Back in his days as a student at San Marcos High, before he rose to relative fame as a hip-hop deejay and music producer known as Damizza, Damion Young could be found at his grandma’s kitchen table with two turntables and a mixer, exploring the emerging rap scene of the 1990s. Today, while the turntables and mixer have been replaced with iMacs and hard drives, Damizza is still at the kitchen table, cooking up a new recipe for hip-hop in Santa Barbara, with young rappers, original beats, and a positive outlet for would-be criminals as the main ingredients.
“I wanted to take it back to having fun, making music, and doing what was right,” said Young, who became one of hip-hop’s most influential radio deejays while working at Power 106 in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and went on to produce songs for such icons as Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Lil Wayne, and, most intimately, Mariah Carey, who actually gave Damizza his nickname. But as the music industry soured and former friends turned haters, Young walked away from it all in the mid-2000s. “I hung it up like a suit in the closet,” Young told me last year over drinks at Joe’s Café. “I changed all my numbers and just walked away, and it wasn’t that hard.”
He returned to Santa Barbara and laid low for a few years while working on a controversial tell-all autobiography called Guilty by Association: The Life and Bizarre Times of a Hip-Hop Godfather. Hampered by years of legal threats from Carey’s camp, Young eventually self-published that book in 2011 as an online download at damizzabook.com. Along the way, he also did studio work with ’60s-era songwriters Eric Burdon, Terry Reid, and P.F. Sloan, and the L.A. Blues Alliance.
But his heart never strayed far from hip-hop, which is why he’s been quietly cultivating young Santa Barbarans under his Baby Ree Records label, which is just now starting to turn heads outside of town. Last month, Young took one of his protégés, Lil Bams, to New York City to meet Wyclef Jean and reported that another, Fresh, who also works as a coach at the Santa Barbara Boys & Girls Club, recently shared the stage with rap luminaries E-40, Redman, and Method Man. He’s also signing a management deal with Carlitos, formerly of Menudo, and inking a $10 million deal on an Internet radio station. “It’s exploded,” said Young last week. “This is all happening in the last couple months.”
He’s also trying to help out Santa Barbara kids from poorer neighborhoods who would otherwise be caught up in gangs, including a rapper named Kidd, whose real name was in the news a few months ago when he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun. “He hasn’t been in trouble since,” said Young, who offered to put out a mixtape for Kidd if he got his act together. “He’s found music.”
Young believes that most of the other Santa Barbara kids who wind up behind bars or in gangs would also take another path if given the chance but that there simply aren’t enough programs or opportunities for them, especially once they’re out of high school and can’t go to the Boys & Girls Clubs. “If you gave them something to do, they wouldn’t be on the street,” he explained. “None of them say, ‘I enjoy violence. I like selling dope. I like getting in trouble. I like going to jail.’”
If the success of Santa Barbara rap grows, then there may be more hope on the horizon, but Young knows how hard it is for anyone to make it in the music biz and compares what he’s doing to taking a kid from high school to the NBA, where only a handful of openings occur each year. “But if you have the opportunities and the right people around you, you may be able to do it,” said Young.
Meanwhile, hip-hop itself is evolving, and Young sees the Latin rap movement, which is what has typified the majority of Santa Barbara’s scene, as changing dramatically. “It’s losing that stigma of stylized gangsta rap,” said Young, who said listeners would be hard-pressed to tell if his artists are Mexican or Filipino or any background. “They sound like rappers. They don’t sound like a genre of rappers.”
Might this even one day spell out a distinctive Santa Barbara Sound? “It’s the boom right before that,” said Young, who has also been speaking to college students at SBCC, UC Irvine, UC Davis, and Cal State Northridge. “We’re hitting on all levels. We’re giving hope for kids to be able to make it in this crazy business, coming from a small town without being corny about it. We don’t have to be crazy and beat each other up. Let’s coexist here.”
Baby Ree Records artists Kidd and Lil Bams play Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Wednesday, July 3, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 965-8676 or visit velvet-jones.com for tickets and info. Visit babyree.bandcamp.com for more.