a above hit with “Give Up the Alarm (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” and had amorphous the massive adventure that was the P-Funk Earth Bout in 1976 and ’77. In May 1977, a alive bifold anthology of the bout fabricated up of performances from the Oakland Coliseum and Los Angeles Forum was released.
Vincent, who abounding the Oakland show, remembers the huge spaceship prop landing. And then, “they did a accomplished actuality abbey abracadabra in the average of the abundant metal alarm they were doing,” he recalls. “They got four horn players on one ancillary and four guitars on the added side. … And all this abstraction was like—wait, they are array of claiming ascendancy of the attitude adapted here.” The abutting year, P-Funk arise “Flash Light” and “One Nation Under a Groove,” cementing the group’s iconic cachet in atramentous accepted music.
The alive anthology had added acceptation for bounded musicians, Vincent says. On the album, aback the spaceship landed, the diva asked the audience, “Oakland, do you wanna ride? I can’t apprehend you. Oakland do you wanna ride tonight?” Several rap artists from the Bay—such as The Coup and Del the Funky Homosapien—later sampled that moment, Vincent adds, about claiming P-Funk as an Oakland thing.
“P-Funk absolutely authentic atramentous liberation,” says Vincent, which he thinks is one acumen why the accumulation appealed so abundant to atramentous association on the West Coast. “We weren’t apprenticed by these Jim Crow notions of what atramentous advance is. Bodies came out west to be chargeless … from all the constrictions and prescriptions of what success is, of what liberation is.”
Black migrants who came west afterwards Apple War II additionally brought important Southern traditions, like gospel. Saadiq emphasizes the access of Bay Breadth actuality groups for him, like the Actuality Hummingbirds and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “The actuality was strong, you know, because best of our families migrated from the South, from Louisiana, Mississippi.” As for the links amid the South and the Bay Area, “we absolutely [were] like a lot of Southern kids who had … those Southern twangs.”
While all bristles of the cogent Oakland albums adulatory their 30th ceremony are accountable to alarm in some way, no one paid added accolade to P-Funk’s bequest than Digital Underground. In the adventure of the Netflix documentary alternation Hip-Hop Evolution committed to the Bay Area, frontman Shock G said his ambition was to absorb elements of P-Funk into their music. He said, “I don’t apperceive if Digital Underground coulda happened anywhere else. It happened in the Bay cuz I’m totin’ that P-Funk flag, and the Bay Breadth was the most, of a accumulating of people, into funk,” he said.
The accomplished abstraction of accepting altered iterations of the group—and of Shock G accepting adapt egos like Humpty Hump and Piano Man (all three of whom arise on their song “Doowutchyalike”)—came anon from P-Funk’s altered configurations.
The access alike formed its way into the assembly on Digital Underground’s better hit: “We sampled ‘Let’s Comedy House’ by George Clinton for ‘Humpty Dance,’” Chopmaster J recalled. “Then … a bend of the bass concluded up accepting ashore in a sequencer, and it was a wonderful, admirable mistake. It affectionate of bound in there aback we had too abundant MIDI accessory absorbed up and too abounding things activity at already breadth that bass was actuality played … that concluded up looping in a way that was article we hadn’t heard afore and absolutely candidly no one’s anytime been able to alike since.”
If Digital Underground looked aback to the backward 1970s for inspiration, the assembly and songwriting aggregation of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy approved to booty R&B into the approaching via new jack swing. In the mid-1980s, Foster and McElroy had formed allotment of the Timex Amusing Club (“Rumors”) and again Club Nouveau (“Lean on Me”), groups that are abundantly unsung antecedents of new jack swing. “Rumors” was arise in 1986 and independent the hallmarks of the style, namely the amalgamation of hip-hop beats and assembly techniques with R&B-style vocals. This was a year afore the accustomed architect of new jack swing, Teddy Riley, formed his aboriginal group, Guy.
“All the acceptable songs were R&B songs and all the acceptable grooves were rap grooves,” Foster recalls. “And so it was like, ‘Why can’t we aloof sing a acceptable song over a acceptable beat, you know? Why does it accept to be a ballad?’” Foster says this was the arrangement for Club Nouveau, abacus “I won’t say it was like a Bay Breadth sound, but it became a blueprint that affectionate of formed for everybody.”
Foster and McElroy larboard Club Nouveau and addled out on their own as a assembly team, signing a accord with Wing Annal in 1988. The aboriginal accumulation they capital to aftermath was the Tonies, whom they already knew about from the Oakland scene. Ironically, Wing Annal had already anesthetized on the Tonies, cogent Foster and McElroy that bands were “played out.” The characterization saw anybody starting to jump on the hip-hop bandwagon, i.e., application DJs, synthesizers, and boom machines instead of alive advancement musicians.
The botheration was that the Tonies had absurd musicianship, but weren’t commercially minded. Saadiq recalls, “We were way too musical. That was the problem.” Their training at Oakland’s Castlemont High School, which was about a academy of the arts in the 1970s and ’80s, had provided them with professional-level chops. But, Saadiq says, all they had was their musicianship: “We didn’t accept able song structure. We didn’t accept abundant beats.”
Although Wing was afraid to accord the Tonies accession chance, Foster and McElroy assertive the characterization that they could accomplish the adapted adjustments to accomplish the bandage added ambrosial to Top 40 audiences. Foster says the ambition was to accomplish the Tonies’ music “not so bandy, but still leave the bandage elements there, so bodies [would] admit that it wasn’t aloof a singing group. ’Cause they didn’t appetite to be abashed for that either.”
Saadiq was advance into the advance accompanist role, which had been aforetime active by his brother, D’Wayne Wiggins. “Raphael had a altered sound,” Foster says, “like a active kid singing. I apperceive that works able-bodied on radio, it’s identifiable and bodies could go, ‘Oh, I apperceive who that is immediately.’” Though it’s adamantine to brainstorm now because of how acknowledged he has been as a vocalist, Saadiq was actual aggressive to put his bass bottomward and be the frontman, adage the abstraction afraid him: “I was a little guy and, you know, little guys get looked at like, they adeptness be sissies ’cause they sing, and I didn’t absolutely appetite to sing. I aloof capital to comedy because the bass fabricated me feel like the big man, you know? It was like the ballast of all the music.” Aback he began singing, he says, “I acquainted like Linus after my blanket.”
At the end of the day, Saadiq says, Foster and McElroy “brought a complete to us” and jump-started his career by allowance the Tonies get the attempt they needed.
The arrangement that began with the Tonies was agitated over into Foster and McElroy’s conception of En Vogue. As McElroy said in a 2012 interview, “The access for their aboriginal anthology was abundant added of a raw, artery approach. … Aback we aboriginal did ‘Lies’ and ‘Hold On,’ I was cerebration about authoritative those advance added hip-hop aural and a little bit grittier.” In fact, Davey D recalls speaking with Bill Stephney (who recruited Accessible Enemy for Def Jam aback in 1986) about En Vogue, and Stephney calling Born to Sing a hip-hop almanac instead of an R&B record.
Foster and McElroy accomplished En Vogue’s complete through an abrupt antecedent of inspiration. It was 1989, and they knew atramentous accepted music was all about new jack swing—which, of course, they had helped accompany about. But article abroad happened as they were in the average of recording Born to Sing: Body II Soul’s admission anthology alone with “Back to Life” and “Keep on Movin.’” Foster says that the anthology afflicted aggregate for him and McElroy. “All of a abrupt this beautiful, affectionate of chastened piano and boom and vocals came on the air and it aloof angry into the better ball almanac that year. And it was like, ‘Wait a minute, how did a 90 [beats per minute] song about-face into the better ball record?’”
The vocals weren’t aggressive with the music, Foster says, “which aloof afflicted our accomplished mind-set of what to do with [En Vogue] … we can now assignment their vocals and basically band aggregate from it and accomplish them a accurate articulate group.” And, he adds, that’s how “Hold On” came about. Body II Soul’s appearance aggressive Foster and McElroy to acting intricate articulate harmonies for adapted curve that would usually be played by a cord apparatus or flute. The abstraction was to “keep the alarm in there” but with a slower bounce and absurd vocals.
While En Vogue and the Tonies would acceptable accept triumphed alike after a big advance from bounded media because of their aptitude and abundant production, Bay Breadth radio stations and almanac food played an active role in allowance the rap acts get noticed nationally. Afore Digital Underground was active by a above label, Chopmaster J was able to get the accumulation played on bounded hip-hop shows on association radio stations like KPFA and UC Berkeley’s KALX (where, as a student, Davey D began his radio DJ career).
Shortly thereafter, the Bay Area’s sole bartering hip-hop base took notice. “In 1988, KMEL had a appearance alleged Kiss It or Diss It, and they played it on the air and bodies ‘kissed’ it, they admired it, and so we were put into a ablaze circling over at KMEL, which additionally led us to actuality the bounded act that got to accessible up for the civic acts’ tours that would arise through,” he said, abacus that the acknowledgment helped Digital Underground acreage aperture slots for Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, Tone Loc, and others.
A acquaintance of Chopmaster J’s who formed at the acclaimed Berkeley almanac abundance Leopold Annal beatific Digital Underground’s admirers to a acquaintance who was interning at Tommy Boy. De La Soul, who was on that label, heard the admirers and admired it, so Tommy Boy active Digital Underground to almanac “Doowutchyalike” in 1989.
By that time, Too Short had already been active to a above accord with Jive Records—based on fizz stemming from his adeptness to advertise 50,000 copies of his apart arise 1987 anthology Born to Mack from the block of his car and with no radio promotion—and MC Hammer had active with Capitol Records.
Davey D was a acute articulation in the efforts by association and academy radio stations to advance Bay Breadth rap artists. He’s the cofounder of the Bay Breadth Hip Hop Coalition, one of the aboriginal hip-hop radio DJ collectives in the country. He says stations like the San Francisco–based KMEL predate added large, acclaimed ones, like New York’s Hot 97. “The accomplished alpha of pop stations activity hip-hop comes out of the Bay Area, and it comes out of all of us who were accomplishing those academy radio shows,” he says.
Indeed, in 1987, a new affairs administrator came on at KMEL with affairs to amusement hip-hop, as Dan Charnas writes, “as if it were aloof accession affectionate of pop music,” and admit rap’s bartering abeyant and acceptance beyond altered audiences. And while KMEL played a lot of pop-leaning rap—Tone Loc, Vanilla Ice, Young MC—it additionally added to its playlists artists advised to be the gatekeepers of “real” hip-hop: Eric B & Rakim, Accessible Enemy, N.W.A, and Boogie Bottomward Productions. KMEL was arena hip-hop at a time aback best above city breadth radio stations still advised it as a stigmatized genre. And, of course, KMEL was additionally the aboriginal bartering radio base to comedy three of the above rap hits from 1990: “U Can’t Touch This,” “The Humpty Dance,” and “Short But Funky” (which, ironically, was a not-so-veiled diss clue directed at MC Hammer’s pop-oriented style).
The actual advised advance of bounded hip-hop by KMEL and associates of the Bay Breadth Hip-Hop Coalition on academy and association radio trickled bottomward to the admirers as well. It created a appeal and artful alternative for bounded artists over some of the best admired names in hip-hop history. Davey D says, “When [Nas’s] anthology came out in 1994, you didn’t apprehend it bumping in the streets of East Oakland. … There were added sounds and flavors that groups of bodies capital to hear.”
He remembers bringing KRS-One to a bounded almanac abundance aback he was visiting the Bay Breadth in the aboriginal 1990s. He told the rapper he’d accord him $20 for anyone who came in to buy his record. Sure enough, the barter were attractive for bounded rapper Pooh-Man and added Oakland artists. “They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, man, acceptable music. But let me get this bounded stuff.’” It’s not that they hated New York, Davey D continues, but rather that they knew Pooh-Man: “He’s from about my way, I’m gonna accept to him. Yeah, he’s apropos to 83rd and MacArthur,” and authoritative bounded references to things like sideshows.
Notwithstanding the stylistic differences amid the albums that came out of Oakland in 1990, there are a few throughlines that angle out, conspicuously the access of alarm music and the accretion assurance of R&B groups on hip-hop production. It was this amalgamation of R&B and hip-hop that catapulted songs like “Feels Good,” “Lies” (both of which affection rapped vocals in their bridges), “Hold On,” and “You Don’t Accept to Worry” to the top of the Billboard charts.
Although there wasn’t a concerted accomplishment to put out bristles acknowledged albums, Davey D says, there was “intentionality in agreement of bodies repping the Bay. … Not L.A., but Oakland; not San Francisco, but Oakland.” In added words, these bristles acts were appreciative of their Oakland roots.
All these artists connected authoritative annal as the decade wore on, and En Vogue, the Tonies, and Hammer all had abundantly acknowledged aftereffect albums with Funky Divas, Sons of Soul, and Too Legit to Quit, respectively. But these albums were all arise beyond the amount of a few years. And, at atomic in hip-hop, L.A. became alike with the West Coast G-funk appearance already Dr. Dre arise The Chronic in backward 1992, introducing the apple to Snoop Dogg. By then, Tupac had abashed on from Digital Underground to a abandoned career, and from Oakland to L.A., breadth he would activate his abrupt rise.
For a abrupt aeon 30 years ago, Oakland was the centermost of atramentous accepted music. Of course, Oakland’s bequest of absurd musicianship hasn’t waned—Ledisi, Goapele, Kehlani, Keyshia Cole, and Zendaya are all built-in daughters, in accession to abundant rappers. Still, 1990 was a adapted moment and the legacies of these bristles albums and acts are still apparent today: from Too Short’s street-savvy archetypal of administration to the abounding top-tier acts D’Wayne Wiggins and Raphael Saadiq accept produced, including Destiny’s Child, D’Angelo, Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, and Solange Knowles.
Oakland will never be the centermost of the music industry, but what it’s contributed to atramentous accepted music is immeasurable.
Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance biographer and cultural analyzer with a PhD in ethnomusicology. Her assignment has been appear at CNN Opinion, NPR, Billboard, the Los Angeles Times, Vice, and more. She’s additionally the columnist of the book Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Agreeable Achievement in Contemporary Cuba.
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