When you think “LA hip-hop,” the mind is quick to conjure images of Pac, Snoop, and N.W.A.. But true rap heads have always known that the LA scene is vastly more diverse than those legendary names might indicate. Yes, gangsta rap and g funk made massive waves, but there’s always been a thriving underground hip-hop scene in the City of Angels.
Planet Asia, Evidence, Chali 2na and his crew Jurassic 5… there’s no shortage of names who carved their own paths while Death Row was taking up most of the Los Angeles airspace. And just like what my team and I built with Rawkus Records out in New York, the music that came out of the West Coast’s independent scene stands the test of time. Over the past two years, Verzuz and our show, People’s Party with Talib Kweli, have helped legends of the culture get their flowers; now a new documentary is helping tell the story of the LA underground and give its pioneers some love.
Where We’re From: The Elements Documentary tells the story of the famed Elements Entertainment events, some of the realest and most revered rap shows, freestyles, and battles in hip-hop history. It’s told through the lens of Element’s co-founders DJ Bonds and DJ Breeze (who co-directed the doc) and Damon Bonds (who exec-produced it) and features all of the aforementioned names, along with Talib Kweli, Cut Chemist, Divine Styler, and so many more.
To celebrate the launch of their documentary, share stories, and learn more about the LA underground scene, I sat down with DJ Bonds and DJ Breeze. Our conversation is sure to interest anyone who loves the voices, energy, and vibe of that magical era in hip-hop culture.
Culture goes in cycles, as we know. Why do you think right now we’re at a cultural moment where people are looking back at some of these jewels and gems from hip-hop culture and really wanting to shine a light on it?
DJ Bonds: I have these conversations with Anthony Marshall of The Lyricist Lounge. We talk about legacy. We talk about the things that you’ve done as a youth, in your 20s, and what mark you may have left, but it doesn’t mean really anything unless it’s documented and if you don’t tell your story. So I think as I saw Straight Outta Compton coming out, and another Tupac movie and a who killed Biggie movie, there were a lot of movies coming out about the same kind of stories. I was like, “man.” Much love to the legends, but there are more stories in hip-hop than just Death Row and Bad Boy. There are more stories out there that need to be told.
I felt a certain responsibility of telling more stories, not just ours. We pay homage to other clubs and spots and different things that we felt we needed to uplift and shine a light on. There are people in our film that are no longer here. Tomorrow’s not promised and so we need to basically make sure we are shining a light on them while they’re here. So I love the fact we got a chance to shine a light on Planet Asia, and Dilated, and J-Five, and the Beat Junkies, and basically friends and that synergy that we have. I hope it inspires people to do the same, to tell your story, document your story, and push out that culture.
Our culture is dope and our culture is more than just gangster rap, at least for LA. I’m sure the culture is a little bit more than Bad Boy out there. Again, much respect. I’m not trying to diss anybody, but there’s a point to tell more stories in hip-hop culture.
I don’t know if you guys read the Beastie Boys’ book, but I often tell people if you want to understand how a DIY scene works, strategy-wise, read that book. Your documentary also is a testament to the power of the DIY scene. What did you feel like your responsibility was as curators of that scene?
DJ Bonds: Honestly, just not to put on anything whack. I can’t tell you how many times rappers and labels will say, “I’ll pay you to put an artist on.” You can’t pay me enough money for no whack shit on my stage. Fuck that. It’s straight up and down. It has to be dope. It has to be the essence of hip-hop. So when you come into the club, you’re going to hear four turntables, two DJs behind it getting down, going crazy, playing some dope-ass hip-hop. You’re going to see a circle and incredible dancers going back and forth. I might give them a hundred to $200 that night for a dance competition.
You paid the dancers? That’s dope if you did. Dancers should be paid to create the vibe.
DJ Bonds: Well, we would do competitions.
So we’re having this interview on the 30th anniversary of The Low End Theory. Obviously an incredibly important album, one of the greatest albums of all time in any genre. I think people were surprised to find out that Tribe Called Quest was such a big deal also on the West Coast. And by the way, you’re wearing a Tribe Called Quest shirt right now with an LA hat. Break it down.
DJ Breeze: You couldn’t go anywhere in LA without hearing that album. We embraced a lot of that stuff coming up from back east. I remember vividly one time at a red light, I’m in my car bumping the Gangstarr Hard to Earn album. There’s a couple dudes, they look like my age, they were just crossing the street. As they’re walking in front of my car, they start reciting the lyrics for the song that I’m playing.
LA has always embraced hip-hop. It didn’t matter where it come from, as long as it was dope.
Do you think West Coast artists from your scene got their due?
DJ Breeze: Earlier, we brought up Evidence and Planet Asia. These guys are still relevant today. These guys came out 20 years ago and not too many people can say that, that they’re still relevant 20 years later in music. Not only does Element’s story need to be told, but their story needs to be told. It’s almost like a slap in the face to an example like Asia or Ev who’s still touring and selling out shows.
How can you ignore that? The story needed to be told.
So speaking of stories that need to be told, the story of hip-hop is one that’s pretty much tied, hand in hand, the story of overcoming adversity through creativity. I think that’s very much the story in this documentary about what y’all did and I’m specifically talking about institutional racism in the LA club scene. How did that affect you and what was the outcome?
DJ Bonds: It’s images on TV of violence and images and soundtracks of gangster rap. So this perception that is had by owners of these venues, that’s all they think about. They think that we’re going to fight, and wild out, and kill each other, and so on and so forth, but it was anything but that. Hip-hop culture, we come from and what we do, we embrace DJ-ing and break dancing and emceeing. So it was anything but fighting. So that perception really was there and as I looked back in hindsight, I wish I had the foresight to get 10 guys together and buy our own club. Maybe our own House Of Blues chain.
Can you explain what hip-hop insurance is? It was a tax on what? Let’s be honest.
DJ Bonds: It was a tax on a kind of music. They would ask you, what kind of music are you playing? If you said hip-hop, then you had to take out an additional liability because the perception was that it was more dangerous to have that event at your venue. So I would have to go get liability insurance or I would have to, well, they would say pay more because you’re a liability to my venue.
So I assume that there was a similar thing for punk shows?
DJ Bonds: No.
DJ Bonds: Well, let me not misspeak. Let me not because I’m not a punk promoter. So let me not misspeak. Any punk promoters out there, you want to chime in, you can. But from my knowledge, the white boys weren’t having to pay no fucking insurance like I was. From what I know, they didn’t have to do that.
I would have to go get someone who was associated with Golden Voice to get other venues.
By the way, they were punk promoters.
DJ Bonds: There you go! Again, respect to Paul Tollett, we threw an amazing festival together. We did multiple events together. I love Paul. For folks who don’t know who Paul Tollett is, he’s the mastermind behind Coachella. He was one of the first owners, if you will, of Golden Voice and we did some work together. But I had to reach out to him to help me get into venues, which is fucking crazy. I get passionate about it because when you really go through it, when you really see racism in your face and you’re just trying to do something to put positivity out there, especially in LA, growing up in LA in the ’90s where you’re getting fucked with by the gangs all the time.
I’m not a gang member at all whatsoever. You’re getting fucked with by the cops because if you walk in a group of four or five people together, you’re a gang. It was a gang ordinance kind of thing. We’re wearing cross colors and we’re no way near gang-affiliated, but we were always getting fucked with.
We just wanted to do hip-hop. That’s all we want to do.
When you try to throw your hip-hop shows, you’re getting hit with a gang tax basically.
DJ Bonds: Yeah, yeah. So it’s frustrating and I’m probably not speaking well to it.
No, I felt it. I felt it in the film, really the frustration of it and the unfairness of it. It really jumped out. I know there were a lot of things that affected your ability to not last longer, but that felt like the strongest contributing factor.
DJ Bonds: What’s scary is when you really think about it right now how many clubs are owned by Black and Brown of our culture. So if anything, it’s a wake-up call for a lot of us who love this culture of hip-hop. That we need to own more venues, we need to do more for ourselves. So we have this incredible independent scene that got created. I don’t know why, but for some reason, we didn’t take it a step further and take actual ownership of venues, and hopefully, someone will hear this and get inspired and make something happen in your city. They’ll go own a venue, they’ll own a bar, create an avenue for those kids to have something that they can do outside of being on the streets and getting into trouble.
By the way, I want to thank you guys for allowing me to have played a small role in this film. I remember so well that Fat Beats anniversary show that Elements did with Tash and Everlast, but also Reflection Eternal and Pharoahe Monch, and thinking, “we’re a big label now.” How did you guys feel about that moment?
DJ Breeze: Bonds and I knew we had something — like we had gold.
Absolutely. And before we sign off, can you explain to people who may not think that they need to know about the history of LA’s underground hip-hop culture, why this documentary is important and why they should watch it?
DJ Breeze: First of all, it’s just a great story about friendship and two guys who had a historic run in LA hip hop. Not only that, but it’s also breaking down that misconception about Los Angeles and that every time Los Angeles is brought up, it always seems to be just gangster rap. That type of culture, which is essential and it’s a beautiful culture and it’s cemented here, but it’s not all we’re about. We didn’t want people to walk away thinking that, that’s all Los Angeles music is about. So we wanted to break that stereotype down.