In 1942, when FDR sent West Coast citizens of Japanese origin to internment camps, their vacated homes were largely filled by African Americans from the South, attracted by work in the shipyards. While the district had its first black nightclub by 1933, the wartime boom transformed the Fillmore into a major music center.
"In less than a decade, San Francisco's African American population went from under 5,000 to almost 50,000," according to Elizabeth Pepin, coauthor of the recent history of Fillmore jazz Harlem of the West (Chronicle). "The sheer increase in number of African Americans in the neighborhood made the music scene explode."
Though known as a black neighborhood, Pepin says, the Fillmore "was still pretty diverse" and even now retains vestiges of its multicultural history. Japantown persists, though much diminished, and Big Rich himself is half Chinese, making him the second Chinese American rapper of note. "My mother's parents couldn't speak a lick of English," he says. "But she was real urban, real street. I wasn't brought up in a traditional Chinese family, but I embrace it and I get along with my other side." Nonetheless, Pepin notes, the massive urban renewal project that destroyed the Fillmore's iconic jazz scene by the late ’60s effectively curtailed its diversity, as did the introduction of barrackslike public housing projects.
The postwar jazz scene, of course, is the main source of nostalgia tapped by the Fillmore Merchants Association (FMA). Talk of a musical revival refers solely to the establishment of upscale clubs — Yoshi's, for example, is scheduled to open next year at Fillmore and Eddy — offering music that arguably is no longer organically connected to the neighborhood. In a brief phone interview, Gus Harput, president of the FMA's Jazz Preservation District, insisted the organization would "love" to open a hip-hop venue, although he sidestepped further inquiries. (Known for its hip-hop shows, Justice League at 628 Divisadero closed around 2003 following a 2001 shooting death at a San Quinn performance and was later replaced by the Independent, which occasionally books rap.) The hood's hip-hop activity might be too recent and fall outside the bounds of jazz, yet nowhere in the organization's online Fillmore history (fillmorestreetsf.com) is there an acknowledgement of the MTV-level rap scene down the street.
Yet the raucous 1949 Fillmore that Jack Kerouac depicts in his 1957 book, On the Road — replete with protohyphy blues shouters like Lampshade bellowing such advice as “Don’t die to go to heaven, start in on Doctor Pepper and end up on whisky!” — sounds less like the area's simulated jazz revival and more like the community’s present-day hip-hop descendants.
How could it be otherwise? The aesthetics have changed, but the Fillmore’s musical genius has clearly resided in rap since Rappin’ 4Tay debuted on Too $hort’s Life Is ... Too $hort (Jive, 1989), producer-MC JT the Bigga Figga brought out the Get Low Playaz, and a teenage San Quinn dropped his classic debut, Don’t Cross Me (Get Low, 1993). While there may not be one definitive Fillmore hip-hop style, given that successful rappers tend to work with successful producers across the Bay regardless of hood, Messy Marv asserts the ’Moe was crucial to the development of the hyphy movement: “JT the Bigga Figga was the first dude who came with the high-energy sound. He was ahead of his time. I’m not taking nothing away from Oakland, Vallejo, or Richmond. I’m just letting you know what I know.”
In many ways the don of the ’Moe, San Quinn — reaffirming his status earlier this year with The Rock (SMC), featuring his own Ski- and CMT-produced smash, “Hell Ya” — could be said to typify a specifically Fillmore rap style, in which the flow is disguised as a strident holler reminiscent of blues shouting.