By KELSEY IINO
If you asked me a few months ago, “What do the Little Tokyo Service Center Budokan,1980s-1990s 20-something-year-old Japanese Americans, and West Coast hip-hop have in common?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. However, I now know that JAs played an integral part to the ’80s and ’90s West Coast hip-hop scene that came out of JA social events during that time.
I feel like I missed out on a whole generation and era… During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the JA social scene was poppin’! I attended high school in the late ’90s, went to college through the early 2000s, aside from basketball, there wasn’t much holding the JAs together. A once-thriving Little Tokyo was declining and instead of understanding the reasons why, I engaged in what I thought were other social activities that were not tied to the JA community.
In middle school I listened to Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, and NWA, in college I went to Project Blowed and listen to hip-hop groups such as Freestyle Fellowship, the Living Legends, Medusa and the Visionaries … and at that time, I didn’t know that there was a link between the L.A. hip-hop scene and JAs.
Working on “Straight Outta Little Tokyo: Taking it Back Old Skool,” a Budokan fundraising project, has given me the opportunity to learn through others on the organizing committee about a time in our Japanese American history I knew nothing about. I’ve had the privilege to hear about the origin, development and the impact it had into mainstream hip-hop from Brian Okuhara, one of the founding fathers of the JA social scene during this era.
The events organized by Brian and others built a foundation for up-and-coming artists. Brian explained to me how pioneers such as DJ Hideo, Key Kool, DJ Tony Jr. and other JAs were contributors to the mainstream as well as underground hip-hop. In addition to the mark they had on ’80s and ’90s music, they also helped build a social scene that consisted of JA parties, JA culture and JA community.
It was a thriving time for Nisei Week as well as other festivities in Little Tokyo and in the South Bay. Socially, the JA scene was vibrant and had also assimilated into the mainstream hip-hop culture.
The folks that grew up during that era light up when they reminisce and talk about “those days.” It seemed like it was an extraordinary time, not affiliated with hardships like the Issei, the Nisei and even the Sansei experienced, it was purely good times, community and the love of hip-hop. I now know that some of my go-to songs that I listen to for motivation, focus and inspiration are partially influenced by JAs from the ’80s and ’90s, and it makes me smile.
So why did I write this letter and why should you care about it? Because for some, it’s a lost part of our history that we should recognize, pay homage to and document. Also, it is a population that may have lost touch with Little Tokyo and the community. With a bit of dedication, engagement and outreach, this generation could easily be reintroduced to Little Tokyo and a renewed interest and love for the community could revive a passion that has been lost.
We can revive a new generation of stakeholders that can continue to revitalize Little Tokyo so that it can thrive once again!
Kelsey Iino writes from Los Angeles where she is the marketing director of POPDUP and is active in various Little Tokyo organizations. She is on the faculty of El Camino College and is a college counselor. “Straight Outta Little Tokyo,” presented by Little Tokyo Vibes, MADE Ent. and Friends of LTSC, will be held Saturday, June 4, from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. at Nishi Hongwanji, 815 E. First St., Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://budokanofla.org.