In 2017, hip hop became the most popular music genre in the U.S. according to Nielsen’s year-end report on the music industry, surpassing rock, which had dominated for decades.
Although the hip hop scene has been dominant in New York and Los Angeles since its inception, there were several cities throughout the country developing their own sound as the wave of music traveled in the early 1980s.
Minnesota had some of its own early pioneers in hip hop who have been commemorated recently by the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) with a photo induction at the History Center on Sept. 9.
The event was hosted by Twin Cities DJ, author, activist and historian Ryan Dillard, commonly referred to as DJ Stage One, who has organized three previous “A Great Day in Hip Hop” photo shoots in which he brought together generations of hip hop artists from the Twin Cities to document the region’s history over the years.
Fans and a who’s who mix of artists all gathered together for an intimate event to reminisce about the hip hop scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Minnesota and how the art form developed through the years.
The power of radio
Travis Lee came to Minnesota in 1981 to attend the University of Minnesota. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Lee was familiar with the origins of hip hop and close to some of its early pioneers.
According to Lee, it would take months if not years for songs to reach parts of the city back in the early ’80s because of how new rap was and how slow things were to travel. “This was the infancy of rap reaching different places. I used to go to New York at least four times a year in college and bring records back,” Lee recalled.
In 1988, Lee got his own program at KMOJ called the “Hip Hop Shop.” Once voted the radio show of the year by City Pages, it was a three-hour program that aired on Saturdays and introduced listeners to what was hot in New York. Artists like Rakim, Biz Markie, LL Cool J, and Big Daddy Kane would come bumping through speakers across Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Stage recalled how difficult it was growing up in North Minneapolis to come across new music outside of radio. He came to learn about hip hop from DJs like Lee who he grew up around.
“If you didn’t live on either coast you had to catch things as you may through the news or the magazines to stay up on current events with hip hop,” Stage said. “It helped to be around KMOJ back in the day. I had full access to Derrick Delite, Chaz Millionaire, Rosan Carl Scott, DJ Def Tronic. We seen these guys as celebrities in the community, but we seen them because the radio station was in our hood.”
Derrick “Delite” Stevens started his career on the radio during his time at North High School and got his first professional on-air job with KMOJ in 1987. Since then, Stevens has gone on to work with huge pop artists like Paula Abdul as MC Skat Kat in “Opposites Attract” and has enjoyed a 17-year career with Minnesota Public Radio, where he currently works.
“Radio has played a major factor with hip hop here in the Twin Cities, especially in the early years, because KMOJ was the only game in town,” Stevens said. Record pools began to pop up around town so that people could sell or swap records. Growing up in Queens, Stevens was also introduced to new rap artists through family and friends sending him cassette tapes.
While radio was a successful way of introducing hip hop to the community in the Twin Cities, DJs and rappers knew that the music was best experienced in person.
Issues with venues and building support
Early on in the Twin Cities hip hop scene, many of the shows took place at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union, as it was the only space available for Black artists. Other venues across town limited their sets and would outright ban hip hop music from being played.
“There are so many people that have done so much to create a scene in hip hop in the Twin Cities where we were opposed by people who owned these businesses,” Stage explained. Hip hop was seen as a liability by some venue owners, although there were no issues at any of these early shows. “That’s how they looked at it,” Stage said. “They treated us like juvenile delinquents.”
“They were afraid of the music,” Stevens added, “or they didn’t get the music, or felt like it wasn’t something that was geared towards the patrons that they wanted in their establishments.”
Prior to hopping on the radio, Lee would break records in music venues around the Twin Cities during his DJ sets across town. While the parties were popular with a lot of the young folks in town who were fans of hip hop, local law enforcement worked hard to stifle the scene.
“When I demonstrated the scratching, people thought I was ruining the record,” Lee remembered. “There was no internet, no YouTube. What we were doing people had to see it and feel it. I did an all-high-school jam, and it was so big that from then on I was always followed by fire marshals who were the ones that detect how many people were in there.”
These venues were also a place of building community as hip hop fans and artists connected with one another at each show. “We were more close-knit back then,” Stage said. “The beautiful thing about it is that we might not have built with each other in the streets so much, but we were in the nightlife growing so much that we built a camaraderie together.”
Alfonso Fleming Jr., or Dispute One, frequented these shows as a high schooler. Fleming was 15 years old when he first pursued hip hop, first as a fan, then as an emcee where he worked with several crews and collectives, most notably Headshots and Rhymesayers. While attending South High School, Fleming attended shows and familiarized himself with the scene.
“So when those Coffman Union performances were going on that Trav and those guys were putting on, I was sneaking in,” he recalled.
Fleming formed a crew called Interlock who would go on to create a hip hop scene in the U of M’s Dinkytown area. Restaurants like Bon Appetit and The Dinkytowner became the gathering spaces for hip hop as Fleming’s crew and others hosted battle rap shows and performances.
Stage and others who were older than Fleming set an example for the younger generation on how to move through the scene and put on their own shows. “They were definitely key on keeping us hip to the fact that hip hop is always positive. We never went into any venue with the intent of doing foul stuff,” Fleming said.
Recent photoshoot gatherings and looking toward the future
For Stage, documenting hip hop in Minnesota has been a way of not only preserving history but also the legacy of the many contributors to the Twin Cities music scene. “I feel like the pictures are a manifestation of what we’ve evolved into in this city as far as us starting as people just trying to figure things out,” he said.
“We just need to understand that there are people here who came here before us not to just make music but have made sacrifices financially, and the time they took to break ground for you to come to these venues to play certain records or be a certain color or be a certain age without people automatically counting you as a liability.”
The involvement of the Minnesota History Society has given a sense of credence to some. It also was a way for many of Stage’s friends and peers to recognize him for his efforts in keeping people in touch and engaged all these years later.
“The fact that the Historical Society is letting us archive things—it’s really about to go down,” Fleming said. “Stage would randomly hit me up on social media. He was always in forward motion in this. I knew he always had his mind set on preserving the culture.”
“What I would say about Stage is that he put the flag down at the Historical Society and said we were here and we did this. It’s the beginning of the renaissance in telling the story of how it was done,” Lee said.
“Stage has always been the type of dude he is where he’s working to put people together whether it be crews or hooking up to do shows together,” Stevens stated. “Stage was always the one trying to get everyone under one umbrella in the Twin Cities.”
The connection to the Historical Society also comes with a sense of shared responsibility according to Stevens. “When you want to preserve certain things, you put money behind it and you put an investment into preserving that and making that stand for future generations,” he said.
In a statement, the MNHS said, “DJ Stage One has been on the Minnesota Historical Society’s radar since 2015 when a former public programs colleague mentioned the 2015 photoshoot. Stage One was interested in finding a home for the photos where they could be more widely accessed.
“He invited photographers and friends from the hip hop community to have a conversation at the History Center about their community, lifestyle, and relationships to each other at the time the photos were donated. This is just the start of further discussions relating to how we can document Stage One’s work and the importance of the hip hop community in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota.”
As the years go on and more gatherings take place, a sense of passing the torch to the next generation will be a common theme for many of the pioneering artists in the Twin Cities. “It’s each one teach one,” Fleming said. “It’s getting a lot of the old heads to recognize you should be taking your own energy and aspirations to push these new artists.”
Stage is currently writing a book that documents the Twin Cities hip hop scene titled “The Bridge is Over,” and has a manuscript ready to publish in the near future.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.