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Spring Rapfest hip hop concert ends in mini-riot outside Seattle's Paramount Theatre on May 16, 1987.
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On the evening of Friday May 16, 1987, a Spring Rapfest hip-hop concert is held at the Paramount Theatre (911 Pine Street). It features an up-and-coming local rapper, Sir Mix-A-Lot, as the opening act for some of the nation’s premier hip-hop stars from the East Coast -- Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, D.J. Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, and the then-radioactively controversial 2 Live Crew. With the media already gnashing its teeth over the radical sounds, fashions, graffiti, and lyrical themes widely associated with hip-hop youth culture, some people were already on edge as the show’s date approached. Thus it was no surprise than when a number of attendees got rowdy upon leaving the show. The Seattle Times accurately described the incident as a “minor crime spree.” But many viewers of hyped-up TV news coverage unfortunately got the impression that it had been an epic civil disturbance. As a result, for years the hip-hop community would face undue hostility from the local government, media, and music biz establishment.
Sea-town Sees Stars
Spring Rapfest was organized in 1987 as the largest concert tour of leading hip-hop stars yet organized in the music’s nearly decade-long existence. For its Seattle stop, the local rising rap star Sir Mix-A-Lot (nee Anthony Ray) (b. 1963), was hired to open the show and his associate, KKFX (“KFOX”) radio DJ “Nasty Nes” Rodriquez would serve as master of ceremonies.
But the bulk of the concert was to be performances by some of the biggest names in hip-hop. From Philadelphia came an emerging young group that featured DJ Jazzy Jeff (b. 1965) and Fresh Prince (Will Smith, b. 1968). New York would be represented by a couple of the musical genre’s founders, Kool Moe Dee (b. 1962) and Grandmaster Flash (b. 1958). And headlining the show, 2 Live Crew – the highly controversial (and hugely popular) Miami-based group whose provocative and lewd raps had already managed to attract the ire of numerous law enforcement officials and the music censorship advocates, Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).
Seattle’s grand Paramount Theatre had already been the site of one notable hip-hop show earlier in 1987: New York’s Beastie Boys had blown away sell-out crowds for two consecutive nights and the street buzz about this music was expanding exponentially. So, when the Spring Rapfest came along Seattle music fans were stoked. Thus on the night of May 16 the emcee “Nasty Nes” Rodriquez introduced the crowd to the sounds of Sir Mix-A-Lot in what was the young rapper’s biggest show to date.
But as the evening proceeded there were some production glitches -- and some attendees sensed a bit of stalling going on. Though some of the billed stars came out and put on splendid performances, rumors began to circulate within the crowd that perhaps some of the stars hadn’t shown up. A few minor fist-fights broke out in the hall, and then around 12:20 a.m. spilled out onto the streets. That’s when a number of hooligans began vandalizing a few storefronts in the neighborhood. The Seattle Times reported that it was “300 to 400 youths coming out of the Paramount Theater” who were involved -- and that a police spokeswoman said: “‘They were just running wild.’”
The paper also noted that about “45 police units were called in to handle the crowd” and “One youth was arrested after a robbery at a jewelry store ... and another was taken into custody after several juveniles were reported running through Jay Jacobs [1530 5th Avenue] clothing store” and “two adults were arrested for investigation of robbery and assault on a cab driver during the melee, and a juvenile was cited for hindering police” (The Seattle Times, May 17, 1987). Although there remain doubts about whether all of the arrested were concert attendees, it is certain that this negative publicity didn’t help hip-hop’s reputation in mainstream circles.
Of Paramount Concern
Meanwhile, the demand for rap music continued to grow and other tours began planning for future Seattle stops. But, in the wake of the Spring Rapfest, certain individuals and venues were increasingly wary. So soon after it was announced that the Beastie Boys would be returning to town (along with New York’s mighty RUN-DMC) for a massive June show at the Coliseum (305 Harrison Street), Seattle Center management balked at hosting it on the Seattle Center campus.
That’s when the Paramount bravely stepped up and allowed it to be rescheduled there. And although this concert would ultimately go off without any notable criminal activity, many attendees were shocked to arrive in the neighborhood only to discover that the Seattle Police Department had way overreacted by setting up a security perimeter that made the neighborhood seem like a war zone -- replete with barricade fencing, buzzing helicopters, armored vehicles, and legions of battle-ready riot-gear clad officers all around.
It was a scene probably not seen in Seattle again until the WTO protests of 1999.
Pat MacDonald,“2 Live Crew,” The Seattle Times, Tempo section, May 15, 1987, p. 5; Roberta Penn, “A Chorus of Hallelujahs Follows Gospel Singer from Church to Stage,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer,What's Happening section, May 15, 1987, p. 7; “Minor Crime Spree Follows ‘Rap’ Concert,” The Seattle Times, May 17, 1987, p. B-1; author’s recollections.
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