Words and Photography by Brennan Ko-Madden
The Bay Area has a deep history of producing some of the world’s best MC’s and hip-hop artists. The successful careers of legends such as Too $hort, E-40, and hyphy godfather Mac Dre have given the Bay its rightful time in the limelight. However, because of their celebrity status it is easy to overlook the fact that these artists weren’t always famous and it is even easier to overlook the community of artists and fans with a deep love for hip-hop and rap, which supported their rise from the underground to the main stage.
Looking at its history, it is therefore no wonder that the Bay Area underground hip-hop and beat community is still going strong, most notably in its most recent showcase at Hercules Records in South Berkeley. The second ever Beat Workshop was held on the first Tuesday of August as part of the monthly First Tuesday Alcatraz Block Party, featuring the talents of local MC’s and beat makers.
The workshop is organized by East Bay beat maker Heddy Fur in conjunction with Hercules Records. On the night of the workshop the small record store was packed with hip-hop heads and casual listeners alike. In addition to providing a venue for local beat makers and artists to perform, the workshop hosts an hour of beat making challenges, giving audience volunteers 15 minutes to make a beat on the spot.
Beat makers and producers showed up with SP-404’s, SP-808’s, and other gear used to sample records and layer drum loops. People that you thought would just be casual music fans turned out to be celebrities of the underground beat scene. Standing in the crowd of onlookers I heard jokes about wanting to hear these 15 minute beats on SoundCloud. The energy and enthusiasm of the attendees caught me completely off-guard. People were getting stoked just listening to the records being sampled; fellow producers nodded their heads to loops that appealed to them and you could almost hear their own beats being made in their heads.
This edition of the Beat Workshop featured performances (in order of appearance) from Jada Imani (MC), Pas Doo, and Chris Keys. Jada Imani kicked it off with a short set that got the energy levels high with her delivery of original rhymes and locally sourced beats. Her performance ended with a cypher that had audience members taking turns killing the mic, to the loud applause of the crowd.
Following this performance was beat maker, MC, and self-professed lover of hip-hop, Pas Doo. He kept the energy high with his mixed set of records and original beats, spinning funk and soul records into his carefully timed transitions on an SP-404. One of the highlights of the night was with him rapping over an original production that elicited an enthusiastic call and response from an already hyped crowd.
Finally, the night closed out with the soulful melodies of keyboardist and producer Chris Keys. Transitioning between laying down drum rhythms on an OP-1 to live looping improvised Rhodes inspired melodies, Chris provided the kind of live performance that you would expect to see in the final stages of America’s Got Talent. After a solid 15 minutes of inspired improvised music, Chris turned to his SP-404 to play original productions while he soloed over them on his Nord Electro keyboard. The night closed out with attendees singing along to the melodies and calling for more, prompting the humble musician to shake his head in embarrassment and appreciation. A fitting end to an evening of love and admiration for an art form with deep roots in its community.