As hip-hop celebrates 50 years, Sonoma County musicians say the genre is making a comeback locally

With the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, local musicians reflect on the genre in Sonoma County.|

Hip-hop began in an apartment rec room in the Bronx in the summer of 1973, when teenager Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, threw a back-to-school party and introduced a new way of making music.

Fifty years later, the beats have been heard in cities all over the world, including in Sonoma County.

It might surprise some that, once upon a time, hip-hop was big in Sonoma County, where the music scene now is dominated by rock, folk and country. In the 1990s and early 2000s, radio stations played hip-hop songs by local artists. One of the most successful rappers ever, Tupac Shakur, even spent time in Sonoma County.

Some local musicians now see the genre making a comeback here, with the added benefit of highlighting more artists of color in Sonoma County.

“The hip-hop scene here is only going to get bigger and better,” said KingLung, 36, a local hip-hop event coordinator. “It’s time that we give Sonoma County a hip-hop artist that we’re proud of and not continue to live in the shadow of the Bay Area.”

After Black Lives Matter protests emerged across the nation in 2020, local performers and event producers took a closer look at the lack of Black musicians playing at local shows and events. Many saw a problem in that absence and decided to do something about it.

Last June, local concert producer Josh Windmiller booked a slate of hip-hop artists at Santa Rosa’s Railroad Music Festival, opening the door to the possibility of more hip-hop-centric events in the future. And several local artists walked through that door.

In August, hip-hop musician Damion Square and Windmiller put on a hip-hop talent showcase, “Manifest Your Destiny,” in Sebastopol that featured a lineup of hip-hop and R&B artists.

Then there was Powersoul at HopMonk in Sebastopol. The music and spoken-word showcase was produced by a group of North Bay and Bay Area musicians to promote their dream of seeing more Black women performers as headliners at Sonoma County entertainment shows and music festivals.

Artist Kayatta also brought more hip-hop to Sonoma County, with The Precipice, a monthly hip-hop showcase held at Shady Oak Barrel House in Santa Rosa in 2019.

But although the community’s hip-hop scene is growing, local artists believe the community has a lot of work to do.

“There’s been quite a bit of effort to expand where hip-hop is played,” said Erica Ambrin, a Sebastopol singer who grew up in Southern California. “I will say, a lot of people who are cosplaying the culture are getting more opportunities than those who live and breathe hip-hop. That’s something that needs to be fixed.”

Joel Morales, also known as DJ Ignite, was a part of FunxSoulJaz, a Santa Rosa gangsta rap group formed in 1992. He noted a lack of facilities in Sonoma County to help artists of the genre flourish.

“We need a facility where hip-hop can be birthed,” said Morales, 54. “Who are our local rappers and artists who need to break through the barrier?”

Hip-hop scene in Sonoma County

Hip-hop has been around since the 1970s, yes, but the genre didn’t make a dent in Sonoma County until the late ’80s to early ’90s. A few big-name hip-hop artists have ties to Sonoma County, too.

Ray Luv, a rapper raised in Santa Rosa, performed alongside Shakur in the hip-hop group Strictly Dope. In 1991, Luv was signed to a major recording label.

Shakur, a giant in the rap and hip-hop scene of the 1990s before he was killed in 1996, lived and performed in Santa Rosa for some time, too. He attended The Poetry Circle, a writer’s workshop in Santa Rosa led by Leila Steinberg, who later became his manager, according to Gabe Meline, KQED arts and culture editor.

DJ Daniel Gelotte in 2003 played North Bay and Bay Area hip-hop and rap music every Sunday night for his radio show “Street Beats” on Hot 98.7 in Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa hip-hop artists would bring their CDs to the station with hopes of their song being played on the radio.

“We had 200 to 300 CDs from all the Santa Rosa artists who shared their music,” said Gelotte, 50, who lives in Novato. “Santa Rosa was hot at the time.”

Vocab Slick, a hip-hop artist who grew up in Rohnert Park, said he sees the changes brewing and visibility growing for local hip-hop musicians. But, he added, artists need to work together to help audiences feel safe at shows. He recalled the fatal shooting outside of a hip-hop show at Whiskey Tip in 2021.

“The Press Democrat and the Bohemian are speaking to me now,” said Slick, who’s worked as a touring musician for 10 years. “This is a good sign. The conversation around hip-hop is changing around here, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Hip-hop is born

How did hip-hop begin? At 18, DJ Kool Herc — Campbell — threw a back-to-school party with his younger sister, Cindy, on Aug. 11, 1973, in the Bronx.

According to Legends Recordings, a record label featuring rapper Ice-T and other musicians of the genre, it was in that rec room that people gathered to hear music by artists including James Brown and Aretha Franklin. But instead, behind two turntables, Campbell played two copies of the same record using a technique known as the merry-go-round. He moved back and forth from one record to the next, looping each track’s percussion portions to maintain the beat.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that groundbreaking night, KingLung is planning an all-day hip-hop event at Santa Rosa’s Arlene Francis Center on Aug. 12.

“The hip-hop scene is percolating; something is cooking,” said Square, 31, who performs as D.square.All the ingredients are in the oven; we’re just letting it cook. Something real special is going to come out of that oven.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at @searchingformya on Twitter.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.