Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Thinking about Elliot and Jason Blaine and "The Music People, Inc." ...

Maybe I witnessed the crossroads where Hip Hop Culture and Gangsta Rap came together in the City of Oakland. Maybe.

During those years as the proprietor of Reid's Records, my major music supplier was an Emeryville firm run by a father and son team of former New York entrepreneurs. "The Music People, Inc." was a one-stop operation that specialized in small label releases for Mom & Pop music stores that couldn't afford to buy in the huge quantities common to discount house merchandise orders.

Wholesale costs are based on volume -- and we small stores were buying dozens of an item while the big dealers were ordering caseloads. One of the secrets of the industry was that -- with the feature of return privilege -- those big guys were buying in huge quantities and then returning the unsold items for credit, making the economics of the distributor highly volatile. Failures of record stores were frequent -- leaving Music People with merchandise returns of releases that had lost their shelf life long before and were by then completely worthless.

We paid more at wholesale than the discounters sell their products for over the counter. The only way to survive was to specialize; and that we did -- in black gospel music.

We were a motley group that could only exist day-to-day by the goodwill and patience (that's saying it as kindly as possible) of a family that carried most of us on the books with a perpetual indebtedness that held us in a never-ending grasp of debt and servitude. It was probably a marriage of convenience; as the Blaines needed our little band of intrepid store (mostly young and/or black) owners on their books in order to survive in the wholesale marketplace as a bottomless pool of "receivables" that serves as the coin of the realm in the chaotic music business.

We were brought together from time to time for celebrations - hosted by Elliott and Jason -- that heralded the release of some fledgling recording artist. Over time we enjoyed their largesse but also developed a sense of duty to them. After all, it was Elliott Blaine who allowed me to keep possession of our store when Mel crashed, financially, and lost it all. The wholesale bills I inherited were staggering. Over time it was the willingness of Music People to allow the time for me to recover enough to change the direction of the store -- and to shift seriously into black gospel music at a time before the general market had recognized this as a lucrative field. That made the difference between survival and utter failure. But that was back in the Seventies and -- eventually the disaster was overcome and Reid's survived even Mel's tragic collapse and eventually death in the Eighties, and still does after 62 years of struggle. Another generation of Reid's continues the reign, our youngest son, David, is now at the helm.

Meanwhile, however, I watched Stanley (MC Hammer) emerge along with a string of young rappers who came under the wing (and exploitation) of Jason Blaine. Stan was a nice kid who was known to hang around the A's dugout at the Oakland Coliseum -- to dance like a demon -- and exude enough personality to light up a large room. We knew he would one day blaze a new trail in the record industry, and he did, though his trajectory failed in less time than it takes to tell the story. I'm sure that the Blaines were instrumental in his ascendance.

They eventually shifted their inventory to take advantage of the new wave of Gangsta Rap that was emerging in Oakland, and their One-Stop operation slowly lost its value to me and my "old fashioned" inventory needs. The son, Jason, became an ardent promoter and, eventually, a producer of rap artists and I watched as the wave of the genre began to sweep like wildfire through inner cities across the country, giving status and bling to a new generation of unlikely baggy pants black-hooded finger-jabbing stage-stalking stars with little to share save unbelievable energy and a formidable beat! But I'm quick to add that a number of true poets rose among them, and continues to do so.

Early on, I found myself caught in a strong resistance to the kinds of material coming out of the industry. It was strange to have young elementary school children come into the store with their little walkman tape players in hand -- to buy cassettes that played the questionable material of LLCoolJ directly into their ears. I'd listened to those tapes and knew that -- if it had been a record they'd purchased and placed it on their family's player for all to hear, their parents (most of whom I knew) would have been shocked and horrified! Instead, I'd watch them walk out of my store (having split the plastic, hurriedly inserted the tape, and checked the earpiece) with an evil grin on their little faces -- knowing that I'd supplied them with sounds and language and mayhem and no one else (but their young friends) would know. I could hear them at times, gathering on the street corner rapping a word-for-word replication of things far beyond their experience and it saddened me. And -- I'd become an unwitting co-conspirator by simply making an honest sale. I couldn't do it.

I posted a sign in my window to the effect that those releases would not be available at Reid's and that I'd suggest that they pick them up across town at Leopold's. Music People, Inc., was extremely unhappy with me, and my quiet protest caused a small riot in the daily newspapers when a reporter happened to drive past and made note of my sign. The radio stations picked it up as well. I was suddenly a minor celebrity after a radio talk show host stopped by for an interview that was aired throughout the area.

"Have you not, in effect, denied the right of free speech by such an action?"

"Nope. Everybody's rights were honored. The record producer had the right to make the record. The artist's right to perform the material was respected. The child has a right to buy it if he or she so wishes. But I have a right not to stock it if that is my wish. Every time time I purchase records for resale, I'm making a pre-selection for my customers. There is nothing special in this action. I chose not to sell a product for my own reasons. That is my right."

Over the ensuing years -- watching the tragic deaths of artists like Tupac Shakur (a true Hip Hop poet), Biggie Smalls, et al, I've seen nothing that would have caused me to regret that action. I saw Music People, Inc. and the record industry in general elevate and commercially exploit the genre to a place where materialism in the form of gilded teeth and diamond encrusted Rolexes and multiple stretch Hummers overpowered the arts movement as represented by the Nu Upper Room artists and the exciting non-abusive arts they expressed so magnificently.

I see the remnants still in Jill Scott, yes, and Will Power et al. Maybe their time has come -- and the wisdom of Bill Moyers will finally bring them the recognition in American Letters they so richly deserve.

With the experience of the Nu Upper Room so fresh, I could not be satisfied with what was beginning to evolve as a distortion of Hip Hop, or, at least a distant piece of the whole that was to form the basis of new black music -- as the direct results of commercial exploitation by a heartless industry. This would become the commercial face of this new art form, and would eventually crowd out the Hip Hop culture that I'd come to so admire.

Anybody wanna fight? (Grin)

Photo: Wish I could find some way to donate these historic flyers of a brief era in Camelot to a place that would treasure them as I do. Any ideas? There are more ... .

Sunday, June 25, 2006

From then to now ... and the PBS interview ... .

Okay, so I've gotten myself caught up in the past again, and in those unbelievably exciting days of discovery and the evolution of the Hip Hop generation. Could be that this may be regarded as highly inappropriate for an octogenarian, even one as active and aware as I. Not so.

Last Wednesday, on the hottest day of the year, I drove out along the Richmond Parkway to an industrial area where I was to meet with the team of three videographers who are working on the 4-hour documentary on San Francisco Bay. It will be shown nationwide in four one-hour segments at some point in the future. The interview was set for three o'clock, and the place was the unlikely hard-to-find small corrugated metal building set back from the road through a winding course past dumpsters and shacks and trucks of all sizes. I'd been met by a series of handprinted signs leading through the maze to enter from the rear of the complex of old dusty structures.

For this I'd dressed meticulously in conservative black and my most modest silver jewelry -- a gift from Tom and created by a well-known Mendocino jeweler. My hair was swept back in the classic Betty hairdo that was no hairdo at all, really. Just parted in the middle and caught in a small jeweled clip at the nape. Looking like someone ready for afternoon tea, I arrived to walk into this strange unbearably hot (102 degrees outside) building that had been sprayed with something called theatrical "smoke," used to diffuse the background. The cameraman told me that this building had been purposely rented for these interviews for the Kaiser Homefront segment in order to give an "industrial" appearance to the piece. Should have worn my blue jeans, maybe, and a bandana. Wondered for a minute if I hadn't chosen precisely the wrong appearance for this interview.

I was following County Jury Foreman, Antonio Medrano, who was just completing his camera time. He was dressed casually in slacks and open-collared shirt. My feeling of being over-dressed lingered for no more than a minute or two -- and quickly disappeared as I was caught up in the process.

Seated on a straight-backed chair banked by baffles and lighting screens -- across from the off-scene interviewer (being a "talking head"), we then entered into a dialogue that lasted for just short of an hour --- from which no more than 5 minutes will be used, I'm guessing. On the drive home -- as I ran back over the experience in my head -- I figured that I'd be lucky to not come off as proud and highly arrogant. I really had never really accepted the role of "Rosie the Riveter," given my personal warfront history as a simple file clerk in a Jim Crow union auxiliary that had no power and not even a view of either ships or a shipyard. I'm certain that my 60-year-old anger bled through the interview. It was payback time and I was ready to speak my peace, and did.

Fortunately, as I left the building, the director was driving out behind me to pick up the next interviewee, a woman who had not been "in place" when the war came, but had been a 14 year-old 4th grade grammar school dropout from the Bayou country of Louisiana who had been allowed by her mother to accompany a man who was on his way to California, hopefully, to find work in the war effort. I've often heard Mary "Peace" Head tell her story, and wondered each time at the huge differences in the experiences of many women in that population of blacks and whites who made up the 108,000 newcomers who descended on the Bay Area and changed our world completely -- and those of us who were in place when war came to us.

Mary and I are both African American, but there could hardly be two more different lives than those we represent. One of the production team had remarked when he announced that he was off to pick her up from her home in nearby Parchester Village, that "Mary is so colorful!" She is that, in every way. I felt drab and terribly conservative for a few seconds as I let those words sink in. Mary is prayerful and goes by the name of "Peace," stating that this name was given her during her time of working in the shipyards because she prayed with the workers, and over her own work to bring peace to those overseas who might be touched by it. She wears a sequin-decorated hard hat to these occasions, and proudly. "We all got along," says she. "The hell with that," says I! "We'd have killed one another if we didn't have those damned ships to build!"

I have no idea what will be used or what will be edited out, but I surely didn't withhold my feelings -- not for a minute -- but always with characteristic restraint and modulated in ways that wouldn't sound belligerent and cause me to be tuned out. I've learned to be careful about that at all times. But I could not allow this opportunity to be truthful about a period when race relations were so highly romanticized -- to stand without challenge. After all, the black and white workers from the southern states, had not yet shared drinking foundations or public accommodations and wouldn't for another 20 years. They'd brought the South and its segregation practices here to the Bay Area, and I don't think I've ever forgotten.

I was also to learn over time that, in addition, they also brought a resistance movement that would serve to bring major social change over the next few decades, and for that I am eternally grateful. It might have taken those of us in place another generation to accomplish what those black southerners gave birth to by having had their expectations raised by the experience of leaving the hostile South and finding, instead, more of the same in this new land of opportunity.

I think the nation is ready for those conversations.

I know that I am.

Photo: More flyers that depict the richness of activities and the life at the Nu Upper Room. The print of the multiple faces is one of Naven Norling's drawings. This young genius also left for New York when the Room closed, but I've no idea what kind of success he may have found there. Would love to know if anyone has followed his career in the art world.
More Nu Upper Room handbills:

It has occurred to me in looking through this file that I may have saved enough of these wonderful artifacts to have a website created. What other way could this history be shared?

I'm certain that there are others who had the good fortune to have lived a part of all this -- and who might be thrilled to be able to recover whatever might remain of the living history of the Camelot that was ...

Somewhere I have numbers for Will Power in New York, or Naven Norling who designed some of these flyers, or Keba Konte or Aisha Bilal ... .

In the event that you, the reader, have any idea of how to pass these along, email me by using the link on the left side of these entries.

Oh, another thought in passing: "...if every bit of black influence was stripped away from what is loosely called, "American popular music," we'd have nothing left but Lawrence Welk!

The erotic images below are a reminder of Naj, a young woman patron of the Upper Room. She was from Iran and a very successful career national rep for a major cosmetic firm. It was Naj who first introduced us to the lyrical poetry of Rumi. We were planning a late night reading about the time that news of the impending closure of the Room came to us.