Perhaps no hip-hop archetype is more classic than the DJ. After all, the culture began with Kool Herc’s breakbeats, and the DJ remains at the core of the hip-hop experience. The emcee has been likened to a modern African griot, but the DJ might present a better analogy; just as griots are said to be the keepers of the memory of mankind, hip-hop DJs hold the culture’s history within their dusty record crates (or, it must be said, laptops). Anyone can play current hits, but a true measure of DJs’ skill is how effectively they can reference the past and bring it back to the present.
This theorem was put to the test late last month at “Three Kings,” a special edition of Sake One’s “Pacific Standard Time” weekly party at San Francisco’s Levende Lounge. The DJ lineup was as good as it gets: An opening set by Sake was followed by turntable titans Davey D, Beni B, and Kevvy Kev. Sake notes that all three are undisputed pioneers of the local scene: “These cats brought the foundation to the Bay Area when hip-hop was still basically a New York phenomenon.” He grew up listening to them on college radio, bought records from Beni at swap meets, and became Davey D’s on-air DJ at KMEL.
Having been touched by the recent deaths of J Dilla and his close friend DJ Dusk, as well as the passing of graffiti legend Mike Dream in 2000, Sake — who was dressed all in white as part of his initiation ritual as a Lukumi priest — said his goal with “Three Kings” was to honor the still-living ancestors during their lifetimes. “It’s just a small way to give back, and hopefully it’ll spark more interest, not only in their musical knowledge, but in their community activism as musicologists,” he said.
In any event, the DJs definitely lit the flame of the Levende crowd, many of whom were far too young to have experienced a time when hip-hop wasn’t a part of Bay Area culture. Being there was like seeing an exhibition of kung-fu masters, each with a unique, specialized technique. The three DJs’ legendary status was evident from the respect they earned from local celebs: KMEL’s Chuy Gomez, producer Trackademicks, up-and-coming Oakland group the Attik, singer Jennifer Johns, and Lunar Heights MC Jern Eye were all spotted in the house.
Instead of playing familiar songs, Beni B went the completely opposite route, rocking one obscure funk, proto-house, or soul disco classic after another. Gomez, for one, was enthralled, frequently peeking at the turntables to see what was playing. Beni’s selection touched on actual rap music only briefly, yet in the eclectic tradition of Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, incorporated seemingly non-hip-hop tunes like Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” and the Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody” into the mix.
The now-graying Beni B explained how his set remained true to hip-hop’s essence: “In the greater context of the spectrum of hip-hop, everything I played tonight was hip-hop. Hip-hop grew out of funk and disco breaks; that’s what DJs used to play before there was quote-unquote rap. A lot of the records I played were boogie records, a few funk records, disco records with breaks and things. If you listen close, it’s all a derivative of where hip-hop evolved from. I knew my two compatriots were gonna play mainly rap records. So I felt, let me do something different and try to bridge the gap.”
Davey D, meanwhile, unveiled a bunch of party-rockin’ hip-hop tunes from back in the day, including X-Clan’s “Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?,” Art of Noise’s “Beat Box,” and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” He even gave a nod to hyphy while still keeping it classic, via Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle.” For those of us who have mainly heard Davey hosting shows on the radio or speaking on panels, it was eye-opening to see him play in a club context — which is, of course, where he started out.
Kevvy Kev — the only one of the three kings to have succumbed to the seductive lure of vinyl emulation program Serato Scratch — nevertheless handled the laptop interface like a pro, cutting, scratching, beatmixing, and backspinning in a manner rarely heard nowadays. His set was perhaps the most intricate of the three, winding its way through classic and contemporary dancehall as well as original R&B and soul breaks and the rap songs which sample them, e.g. the Isley Brothers and Notorious B.I.G.
Afterward, Jern Eye said he appreciated all three DJs equally, for different reasons. “I liked Davey D’s selection, I liked Kevvy Kev’s flow, and Beni B just threw a little left hook.” It’s important to honor the pioneers, he added, just like “respecting your parents, respecting a teacher, respecting the elder … with any art form, music, or culture, you always got to respect those who came before you and laid the path before you.” Word.