The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On
Photo by Teresa Castro

  • Sam Chennault
  • SF Weekly
  • November 26, 2003

As smoke wafts above the packed audience at the DNA Lounge and the splintered light of a disco ball swirls across his face, Charizma, aka Charles Hicks, stands with his back to the spectators and his hands by his side. He remains frozen as his DJ, Chris Cut, later to be known as Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak), cues up the opening sample to the local duo's hit, "Red Light/Green Light." It's June 7, 1992, and Hicks and Manak are performing one of their biggest shows to date: a Bomb Hip Hop Showcase featuring House of Pain.

When Manak drops the track's bouncy breakbeat, Hicks springs into action. A boyish energy lights the MC's lanky frame as he hams it up to the audience with an assortment of contorted facial expressions and exaggerated dance moves. He has the seamless flow of Jay Z, the penetrating wit of Big L, and a physical resemblance to a young Will Smith (before the Fresh Prince became a prettily packaged caricature of himself). Later in the show, Manak steps out from behind the turntables to whistle the melody to Pete Rock and CL Smooth's classic "They Reminisce Over You" while Hicks delivers a blistering freestyle. As Manak awkwardly moves his body back and forth – performing what can only be called the white-boy two-step – the crowd explodes with applause, and you can detect smiles escaping the duo's faces.

A year and a half later – Dec. 16, 1993 – Hicks would be shot dead, murdered in broad daylight in front of an East Palo Alto church. At that time, having recently emerged from a tumultuous relationship with Disney subsidiary Hollywood Basic, Hicks was making some of the most dynamic music of his career, and many considered him one of the Bay Area's finest MCs.

But while other young, black, and slain rappers have been canonized in an endless procession of songs, films, and biographies, Hicks' death has caused only a ripple outside of the local music scene. To the record-buying masses, his murder was little more than a sad statistic and a fatal cliché, making him just another a dead rapper amongst the thousands of young men whose lives were lost to gun violence. As such, he has barely warranted a footnote in hip hop history: He only released one single during his lifetime, and subsequent years have yielded a mere handful of additional songs.

But Hicks' influence on the underground hip hop community has been considerable. He not only directly influenced some of the Bay Area's best MCs – he was the first person to give Foreign Legion's Prozac a microphone – but also inspired Manak to form the label Stones Throw Records, which has released some of underground hip hop's most creative material and has functioned as a barometer for trends within the genre. In fact, it was the lessons that Manak took away from his and Hicks' failed relationship with major labels that helped establish his own imprint's indie ethos, an ideology that stands for giving musicians nearly total artistic control, and that underscores such classics as Quasimoto's The Unseenand The Funky 16 Corners compilation. Now, with the release of Big Shots, the long-awaited full-length debut of MC Charizma, the influence of Stones Throw's patron saint is finally coming into focus.

Charles Hicks was introduced to Chris Manak in 1989 when the two were living in San Jose. Manak, who had recently graduated from high school, was three years older than Hicks and was a full-time DJ and hip hop producer. Even back then, Manak had a preternaturally attuned ear for talent, as well as an eclectic musical taste that would later become his trademark; he loved sampling rare '60s psychedelic tunes and other idiosyncratic stuff that was not traditional source material.

Hicks encouraged Manak's experimentation, and discovered his own voice while rapping atop Manak's beats. Like all of the great MCs', Hicks' microphone presence was a seamless extension of his personality: enthusiastic, personable, fearless, and funny. "Charizma was really the first MC who had exactly what I was looking for," says Manak. "He was amazing."

After working out a few songs in their parents' homes, the boys recruited Manak's friend Jeff Jank, who had a four-track and a sampler and allowed them to record in his basement. They put together a demo and began shopping their songs to various local radio stations. KUSF in particular was receptive, and it put one of the songs into rotation. DJ Design, an old friend of Hicks and DJ for Bay Area favorites Foreign Legion, remembers hearing the MC for the first time: "I was impressed that he was doing hip hop that was just as good as what you'd hear on [commercial] radio at the time. ... He could construct choruses and write a really catchy song. He knew song structure way before the rest of us did."

Upon hearing the demos on KUSF, Matt Brown – who was managing DJ Shadow at the time – signed on as the duo's manager, and things rapidly escalated. Hicks and Manak established themselves as the one of the premier live acts in the Bay Area, and before Hicks turned 18, he had performed in the esteemed and influential Gavin convention, the area's pre-eminent industry event, and numerous Bomb Hip Hop showcases. By the time Hollywood Basic approached them about signing a record contract, Hicks and Manak had developed both a substantial fan base and an artistic aesthetic.

The experience with Hollywood Basic started out positive enough. They were flown down to L.A. to meet with the executives, where they were enticed by a substantial advance, the prospect of appearing in Sister Act II, and promises of being able to retain total creative control of their music. After getting his advance, Hicks began living the part of the rap superstar: He bought gold chains and new Timberland boots; was featured in Billboard magazine; met Barry Bonds in the Giants' locker room; and was flown to Germany along with Manak to tour with Raw Fusion. "We were staying in a nice, posh hotel for the first times in our lives," Manak remembers. "We went to the minibar and drank all the alcohol and ate all the food. We didn't know that you had to pay for it."

The situation with the label quickly soured, however, as the execs at Hollywood Basic became increasingly controlling over the creative process. Brown, in particular, feels bitter about the situation. He remembers flying down to L.A. and sitting through the marketing meetings. "One thing that stands out in my mind about dealing with Hollywood and [parent company] Disney was that they flat out told me in these meetings that Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf either have to be marketed as high school kids [à la Kriss Kross] or gangsters. And there was no in between that."

Of course, Hicks and Manak were young and eager to please, and they carefully listened to the label's suggestions. But the suggestions turned into demands, and eventually the musicians wondered if their own artistic visions were being compromised for the sake of the label's marketing plans. Matters came to a head when Hollywood released a promotional cassette for their popular song "Red Light/Green Light" with a B-side from the Lifer's Group – a hip hop act composed entirely of guys who were in prison for life. That was the first and last record by MC Charizma that Hollywood would put out, and Hicks and Manak were released from their contract.

Although friends have indicated that Hicks became moodier following the duo's fallout with Hollywood Basic, by all accounts he was still a generally good-spirited young man very much focused on his career. Musically, the pair began to adopt the stark minimalism that would later become Manak's signature sound. "The last tape I got from them was a four-song tape that they did two months before Hicks died," Design says. "And those four songs were the most raw and stripped-down songs that they'd ever performed." After recording these songs, Hicks was gunned down in what appeared to be a botched robbery attempt. Following a lengthy trial, his killer was found guilty and is currently serving a life term in San Quentin.

After spending six months locked inside his bedroom trying to process Hicks' death, Manak emerged and later recorded the influential instrumental albumPeanut Butter Breaks in 1994. With the help of old friend Jank, he formed the now-seminal Stones Throw in 1996, taking the name from an inside joke that he and Hicks shared about Manak's mother's propensity to use archaic aphorisms. "It's just something to remember him by," Manak says about the label's name. In '97 Stones Throw released Peanut Butter Wolf's My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, an album that featured Hicks as well as his Bay Area peers, and was built out of the experimental boom-bap formula that Manak and his deceased partner had created.

Having taken to heart the lessons that he and Hicks learned from their Hollywood Basic fiasco, Manak grants his artists almost complete autonomy and approaches everything with a music-first attitude – whether that means allowing the label's star artist Madlib to flip-flop between genres and never release an album under the same moniker, or reissuing a series of musically majestic yet commercially disastrous tracks from obscure '70s and '80s musicians. The net result is a catalog that has helped shape West Coast underground hip hop and includes everything from traditional classics such as Rasco's The Unassisted and Lootpack's The Antidote to left-field offerings like Dudley Perkins' A Lil' Light and Yesterday's New Quintet's Angles Without Edges.The label has also been responsible for a slew of essential rereleases, includingThe Funky 16 Corners and Stark Reality's Now, and has helped spark the hip hop community's renewed interest in rare-groove recordings.

With the 10-year anniversary of Hicks' death approaching, Manak has finally released his friend's debut, Big Shots. In choosing the tracks for the album, he tried to "think what [Hicks] would've wanted" and has largely culled material from their pre-Hollywood demos. The LP is a perfect representation of the duo's eclectic repertoire, ranging from witty braggadocio tracks such as "My World Premier" and "Methods" to quirky conceptual songs like "Red Light/Green Light" and "Apple Juice Break." Though the record does have a distinctly early-'90s feel -- and will probably best be appreciated as a historical relic – Manak's minimal, jazzy production and Charizma's barely contained energy and wit make this an essential purchase for any hip hop fan.

While some have wondered why Manak waited so long to release his friend's material, Design sees wisdom in the move. "It's smart," says the DJ. "If they had released it when Stones Throw first started, no one would have heard it." Now, with the label's reputation cemented, people will finally get to hear the artist who inspired some of the era's greatest music.

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