Rhyme & Reason
By Albert Ching
There are a few folks wandering around the few businesses that are still operating: a couple of clothing stores, a stray Chinese fast food spot and outdated oddities like a photo-developer. Most of the mall’s occupants are now government offices—there’s a branch of California Children’s Services—which are, of course, closed on weekends. Puzzlingly, there’s still an information desk open, just in case you’re looking to navigate between one shuttered storefront to another. On first glance, the most interesting thing going on—OK, on second, third and fourth glance, too—is the lonely carousel on the first floor, the namesake of the former Central City Mall.
But up on the second floor, there’s something a lot cooler going on Saturday afternoons than an abandoned kid’s attraction—tracks from The Game and Jurassic 5, talk on the NFL and the still-up-in-the-air Mayweather/Pacquiao fight, and debate over the recently released Rolling Stone “100 Best Songs of the Decade.” No. 10 was “Stan” by Eminem—the first-person murder/suicide stalker anthem that, oddly enough, launched the American career of adult contemporary fave Dido.
“This was really a high point in the art form,” says co-host Almanac. “Which I consider, probably, Eminem’s best song.”
“That’s saying a lot,” adds host Eternal Tranzmit, possibly a bit skeptical of the claim.
It’s another weekly installment of “Tha Juke Joint,” a hip-hop talk show that’s sporadically existed in one form or another for more than a decade, but debuted on talk station KCAA this past October.
There are a lot of things a little odd about the pairing, and not just the fact that KCAA’s studio is inside a dead mall. It’s a show that’s playing music on AM radio, and it’s a hip-hop program followed a mere hour later by Lou Dobbs himself (other syndicated KCAA fare includes Don Imus and Ed Schultz). But the three Joint hosts—Eternal Tranzmit, Almanac and Mic Flex—couldn’t be happier with the situation, even if it’s only phase one of much more ambitious plans.
“A lot of the major stations, they don’t really represent California,” Tranzmit says, who in his day job at Capital One goes by his birth name of Eddie Talbert, Jr., 35. “They really focus on four major hip-hop artists, but they don’t really look at hip-hop in its totality. What our objective is to go in there and be a platform for West Coast artists to really get themselves played to a national audience.”
National audience? Other than KCAA’s reach—said to be 36 cities throughout the IE—each show is posted as a podcast on the station’s website, and the show is broadcast online through a live webcam in the studio. For Talbert, who started “Tha Juke Joint” on public-access TV in 1999 and also existed for a time as an Internet-only radio program, the show is a way to showcase “authentic” hip-hop—mostly local, but also b-sides and lesser known tracks from national acts—and to spread positivity among the hip-hop community, especially throughout the Inland Empire.
“I knew this was something that people are going to be able to identify with,” says Talbert, who is clearly comfortable behind the mic given his years of off-and-on hosting. “It’s bigger than just playing music. We had a responsibility.”
RAP’S BAD REP
One big part of this higher purpose is to dispel lingering, unflattering notions of hip-hop. Even though the music has become as mainstream as possible given the success of artists like the Black Eyed Peas, there are still naysayers associating the culture solely with gangbanging, drive-bys, and grotesque displays of recently acquired wealth—holdovers from the “Bitches Ain’t Shit” era.
“A lot of times hip-hop is always stamped as negative,” Talbert says. “A lot of times, people don’t really listen to the music—somebody gets shot at a party, it’s not the art that’s doing that. The art promotes awareness. It promotes education. It promoted community.”
The hosts—Eternal and Mic Flex are both black, Almanac is Latino—are also concerned with presenting hip-hop as music and culture inclusive of everyone.
“We’re trying to connect with other ethnicities in our area,” says Mic Flex (real name Michael Dixon), 35, who books the show’s guests and does promotional outreach. “It’s not only black people out here. We don’t just speak to the black community; we speak to Hispanics and Asians, and the White people too. The music will allow us to connect much easier than just walking down the street.”
Their final goal is to improve the image of the Inland Empire itself, presenting a positive side of the community through the music and attitudes showcased on the program.
“We’re also debunking a lot of myths and stereotypes about the area, too,” says Almanac, born Michael Eran Perez, 26, who chooses the show’s music. It’s either meth-head, rednecks with mullets, or a soulless vanilla suburb out here. But it’s not. These are very old, blue-collar cities. Very diverse demographics. It might not all be nice, but there’s a very nice, tightly knit culture around here. We stick together very tightly.”
(DON’T) MAKE SOME NOISE!
Even if you’ve never been to a radio station before, you’ve probably got a pretty clear image of what it looks like in your head, maybe from TV shows like WKRP or Frasier. Which is actually pretty spot-on. But that’s not KCAA.
You’ve got to remember to be quiet as you walk through the front door, since the actual broadcasting area—calling it a “studio” might be stretching it—is just a few yards away. For “Tha Juke Joint,” Talbert, Dixon and Perez gather around a table in the middle of what’s essentially a large cubicle, with no soundproofing or doors keeping unwanted noises out. When in-person guests join the show, like Adelanto-based rapper Noa James did last Saturday, things get a little cramped.
That doesn’t stop the hosts and James from getting in some pretty good conversation about the state of hip-hop in general, fueled in part by the recent announcement that rap would be banned from the Riverside County Fair’s battle of the bands—lending some pretty concrete evidence to the show hosts’ claims of hip-hop still being seen as a bad thing by much of the public.
“They’re saying our culture, our craft, is not even talent,” Talbert says on air during a particularly passionate discussion on the subject.
To combat this snub, the show hosts, with KCAA’s support, are putting together their own festival, inclusive of hip-hop (and “everybody,” Dixon is sure to add) around the same time as the fair, though dates, venues and artist aren’t yet confirmed. Though Talbert says his first instinct was to be “destructive” and simply boycott the festival, he says he quickly saw it as an opportunity to do something constructive and bring their positive talk to life.
“They have no idea how hip-hop really works,” Talbert says between breaks. “I just thought it was really unfortunate and disrespectful.”
“THIS IS REAL”
They’ve already started hosting weekly events as of the first Saturday of 2010—essentially show-sponsored DJ nights at various clubs across Riverside and San Bernardino counties—to help promote the show and further their agenda.
“We want every week to be at a different spot, covering our demographic area, and just keep boosting up, keep the train going on,” says Dixon, who, along with Talbert has been a part of “Tha Juke Joint” since its conception (Perez was a fan of the TV show and came aboard for the KCAA show). The events are intended to be as positive as the attitudes of the show hosts, with dress codes strictly enforced (something they make very clear on air).
“Tha Juke Joint” still has a long way to go towards the goals, and not just on account of their humble surroundings. The show is “leased access,” meaning that they pay a fee to broadcast each week—offset by promotional events and sponsors, which currently include a local dentist and barber shop. As of press time, they have 40 followers on Twitter. But that hasn’t stopped them from booking guests—they’ve had call-ins from artists across the country, and good reports from local talent.
“To me this is real, man, like a real conversation,” says Noa James, whose Sounds of a Monster was named one of The Press-Enterprise’s top local albums of 2009. “Just recorded live.”
The show hosts are infectiously optimistic about their future, and even their current situation. The show’s already grown since this past October, expanding from one hour to two.
“I like AM. Only the grimy could stand being on AM,” Perez says. “You want to be neutered? Go on FM.”
All three hosts have some degree of experience with promoting other people’s music (though none rap themselves), so they’re now focusing their talent and energies on their own projects, which include plans to release a compilation album, launching marketing campaigns, turning their webpage into a “full-on multimedia site” and eventually starting a production company to make videos; in general continuing to push their vision of authentic hip-hop.
“What these guys need, what a lot of them lack, is strategic marketing,” Talbert explains. “From there, we’re going to find some individual artists who really are serious about it, and we’re going to start assisting them with getting them involved in our marketing campaign. We know how to market.”
“Our goal is, at the conclusion of the first quarter, for us to be real close to giving in our two weeks’ notice and going at this thing 100-percent of the time.”
It all sounds pretty lofty for a show that broadcasts in the same building as a plus-size bridal shop, but the DIY aesthetic is all over the origins of hip-hop.
“Hip-hop is very basic, very do-it-yourself type of music and culture. You have to go out there and grab what you have around you and make something out of it,” Perez says. “It’s always been that way.”
So these three hip-hop devotees are applying that philosophy to their own situation—instead of waiting for an opportunity to come, they’re creating their own.
“Our next venture isn’t going to be where they pay us money and we go to some FM station,” Talbert says. “It’ll be something where we can still maintain creative control.”
For more inside dope on “The Juke Joint,” go to www.thajukejoint.com, www.myspace.com/thajukejoint.com.