Rap Atlas: Oakland

In the first edition of our catalog of the geographical history of hip-hop, we look at the spots where it all went down in The Town.

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"Rap history" is a funny concept. The culture's always had a complex relationship with its past, sometimes dismissive, sometimes reverential. "Rap history" is both the last three tweets on Tyler the Creator's timeline, and also the rec centers, dingy basement studios, and sports stadiums where the key moments in the music's past took place. In a new series called Rap Atlas, Complex will take a look at those places, from the spots that have become cultural signifiers in themselves (think Sedgwick & Cedar), to the unknown corners where the people who became cultural signifiers met and worked.

For our first Rap Atlas, we head to Oakland, the city on the other side of the Bay from the City on the Bay, and a bona fide rap capital in its own right, alongside the BX, the QB, BK, and South Central (if you don't know, by all means, ask somebody). Last month we featured the 50 Greatest Bay Area Rap Songs, this time around we're taking a tour of the places where a lot of those songs were conceived, recorded, and hustled (and citizens of Vallejo, Richmond, Marin City, and even San Francisco, please note this is just Oakland, but we've got plans to visit your towns soon). Our tour guide is Eric K. Arnold, a Bay lifer who was the Editorial Director at the seminal '90s rap mag 4080 and a contributor to pretty much every hip-hop publication worth its salt. For our first stop, we take a trip down 880 (or the Fremont BART line if you're feeling green)...

Oakland Coliseum

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7000 Coliseum Way

The Coliseum is where the Raiders

and the Oakland A’s play. Bill

Graham used to do the Day on the Green concerts there too, and it was the last

place Led Zeppelin played on their final American tour. But it also has a lot

of hip-hop history, and figures prominently in MC Hammer lore. Hammer grew

up in East Oakland, and he used to go to A’s games and

do dance moves as a young kid. The story is that Reggie Jackson

noted his resemblance to Hank Aaron and named him Hammer, before he

was an MC or anything. Hammer was a ticket hustler, he told me he used to scalp

tickets in the walkway leading up to the Coliseum, along with guys like Felix

Mitchell and Lil’ D, back when they were kids. They went one way, and Hammer

went another.

One day, Hammer got spotted by

Charlie Finley, the A’s owner, who saw him dancing to a James Brown song and

asked him who he was. Finley brought him into the clubhouse, and he became an

Executive VP and spy for the owner. He would report back to Finley, who lived in Chicago. Hammer tried to become a baseball

player, that didn’t work out, so he went into the military and bought a drum

machine and made hip-hop demos. When he came out, he started a gospel rap

group, he called himself the Holy Ghost Boy. Then he got some A’s players he

was tight with to put up the seed money for the Bust-It label. He put out a few

12-inches which did real well.

Then in 1987, he dropped the Feel My Power album independently, most of which

became Let’s Get It Started, after he signed to Capitol in ‘88.

The Coliseum Arena is right next

door to the stadium, that’s where the Warriors play. It’s also where they had

the Fresh Fest in 1985 with UTFO, the Fat Boys and the Real Roxanne. The next

year, 1986, Run-DMC played there on the

“Raising Hell” tour, that was real big. That bill featured LL Cool J, Whodini,

the Beastie Boys, and Timex Social Club, it was like 14,000 people. That’s the

concert that really broke hip-hop in the Bay Area. In 1987, the Def Jam tour

played there with LL Cool J, Whodini, and Roxanne Shante. They put New Choice

and Too $hort on that bill too. N.W.A. did a show there too in 1988 with Eric B.

& Rakim, UTFO and Whodini that Eazy-E was actually the promoter for.

But there were always knuckleheads

who would start fights and stuff at rap shows. In December of 1989, there was a

melee at a 2 Live Crew show which ended with one dude getting shot. That led to

the city of Oakland banning all rap

shows for a year. Even after the ban was lifted, there weren’t too many hip-hop

shows at the Coliseum. The last big rap show they tried to do at the Arena was

Cash Money in 2000. Cash Money didn’t even get to come out, a riot started

inside the arena, people were throwing chairs at the stage.

MC Hammer - "Let's Get It Started"

Eastmont Mall

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73rd Ave. & Bancroft Ave.

Eastmont Mall has quite the résumé. Nothing around it for miles except churches, liquor stores, nail salons, housing projects, and family homes, the Eastmont Mall was a huge shopping center and humongous parking lot smack dab in the middle of East Oakland. It was real big in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Oakland had a majority African American population, just before crack hit. Lots of middle-class families shopped at Mervyns or JC Penny. But once hip-hop blew up, it became the spot for rhyming. Specifically, the sideshows started in the mall’s parking lot.

Richie Rich, the raspy-voiced rapper in the group 415 who later had a solo deal on Def Jam, had a song called “Sideshow,” an early 90s Bay Area classic: “Down Bancroft / To the light / Let me warm it up, I hit a donut tight / Chevy on my side / Windows straight tinted / He got hype when he saw me spinnin’ / I’m up outta there, sideways to the next light.”

Commercial radio didn’t play it, but it was big in the streets, a Bay anthem forever. 415 never signed to a major, but they were still highly influential. Snoop Dogg is on record as saying that he named his group 213 after 415, so there you go. Richie Rich told me a story one time about being at the sideshow one Saturday night and seeing a real clean Caddy; he looked inside and it was Too $hort, the biggest ghetto celebrity in Oakland at that time. $hort and F.A.B. remade the song in 2006 but by then the sideshows had moved elsewhere. The police shut it down at Eastmont when they opened up a substation there.

T’s Wauzi used to be in Eastmont Mall. In its day, it was the official hood hip-hop record store. They would take tapes on consignment from new and local artists, folks on the come up. Some of the guys who were big in the streets outsold national acts at that time at that store. If you sold lot of units at T’s Wauzi, you could get put on. Other record stores and distributors would pick you up; you might even get a major label deal out of it. E-40 and Too $hort were some of the indie cats who went that route and got breaded out. Virtually every underground artist from the ‘80s to the early ‘90s came through there.

Eastmont Mall was THE spot for high-siding back in the day. Basically, when you wanted to floss and you lived in the East, that’s where you’d go to get your mack on. At Eastmont, fools would try to holla at bitches, and bitches would choose whose ride they were gonna get into, ya smell me? So if you had a clean ride with rims or candy paint, you also needed bass -- and lots of it. That was where rap, and preferably rap from the Town, came in. You can hear that Eastmont Mall vibe, the high-siding vibe, in a lot of the classic Oakland rap records, all that early Too $hort and Spice-1, all the way up to 3xKrazy’s “Keep It on the Real” in 1997. Eastmont is right where Foothill Boulevard begins, the “bumpy-ass strip” the Conscious Daughters shouted-out on “Funky Expedition.”

Eastmont Mall was also a regular mall, it had restaurants, clothing stores. One of those stores, Mr Z’s, got a shout-out on Too $hort’s Born to Mack album. They also used to have rap shows, all the underground and up-and-coming Oakland rappers cut their teeth there, people like Boots Riley from the Coup and Keak Da Sneak, even before he was in 3xKrazy, he was in a group called Dual Committee with Agerman, they used to be on the same bill with the Mau Mau Rhythm Committee, which was the group Boots was in before the Coup, this dude named Osageyfo was also in Mau Mau. They used to do big shows there too, but that spot kind of faded after this Dogg Pound show in 1996 that was out of control. There was like a riot because the line wasn’t moving—the security guards were probably spooked. Fights broke out, the police came, dudes were swerving, doing donuts in front of the police, some fools ended up getting into a high-speed chase and wrapping their car around a light pole, and that was the last time a big rap show went down at Eastmont Mall.

415 - "Sideshow"

Lake Merritt

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Downtown Oakland


Merritt is like the Oakland

equivalent of the globe in Queens that the Beasties and

Craig Mack used. It’s this man-made lake in the center of town—really, the

center of the Bay Area—which separates North and West Oakland

from East Oakland. (There is no South Oakland.)

It’s completely ubiquitous. The thing is, they have a Masonic temple right on

the lake, it’s called the Scottish Rite Temple, so chances are it sits right on,

or next to, the ley lines, which means something if you’re into geomancy or

geodetics. They have weddings and graduations there, but Taj from APG Crew told

me that DJ Cash Money once battled DJ Joe Cooley there, and Joe just destroyed him.


Merritt has more hip-hop history,

of course. Too $hort’s Get in Where You Fit In album cover was shot there, as

was Mistah F.A.B.’s Son of a Pimp. Back in the day, they used to have the

Festival at the Lake, a lot of rap groups used to play,

but they shut it down because it got too wild. The Lake

used to be a spot where people would high-side, but the city came up with this

anti-cruising ordinance, where if you were observed going around three times in a row,

they could arrest you. That was straight-up racial profiling. Boots Riley of

the Coup had this group of activists called the Young Comrades he was down

with, they marched into City Council chambers in 2000 and protested against it,

but to this day they have these signs that say “No Cruising Zone,” so I don’t

think they were successful.

Mistah F.A.B. - "Super Sic Wit It"

Berkeley High School

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2223 Martin Luther King Junior Way (Berkeley)

This is the alma mater of DJ Fuze of Digital Underground, Timex Social Club and Mike Marshall, the Pack, and Lyrics Born. I went to school there, too. BHS had a real strong music and arts programs, so it’s not surprising that some hip-hop history was made there.

It all started with Timex Social Club, who formed at BHS in 1982 and were still in school when “Rumors” debuted. That was a monster record at the time—No. 1 R&B, No. 1 dance. It bridged the radio apartheid that separated hip-hop and black radio at that time, and remains one of the most covered songs to this day. In 1982, Timex Social Club were kind of the first New Jack Swing group, they were that ahead of their time. But Jay King, a record producer with pull at the major labels, ended up screwing them out of a deal that led to the formation of Club Nouveau. Ironically, Club Nouveau’s biggest hit, “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” was a remake of Timex’s “Thinking Bout Ya.” In 1995, the Luniz took the melody from “Why You Treat Me So Bad” for “I Got 5 On It.” Mike Marshall, who was the lead singer of Timex Social Club, sang the hook uncredited. So he probably got jerked over again. Mike Marshall became Mike Meezy, the king of hooks for the Bay Area rap scene. He’s worked with 3xKrazy, Andre Nickatina, San Quinn, E-40, Saafir, and hella other people. Dude has an amazingly soulful voice.

My man Fuze used to be a heavy metal head till he visited his dad in New York in 1984 and came back with two Technics 1200s and all these rap records. He used to call himself Davey-D before the radio guy Davey-D came on the scene. Then he was DJ Goldfingers, then Fuze. He did the DU thing—he was like the token white guy—then worked with the Luniz on the production side. He still DJs around town in the clubs.

The Pack is another story. They were still in school when their song “Vans” came out, right during the peak of the hyphy movement. The song was different from all the other stuff the Bay was doing at the time. Young L told me once he made that beat in 10 minutes. The Pack were part of this urban skater clique at Berkeley High; they called their movement “punk rock,” and would wear loud colors with skinny jeans, skate shoes with gold grills. Too $hort saw them, signed them to his label; then Jive picked them up and put out their first album. They just put out a new album on SMC. I interviewed them one time for Vibe, and they spent the entire interview looking at porn on their phones and talking about “boppers.”

The Pack - "Vans"

Sleuth-Pro's Mom's 'Hood

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39th St. & Market St.

This was the neighborhood where

Digital Underground’s manager Sleuth-Pro’s mother lived, where DU met

2Pac for the first time, in 1989. The 2Pac legend, of course, is that

he was living in Marin City

at the time, hungry as fuck. He hooked up with DU, started coming to Oakland,

and eventually became a roadie when they went out on tour. They put him on "Same Song” and then he became a solo act. Shock G wrote “I Get

Around” for DU, but gave it to ‘Pac. Pac was also on DU’s single “Wussup Wit the Luv,” which I always thought was super-underrated.

DU were dope, they were like a

jack-of-all trades group. They had this mix of party, street, and conscious

which you just don’t find today, plus a collective mentality which led to a lot

of creativity and musicianship. To this day, “Freaks of the Industry” is still

in rotation at KMEL, even though it was

never officially released as a single.

Digital Underground - "Same Song"


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853 Apgar St.

APG Crew was one of

the seminal Bay Area groups of the golden age. They're largely unknown these

days, but they were one of the first hip-hop

collectives to make some noise locally, even before Hiero, Solesides/Quannum,

Digital Underground, or Hobo Junction. There were several groups and artists under the

moniker APG Crew: Mello-Mar, J-Cutt, MC Money Ray, DJ Red Slice, Cold Comin' Up, Ken & Kev. Turntable T,

who’s the label manager for Too $hort now, was also in it. APG was derived

from Apgar, the block they lived on, but they also called themselves

“Action-Packed Gangsters,” which was a song that was a big local hit in 1989.

It’s ironic, because APG had a

gangsta image, and they were definitely what you’d call "soil-savvy" these days,

but if you look at the segment in the 1990 documentary Rap City Rhapsody

featuring APG in the studio, it’s apparent that they also had a real conscious

side. That’s one of the things you have to stress about the late ‘80s-early ‘90s,

you didn’t have all these subgenres of hip-hop or rap like backpack and gangsta

or turf and conscious. It was all lumped in together and it was all good.

When we went to shoot the location

for this article, there were some dudes hanging on the porch. I introduced

myself and asked, "Did you know this spot is a historical landmark?" As it turned

out, the guy I was talking to was Allen Blackwell, APG’s producer (pictured at right above). He started

telling me all this stuff about their history, how they pressed up 500 copies

on vinyl and sold them practically instantaneously. It’s cool that dude still

lives there.

APG Crew - "Action Packed Gangstas"

Fremont High School

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4610 Foothill Blvd.

Hammer attended high school at Fremont, but there’s more lore here than just that. According to Hammer, The Robot dance was invented here in 1969 during halftime of a basketball game. The robot has that “Oakland hit;” it’s a little move near the end that distinguishes it from L.A. boogaloo. The West Coast boogaloo scene was big in the ‘70s, so when hip-hop came, Oakland was ready. All that really changed was the emphasis on the drums, as opposed to the rhythm or the melody. Boogaloo is a major reason why Oakland and the West Coast embraced hip-hop culture from the start—it was already here, in a sense.

MC Hammer - "U Can't Touch This"

Hammer's Boyhood Home

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4516 Fairfax Ave.

This was MC Hammer’s boyhood home. He also lived in North Oakland, near where the Black

Panthers’ headquarters was. Hammer told me that,

starting from when he was 8 or 9, he used to walk the 7 miles down to the

Coliseum, to do his ticket hustle, sometimes every day. Nowadays, you wouldn’t

even think about something like that. But back then, Oakland

was real community-oriented. It was safe for a little kid to be out on the

streets by himself.

MC Hammer - "They Put Me in the Mix"

Sweet Jimmie's Nightclub

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579 18th St. (at San Pablo Ave.)

Sweet Jimmie’s was a club frequented by players, hustlers, pimps, and gamblers that was real big in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was right off the track, on San Pablo Avenue. In 1988, that’s where Hammer shot the video for “Let’s Get it Started.” As fate would have it, a Capitol Records executive was in the house that night. She saw what went down and knew she had to sign Hammer. Hammer didn’t want to sign initially, because he was doing very well independently. But she persuaded him, signed him for 750K, and the rest is history. Because of that, hip-hop blew up. It just wasn’t strictly underground after Hammer. Before Hammer, the top-selling album was the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, which did 3 mil. Hammer did double platinum with Let’s Get It Started in ‘88, then in 1990, he did 10 million with Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. They say that Hammer set the blueprint for Puffy as far as bringing hip-hop to a mainstream audience, but I don’t think Puff can dance like Ham.

Sweet Jimmie’s was one of E-40’s favorite spots, Too $hort used to be up in there a lot, too. Nowadays, the venue is still a nightclub, but it’s not Sweet Jimmie’s anymore, it’s called the New Parish, and it’s owned by Mike O’Connor who used to run the Justice League in SF and Namane. That’s Goapele’s brother.

MC Hammer - "Ring 'Em"

Dangerous Music Studios (Randy Austin's House)

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1534 Myrtle St.

Randy was the man behind Dangerous Music, that was Too $hort’s label.

$hort’s old-school patna Freddy B

was also involved, along with this guy Ted Bohanon. Dangerous started in 1986,

after $hort parted ways with 75 Girls, who had put out his first three

albums, which all dropped between 1985 and 1986. $hort got a lot of fame and

local notoriety off of the 75 Girls stuff, but apparently, he didn’t get any

royalties. So he got his game tight and his business together and the rest as

they say is history.

The first Too $hort album Dangerous

was involved with was Born to Mack,

which was actually $hort’s fourth album, but in a sense it was like his first

official release. The 75 Girls stuff was legendary, but they didn’t really have

wide distribution or anything like that, so Born
to Mack
was the first one that was really available. The first single came

out before the album dropped, that was “Freaky Tales,” which was an instant

classic. “Freaky Tales” and Born to Mack

both sold like hotcakes, they really put West Coast rap on the map. Remember

this was back in 1987, there weren’t even too many rap albums, period, at that

time. Jive reissued Born to Mack and

put it out nationally in 1988, and then they put out Life Is… Too $hort in 1990, and Short
Dog’s In the House
in ‘92, those are like the three most essential Too $hort


1534 Myrtle was where the Dangerous Music studios

were housed. Legend has it $hort had a few spots in the Town he would kick it at,

but this was as much of a home for him as anywhere. Dangerous kind of defined

the “Dope Fiend Beat” style of rap which was ubiquitous to Oakland

and the Bay back then. Just bass for days, real slow, real funky, with dirty

raps on top of it. That’s where the expression “Biiiiiiiiitch” comes from, it’s the hook on “Dope Fiend Beat.”

Countless rappers have used that, and E-40 and $hort just had another hit based

around that phrase. Dangerous had a compilation album on vinyl around that time,

which had Spice-1 and a bunch of other artists on it. Also the first Kid Rock

album was recorded at the Dangerous studios as well.

Dangerous ended up getting a

distribution deal with Jive which included $hort, Spice 1, MC Pooh (who became

Pooh-Man), Mhisani (who became Goldy), Ant Banks, Dangerous Dame. Spice 1’s debut album went gold. Dangerous

did another compilation on Jive in 1996 which was pretty good, and featured a

bunch of newer Oakland artists like

Father Dom and J-Dubb. They changed their name to $hort Records after $hort

moved to Atlanta and were

responsible for Lil Jon’s first big hit, “Couldn’t Be a Better Player,” in


If you listen to the early $hort

stuff, it pretty much defined everything he was as an artist, and he has really

stuck to that script, he just got more well-known and put out a whole lot more

records. Those albums are really a product of the time and of the environment:

$hort came up in East Oakland in the ‘80s, just after

the introduction of crack. If you

weren’t there at the time, you can only imagine how wild that was. $hort would rap about things that were happening in

the streets, and he had his dirty raps and bragging raps, but he would also

tell you what was really going on. It wasn’t necessarily gangsta, but gangstas

liked it, if you know what I’m saying.

E-40 - "Bitch (feat. Too $hort)"

Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium

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10 10th St.

This was the other venue that Bill

Graham Productions operated that used to do hip-hop shows. I remember seeing

N.W.A. there with EPMD, Stetsasonic, Public Enemy, and Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh

Prince. That was 1989, I think. There was a riot at that show, too. During N.W.A.'s

set, Eazy-E fired a cap pistol into the air and the place went wild. Bedlam

ensued, fools from 6-9 Ville started beating up all the white boys they could

find. Outside the venue, shots started going off but somehow no one was hit. PE

never got to perform. That’s the show that also

contributed to the Oakland

moratorium on rap concerts; the police couldn’t contain the crowds and they were

real scared of hip-hop back then. Looking back, that was real unfortunate

because 1990 was a peak year for Bay Area hip-hop: you had $hort, Hammer, and

Digital Underground all at the top of their game, selling hundreds of thousands

and even millions of units, playing sold-out national tours, and

they couldn’t do a show in their hometown.

The ban was lifted at the end on New Year's Eve

1990; it was kind of a big deal. They had a show at the Kaiser that Too $hort

headlined, along with Ice Cube, Yo Yo, Dangerous Dame, and Kid Rock. They

promoted that as a “Stop the Violence” show. They had extra-tight security,

metal detectors and stuff. $hort came out and told people to stay calm, he was

a peacemaker. The show got written up in both the L.A. and New York Times, and there

were no major incidents, so $hort kind of restored rap to society’s good


But after Bill Graham died in 1991,

they stopped doing shows at the Kaiser Auditorium, which was owned by the city.

There have been just a few rap-related events there in the last 20 years, I can

probably name them all. In 1996, they had a convention called the Gavin

Sessions there, which 4080 was a co-sponsor for. That brought out a lot of rap

artists and indie labels. I remember Peanut Butter Wolf had just started the Stones

Throw label, he had a table and was selling 12-inch vinyl right next to

these gangsta dudes who were real heavy Bloods. That was a trip.

The unquestioned highlight of that

entire convention was Richie Rich’s performance, which he dedicated to his

homie 2Pac, who had died just a short time earlier. Rich came out on a

motorcycle and performed “Do G’s Get to Go to Heaven” with a picture of ‘Pac on

a giant screen behind him. That brought down the house.

Later on, there was a show by the

Roots there, and Michael Franti played a benefit for radio station KPFA in

1999. The only other rap show I can remember was in 2006, a benefit for

Hurricane Katrina victims which brought out all the Bay Area rappers. Spice 1

was there, along with Too $hort, the Delinquents, San Quinn, Mistah F.A.B., the

Frontline, EA-Ski, D’wayne Wiggins from Tony! Toni! Toné!. That was cool, it

really showed that Oakland had

heart for what was happening in New Orleans.

Richie Rich - "Do G's Get to Go to Heaven?"

Infinite Studios

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3121 Marina Dr. (Alameda)

Michael Denten owns this studio. In the ‘70s he dealt mostly with prog-rock, but in the early ‘80s he began working on R&B, which led to these DJ-oriented response records, some of the first Bay Area hip-hop tracks.

The Infinite Studios moment was the “I Got 5 on It" all-star remix. It’s hard to believe, but Mike recorded the track at this little quiet house in Alameda, an island next to the Oakland estuary. To this day, if you play that song in the Bay it gets a huge response, especially the Richie Rich line, “Mo' C-zacks? Believe that, tokin' / where you from? / Oakland, smokin'.”

“I Got 5 on It” is probably the most anthemic song in Bay Area rap history [Ed. note: According to us, it's the best!]. It hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and went Top Ten in a lot of countries around the world. It was No. 1 in the Netherlands! What’s so remarkable about the remix is just how many MCs it brought together, guys that had never worked together before. The Luniz had worked with Dru Down and Richie Rich, but none of them had ever worked with E-40; Shock G from Digital Underground was also on that track, along with Spice 1, and that’s Captain Save A Hoe on the outro. Mike met E-40 through this song. Since then, he’s worked with 40 so much, he even talks like him.

Luniz f/ Dru Down, Richie Rich, Shock G, E-40, Spice 1 - "I Got 5 on It (Remix)"

4001 Warehouse

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4001 San Leandro Ave.

This is a warehouse in East Oakland, it’s like a live-work artist loft community, so there’s a real creative, underground, artistic vibe to it. Back in the mid-90s, the Mystik Journeymen used to live there, when they were just starting out. That was the “Unsigned and Hella Broke,” “Independent as Fuck” era. They didn’t even have a label or CDs, all their music was on homemade cassettes. They used to have these Top Ramen parties, there would be like seven or eight underground groups on the bill, admission was a couple bucks or some Top Ramen.

The Journeymen were doing their thing at 4001 for a minute, then their crew moved in—it was the Grouch and Bicasso from Oakland, Eligh and Murs from L.A., Aesop who was from Fresno, and Arata, this rapper from Japan; eventually they called themselves the Living Legends, which was a joke at first. They all started selling tapes up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and they had a monthly showcase at this venue La Pena, called “Underground Survivors.” In 1996, I interviewed them for the East Bay Express, I went to the warehouse and it was a trip. They would have all these makeshift domiciles, like three walls and a curtain. It was on some Peter Pan shit, they were like the Lost Boys. But that’s real hip-hop. 4001 was where the Living Legends’ legend started.

Living Legends - "What If"

Hiero Complex

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1200 50th Ave.

The Hiero complex is damn near a hip-hop

museum. They have posters and memorabilia from ’93 onward on the walls, from

albums, singles, tours. Hiero has had a few headquarters over the years, they

were in West

Oakland on Magnolia Street for a while, but a couple years back,

they bought a building in East Oakland.

That’s real smart, they gave back to the community. None of them dudes is

extra-flashy. The Hiero story is that they were signed to majors back in the

day, but they owned their own masters, so eventually they got dropped. They’ve

been fully independent since the late '90s. When it comes to branding, the Hiero logo is up there with the most iconic rap designs. You know that symbol,

even if you never bought a Del album or a Souls of Mischief album.

The Complex has offices for each Hiero

member, a lot of them have personal studios so they can just work on projects.

They’re always recording and always collaborating with each other so it’s a lot

going on. Tajai runs Clear Label out of there too, they fuck with a lot of Oakland rappers, turfed-out dudes like Beeda

Weeda, Shady Nate, and D-Lo who wouldn’t really be a good fit on Hieroglyphics

Imperium. They also do merchandising down there, they have screen presses for

hoodies and t-shirts. It’s a real intelligent operation. The building has a

mural on the side that was painted by the Youth UpRising kids, Pep Love was

telling me before they painted it, they went around to folks in the

neighborhood and asked them what they wanted. So it has a lot of positive,

conscious messages on it. [Photos 3, 4 via yameenmusic.com]

Hieroglyphics - "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game"

The Music People/In-A-Minute Records

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1025 West MacArthur Blvd.

The Music People began as a music distributor, with a huge warehouse in Oakland where they sold records wholesale. If you had a mobile DJ business, you could get vinyl there for less than retail. In the early ‘90s they became a music label when they put out MC Pooh’s “Fuckin’ Wit Dank,” which had been a cassette-only indie release out of East Oakland, produced by Ant Banks. A certified anthem, “Fuckin’ Wit Dank” had done well locally. If you listen to the song, besides advocating marijuana use, Pooh shouts out a lot of streets in Oakland, places like Seminary, 98th and Walnut, 72nd Ave. “Fuckin With Dank” followed the Too $hort route, eventually selling over 100,000 units, which was pretty damn major for an independent release back then.

After that, Music People formed a subsidiary label, In-A-Minute Records. They cornered the market on Bay Area gangster music in the early-to-mid-‘90s. MC Pooh got a deal with Jive and became Pooh-Man, but In-A-Minute put out a lot of seminal stuff. In 1992, RBL Posse’s “Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed” single became a huge underground record, moving 100,000 units; two RBL albums followed. Rick Rock did some uncredited production work on that second RBL album, Ruthless By Law, which sold about 250,000 copies. You can kind of hear Rick’s style in some of those tracks—they knock to this day. In-A-Minute also put out the first recordings by Master P when he was still living in Richmond, as well as P’s wife Sonya C; I.M.P., an N.W.A.-type group from Lakeview in San Francisco, and they reissued $hort’s 75 Girls albums as a double-disc called The Player Years.

They used to have these huge BBQs in the parking lot every year and every indie label doing rap in the Bay would show up. There would be guys from Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto, San Francisco, Vallejo—wherever. Later on, a couple of people who worked there went and formed a label called DogDay, that put out albums by 11/5, the Coup, and Darkroom Familia. But it all started at that warehouse in Oakland. Eventually, Music People and In-A-Minute went out of business. There were stories that the CEO was jerkin’ artists and he caught a beat down for it. Nowadays, the building is owned by the city of Oakland; it’s all boarded up.

Pooh-Man - "Fuckin' Wit Dank"

FM Studios

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5765 Lowell St.

FM Studios was home base to Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster, AKA 2 Tuff E-Nuff productions. They started with Timex Social Club before producing Club Nouveau’s album. They went on to be En Vogue’s producers. Basically, they set the blueprint for all the hip-hop/R&B crossovers from the late ‘80s onward, paving the way for people like Mary J. Blige. Goapele also recorded most of her first album there. FM is one of the seminal studios in the Bay Area. A couple years ago, they changed their name to FM Recorders and opened it up to other artists. Tommy still works out of there, but Denny’s based in L.A. now. E-40 has recorded there, as has Too $hort, Baby Bash, the R.O.D. Project, Gift of Gab, Rashaan Ahmad, many others. It’s a dope studio. You can smell the history in there.

En Vogue - "Hold On"

Youth UpRising

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8711 MacArthur Blvd.

Youth UpRising is located right next to Castlemont High School where A-Plus of the Hieroglyphics went to high school. The center opened because they were losing too many kids to the streets. Youth UpRising is all about empowerment for inner-city kids; it’s an after-school center with job training and placement programs, music studios—all these things to engage the youth in positive activities. In 2006, they shot parts of E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go” video there, and they also recruited the turf dancers you see in that video from there. In fact, Youth UpRising is one of the gestation spots for the entire turfin’ movement. The Animaniaks, Arkiteks, and Turf Feinz crews all started there. Many rappers have been involved with Youth UpRising too. Too $hort volunteered there, Casual from Hiero worked on staff, and Mistah F.A.B. used to host freestyle battles. E-40 has been up in there too, as well as J.Diggs from Thizz—they gave away sneakers and clothes for Thanksgiving one time. The whole center is dedicated to nonviolence, and it’s dope that they’ve embraced hip-hop as a means to express that.

E-40 - "Tell Me When to Go"

The Original 4080 Office

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2005 Parker St.

Hard to believe, but a lot of artists used to come through this otherwise quiet house, which used to be the home of the publisher’s Lauchlan’s mom. Goodie Mob, Master P, Silkk the Shocker—they all came through. All the label reps and indie promoters would be there, too. We used to listen to new albums, discuss our editorial coverage, lay out and edit the magazine, and smoke hella weed. The publisher also had a record pool so there would be tons of vinyl there. All the DJs picked up the new shit there. He used to do ad trades for gear so there was always a lot of clothing by these hip-hop fashion companies, like Pimpgear, 3rd Rail, Kingpin, Conart and Echo Unlimited before Marc swapped the h for a k.

The first cover story I did for 4080 was on Spice 1, who they used to call Chico. The interview was pretty unremarkable—Chico was pretty blunted —till I asked him if he thought rap came from a warrior culture. All of a sudden, he perked up.

We did a lot of cool shit at 4080, including the first theme issue dedicated to female MCs with the Conscious Daughters on the cover. We had a reggae-themed issue. I remember I hooked up my man Eddie Campbell, who sold ads, with a Shabba Ranks interview. Eddie got murdered a couple of years back while he was on vacation in the Caribbean, but I’ll always remember how chill he was when he worked for us.

The classic 4080 moment came when Lauchlan was on the phone with Master P. P had a new album coming out, I think it was Ice Cream Man, and he wanted a cover. Lauchlan didn’t think he deserved the cover, and I didn’t either. I wanted Busta Rhymes, who had just come out with “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.” But P fired a gun into the air over the phone to show he meant business. Long story short, he got his cover. Then he hustled the hell out of that, using it as leverage after he moved down South. Within a year or two, he was on the cover of Forbes. But we had him first.


I remember after Tupac died we planned our ‘Pac tribute at the Parker Street house. We dedicated an entire theme issue to it, which had never been done before. By the time it came out, though, we had moved to the other office—it was getting kind of hectic for Lauchlan’s mom, so he had to get another spot. We were almost 40 issues deep at that time and a lot of people thought we were better than the Source or Vibe or RapPages because we weren’t corporate; we were literally hip-hop heads who lived the music and the culture—and it showed in the editorial content.

The other office was on Spruce Street in North Berkeley. I can remember B-Legit coming by a few times, he would roll these huge blunts they call Beelas. It’s like a double-size cigar filled with the most potent, sticky weed you can imagine. Jeru tha Damaja swung through there once, as well as Gorgeous Dre, this pimp dude who wanted to be a rapper. He would bring three of his hoes with him: one white, one Asian, one black. They were all exquisite. Later on he was featured in the movie American Pimp. I remember when 3xKrazy got signed to Virgin/Noo Trybe, they asked me to do the bio. Keak Da Sneak came by with Agerman and B.A. and their manager Spenc. I sat down and interviewed them for a half-hour. Their slang was so deep, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It was all "weezy in the heezy fa sheezy." This was like 1997.

I have so many memories from there, like the publicist from Priority Records trying to hype me up on this then unknown, Jay-Z, when “In My Lifetime” was all he had out. She was like, “He’s a character, he pops Cris in the clubs”—nobody was poppin’ Cris back then. I didn’t think the record was so hot. But then she sent me Reasonable Doubt—I used to make label people send me vinyl records—and we had one of our N.Y. writers, Cleon Alert, do a feature. That might have been the first time Jay was in a magazine as a solo artist—we were way ahead of the curve on that. Even though we were supposed to have this big coastal beef at the time, I always respected NYC hip-hop if it was quality, and there was no denying that Reasonable Doubt was a classic. We also put Nas and Supernatural on the cover, as well as Souls of Mischief, E-40, and Saafir, but those are other stories.

The best issue we ever did was the ‘Pac issue. We commissioned this crazy artwork depicting him as half angel, half-devil. We had testimonials, essays, and song lyrics at the bottom of the pages. We sent a reporter to Las Vegas who talked to a prostitute who was working the strip the night ‘Pac got shot. She claimed that the gunman got out of the car and talked to Suge before opening fire. Later we heard that the prostitute was murdered. Who knows if that happened the way she said it did, but it kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it? People were coming up dead left and right, and our reporter had to “disappear” for a little while after the story came out.

In that Tupac issue, I did around an 8,000-word cover story where I talked to a lot of folks from the West who were real close to ‘Pac, people like Big Syke, Money-B, Leila Steinberg, and also Tracey Robinson, who directed his videos. That was before Vibe had even talked to Leila, so we had that story first. We conducted all from our second office on Spruce Street. I remember after we did the ‘Pac tribute issue, Suge called wanting to talk to Lauchlan. Lauchlan was on another call, so he put Suge on hold for like, a minute at most—then he hung up. We never found out what he wanted.

Saafir - "Battle Drill"

The Grill

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4770 San Pablo Ave.

Lev Berlak, a producer of Bay Area “mobb music” during the ‘90s, runs the Grill. Lev is real cool, this white guy from St. Louis, but he’s real so people fucks with him. Originally, the Grill used to be off of Fruitvale Avenue, but then he moved it to Emeryville. Richie Rich is always there; Lev and Rich are real tight. Lev did a lot of Rich’s post-415 stuff, also a lot of the Mac Dre stuff after he left Young Black Brotha and before Thizz started. When we went to the studio to do this article, Lev told me Dre used to be a permanent fixture in the same chair I was sitting in.

The night we were up in there, the Jacka and Husalah passed through, and so did Rich. Jacka brought a bunch of medical marijuana he had just got from the cannabis club; he laid it out on the table like a buffet. Lev played him beats, everybody smoked, and then Jacka went into the booth and knocked out two verses he wrote on the spot. Then Rich arrived and these guys start trading war stories. You could see how much respect the younger cats have for Rich; he’s a Bay Area OG fa sho, like the CEO of Town Bidness. He just got a deal with Mack 10’s label, so he’s fixing to put some new stuff out. Anyway, we’re shooting the shit, smoking joint after joint. Then Jacka got the munchies and ordered like a hundred rack of wings from Wingspot. The wings were gone in, like, five minutes.

Rich spoke about Tupac, telling a story about a rapper friend of his suing Afeni Shakur over a song ‘Pac wrote for this dude. This rapper friend now claims that he wrote it. Rich was like, “I can’t be involved with this, Tupac was my boy.” Rich will joke around a lot, but anytime he starts talking about Tupac, he gets real serious. Then he starts talking about how dude lost it, came into the studio with a two-page contract with two goons trying to sign Rich to a fucked-up deal. Rich had to draw down on him and show him to the door. Then Rich gets in the booth and just murders the mic. You could see Jack and Hus’ jaws drop when they played it back. That was a good night.

Richie Rich - "D.O.E."


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410 14th Street

Geoffrey’s was a club owned by Geoffrey Peete, a big wheel in Oakland’s African-American community. It was kind of known as the bougie spot, but that place has also seen a lot of hip-hop over the years. They used to have label showcases there, as well as Player’s Balls with Too $hort. My biggest Geoffrey’s hip-hop memory was a Loud showcase for Xzibit when he was young and hungry, just trying to get put on. He had “Paparazzi” out but no one knew who he was. This was way before “Bitch Please” or Pimp My Ride or any of that. Knowing the entire 4080 crew was there, he ripped the mic so bad it needed stitches afterward. He earned his profile in the magazine.

Xzibit - "Paparazzi"

Fantasy Studios

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2600 10th St. (Berkeley)

Fantasy is real deep in music, period. From the ‘50s onward they functioned as a respected jazz label, with an enormous catalog of seminal recordings. They have Stax/Volt records, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Blackbyrds—far too many artists too mention. They moved to Berkeley in 1970. Currently they are the largest independent label in the country. A lot of stuff was recorded or mixed at their studios too, tracks like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” You go in there and it’s crazy gold and platinum records. They had a couple of subsidiary labels, like Galaxy. In the ‘80s, they had a hip-hop label called Reality. They also distributed Danya Records. They put out what’s probably the best hip-hop 12” of all time: “The Show” and “La-Di-Da-Di” by Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, as well as Doug E.’s first two albums, Rockmaster Scott’s “The Roof is On Fire,” and Timex Social Club’s album. Too $hort’s Born to Mack, Life Is…Too Short, and Short Dog’s in the House albums were mixed there. DU’s first single, “Your Life’s A Cartoon,” was recorded there, too. That’s history.

Digital Underground - "Your Life's a Cartoon"

Telegraph Ave.

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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.

Too $hort - "Invasion of the Flat Booty Bitches"

The 40 & 43 Bus Lines

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Too $hort used to ride these lines in his pre-75 Girls days, selling homemade tapes. This makes him one of the first hip-hop street promoters, straight hustling his music before he had a label deal or a record out. His fame was truly built from the ground up—he started from nothing. The thing about $hort is, you’ll never say he’s the most technical or most lyrical rapper. But his style works. It’s pimpin’. It’s playeristic. And he goes on and on, he doesn’t stop rapping. That comes from this era, because you had to have a lot of rhymes to fill both sides of a cassette tape. It wasn’t just give me 16 hot bars.

You see kids these days standing on the corner at Broadway where the 40 stops, selling CDs and following in the tradition that Too $hort started. Those two lines went all over Oakland, from the deep East up to Berkeley. They were a lifeline for people in the East, especially if you were a young kid with no car, the 40/43 got you out of the hood. Tajai and A Plus from the Hieroglyphics used to take those lines to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley back in the battle-cipher era, before Hieroglyphics were even a group.

Too $hort - "Don't Stop Rappin'"

Central Building

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436 14th St.

This is an old school office building

in Oakland that was built in 1926. It's a 17-story high-rise right in the middle of downtown, and it's

pretty classy: a doorman, elevators, the whole nine. A lot of non-profits

work out of there now. In the late ‘90s, it housed the Bay Area Hip Hop

Coalition and ABB Records, Beni B’s label, as well as Hiero Imperium and

Solesides, before they became Quannum. So these cats would all see each other

in the building and strategize about the independent moves they were making. The indie hip-hop dudes held it down for the Bay

during the drought, after Tupac’s murder when all the majors abandoned the

region. But these cats did it

on an independent level, keeping their business tight, putting out quality

music. I did a roundtable Q&A up there in 1999 or early 2000 on the state

of indie hip-hop for the SF Bay Guardian, it was Beni,

Blackalicious, Domino from Hiero, and Planet Asia, who was living in the Bay at

that time. To this day, that’s still one of my favorite interviews, it really

summed up what was going on at the time.

Hieroglyphics - "You Never Knew"

Au Coquelet

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2000 University Ave. (Berkeley)

Au Coquelet is a nice, quiet coffee shop where a lot of Cal students go. Quite possibly its only claim to hip-hop fame is that Lyrics Born wrote his first solo album, Later That Day, there, a very Lyrics Born thing to do. If you know LB at all, you know he’s a quiet, unassuming guy when he’s not on stage. You would never imagine he’s this internationally-known hip-hop star and indie record label co-owner who’s made all these amazing records and worked with all these dope musicians. You’d probably just think, oh, here’s a grad student or something. I did a cover story for the East Bay Express on LB in 2005 and he wanted to do the interview there. He bought me lunch; I think I had the cheeseburger.

Lyrics Born - "Callin' Out"

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