I put the call out the night of Dec. 2 via a somewhat convoluted e-mail to the promoters and scheduled performers of an upcoming local hip-hop show at The Casbah. The show would mark the first time all the acts nominated in the hip-hop categories at the San Diego Music Awards would share the same stage. The premise of the e-mail was simple enough: Get everyone together the following evening at Rebecca's Coffee House in South Park for an impromptu discussion about the state of local hip-hop. Given the last-minute nature of the request, I expected only a few to respond, much less show up.
All but one did, and that was because he (Young Mass) was in Vegas.
MC Flow and her entire crew show up early. Members of Deep Rooted drive in hellish traffic from East and North County to sit in. Three members of merry pranksters The Kneehighs help me move two tables together so that everyone has a seat. MCs Kayo and Miki Vale, whose street-hustlin' and feminist-empowered styles of music could not be more different, each sit on either side of me. Even Addiquit—the model-tall hellion who doesn't even consider herself hip-hop—shows up (albeit an hour-and-a-half late). Hell, a guy I didn't even invite (MC Suga Bear) is here.
There are moments of tension between the artists and rare displays of vulnerable honesty. There are a lot of moments of anger when discussing the various deficiencies within the scene (the lack of venues, the local media's ignorance, no local radio play).
But mostly there's a lot of camaraderie. Some of these artists are meeting for the first time, and by the end of the night, there are almost as many numbers exchanged as hugs and daps. In a local scene that either doesn't know or doesn't care, one look at this group is enough to know that these are San Diego's real struggling musicians. The ones really doing it for the love of the craft. And although not every local rap act was there, those who were truly opened my eyes and ears. I'll let them speak for themselves:
CityBeat: How did this [Casbah] show come about, and how do you guys feel about it?
40ozChris (promoter/manager, On Fyre Entertainment): We kind of see everybody playing at different places all around town, but we never see everybody together. So we always thought about getting everybody together so the people could check everybody out at the same time—to see how everybody did their thing.
Dalton (The Kneehighs): It's great. You're going to see four or five different angles of hip-hop. Everybody has their own act, niche, contributions and style.
This might seem obvious, but do you feel the local hip-hop scene is underrated or underappreciated?
Kayo: More than just what's at this table, this city is thriving with so much talent. So many people get overlooked. I go to Texas, tell them where I'm from, and they're, like, ‘people rap there?' That's why so many acts move to L.A. and Vegas. The city did it to 'em. You got to put the spotlight on the city and give the artists there a chance.
Let's talk about the obstacles. There's definitely a lack of places to play, yeah?
MC Flow: Yeah, we need more venues, because we lost two in the last year [Static Lounge and Honey Bee Hive]. At 'Canes, it's pay-for-play, and other places like the Belly Up, it's just to be an opener for a national touring act. We're never allowed to have a big show there with other local artists. Most places would never book a showcase, no way.
Johaz (of Deep Rooted): The venues and live shows are where you're going to make the most money. You can sell your merch up close and personal. And that's what's really crippling the scene. There's a couple hole-in-the-walls, but if we can get a quality spot that's always going to let us do our thing, then maybe some ground can be made. There's not a lot of open-mic venues. Like, when I was coming up, you could be 14 years old and go grab the mic. Now, that kid can't get a chance to come at me, because he can't even get in the club.
Do any of you feel there needs to be more collaboration?
MC Flow: I think one of the great things about this show is that it gives us the opportunity to be together and say, ‘Well, your act might not look like my act and you might play more straight-up hip-hop shows, and I might play a lot of crossover rock shows, but what we're all doing is putting our art out there.' I'd rather focus on the positive and the commonalities—work together rather than tear other artists down.
Dalton (The Kneehighs): We've all talked, but it's never really panned out. There does need to be a sense of representation, like with a community or committee. Honestly, I see a start right here.
Talls (The Kneehighs): We need to be like the indie-rock groups. They tour and hit the little spots and then come back to San Diego and people are, like, ‘Oh, people like them? Well, I like them now.' And then they sell out The Casbah, but we just keep doing the same thing here in San Diego. If we went out on tour together and have a dope tour, then people would be, like, ‘Wow, that's San Diego hip-hop?' We need to branch out together.
Do you think the local media ignore you?
Miki Vale: Not ignored completely, but there could be more coverage, and with a broader spectrum of hip-hop.
Brea (of Deep Rooted): Right, I don't know if it's CityBeat that throws the San Diego Music Awards, but I just think that they need to have a better representation. [CityBeat publisher Kevin Hellman's San Diego Music Foundation produces the SDMA, and CityBeat is a major sponsor.] It feels more like they throw hip-hop in because they have to.
The way they halfway play the music or we don't get a drum roll when they announce the winner. They didn't even announce the nominations. They were just, like, ‘And the winner is….' Are you kidding me? When hip-hop is the No. 1 selling music in the world? Folks just need to keep it real more.
Does local radio not support San Diego acts?
Talls (The Kneehighs): Some of the local stations that don't primarily play any hip-hop, like 91X and 94.9, will play us on the locals shows, but other than that, you're not going to hear anything on Z90 or any of the big stations that people who like hip-hop listen to.
Johaz: I've had friends that work for Z90 and 98.9 and they would want to play the record, but they're not given the leeway.
Kayo: Right, that's why [the hip-hop scene in] the South blew up, because they [radio and the artists] showed each other love.
How important is the diversity in the scene?
DJ Rob Fayder (MC Flow's DJ): I think it's cool, because it's just like our city in a way. You go to Atlanta or New York and it has its own sound or it all sounds the same. But what's so crazy about our hip-hop scene is that it's just like the people. It has the gangsta shit, it has the cool, laid-back jazzy stuff, it has the Latin feel, the white people, the female MCs. It's diverse, just like our city. It could be a good thing or a bad thing. It's both because it's so diverse, yet not enough people can get into that many vibes.
How important is it to create your own scene to get that national attention?
Dalton: We need to put on shows like this, making sure it's promoted correctly, make sure that people know that if you're not going to do it for us, we're gonna do it ourselves. It's on us to keep pushing.
Kayo: When hip-hop first started, it wasn't about the gold chains and the fancy cars, it was about the real shit. What's really going on. That's what's happening in San Diego.
Finally, I feel like there's been a lot of discussion about what needs to be improved, but what do you love about the S.D. hip-hop scene?
Addiquit: It's great all these people are here right now. There's a lot of people here, and that's surprising to me. I'm really not involved in the hip-hop community, but it's awesome to see that everybody is, and as long as I'm here, I would like to be.
Suga Bear: The artists. Everybody has their own style, and when you go to a show, it's dope music. It's not all the same, but being the same is not what hip-hop is. Hip-hop has always been that you're supposed to be different. If you're the same, then you're biting.
Kayo: The love. When I'm selling CDs on the street, I might catch four assholes, but if you catch that one good person that's really feeling your shit, then I drive by him one day and he's playing my shit. That's what really keeps me going.
Deep Rooted, The Kneehighs, Young Mass, MC Flow, Miki Vale, Addiquit and Kayo will play Sunday, Dec. 14, at The Casbah.