"L.A. loves a good funeral," said DJ J-Logic to me at the final night of the world famous club known as the Root Down. Hundreds of folks braved a cold Cali night to come one last time to one of the greatest weekly clubs Los Angeles has ever seen. The Root Down and two other clubs - Firecracker and the Chocolate Bar - characterized the late ‘90s millennial Los Angeles hip-hop, funk, and soul underground. Sharing a synergy like the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, these three jams exploded with music and energy. Fierce DJs, live performances, hip-hop, rare groove, future soul. People, music, vibes, beats, bass, life. A generation of us can testify: it was an amazing ride.
This remarkable era ended in 2009 when Firecracker and Root Down held their curtain calls a day apart. On December 17, 2009, the Root Down, held every Thursday for 13 years, concluded its run. The next day Firecracker, held twice a month on Friday for 12 years, had their finale. Closing these two leviathans in the same week, on consecutive days, fit because they shared electricity and participants. For those of us coming of age in the 1990's these two jams were sacred, epitomizing the postmodern metropolis' cosmopolitan funk finesse. Universal, soulful, multicultural, emerging worldwide tribe people. Underground intelligentsia, the Los Angeles avant-garde.
Los Angeles club culture
is burning like a firecracker
People are loving the euphoria..
Sweat is pouring, people bouncing..
Ladies' scent lingers on body movement
Nothing matters but the music!
These jams were influential in a way the Sunset Strip or Cahuenga could never be. The jam wasn't just a meat market or sloppy bar scene; it was an underground space where West Coast hip-hop kids gathered to build artistic, intellectual, and spiritual consciousness. The zeitgeist of this scene corroborates with KRS One in his 2009 book The Gospel of Hip-Hop. KRS described the jams held by Kool Herc in the South Bronx around 1973 at the birth of hip-hop: "Jams were a creative escape. It was a time to step outside the confinement of mainstream life and create ourselves, to dress up in the clothes ("gear") that amplified what we thought of ourselves, to talk, walk and live according to our perception of ourselves without compromise."
Creative youth coming together to express themselves without compromise begins in the underground. Underground youth created hip-hop, punk rock, and graffiti art. The ethos of underground culture is universal. As KRS One wrote, "The actual idea of a jam was to set up a time and a space where the true intentions of our heart could be manifested through our various forms of street recreation, and Kool Herc was the guy that brought everyone together though his deejayin.'"
The Gang's All Here
The movement that evolved into the Root Down, Firecracker, and Chocolate Bar emerged from underground Los Angeles. Backyard jam sessions, the Good Life Café, acid jazz, Peace Pipe, Unity, URB magazine, graffiti crews, East Coast hip-hop, b-boy battles, Echo Park art parties. The city's energy after the 1992 riots created a fertile landscape for music and art.
I started at U.C.L.A. in the fall of 1992, where I met Phillip Martin a.k.a. Phillharmonic. We were connoisseurs of music and knowledge, driving all over Los Angeles hitting hip-hop shows, house clubs, house parties and a few raves; but it wasn't until Root Down, Firecracker, and the Chocolate Bar came along that we were embraced by a community of creative people ready to build. Poets, painters, photographers, designers, DJs, visual artists, and educated partiers. We found each other and ourselves on the dance floor.
By 1997 Phil and I hit the city nightly. We would perform spoken word somewhere early on then close down Root Down, Firecracker, or the Chocolate Bar. A ritual. Sometimes we had girlfriends, other times the boys were rolling. No matter what it was always golden. Vibing with friends like Rich, Francis, Blackbird, Marcus Gray, Jeremy Sole, Hollywood 7 and Stricke-9. Great friends, great times, great music. KRS One is accurate in his description of jams as a place where kids come to create themselves. We created ourselves every night in the city. Poets, DJs, emcees, musicians, singer-songwriters, photographers, and filmmakers together to the beat of one drum.
Enter the Dragon
"Enter the Dragon" was a wicked Friday night poetry party from 1999 to 2002, held in a small gallery on the west end of the alley from Firecracker. Punk rock literary, hip-hop academic, a lively reading hosted by poets from the Onyx. We used to slide in the rotation real quick and yell a few poems. After poems at "Enter the Dragon," we went next door to Hop Louie. Hop Louie is an old bar, just north down the alley from where "Enter the Dragon" was held. After a few drinks at Hop Louie we'd go back over to Firecracker and keep dancing.
Old school denizens like Musicman Miles Tackett, Loslito, Marvski, Yem, Mear One, and Ordell Cordova talk about events from the late '80s and early '90s like Radiotron, Water the Bush, Peace Pipe, and Brass. Those events were before my time; for me it was Root Down, Firecracker and the Chocolate Bar. Over the years there were several periods where we went to almost every show. There were also months where we didn't go as much, but we'd always go back.
For years and years we gathered on every other Friday at Firecracker. Part of the mystery was exactly which Friday was it on. They held it on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Friday of every month so you always had to check the calendar and count Fridays. Then you had to drive to Chinatown and find it. Finding it was confusing because you had to walk into a long alley between Broadway and Hill Street. Then suddenly it appeared: the Quon Brothers' Grand Star Restaurant. Behold a sea of people in a long corridor of Chinese stores and street lamps. The alley in front of Firecracker is magical on its own. Some heads would just stay in the alley all night long. I remember the first time there and the thrill of walking through the alleys of Chinatown hearing the distant drums.
The Quon Brothers' Grand Star Restaurant is a two-floor Chinese restaurant on Broadway. The Grand Star is famous on its own for jazz downstairs, which has been there for years. Firecracker was founded by a coalition of artists, activists, writers, photographers, filmmakers and DJs in 1998.
Co-founder Lisa Yu said, "When the idea of Firecracker was first conceived, Daryl Chou, myself, James Kang, and a few other friends envisioned an artistic space where local writers, poets, visual artists, and musicians could come together to perform, share, and inspire. We craved a space where our community could come together to create and grow, so we wanted to make sure that this party incorporated not only the music that inspired us, but also other artistic elements that were part of our scene."
They called up four friends of theirs - Wing Ko, Eric Coleman, Alfred Hawkins and Paris Potter - to be the original DJs. Firecracker was born in August of 1998. Before long the location, the people, and the music merged into one. Lisa Yu said, "We showcased artists who inspired us...Chaz Bojorquez, Omar Ramirez, Angelo Moore (Fishbone), Mear One, HVW8 crew." Yu continued, "Quickly, and beyond what we ever imagined, our intimate party grew into something much larger and took on a life of its own. After a while, Logic joined the official crew, as did Azul and Kutmah a bit later." They also teamed up with like-minded orgs like Giant Robot, Stones Throw Records, Mochilla and the Chocolate Bar to cross-pollinate the party.
Filmmaker and photographer Brian Cross aka B+ said, "When Firecracker opened most people didn't even know where Chinatown was - let alone go down there to socialize. Daryl, Alfredo, Lisa Yu, Wing, Jim, C Boogie, Paris, and Coleman built an institution on the backs of a bi-weekly party that was simply that. Good music, fun times, cool space. In the process a whole scene grew up around that part of town and many legends graced the doors of Frank's Grand Star."
I can't even count how many artists I met there over the years. Coleman, B+, AzuL, Frohawk Two Feathers. Many times the vibe rocked so hard heads would be in the alley till 3 a.m. and still ready for afterhours. Romances, whirlwind relationships, freestyle sessions, young friends, rites of passage. We all grew up together. Friendships formed, bridges were built, connections were made. I met my wife at Firecracker. Coleman told me he knows several other couples who met there as well.
Daryl Chou, one of the co-founders of Firecracker, never missed a show over 12 years. He was there every two weeks from August 1998. This dedication is an overlooked factor in Firecracker's longevity. Consistency like Daryl's and resident DJ Eric Coleman is the main ingredient needed to create an event with the staying power of Firecracker. Stalwarts like Miles Tackett, Carlos Guaico, and DJ DUSK hardly missed a week at Root Down over the same period.
No Sound In Town Like The Mighty Root Down!
The Root Down's story is every bit as epic as Firecracker's. Founded by Miles Tackett and Carlos "Loslito" Guaico, the Root Down began in 1996 at a Coffeehouse jam session on La Brea. Originally called "The Breaks," Miles organized a group of players to play a set of funk classics and the rest is history. Musicians, b boys, live players, graff writers, all came together. The band BREAKESTRA came from those jam sessions. Over the next three years the event grew larger and moved around. There was Pedro's on Vermont in Los Feliz, the Atlas Supper Club in Koreatown, and Gabah on Melrose and Normandie.
Root Down stayed at Gabah for six years before moving to the Little Temple in 2004. In 2009 it moved to El Cid. The resident DJs were many, beginning with Dusk, Miles Tackett, Loslito, Mixmaster Wolf, Cut Chemist, and Wyatt Case. Others included Egon, Marvski, SloePoke, DJ JedI, DJ A Ski, Ervin, Charles the Goat and DJ Destroyer. Surprise guests like the Beat Junkies, DJ Shadow, Madlib and countless more talented selectors in the Los Angeles sector rocked the Root Down.
The Root Down's live performances became a springboard for underground hip-hop, funk, and soul in Los Angeles. Every week artists like the Breakestra, Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist, Beat Junkies, Dilated Peoples, People Under the Stairs, Loot Pack, Ugly Duckling, Visionaries, Crown City Rockers, Aloe Blacc, DJ Exile, Procussions and others rocked the stage. The annual anniversary parties were large, especially when you had to park your car in Little Tokyo and ride the Funky Bus to the actual location. These jams went till 4 a.m.
Among the most memorable Root Downs were the Soundclashes. It started from a late night conversation between DJ Dusk and Miles Tackett. A Soundclash started in Jamaica when rival DJs would battle one another with their sound systems. They would battle each other to see who had the loudest and largest sound system. Basically it came down to: who rocks the hardest? The crowd would follow the loudest sound system and people dancing would surround the winner of the Soundclash. In New York City, particularly the South Bronx in 1973, DJ Kool Herc (who was also Jamaican) had the largest sound system in the borough. As KRS-One noted above, Herc's famous jams are known as the birthplace of hip-hop. Dusk wanted Los Angeles to know this history. Besides being a great DJ, he was a natural ethnomusicologist. He loved history so deeply, that he decided to host a Soundclash in Los Angeles.
The first battle was Madlib versus Cut Chemist in 2001. They battled beat for beat on the Root Down stage. The crowd's ovation determined who rocked the hardest. They battled four rounds. Dusk hosted the battle, egging the crowd on...
"Los Angeles!! If you're feeling alright now, make some motherfuckin' noooiiiisse and let me knooooooow!!"
Cut Chemist had timed voice-overs and a well-crafted routine. Madlib made spontaneous beats relentlessly. The next Soundclash was will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas battling Thes One of People Under the Stairs in 2002. Will.i.am and Thes One have ideological differences; check the footage. The third Soundclash featured Oh No of Stonesthrow battling DJ Exile.
Mochilla Productions filmed all three Soundclashes with hand-held cameras. Mochilla is the Production Company of well-respected filmmaker/photographer B+ and his comrade, DJ/Filmmaker/photographer Eric Coleman. They've shot over 100 album covers and traveled the world documenting music. Their recording of the Soundclash is a snapshot of West Coast underground hip-hop history.
The DVD is titled DJ Dusk's Root Down Soundclash.
The program of all three Soundclash's is continuous. No edits, no overdubs, and no interruptions - just raw hip-hop. Coleman told me, "It was like witnessing the West Coast Beat Street or Style Wars, only 20 years later." Dusk's effusive energy onscreen for two hours is timeless. His persona is pure hip-hop, b-boy existentialism. Mochilla never intended to release this film but when DJ Dusk tragically passed in 2006, they felt it was important to honor his legacy and share his genius. His years of service at the Root Down set a benchmark for DJ excellence.
Records like Running Away, by Roy Ayers remind me of DJ Dusk and Wyatt Case going back and forth playing funk and soul. For many after Dusk left, Root Down was never the same. This is why the Soundclash footage is so vital. After a decade of rocking, Dusk was killed by a drunk driver in 2006. He was 31 years young. Dusk loved Los Angeles. He inspired Miles Tackett to begin DJing. "I will always remember the times," says Miles, "that Dusk and I would get into one for one record sessions toward the end of the night inspiring and sometimes challenging each other to bring a track that was not the same ol' same ol' but still rocked the party."
Miles taped a verse by Dusk that appears on Breakestra's new record. The song "`Posed to Be" was recorded just before Dusk passed. Dusk rhymes with Mixmaster Wolf and J-5 legend Chali 2na. Check his verse...
I'm the time of day when sun and moon meet
When the heavens shine beautifully and night and day greet:
Dusk! Hey yo, I'm known for nice blends
If ya like the way it feels -- notify your friends.
Time is time join the masses on the move.
All my artists and activists steady show and prove,
Show and prove with the needle and the groove,
I got the kind of rhymes that'll make your mind move…
Dusk's verse captures the verisimilitude of the Root Down/Firecracker movement. Artists, activists, show and prove the power of people coming together and the gospel of music. Dusk's spirit lives on. Breakestra titled their fall 2009 album "Dusk Till Dawn." After playing a series of November shows in Europe, they made it home just in time to play the final Root Down.
We Are The Movement
On my way to the last Root Down I went by Mochilla's storefront in Glassell Park. They were showing a collection of B+ and Coleman's 14-by-17 inch prints. Close to a hundred fine art photos dating back to the late '80s hung in a space just over 1,200 square feet. The range of images showed how far they'd traveled. Shots of David Axelrod, Lalo Schifrin, Saul Williams, DJ Shadow, Madlib, Oh No, all of Stonesthrow, MF Doom, Invisible Scratch Pickles, NWA, Azymuth. Photos in Brazilian record shops. Landscapes upon landscapes. Neon skylines, decaying houses, New York City, New Orleans, Columbia, London. The pictures tell the story. Mochilla's been cataloging the movement. I ran into Andrew Lojero, Porschia Baker, Rocio, B+, Coleman, and Black Shakespeare.
After I left Mochilla I drove to Silverlake to get painter Mear One. Mear has painted live at the Root Down many times, including the opening night in 1996. Though neither one of us had gone in a minute, we couldn't miss the last Root Down. We carpooled to El Cid near the Sunset Junction. The lopsided stairs of El Cid slope down a small hill. The actual club is 30 feet below Sunset Boulevard. Mear One and I spent time in the patio outside with old friends because the dance floor and DJ area were mobbed. We posted with cosmic individuals like Longevity, Marvski, Rosalinda, J-Logic, Adriana, Felicia, Karla, Doll One, Arturo, EarL, Frank E., Vinnie, AzuL, Wyatt Case and DJ Concise. This is when J Logic said, "LA loves a good funeral."
We reminisced like Pete Rock and CL. Memories like one late night when Dusk dropped into the mix DMX's, "We Right Here!" It wasn't that often they played DMX but the way Dusk mixed the beat in was so fresh we felt the euphoria DMX must have felt when he yelled, "We're not going anywhere, we right here!!"
For that moment in time, DMX's fiery voice captured the passion and loyalty we had for each other and the music. The crowd danced with fever chanting, "We're not going anywhere, We right here!"
Some nights we danced ‘til the lights came on.
A decade ago entering into the new millennium, the Chocolate Bar, Root Down, and Firecracker set the precedent for the next generation of jams: Sound Lessons, Funky Sole, More, Bounce Rock Skate, Sunday Service, Descarga, Quality, Afro Funke, Soul Sessions, Sketch Book, the Do-Over, and the annual Thanksgivends. Kindred events like Juju, hosted by the Soul Children, Deep with Marques Wyatt, and Nappy at the Roots with Medusa and Lady Copper.
The Chocolate Bar rocked 'til 2008. Now Chocolate Bar founders Aurelito and Shakespeare (I'n'I Sound) carry on even stronger with their Ice Cream Truck sound system. Transitions are made. Now we say goodbye to Firecracker and the Root Down. Though their doors have closed, their influence reverberates worldwide, continuing on at jams like Afro Funke, Funky Sole, Soul Sessions, Soul in the Park, Low End Theory, Bridges and Boombox. In the words of DJ Dusk, "We're not done, we're not done!"