Cover Stories

The Secret History of Santa Cruz Hip-Hop

How an underground scene has flourished locally for almost four decades

Kutmasta Kurt, Verbal Tek, Jason D, DJ Kazzeo, Bubba G. Scotch, 1994.

Local rapper Alwa Gordon met George Abraham a decade ago at a Blue Lagoon show, as Gordon was coming offstage after finishing a set. Abraham, a middle-aged man with a friendly smile, stopped him and told him how much he loved his music.

Gordon kept seeing Abraham at hip-hop shows. He would usually be up front hyping the artists. Sometimes he would linger at the merch booth and help the artists sell. He might even buy several of their shirts himself, just to make sure they took home some money that night.

“He treated me like I was a famous person,” Gordon recalls. “It feels really good. You hear that a lot from people when you get offstage. But he seemed really genuine. And I just started seeing him at every show.”

In 2019, when Gordon dropped his 16 Summers project, Abraham bought two copies, and mailed them to hip-hop fans he knew in Hawaii and Ireland. He showed Gordon emails from those friends thanking him for the music, just to let Gordon know that what he was creating mattered to people.

Abraham did this for a lot of local hip-hop artists. Originally from Ghana, he cared a lot about the Santa Cruz hip-hop scene. He made himself available for the artists if they needed help in any way whatsoever.

Singer Sonia Raquel recalls meeting Abraham in 2012 after she’d gotten divorced and was looking for some direction in her life. He encouraged her to put all her attention into her music.

“I was lost. I had no idea what to do with myself,” she says. “I turned to him a lot when I had problems in my life.”

On July 4, Abraham passed away from a heart attack. He was 57, and had been on dialysis for some time. Even with ongoing health issues, he came out to shows before the pandemic, and continued to be a huge advocate for artists.

“It really affected our community because he was so well known and so well-liked,” says Raquel. “His presence is missing. He was the loudest one, cheering everybody on. He was a loud, crazy motherfucker.”

Abraham’s son Michael Hightower, who raps as Expo the Ghostwriter, says that the local hip-hop scene was hugely important to his father. Abraham had moved to Santa Cruz in junior high, and later became a computer programmer. He involved himself in Santa Cruz’s hip-hop scene in its earliest days with Club Caution and Palookaville. He put on shows, promoted events and supported the scene because he saw the importance of the music to his community. He took to Chris Rene when he was coming up and was at every show Rene played. Several people called him Rene’s “unofficial ambassador.”

“A lot of people think it’s just music. A long time ago, minorities and African Americans, we didn’t really have our own news to watch. Music was our news,” Hightower says. “My dad catered to that. Some people didn’t have the money, the means, or the support. My dad understood that music is the instrument of the soul. A song can change someone’s life.”

With his dedication to the local scene, Abraham saw something that others didn’t. This area has never been known as a hip-hop hotspot, but in fact, the music has a rich and fascinating history here. This is the secret history of Santa Cruz hip-hop.

MC Groove album cover

1980s: This is For Suckers

In the early days of rap, particularly outside of cities like New York and L.A., the radio played a huge role. For Santa Cruz and the entire Central Coast, the godfather of hip-hop radio was Bubba G. Scotch, who started spinning R&B, electro-funk and hip-hop on Salinas station KUBO in 1981. With no one else playing the music locally at the time, kids all over tuned in every week and taped his shows.

Live events were rare until 1984, when Richard Walker—aka Rotten Richie, the African American drummer in local punk band Public Enemies—opened the all-ages punk venue Club Culture on Front Street, across the street from the Santa Cruz Metro Center. Many punk and indie rock greats graced its stage: Hüsker Dü, Descendents, DRI and Butthole Surfers, to name a few. But on Saturday nights, Scotch would spin hip-hop, and bring occasional guests like local emcees Generous J Paper and Snake Bo Bee. He even landed an appearance by NYC Hip Hop Nation’s Afrika Bambaataa.

There was a record store in the lobby that featured a lot of the hard-to-track-down cuts from obscure New York labels that Scotch played on his show. Scotch would purchase a few extra copies of whatever records he could get his hands on, and sell them at Club Culture.

“It was a hip-hop party every weekend,” says Generous J, aka Jokaelle Porter.

By the mid-’80s, a few more hip-hop radio shows had popped up, like the one hosted by Kurt Matlin, aka KutMasta Kurt, who started spinning hip-hop on Santa Cruz station KUSP in 1985. Mike Nardone played rap on high school station KSPB in Pebble Beach in 1983.

Santa Cruz’s first rap star was a kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who kept talking about cutting a record. His friends nicknamed him “Groove.” When he started rhyming in 1984, he dubbed himself M.C. Groove. He cut a single with his dad called “Don’t Play with Fire” that got played in jukeboxes in Louisiana. He moved to Santa Cruz a few years later, and played drums in his dad’s three-piece blues band Cruz Control. But he was destined to be a rapper.

“Everybody was skateboarding and surfing when I came in. There wasn’t no rapping on the scene at all,” says Groove. “People used to laugh at me when I come to school with my gold chains. These guys got on flip-flops and shorts. I’m coming to school like a rapper.”

Kurt and Groove met at Santa Cruz High and bonded over hip-hop. Kurt had started making beats using the reel-to-reel tapes loops in the KUSP production room. Groove would spit bars over Kurt’s instrumentals.

“[M.C. Groove] was by far the most talented emcee in the area I knew of,” Kurt says. “He reminded me of Big Daddy Kane with a southern accent.”

M.C. Groove won over fans at Santa Cruz High after they saw him perform at the quad between classes.

“They showed me a bunch of love—all my teachers and people at school. It was a phenomenon for a minute. It was so much love,” Groove says.

In 1990, Groove cut the EP This is For Suckers, which Kurt released on his record label Rapid Fire Records. The song “This is for Suckers” became a local hit. At Vets Hall and Eagles Hall shows, the audience was singing along. A few other artists were starting to come up like K Fresh, MC Chaz and BC Chill, all of whom Groove produced.

Not long after This is for Suckers was released, Groove moved to Florida. Just before he did, Groove’s cousin Reggie Stephens, known as D-Reg, moved to Santa Cruz. They performed together at the Santa Cruz High quad, which let everyone know that Stephens was legit too.

Left to right: Nase Hatfield, Reggie Stephens and Ken Hatfield. The cousin of M.C. Groove, Stephens followed him to Santa Cruz and made a name for himself in the scene as D-Reg.

1990s: The Asphalt Legion

The early ’90s saw the rise of hip-hop radio DJs like Jason D, DJ Kazzeo (Wednesday Wreck), and Verbal Technician. Several new emcees, including Stephens, were part of the Asphalt Legion crew: Bhang, Ebony Mist, Flow Pros, Marlon, Asphalt Poets, Imperial, and Chemical K. Their 1994 compilation, produced by Dan the Automator, is a classic Santa Cruz hip-hop record.

“It was almost like Wu-Tang Clan or something,” Stephens says. All those MCs have their own stuff. But then when you put them all together, they’re Wu-Tang Clan.”

There was energy at live shows locally, even if the spaces were hard to come by. In 1991, F-Force Productions, headed by Frank Sosa, brought Cypress Hill and Tim Dog to the Santa Cruz Vets Hall. A year later, Cypress Hill returned, this time to the Santa Cruz Armory. A thousand people showed up.

Jokaelli Porter also booked events wherever he could. In 1994, Michael Horne and Bruce Howard opened Palookaville, and Porter proposed bringing San Francisco crew RBL Posse to the space. Horne said yes. That began a string of Palookaville shows, often curated by Porter, that included the Pharcyde, Goodie Mob, Ice-T, Salt-N-Pepa, the Roots, E-40, Run DMC, and Jam Master J. He almost booked Eminem just before he blew up, but that fell through.

“Catalyst was doing such a great job of classic rock, but we really wanted to point more towards the University at that time, and try to be more edgy,” Horne says. “Roots reggae and punk rock and early hip-hop was just so violent, so alive, and so real. And Jokaelli understood [hip-hop].”

For Porter, elevating hip-hop culture in Santa Cruz was about more than just music.

“I don’t come from gang culture,” he says. “I come from a revolutionary point of view. My mom was a Black Panther. And she went to UCSC, the same school as Huey P. Newton.”

Not everyone in Santa Cruz was comfortable with the growing popularity of hip-hop. Police sometimes lingered around shows, expecting trouble. And when Porter booked gangsta rap crew Above The Law, the police pushed Horne to cancel the show before it started, which he did. Porter felt that these anti-hip-hop locals didn’t understand that the culture of hip-hop was about inclusion.

“Nobody was going home hurt. They was going home with some culture,” Porter says. “Palookaville provided a space for young Black kids, Caucasian kids, Hispanic kids that got along. It’s something the status quo doesn’t want to see. They feel like they gonna lose out if everybody comes together.”

Palookaville also helped a lot of kids discover that Santa Cruz had a local rap scene. Stephens opened several shows at Palookaville, and worked with local hip-hop label In House Records. They released his track “West Coast Funk,” a popular cut. Mike Ross—aka local emcee Ross Rock, who started in the late ’90s—was inspired by Stephens.

“Reggie started doing In House stuff, which was the first thing that inspired me, seeing a local guy rapping,” says Ross. “And the production sounded good.”  

Would-be emcees even got a chance to show off their skills at Palookaville. A tradition emerged in which spontaneous freestyle rap sessions called “cyphers” started up between acts in the back of the club. Kazzeo, who often DJ’d these shows, leaned into it, often spinning instrumental tracks for them.

“You would go [to Palookaville] to check out the girls or whatever,” says Adam White, aka Zig Zag Robinson, who went by Addamantium when he formed Slop Opera​​. “I remember hearing Run-D.M.C. and I was like, ‘Cool,’ but then I would check out dudes cyphering in the back, just spitting bars.”

Elliot Wright (second from left), aka Eliquate, started rapping in Santa Cruz in the mid-2000s and began performing with a full band in 2009.

Early 2000s: The Rec League

After Palookaville closed its doors in 2002, the Catalyst started booking more touring hip-hop acts. In 2003, it booked three of the main local crews: The Moonies, Lost and Found Generation and Duce Company. The show was packed. Other important rappers at the time included Top Ramen (Topr), Otayo Dubb, the Warlordz, and Tahaj Edwards.

Other shows were happening at the Vets Hall, the Aptos Club, the Mediterranean, the 418 Project, the Attic, and E3 Playhouse.

Crews were important in the 2000s. Two that had kicked things off in the ’90s were Jedi Knights Circle and Thunderhut. Local rapper Grunge was in both. While in Jedi Knights, he started Thunderhut as a side project, so he could mix it up with rappers with different styles. He started the crew, bringing in Joe Cutter (then Kaoe Device, and one of the best battle rappers in the area), Kefr, DJ Clokwize, and Guns.

“None of us sounded the same. It wasn’t conscious hip-hop, it was more party music and comes from the backpack era from the ’90s,” says Grunge. “We used to hang out at the Santa Cruz Roasting Company. Tons of cyphers out there. Tons of different artists.”

This philosophy of creating a crew of emcees with differing styles reached a new level with Rec League, started by Matt Iles, aka Matty Eye, formerly of the Moonies. Originally envisioned as a record label, Rec League released its Season One compilation in 2004. It had tracks from local artists like Proe, Richie Cunning, Rob Rush, Matty Eye and Cumulus, and an intro by DJ Kazzeo. The success of the compilation solidified Rec League as a crew. They would play shows together like a big, gigantic mob on stage, with every rapper taking turns. The record also inspired them to create their own studio in Rob Rush’s garage—called the “Rec Center”—which allowed them to record a lot of music.

“It was half-studio, half-clubhouse. That became Rec League headquarters,” says Rec League member Riche Cunnings. “Everyone was there. You get off work, you go to the studio. That was life at the time, even if we weren’t working on something serious. If there was a funny joke, that turned into like a joke song.”

Also in 2004, Adam White formed Slop Opera with DJ Bean (Ben Boulter). They created momentum by doing as many shows as possible, sometimes even playing with rock bands. Inclusion, after all, was at the heart of Santa Cruz’s hip-hop scene.

“Someone who doesn’t live here, they think of beach-town surfers and skaters and say, ‘Oh, there’s a rap community here?’” says Mike Ross. “What was weird about Slop Opera, we were cool with a lot of the surfer guys and the gangster guys. Everyone got along, and it was just a trip.”

Late 2000s-Present: X Factors

Elliot Wright, aka Eliquate, moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-2000s to go to school, but it was music here that interested him most. Before he moved, he asked a friend what the hip-hop scene was like in Santa Cruz. His friend answered, “It is whatever you make it to be.” Within a few years, Wright would understand the truth of that statement.

Some of the early shows Wright played were opening for Slop Opera at Blue Lagoon. At the time, he was a solo artist, but by 2009, he’d expanded the project to a full band, which broadened the acts he could play with to also include reggae, funk, and rock, which was a big bonus for a Santa Cruz rapper.

“I always wanted to be a punk singer. Who doesn’t? But I was better at rapping than singing. And at that point in my life, hip-hop meant a lot more to me,” says Wright.

A few years later, Eliquate started touring, and began getting offers to open shows at Moe’s Alley and the Catalyst.

“I think we were the only hip-hop band that was going on tour. We weren’t selling out stadiums by any means, but it did kind of give us a reach a little bit bigger than Santa Cruz,” Wright says.

Eliquate was popular with the UCSC crowd, and could regularly draw a few hundred people. A particular highlight was headlining the Rock and Roll on the Knoll at UCSC three years in a row, which usually drew 600 people.

Another artist catapulted from the Blue Lagoon was Chris Rene. Before he gained national recognition on The X Factor in 2011, he was the center of a vibrant scene at the club, which hosted a lot of packed hip-hop shows.

 “Chris Rene is talented. He’s charismatic,” says Cory Atkinson, who started as a bartender at the Blue Lagoon before becoming a booker. “He would throw these parties. The tone was set. We’re coming in to have a fun time, it’s a party. There’s going to be a DJ, and then throughout the night, an emcee is going to pop up and do their thing.”

The X-Factor season finale viewing party was held at the Catalyst, but if it wasn’t for the sheer size of the crowd, it should have been at the Blue Lagoon, his true hometown venue.

By the 2010s, Santa Cruz was home to a lot of hip-hop artists, yet the chasm between the big touring Catalyst acts and the local scene had widened. Mike Molda moved to Santa Cruz at that time; he had become fascinated with the Bay Area TeamBackpack videos which were gaining popularity online. These were filmed cyphers where underground emcees could show off their skills.

He decided to film his own version for Santa Cruz. The first Cypher Session was filmed at the West Cliff Lighthouse, and Wright was one of the emcees to participate. Compared to TeamBackpack, they were very DIY.

“You would always see me with a cell phone in hand. I would have the shittiest videos, but I would put out the videos,” Molda says. “Everyone loved it. They had something out there on the internet and they were able to share it, and they were proud of it.”  

The videos got better, and eventually the Santa Cruz Cyphers became a weekly event at Blue Lagoon. For a while, the local hip-hop scene revolved around these cypher sessions.

In 2016, Molda threw Santa Cruz County’s first—and so far, only—24-hour camping-and-music hip-hop festival, which took place in Boulder Creek with over 60 artists, one of them Eliquate, performing on five stages. A couple of bigger acts included Rappin’ 4-Tay and Eclipto.

“Since I come from a festival world and have seen EDM festivals and bluegrass festivals but haven’t really seen a camping hip-hop festival,” Molda says. “It was a total success. Everyone had an awesome time.”

Some of the best local hip-hop releases in recent years have flown under the radar. Mesha L hasn’t felt particularly connected to the Santa Cruz hip-hop scene. She’s performed at a lot of open mics, poetry slams, and campus events. Yet her 2015 record, Who Is America (a collab with producer Spc-Cdt) is an incredible and important local hip-hop record.

“I’m not really like a political person, but I live out politics because I’m a queer Black woman,” Mesha says. “The Who is America album was my way of telling the world that I don’t fit into the typical American box.”

She held the album release show at the Santa Cruz Food Lounge, to an audience of around 50 people.

“It was really beautiful. But my mom even came out for it. And she lives in San Diego, so that was really important to me.”

Local artist Khan, who moved to Santa Cruz from Modesto in 2009, took a stab at expanding the local hip-hop scene by starting the quarterly “Diggin in The Crepe” in 2018 at the Crepe Place.        

“I wanted a hip-hop showcase that was not just rap after rap after rap act. We’ll have a DJ set, and we’ll have a beat set. And we’ll sprinkle in some shorter rap performances in between.”

The event was going great—local underground artists were getting to play new local stages. Then the pandemic shut down live music. And now we find ourselves at a time when all live music and local scenes are attempting to rebuild.

Alwa Gordon started rapping in the mid-2000s, initially with local rap group Can’t Stop Us, and then in the early 2010s as a solo artist.. The pandemic has shifted his focus more on himself, and to see past the limits of the scene. He’s released some of his best, most honest, and vulnerable music recently, like last year’s “Loving Yourself.”

“I used to think if I just make good enough music, someone’s gonna see my talent and be like, ‘Hey, you’re next up.’ What I realized is, not only is that not realistic, it doesn’t put the responsibility in my hands,” says Gordon.  

In June, when Blackalicious canceled their show at Moe’s, the new owners asked Gordon if he would headline with only two weeks before the event. He put together a bill with himself, Mesha L, and Cement Ship and they drew a surprisingly large number of people. It gives him hope that if he continues to forge his own path, maybe there is a future where he can be Santa Cruz’s breakout hip-hop artist. But to do that, he might have to continue to challenge his ideas of how to make it.

“As far as people that have made it out of Santa Cruz, I think Expendables, Oliver Tree. I don’t think there’s any rappers that have made it to a larger level from Santa Cruz,” Gordon says. “I feel like it’s been a journey of growing up in the hip-hop scene, and realizing that if you want it, you have to go out and get it yourself.”

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. the traffic lackey

    November 24, 2021 at 12:30 am

    #GoldenAgeHipHop

    West Coast Terrorists – “Crack a 40 and Laugh”

    Produced by West Coast Terrorists. Written by Drama and Tragedy. Cuts executed by The Wax Murderer and DJ Blade, and engineered by KutMasta Kurt at Rapid Fire Recordings in Santa Cruz, California in 1991.

    ENJOY AND BE WELL: https://youtu.be/5NYawmXGJu8

  2. David wilson

    November 23, 2021 at 9:03 pm

    Missed half the history!

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