Richmond’s rap scene on the right track

Richmond's rap scene on the right track
Richmond native Michael "Doowop" Benjamin Jr.'s (far left) latest project is uniting the city's increasingly talented rap scene.

Michael “Doowop” Benjamin Jr. looks back with great fondness upon Richmond’s Southside neighborhood of the mid to late 1990s, recalling a strong sense of community in spite of the drugs and violence. Unlike today, said Doowop, local kids could walk the neighborhood, build a sense of unity. He remembered the city having some of the Bay Area’s great record stores. The stretch from 15th to 19th streets brimmed with talented rappers making noise beyond the city’s borders. Legends like Tupac and Master P passed through.

“Dudes from my neighborhood, Cooley T, (part of the group) Mob CIN, and later Fatal Connection, they was big on the rap scene,” Doowop said. “Mob CIN had dropped a CD in 1995, and one track had everybody on there, all the artist from Richmond. It sounded good to hear Richmond together.”

That unity among local artists played a role in propelling careers. Today, Doowop says a gold rush of young talent coming up in Richmond is an opportunity to build a similar unity. It’s especially needed, he says, in a digital world stocked with so much new music, a lot gets lost in the pile.

This was part of the impetus behind Doowop’s latest project, I’m Just Sayin’, a 16-minute compilation of 10 of the city’s top artists — both the veterans and up-and-comers. Doowop put out an enticing beat and called on artists citywide to take part. Dozens wanted to participate, and appearing on this track and video (directed by Andrew Alabanza) are artists citywide: Jay Jonah, Drisker, Doc Dolla, So’Icey Burr, Mr. Parkway Genius, Shob Rob, Super Dubb, LilGreedak400, Way Way Santana and Doowop.

We are particularly fond of this track — at the 2:15 mark, the Richmond Standard is mentioned.

The music is part of an ongoing project to create a pipeline for young, capable Richmond rappers, of which there are many right now, said Doowop, who launched his label Rise Above Poverty in 2015.

This label’s goal isn’t just to propel careers, but to provide a positive outlet for kids living in suboptimal conditions. A 2003 Kennedy High graduate, Doowop knows those conditions too well.

“I played sports and stuff, we all played sports, but at the end of day when you leave practice and come home, you are in a drug infested environment,” he said. “I can remember walking to school and coming from school and somebody would be laid out on the ground. It’s not healthy for a kid to see. It’s not inspiring.”

In his early teen years, Doowop’s outlet was the music studio – first, when he would watch his friends rapping, and later when he was inspired toward the microphone. He was later fortunate to be among the many local rappers who ended up in Luigi Lilenthal’s Legacy Studios in El Cerrito.

“A lot of music coming out of Richmond is coming out of [Luigi’s] studio,” Doowop said. “He was basically helping us out, guiding us through, fathering us through. We were in a group called Get Money Entertainment, and we grew.”

Richmond youth featured in the music video for the Doowop collaboration, “I’m Just Sayin’.”

With his latest label, Rise Above Poverty, Doowop hopes to extend the love to up-and-coming artists, and to bring about a unity that could save lives. He feels an imperative to come up with solutions for inner-city violence following fatal shootings claiming lives of artists such as the late Sirmonte Bernstine, aka Sirdy, Tony Callahan, and Marcus Russell.

“We just trying to clean up the community, trying to get everyone together to do it,” he said. “That’s what this song was about. Richmond ain’t got a good rap. As far as the rap industry, we’re trying to get Richmond back to where it’s supposed to be.”

Doc Dolla praised Doowop’s recent collaboration.

“It was the right beat, he grabbed talent from older to young generations to put it in a wide spectrum of listeners, and it was needed,” said Doc Dolla, whose latest works strive toward a similar mission. “One of the best forms of connection and communication is art, especially music because it shapes moods and vibes.”