Thursday, February 16, 2006

Digging In The Magazine Box: NW Hip-Hop Circa 1985

I recently found a folder of clippings I cut out from various magazines. I figured I would use them in the future, and here I am. This folder featured clippings that were at least 20 years old, including stuff for concerts in venues no longer around, and bands that were once celebrated for their furry boots (Rail).

I came across an article that I forgot about, but as I looked it it reminded me of where my head was at at the time. It was May 1985, and the publication was The Rocket from Seattle. I was 14, already a music geek but wanting anything and everything that was rap. I was now a resident of the Pacific Northwest, after living in Honolulu for years. I wanted to know what was "local", and for me that meant Washington State and Oregon. I wasn't sure if Idaho would even have any hip-hop.

I then came across this article written by Glen Boyd, whose name I would often see associated with some of the best in NW hip-hop. It was part of a column The Rocket called In The Flesh, and was called The Hip-Hop Debate: The Northwest Hottest Funk DJ's Square Off. The article documents the music of two guys whom I looked up to, enough to move me to eventually create music on my own. I had done pause-mix tapes (my mixes of Art Of Noise's "Beat Box" and Yes' "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" were wicked) but the way they did it seemed much more intense. It was funky music with a bit of fun and chaos thrown in.

As a sidenote, Mr. Supreme recently told me that he drove Vitamix for the photo shoot which was used in this article. Supreme is also putting together a compilation looking into this era of Seattle hip-hop that will shed light on a music scene that may have been hidden a few times over the years, but not for long.

(Photos by Pete Kuhns)

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Seattle' Sir Mix-A-Lot and Baron Von Scratch and Portland's VitaMix represent the orthwest's two opposing sides, in what has become the Great Debate of hip hop.

Although Anthony "Sir MixALot" Ray has done scattered gigs at Club Broadway, the Exhibition Hall (with rappers Jam Delight), and most recently at the Mountaineers, he has spent most of his time sequestered in his small Rainier Beach apartment, with a private arsenal of synthesizers, computers and turntables.

"I come up with stuff as good, from a musician's standpoint, as anything by Hashim or Dr. Dre," MixALot boasts, "and I do it right here in this room."

The results justify the boast. Mix-A-Lot originals like "My Kick Ass Drum" and "Sir MixALot Vs. the Dead Beat" are veritable funk monsters, combining the mechanized beats of early Bambaataa with melodies falling somewhere between Arthur Baker and Gary Numan. The clincher is the evilest sounding rap this side of the Egyptian Lover. MixALot's music, composed on his digital drum machine, Korg and Moog synthesizers and Commodore 64 computer, has produced such word of mouth that his tapes are sought-after commodities and his parties strictly SRO. His originals have landed airplay on K-FOX's Sunday hip hop show, Fresh Tracks. MixALot even composed the show's intro.

In his raps, Sir MixALot openly challenges Seattle's sucker DJs to battle. In one such battle, he and monster mixer Baron Von Scratch employed five turntables to crush the reputedly hot Rainier Valley crew, K.O.C. (Kings of Cutting). "We prefer the private parties 'cause you have too many rules as a club DJ," MixALot explains. "I can be a one man band with my synthesizers while Baron just does all those crazy things with the records."

Indeed, Baron Von Scratch's "Mega Mix III" and "Roxanne's Re-Mix" are marvels of speed scratching. Combined with MixALot's funk technology, the two of them hope to raise Seattle "out of the mud," and onto the hip hop map, thus far dominated by Tacoma DJs.

But not if Portland's VitaMix has anything to say about it.

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VitaMix's Seattle reputation has thus far consisted of word of mouth created by the few tapes filtered to local hip hop circles, and a couple of favorable reviews in The Rocket.

But in Portland, Chris "VitaMix" Blanchard is revered as the undisputed Mix Master and Rapper Supreme, and he pulls no punches in his appraisal of the synthesized funk embraced by Sir MixALot.

"The West Coast sound sucks," he says. "The old East Coast records are the all-time best, Spoonie Gee and the Sugar hill Gang had a band behind them. There's no street feel to it anymore, just all these synthesizers. Wellanyone can spend $4000 on synthesizers and be the best DJ in town. But where's the talent? I'm for rawness, this is supposed to be street music."

It is those original early eighties rap records, on labels like Sugarhill that VitaMix developed his skills on, first in his native San Francisco, then on Portland's KBOO FM.

"KBOO is a public service station," VitaMix explains, "and was very freeform in ' 82, which gave me a lot of freedom. I mixed hardcore punk and R&B in the beginning. The first record I ever scratched was Laurie Anderson's '0 Superman. I discovered mixing by playing Grandmaster's 'The Message' and this record called 'Frog Sound in North America' simultaneously."

VitaMix's radio show soon led to a demand for tapes. In fact, much of VitaMix '84 consists of mixes from the show, interspersed with phone-in rappers from the same program. The centerpiece of VilaMix '84, however, is "VitaRap '66" the title comes from Blanchard's year of birth, and features Vita's scratching, beat box, and autobiographical rap.

On VitaMix's new tape, Cut Classics, he breaks new ground by mixing the melody tracks of classic pop records with the beats of hip hop. The results range from a "Purple Hazel Art of Noise" mix to Booker T'g "Green Onions" mixed with Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" to an absolutely wild marriage of square dance music to scratch.

Since leaving KBOO early in '84, VitaMix has remained visible, opening dates for artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Yellowman, and the infamous Afrika Bambaataa fiasco in Seattle.

"We cut it up at that show," VitaMix said. "Bambaataa was told he'd get a band. When he didn't, he still cut a few records, but the turntables were bad so he just bowed out. I don't blame him. Pretty soon another guy from the audience came up and started trying to cut records."

VitaMix's greatest triumph to date was the summer '84 engineering of a breakdance competition to coincide with the grand opening of Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. The event drew 8,000 people and garnered considerable media coverage. VltaMix put together the event, "although KMJK radio took the credit," and provided the master mixing.

"Everyone else is trying to do it now, but I was first," VitaMix insists. "MixALot has all the equipment, but let's get people back into it. Forget the machines."


vitamix said...

wow - did a search for my old dj name "Vitamix" and found this. cool to remember those days. especially irritating to hear that 'big butts" song every now and then.

John Book said...

Oh damn! I'm glad to know you're still around. Do you have any of your old mixes available? Would you ever be into doing an interview? Let me know.

Jerome said...

I'm curious: How many of those who complained about computers and are still making music, have embraced audio software...

And I have a crate full of the old tapes by Mixalot, Vitamix, Electrowiz, and myself.

I'm in the process of converting them to AIFF. I'll trade a CD for a copy of this issue of The Rocket. My uncle and his chior are on the cover.


John Book said...

Jerome, unfortunately I don't have this issue in full. I have a number of issues from the early 1990's (when I wrote for "The Rocket") but not the one with the Vitamix review.