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


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.”

She hooked up with the other three members of En Vogue--Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis and Maxine Jones--in Oakland in 1988, when Foster and McElroy held auditions for a “concept album.”

Laughing, Robinson says the people who treated her harshly are “probably listening to me now. Perhaps they’re even listening to ‘Free Your Mind.’ ”

Dwayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Tone! remembers performing with a young Robinson at a San Francisco bar called the Q.T. San Franciscans generally are not considered part of Oaktown, with exceptions such as Paris, an S.F. rapper with a funk sound and retro-Oakland lyrics (“Panther Power”). Similarly, Vallejo rappers N2Deep are Too Short disciples who have East Bay attitude and that bass-heavy, slow-rollin’ Oaktown sound in their “Back to the Hotel.”

Better put, N2Deep has one aspect of the Oaktown sound, for unlike Motown’s mixture of R&B; and pop, and Seattle’s grunge, Oaktown largely defies lyrical and musical categorization.

Oaktown can be as “underground” nasty as Too Short, or as radio-friendly as Hammer and En Vogue, as soul-searching as the Disposable Heroes, as explosive as Paris and as comical as Digital Underground.

The name of the game in Oaktown, the players say, is diversity.

“Out here, everybody knows each other,” says McElroy. “It sort of forces you to be different.”

“If you’ve heard it before,” says Foster, “it probably didn’t come from here.”

There is a common thread in Oaktown, though, and it is as thick as a Larry Graham bass line: funk.

En Vogue’s current album is not just “The Divas,” but “Funky Divas.” Digital Underground’s last album was called “Sons of the P"--as in P-Funk, in turn short for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Hammer’s musical director is Felton Pilate, formerly of Con Funk Shun.

The funk connection has a long history. At the same time the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and others were creating “the San Francisco Sound” of the ‘60s, the other side of the Bay was tuned into funk. When he was growing up in Oakland, Foster recalls, “Sly was here, some of the Whispers, Tower of Power, Graham Central Station. . . . It was funk heaven.”

Wiggins says Graham--the bass player in Sly & the Family Stone who left to start Graham Central Station--influenced an entire generation. “Locally, he kicked the tail,” says Wiggins. “Coming up in Oakland, you couldn’t pick up a bass guitar without thumping it.”

“In New York,” says Too Short protege Mhisani, “hip-hop’s a way of life for them. Funk is a way of life for us here.”

As funk is still hanging over Oaktown, so is the legacy of the Black Panther Party, founded by Merritt College classmates Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton 26 years ago.

“Our politics come from hungry stomachs and our crushed heads and the vicious service revolver at a cop’s side,” Seale says, in Robert L. Allen’s 1969 book “Black Awakening in Capitalist America.” “We must organize ourselves and put a shotgun in every black man’s home.”

Shootouts with police put Panther leaders in prison or in coffins. Though without the flamboyant leaders, the Panthers were an influence on the East Bay atmosphere for years.

While the current wave of Oaktown musicians is hardly united in backing the Panthers, several have distinct memories of growing up in Pantherland.

Producer Foster remembers the Panther patrols of his early years in East Oakland. “I felt protected when they were around. Once I got older I didn’t agree with everything they were saying, but when you grow up in it, it’s another situation.”

Wiggins, of Tony! Toni! Tone!, recalls performing as a youngster at Panther headquarters. “They were doing a lot of things in the community, sponsoring talent shows and stuff like that.”

The strongest proponents of Panther philosophy in Oaktown are the street rappers, some of whom sound like New Jack Panthers. In “Heartbeat Props,” Digital Underground “gives props” (proper respect) to the Black Panther party. Paris’ “Panther Power” calls for enactment of the Panthers’ 10-point program for social reforms in the black community.

There is also an allusive link, as the raps of Digital Underground, Paris, Too Short, Spice 1, Shakur and others echo the Panthers’ complaints of hassling from the Oakland Police Department. Some of these rappers suggest fighting violence with violence.

Time Warner has put a hold on the release of Paris’ second album, which includes the song “Coffee, Doughnuts and Death”:

As an example so all the blue coats know

Ya get pooched when ya f--- with black folk.

Tupac Shakur raps on his “2Pacalypse Now” album:

What the f--- would you do

Drop them or let them drop you?

I choose droppin’ the cop .

“My family has thick Panther ties,” says Shakur. He says his mother was a Panther, as was his godfather, Elmer (Geronimo) Pratt (a Panther leader serving a life sentence for murder).

Does the 21-year-old Shakur--star of “Juice” and John Singleton’s upcoming “Poetic Justice"-- consider himself a Black Panther? “In a ‘90s way,” he answers. “It influences me, but I’m more in a ‘90s way . . . I feel like every black person should own a gun.”

A 19-year-old who is being tried for the death of a Texas state trooper is said to have been listening to Shakur’s tape before he shot the trooper.

In the Bay Area, members of Shakur’s “posse” were involved in a shooting incident at a Marin City festival earlier this year. A 6-year-old riding a bike was shot and killed by a stray bullet, but no charges have been filed.

Shakur has filed a $10-million suit against the Oakland Police Department, claiming they “beat me down” on Oct. 17, 1991.

As Too Short raps, “You gets no love from the Oaktown.”

Hundreds of young men in Oakland make their living “slingin’,” selling drugs. Others “mack"--pimp--for a living.

“If it wasn’t for the rappin’ we’d be mackin’,” sings Digital Underground--but their claims and Too Short’s (his first album was “Born to Mack”) are likely no more than fantasies, as rappers are notorious for beefing up their street resumes.

Even so, a few Oaktown musicians claim rap saved them from lives of crime. “I sold a little weed and stuff, just to keep me going,” says Green/Spice 1. “There’s no jobs here. There’s no industry here. . . . Those brothers out there, they sellin’ dope because they ain’t got a job.”

Shakur says Greg (Shock G) Jacobs took him off the mean East Bay streets by making him a Digital Underground member. “If it wasn’t for that, it would’ve been problems--I would’ve been a stone cold crook ‘cause I had no way, no way out.”

Despite the everyday violence and unpredictable life in urban East Bay, most of the Oaktown musicians vow they are staying right where they are.

Foster and McElroy are building a recording studio in Emeryville (between Oakland and Berkeley), and both producers live in the East Bay. “Everyone else is looking for a home,” says Foster. “We found one. And there’s a lot of talent up here.”

Shaw, who spent his early years in South-Central L.A., plans to stay in Oakland, where he has lived since 1980. “I noticed over the years the people that have made it didn’t really lose sight of where they came from. You know, they didn’t get the big head and feel they were too big to come to Oakland anymore and go to 7-Eleven or something. The only person that really took it out of hand was Hammer, but that was his whole image: take it out of hand.”

Hammer, by the way, is building a $20-million home on 12 acres in Fremont, so he figures to stay in the East Bay, like Tony! Toni! Tone!'s Wiggins.

“I still live in Oakland,” says Wiggins. “They say it’s really high crime and all this--I don’t know, maybe I just know everyone.”

Herron is the only En Vogue member who has moved out of the Bay Area, having relocated to Los Angeles with her acting career in mind--she was featured in “Juice,” as Shakur’s girlfriend.

En Vogue is currently developing a television show that Robinson hopes will be set in Oakland--the setting for Oakland comic Mark Curry’s TV show, “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.” Curry asked his homegirls to sing the theme to his show, and they obliged.

There must be something special about the East Bay, if Jimmy (Chopmaster J) Dright insists on living there. On Oct. 17, 1989, Dright and several other Digital Underground members drove from the East Bay to San Francisco for an interview, crossing the Bay Bridge a few minutes before one of its sections collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Two Octobers later, Dright was getting his new band Force One Network off the ground when the East Bay firestorm swept through his apartment, destroying all his equipment.

Still, Dright--like so many of his Oaktown peers--can’t imagine living anywhere else. “You get a lot of respect and support from the community. . . . You get a lot of critical acclaim, and you get juice from the area.”