Westside Story: The History of West Coast Hip Hop
Written by: Syd Caesar

When the origins of Hip Hop are traced by historians, documentarians and the like, their research endeavors usually start in the same locale: The Bronx, the New York City borough recognized as the birthplace of Hip Hop, and its original elements. The Bronx " and many of its residents " have been widely lauded for their contributions to the fields of MC’ing, DJ’ing, B-Boying and Graf writing; so much so that some of BX’s iconic names have permanent listings in Hip Hop’s lexicon, like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Rock Steady Crew, Phase 2, and the Holy Trinity of Turntablism: Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. But, while much tribute has been paid to the Hip Hop pioneers of The Bronx in particular, and New York City in general, little mention has been made of the culture’s trailblazers out West; who launched a revolution similar to their Big Apple brethren in the late 1960’s, and created a subculture that’s rocked the world for the last five decades. This is their story..

California Burning

Many examinations of West Coast Hip Hop offer only cursory portraits of its evolvement; virtually ignoring its genesis and growth from the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s, and going straight to the Westside villain invasion of the late 20th Century, when Ice-T, Eazy-E, NWA, and numerous others made the West Coast synonymous with gangsta rap. The actual beginnings of West Coast Hip Hop date back to the mid 1960’s; and more pointedly, to a complex collage of events that unfolded in California. Given that Hip Hop itself would be used as catharsis for everyday people, it’s fitting that a cataclysmic event helped give rise to it out West: the Watts Riots of 1965. Watts, a predominantly Black area of South Los Angeles, was the home of scores of Blacks who’d migrated from the South during the 1940’s, seeking jobs and a better way of life. By the early 1960’s, many of the jobs and industries that prompted this influx had disappeared, and Watts had been debilitated by unemployment, neglectful politicians, economic suppression, and police harassment. The tipping point for these stressors was the Watts Riot, a civil rebellion that stemmed from public outrage over a police traffic stop in August of ’65; and when the smoke cleared after six days of unrest, there had been more than 30 deaths, one-thousand injuries, three-thousand arrests, and tens of millions of dollars in damage.

"What Is A Man" - The Watts Prophets

In 1967, from the embers of the Watts Riots, came the Watts Writers Workshop; a creative hub founded by screenwriter-producer Budd Schulberg, to give the local populace both a helping hand and an expressional outlet. At the Workshop, four Los Angeles transplants convened to form the Watts Prophets: Anthony "Amde" Hamilton (from Texas), Richard Dedeaux (from Louisiana), Otis O'Solomon (from Alabama), and female member Dee Dee McNeil, a Motown songwriter-musician, who moved west from her native Detroit. Inspired by the success of their Harlem, New York contemporaries The Last Poets, the Prophets threw a militant Molotov of their own in 1969: their debut album The Black Voices: On the Streets in Watts. Soon thereafter, the Watts Prophets became forerunners of West Coast rap, pioneers of spoken-word poetry, and a musical bridge to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and their work landed them in the counterintelligence file of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who considered the quartet subversives, and had his operatives infiltrate the Writers Workshop. Hoover’s counterintelligence program " COINTELPRO for short " helped bring about the destruction of the burgeoning arts scene in Watts, culminating with the gutting of the Watts Writers Workshop by arson. Though oppressive forces arose to silence the Prophets, it was too late to stop them… or the West Coast. In the years to come, several rap luminaries would draw direct influence from the Watts Prophets, and unbeknownst to the Prophets, their music would lay the groundwork for the Pacific’s uprising of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and they’d prove integral to the development of West Coast Hip Hop.

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