Begun in the fall of 2016 by California State University Fresno historians Sean Slusser and Romeo Guzman (now at the Claremont University), “Straight Outta Fresno” (SOF) provides a view into the burgeoning “popping” scene that emerged among multi-ethnic and multi-racial hip hop fans of 1980s and 1990s Fresno. As co-founder Slusser discusses below, though a large city of 500,000, when nestled between the more “glamorous” cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central Valley metropolis often gets ignored, yet Fresno served as a hotbed of popping talent. SOF not only documents this development but also provides insights into the oft ignored working class communities of the city and the means by which they navigated and contributed to Fresno’s larger culture and hip hop more broadly.
How did Straight Outta Fresno (SOF) come into being?
Straight Outta Fresno started as a collaboration between myself and Dr. Romeo Guzman in November 2016. The short version of the story is that Dr. Guzman had just started the Valley Public History initiative at Fresno State; I was also new to Fresno State and had been given an opportunity to do research after all my classes were dropped a week before the semester started (shout out to the adjunct hustle). My research background is in studying hip-hop culture, so I pitched a project based on a sentence (in the most literal sense) that I had read in a few books and articles on hip-hop culture, namely that Fresno was the birthplace of popping—a form of dance that pre-dates, but eventually gets folded into, hip-hop. The department chair suggested I meet with Dr. Guzman due to his extensive background in public history, in particular, public history rooted in local communities and a commitment to reciprocity. Needless to say, it was a great meeting and we set out to track down popping history with mixed results; however, in that process I met Charles “Goku” Montgomery (here is a link to Charles’s oral history) and that relationship unlocked a large and diverse network of b-boys and b-girls dating back to the 1980s and 90s. Immediately, Dr. Guzman and I realized that popping was part of a much larger and inter-generational story of Fresno and Central Valley hip-hop dance and also realized that this history would be a fascinating way to understand local history writ large. From there, we applied for and received a California Humanities grant that helped fund a museum-quality exhibit, a b-boy/b-girl battle series, and multiple panel discussions, all while conducting oral histories with community members and accepting archival donations.
You write in the introduction to the project: “If Fresno itself is understudied, then communities like Southeast and Southwest Fresno that are heavily represented in this collection are nearly invisible.” Who makes up these ignored communities, and what can people expect to learn about their contributions to Fresno through SOF?
Southeast and Southwest Fresno are predominantly working class communities of color with heavy representation from the Latinx, Southeast Asian (in particular, Hmong), and African American populations. On the one hand, the oral histories we have conducted with members of these communities evidence the fact that Southeast and Southwest Fresno are communities characterized by struggle. They are plagued by some of the highest levels of poverty in the state; they are under resourced, and they live, on average, twenty years less than residents of working and upper class communities in North Fresno. On the other hand, those same oral histories paint a picture of Southeast and Southwest Fresno as home to intense cultural creation, including a long history of muralism (and later graffiti), hip-hop dance, and emceeing. Perhaps most importantly, you learn about functional communities populated by prideful and passionate people.
One of my favorite oral histories is one we did fairly early in our process with a woman named Deborah McCoy (here is the link to Deborah’s oral history). In the 1970s, as a young person, Deborah moved around the Central Valley, in part because she spent time in the foster care system. Eventually, she reunited with her biological family and plugged into local popping culture. The McCoy home became something of an organic community center, with local youth coming to hang out and take dance (and karate!) lessons. Eventually, Deborah and her brother Ken (here is the link to Ken’s oral history) started competing in and winning dance competitions and talent shows across the region and state; in those competitions, they developed their own choreography and wore costumes hand-made by their stepmother. A listen to Deborah’s oral history transports you to a neighborhood that is alive with people actively working to build community and make the best of whatever limited resources they had access to. Fast-forward to the present and Deborah has her own dance studio where she teaches hip-hop dance to Fresno youth. Her students have performed at numerous local events including concerts, the Fresno County Fair, and our own SOF events. Deborah embodies an inter-generational story of hip-hop dance culture building and sustaining local communities. Stories like Deborah’s shine a light onto communities like Southeast and Southwest Fresno that many locals actively avoid and rarely learn about.
One of the most notable aspects of the SOF archive is the ethnic and racial diversity of the participants; the Hmong B-boy pioneers and the Climax/Soul Crew seem to attest to this. Did this diversity surprise you when you began putting the project together, and what impact did this have on Fresno’s hip-hop community?
Fresno’s general level of diversity was not particularly surprising, given Fresno and the broader Central Valley’s relationship to California and its proximity to the agriculture industry. However, there were definitely some surprises in the particular makeup in that diversity to me as an outsider. For example, I knew some basic information about Hmong peoples, but had almost no frame of reference for the local Hmong community in general, and definitely had never heard of Hmong b-boys and b-girls (here is a link to our digital exhibit on one of Fresno’s first Hmong b-boy crews)! As a project, we had to learn a lot about how the b-boy and b-girl scene intersected with local geography and the various ethnic and gang divisions connected to that geography. I’m not going to romanticize this story and say that hip-hop culture brought everyone together or solved racism; there were definitely conflicts at least partially shaped by ethnic divisions. However, there are also plenty of examples of hip-hop culture helping to create moments of genuine cultural exchange, and even examples of hip-hop culture protecting b-boys and b-girls from gang conflict. For example, cultural exchange is seen in the experiences of Charles “Goku” Montgomery and Pablo “B-boy Pablo” Flores, who started off in predominantly Hmong crews before breaking off to found Climax crew, which even today remains ethnically diverse with Latinx, African American, white, and Asian members (here is a link to our exhibit on Climax crew). As an outsider, I’m also struck by the fact that crews from the 1990s still exist in 2022. My sense is that a certain level of respect, born out of decades of battle and competition, has developed, binding members of the b-boy and b-girl scene together across multiple divisions. Another commonality found in many of our oral histories is that the majority of b-boys and b-girls were people of color and almost all of them have stories of direct and indirect racial discrimination they faced while navigating the whiter parts of Fresno. In this sense, our project sheds light on the fact that Fresno and the Central Valley, like nearly all parts of the United States, has been hostile to communities and people of color. All of which is to say that the diversity of Fresno’s hip-hop scene (and Fresno in general) mirrors larger diversity trends in the region, state, and country, even as there are uniquely local elements.
Obviously, you are documenting the history of hip-hop Fresno, but you also have larger goals, such as remapping the “social and political cartography” of the region so that the contributions of Fresno’s residents are acknowledged and that they receive the resources they’ve gone without. Doesn’t this mirror or reflect the role of hip-hop artists like P.E. and N.W.A (i.e. Rap operating as “Black CNN”)?
I think it depends on how you read the “Black CNN” frame; my guess is that most people use that frame to argue that hip-hop music and lyrics reflect African American experience(s) in a direct “listen to what they are telling you” type of way. I do not necessarily disagree with that frame, but I tend to think that the experiences hip-hop documents are more than just direct lyrics, especially in a place like Fresno that has had a much tougher time getting lyrical representation in broader hip-hop culture. For example, b-boy historian Joe Schloss argues that b-boys and b-girls are judged on their ability to execute the most dynamic and athletic of moves in the smallest of spaces, and argues that b-boy/b-girl precision is a by-product of a dance that was created in working class apartment living rooms and hallways and perfected on cardboard scraps, all of which was necessary for a population that did not have access to dance studios. A good number of oral histories we have done with dancers similarly discuss access to space, including constantly being kicked out of city recreation centers. In both cases, then, dance moves themselves carry both a history of dance and neglect. The Fresno b-boy and b-girl scene, for example, has a strong “power move” tradtion (the more acrobatic and athletic moves that most people probably think of when they hear the term “breakdancing”). Moves like airflares and headpins require a lot of precision when battling (you can’t be kicking onlookers with a rogue airflare) and that precision was developed in garages, corners of the local recreation center, or small public high school concrete squares. In this sense, hip-hop dance doesn’t fit the traditional “CNN” frame because most of the cultural knowledge is embedded in the culture itself and requires active effort from viewers to actually pay attention to history and the dancers themselves.
Of course, not everyone is going to look that deep into the history of the airflare, so giving b-boys and b-girls themselves a platform to discuss that history and its relation to their community experiences is vital. As a project, then, we try to balance our more academic impulse to shape narratives and analysis with letting community members define and share what they think is most significant about their art and community. Many of the community members we work with want their contributions to be recognized and appreciated. So, as much as we highlight the ways hip-hop culture gives us insight into broader socio-cultural aspects of Fresno and the Central Valley, we also want to make it clear that Fresno hip-hop is dope, full stop! From the Electric Boogaloos bringing Popping to the masses on Soul Train, to B-boy Pablo executing one of the first documented continuous airflares at a Fresno recreation center, to Goku’s power move transition innovations, Fresno youth have created cultural traditions that have directly contributed to hip-hop culture and that are practiced in nearly every corner of the globe.
In what ways does the project confirm what we know about hip-hop more broadly, while also challenging our usual tenets regarding the genre?
SOF approaches hip-hop more as a culture than a specific genre. Among other things, that approach means contextualizing the commercial elements of hip-hop music within a broader culture that includes graffiti, DJing, b-boying/b-girling, and emceeing. In this sense, our project reinforces much of what both hip-hop practitioners and scholars have been arguing for decades, namely, that hip-hop culture is a creative response form working class youth of color to structural neglect. Our archive is filled with local stories that sound nearly identical to stories from the 1970s Bronx or 1980s Compton, whether it be the lack of art programs, police surveillance, or innovative use of technology and public space.
At the same time, SOF highlights the additional challenges that come with developing hip-hop culture outside of larger metropolitan regions like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. The most obvious limitation is access to resources and institutions that might help artists make a living off their art. Whereas Los Angeles youth, for example, are in close proximity to record label offices, agents, or even national (and international) media outlets which increase the slim chances of exposure, Fresno and Central Valley youth have to grind much harder for those same potentially life changing (or, at least, sustaining) opportunities. Even if they can afford to travel (hardly a given) to those institutions, Fresno does not have the same hip-hop cultural capital or name recognition, so artists have to be 2-3 times doper than their counterparts coming from well-known scenes. On a smaller scale, Fresno and the Central Valley also have a dearth of the types of local institutions that help sustain and grow hip-hop communities. For example, there are not many dance studios where OG b-boys and b-girls can teach or even a lot of b-boy/b-girl open practice spots where they can work on their craft with other dancers; there is a similar limited number of institutions for other hip-hop elements. Given the high degree of talent found in Fresno and the Central Valley, the scene itself should be much larger. However, my take is that these, for lack of a better term, sub-cultural institutional limitations not only make it difficult to “make it” in a commercial sense but also work as a check on the scene’s growth. To circle back to your question, studying Fresno hip-hop culture has definitely forced me to think about how our (or at least, my) understanding of hip-hop privileges more metropolitan experiences, which makes me more curious about how hip-hop culture adapts in areas even further removed from large cities. As important as local conditions are to hip-hop culture, not all local conditions are created equal.
You’ve archived a number of oral histories. How did you go about identifying and then finding members of the Fresno hip-hop community to interview, particularly for a subculture that was not widely covered by media at the time?
As a project, our strategy was to play to our respective strengths. I had some early connections in the local hip-hop community so I started with them and built a network by following up on recommendations from community members. Charles “Goku” Montgomery, for example, has been an important community partner throughout SOF’s existence but especially in the early days, by generously donating his time, connecting me to other community members, and vouching for our work. Having someone of Goku’s stature on our side made it much easier to connect to a whole range of community members. At the same time, Dr. Guzman has been excellent at getting the project exposure in the local media and used his extensive public history experience to engage with the community. For example, based on his experience, all of our events—from panel discussions, exhibits, to b-boy/b-girl battles—dedicated time and space to conducting oral histories on site. Even as we were sharing information, we were also keeping the door open for further community input and collaboration. Along the way, I like to think we developed a good reputation in the community as a project that is dedicated to collaboration and reciprocity, something which keeps more people coming. Beyond that, I try to stay involved in the local community by supporting local projects and events and always being willing to listen to people’s stories. I feel like almost 90 percent of the time I go to events, I end up randomly meeting people who participated, one way or another, in the local hip-hop scene. Curiosity and being open to conversation goes a long way!
Often in the interviews, the interviewees describe aspects of Fresno over the past twenty or thirty years, such as the prevalence of gangs during the 1990s. Did any urban issues or themes emerge as you conducted these oral histories? Did this confirm or challenge (perhaps both) what you knew about the city?
Fresno is interesting; with a population north of 500,000, it would be the largest city in almost any other state, yet, because it is sandwiched between the San Francisco Bay area to the north and Los Angeles to the south, it often has the reputation of being a “small city.” As an outsider, living and teaching in Fresno and working on SOF has helped me understand Fresno’s “in-betweeness”; it is simultaneously rural and urban. For my students who come from the numerous smaller Central Valley communities, Fresno is the “big city” (with both the positive and negative connotations that come with that city), but it struggles to wrestle political and economic resources from its more glamorous neighbors to the north and south. Anyone who browses through SOF archival material will learn about everything from the dangers associated with navigating local gang geography, working in the local agriculture fields and packing plants, long round-trip drives to hip-hop events in LA or the San Francisco Bay area, to creating your own opportunities, and the chip on the shoulder individuals often carried with them as they tried to prove that Fresno was/is as dope as any other city; you could do worse in looking for a representation of what makes Fresno tick as a city. Like most outsiders, my perception of Fresno was mostly based on LA- and San Francisco-based slander and jokes at the city’s expense. Working on SOF, then, has not only challenged my pre-existing perceptions but has given me a better sense of Fresno as a three-dimensional city filled with a lot of dope people passionate about making their communities better.
Today, TikTok and other social media platforms, along with the ongoing pandemic, have created communities less tied to place. How do you think Fresno shaped the movement’s dynamics, and how would you compare the SOF archive to these more digital communities?
On the one hand, digital platforms have definitely created more opportunities for broader exposure. Youtube, TikTok, Instagram, etc., have all been places to disseminate and even debate Fresno hip-hop history. However, my sense is that those platforms are not as “open” and democratic as they say they are. For example, I do not know that Fresno and Central Valley youth have the same access to both technology and mentoring often required to learn how to create and edit content and how to plug into the right algorithms for exposure. My (very) anecdotal sense is that hip-hop culture on social media is still driven by artists from larger cities who have access to better networks. The potential silver lining, however, is I think Fresno and Central Valley hip-hop culture is stronger and tighter knit than a lot of digital communities precisely because it is so rooted in an actual physical place. For example, we hosted a b-boy/b-girl battle a couple years ago and one of the rounds featured a battle between Charles Montgomery’s Climax/Soul Control crew and the predominantly-Hmong Wizards crew, two crews who have been battling in the Central Valley for over twenty-five years; more to the point, the current incarnation of those crews includes (much) younger siblings of OG crew members and there are even children of OGs coming up the pipeline. Social media is a great tool for crews like Climax/Soul Control and Wizards because it lets them communicate with each other and the world, but you still need that on-the-ground hustle and commitment to keep communities going, and I think the local hip-hop scene has generally done a good job of doing just that, at least on a small scale. It is not uncommon, for example, to show up to a local b-boy/b-girl practice spot and hear Climax or Wizards members schooling the younger generation not only how to execute a particular move but also on the local evolution of that move.
What do you hope for SOF’s future?
In the broadest sense, I hope Straight Outta Fresno continues to grow as a collaborative effort and resource for the Fresno and Central Valley hip-hop community. Among other things, this growth means expanding to include more hip-hop elements (graffiti, emceeing, DJing, in particular) because we have been fairly hip-hop dance heavy these first couple years. Also, in our effort to document the Fresno and Central Valley hip-hop culture in all three dimensions, we can do more to give voice and representation to the various silences in our archive, in particular when it comes to gender and sexuality. When you study hip-hop culture, it is easier to document cis, heterosexual, male spaces because they tend to be the gatekeepers. However, in Fresno, as much as any other city, it is clear that women and LGBTQIA+ youth were active participants in hip-hop culture; it is also clear that many women and LGBTQIA+ youth found that same culture inaccessible and hostile. I would like our archive to do a better job of both highlighting those voices and being a resource for dialogue. In addition, I want to find ways to encourage community members to directly interact with SOF archival material, whether that be opening up opportunities to design/shape digital exhibits or collaborating on efforts to integrate our materials with community-driven projects and events. Along those lines, there are some exciting community-based digital projects currently brewing in Fresno and the Central Valley. I would love to find ways to support and collaborate with those projects to help build a really dope digital footprint that gives Fresno and the Central Valley the attention it deserves as a home for amazing people and creativity.
Sean Slusser is a PhD candidate in History at University of California, Riverside and an adjunct in the History and Sociology departments at California State University, Fresno. He is co-founder and co-director of Straight Outta Fresno, a public history project that seeks to document and showcase the multi-ethinc history of hip hop in Fresno.
Featured image (at top): Radiotron was one of the most important b-boy/b-girl competitions in the United States; eventually Fresno-based Climax Crew participated in the event. Charles Montgomery (donor), “Radiotron 1995 Event Flyer, Front,” Straight Outta Fresno.