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Seattle's "underground" hip-hop scene breaks out with big Exhibition Hall gig on August 17, 1984.
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On August 17, 1984, Seattle's formerly under-publicized hip-hop culture takes a big step towards wider acknowledgment with an event at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall (120 Mercer Way), which garners unprecedented mainstream media coverage. Although the featured act -- Seattle’s pioneering rap and breakdancing crew the Emerald Street Boys -- had mainly been performing at small Central District-area shows since 1981, the vast majority of the town’s residents had little knowledge of the vibrancy of the emerging musical movement, and perhaps even less regarding the exciting nature of these fresh new sounds and the eye-popping breakdancing that it had inspired among the youth.
The Emerald City Rocks
By the 1980s the Northwest’s popular music scene was generally recognized as one that revolved around rock ‘n’ roll. Tracing its lineage back to the “Original Northwest Sound” of area garage-rock bands from the 1960s including the Wailers, Sonics, Kingsmen, and Paul Revere and the Raiders -- and even claiming as a native son, Jimi Hendrix -- this region had well-earned a global reputation for its trail-blazing rock traditions.
But decades after all that -- and just before the first stirrings of the nascent Grunge Rock explosion occurred -- a fresh new sound was percolating up from Seattle’s Central District. Recently dubbed the “Emerald City” by boosterish Chamber of Commerce types, Seattle was about to witness the rise of a whole new subculture sparked by the hip-hop innovations that had already been sparked in the South Bronx ghettoes of New York.
The Emerald Street Boys
As hip-hop culture -- which included rap music, breakdancing, graffiti art, and new slang and clothing fashions -- spread across the nation beginning in about 1978, it began to make its mark even way out in distant Seattle. A few gay-oriented nightclubs began spinning the hit discs, and in 1982 local radio DJ “Nasty Nes” Rodriguez began airing the stuff on his KKFX (“KFOX”) program, FreshTracks. Rodriguez also began performing at live dances, spinning instrumental 12-inch hip-hop discs behind a rap trio, the Emerald Street Boys -- a rap/dance crew composed of three emcees: Captain Crunch (James Croone), MC Sweet J (R. Curtis Jamerson), and MC Sugar Bear (Edward Wells).
This group was initially formed as the Terrible 2 (by Croone and Wells) but after placing second (to Jam Delight) in a 1981 competition held at Lateef’s (8124 Rainier Avenue S), a Central District restaurant, they added Jamerson and re-emerged as the Emerald Street Boys. The group built up their fan-base by performing at neighborhood house parties, dances, talent shows -- and even a bus drivers’ convention. These early gigs led to others, including the 1981 All City Rap Off at Lateef’s where they were victorious. Along the way their audience grew and their bookings improved: They performed at the Empire Plaza, at various CAMP (Central Area Motivation Program) events, and at the Black Community Festival. They also shared the bill with various New Wave bands at the Dragon Palace (Broadway and Jefferson Street) restaurant.
But the popularizing of hip-hop was to be a long, hard slog in Seattle and even scoring the opening slot for the Gap Band’s 1982 concert at the Seattle Center Arena (363 Mercer Way) didn’t bring the crew much citywide fame. They did take another step in the right direction by performing at Bumbershoot’s Bumber Brewhaus in September 1983. And on August 10, 1984, they opened for New York’s Treacherous 3 in an Exhibition Hall show -- the Beat Street Breakdown, as produced by Ed Locke Promotions with breakin’ by the Emerald City Connection and the Incredible Connection Crew -- which saw a review in The Rocket magazine that stated that the dance moves of the Emerald Street Boys were actually superior to those of the touring stars.
By the summer of 1984 general interest in hip-hop culture -- rap music in particular -- was gaining ground via major nationwide hits including the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980), Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5’s “The Message” (1982), and RUN DMC’s “It’s Like That” (1983). The scene itself – and even outsiders whose interest had by now been sparked -- was now big enough to support advancing up bigger venues, like The Mountaineers building (300 3rd Avenue W) and even the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall.
And, when it was announced that a hip-hop event was going to be staged at the Exhibition Hall on August 17, even the local mainstream media finally took note. The Seattle Daily Times gave the show prominent advance coverage -- playing up the wild new breakdancing moves that attendees could expect to see from B-boy and B-girl fans of the Emerald Street Boys -- and inviting the newspaper’s readership to attend and cheerfully suggesting that everybody “Better practice up on your camel walk, baby rolls, worm and slide” moves (Beers).
The hip-hop gathering was a surprising success with sizable crowds turning out to see what all the hoopla was about, and the Seattle Center management saw that the growing hip-hop community was creative, competitive, and grateful for having such a large venue to gather in. In fact, two weeks later, on August 25, The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation cosponsored (with KOMO-TV) a Summer Break!breakdancing event. The preliminaries were held at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center (104 17th Avenue S), and thenthe finals featured 15 groups and 15 solo performers competingat the Center House. Then, on September 1, KOMO-TV aired their one-hour Summer Break! special.
Considered together, these events were watershed moments as the proverbial dam suddenly burst. In the following months (and years) hip-hop -- and especially its emerging new talents (including up-and-coming rappers like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Kid Sensation) -- would no longer toil in obscurity.
Carole Beers, “Shake it and break it,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 2, 1984, p. 37; Meg Robson, "Summer Break," Dance (column), Seattle Weekly, August 15-21, 1984, p. 7; “Summer Break breakdance competition,” The Seattle Times August 25, 1984, p. 54; Robert Newman, “The Treacherous 3: They’re Fresh!!!,” The Rocket, August 1984, pp. 14, 36; and author’s recollections.
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