Born on the West Coast
Many people think that Hip-Hop may have begun in the Bronx, but the Bay adapted the culture on its own terms—thanks to innovators who changed the game by crafting unique beats, inspired rhymes, and fresh dance moves. Here are three local luminaries who were instrumental in shaping the region’s Hip-Hop scene and who helped OMCA develop its new exhibition RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom.
Traci Bartlow has always had a passion for dance. In the 1980s, the Oakland native moved to New York at the age of nineteen after winning a dance scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The Hip-Hop scene was booming, and Bartlow soon found herself immersed in the vibrant club culture.
“I felt Hip-Hop was a big piece of my dance education,” says Bartlow. “It was something I pursued just as furiously as my modern and jazz dance classes.”
When she returned to Oakland in the early ’90s, Bartlow saw a whole new world. “There was something to do every night in the underground Hip-Hop scene, and I became a part of that culture in the Bay,” she says.
Though she wasn’t formally trained in photography, she took her camera everywhere, inspired to shed light on local Hip-Hop culture. Her photos of Oakland’s Hip-Hop scene were published in The Source magazine, which opened doors for her to do more photography for national music publications as well as major record labels. Since then, she has photographed several local Hip-Hop artists and her work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries across northern California.
“I see myself as a cultural worker,” says Bartlow. “My mission is to document and preserve different aspects of Black dance and culture.”
Oakland’s Mystic has captivated audiences for more than 20 years with her soulful beats and stirring lyrics—leading to record deals and Grammy Award and BET Award nominations.
Her journey hasn’t been without roadblocks, but Mystic believes each experience makes her stronger. She received critical acclaim for her 2001 debut album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, which addressed everything from drug violence in the African American community to her own encounters with rape and death. “That [album] was my confessional,” she says. “People all over the world started sharing their stories with me. I was blown away by how many people connected through the healing aspect of the album.”
Born Mandolyn Ludlum, Mystic started attending Bay Area emcee battles at age sixteen, and her skills impressed the likes of Jamalski and the Hieroglyphics crew, who encouraged her to hone her flow. In 1999, producer The Angel passed Mystic’s song “Ok… Alright” on to Good Vibe Recordings, helping her score a record deal.
Despite her success, Mystic decided to take a step back in 2004 and return to school; she went on to study at UC Berkeley, where a special moment brought her back to music. A professor introduced her to the concept of an “insurgent architect”—someone who tries to create change in the world from the inside out of their field/position—and Mystic was moved to tears.
This inspired Mystic to release her second album, Beautiful Resistance, and she hopes to leverage her platform as an artist to advocate for children and social justice. “Working with children is where I’m supposed to be,” says Mystic. “But I know being an artist helps support the work I do and allows me to work with different segments of the community.”
As a teen growing up in the Bronx in the mid-’70s, Dave “Davey D” Cook was drawn to Hip-Hop and became an emcee for various crews. By the time he arrived in California, in the early 1980s, he had enough Hip-Hop records to found a mobile DJ company.
While working at UC Berkeley’s radio station, KALX, he started a newsletter called The Davey D Beat Report, which chronicled the emerging Bay Area Hip-Hop scene. Cook joined forces with other college radio station DJs to found the Bay Area Hip-Hop Coalition—the first of its kind—and created another newsletter called The Bay Area Beat Report.
“West Coast rap had its own style that was born out of funk and dance, and we wanted to showcase that,” says Cook.
Eventually Cook landed a gig with commercial radio giant KMEL, where he hosted a Hip-Hop show that focused on Bay Area music. “The music in the Bay became a vibrant thing of its own,” he says, “and you can’t ignore the successes that emerged out of here.”
Though Cook made his name as an emcee, DJ, writer, and radio host, he is also a professor and activist and has won awards for his social justice activism. Next up? Finishing his book on the history of Hip-Hop.
“There are a lot of people [in the Bay], including myself, who played a key role in moving the needle,” says Cook. “People around the world started to understand the culture [of Hip-Hop] because of the way we framed it; we had a big impact.”
RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom is on view through August 12, 2018.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of OMCA’s magazine Inside Out.