By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
A fresh-faced, then-unknown breakdancer smiles proudly into the camera: “You might go to a park, and [find our crew] there . ... There might be 100 dancers, and then there’s so many gang members, right? Well, even some of [them] might say, ‘Wow, I want to be over there because that’s actually where the party is ... instead of me just standing around here, totally negative thoughts on my mind.’ They might break away and come over to us. And, you know, we’re very peaceful and we have a lot of fun.”
It was 1983 and L.A. was the place to be. In South-Central, Midcity, MacArthur Park and Venice Beach, at roller rinks, disco clubs, ballrooms and community halls, the city’s youth were turning out in droves, seized by a thing called electro. The proto-rap movement was the perfect synthesis of its progenitors P-Funk and Kraftwerk: flamboyant futurism, big bass and 8-bit effects, endless up-tempo energy and everybody’s-invited underground massives. The DJs were athletes on their turntables. The MCs freestyled about love and rocket ships. And Ice T — as he boasted (above) of his pop-locking crew’s positivity for the German documentary Breakin’ and Enterin’ — wore his hair in a striking bouffant. Only three years later, T recorded the West Coast’s first gangsta rap song, and the culture changed forever.
Arabian Prince, arguably, did not. The electro pioneer and founding member of N.W.A sits inside of the diner at the Rancho Park Golf Club, and though he’s a grown man now (his trademark Jheri curl shag long retired), he still carries the vibe of his old scene. Stylish and tech-obsessed, he talks with the same verve and pace found in his ’80s oeuvre, which, thanks to Stones Throw Records, has finally been compiled as Innovative Life, The Anthology, 1984-1989. Accompanied by a 23-page chronology, the compilation presents a keyhole view into California hip-hop before the hardcore boom, with Arabian Prince as that legacy’s heir apparent.
“L.A. was more free then,” Arabian says. “There wasn’t too much trouble with gangs or the police. The parties were just parties, and everyone was a part of it — the electro kids, the mods, the punks, the new wave kids. You had every race and every crew, and there were two to three inches of sweat on the floors, with a mist in the air. It was nasty, and it was all about dancing.” He pauses. “Wow. Having this anthology come out. ... It makes me feel old. It makes me feel like a Beatle.”
But he says this with neither lament nor pompousness, which makes sense. The electro era was short-lived (’83 to ’88, roughly) and poorly documented. As such, the scene never actually burned out, and its heroes are largely unexcavated. Uncle Jamm’s Army, for instance, was a dozens-strong DJ collective that regularly rocked parties for up to 10,000 guests. Egyptian Lover, one of that crew’s stars, is better remembered but not for releasing Los Angeles’ inaugural rap recording (1984’s “Dial-A-Freak,” credited to UJA). And the significance of the era’s biggest act, World Class Wreckin’ Cru, has mainly been reduced to a trivia nugget as the group featuring the comically softcore early work of an eyeliner-wearing Dr. Dre.
Most of electro’s artists were teens when hip-hop first made its way west over the airwaves. Kim Nazel, the kid who would become Arabian Prince, had a leg up on his peers. His father was a journalist with a late-night talk show on Inglewood’s KACE radio station, and while Joseph Nazel Jr. was in the booth, 14-year-old Kim would make mixes, using the studio’s equipment and well-stocked library. He’d sell the tapes at school, and battle-rap others with the advantage of already knowing New York’s latest and greatest. He learned to pop-and-lock too, and when Kim got his first job out of high school, work was only a diversion from his obsession.
“I went to a party at this little hall attached to a pet and feed store in Lennox,” Arabian remembers, “and I was like, ‘I like this place. Maybe I can do something here.’ So I found the owner and was like, ‘Man, you could make a lot of money. See all these people? We can do this every week.’ He went right out and bought speakers and turntables, and I started working at the store so I could practice there every day. Two or three days a week I was on the back of a diesel truck, lugging 100-pound bags of chicken feed, and on the weekends I was deejaying at the Cave.”
Clubs like his popped up wherever nightly rent was cheap ($300 to 500, he says). Colorful cliques responding to fliers would line up early, often by 8 p.m., in outfits themed to their respective scenes or a specific icon (Nazel — surprise — used to dress up like Prince). Inside, they’d form a writhing, electric mass of synthetic fibers, wet bodies, weed smoke and malt liquor.