Article & Photos By: Aaron Evans
If you asked a million â€œheadsâ€ to define hip hop, you would surely get a million answers. After all, hip hop is a vast tapestry drawing from an eclectic ocean of musical and cultural inspirations. From its conception at block parties in the blistering concrete burrows of the Big Apple, to its migration westward where it found its G-funk swing and trunk rattling thump; the only thing universally agreed upon within the culture is that the art form rests atop the pillars of its four elements: emceeing, DJing, break dancing, and graffiti. One could think of each element being its own dish within the grand spread at a banquet of self-expression, each very much so enjoyable and respectable in its own right; yet, ideally experienced when its many flavors can simultaneously compliment and contrast each other. To me, hip hop is a crossroads where jazz and funk meet drum breaks and 808â€™s; where Basquiat meets Banksy; where the grace of Swan Lake meets the braggadocios of the Jabberwockies.
With my new series â€œWhat is Hip Hop?â€ I plan to look introspectively and outwardly, attempting to display why I and millions of others have dedicated our lives to the progression of this beautiful, yet ferocious, art form. Hip hop is far more than what you hear on the radio and in TV commercials, and as a shepherd for the underdog, I’m excited to help shine some light on a different side of the coin. From month to month, I plan to explore everything from b-boy crews to musicians, to visual artists and more. Covering hip hop is almost like covering 4 cultures at once, so I may have to get creative in spreading the love around. Still, I think that between print and online we’ll be able to paint the big picture in stunningly vivid imagery all in good time. As I see it in a hip hop sense, the city’s flower has yet to fully bloom.
I chose Access Hip Hop as my first feature in the series for having played an indispensable role in the progression of the hip hop scene in San Diego and California as a whole for well over 10 years. Located at 1537 Garnet Ave., in the center of Pacific Beach’s bustling shopping district, Access (as it’s often referred to) is unparalleled as a platform where music lovers can pick up releases from local and national artists. From Orko, Black Mikey, Atmosphere and Illogic, to Blame One, Gonjasufi, DJ Shadow and DJ Qbert, Access has you covered. Their shelves are simply stacked with sublime music. To put it in simple terms, they carry all of the hip hop that should be on the mainstream airwaves, but isn’t. Basically, if you want to douse yourself in gasoline and play with a flint every time you turn on your radio, it’s probably time you paid Access a visit. Not only can you pick up all of the newest music, but you can also get laced with fresh gear from underground artists, obtain info about upcoming events in S.D., and build with their knowledgeable and ingrained staff. On top of that, Access also maintains a clean, streamlined website that has been a West Coast staple for all things hip hop and is consistently ranked as one of the top hip hop sites in the world.
I met up with Mark Onstad, the co-founder and owner, for a brief interview, wanting to hear about the store’s beginning, how he got involved, and their plans on moving forward. First off, I had to hear about how he was drawn to the culture in the first place.
Mark’s a real cool dude with a very soft, laid back demeanor. But let’s just say that if he stood next to you in line at the local natural food store and started dissecting the differences between the N.W.A. and Public Enemy, or Murs and Grouch, you might think his bubble was just a bit off plum. He just doesn’t look the type. At first glance, I would guess he was a yoga instructor, tax accountant, or even a wilderness guide, rather than an expert in handstyles and headspins. I don’t know how else to say this, but Mark just looks like your average white guy, not exactly the brain child for an urban underground store. That’s one of the things I love most about real hip hop; I find that it’s constantly breaking stereotypes. Black, white, brown, young, old, gay, straight, rich or poor and everywhere in-between; one things for sure, hip hop may have started in minority neighborhoods in inner cities across America, but it has spread to every corner of our globe and knows no boundaries in its participants, supporters, and fans.
As it turns out, Mark’s involvement was something of a happenstance. In 1995, while living in Oakland, he noticed that hip hop, which up until that point had been dismissed by most people as a passing fad, wasn’t going anywhere but up. Furthermore, he knew absolutely nothing about this fascinating art form, and that intrigued him. You never know, exploring the unknown can sometimes lead you to an unforeseen destination where you were meant to reside all along. Mark began attending weekly events at La Pena, hosted by The Living Legends. He described the venue, whose name translates into â€œPolitical Club,â€ as having almost a Beatnik vibe; and over time, he befriended some of the groupâ€™s members. Several years later, the opportunity arose to take over the web design for The Mystik Journeymen, the founding group of The Living Legends, and the crew’s official site at this juncture. He didn’t know anything about web design, but he figured it was D.I.Y. for D.I.Y. Although the Legends have grown to be a household name in hip hop today, back in the day, they where all still young, upcoming artists.
The MystikJourneymen.com turned into LLCrew.com, and as the group’s career grew, so did Mark’s. Then in 2001, a friend named Scott Barrett, who was working at a music chain here in San Diego, saw an opening for a new, out of the box home base for hip hop and its ever-growing popularity. Being that Mark was already toying with the idea of a store, and seeing that the Bay and L.A. were highly over saturated markets, the pieces fell into place. Within a year, the shop was in full swing and www.accesshiphop.com was born, maintaining its base of supporting the L.L. while branching out to provide a broader platform for artists and fans to interact with in the store and online environments. In fact, the in-store performances at Access have been one of the highlights over the years, which included appearances by Eyedea (R.I.P), Jeru, Brother Ali, and Project Blowed BBQ, who lives on in infamy. I asked about any upcoming events at the store and he was excited to tell me that Lucky-I-Am will be by on Nov. 17th to rock a few songs. And on Nov. 25th, Murs will stop in for a meet and great with fans. If you’ve never been to an outing like this, don’t miss a great chance to mingle with your favorite artist, grab an autograph, or snap a few pictures.
Continuing on, I asked Mark why he still keeps the shop going even though downloads have been a wild fire of destruction for Mom and Pop record shops. His answer was straight forward and defiant. He believes that artists and fans mutually benefit from the atmosphere of Access and the hands-on environment it provides. With every artist that steps through his door and thanks him for doing what he does, his cup is refilled. I can dig it. Unarguably, the shop’s greatest strength is the family-like staff that has included local superstars like Gaslamp Killer and Sojourn in the past, and currently includes hometown heroes DJ Matta and DJ Norm Rockwell. Wes Chapman is also a permanent fixture, playing the role of all-time QB around the shop. Any of these individuals can help you find just what YOUâ€™RE looking for, not just what’s considered â€œHotâ€ at the moment.
Next, I asked Mark his feelings on the local hip hop scene that he has supported tirelessly. He was hesitant to say much and I can’t blame him. S.D. has an abundance of talent, but also has an abundance of thin skin. He did say that he was constantly impressed with the diverse skill and drive he sees in artists around the city. He also highlighted that the more artists keep him and the staff in the loop with new material, promo swag, and show updates, the more they can do their job exposing the artists to new listeners.
At the end of the day, Access Hip Hop lives up to its name. It’s access for fans to their favorite art form, and access for acts to reach a new audience. If hip hop is a crossroads, then Access is the watering hole for up-to-date information about the ever-growing culture of hip hop. In asking, â€œWhat is Hip Hop?â€ I’m not looking for a universal definition, so much as common threads we can use as a base to keep moving forward. Access Hip Hop’s thread is a double inseam on a custom pinstripe suit. Pure quality and class all the way.
Next time you’re in Pacific Beach, make sure you stop by and get your access to my dearest love â€“ hip hop. Who knows, perhaps 15 years from now, you’ll fill Mark’s shoes and open your own store, intent to push this revolutionary culture forward, and play an intricate part in helping facilitate othersâ€™ dreams.