Move over, Oakland and exurbia hyphy — San Francisco's Fillmore District unleashes its own fresh wave of rappers
If you don't know about the Filthy ’Moe
It's time I let real game unfold....
Messy Marv, "True to the Game"
I meet Big Rich on the corner of Laguna and Grove streets, near the heart of the Fillmore District according to its traditional boundaries of Van Ness and Fillmore, although the hood actually extends as far west as Divisadero. "Me personally," the 24-year-old rapper and lifelong ’Moe resident confesses, "I don't be sticking my head out too much. But I make sure I bring every photo session or interview right here."
At the moment he's taping a segment for an upcoming DVD by the Demolition Men, who released his mixtape Block Tested Hood Approved in April. Since then, the former member of the San Quinn–affiliated group Fully Loaded has created a major buzz thanks in part to the snazzy video for "That's the Business," his E-A-Ski- and CMT-produced single, which was the Jam of the Week in August on MTV2 and added to straight-up MTV in time for the Oct. 3 release of the Koch full-length Block Tested Hood Approved. (Originally titled Fillmore Rich, the album was renamed to capitalize on the mixtape-generated hype.)
Presented by E-40 and featuring Rich's dope in-house producer Mal Amazin in addition to heavyweights such as Sean-T, Rick Rock, and Droop-E, BTHA is a deep contribution to the rising tide of Bay Area hip-hop. While Big Rich's gruff baritone delivery and gritty street tales make his music more mobster than hyphy, the album is not unaffected by the latter style's up-tempo bounce, helping the movement hold national attention during this season of anticipation before Mistah FAB's major-label debut on Atlantic. "I don't necessarily make hyphy music," Rich says. "But I definitely condone it. As long as the spotlight is on the Bay, I'm cool with it." Coming near the end of a year that has seen landmark albums from San Quinn, Messy Marv, Will Hen, and fellow Fully Loaded member Bailey — not to mention JT the Bigga Figga's high-profile tour with Snoop Dogg, which has taken hyphy all the way to Africa — Rich's solo debut is one more indication of the historic district's importance to the vitality of local hip-hop and Bay Area culture in general.
THE EDGE OF PAC HEIGHTS
The Fillmore is a community under siege, facing external and internal pressures. On the one hand, gentrification — in the form of high-end shops and restaurants serving tourists, Pacific Heights residents, and an increasingly affluent demographic creeping into the area — continues to erode the neighborhood's edges. "If you grew up in the Fillmore, you can see Pacific Heights has crept down the hill, closer to the ghetto," says Hen, who as a member of multiregional group the Product (assembled by Houston legend Scarface) moved more than 60,000 copies of its recent "thug conscious" debut, One Hunid (Koch). "Ten years ago there were more boundaries. But the Fillmore's prime location, and I'm not asleep to this fact. We're five minutes away from everything in the city. That has to play a role in the way the district is represented in a city that makes so much off tourism. You might not want your city portrayed as gangsta, even though it is."
Hen has a point. The notion of San Francisco as gangsta is somewhat at odds with the way the city perceives itself. As an Oakland writer, I can attest to this, for even in San Francisco's progressive artistic and intellectual circles, Oakland is usually understood to be beyond the pale in terms of danger and violence. Yet none of the Oakland rappers I've met talk about their hoods in quite the same way Fillmore rappers do, at least when it comes to their personal safety. As Big Rich films his section of the DVD, for example, he remarks on the continual stream of police cruisers circling the block.
"They slowed it down," he says. "Now they only come every 90 seconds. Right around here is murder central — people be shooting each other every night. By 7 o'clock, we all gotta disperse, unless you want to get caught in the cross fire." He waves his hands in mock terror. "I ain't trying to die tonight!"
Though Rich is clowning, his statement is perfectly serious — indiscriminate gunfire among gang members, often in their early teens, makes nocturnal loitering a risky proposition at best. As of September, according to the San Francisco Police Department's Web site, the Northern Police District, which includes the Fillmore, had the city's second highest number of murders this year, 11, ceding first place only to the much larger Bayview's 22. For overall criminal incidents, the Northern District led the city, at more than 10,000 so far.
Though Fillmore rappers might be given to stressing the danger of their hood, insofar as such themes constitute much of hip-hop's subject matter and they feel the need to refute the city's nongangsta image, no one I spoke to seemed to be boasting. They sounded sad. Hen, for example, reported that he'd been to three funerals in October, saying, "You hardly have time to mourn for one person before you have to mourn for the next person." While the SFPD's Public Affairs Office didn't return phone calls seeking corroboration, both Rich and Hen indicate the neighborhood is suffering from an alarming amount of black-on-black violence.
"Basically, it's genocide. We're going to destroy each other," Hen says. "It used to be crosstown rivalries rather than in your backyard. Now there's more of that going on. If you get into it at age 15, the funk is already there. Whoever your crew is funking with, you're in on it." The ongoing cycle of drug-related violence — the Fillmore's chief internal pressure — has only ramped up under the Bush administration's regressive economic policies. It's a fact not lost on these rappers: as Rich puts it succinctly on BTHA, "Bush don't give a fuck about a nigga from the hood."
"Everybody's broke. That's why everybody's busting each other's heads," explains Rich, who lost his older brother to gun violence several years ago. "If you don't know where your next dollar's coming from ..."
To be sure, the rappers give back to the Fillmore. They support large crews of often otherwise unemployable youth, and Messy Marv, for example, has been known to hand out turkeys for Thanksgiving and bikes for Christmas. But Bay Area rap is only just getting back on its feet, and while the rappers can ameliorate life in the Fillmore's housing projects, they don't have the means to dispel the climate of desperation in a hood surrounded by one of the most expensive cities on earth. Moreover, they are acutely aware of the disconnect between their community and the rest of the city, which trades on its cultural cachet.
"It's like two different worlds," Hen muses. "You have people sitting outside drinking coffee right in the middle of the killing fields. They're totally safe, but if I walk over there, I might get shot at. But the neighborhood is too proud for us to be dying at the hands of each other."
The neighborhood pride Will Hen invokes is palpable among Fillmore rappers. "I get a warm feeling when I'm here," Messy Marv says. "The killing, you can't just say that's Fillmore. That's everywhere. When you talk about Fillmore, you got to go back to the roots. Fillmore was a warm, jazzy African American place where you could come and dance, drink, have fun, and be you."
Mess is right on all counts. Lest anyone think I misrepresent Oaktown: the citywide number of murders in Oakland has already topped 120 this year. But my concern here is with the perceived lack of continuity Mess suggests between the culture of the Fillmore then and now. By the early 1940s, the Fillmore had developed into a multicultural neighborhood including the then-largest Japanese population in the United States. 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. While both Messy Marv and Big Rich share affinities with this delivery, Will Hen, for instance, and Quinn’s brother Bailey — whose Champ Bailey (City Boyz, 2006) yielded the MTV and radio success “U C It” — favor a smoother, more rapid-fire patter.
What is most striking here is that, with the exception of fellow traveler Messy Marv (see sidebar), all of these artists, as well as recent signee to the Game’s Black Wall Street label, Ya Boy, came up in the ’90s on San Quinn’s influential Done Deal Entertainment. Until roughly two years ago, they were all one crew. While working on his upcoming eighth solo album, From a Boy to a Man, for his revamped imprint, Deal Done, Quinn paused for a moment to take justifiable pride in his protégés, who now constitute the Fillmore’s hottest acts.
“I create monsters, know what I’m saying?” Quinn says. “Done Deal feeds off each other; that’s why I’m so proud of Bailey and Rich. We all come out the same house. There’s a real level of excellence, and the world has yet to see it. Right now it seems like we’re separate, but we’re not. We’re just pulling from different angles for the same common goal.”
“We all one,” Quinn concludes, in a statement that could serve as a motto for neighborhood unity. “Fillmoe business is Fillmoe business.” SFBG