If I can be completely real here, Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley was like a hip-hop Stargate in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was a perfect storm. You had a long street that started in Oakland and went all the way up to a college campus, where it dead-ended. You had the 51 and 40 bus lines that stopped right there. There were college kids and retail establishments aimed at those college kids: bars with cheap beer, clothing stores, head shops, inexpensive restaurants, pizza joints, video arcades, and four major record stores: Tower, Rasputin, Leopold, and, later, Amoeba. Any place you can get weed, pussy, and alcohol—and hip-hop—is the shit. It’s funny, Too $hort had a song in the 75 Girls days called “Invasion of the Flat Booty Bitches,” which was based on him cruising down Telegraph, seeing all the white and Asian college girls and expressing disapproval over the lack of density of their derierres.
On top of that, you had the college radio station, KALX, which was located off-campus, in the basement of a church on Bowditch at the top of Durant. The first time I heard Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” was on KALX. Once KALX started playing hip-hop regularly, sometime between 1983 and 1984, it was on. They won the Gavin award for best “Hip Hop Radio Show” in 1990, that was above all the commercial shows at that time. In fact, when KMEL went hip-hop, they bit their format from KALX and even hired some of their DJs. The KALX DJ roster was pretty solid. It included Davey-D, Beni B, Natty Prep, Billy Jam, Nate Copeland, Neon Leon, Rickey Vincent the Uhuru Maggot, Tamu & Sadiki, and Jah Bonz. All of them were big supporters of local music, so they put a lot of people on. Digital Underground used to be on Beni-B’s show all the time—their manager Sleuth-Pro was a co-host. You could hear their music on KALX before it was even officially out.
Then you have Davey-D, who was the host of the Sunday Morning Show, along with Tamu. That show would get busy. They were technically a public affairs, or cultural affairs, show, but they also played lots of new music, ensuring them a large local following. Basically, national artists would come through KALX, get played on the Sunday morning show, do an in-store at Leopold, and then that night they would be on the Wake-Up Show. The Bay Area circuit broke lots of hip-hop records that way. Usually it was these artists' first time out West, too. I remember Arrested Development came through KALX before “Tennessee” dropped; I remember hearing Nas circa “Halftime,” Onyx circa Bacdafucup, and Cypress Hill just after their debut dropped. Davey would a lot of phone interviews with people like KRS-One and Chuck D. Once he tried to call Eazy-E out over N.W.A.’s flagrant use of the N-word. That show got pretty ridiculous during the Gavin Convention, when every label would send their artists out to the Bay; they’d all end up at KALX at some point. Not to mention the local artists who got a lot of love from the KALX hip-hop crew. Paris was on the air; Boots from the Coup used to come by and hang out. I remember one day he dropped off copies of their first single on Wild Pitch, “Not Yet Free,” on cassette.
They did the G.R.I.P. conference at Cal in ’92. I remember Ed Lover and Dr. Dre were there, along with Coolio, before “Fantastic Voyage” came out; Bobbito Garcia, who was with Def Jam at the time, was there, too. Ed Lover kept singing the hook to “The Phuncky Feel One.” He wore these yellow Tims, which weren’t real big out West at the time, I think he might have had sweatpants with the cuff rolled up: Real East Coast. We were like, “whatever.” That was the first time I met $hort; I smoked a joint with him and DJ Pierre, who they called Pizzo the Beat Fixer.
Speaking of Cypress Hill, the best KALX moment was probably the time Billy Jam had them on his show. Weed smoking wasn’t allowed at the station, but this was Cypress Hill, so what were you gonna do? They passed around so many joints, people walking by on the street probably got a contact. I think Billy might’ve gotten in trouble for that one. Episodes like that are probably the reason the station moved back on campus, to a basement in Eshelmann Hall.
Hands-down, the top hip-hop spot for records back in the day was Leopold. They had all this cut-out vinyl, like vintage Funkadelic, so DJs would always dig there. Del tha Funky Homosapien worked there for a minute, even after his album was out; he used to live right next to Leopold. They had a lot of cool in-stores appearances from artists like Boogie Down Productions and Super Cat. Rasputin had a lot of used records too, so you could find stuff that had been out for a minute, like Spyder-D’s “Placin the Beat” on Profile. I would get all my new joints at Leopold, though. I did a radio show when I was in college at Santa Cruz, so I would come back to the Bay on weekends to buy vinyl.
Friday and Saturday nights in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Telegraph was going on. It was a destination for every single teenager and young adult within a 15-mile radius. They used to have these crazy ciphers, there would be like hella rappers there, some fools would invariably get served and be hella salted. A Plus from Hieroglyphics used to sell weed up there, plus he would be in the ciphers. That was long before Hiero was signed or anything. But even before that, in the early ‘80s, you used to see b-boys on Sproul Plaza with boomboxes so big they had to be carted around on skateboards.
In the late ‘90s, you had what I’ll call the dirt hustling era on Telegraph. Hobo Junction and Mystik Journeymen would be out there, grindin’ tapes, along with a bunch of other underground rappers, guys from Berkeley calling themselves the Bay Area Art Collective who had a tape stand with nothing but local, underground tapes. With all the foot traffic, it was feasible to sell tapes all day. Cal had an organization called Students for Hip-Hop and they used to have freestyle battles at Sproul Plaza, and every year they promoted a concert in People’s Park called Hip-Hop in the Park. They just celebrated the 10th anniversary.
When Amoeba opened up, it became the spot for hip-hop. Joe Quixx, the original DJ from the Wake-Up Show, worked as the hip-hop buyer there, which helped them take over the game. Rasputin started paying a lot more attention to local rap, and eventually Leopold and Tower went out of business. Planet Asia worked at Amoeba for a minute, as did Jamalski.
Rasputin and Amoeba are two of the last of the music retail stores, independent dinosaurs that you’d think would be obsolete but somehow aren’t. They both sell a lot of local artists; this rapper Balance is the rap music buyer at Rasputin, which was like Mac Dre central back when Thizz was hot. The Bay has a history of local artists with a street buzz outselling national artists, which is what has to happen to have a successful, authentic regional scene.