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Something in the Water: Hip Hop History in Cerritos

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Last week I wrote about the past, present and future of Cerritos. This week L.A. Letters examines the hip hop history in Cerritos and the unique conditions of this gateway city that have made it a springboard for the mobile DJ culture and a cadre of journalists, writers and artists. This essay will explicate the hip hop history and also offer a brief portrait of several writers and artists who grew up in Cerritos.

In the midst of Cerritos' great ethnic diversity, there is a powerful sense of community. This community can especially be seen in the city's arts and culture. The Beat Junkies and Cerritos All Stars are two of the most well-known DJ crews in Southern California. Over the last few weeks I have conversed with a key member from each respective crew, DJ Rhettmatic and KJ Butta, about hip hop history in Cerritos.

They both also pointed out a slew of other artists, writers, and musicians who grew up in Cerritos. I will highlight more of these individuals at greater length near the conclusion of this piece. One of these individuals named by KJ Butta is the reporter and broadcast journalist Hetty Chang from NBC 4 in Los Angeles. Chang grew up in Cerritos and attended Whitney High School. She recently spoke at her elementary school, Cerritos Elementary on Career Day.

Before her presentation she shared her insight with me via email on why so much talent has come from Cerritos. "From the outside, Cerritos just looks like a nice, well-manicured suburb, but it is so much more than that," she writes. "There's something in the water in Cerritos -- I feel like it breeds success. It has all the ingredients -- good schools, people, diversity...community. As cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to make Cerritos proud."

Chang is an Emmy-nominated reporter and has indeed made her hometown proud. Last week I wrote about the airplane crash that happened in Cerritos in the late 1980s and how I had heard the collision as it crashed into the ground. Chang lived a few doors down from where this crash happened. After reading my essay last week, she shared her experience on that day with me in more detail. "A huge story also influenced my decision to become a reporter when a big news story quite literally landed in my neighborhood," she writes. "It was in the late 1980s when an AeroMexico DC-9 took a nose dive straight into a row of homes, five houses away from mine. I was struck by the enormity of this tragedy, and drawn to the many heartbreaking stories I watched on the evening news."

"I realized, journalists have an enormous responsibility to tell people's stories -- accurately and passionately," she continues. "To this day I feel like this job is a privilege, and if I ever feel like it isn't anymore, I'll know I'm not in it for the right reasons. Twenty five years later I'm working side by side with the very reporters who covered that crash in my neighborhood."

This conviction and sincerity demonstrated by Chang is the same quality that exists in the hip hop DJs, writers, and artists that came from Cerritos. I will begin by describing the rise of the mobile DJ scene in Cerritos. The first segment of this story begins with the Beat Junkies.

The Beat Junkies

The Filipino community in Cerritos has been very influential in the Southern California hip hop scene, especially the mobile DJ crews that emerged from the neighborhood. The mobile DJ crews were known for bringing their turntables, records, and speakers to wherever the party was. The parties could be anywhere from a backyard, a warehouse, to a wedding reception in a public hall. The Beat Junkies are the most famous of these crews, and their rise to prominence is an epic story. The Beat Junkies officially formed in Cerritos in 1992, but their roots started years before.

Nazareth Nirza, better known as DJ Rhettmatic, grew up in Cerritos. He recently told me his family was "One of the few first Filipino families that moved to Cerritos. They came to the U.S. in 1968, got situated in Huntington Park (I was born there in 1969), and then moved to Cerritos in 1971." His dad was an engineer and worked for a company called Western Kraft in L.A. Western Kraft moved to Cerritos around the same time shortly after his parents moved there. "Their old building is actually on Valley View Boulevard, right next to the old Don Juan Mexican Restaurant that used to be there on the corner," he says. "The Beat Junkies used to DJ parties at Don Juan during the early stages before the crew had even manifested."

Rhettmatic notes, "A lot of families from diverse ethnic cultural background moved to Cerritos to start fresh and to pursue the American Dream. Growing up in Cerritos, I had many friends with diverse backgrounds: Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. And growing up around such diversity, you never really thought about the differences, we all just accepted everyone for who they were because it was just the norm."

"I really started to discover hip hop when I was in 7th Grade attending Carmenita Junior High," Rhettmatic says. "It was one day during lunch time that I saw some of my 8th grade classmates forming a circle near the basketball courts. Somehow, one of the kids brought in a boombox into school, pulled it out of his duffel bag, and proceeded to press play on the tape deck. What came out of the speakers and what I saw is what changed my whole life."

The music coming out of the boom-box was Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock." "What was happening in the circle," Rhettmatic says, "was my classmates would start doing these crazy robotic like moves to the rhythm of the music, either dancing with or against each other. This particular dancing was called 'Popping.' I didn't know what it was or the music that was playing, but from that day, I was hooked!"

Rhettmatic describes the spirit of the era. "When Hip Hop first broke out into the West Coast in the early '80s, those were exciting times because it was so fresh, so new, so raw...but we really didn't know how much of an impact it was going to be to us kids, and to the whole world," he says. "Older kids were already listening to funk groups like Zapp, The Time, Prince, Parliament/Funkadelic. My first cassette tape was Zapp's "Zapp II" and The Time "What Time Is It?" The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" (the 1st Rap song I ever heard) was starting to play on radio stations like the Mighty 690 or KIIS FM."

Dating back to the mid-1980s, Cerritos was a hotbed for talent when it came to hip hop. "I don't know what was in the water in Cerritos during those days," Rhettmatic says. "A few of our local poppers and B-Boys (breakdancers) were featured in the early hip hop documentary 'Breakin' & Enterin' and the TV show 'Fame.' Legendary dancer, Shabba Doo (aka "Ozone" from the movie "Breakin'") lived in Cerritos at one time. We also had a few local MCs and rappers that were ahead of their time but never got the recognition they deserved."

Beat Junkies | Photo courtesy of DJ Rhettmatic
Beat Junkies | Photo courtesy of DJ Rhettmatic

"Cerritos had some of the best DJs in the burgeoning Mobile DJ scene," Rhettmatic says. "Early groups like Publique Image and the Ultra Dimensions were throwing local funk parties at Cerritos College in the late '70s/early '80s that people from the surrounding areas would travel to attend. And get this: these DJs were Filipino Americans."

Rhettmatic grew up watching these guys, especially one named DJ Curse. "Curse was like a big brother/mentor of sorts to me when I was growing up. Even though he was only a year older than me, I would follow him around like an annoying little brother and wanted to be just like him." As the years went on, they shared many stages together worldwide as members of the Beat Junkies.

In addition to DJ Curse, two African American DJs from Cerritos were early influences for Nirza. They were DJ Antron, aka Scratchmatic, and DJ Arabian Knight. Rhettmatic explains more: "DJ Antron was one of the first DJs to battle in L.A. and got his reputation for his skills. He was originally named DJ Scratchmatic and later changed his name to DJ Antron when he won the first DJ battle at the famed Radiotron club, the first L.A. hip hop club. This is where the basis of my name "Rhettmatic" originated. DJ Arabian Knight was also a highly skilled raw hip hop DJ, who was once an original KDAY Mixmaster from the L.A.'s first hip hop radio station, 1580AM KDAY. He eventually became an MC/Rapper by the name "Psycho" from the group "Insane Poetry" and worked with L.A. hip hop legends Rodney O & Joe Cooley and recording artist Sir Mix-A-Lot."

Years later Rhettmatic would find inspiration and friendship from a younger DJ, David Mendoza, soon to be known as DJ Melo D. They met in 1991 while Rhettmatic was with his comrade, DJ Icy Ice. "I'd heard through the grapevine that there was this young upcoming cat in Cerritos that had amazing skills," Rhettmatic says. Rhettmatic was a few years older, from a previous generation in Cerritos, and had yet to meet any younger DJ's who could "cut it up" like the guys he looked up to at the time, like DJ Curse and DJ What. "When I finally met him and got to see him in action at garage house party, I was shocked that a young cat that I wasn't aware of, can get busy on the turntables like the way we did," he says. "Heck, he was sooo good that it made me went back to start practicing more."

Rhettmatic says that Melo is a prodigy. "Everything Melo does is clean, technical, precise, yet funky," he says. "Curse and I have been DJing a little bit longer than Melo, being of course we were older than him, but to me personally, he was and still is incredible and was one of the catalysts (along with Babu, D-Styles, J.Rocc and Shortkut) to step my game up with the newer styles of DJing coming in." Around this time, the crew began to come together. They had the best of both worlds where they were both inspired by each other and had a lot of fun together.

"When you are surrounded by individuals that are as talented as Melo," Rhettmatic says, "You can't help it but to get better. 'Skills sharpens Skills.' From there, that's when Melo started to meet Curse, then J.Rocc, and so forth. Then from there, J.Rocc put Melo down with the Junkies in 1992 when the crew officially started."

Beat Junkies | Photo courtesy of DJ Rhettmatic
Beat Junkies | Photo courtesy of DJ Rhettmatic

The Beat Junkies were established in 1992 by the great DJ, J. Rocc. The original members included J. Rocc, Curse, Rhettmatic, Melo-D, Icy Ice, Symphony. What?!, Shortkut, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, and Tommy Gun were later added. DJ Babu was added in late 1993 and Mr. Choc was added in 1996. Many of the members, including Curse, What?!, Rhettmatic, Melo-D and DJ Havik, are from Cerritos. "The other Junkies were from other cities," Nirza says. "J.Rocc was from Orange County via Connecticut, D-Styles and Shortkut are from the Bay Area, Icy Ice and Symphony are from Carson, Tommy Gun was from Culver City, Babu is from Camarillo, and Mr. Choc is from Bakersfield."

All in all, they have been one of the most legendary DJ crews for over a generation now. A documentary made by LRG clothing, titled "For the Record," explains more about their history.

Around the same time the Beat Junkies came to rise, Sublime and No Doubt were rocking backyard parties around Long Beach, the South Bay, and Northern Orange County. I was at a few of the backyard parties in the early 1990s, but it was really in the clubs and on the radio in the mid to late 1990s that I came to know the Beat Junkies. In 1995, Rhettmatic and the Japanese-American MC Key Kool, were the first Asian-Americans to release a hip hop record, titled "Kozmonautz." During this same time, Rhettmatic became a West Coast DMC champion as a solo battle DJ, and won two International Turntable Federation World Champion titles with the Beat Junkies. By this time, they were touring internationally.

Years later I met Rhettmatic at Up Above Records in Long Beach, along with his fellow members of the underground super-group the Visionaries, Key Kool and LMNO. Rhettmatic has recorded albums with the Beat Junkies, individually, and as the DJ for the Visionaries. He's also collaborated with luminaries like J Dilla, Madlib, and Talib Kweli, among many others. Along with the other members from the Beat Junkies, they have won more awards and produced more records than there's space to mention.

There's much more to say about Rhettmatic and the Beat Junkies, but not enough space here to say it. The only other West Coast mobile DJ group who can match their legacy is the Bay Area crew, the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Oliver Wang, the hip hop journalist and Long Beach State Sociology Professor (and KCET contributor) wrote a forthcoming book on Duke University Press, "Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews In The San Francisco Bay Area," that offers more on their story and the larger story of mobile DJ crews.

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What's especially important to say here though, as Rhettmatic tells me, is that, "hip hop helped spawned a generation of Cerritos kids that were truly immersed in the community whether the public realized it or not, including the early 90's hip hop group Brotherhood Creed, the Crooks N Castles lifestyle brand, the Creative Recreation shoe brand, Ryu from the '90s West Coast independent hip hop group, Styles Of Beyond, recording artists Fort Minor, associates of Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, graffiti artists: NASA Crew, and of course, a few individuals from the Beat Junkies."

Even the current Mayor of Cerritos, Mark Pulido, was a part of the hip hop community. "I grew up with Mark from around the way," Rhettmatic says. "We are the same age and we're both Filipino Americans," he says. "He went to Whitney High School, and I went to Cerritos High, and we were from different crews competing against each other. As we got older, we both took different routes in life, but what connected us together and made us become friends to this very day, was hip hop."

Rhettmatic is thankful for his crew and his city. "I'm blessed and privileged to be a part of a crew with such caliber of talent," he told me last week. "And even more blessed and privileged to still be friends with most of the guys in the crew. We had a lot of ups and downs and went through a lot of trenches and disagreements together. Yet the fact that we're still friends and still a crew together after all these years, is a big accomplishment in itself, probably bigger than all the titles and accolades that we've accomplished together or individually."

Kazu Okamoto is a longtime friend of the Junkies from the early days and was from a South Bay DJ crew called "Red Alert." He recently told me, "They went from DJing house parties, weddings, and hall dances to becoming resident club DJs, radio DJs, seasoned battle champions, producers, and prominent hip hop artists and entrepreneurs. All the while still staying true to what brought them together in the first place -- the love of hip hop, DJ culture, and each other. To top it off, they are still the best DJs on the planet. And it's great to see them being compensated for all the hard work and energy they've put into it throughout the years."

Cerritos All Stars

DJ KJ Butta from the Cerritos All Stars crew grew up watching Rhettmatic and now-mayor Mark Pulido. He says, "I met Mark Pulido when I was 12 years old and interested in dancing with Club Kaibigan, the Filipino club at Whitney High, which he started." KJ Butta attended both Cerritos High School and Whitney High School and graduated in 1992. He was able to buy his first turntables after selling men's shoes at Nordstrom's in the Cerritos Mall.

KJ Butta recalls spending his formative years watching DJ greats like Rhettmatic, Curse and DJ Melo-D: "My very first junior-high dance was at Room 13/14 at Whitney High School back in 1988. I was super excited to go and dance, but was blown away by the DJs, Publique Image with Double Platinum," he says. "It was my very first time seeing DJ Rhettmatic and DJ Curse spin and scratch and it was amazing to me."

Originally KJ Butta was into dancing, and then he eventually started spinning records his freshman year in college. He was a year behind another Beat Junkie, DJ Melo-D, while he attended Whitney High School. He remembers seeing "DJ Melo-D wearing his white hooded sweatshirt airbrushed with his name and DJ figure on it. Melo-D used to spin with Modern Muzique and did a lot of dances in the area. I started DJing after high school because I wanted to spin the records I loved to dance to and was exposed to because of Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, etc."

Cerritos All Stars | Photo courtesy of KJ Butta
Cerritos All Stars | Photo courtesy of KJ Butta

The DJ crew known as the Cerritos All Stars are a few years younger than the Beat Junkies, and they are internationally acclaimed as well. They came together in 1995. KJ Butta says, "The Cerritos All Stars is a culmination of four different mobile groups: Audio FX Productions, Icon Events (formerly Top Priority), Grand Groove Productions (my crew) and Fascination Productions. We were all asked to DJ a friend's 18th birthday but to bring different equipment. So there was this super group DJing for her and we didn't know what to call ourselves. So I suggested that we would be the Cerritos All Stars." The Cerritos All Stars have followed the model created by the Beat Junkies and have also won their share of awards and toured internationally.

Over the years KJ Butta has worked with the hip hop apparel company from Cerritos, Mixwell USA. "My three years at Mixwell helped me solidify my relationships with various DJs, music lovers, retail and clothing distributors worldwide," he says. "It was through Mixwell that I became friends with and went on tour with The Pharcyde as their road manager back in 2006, and got gigs in Stockholm and opened up for Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 in Hawaii."

The Cerritos All Stars have had a popular internet radio show for over a decade and have achieved their own international acclaim like their role models, the Beat Junkies. Similar to Hetty Chang and Rhettmatic, KJ Butta attributes his success to the diverse landscape of Cerritos. "Growing up in Cerritos helped me understand diversity in community and how to apply that when rocking a party. You're going to have different people that like different things, but if you can blend the different styles in a way that works for everyone, then it makes the party that much better," he says. The fertile cultural landscape of Cerritos has been very good to both the Beat Junkies and Cerritos All Stars.

Writers from Cerritos

Before closing out this essay, I want to highlight a few writers and artists from Cerritos who have shared this same spirit. One of them is Victor Castelo. Castelo now works at the Millennium Library in Cerritos and has worked for the city since 1999. In 2013 he wrote a children's book titled, "Tommy the Courageous Bird," about a bird who loves to fly but is afraid of heights. In the tale, Tommy learns what true courage is and overcomes his fear of flying. Castelo wrote the book after working in the Cerritos parks as a coach and mentor for over a decade. He's always enjoyed motivating the younger generation and this story reveals his experience. His book crystallized his experience as a youth advocate into a transformative and uplifting story. Castelo is currently working on the sequel to his first book.

Phuong-Cac Nguyen is a writer and filmmaker from Cerritos who also attended Whitney High. Nguyen wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, and music magazines like URB before directing a documentary film about her experiences in Sao Paulo, Brazil titled, "South American Cho-Low." The film was featured at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival and has been garnering great reviews.

Jean Ho is an essayist and fiction writer from Cerritos who is also a board member of Kaya Press, a Los Angeles based publisher focusing on Asian American Literature. She has been awarded as a Kundiman Fellow and was recently accepted into the Creative Writing Ph.D. Program at USC for next fall. Her articles have been published in places like Hyphen Magazine, Flavorwire, and McSweeneys.

There are many other talented writers and artists to emerge from Cerritos. My childhood there helped pave the way for my own writing career. When I started UCLA in the fall of 1992 after graduating from Artesia High, I dove into the Los Angeles music and literary scene. As the years went on, I found myself constantly running into childhood friends from Cerritos, like Jason Fusato, Stephen Holton, Eric Wakimura and Dennis Calvero from Crooks n' Castles, at hip hop venues like Firecracker, Chocolate Bar, and the Root Down. I also witnessed the members of NASA, the graffiti crew originally from Cerritos, gaining fame in the local fine art scene as well as art magazines and various art shows.

The diverse community of Cerritos has made the city a springboard for hip hop DJ crews and a cadre of journalists, writers, and artists. Salute to the Beat Junkies, Cerritos All Stars, the NASA Crew, and journalists and writers like Hetty Chang, Victor Castelo, Phuong-Cac Nguyen, and Jean Ho for being influential game-changers in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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