You’ve been a source of joy and companionship for me since I was in elementary school. For others you’ve been so much more, but today I’m writing my personal thank you for all you’ve done for not only me, but for all of the Japanese Americans living in California, particularly in L.A.
You see, you didn’t just provide music we grew up on; you were a culture that included styles of dress, the slang we spoke, how we did our hair, and our demeanor. For some you provided a source of revenue – even careers. What I am most appreciative of is that you brought an entire generation of JAs together over about a 20-year period and still do.
You were the glue in my closest friendships. It was 1988 when my best friend and I were about to perform a hip-hop number for the first time at the school talent show. Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” was just released and social dances were really popular. We practiced dances like the “Roger Rabbit,” the “Cabbage Patch,” the “Whop,” the “Robocop,” and the “Reebok.”
We were an unlikely pairing; I was Japanese-Mexican American and she was Italian-African American and almost a foot taller than I was. Her older cousin who taught us all of the fad dances used to affectionately call me “sushi,” acknowledging the obvious ethnic difference. I didn’t fully understand the stereotype or the song lyrics at the time, but it didn’t matter, because dancing to the beat was all I cared about.
In another memory, I vividly recall spending hours, on the carpeted floor of my girlfriend’s bedroom, crouched next to her boom box as we memorized the lyrics of songs. Back then we only had cassette tapes, so playing back lyrics was time-consuming with all of the stop-rewind-play, stop-rewind-play.
Fast-forward to a Schurr High School homecoming gathering where again, I’m about to perform a hip-hop routine. You electrified the crowd! Your songs like Boyz to Men’s “Motownphilly,” BBD’s “Poison,” and Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way” blasted through the speakers.
It was the early ’90s and your music was in full swing; by then rap was controversial, the break-dancing b-boy culture was still a huge influence, and you were the best-selling music genre in the U.S. Also, Z Cavaricci pants (which I couldn’t afford), flat-top haircuts, girls’ Esprit sandals and Hawaiian brands such as Hawaiian Island Creations (HIC) were the craze.
College really opened my eyes to your influence. Japanese Americans largely ran the Asian Greek sororities and fraternities. They used to put on rushes and other parties, which were hip-hop-centric. These dances evolved into a thriving club scene throughout Southern and Northern California by the mid-’90s. Every weekend, this scene of predominantly Japanese Americans would show up by the hundreds, at times over a thousand, to dance to you.
Promoters Made Entertainment, OG Sounds, SOS, Kut Above, Fastrax, Doug Kanegawa of International Groove and Proof Positive organized these clubs and dances. At the center of them all were Japanese American DJs who became known for their ability to mix music and interact with the crowds. One such DJ transcended the local scene into the mainstream.
The late Hideo Sugano, aka DJ Hideo, had his own radio program at L.A.-based 100.3 The Beat and performed at clubs all over the world, among other accomplishments. According to news articles, he was known as “the Hardest-Working DJ on the West Coast” and was one of the most well-respected and sought-after DJ’s in L.A.’s music scene.
Hideo’s success paved the way for future DJs. The same is true of the early JA promoters; Asian American promoters in the club scene today credit their success to these pioneers.
The ’80s and ’90s were an exceptional time in the lives of thousands of JAs living in California. Our community discovered you and you embraced us. You were the means by which many of us assimilated, identified, discovered our feminism/masculinity, and broke racial stereotypes. Like basketball, you were the social glue that bound our community.
So it was natural that our Old Skool committee and LTSC CDC would want to have you at the forefront of our Straight Outta Little Tokyo party on June 4. Once again you’ll bring hundreds of JAs together as a community to dance and celebrate the “old skool” days while raising awareness about the Budokan of Los Angeles project. Thank you.
The author writes from Culver City, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She grew up in East L.A. and has stayed connected to Little Tokyo through her involvement with Nisei Week and volunteering for the Budokan of Los Angeles. She is also a former employee of Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development corporation and a co-founder of the Japanese American Women’s Giving Circle. For more information on Straight Outta Little Tokyo, which will be held at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, visit budokanofla.org.