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The New Motown : Call it 'Oaktown.' It's funky, it's thriving. It's definitely not L.A. or New York. And it just may be the Hip-Hop Capital of America

November 22, 1992|TOM SCANLON | Tom Scanlon is a Bay Area writer. and

In the living room of a Victorian-style West Oakland house that has been converted into a recording studio, Todd (Too Short) Shaw munches french fries and reflects on how "Oaktown"--the rap nickname for Oakland and the rest of the East Bay area--became such a hip-hop hotbed.

"It all happened at the same time, this recent little splurge," says Shaw, over the background of a funk-heavy track being mixed in the next room. "From the late '80s into the '90s, you had Tony! Toni! Tone!, En Vogue, Too Short, M.C. Hammer. . . . All these things just came at once, and did well.

"So you got to open up a spotlight on the city, and say, 'What's going on in Oakland? Why is it like this?' "

The answer to Shaw/Too Short's first question is easy: Platinum is going on in Oakland. Too Short, Hammer, En Vogue, Tony! Toni! Tone! and Digital Underground all have had albums that sold more than 1 million units.

Coming on strong is a second Bay Area/Oaktown hip-hop wave, led by N2Deep ("Back to the Hotel"), Spice 1 ("Welcome to the Ghetto"), the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Tupac Shakur.

Another crossover star could be lurking in Hammer's Bust It posse (see accompanying story), or Too Short's smaller lineup of Dangerous Music rappers, or half a dozen acts under the wings of En Vogue and Tony! Toni! Tone! masterminds Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy.

Looking at the sales and critical acclaim that Oaktown has racked up in the last three years, one thing becomes clear: This could be the Motown of the '90s, a powerful musical alternative to Los Angeles and New York. Oaktown has emerged as a hip-hop collage of the East Bay's diverse cultures and urban grittiness, black nationalism and funk.

"Oakland is producing more musical talent than cities five times its size," says Joel Selvin, an East Bay native who has been the San Francisco Chronicle's pop critic for 20 years. "For some reason, there's a greater cultural unity among artists coming out of Oakland."

Oakland was silent for most of two decades, but roared into the late-'80s when Too Short and Hammer notched their first platinum albums.

Too Short is a local legend who started out selling homemade copies of his X-rated rap "Freaky Tales" out of his car. That was when nothing was happening in Oakland. Now, Oakland is jumpin' off like Air Jordan. "I went to a record company and saw an executive with a bunch of tapes on his desk, a whole stack of Oakland (stuff)," Shaw says, with a grin. "It kinda made me feel good."

Oakland and other struggling East Bay communities that have been slammed by Mother Nature and choked by urban decay certainly can use whatever boost Oaktown gives it.

A dark cloud has been hanging over the East Bay for decades: the violent deaths or imprisonments of the Black Panthers, the radicals who put Oakland on the sociopolitical map in the '60s; the fall from funk glory to drug addiction of Sly & the Family Stone leader Sylvester Stewart; the departure of football's Raiders--and many other businesses; the near-death of the Oakland Tribune (recently purchased by an East Bay newspaper group that will eliminate many jobs); the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake that killed dozens on an Oakland freeway, and the Oct. 20, 1991, firestorm that burned 2,500 homes in the Oakland-Berkeley hills.

Oakland is a gritty city of 372,000, linked to flamboyant, more prosperous San Francisco by the Bay Bridge and little else.

In this urban bleakness, where there are weekly drive-by shootings and 9.3% unemployment, Oaktown is a bright beacon. New acts keep coming out of Oaktown, which is home to Spice 1 and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, two of this year's hip-hop success stories. Spice 1's hit single "Welcome to the Ghetto" has his self-titled album headed for gold. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy's "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury" is one of the year's most acclaimed rap albums, earning the group some opening dates on the recent U2 tour.

Robert Lee Green Jr.--Spice 1--came of age in Hayward, and the Disposable Heroes duo of Michael Franti and Rono Tse hopped over to the East Bay from San Francisco four years ago.

"Oakland has a high crime rate, but it also has a lot of artists," says Tse, a 5-foot-6 Asian-American.

"The ethnic diversity here seems a lot greater to me than in (San Francisco)," adds Franti, a 6-foot-6 melting pot of African-American, Irish, German and American Indian descent.

Where Franti and Tse immediately took to the East Bay, the adjustment was painful for a girl who would grow up to be a "diva."

En Vogue's Dawn Robinson was 14 when she moved from the East Coast to Oakland, where in high school, she says, "I had to fight a lot . . . I came from New York, and I spoke 'proper'--whatever that is. When they heard that, they were like, 'Who do you think you are? You're supposed to be black.' "

Robinson transferred from a mostly black high school to an almost all-white one, where "someone called me 'nigger' three or four times. . . . It was really a lot of pressure."

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