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Cover: Old school

Oklahoma Gazette looks back at four decades of Oklahoma City hip-hop history.


OKC’s hip-hop scene has a longer history than most people know. - DEZZGOTSTEEZE / PROVIDED
  • DezzGotSteeze / provided
  • OKC’s hip-hop scene has a longer history than most people know.

The poster for 1984’s Beat Street promised “the music and breakdance explosion of the summer,” but for Brian Frejo, watching in a Capitol Hill movie theater, what happened after the movie might have been more important than anything on screen.

“The movie was packed,” Frejo said, “and when we came out of the movie, in the parking lot, a big circle formed, and then people just started breaking right there in the parking lot. And it was just a diverse crowd, people of color. ... It broke out into a big circle and then a battle, and then everybody was jumping in. That’s kind of one of the first times that I could feel that culture. It’s hard to explain. … The energy was there and you could feel it from everybody in that circle, in that parking lot, and it went on for a little while. And then there was a lot of things that happened in the south side, too, at that time, and the cops came and kind of broke it all up. Everybody just left, but from there, it was really connected to me.”

Frejo, aka Shock B, said he first entered the hip-hop scene as a b-boy or breakdancer, forming the crew Supreme City Rockers with people he met breakdancing in a corner outside JC Penney at Crossroads Mall. Local dance competitions featured groups from around the city, but gang rivalries sometimes threatened to overshadow the hip-hop.

“Some of those areas were pretty bad at the time, so violence would break out at some of these events because there was a lot happening in those communities,” Frejo said. “So you had to get people on the same page. ... ‘Let’s put an event together and do it in a safe place and everybody can be cool in a neutral space where we can, you know, participate in this hip-hop culture. … It was challenging though because there were different parts of the city with different mentalities.”

Frejo started making mixtapes (“on two cassette players”) to dance to. In those pre-internet days before hip-hop was regularly played on the radio, mixtapes were a vital source for new music, and information about events usually came from flyers and word-of-mouth — “guerilla promotion” and “street marketing.” Making mixtapes soon transitioned to DJing on turntables.

“I’m blessed to have come up in that era of the culture and to know how to make a mixtape, what a mixtape really meant, how to make a flyer and how to connect neighborhoods and communities and build with people,” Frejo said. “Networking, but I didn’t know what it was called then. We were organizing. We were just trying to make things happen. … At that time, there was a lot of separation and segregation and stuff, but through that dance culture and music culture, you really brought a lot of people together from different parts of the city.”

Culture Shock

Angel Little, 41, was first introduced to hip-hop culture at the age of 5, watching graffiti writers tag passing trains and breakdance on particleboards at a lumber yard near his grandmother’s house in Louisiana. But after moving to Lawton, Little didn’t see anything like that again until he went to Celebration Station in Oklahoma City around the age of 11.

“Celebration Station was the place that a lot of teens and all that would go to,” Little said. “That was the first time here in Oklahoma City that I’d seen people doing what I did when I was a kid in Louisiana, and it was like, ‘Oh, wow! I want to hang out with these guys,’ so I kind of did. I was a really smart kid, and I did a lot of things that most kids wouldn’t really do. … I would trick my mom into thinking I was staying at a friend of mine’s house around the corner when really I was catching a ride Oklahoma City and hanging out with the dancers and the hip-hop heads that I met, and then we would go to other places like Kansas. … Everyone thought I was somebody else’s little brother.”

Frejo, who left Oklahoma in the early ’90s to pursue an acting career in California, returned in 1997, hoping to recreate the massive hip-hop events he’d seen in Los Angeles and on Venice Beach.

“It was blowing up, so when I came back to Oklahoma, I was inspired by what I saw, and I was trying to visualize, ‘How can I make something like this happen here?’” Frejo said. “‘How can I bring these different groups of people, different communities and neighborhoods together?’ … Things had kind of died down a little bit. It was mostly just clubs at that time. It wasn’t events and parties and battles and things like that. … There was a lot of talent, and people weren’t getting any exposure ... and there was no outlet for it.”

Hoping to provide a platform for artists and prove that hip-hop can be a positive force in the community, Frejo and his brother Marcus, aka Quese IMC, started Culture Shock in 1997, a recurring hip-hop “summit” that would continue through 2015. Held at Will Rogers Theatre, the inaugural event drew a crowd of about 300, Frejo said, at least 100 fewer people than needed to break even.

“We didn’t make any money,” Frejo said. “We lost money, but to me, it was a success because people came.”

Frejo also wanted to highlight the Native American influence in hip-hop.

“We brought a drum,” Frejo said. “We brought a fancy dancer and a fancy shawl dancer because we knew the dancing part connected. It was all connected — the drum, the dancing, the art, the energy. … We worked together as a crew and as a family, and a lot of people wanted to be a part of it, all across the board — African Americans, Latinos, the Caucasians, the Asians. Everyone wanted to be a part of it because we built a community through the music.”

Little said the Culture Shock events “sparked the image of hip-hop here in Oklahoma.”

“We were making this up as we go, simply put,” Little said. “Oklahoma City’s hip-hop started from people who just wanted to make things better for others, and it’s continuing to do that right now. … It’s the only culture I know of that says, ‘Come as you are, and be a better you tomorrow. … Be different. Be out of the box. Do things you’ve never heard, never seen, and let it inspire us to be bigger and better ourselves.’”

Nymasis, aka Anthony Tee, who was introduced to the OKC hip-hop scene through raves in the late ’90s, said Culture Shock was the first event he had seen that incorporated all of the elements of hip-hop.

“It was breaking, DJs, MCing and graffiti, all for the first time, that I saw, together,” Nymasis said. “It was all being done at the same time. It was all working together, as opposed to one element.”

Nymasis soon joined Culture Shock Camp, along with Duo the Sick Prophet and Jabee Williams, who went to his first Culture Shock event in 1999.

“I was probably, like, 14 or 15,” Williams said. “I met the guys who put the festival on, who were in the group, and they let me roll with them and do shows with them. They pretty much taught me everything. … I was the baby. … They had all graduated. I was still in school.”

Frejo said he offered some simple advice to anyone who joined up with Culture Shock.

“All I said to people that we brought in was, ‘If this is what you love, man, you go all out,’” Frejo said. “‘You bring it all. You learn as much as you can. You push yourself, and we’ll all help each other.’”

Finding venues

Rap battles at now-closed Samurai Sake House and in rented warehouse spaces followed. Many shows incorporated more than one element of hip-hop, along with poetry, rock bands or anything else that might help draw a crowd.

“The scenes were small, so we had to combine them,” Nymasis said.

Though hip-hop was increasingly popular, finding venues that would agree to host events was often challenging and still can be today.

“Nobody wanted hip-hop,” Williams said. “Nobody wanted rappers. They only wanted bands. They only wanted DJs, and DJs couldn’t spin hip-hop. … There’s still a stigma. ... There’s always a million questions about the crowd and about what type of people are going to come out if you want to do a hip-hop show, no matter where it is. They always want to know what kind of crowd you’re going to attract before you do any show. That probably doesn’t happen to other genres. A Red Dirt show isn’t getting questions like a rap show is getting questions.”

The difficulty of booking and promoting shows pre-social media is difficult to explain to younger rappers, Williams said.

“They wouldn’t understand how hard it was,” Williams said. “It was hard to get shows and hard to get into clubs and bars to do shows and hard to put on your own shows, but, I mean, now you could just post a flyer on Instagram or Twitter. We had to actually get out in the streets and meet people. There was way more work to it than there is now.”

The work required to put on a show often made artists more intentional about what they brought to the stage.

“We knew that if anything was bad, people wouldn’t come back because it was hard to get them in there anyway,” Williams said. “For later groups, there was a lot of a lot of venues and bars and places that had seen us and given us chances, so it opened the door for other groups and other rappers and other promoters and other people to do stuff because they had done it before and it was successful with us whenever we did it.”

Williams said the lessons he learned in those days continue to help him in music and business.

“It was fun,” Williams said. “It definitely made me who I am, and it taught me a lot. I wouldn’t still be around were it not for what I learned and the work I put in it back then. It’s all about your work ethic. It’s all about the time you put into it, the blood, sweat and tears, the boots-on-the-ground type stuff. It’s not just about being cool and putting out music.”

Making connections

In addition to local and regional artists, shows with national headliners Clipse, DJ Premier, Biz Markie and Atmosphere followed. At a show featuring Los Angeles rapper Blu, DezzGotSteez got hooked.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to every show forever,’” DezzGotSteeze said, “and I literally went to every show. Even to this day, I go to shows, and I won’t miss shows. … I got saved when I was, like, 15 because I watched a Billy Graham crusade on TV. And I knew Jesus had come into my life because I got goosebumps, and I don’t really get those very often. … When I started going to the shows, I got the same chills, and I said, ‘Oh, I have to chase this,’ because it was like a high without being on drugs.”

She began bringing friends to shows, handing out flyers and promoting Williams’ group Puzzle People through MySpace.

“A lot of people trusted me because I would tell them if stuff was trash,” DezzGotSteeze said. “I was just happy to be there. That’s how I was. It never went away. It didn’t die down, really, until I started doing more business stuff and taking everything more seriously.”

Club Lexus, Sauced on Paseo, The Conservatory, Opolis, Blue Note Lounge, Kamp’s and OKC Farmers Public Market hosted local showcases and A-list acts. Kendrick Lamar, The Cool Kids, Curren$y and Big KRIT made OKC stops.

“If you want to be involved with the hip-hop scene, it’s not hard,” Williams said. “Somebody just told me there’s no hip-hop scene in OKC, and to say that is disrespectful and a disservice to everybody that does such hard work making sure that there’s always dope stuff going on. That just means you aren’t connected. It’s not the scene. It’s just you. You’re not connected, and you don’t try to be.”

Huckwheat, aka Mike Huckeby, said he was unaware of the scope of OKC’s hip-hop scene until he did his first show in 2011, performing “complete garbage” songs at the now-closed Bora Bora Club near “the old, busted down gas station” that would become The Pump Bar.

“I didn’t really know much of the scene until I actually started doing it,” Huckwheat said. “Then I was like, ‘Holy shit! This was going on the whole time, and I just never really knew about it.’ There was something already bigger than I would have thought.”

Norman Music Festival gave hip-hop a larger stage, and Memory Lane offered young artists and fans a venue on the east side.

“That’s when stuff really started really brewing with the hip-hop community and started building up into more and more people doing it and coming out with more and more quality and started working together and started connecting and building with each other and trying to do more things and push the envelope and trying to open up more doors at different venues,” Huckwheat said. “It really gave a lot of young cats an opportunity to be somewhere because a lot of times, you had to be 21 to play anywhere.”

Venues such as Hubbly Bubbly, which hosts Art of Rap and Heart of Hip-Hop each month as well as open mics and other shows; Saints, which hosts Lyricist Lounge and Color of Art; and The Queen Lounge, which hosts Trip G’s monthly showcase, continue to provide spaces for hip-hop and art to flourish.

But before we celebrate the future, a few more shout-outs to the past.

Frejo, who said Culture Shock events might be returning soon after a five-year break, wanted to recognize Midwest City rap group Point Blank and every other local artist who was “already rocking spots” when he arrived on the scene.

“There’s other people that have put in the time, the years,” Frejo said. “I’m always wanting to let people know to spread it out to everybody. It can’t just be one person. … There’s guys that helped me out when I came up.”

Williams added that any discussion of OKC’s hip-hop history should also include Mr. Nitro, who produced beats for Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit and signed to Sony Music for 2000 debut Hustlin’ Pays, which showcased several local artists, and Presidential Trap House artist Chop Chop whose “Red Durt” promises “You ain’t seen shit till you’ve been to Oklahoma.”

“I just want to make sure that the history of hip-hop in Oklahoma City is told correctly and people don’t get left out,” Williams said, “because a lot of people really put a lot into this, and people are eating off of and benefiting from the work that people did before them, and they have no idea who they are and what their names are and the things they did.”

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