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Behind the Green Labels

Unusual Finds from KCSB’s Hip-Hop Library


After last week’s KCSBeat column on the weekly celebration of hip-hop that is Tree Top Tales, I couldn’t help but explore that genre’s corner of the music library myself.

Team Tree Tops were not wrong; there’s a lot of material on those shelves. I admit, though, that navigating it all is more than a little confusing for the hip-hop neophyte. There are regular old albums, sure, but there are even more singles, maxi-singles 12” mixes, and remixes than I’d care to mention in polite company. This nonetheless accommodated what has become KCSBeat’s music library modus operandi: Get in there and find some fascinating vinyl.

Each genre is color-coded, and this forest of green labels has its own standards, its own customs. The first thing I noticed is that hip-hopping KCSBers throughout the years have been pretty enthusiastic about the comment stickers. These are little blank white labels slapped on the album covers that provide DJs a space to express their opinion on the music contained within. Whether fresh or wack, ill or a vector of illness, the hip-hop available in KCSB’s music library has roused many a browser to pick up a Sharpie and evaluate.

This helped me seek out albums that looked promising, given that I didn’t have much else to go on. I tried to put myself in the mind of someone with very little hip-hop experience who nevertheless wants to do a hip-hop show. Such an enterprise might sound doomed to failure, but step back a bit and it doesn’t look like a bad idea at all. I’d actually like to hear such a program on KCSB, one of the vanishingly few broadcast venues that would accept it. If I’ve learned anything from my greater project of profiling the station’s DJs, it’s that most of them learn about their music of choice even as they present it to the listening audience. How fun would it be, musically as well as narratively, to follow someone’s journey toward figuring out an entire musical tradition live, on the air, in real time?

One piece of vinyl—or, in the comment stickers’ terminology, “wax”—that might interest this kind of eager KCSBer is Playtight, from San Jose outfit Foreign Legion. This section of the music library is all over the map, chronologically speaking, so the relative recency of this 2003 release could be a draw, as would the fact that it’s obviously a cohesive, 13-track album in a labyrinth of compilations-of-seven-different-versions-of-one-songs.

Dropping the needle on it, it turned out to sound like one of those party-oriented records deeply concerned with such issues of the day as the availability of fine ladies and the substance-induced alteration of one’s own state of mind. (It’s worth noting, however, that Santa Barbara’s own science fiction elder statesman, Ray Bradbury, is name-checked at least once.) Its miles and miles from the more cerebral, inward-looking, socially conscious cuts I regularly hear on KCSB. Perhaps that means it’s time for a show whose mandate is to take partying as seriously as humanly possible?

With partying on my mind, it wasn’t long before I happened upon something from a group I actually recognized from parties. Namely, the Stereo M.C.s, whom I recalled from 1990s revival parties. Though everyone in the developed world has no doubt heard their big 1992 hit “Connected,” they’re far less likely to have encountered this, the Stereo M.C.s self-titled debut.

Short, mauve-sleeved, and almost entirely unassuming, the album doesn’t look as if it’s been pulled off the shelf very often since it was first filed there almost exactly 20 years ago. Then again, I don’t recall ever seeing any programs centered on English hip-hop/acid-jazz hybrids on the schedule. That’s a shame, since this early effort, with a production style a bit less electronic and accents a bit heavier than what would come later, is just the sort of out-of-the-way spot on the musical map I like to hear freeform radio visit.

At this point, I started to realize that nothing I was picking out really resembled what those who take it seriously would really consider to be hip-hop. Intent upon finding something a bit closer to the heart of the craft, I was almost immediately derailed by an album emblazoned with a harsh black-and-white image of what appeared to be a slightly insane man. The minimalist sleeve revealed only that the group’s name was Oxbow, the album’s was King of the Jews, and that the songs bore ominous titles like “Bomb,” “Burn,” and “Woe.” The project appeared to have been released by some unknown label at Stanford.

Best of all was the record’s comment sticker, “Weird, fun…dark?” wrote one anonymous KCSBer from days gone by. Above, in the hand of another, “WHEN I PLAYED THIS RECORD, MY INSIDES…”. Though my own viscera remained undisturbed during the listening session, I was nevertheless surprised. I heard neither rapping nor sampling. I didn’t even really hear discernible beats. I heard layers of tortured guitar, moaning mixed with volume-peaking screaming—neither of them linguistically comprehensible—and a swarm of miscellaneous sounds I had no hope of identifying. If this is hip-hop, I thought, it’s definitely a tradition with which I’m unfamiliar.

A little research later revealed that Oxbow is actually a San Francisco noise music collective, famous for a first album whose title is probably unmentionable here. King of the Jews came out in 1991, but the group’s still going strong, affecting listeners’ insides in further indescribable ways. Only then did I realize that the album’s presence on the library’s hip-hop shelves was probably just an act of misfiling. These things happen. If they didn’t, how would you ever find records like this?

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