Tassho Pearce performing at the now defunct Pipeline Cafe.

Breakin' da mold

Date
Text Eric Stinton

Now what you hear is not a test…” — Sugarhill Gang

Richard Gasper didn’t exactly fit the look of an early hip-hop pioneer. Raised in Halawa, he rocked slippers, board shorts, half-cut tees and jobber hats with tails in the back. More into surfing and heavy metal as a kid, everything changed when his cousin came over and played Zapp’s funk hit “Mo Bounce to the Ounce.” His cousin started popping—dancing characterized by quick, explosive movements to make it look like joints were popping out of their sockets—and Gasper was hooked.

It was 1980, just seven years after hip-hop was born in a Bronx apartment party and less than a year after it rhymed its way into national consciousness with The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Before the internet allowed anyone and everyone to call themselves rappers, before MTV became the arbiter of music and culture for an entire generation, hip-hop travelled 5,000 miles from its New York City birthplace to the shores of Hawaiʻi.

“I would go to sleep and think about dancing, try to see where I could tweak the moves just a little,” Gasper says. “My style came from me thinking about it all the time—what if you put this move on top of this move? Then I try it out and see what happens.”

Such a mentality earned him the nickname “Trick” for the depth and creativity of his dancing repertoire. While attending Pearl City High School, he started a crew called The Wizards with his cousin, brother and friends.

Had he taken to academics the same way he took to dancing, the story of hip-hop in Hawaiʻi would have been dramatically different. Instead, he got kicked out of Pearl City and, when he started going to ʻAiea High School, his crew fractured. It was contentious at first, but it ultimately helped the burgeoning culture spread. After recruiting new dancers to fill out The Wizards roster, Trick made it his goal to become the top dance crew on the island.

“We would go to other crews’ schools and challenge them in their auditoriums,” he says. “We let them know that if you wanna be good, you gotta top us guys.”

Trick and The Wizards, circa

The Wizards created a groundswell buzz for themselves in competitions big and small, traveling from ʻAiea and Pearl City to Kalihi and across the Koʻolau mountains to Kailua, spreading the dance style across Oʻahu. While at a competition in Waikiki, Trick and The Wizards made an important discovery: the streets made for a dynamic and high-octane venue.

“We were either the first or one of the first to dance on the [Waikiki] strip. Nobody else was performing anything.”

Beyond providing exposure and money, the street performances sowed hip-hop culture deeper into the fabric of island life. Local kids saw a group of dancers who looked and talked like them excelling at something new, cool and totally wild, and then emulated what they saw.

And since Waikiki never shies away from hooking in tourists with “Hawaiiana,” The Wizards started to develop a style that was distinctly different from what was happening on the mainland: Hawaiian-style popping was becoming its own thing.

By then, Trick’s mother Doreen (referred to as “Mama Wizard”) realized her son’s talent and dedication. She started booking gigs for them across the island. They danced for singers and runway shows, at clubs and store openings—wherever there was a crowd.

Mama Wizard saw a magazine article about a dance group from New York City called the Rock Steady Crew and made some phone calls. She got in touch with Richard Colon, a Mt. Rushmore-level b-boy pioneer more commonly known by his stage name “Crazy Legs.” He agreed to fly out to Hawaiʻi to show The Wizards his style of dancing, known as “breaking.”

Breaking (or breakdancing, as it often referred to nowadays in mainstream culture), like popping and locking, is a highly physical hip-hop dance style, but involves an even higher degree of body control and core strength to deliver some of the most powerful and impressive dance moves ever created. B-boys and b-girls—the dancers that execute these moves—were, and still are, the ultimate hip-hop dancers.

“The first night he showed me how to do a backspin in my living room,” Gasper remembers. “Right there in my living room.”

That same year that Crazy Legs brought breaking to the islands, John “Prime” Hina was 10 years old and curious about the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the islands. He followed his curiosity to a competition at Aloha Stadium called “The Pop-Off,” where he saw Trick’s crew throw new moves onto the usual popping routines. He didn’t know it then, but he was witnessing the first b-boy showcase in Hawaiʻi.

“All of these crews were popping, and then [The Wizards] broke out footwork and the shoulder roll and a backspin. It freaked everybody out,” Prime said.

It wasn’t just breaking, though—at least not like how it was in Los Angeles or New York. It was slower and less aggressive, but by no means easier. If anything, slowing down frenetic break moves requires a deceptively difficult level of control. Hawaiʻi was starting to put its mark on the dance style it adopted.

“We had to really think about our moves and try to make them different,” Gasper explains. “The attitude and lifestyle of being a b-boy—we took that off the TV. But the dancing part of it is the island style. We danced on Hawaiian time. Hawaiʻi b-boys take our time, make it smooth, make it clean, make sure you see what we’re doing.”

Thanks to Crazy Legs, Trick and The Wizards helped usher in the first wave of hip-hop culture in Hawaiʻi. Crazy Legs would return to the islands with the rest of the Rock Steady Crew in 1983, putting on what is now considered a mythic performance at the Oceania Floating Restaurant in downtown Honolulu.

Still from "Breakin'" (1984) intro sequence

Cornerstone hip-hop artists like Africa Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and Run DMC played shows in the islands throughout the '80s. The 1984 b-boy classic film “Breakin’” showcased a small, yet meaningful nod to Hawaiʻi in its introduction: a young kid breakdancing on a wall tagged with “Palolo Boys” underneath. For Hina—a Palolo boy himself—that was huge.

“There’s only one Palolo in the world, you know? To see that on a hip-hop movie gave us more pride,” he says. “We come from a small island. Back then it was about always pushing for originality. Being original meant you were on top of your game.”

When he was 13, Hina joined his own crew. For a while he experimented with dancing and rapping, but everything changed when a friend taught him how to use a spray can. He dropped out of school and dedicated himself to the art of graffiti, the singular visual element of the larger hip-hop movement.

As a teenager, he and his crew tagged buses—the closest approximation to the subway car canvases of New York City that Hawaiʻi had to offer. His style quickly evolved from basic tag signs to painting elaborate characters and portraits, which have become his specialty.

As he got more comfortable with spray paint, the characters started to look less like they were from New York and more true to Hina’s own experiences. He added hibiscus flowers to the usual bold lettering found in mainland graffiti; he painted funked-up tikis and portraits of Hawaiian monarchs. He did with graffiti what Trick and The Wizards were doing with breaking: blending hip-hop and Hawaiian culture into something new and distinct.

By the end of the '80s, however, a lot of the initial excitement over hip-hop in Hawaiʻi had started to plateau. Hip-hop artists on the mainland had discovered that MCing and DJing were the more commercially viable elements of hip-hop and had begun selling millions of records and touring the world. As a result, b-boying and tagging graffiti became proportionately smaller subsets of the overall hip-hop culture, which had increasingly begun to focus on the music.

Hawaiʻi had its fair share of hip-hop musicians, but unlike the dancers and graffiti artists who started before them, they largely emulated what they saw and heard from the mainland. The originality was missing. It wasn’t until the mid-'90s that Hawaiʻi-made hip-hop music would find itself.

Sudden Rush performing at

Don’t sweat the technique…” – Eric B. and Rakim

In the early '90s, hip-hop in Honolulu had atrophied. The mainland emphasis on marketable musical acts had permeated the islands and resulted in a surplus of artists jockeying for attention from a limited audience. The “OG” class of b-boys and graffiti artists fell into a period of relative dormancy.

During that time, the music scene developed simultaneously along two similar, yet separate paths. On the one hand, there existed “Hawaiian” hip-hop: music that incorporated elements of classic 20th century Hawaiiana culture and, sometimes, more traditional, indigenous culture aimed at local audiences. On the other hand, there existed “Hawaiʻi” hip-hop: hip-hop music made in the islands that often had a broader appeal with mainland audiences.

Hawaiian hip-hop started with “Radical” Rob Onekea. A DJ and producer, he was among the first to mix Hawaiian reggae and hip-hop music into a distinct style. After working in the studio with R&B acts like Boyz II Men and Bell Biv DeVoe, Onekea was approached by a trio of rappers from Hilo. They called themselves Sudden Rush.

“People were either doing Jawaiian reggae or straight hip-hop,” Onekea says. “We were able to reach both audiences.”

Equally influenced by slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui as he was by Public Enemy, Onekea’s signature urban-island sound was a perfect fit for the group of rappers, whose lyrics—often delivered in both Hawaiian and English—were deeply rooted in Native Hawaiian issues. In a post-Apology Resolution world where the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement was experiencing newfound fervor, Sudden Rush provided a revolutionary voice in a medium that suited the urgency and aggression of the message. The convergence of hip-hop and Hawaiian cultures was beautiful and brilliant, but also limiting.

“We used to do autograph signings in Hawaiʻi, and there would be choke people,” says Onekea. “Then we’d go to L.A. and there was nobody. It was pretty obvious that we were just a Hawaiʻi band.”

Mainland opportunities continued to present themselves to Sudden Rush, but the group passed.

“How would you market that in New York City? ʻHere’s some Hawaiian guys from Hawaiʻi rapping in Hawaiian.’ It just wouldn’t fit,” Onekea says. “Our core audience is people who are proud to be Hawaiian, represent Hawaiʻi, put stickers on their cars, wear Hawaiian flag t-shirts. If other people like it, cool, but we have to stay true to what we started doing.

“Our music is made for Hawaiʻi. Bottom line,” he continues. “Our music is the culture of Hawaiʻi. White people don’t wanna hear about the struggle of Hawaiians. We stuck to what we knew and what we saw: corruption in politics, budget cuts to Hawaiian language schools and Hawaiian lands—all the garbage that Hawaiian people faced, and they had no voice except these politicians who only had their own agendas.”

Despite their geographic limitations, Sudden Rush achieved unprecedented success for hip-hop artists in Hawaiʻi. Between 1995 and 2002, they released three albums, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and played sold-out shows across the islands. They pushed the limits of what people thought hip-hop could accomplish in Hawaiʻi, all while keeping it real to themselves and the culture they represented. Ironically, for a group that set out to be more hip-hop than Jawaiian, they never got much traction on urban radio stations. Most of their success came from the massive support they found through island and reggae channels.

Tassho Pearce at Hard Rock Cafe

While Sudden Rush and the Hawaiian style of hip-hop music crashed onto the shores of the local music scene like a tsunami, another strain of hip-hop—an undercurrent flowing away from Hawaiʻi out into the open ocean—was quietly gaining strength. Tassho Pearce was an integral part of Honolulu’s nascent underground scene.

“Shit could pop off at any time,” he says. “Rap battles, open mics—it was electrifying. There was a little bit of danger, a little bit of fun. It was dope.”

With his group the Hoomanakaz—a hip-hopification of the Hawaiʻi state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa—Pearce conquered the competitive circuit of mid-'90s downtown Honolulu. Between radio shows and nightclub events, he gained a reputation as one of the fiercest freestyle battlers in Hawaiʻi.

“It was definitely a highly competitive environment back then,” says Pearce. “We had to go super hard any chance we had. That was the only way we felt we could be heard. Our main goal was to put Hawaiʻi on the map.”

Though he was rapping at the same time Sudden Rush was blowing up, Pearce took his cues from outside Hawaiʻi. He was inspired by local legend Slick, an L.A.-based graffiti artist originally from Oʻahu who had found underground fame competing in international graffiti competitions.

“It was dope to see someone from Hawaiʻi in hip-hop being relevant on a larger scale than just our backyard,” says Pearce. “I studied the art form like crazy. The '90s was the golden era of real lyricism, so I made sure my rhymes were on par. I had a lot of respect for the culture and the craft. We wanted people anywhere, Hawaiʻi or the mainland, to respect our music.”

Pearce and his crew created enough of a buzz to secure parts as opening acts for hip-hop icons like The Wu-Tang Clan, The Roots, De La Soul, Common and The Pharcyde. He boasted smooth, complex rhyme schemes that resembled New York classicism more than the ʻōlelo-infused lyricism of Sudden Rush.

In 2000, Pearce was invited to freestyle on The Wake Up Show , a nationally syndicated radio program in Los Angeles dedicated to showcasing the best rappers in the country. Pearce rhymed alongside two of the most talented MCs ever—GZA and Pharoahe Monch—and his verse was included on a compilation of the best freestyles from the show. It was the first time an artist from Hawaiʻi truly broke into the larger world of hip-hop music.

Pearce—and Hawaiʻi hip-hop in general—had another breakthrough moment in 2003, with his single “ Honolulu.” The track is a legitimate jam, and it was feverishly requested and regularly played on hip-hop stations in Hawaiʻi that otherwise only played mainstream Top 40 hits. As Pearce envisioned, the success of “Honolulu” was not just local; it also got steady rotation in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City.

“It was the first time you heard real hip-hop from Hawaiʻi on Hawaiian radio from a local artist. It made a big difference,” he says.

Including his debut album in 2004, under the name Emirc, Pearce has released three full-length albums, performed at big-time music festivals around the country, gone on international tours, and worked with names like Kanye West and Kid Cudi. He remains grounded and supported by his home, but his sights have always been fixed on the horizon.

Sudden Rush and Tassho Pearce represented Hawaiʻi on the mic in their own ways. Though they brought new levels of success to the 808 hip-hop landscape, they paved distinct paths. The next generation of artists didn’t just follow suit. They carved their own lanes as both artists and activists.

Angry Locals

If you wanna reach the nation start from ya corner…” – Outkast

A new wave of Hawaiʻi MCs that initially followed in the footsteps of Pearce and Sudden Rush has diverged and diversified, running the gamut of sounds and styles.

There’s the Angry Locals, a group that incorporates Pidgin English creole—as opposed to Sudden Rush’s ʻōlelo o Hawaiʻi—into witty punchlines, with production that ranges from bass-heavy trap beats to acoustic guitars.

Then there’s Sans from Nuʻuanu, a slam poet and debate coach whose acrobatic lyricism is equal parts Tassho Pearce and Eyedea, with shades of pathos reminiscent of Macklemore.

Kaneʻohe MC Koins flexes stunning artistic diversity, telling stories that stumble drunk outside of a house party into existential ruminations, and cultivating a sound that’s half Houston bounce on hallucinogens and half rainy-day boombap jazz.

But paying the bills as a hip-hop artist isn’t easy. Living in Hawai‘i is expensive for anyone, but for rappers it’s nearly impossible to make ends meet strictly off music. Most working class folks in Hawaiʻi hold down multiple jobs, and hip-hop artists are no exception.

Osna, who raps for Angry Locals on top of being the group’s DJ and producer, explains the conflict: “Out of all the rappers I’ve met on this tiny island, we all gotta work that nine-to-five to survive. A rap career is short-lived. It's hard to work two jobs and juggle your future rap career when you're thinking in the back of your mind, ‘Do I spend $2,000 on a music video to get my brand out and sleep on the beach for a month, or should I pay my rent?’”

But in Hawaiʻi—just like in the Bronx neighborhood where it all began—hip-hop’s impact extends far beyond a money-making endeavor: It’s a force for strengthening communities. Even though hip-hop culture looks different from Hawaiian culture on the surface, there are essential similarities that speak to local people in familiar ways.

“Hawaiian culture and hip-hop culture both have a certain distrust for government and, more specifically, white people,” Tassho Pearce says. “Both are fighting against powers who would like to see us oppressed and silenced.”

According to Angry Locals MC Krystilez, hip-hop connects with people in ways that reggae and island music simply can’t. “Growing up in Nanakuli homestead, I barely saw the Hawaiʻi that most of the world perceived. Instead, I was seeing things like the Ice epidemic, poverty, drugs, violence. Hawaiian and Jawaiian music was mostly positive. I couldn’t relate to it. When I first listened to rap, they painted this imagery that I could relate to.”

Koins

For Koins, it’s all about the art of storytelling. “Hawaiʻi is a storytelling place, and hip-hop is a storytelling culture. It translates. Somebody from California that never knew there’s hip-hop in Hawaiʻi hears a local kid speak about housing and homelessness or scrapping, and they’re intrigued by that ʻcuz we’re speaking their language. So they learn more about our culture from us being a part of their culture.”

To Sans, much of hip-hop’s resonance in Hawaiʻi comes from being proud of where you come from. “In Hawaiʻi people always ask, ‘Where you from? What high school did you go to?’ That matters a lot. In New York City, people rep Queens or Brooklyn; here you have artists repping Kaneʻohe or Makaha.”

The emergence of talented artists is no doubt a testament to hip-hop’s impact in the islands, and people have tapped into that for positive community outreach. John “Prime” Hina, who saw Crazy Legs and The Wizards introduce breaking to Hawaiʻi as a 10-year-old kid in 1980, started 808 Urban in 2006 as a way to fuse his passions for graffiti art and Hawaiian culture. Since its inception, 808 Urban has painted hundreds of murals in the islands and around the world.

“We’re more focused on Hawaiian culture today than hip-hop culture, but we come from hip-hop and we acknowledge that,” Hina says. “We come from this hip-hop movement, but we don’t have to stay in the movement. We evolved to something that’s more relevant to our place.”

That relevance has primarily manifested as large-scale graffiti murals of traditional Hawaiian stories. The process not only beautifies communities, it brings generations together.

“If you wanna reach the kids, you gotta go to where the kids are,” Hina continues. “When we’re painting these cultural murals, we’re also bringing out the real experts: our kūpuna. They’re seeing us painting a story that they’re familiar with, so they’ll test you. If you can’t defend your interpretation, then you have no right painting about the culture. It teaches kids accountability.”

Many of those stories might have slipped away silently into the corners of museums or the pages of history books—or worse, into complete obscurity—but, through 808 Urban they are passed on to younger generations who may have otherwise never heard them. Through an artistic medium that hip-hop gave birth to, young and old are able to come together in ways that don’t always happen in society. More importantly, this coming together has been a way for stories and knowledge to be transferred orally from one generation to the next, just like how it was in ancient Hawaiʻi.

An 808 Urban mural adorns the side of

“It’s like one big community potluck,” Hina says. “That’s the gift of hip-hop. It’s for everybody.”

Where 808 Urban focuses on the visual aspect of hip-hop, Soundshop is centered around the most prominent element of the culture: the music. Hip-hop artists Navid Najafi, Scott Ohtoro and Illis It, who share several Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards and nominations between them, teamed up with Taylour Chang of the Doris Duke Theatre to found Soundshop in 2013. Soundshop is a music education program based out of the Honolulu Museum of Art that works with high school students across the state. They put on three-hour workshops that culminate in student-led performances.

“We put them on the spot,” Najafi says. “These kids aren’t necessarily performers or artists, and they’re not always creative students, but we acknowledge how important it is to get uncomfortable. We run from discomfort most of our lives, but you’re never gonna grow if you’re always comfortable.”

The workshops start off with performances by guest artists, usually from the same area that the students are from, followed by group discussions focused on critical thinking and the creative process. Students then get help writing lyrics and making beats in preparation for the final performance.

“Whether they’re successful or not, there’s always adrenaline afterwards,” Najafi says. “Teachers tell us when they’re heading back to school, the students keep singing and rapping on the bus.”

The purpose of the performances is to stimulate the creative process, which sparks deeper, more vital learning than regular school can always provide.

“We talk about difficult subjects,” Najafi says. “Kids naturally respond to that—especially kids who don’t do well in traditional school settings.”

Ohtoro agrees, saying, “It builds confidence for students and gives them a different outlet to be creative and show their true selves free from judgment. Hip-hop allows freedom of expression in a way that sometimes schools don't allow or promote.”

Creativity, Najafi adds, “is finding out who you are and who you want to be. You create the superhero version of yourself. You manifest from that place and it becomes your reality. Learning how to turn a negative situation into a positive one—that’s the ultimate spiritual knowledge.”

Soundshop

These lessons are especially vital for the most vulnerable and at-risk kids. “Hip-hop has always been a tool for the underrepresented,” Ohtoro says. “It started that way with disenfranchised groups telling their stories and expressing themselves as an outlet. It was the only way for them to try to change their lives or to break the cycle of negativity and poverty.

“If there is an artist the kids can relate to, it will show them that they're not alone and that there is hope,” Ohtoro continues. “Especially in Hawaiʻi where there aren't that many hip-hop role models to look up to, Soundshop gives the kids a chance to be introduced to positive hip-hop mentors within their community.”

Soundshop not only provides the opportunity for students to experience the therapeutic and confidence-building benefits of creative expression and public performance, it also delivers one of hip-hop’s most powerful messages: that youth can change the world.

Rap music is by far the most broadly influential force in pop culture today, permeating every aspect of consumer culture, and it was invented—and has been regularly reinvented—by young people. In a society that largely dismisses the thoughts and opinions of students as adolescent angst or naïve absolutism, this is a transformational reality to grasp. It highlights the potential for teens to cultivate the world around them and take charge of their own individual lives.

"Breakin' Hawaiʻi" neon sign

“Hip-hop specifically may not be for everyone,” says Najafi. “But the core philosophies of hip-hop apply to everyone.”

These philosophies of self-empowerment and inclusivity that form the foundation for hip-hop are reflected in many aspects of modern-day life in Hawaiʻi. Hip-hop itself is a language, one that speaks to disconnected people from any and all walks of life.

“We grow up in a western system that we’re not fit for,” Hina says. “When hip-hop came along, the whole mission statement resonated with me and people like me. It felt indigenous. It felt real. More righteous than what the schools were teaching us. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. Hip-hop taught me how to write my name.”

It is this connection to culture and community that ultimately ties hip-hop and Hawaiʻi together. It’s poetic that Hawaiʻi’s original generation of MCs and b-boys was so connected, on a personal level, to the roots of hip-hop itself. Hip-hop culture was created to give voice to displaced peoples—African-Americans and Latinos living in inner-city America, displaced from their historical homelands. It has also given a voice to a new generation of people in Hawaiʻi who, even if they may still physically be in their ancestral land, were nevertheless forcibly severed from their culture.

Hip-hop may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Hawaiʻi, and that probably won’t change. But there is a message within the story of hip-hop and Hawaiʻi, of how a radically different culture in its infancy travelled across land and sea to establish itself in a seemingly ill-fitted environment, and how that culture has continued to evolve into its own endemic thing, becoming a force for individual artistry and collective activism. The message is as profound as it is unlikely: to know hip-hop is to know Hawaiʻi.

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