“We need some beats,” said Zach “The Story Tella” Ingram to his co-host, Andrew “Dru’Letu’ Leonard. “Some for talking, some for rapping.” Leonard headed right into the nearest crate, binder, or stack of discs in search of just the right tracks, assisted by Gary “Baby Maurice Belafonte” Bradley. It was almost time for an interview with, and some freestyling by, Santa Barbara rapper and producer Sinuous, seated right there on the studio couch, ready at the mic with McDonald’s coffee in hand. “It sometimes gets a little chaotic in here,” explained “Dirt Dave” Esquer as the rest of the crew hurriedly finished their preparations.
It’s been a while since these four have had a place on the KCSB schedule. Ingram and Leonard got a jump on things, starting Tree Top Tales back when they were both 16-year-olds spending their days at Dos Pueblos High. They stuck around spinning hip-hop, bringing in live guests, and generally refining their radio craft until 2008, when Leonard decamped to Manhattan to study fine art. Ingram spent the meantime on his own solo show of Christian hip-hop, but now that Leonard’s back in the 805 for a little while their collaboration has resumed, dishing out two hours of pure hip-hop saturation every Thursday night and offering a link to KCSB’s MC and DJ-filled past.
It wasn’t so long ago, in the grand scheme, that KCSB was a hip-hop haven. A congratulatory platinum disc from Tommy Boy Records hangs, framed, in the station’s office. Countless rumors circulate about the renowned hip-hop types who have passed through the studios. (Some even pin the loss of many a classic jazz album on one Otis Jackson Jr., also known as Madlib, a man with a suspiciously large collection of college station library-labeled vinyl.) Throughout the 1990s, KCSB was a cornerstone of Santa Barbara County hip-hop. “The station seemed to be a central point back then,” Ingram remembered. “There were all these shows at UCSB’s Hub, at the Living Room, and everything was connected with KCSB.”
That was also when, as youngsters, Ingram and his crew found out about KCSB. Tuned in to programs like Totem Pole Tactics, their own show’s partial namesake, they discovered the specific flavors of hip-hop they love, play, and promote today. (“Those programmers literally programmed us,” as Esquer put it.) Most of their selections come from that era; the show’s overall sound seems to balance roughly in the mid-90s through the early 2000s, focusing on certain underground styles active then. Ingram described it as “a progressive sound that doesn’t get old.”
They’ll also play newer and older material with the same feel, especially when it’s made by locals. All four of the Team Tree Tops represent their own tastes with music of every form—CDs, vinyl, MP3s, even cassettes—but they agree on how the show should feel. The crew collectively explained that their favorite hip-hop comes from a time when the genre’s sound was more raw, and what they play is the evolution of that stylistic chapter in the music’s history. In a constant search for more to play, they’ll often return to the eras of their childhoods. Having started exploring hip-hop in the third grade, Leonard still spends hours in KCSB’s music library looking for choice vinyl from those days. “Every 20 records, I find one keeper,” he explained, “one gold.”
“We’re into all genres of hip-hop,” Bradley explained, “but we all bring stuff to the table. Sometimes we vibe off each other, and sometimes we go in opposite directions. But we bring it all together.” Jumping from the mixing board to the turntables to the CD decks to his MP3 player, Ingram described his playlist-free programming sensibility: “We don’t match beats. We match sounds. We go with the flow.” And everything does indeed flow pretty smoothly out onto the airwaves, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the bustle in the control room, especially when the team (plus one more guy taking notes) is trying to make room for incoming special guests.
An impressive variety and frequency of live, in-studio local hip-hop figures makes the Tree Top Tales experience particularly exciting. “At first, it was a struggle to get live guests,” Ingram recalled, echoing the formidable task facing any guest-inclined radio show just getting its start. “A lot who we had on at first were friends. But if you get contacts with labels and don’t be wack, people come in.” Even after its two-year hiatus, the show has enough momentum in that regard to get nearly anyone passing through town to talk and perform on the air. “So many underground guys you know today started in community radio,” Ingram explained. “They all still give shout-outs to their old stations.” Sometimes they’re even shout-outs to KCSB.
Recent guests have included Roc C, The Epsilon Project, MC Miesh, and, freestyling over the phone, Marlon D. While rappers stopping by now typically just perform over beats laid down by Team Tree Tops, Ingram looks forward to expanding the possibilities. One of the necessary tools will be KCSB’s DJ booth, which has fallen into disuse in recent years. “We need this,” the thoroughly low-key Ingram said with relative vehemence, gesturing through the glass at the cabinet where the old gear sits. He’s currently in talks with KCSB’s executive committee about how to raise funds for turntable repairs and a new, working mixer. “Maybe we’ll throw a benefit show,” he speculated.
Small as it may be, Ingram, Leonard, Bradley, and Esquer seem to have found a lot of enthusiasm and hidden potential in the Santa Barbara hip-hop scene. Its collective memory still resonates with the good vibes of such pillars as the beloved all-ages Goleta venue the Living Room and State Street’s Morninglory Music, both sites of Team Tree Tops’ early hip-hop education. Sitting in on the show, I heard a bit of positive discussion about local hip-hop: “We can get it together.” “There’s definitely room for improvement.” “It’s got a lot of underappreciated people working hard.” There’s certainly camaraderie: every Sunday, the crew heads outside and plays baseball together, along with some of their listeners. If Santa Barbara hip-hop returns to its former heights of activity, Tree Top Tales will unquestionably have done its part to get it there.
Tree Top Tales airs Thursdays from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM. For details, visit ttt.teamtreetops.com.