A Long, Legendary Reach

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Steve Yano assumed the mantle of coach, community leader and hip-hop visionary.

Steve Yano makes the rounds during a girls' basketball team practice at Troy High School in Fullerton. Yano, who died in a tragic accident last week, will be remembered in services on Saturday. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

Steve Yano makes the rounds during a girls’ basketball team practice at Troy High School in Fullerton. Yano, who died in a tragic accident last week, will be remembered in services on Saturday. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor

If a lifetime is measured by the ripple effects it has on other lives, then Steve Yano must have made quite a splash. From coaching young athletes, to sharing with his own kids a love of the great outdoors, to playing a pivotal role in the nascent days of hip-hop music, Yano’s reach is difficult to imagine in casual passing.

Because his influence has been so far-reaching, the shock at his untimely death has been equally powerful. Yano fell from a ladder at his Whittier home on Sept. 17, suffering a mortal head injury at the age of 62.

“This has hit us so hard,” said Roger Anderson, Varsity girls head basketball coach at Troy High School in Fullerton. Yano was an assistant coach at Troy for more than a dozen years.

“You can only imagine the impact he’s had,” Anderson said. “He’s such a big part of our program, with more than 60 kids. The really tough part is to look at our girls, to see their pain and to try to help them make sense of this.

“This is a really sad day in the history of Troy,” he added.

Yano’s wife, Susan, has been busily preparing for the memorial service, set for this Saturday at Evergreen Baptist Church of the San Gabriel Valley, in La Puente. She said the sudden loss has left her unsure of how to react.

“I don’t really know how to handle it,” she told The Rafu on Tuesday, describing how she and her family were assembling photos and a personal history for her husband’s memorial. She soon shifted the conversation to fond memories and anecdotes about her daughters and their successes in school and on the basketball court, showing considerable delight in some of the tales that illustrated the hallmarks of her husband’s character. Susan Yano managed a few laughs when describing Steve’s 1970s Nisei Athletic Union basketball team, the Intruders.

“I don’t think they ever won a game,” she chuckled. “They must have the NAU record for the longest losing streak. He didn’t care, though. The players were all his friends from high school, and most of them had never played basketball. He just wanted a way for them to get together.”

Born in Chicago and the eldest of three children, Yano grew up in the Japanese American neighborhoods of East L.A. and attended Garfield High. It was there he met Susan, but his basketball skills failed to impress her.

“I was a cheerleader, on the Varsity squad, so I was at all the Varsity games,” she recalled. “Steve was a C-team player, so I never saw any of his games.”

Equipped with a little cash he’d saved from his bagging job at a local market and truckload of courage, he finally asked the cheerleader for date during their senior year. They were inseparable ever since, including the early 1970s period during which she was enrolled at Cal State L.A. and he was 150 miles away at UC Santa Barbara. The weekly treks on his motorcycle to see his best girl convinced him to eventually leave Santa Barbara and re-enroll to finish his psychology degree at CSULA.

Life for Steve and Susan flourished during their time in college. Opting to attend summer school and take the winter quarters off, the pair shared outdoor activities such as skiing, backpacking, tennis and volleyball. Steve established the Intruders, which included a pair of basketball teams and some volleyball clubs. Through their love of sport, their social circles and community ties grew exponentially.

To help pay for school and recreation, Steve purchased a small van and worked as a gardener with friend Gary Arita, a career that was cut short as their studies kept them too busy to mow lawns and trim hedges. Still in need of work, Yano landed a job that required use of a van, to transport and sell record albums and tapes at an Orange County swap meet. The business took off, and with Susan now in the fold, the pair set out to establish their own business, selling music at several Southern California swap meets, eventually landing at the Roadium in Torrance in the early 1980s.

Fans sift through crates of records at the Yanos' booth inside the Roadium Swap Meet, as hip-hop and rap were still in their infancy. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

Fans sift through crates of records at the Yanos’ booth inside the Roadium Swap Meet, as hip-hop and rap were still in their infancy. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

Steve was adroit in recognizing the emerging trends in music and acted on his knowledge. He and Susan hosted weekly disco nights at the home they purchased together, and realizing how music could be more financially rewarding than psychology, he quit school to pursue the business full-time. He was particularly keen on a young rapper he met at the Roadium, a talented artist from Compton who called himself Dr. Dre. Yano introduced him to another up-and-coming rapper, Eazy-E, and the pair went on to form the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A.

The swap meet proved to be a perfect outlet for selling mixtapes and rap albums. Spurred on by N.W.A.’s success, Yano formed his own label, Skanless Records, on which several popular rap artists gained notoriety. Yano’s “Ultimate Breaks and Beats” was a series of musical elements and samples for use in hip-hop, and has been called the “Holy Bible of Beats.” He later worked at other record labels, including Rhino.

Susan said she received a call from Dr. Dre, who couldn’t believe the news of Steve’s passing. Just a week earlier, the Yanos had been interviewed for an upcoming documentary about N.W.A., for their role in the group’s start.

Coach Anderson said that many of Yano’s athletes had no idea about his history in popular music, and that many would have been shocked to learn “how cool he was in that field.”

“He was a wonderful man who did absolutely wonderful things, but he was so humble that he never brought up music or his own accomplishments,” Anderson said.

Others were all too happy to laud Yano’s place in rap. A 2002 story in The L.A. Times about N.W.A.’s groundbreaking “Straight Outta Compton” called Yano the “uncrowned king of the swap meet music underground.” The piece painted a picture of him as the man with his finger on the pulse of an entirely new genre of popular music:

He has turned his table into the hippest, hottest record store on the West Coast. He’s got everything — all the new East Coast hip-hop, the best old-school R&B, all the L.A. dance jams, that locking-and-popping stuff you see on “Soul Train.” He has stuff nobody else has, stuff nobody else has ever heard of. He has stuff so new it doesn’t even exist yet (not officially), stuff with no labels, no packaging, just the stamp of the new.

Even a king, however, is not immune to the realities of family. After the births of their two daughters, Sheri and Stephanie, the Yanos immersed themselves in community activities – mainly basketball – and left the music business on the back burner. In the mid-1990s, Steve helped Lyle Honda establish the SGV Basketball Club, an organization that continues to teach and mentor hundreds of kids yearly.

“No matter what he poured his energy into, it was a success,” Honda said. “Everything he touched seemed to work. He was such a passionate guy and other people would feed off his energy. He donated so much time to groups he believed in, and it was all an illustration of how much he enjoyed life.”

Yano also helped establish basketball and volleyball teams for the Tigers organization, all while taking on more duties at home as Susan battled cancer.

Once his own daughters reached high school, Steve became involved in volunteer coaching at the prep level. His commute to Troy was 40 minutes each way, and his coaching style put an emphasis on winning both on the court and in the classroom. Susan said he was inordinately proud of Stephanie, who chose to attend UC San Diego on its academic strengths, then managed to make the basketball team as a walk-on player.

Yano had recently celebrated his 62nd birthday by ascending the highest peak in the continental U.S., Mt. Whitney, with his daughters and future son-in-law. Stephanie posted a photo on her Facebook page showing father and daughter, smiling with a string of fish they had caught. She didn’t include a caption, but hundreds of friends and family have added comments, such as, “Your dad was an amazing person and an amazing coach,” and “I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to know him.”

The auditorium at Evergreen Baptist Church has more than 1,000 seats, every one of which is expected to be filled on Saturday, along with the aisles and corridors. Anderson said he will do his best not to mourn too deeply, but to honor the legacy Yano leaves behind.

“We should do our best to hold on to each other, and remember the great things he did, not the fact that we no longer have him.”

Evergreen Baptist Church of the San Gabriel Valley is located at 323 Workman Mill Rd. in La Puente. Guests are welcome to start arriving at 11 a.m. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Tigers Youth Club, c/o 2326 Cherrygate Way., Hacienda Heights, CA 91745.

Steve Yano shares a laugh with Tory High School basketball players during a 2011 team fundraiser. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

Steve Yano shares a laugh with Tory High School basketball players during a 2011 team fundraiser. (Photo courtesy Susan Yano)

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  1. In the early 1980s, as a local sansei kid growing up behind the Roadium Swapmeet, every weekend I would hop over the back wall to hang out at Steve Yano’s record shop. Steve was always calm and patient, playing every record that my friend Glen Tagami and I asked about. Steve always asked us about our Gardena F.O.R. basketball games, asked how we were doing, and really cared about it. I recall him being excited about Elden Campbell of the Lakers coming by to buy records from him every now and then.

    Years later, with my rap group the Visionaries, we mixed our entire record at Steve’s Skanless Studios in East LA in 1997. Steve basically let us use his studio for free, knowing that we were an independent label without the major label funding.

    Steve is a true hip-hop pioneer. The music he sold at his record shop fed the best, latest music to the tastemaker DJs that mixed on the LA AM Radio station KDAY, such as Dr. Dre. An entire generation of youth in Los Angeles were directly influenced by this humble Japanese American man, and the music he distributed to the urban and suburban landscape of Southern California. His role in planting the seed for N.W.A by introducing Dr. Dre to Eazy E would later spawn into arguably the most influential hip-hop record ever.

    I pay tribute to Steve Yano as the Hip-Hop pioneer, and more importantly, to him as the kind, caring, humble Visionary that he will always be remembered as. We will dearly miss you Uncle Steve!

    -Kikuo “KeyKool” Nishi
    Up Above Records, President
    Visionaries Co-Founder, MC/Producer

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