The Bay Area is well known in hip hop and rap, particularly for it’s contributions to the battle DJ scene (see: Triple Threat DJs, Beat Junkies, FM20/Invisibl Skratch Piklz), and in his new book Legions of Boom, acclaimed DJ/Collector/Journalist/Scholar Oliver “O-Dub” Wang, explores the history of this community’s movement and evolution from the mobile DJ scene to the cutting edge of the turntablism/battle scene and beyond. He took some time out to speak to Gift Rap and give some more insight into himself and the book.
Hi Oliver, hope you are well. Could you tell the readers a bit about yourself and where you’re at currently/what you’re doing?
I’m an associate professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. I also write about music, arts and culture for NPR, KCET’s Artbound, KPCC’s Take Two, the Pop Rocket podcast, amongst others.
What was your first experience of hip hop culture, and what was it that you were attracted to?
I was introduced by a classmate to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys around 1986/87 but it was when I first discovered De La Soul in the summer of 1989 that hip-hop became a lifelong inspiration/obsession. First and foremost, it’s the very sound of hip-hop, the way in which it manages to both sample the past yet sound very much of the present if not the future, that attracts me. And then you get into the layers of lyrical artistry, social messaging, etc. There’s so much to enjoy and unpack.
Growing up in a village in Northern England in the 90s, there was little to no exposure to hip hop. Growing up in The Bay Area, what media outlets were there to keep you up to date with hip hop?
Definitely alternative weekly newspapers like the San Francisco Bay Guardian but I was also reading magazines like The Source and Rap Pages and URB (this was before I began to contribute to them).
How long have you been DJing, and which DJ’s inspired you to take up the craft?
This Bay Area DJ, Beni B, who would eventually found ABB Records, was one key person. We both volunteered at KALX, the college station at UC Berkeley, and he’d bring down his own turntables and mixer to do a mix show. He looked like he was having so much fun, in 1993, it inspired me to go and get my own decks. But beyond Beni, I learned how to mix from DJs Double O and Oni One. Matthew Africa (RIP) and Beni helped put me on sample digging. And DJ Joe Quixx on KMEL’s Wake Up Show always had me in awe. To this day, Joe is one of the nicest, most real dudes I know.
What brought you to the mobile DJ scene as a point of focus for a book?
I knew about the importance of the scratch DJs in the Bay Area and so many of those guys were Filipino American. When I had a chance to interview folks like Q-Bert, Shortkut, etc. what I learned was that all of them came from different mobile crews first. While the scratch scene was well-covered, I couldn’t find much at all on the mobile scene. That told me there was a good story to be researched and written about.
Do you feel that the art of the battle DJ has lost something, in that the current battle DJs tend to largely be bedroom DJs rather than working DJs who know/have learnt how to play to a room?
In the end, battle DJing has become about who can put on the best performance and I don’t know if a bedroom vs. working DJ has an inherent advantage there. Rocking a party is a very different kind of skill set from battling even if both require an audience. To me, battle DJs these days are more like concert pianists going head to head. I don’t know if having experience playing a honky tonk is relevant.
Who are your favourite DJs and why?
I have a ton of respect for DJ Cut Chemist in terms of the amount of thought he puts into his sets and the kind of creative energy he brings to them. I’ll always listen to whatever new project he’s working on.
With regards to recent articles posturing hip hop as the new dad rock, have you any thoughts on this?
I thought it was an entertaining article, humor-wise, but ‘90s hip-hop nostalgia has always been intense so it’s not like 40 somethings suddenly discovered hip-hop or anything. What I do think is interesting is how you have “classic hip-hop” radio stations now and tours of older rap stars targeted towards the 40-50 audience. Hip-hop, to me, has never aged that well because it’s such a youth-oriented genre but I think we’re beginning to see how a generation raised on hip-hop are changing various aspects of the music business.
You’ve managed to make a successful career out of your passions, which is a fairly rare achievement – do you have any advice to help other people in acheiving this?
The easy, cheap answer is “just do it” but I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I managed to carve out an academic career that’s allowed me to pursue my interests as part of the job itself. I’ve never been in a position where I felt like I had to choose between different options; I realize that’s a privilege that not everyone is able to enjoy.
How did you get into writing for the magazines?
By 1994, I was starting out as a freelance writer and Jeff Chang gave me my first opportunity to write about music, specifically, when he linked me up with T-Love who, at the time, was helping to edit the hip-hop 12” review section at URB Magazine. I think I started writing for them around 1995 and sometime around ’95, ’96, I began writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Those two places – URB and the Bay Guardian – are where I basically cut my teeth as a music writer before I expanded into all manners of other publications by the end of the ‘90s
This book ties in your interests in hip hop and sociology – are there any other pieces of your work where you have been able to tie in the two things so well?
I should begin by saying: to me, Legions of Boom isn’t about hip-hop. I even include a footnote that explicitly states that. Hip-hop enters into the story but only by the latter half of the overall scene’s history. For most of the early, pioneering crews, hip-hop was a genre they spun but it wasn’t how they identified. I think people tend to assume that the book is about hip-hop because it’s about DJs and our public imagination today associates the two almost interchangeably. But I try to make it clear: these are parallel stories that, at times, intersect, but by and large, the history of the mobile DJs is unique unto itself rather than serving as a a subset or facet of hip-hop’s own remarkable history.
To get back to your question: I’d say one of the pieces that does the best at applying a similar kind of methodology was something I wrote a few years back about retro-soul music and how labels and artists developed its audience, which many perceive as being predominantly white. Rather than chalking that up to something as amorphous as “audience taste,” I researched how the music itself is marketed via a series of institutional decisions that are more likely to put it in front of white vs. black audiences. I’m not suggesting there aren’t other things at play (and I talk about some of the alternate theories out there) but as a sociologist, I like trying to probe the structure of cultural phenomena and how human decision-making plays a role in how we, as audience members, experience particular phenomena. It’s published in the anthologyPop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt (http://goo.gl/fzh10c).
You can pick up Legions Of Boom on Gift Rap Here