Mark Onstad doesn't fit the stereotype for your average hip-hop enthusiast. A 49-year-old white guy with a religious studies degree from UC Santa Barbara, Onstad's passion for underground hip-hop started the old fashioned way.
“Curiosity,” he muses. “I was not familiar with hip-hop. I realized that there was this genre that had been around for a while that I didn't know anything about.”
While living in Berkeley, Onstad began listening to a weekly hip-hop radio show on local station KPFA. The show, hosted by Davey D, showcases a variety of hip-hop acts. One act in particular, the Mystik Journeymen, caught Onstad's attention.
“I couldn't forget them-they were so unique,” he says.
While attending the 1995 Juneteenth Street Fair in south Berkeley, Onstad bumped into Mystik Journeymen MC Corey “Sunspot” Jones. Jones was selling Mystik Journeymen tapes at the fair and the two struck up a conversation.
Onstad started attending the group's shows regularly at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. His enthusiasm led to his involvement with the Living Legends Crew, a collective of underground hip-hop artists that includes notable rappers like the Grouch, Eligh, Bicasso, Scarub and Murs. With no prior experience in programming or design, Onstad became the webmaster for the group's Internet site, www.llcrew.com.
“I was just curious enough to see what I could do with the website-to volunteer,” says Onstad. “The first incarnation that I did was really bad. It's still an amateur website really.”
By 1999, the Living Legends Crew had expanded and moved operations to Los Angeles. Onstad needed to change venues too, as the growth of the website was extending well beyond the walls of his apartment.
“It had to grow out of just a little apartment, home-based thing and the conditions to move into a commercial space in the Bay Area were not very attractive,” Onstad says. “Meanwhile, I had heard that the only hip-hop specialty store in the San Diego area, Tools of the Trade, had closed.”
Seeing a hole that needed filling, Onstad opened Access Music on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach in June of 2001. The record store is a DJ's playground, with an extensive collection of hip-hop vinyl, CDs and cassettes. Turntables are set up, and employee William Bensussen, more affectionately known as DJ Willow, spins regularly. The business also specializes in reggae, trip-hop and breakbeats.
“It's great,” says 24-year-old employee and avid Living Legends fan, Scott Barrett. “I do a lot more than what a regular employee/sales associate would do.”
That may be because Access Music has also evolved into an independent record label. Access Hip-Hop released its first CD by MC duo Felt earlier this year. The album, titled A Tribute to Christina Ricci, features the rhyming skills of Living Legends MC Murs and underground rapper Slug, with beats and production provided by the Grouch. So far, sales have been good for the upstart label, with the first pressing of the CD selling out within two weeks. However, Onstad is wary of the challenges in operating outside the realm of mainstream hip-hop.
“Mainstream hip-hop is a big business,” he says. “It has the marketing and promotional money of big corporations behind it and therefore they have to pick artists and releases that will justify that kind of expenditure. For that reason, it obviously is trying to appeal to a less differentiated audience. Independent, underground hip-hop tends more to be artists doing what they feel inside they want to do and trying to find an audience for it.”
Despite Access Music's string of minor successes, Onstad is lukewarm about San Diego's own underground hip-hop scene-or lack thereof.
“It seems to be always on the edge of either really growing and becoming something major, or falling off,” he says. “It doesn't quite do either. It just sort of stays on the edge.”