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Growing Up in the L.A. Underground

I grew up in the underground. Around the time I was reading "City of Quartz" and studying at UCLA, I pounded the pavement at every bookstore, gallery and performance space in the city. My education has been evenly split between the underground and the academy. KRS One, Common, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde -- the Golden Days of Hip Hop were my formative years. My friends and I listened close. By 19, writing poetry, nonstop reading, taking city drives and listening to hip hop were my primary past times.

I wrote L.A. Blues poems riding the bus and working odd jobs as an undergraduate. Close comrades like Phil shared their poems and we developed survival skills together in the cipher. Gathering in the underground, similar to Darwin's scientific friendships, music and poetics connected like-minded friends. Dating back to 1992, a whirlwind of poets, painters and musicians supplemented my education.

Pounding bass echoes off in the invisible vicinity. Nestled deep in the midst of fish markets and garment district warehouses, are many of the greatest parties this town has ever seen. As decadent as Malibu beach parties or Mulholland hilltop mansions jams can be, they are cliché: typical L.A., Bret Easton Ellis, Paris Hilton paparazzi party. L.A.'s liveliest gatherings reverberate underneath bridges, below loading docks, in converted churches; hidden locations with three levels of music. Rooftop parties on the top of poured concrete buildings built in the 1920s around Skid Row and the Arts District. Streets like Wall Street, San Pedro, Santa Fe. Just south of Little Tokyo, close to the loading docks. On weekend nights parties go off until sunrise. Culture!

21st Century Los Angeles shares the same energy/zeitgeist/fire/passion that fueled the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, the Black Arts movement, the birth of Punk Rock and other movements. Community artists dedicated to making their city a better place. Galleries, nightclubs, bookshops, hole-in the-wall Mom & pops eateries. Most of the world doesn't know because they only see Tinseltown's imagery. L.A.'s other side is more alive than Hollywood will ever be.

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Joinz magazineMany of the underground parties described above were organized by Art Don't Sleep; they've been throwing underground events around Los Angeles since 2004. Andrew Lojero is the man behind the organization. As a teenager in the 90s in Montebello, he fell in love with J Rocc's mixtapes and the landscape of murals and graffiti art around downtown and the Eastside. He saw Jointz magazine and their section of graffiti photos inspired him to take his own. (Jointz was a great underground zine from 2001 to 2006.) Lojero began taking photos of art pieces citywide and slowly began meeting artists like DJ Dusk, Aloe Blacc, Spectre, and eventually MEAR One. He loved hip hop because it also led him to genres like soul, rare groove and jazz. A few years later he began throwing events with his heroes. Every year the events have grown bigger.

Lojero's ability to connect across generations has led to him booking special shows featuring icons like Roy Ayers. Known for songs like "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," Ayers was born in L.A. in 1940, but has been in New York since the 60s. His soul-jazz grooves are so chunky that he is the second most sampled man in hip hop history behind only James Brown. Check Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Common, Gangstarr, Mos Def, countless more. Brits call him the father of acid jazz. Lojero has booked Ayers twice in the last few years and made hundreds of hip hop heads extremely happy. Lojero's latest event features longtime funk legend Lee Fields and Cody ChesnuTT at the Echoplex.

Simultaneously Lojero is making things happen at Plug Research Records. Under Lojero's direction they have suddenly become one of L.A.'s best indie labels along with stalwarts like Stones Throw, Brainfeeder and Ubiquity. One of their latest records is Hawthorne Headhunters. Marcus Gray writes about it: "'Myriad of Now' is Zen pressed funk for the more discerning ear. Resting in a bed of lump layered psyche and synth, musings glide on handclaps and bubbling bass into the spine with the intention of conquering the most unshakeable backside. The whole album seduces warm visions of funk sunshine with blind poetry."

Plug Research has released six records already in 2012 including Elephant & Castle, Naytronix, Thavius Beck and the new album "Just Visiting" by DJ Anthony Valadez. Valadez is a renaissance DJ/Producer/KCRW radio show host. His album is a liminal field of downtempo nu-jazz future soul. Tempo shifts and well placed vocals reflect the craftsmanship. Valadez cut his teeth at Cal State Northridge's radio station, rocking dozens of nightclubs and later in the recording studio with Carlos Nino and Flying Lotus. Anthony Valadez is an archetypal DJ, and an excellent segue into a new book I just picked up.

Mural by MEAR ONE"Groove Music: The Art & Culture of the Hip Hop DJ" was just published by Oxford University Press. Written by Mark Katz, a scholar-DJ himself, this is the first complete comprehensive history in book form on the hip hop DJ. Katz acknowledges his debt to earlier work like the documentary film "Scratch," Jeff Chang's hip hop history book "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," and another great book "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." These have discussed the hip hop DJ, but it wasn't their primary focus. Katz spent twelve years interviewing DJ's and travelling from Tokyo, New York, Louisiana, London to L.A. on the case, resulting in 333 pages with footnotes and annotated appendices, focusing exclusively on the hip hop DJ.

I had particular interest in this book because I've grown up with DJs. I went to high school in Cerritos, a few years behind the World Famous Beat Junkies. I remember watching them become famous in the early 90s. I met J Rocc back in the day, but have spent more time over the years talking to Rhettmatic, one of the greatest turntablists alive and still humble after all the accolades. Back at UCLA my homeboy DJ Dave rocked house parties all over L.A. A few years later at Firecracker & Root Down I connected with Eric Coleman, Kutmah, DJ Dusk, Wyatt Case and Musicman Miles. I met DJ Jeremy Sole back in 2001 when he first came from Chicago. A few years later he started Afro Funke at Zanzibar, and soon after that he was hired by KCRW. I've written hundreds of poems over the last two decades sitting in the corners of clubs rocking out to these mixmasters. I've always had a lot of love for DJs.

"Groove Music" documents the history of the hip hop DJ beginning in the South Bronx in the early 1970s addressing different phases of the development all the way to the present day. Interviews with figures like DJ QBert, Rob Swift, King Britt and members of the Beat Junkies root in his work in primary sources. His narrative covers all the historic periods and maintains a balance between technical DJ terminology and fascinating segments on figures like DJ Shadow. Jeff Chang's "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," is a more comprehensive hip hop history book, but this work is an excellent contribution to the discourse on both hip hop and DJ culture. Katz makes no secret that he is an aspiring DJ himself and his dedication towards being an accurate scholar for the art form reflects in his work.

Cover of 'I Am Los Angeles' by MEAR ONEBesides the DJs, I've also been tight with many painters. Over the years I've done countless events with artist MEAR ONE. Originally known as one of the most famous graff writers on the west coast, MEAR is an acronym for Manifest Energy And Radiate. He came up with it in 1987 just as he began his reign of all city bombing. Now he paints with oil and acrylics and anything else you can think of, while showing work in major galleries internationally. There are only a select few that have MEAR's credibility in so many circles: fine art, underground, commercial.

As any longtime L.A. native will tell you, the city was much dirtier in the 80s; MEAR remembers his early childhood, "I watched L.A. burn for years and then we had the Riots. I figured that Armageddon was truly happening and I still do. Any big city can relate. There's no quiet space to just get quiet and chill. Just traveling on the bus to school, youth see violent movie posters and over sexualized beer ads along with homelessness, drug addicts and prostitutes. It wasn't very reassuring, and it made me always wonder what I was going to do when I grew up."

His youth in the age of Reagan made him the man he is. MEAR decided to take the decay he saw around him and paint the difference, "SK8 One always talked about graffiti as a vehicle for change. This became one of the guiding ideas in my life." As the years went on MEAR has become more and more politically active as an artist. Featured in MOCA's "Art in the Streets" exhibit, he's also been in hundreds of galleries, designed dozens of album covers and painted murals all over the country and internationally. Two of his best known murals in L.A. are of the Dalai Lama and Gandhi. Recently he's been collaborating with filmmaker/astronomer Roger Griffith on a series of short films (see below).

One of the first underground writers I appreciated was poet/fiction writer Steve Abee. Lewis MacAdams, founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) and prominent Los Angeles poet, told me in 1999 to check Abee. His second book "THE BUS" is a journey on a public bus from Echo Park to Santa Monica. Reading like a 21st century Kerouac, his prose goes bop prosody. Now living in El Sereno and teaching in Silver Lake for 17 years, Abee knows L.A. for what it really is. His vision of L.A. is crystal clear in his new novel published by MP Publishing, "Johnny Future."

Writ Large author/publisher Chiwan Choi writes, "Johnny Future captured something essential about Los Angeles -- its cold and violent heart that couldn't care less about you, and in turn, forces you to live your life and embrace the tragedies and still find a way to get up and love, even as you realize it will all come and go, that you will live and maybe die in this city and the desert winds will take you away, leaving nothing. It's really a tough, tough city that makes you search for and find your own heart and Johnny Future (and Steve Abee, too) is the epitome of that -- a character who has no choice but to try and love everything." Abee loves it all and "Johnny Future" captures the angst and magic of our city.

It is the search for the city's heart that led a generation of us into the underground. In this magical landscape we found our home in the bricolage of L.A. Letters.

MMEAR ONE - Singularity by Roger Griffith:

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Top: Mike the Poet, MEAR ONE, and Blackbird in Lower Haight, San Francisco, 2006.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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