Backpackers of the World [Park] Unite

June 25, 2011

Dig, if you will, the denoument of a seemingly endless Thursday afternoon and night of skating. After skating up to midtown from Union Square, fucking with CBS and/or Time-Life and possibly the Huf ledge, you ascend the steps of your building to a narrow multi-roomated apartment. One’s sole lifelines to the outside world? Dial-up UseNet and the Strech and Bob show on 89.9 WKCR.

For anyone that came up in the Nineties and fucked with hip-hop to any extent, The Stretch and Bobbito show on Columbia University’s WKCR 89[tec]9 held Torah status. Furthermore, in the DJ Clue era of mixtape yelling, the shows were also cool to listen to on one’s walkman.* They usually started out with some rare groove type shit, like “Uzuri” by Catalyst or some shit. Knowing, to list but one example,  that the latter song was sampled on “Lefleur Leflah Eshkoshkah” was a particularly nerdy form of apocryphal pre-internet knowledge, similar to memorizing esoteric skate video soundtracks. This is the main reason why the soundtrack to the first few Girl/Choc. vids killed it so hard.

Girl/Chocolate video music supervision functioned as a nexus point for my hip-hop and skating nerdery.

ANYWAY, this post is about the connection between Nineties backpacker-type hip-hop and skating. The main lifeline for this relationship was Rap City, a television show on BET from 1989 until a few years ago, I think. Though many artists rocked backpacks in the early Nineties, the “Rock Around the Clock” of backpackerism was “Check Da Back Pack” by Rough House Survivors, a group whose main claim to fame was a Clyde Singleton cosign in SLAP in 1993.  I don’t know where those dudes came from or whate happened to them—Heavy D is in the video, so maybe they were part of that whole New Rochelle/Mt. Vernon thing back then.

That song sounded the battle cry, but Black Moon, Grand Puba, etc. also repped backpacks. Why? Backpackerism was populism. It went hand in hand with the emphasis on “knowledge,” also reflected by the popularity of those AACA sweatshirts. However, judging from  the aforementioned Roughouse Survivors video, the organizational strategies therein were more akin to middle school – crumpled up sheets of notebook paper, etc. In any event, if one embarks on any type of urban assault mission–skating, bombing, whatever–a backpack is essential. In contrast, in the modern day hip-hop landscape, only a very specific type of backpack holds merit: brown leather, Louis Vuitton brand, containing “that work.”


One can trace the origins of backpackerism and skating’s connection to Andy Howell’s graffiti-inspired designs in the Useless Wooden days. However, Carroll’s inclusion of “Burnt” in Questionable opened the floodgates. I made Heiro t-shirts in my high school graphics tapes and sent away for physical mix tapesI don’t know if those Heriroglyphics dudes skated or knew Jovontae or what, but the significance of the cultural mileu of the Bay Area undoubtedly played a part here.

Even though Carroll was ostensibly not going to school at the time, I recall him mentioning in this one SLAP (in physical magazine form) interview that he would watch Rap City and wait for the “That’s When Ya Lost” video to come on. Indeed, timing is everything, and the aptness of Rap City‘s 4 PM (after school, yet before prime skating time) time slot cannot be overempasized. This form of synergy peaked when Souls of Mischief made a cameo at the ’93 Back to the City contest, plugging their new single while, of course, rocking backpacks. Ironically, I seem to recall Casual mentioning in another interview in SLAP  that he doesn’t wear backpacks because they make one look like a schoolboy, or some shit. I wonder what happened to that dude—besides having his voice stolen by Mike Jones.

note snapback attached to locker loop: pre-#swag #swag

ANYWAY, on the other side of the continent, similar connections were being forged. Zoo’s partnership with Stretch and Bob stands out the most, as seen in that 411 Zoo industry section and this ad. Oddly enough, I recall paying a visit to their studio as well. It wasn’t the one in the ad, though—it was in a church near the Columbia campus—I think because the WKCR studios were being renovated or some shit.

Anyway, the main thing I recall was that the studio was spacious and clean as fuck—the polar opposite of what one would assume a grimey, graffiti-strewn bastion of hip-hoppery would look like. I think we went there so my friend could ask Bobbito to plug his drum & bass nite. I don’t think he ever did. For all you kids out there, drum & bass was the Nineties version of dubstep, or some shit.

I always assumed that Stretch and Bob knew Zoo folk from that late Eighties downtown scene or some shit like that. Indeed, Fat Beats, the “Supreme” of record stores, was a three minute skate down 8th street from Astor Place, and I often paid a visit there after skating for records to play on my half-assed college radio show.  I usually wore one of those LL Bean “school”-type backpacks, which conveniently accommodated 12” vinyl records in the smaller zip-up compartment. However, this style of backpack looked bigger than it actually was, prompting one Menace pro to comment “Why you always roll with mad shit, man?” I am not sure if this was a rhetorical question or not.

Along those lines, the Nineties produced a handful of examples of skating while wearing a backpack. Most of the ones I recall are from Virtual­—the above Carroll street gap from the #triplescreen intro and that one switch kickflip indy in Colin McKay’s part. In terms of actual day-to-day street skating, at one point I started wearing a Triple Five Soul lumbar pack—an idea I appropriated from Jay Maldonado. My thought process at the time was as follows: positioning weight over one’s waist, as opposed to one’s shoulders, would alleviate back pain cause by skating dozens of blocks wearing a backpack. What I cannot recall, though, is how the lumbar pack came into my possession. Entering the Triple Five Soul store and stating “yo lemme get that lumbar pack” does not seem like something I would do. Who the fuck knows, though—one’s memory can only accommodate so much.

ANYWAY, the synergy between Zoo dudes and Bobbito (who could frequently be found lurking around Union Square) and them led to one of the most innovative music supervision moves of all time—the Mix Tape soundtrack. At the time I wasn’t too psyched on it (Ill Al Skratch?) but in hindsight it comes off as innovative, like an actual cultural artifact from a certain time and place. Furthermore, Mix Tape subconsciously and metacognitively drew parallels between early-to-mid-Nineties skating and early-to-mid-Nineties hip-hoppery. As my friend once said, the vibe at the time was that anyone who could noseslide a handrail and/or kickflip backside tailslide a shin-high ledge could get hooked up. Similarly, dudes back then scored record deals off one verse (AZ and Cappadonna, off the top of my head). Granted, these were transcendent, life-changing verses, most of which I can still recite verbatim. Fast-forward to now, when dudes kfbsnb handrails only to be forgotten the next day in the landslide of internet footage. On the musical side of things, the main example that comes to mind is Lil B, who has produced thousands (or whatever the case may be) of songs with a worldwide following and is still, as far as I know, unsigned. Of course,  Byron Crawford would tell you that Lil B has been signed all along as part of some illuminati conspiracy or some shit like that.

ANYWAY, as the Nineties chugged along, backpacker-type hip-hop became the music of choice for elite dudes, in locales as unlikely as the Carlsbad/SD area. Enter Timecode, notable for A)the obscure KMD remix instrumental in Kalis’ part B) the use of the “Verbal Attack” instrumental and C) whatever obscure west coast backpacker contributed the song in Dyrdek’s part. Indeed, before inviting Three Six Mafia to perform at his home, Dyrdek’s brief stint as a record company mogul yielded (to my knowledge) one compilation, mostly remembered for that one song in the DC Euro Supertour 411 feature. Simultaneously, other early Nineties luminaries were fucking with backpackerism,  specifically, Ron Allen, who displayed lyrical prowess in Mike York’s song in Mouse. Lest we forget, Allen had previously created skate rock-type musical experimentation in Hokus Pokus and that ambient-type stuff in Soldier’s Story. The dude never got due credit for being a late 20th-century real-life renaissance man. Kind of like a bizzaro @jeremerogers, or some shit.

Interestingly, when The Muska’s previously unreleased part from Welcome to Hell recently surfaced, it kind of blew my mind that he skated to “Releasing Hypnotical Gasses”—basically the Van Halen “Eruption” of backpackerism. Ironic that one of the dudes responsible for burying the early Nineties aesthetic by jumping down stuff would make such a choice. 411, needing cheap musical content, also became a prominent showcase for backpacker artists,  eventually leading to that one “Chaos” segment with the video for “B-Boy Document 2” interspersed with the skating. Sidenote: Rawkus was financed by Rupert Murdoch’s son, or some shit. This was also ironic.

It is hard to say exactly when the love affair between backpackerism and skating concluded. Perhaps it was when the first internet montage was edited to Modest Mouse or “Electric Feel.”  Maybe it was a one-two punch of backlashes against The Storm and Yesterday’s Future. In any event, as the Nineties concluded, The Storm facilitated collaboration between esoteric underground hip-hop artists and esoteric schoolyard tech skaters. This partnership made perfect sense—complicated-ass rhymes accentuated complicated-ass tricks. Indeed, both activities utilize mad mental power from the cerebellum, or some shit. Kind of like how if one is skating a thirteen-foot concrete bowl, it helps to listen to, say, the Slayer cover of “Witching Hour” by Venom. This type of skating is governed not by the cerebellum, but by the medulla oblongata.

Are there any neurology residents out there willing to conduct research to verify the above thesis?


Hold up: I almost forgot one critical piece to this puzzle. I would be remiss to omit the origin of the term itself. My theory is this: the term was invented by a gentleman from Queens known only as “GoldenChild,” a frequent poster on the Usenet message board. Usenet, invented at Duke in 1979, was basically a post-BBS, pre-html way for academic and mostly-AOL folk to communicate. Kind of like the internet itself, it exists “out there,” in computer server rooms in colleges around the world. The main difference between Usenet and modern messageboard culture was this: Usenet was text-only, so it could run on UNIX or whatever-the-fuck operating system. This made it convenient for those of us who accessed the internet at 56Kbps. Concurrently, one could not rely on images or ironic Flash videos to convey one’s point. One needed to literally paint a picture with words.**  Indeed, looking back at Google’s Usenet archive while researching this post, the sheer word count of many of the posts on rmhh blew my mind. However, their verbosity made them memorable. For example, GoldenChild presented his character in Steinbeckian detail: he lived in Corona/Flushing, worked at a Best Buy, wore those goggles that were popular at the time, banged strippers, chased jello shots with Henny & coke, and most importantly, accessed the internet via WebTV. Anyway, refer to this post and the below one for but a few examples of him going in on the backpackers of the world—kind of like a web 1.0 hip-hop version of ChildoftheGhetto of SLAP infamy.


Last winter I went to a “backpacker nite” monthly at a local bar. A friend of a friend spins there, so I brought my records in hopes of getting on at one point. As it happened, the other DJ was AWOL, so I ended up trading off with the dude pretty much all nite. This was fun as fuck; I re-learned how to use a mixer within like five minutes, and even attempted some ill-advised beat matching. At one point though, the other DJ gave me the following advice:

“Play some of my records, play the same record twice—it doesn’t matter. Just keep it around 120 BPM*** and keep these scenester bitches on the dance floor.”

Truth be told, I cannot recall anyone ever providing me with more salient advice. Pulling out some obscure Pete Rock remix is cool n’ shit, and we may derive some kind of existential meaning from it. At the end of the day, though, this particular brand of hip-hop monasticism (or obscure skate video music supervision knowledge) is irrelevant—especially if any form of expert knowledge is accessible to anyone on the planet. If you aren’t making bitches get loose, you really aren’t doing shit. James Spader’s character on The Office was right.

This is a universal truth.

*no Berra

**not literally, but you know what I mean

***might have been more, might have been less


8 Responses to “Backpackers of the World [Park] Unite”

  1. chops said

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time.

    Burnt really opened the floodgates. And yeah, Heiro was down with Tae and Karl Watson… I remember Saafir dissing Casual for hanging out with skaters in the Hiero vs Hobo battle.

    Gotta throw in some credit to Tim O’Connor here… skating to both the Artifacts and a Natural Elements instrumental in addition to being the only pro I remember seeing rock a Fondle’em shirt.

    Forget all about and its bastard son, alt-rap. Damn that shit was fun.

  2. Bryan said

    Incredible post.

  3. […] things would have been different. ANYWAY, my friend (the drum and bass dj you may recall from this) came back with duty free cigs, duty free alcohol, and a shitload of records—one of which was […]

  4. jesse said

    SHEFFLEDGE was waaaaaaaaaaay radder than cotg

  5. Tom said

    The opening paragraph: “Dig, if you will, the denoument of a seemingly endless Thursday afternoon and night of skating. After skating up to midtown from Union Square, fucking with CBS and/or Time-Life and possibly the Huf ledge, you ascend the steps of your building to a narrow multi-roomated apartment. One’s sole lifelines to the outside world? Dial-up UseNet and the Strech and Bob show on 89.9 WKCR,” brought back a flood of memories of doing this exact thing from ’95-’99. Best times of my life.

  6. smoove said

    Yo that rough house reference is crazy. I know all about em. I was looking online to see if I could get one of the shirts I had when I found this post. We never kept nothin innocent like paper in our bags. And yeah it was a nowrule mtvernon thing

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