For the most part, kids listen to the music their parents listen to up until about the age of 9 or 10. Until that point, you generally have no say as to what radio station you listen to in the car or what gets played around the house. So it was for me as a 9-year-old at the end of 1979, when my pops took me to Dirt Cheap Records, which used to be right behind Richlen's gas station on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Union Street. We walked in and he told me to go pick out a record. Not having any idea of what I wanted to get, I wandered around the store until I happened to see a 12-inch jacket with a swirling, multicolored logo that reminded me of candy. Firmly thinking about a box of grape Now and Laters, I chose this record as my first.
As we got to the cash register, the man behind the counter told me, "Yeah, good choice. This is a hot new record outta New York." The candy-like image on the jacket was the logo for a company called Sugar Hill Records, and the album was a 12-inch single by the Sugar Hill Gang entitled "Rapper's Delight," including a short and long version. When I got home and listened to it, I couldn't understand why nobody was singing. What kind of music was this? I thought I recognized the beat, but wondered Why are they just talking? A day and a half later, I knew all the words to a 15-minute song.
Clearly I was not the only one in town affected and moved by this new music called rap and by the culture of hiphop that was delivered in a variety of ways. While hiphop first arrived in Seattle on wax, it would also come on film in the movie WildStyle, over AM and FM radio, on dubbed cassettes made on the new boxes that had two tape decks, and in parties DJ'd and MC'd by local talent. After hearing rap music, it didn't take long for people to try it themselves. The development of hiphop in Seattle can be traced back to the early 1980s and a group called the Emerald Street Boys, who played parties and dances starting in 1981. They appeared at events such as the Black Community Festival as well as opening up for the Gap Band at the Seattle Center Arena in 1982 and 1983. The DJ for the Emerald Street Boys was 'Nasty' Nes Rodriguez, a Filipino American who, as he explained it, "would take instrumentals from 12-inches while they rhymed over them." Nes was influenced by New York radio and would listen to tapes of shows on New York stations WBLS and WKTU. He looked up to Mr. Magic, host of the first rap radio show in the United States on WBLS, and imitated his style on the air and in the mix. Out of this, Nasty Nes would go on to host the West Coast's first all-rap radio show, FreshTracks, on Seattle station KKFX 1250 AM ("KFOX"). The Emerald Street Boys did the intro to the show.
Starting out as a Sunday-evening show consisting of a segment of fresh songs and a mastermix of scratching and cuts by Nes lasting generally 30 minutes, FreshTracks was wildly popular, and was a must-listen for kids like myself who were mesmerized by the beat and the rhyme. Nes's mastermixes would consist of everything from Malcolm McLaren and the World Famous Supreme Team to Run-D.M.C. to the spoof "Rap Master Ronnie," a song featuring a Ronald Reagan sound-alike. Nes cut and scratched his way through these records making sure that Seattle was up on the latest, hottest shit. "Because my show was getting huge ratings," explained Nes by e-mail (he now resides in LA), "my program director, Steve Mitchell, let me extend my FreshTracks show to Monday through Friday from 9:00 p.m. to midnight and call it NightBeat. That show featured the latest R&B Top-40 hits, plus I got to play two rap cuts an hour! My ratings were sky-high for an AM station, and I was the number-one-rated show at night, beating shows aired on the FM dial! Back then, hearing a mix on two turntables and scratching sounded so foreign to my audience, but they loved hearing me in the mix."
Around 1984 a series of high-profile jams began taking place at the Boys and Girls Club on 19th Avenue in the Central District. On weekends, Anthony "Sir Mix-A-Lot" Ray was throwing parties that attracted an audience of predominantly black teenagers in what was then the seat of the black community in the greater Seattle area. For a couple of bucks, party people packed the gym shoulder-to-shoulder and heard Mix-A-Lot play records by Jonzun Crew and Egyptian Lover. Nasty Nes recalled the scene: "I first met Mix-A-Lot at the Boys Club in the CD. I'll never forget that night. Everyone thought there was gonna be a fight 'cause I was, like, the only guy there who wasn't black in the building and they knew who I was. After seeing [Mix-A-Lot] cut, scratch, mix, and rhyme at this event, and how he had the crowd rockin', I invited him to come on my show and air his material."
As it turned out, this meeting would be a watershed moment in the evolution of early Seattle hiphop. Sir Mix-A-Lot began appearing on FreshTracks, and after Nasty Nes played songs like "7 Rainier," "Let's G," and "Square Dance Rap," with its Chipmunks/Papa Smurf–inspired digitally altered voice and square-dance calling, Mix-A-Lot became the most requested artist on KFOX.
While a couple local radio stations were spinning the hottest shit, "Shockmaster" Glen Boyd had been selling it as the manager of two influential record stores. Already a veteran of the still-infant local hiphop scene, Shockmaster was a contributing editor for The Rocket and hosted the show Rap Attack on Seattle FM station KCMU. Boyd, who still lives in Seattle, recounted to me the aftermath of the Nasty Nes/Sir Mix-A-Lot connection in an e-mail: "When Nasty Nes began playing Mix-A-Lot's records on FreshTracks, and I began writing about him in The Rocket, things snowballed quickly. "
Sir Mix-A-Lot's star would continue to rise and ultimately culminate with the release of the 1988 album Swass. For the Seattle community, still struggling to distinguish itself in the quickly expanding hiphop universe, Swass's "Posse on Broadway" was an identity track; it was the city's version of Boogie Down Production's "South Bronx." Today, for various reasons, Seattle's hiphop community regards Sir Mix-A-Lot with a sense of ambivalence. But no matter how anyone feels nowadays about Mix-A-Lot, his foundational contributions are undeniable. As Shockmaster Glen Boyd stated, "The importance of Nastymix [Nes and Mix-A-Lot's record label] and Sir Mix-A-Lot cannot be overestimated." Mix-A-Lot, along with the likes of Nasty Nes, Shockmaster, C-89, KFOX, The Rocket, Music Menu, Dirt Cheap Records, and thousands of local kids who lived, breathed, ate, and shitted hiphop, set the stage for Seattle's current active and diverse hiphop scene.
Daudi Abe teaches Hip-Hop Theory & Culture at Seattle Central Community College.firstname.lastname@example.org