By: Mike Madriaga
Word on the South Bay streets is much of the 619-based hip-hop movement started at the Vista Terrace Hills apartments in San Ysidro. “We’ve been repping SD since we started back at those apartments,” Miguel ‘DJ Mikeski’ DeGracia said. “Our group, The Legion of Doom (T.L.O.D.), was rapping together since 1985-ish.”
In March, I chopped it up with DeGracia, a now 46-year-old professional DJ, and his 21-year-old son, DJ Lil Ski — at their Eastlake crib. DeGracia recalls when he met with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube in National City, back when they were all teenagers.
“Dr. Dre was still with the Wreckin’ Cru at the time,” DeGracia said, “and I remember Ice Cube was in a group called C.I.A. (Cru’ In Action). They came down around 1986, where the social security offices are at now and it used to be Skate San Diego; that’s where I first met them. There was not that many people present and only hood people knew about that [concert]. Dre and them performed ‘The Fly.’”
During those times, Dr. Dre and his crew-mates wore sequined jackets, as seen on their World Class Wreckin’ Cru album covers. DeGracia’s older brother MC Robbie Rob had another look in mind for the San Ysidro-based rappers.
“We were representing SD by sporting San Diego Padres and Chargers gear,” DeGracia explained, “with dookie gold chains, beepers, 3-finger-rings and LV (Louis Vuitton).”
DeGracia’s other brother Laurence (aka. L.S.D.) and the fourth T.L.O.D. member Willy Will, were on loudspeaker while we spoke. “That was us,” Laurence said, “when we came out to the concert.” Will agreed: “There was nobody doing what we were doing, yet.”
“I remember watching them in Montgomery Junior High (1986) when they were called Brothers & Cousins — before T.L.O.D. was their name,” said Ruben Torres. “They were [already] rocking the brown and yellow Padres gear.”
Torres is a former rap artist and music video producer; he is the also the founder of Love Thy Neighbor, a local non-profit organization that helps needy children and elders of Tijuana and San Diego.
“At that very moment I knew I wanted to get into music somehow,” Torres said.
On the “Top 100 Hip Hop Albums Of The 1980s” list on the hiphopgoldenage.com site, I searched for groups that wore sports-team gear. I found 2 Live Crew sportin’ Miami Hurricane jackets in 1986; and NWA-members and Chuck Dee from Public Enemy sporting either Los Angeles Raiders or Los Angeles Kings hats in 1988.
“When they became N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitudes), that’s when they started wearing all of the Los Angeles sports gear,” DeGracia said.
Locals argue that DeGracia and his brother’s sports team-oriented outfits might’ve influenced the styling cues of the Los Angeles rappers.
The San Ysidro crew put out their first maxi single in 1988-1989. It featured “This is Diego,” “Masterpiece,” “I Can’t Live With or Without you,” and “Let it Play.” On their album cover, the group’s rocking matching San Diego Padres’ jerseys and Dickies, paired with Air Jordan 3 ‘kicks’ and lots of gold.
“Back then, gold was like $5-$6 a gram, bro. That ain’t shit,” DeGracia laughed. “Today it’s like 40 bucks a gram.” MC Robbie Rob, the group’s financer, purchased dookie chains (thick gold necklaces) and 3-finger-rings bearing their names. Much of their gold bling was customized and purchased at Price Breakers on Highland.
Legion of Doom was “the first” San Diego hip hop group to start an independent record label and get into The Wherehouse and Sam Goody’s stores in the San Diego region. “In some stores, we outsold MC Hammer,” DeGracia said.
“At times, I wish I was alive during that time,” DJ Lil Ski said. “Now, when I see my dad’s photos, it’s just like looking back through a history book.”
In DeGracia’s “back in the day” photo albums, he’s photographed kickin’ it with the now departed Eazy-E and The Notorious B.I.G.
DJ Lil Ski was recently accepted to San Diego State University; he’s transferring from Southwestern College. “In my communications class, I gave speeches on hip-hop culture,” he said. “Everybody was like, ‘I thought hip-hop was just music and guys rapping,’ and I responded, ‘Naw, rap is part of it, but there’s a whole bigger picture.’
“I broke it down into individual categories, the art: graffiti; the dance: breaking (or b-boying/b-girling); MCing which is rapping; and DJing. It’s a whole cultural phenomenon and a way of life for us, and even the way we talk and dress.”
When DeGracia and his brothers performed concerts, they brought boxes of their Legion Records-and-151 Posse t-shirts. “We used to sell them like crazy,” he said.
In the ‘80s, a hip-hop-specific clothing brand was unheard of; the closest fashion-pieces to show your unmistakable love for the culture, aside from Cross Colours (1989), were legit and bootleg rap-concert t-shirts. DeGracia’s concert-sold tees could be considered precursors to the largest hip-hop influenced clothing line to come outta the 619.
“The only brand that I really knew that’s been doing it and is still doing it — is Tribal,” DeGracia said.
Tribal Gear, which is located on 17th Street downtown, is celebrating its 30th anniversary creating streetwear. “When we finished, they were starting to come out,” DeGracia said. “I used to wear Tribal. Bobby, [one of the founders], always used to hook it up; Bobby’s the man.”
I went on the eBay site to check for vintage Tribal Gear and only one piece came up; it was a baseball-looking jersey that sold for $99.99. The lack of the world wide web address on it ensured that it was an older piece.
On DeGracia’s Facebook, he’s photographed wearing a similar Tribal Gear jersey with then-San Diego Charger LaDainian Tomlinson.
I went to Kobey’s Swap Meet to seek gear geared towards hip-hop heads and I thought to myself: “Maybe I can get lucky and score a vintage Padres’ jersey or that Tribal piece — for good prices.”
Mauricio Ramirez and his son Andy have been selling sports gear and shirts to local rappers and DJs for almost 30 years at Kobey’s Swap Meet.
“Sorry, no vintage Tribal stuff,” Mauricio said, “but I do have Chargers parkas and Starter jackets. Right now, Chargers jacket-and-jersey sales are slow, but after they won against the Ravens everybody wanted Chargers stuff.
“Tomlinson jerseys are always sought after,” Mauricio said, “and so are Louie Kelcher and Junior Seau jerseys.”
Mauricio and Andy fill up their four booths with about 5000 shirts and jackets a week; many are vintage.
“It’s hard to find rap stuff,” Andy said. “Collectors specifically look for rap/hip-hop stuff, and it gets picked immediately. We had a 2003 Jay-Z Roc-A-Fella jersey by Mitchell & Ness and sold it for $120.”
The same Mitchell & Ness jersey is on the eBay site for $1350.
According to an ESPN article on sports gear, “Peter Capolino, owner of jersey-maker Mitchell and Ness…. began making retro jerseys in the mid-’80s, but since he placed them on the backs of hip-hop artists and big-name athletes, revenues have grown from $2.8 million in sales in 2000 to $23 million last year (2002).”
I asked Mauricio if he had any Padres jerseys like the ones DeGracia and his brothers wore on the record album cover.
“No, but I had a pair of those Jordan number 3s that I sold for $200,” he responded. “It’s all about condition and how preserved they are.”
On the same row, I met with Allan, an 18-year-old selling old shirts and sneakers.
“I bought a Tupac shirt for $5, and I sold it for $125,” he said. “It was an older one from the late 90s. The shirts with the birth-and-death dates with big prints are bootlegs. Back in the day, you’d find someone on the side of the roads selling them.”
“Man,” I responded, “you were born about five years after Pac was killed, how do you know so much about this stuff?”
“I had an English class at [San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts], and when we were learning poetry, we would listen to tapes of Tupac on the boombox.”
Like Mauricio, Allan says “a lot of my clients are starting off in the hip-hop industry. They are SoundCloud rappers, and they utilize the vintage clothing to express themselves.” SoundCloud is an online audio distribution platform and music sharing website that enables its users to upload, promote, and share audio.
Snoop Dogg loves San Diego
DJ Z-MAN 35, uses SoundCloud, but prefers to promote his DJing and talkbox skills on YouTube.
“I come to this swap meet all of the time,” he said. “I want that old Z-90 shirt, but it’s overpriced.”
Z-MAN is known at the local hip-hop and funk concerts as an autograph hound. He’ll wait for hours to meet-and-greet with his favorite rappers. In 2016, when I covered a Snoop Dogg story a couple of blocks away from Kobey’s, Z-MAN was there, decked head-to-toe in Snoop Dogg-printed attire. Snoop was stoked when he saw Z’s get-up, and he signed his hat and the shirt on his back and took a photo with him. “I’ve been wanting to meet him for a long long time,” Z-MAN said.
Z-MAN watched Snoop and Pitbull perform at the Jingle Jam at the Sports Arena, which is a few feet away from Kobey’s.
“[That night] a man in the crowd did not like Snoop Dogg and threw his shoe at him,” Z-MAN said. “Snoop had on a SD hat, and he said it doesn’t [represent] Snoop Dogg, and that it stands for San Diego because he loves San Diego. That  concert shirt sells on eBay for $94 and at the show that was a bootleg shirt [sold in the parking lot] for $10.”
“Is that a Tribal shirt you’re wearing?” I asked.
“Naw, but I remember when they had a store downtown,” he replied, “I bought a LA Metro bus design t-shirt there.”
Jose ‘Krown’ Venegas wore a black Tribal shirt when I met him in February. “I met Bobby [from Tribal] in the early 2000s when he had the warehouse up the street by the Coca Cola warehouse,” he said. “Then they opened up a store downtown by 5th and Broadway, and then he opened up The Lower Left (current location).”
Venegas, 37, is a graffiti artist and program-coordinator for the Writerz Blok, a 10,000-square-foot legal graffiti yard at Market and Euclid in Chollas View.
“If you had a design on Tribal’s clothing, you were going places,” he said. “It would push you to keep growing as an artist.”
Venegas said that Tribal commissioned the best graffiti artists in San Diego to create designs for their shirts. The same artists have painted large murals at his graffiti yard.
“Zodak, Severe, Dyse, Kuya, and Pres did some stuff for Tribal,” Venegas said, “and then the Los Angeles writers; it was a whole soup of artists. That was unheard of back then: to get a bunch of artists and give them the opportunity to ‘flex’ a little bit and give them some exposure at the same time.”
On the Tribal website, men’s and women’s shirts retail for $20-$24; hoodies and jackets sell for more than double the price of the shirts. The company has additional locations in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Mexico.
Not all the graffiti artists and taggers that roll through Writerz Blok—which is about three blocks west of Euclid — are down with Tribal.
“Some of the kids say,‘Ugh, no, I’m not selling out,’” Venegas said. “I guess when you are in the early stages of bombing and tagging, your mentality is just ‘destroying all city,’ but eventually you gotta pay bills, and why not continue what you love doing and get paid for it?”
Venegas grew up in Shelltown and when he was a kid, he used to “catch a tag” (illegally) in the 1990s with the half-empty cans left behind by the older graff-painters. In 2003, he started working at Writerz Blok with Sergio Gonzalez, and when kids were caught tagging, police officers would bring them to the graffiti-yard as a “first chance” or a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Venegas and Gonzales taught the kids how to spray paint artistic murals (legally), how to work on graphic design programs, and how to screen print their own shirts on the facility’s manual press — free of charge.
“When I was young, we thought you had to be super rich to [print shirts], like Marc Eckō,” Venegas said. “You can go to a shop, and a two color print would run $3.50; a color plus the second color will be an additional dollar. Those are things I didn’t know when I was 16 years old, so I know the next 16-year-old that the police bring in here [probably] doesn’t know that.
“A lot of the youth that were coming through here had a connection through art. So we were like: ‘Let’s show you how everything works before you go to a screen printing shop and try and apply for work there, or start your own company.’ Every screen printing shop will have at least one of these setups, so we figured, ‘Let’s buy one and help these youth build a foundation for themselves.’”
In 2005, the Writerz Blok started their own hip-hop clothing line; the artwork screen printed on the various items was curated by Venegas. “We followed the same concept that Bobby at Tribal started: we commissioned Motive, Nemo, and Pres,” he said. “We had a clothing line for winter and summer, and we were successful at it. We were shipping our stuff to Colombia and Germany. We would print 500 of one design; we had girl shirts and kids’ stuff. We had bibs, ties, mugs, and mouse pads — we started printing on anything we could…. We even had hats for b-boys with the plastic thing for the heads so the breakers could do headspins.”
“I used to spin on my head,” DeGracia said, “I used to backflip and flair, and everybody used to trip out because I’ve always been a heavyset guy. When breaking came in in 1982, my brother Laurence was in a group called Street Rockers down in the South Bay — then Laurence went off and started his own crew.”
“I was 16 years old in ’83-’84,” Laurence said. “We were called the Rock Rockers team when Vans threw that breaking contest at the Del Mar Fair.”
“He (Laurence) won the breakdancing contest,” DeGracia said, “and won a free pair of Vans for a whole year.”
At the time, the preferred footwear of the breakers was Pumas, Nikes, and adidas — laced with fat elephant laces. Vans was said to be more of a surf-and-skate shoe, but it broke into the breaking scene by hosting competitions.
In 1986, Run DMC signed the first ever rap-group sneaker endorsement for $1 million, after an Adidas executive witnessed how many hip-hop heads were rockin’ the 3-striped shoes. Run DMC created their own style by eighty-sixing the shoelaces altogether.
Forward to 1995, when DeGracia and his Smooth Roughness rap group (with Ruben Torres, Paco Mansin, and Fred Sotelo) opened for Run DMC at Brick by Brick, and then fast-forward to 2018, when DJ Lil Ski wanted some new kicks for Christmas. “I wanted some suede Pumas with fat laces which are kind of extinct now,” he said. “I also wanted the fashion of Run DMC with their shell-toe Adidas.”
A $10,000 pair of sneakers
In 2019, Adidas is still hot, despite “when rapper Kanye West said the ‘slavery was a choice’ thing [last year],” Dante Rowley said. “That kinda affected people’s views on Adidas, but it hasn’t affected their sales, and the sneakers still sell out.”
Rowley, 33, is the owner of Rosewood San Diego, a sneaker and clothing shop on Market Street (between 8th and 9th) downtown.
“The biggest [in hip-hop fashion] right now is [rapper] Kanye West,” Rowley said. “Even though people hate on him, you can’t deny the impact he’s had on fashion.”
While Rowley and I spoke, his employee Grayson was ringing up a customer for a pair of Pirate Black Yeezys made by Adidas. Many of the space-age-looking Yeezy sneakers were designed by Kanye. “They were size 8K,” Grayson said, “like a baby (toddler) size for $225…. We sell certain adult versions of the Yeezys for more than a thousand dollars.”
Rowley is a true hip-hop head. “I do paint, and I still tag every once in a while,” he said. “I can tell you the history of most rappers and debate albums and what not.”
Rowley’s shop is patronized by rappers that fly into San Diego, including Wordplay from England, and brothers MadeinTyo, and 24hrs from Atlanta. “They always buy random stuff, like older Air Force 1s and Supreme stuff,” he said. “Lil Xan is the most memorable customer because he had a huge fan base with him.”
Last year, Rowley sold a pair of Oregon Duck Jordan IV sneakers for over $10,000.
“What about the Jordan 3s that DeGracia and his bros wore on their 1989 album cover?” I asked.
“If we had a brand new pair from 1988, they’d cost around $1000,” Rowley said. “The retro version that came out recently, we sell for around $300.”
(In 1988, DeGracia’s brother Rob purchased Jordan 3s from a “Chinaman” on 5th Avenue for about $100 a pair.)
Rowley’s been collecting sneakers for 20-plus years, and his personal collection at one time was so massive that it provided him with a different pair of kicks for everyday of the year. His shop has over a thousand pairs of sneakers available for sale along with hip-hop-inspired clothing, including Off White and VLone brands.
“Both are pretty huge now,” he said. “Off White was created by Virgil Abloh, who was in Kanye’s camp. VLONE was started by ASAP Bari who is from A$AP Mob.”
“Any local hip hop clothing lines?” I asked.
“The only local brand we carry besides our own, is Rottweiler,” he said. “They have hip-hop roots, too. It’s heavily influenced by Rossi, a local artist.”
Last summer, Rowley’s store was burglarized for about $50,000 worth of clothing and shoes.
“The most expensive item stolen was a Jordan 1 off-white Chicago, and that goes for about $2500,” he said. “One of the guys that got caught received three years, and now I’m just waiting on the rest of the insurance money.”
In October someone broke into the Writerz Blok.
“I caught the tagger inside tagging over a piece,” Venegas said. “The tagger tagged over a Zard and Dreks graffiti mural.”
“We laid out the whole background of the mural, and I came back and somebody came in and wrote (tagged) over it,” Zard corroborated.
Zard, 50, was from the first generation of San Diego County graffiti artists; in 1985-1987 he and his buddy Quasar were commissioned by MTS to spray paint murals — legally.
“Growing up in the 80s,” Zard recalled, “everybody knew the rules: if there’s a burner (mural) here, and if you are not going to do as good or better — you leave it alone. Kids these days just pop. It’s weird, because I don’t think they know the history and I don’t think they understand what they are doing.”
“We had another wall right next to it that’s ready (blank) for somebody to just paint,” Venegas said, “so I was bummed out that he went over Zard’s piece.”
Zard is a graphic artist and sign technician by trade. On the side, he sells Zard One and Seduced by Aerosol t-shirts for $20. In December he painted graffiti-art denim jackets for a Christmas toy drive and sells them for $150 and up.
Graff-on-denim became huge in the 1980s as it graduated from being gang-affiliation attire to art-in-motion pieces. Almost 40 years later, on a Google search for “graffiti art denim jackets,” I find a Balenciaga jacket for $2100, and a Dolce & Gabbana for $12,000.
“They are culture vultures,” Venegas said of the luxury brands. “It would be nice if they hired graff writers.”
There’s the reverse of the culture vulture concept, where someone comes from the hip-hop art realm and uses the hip-hop style to enhance or contribute to another artistic medium or style. “I know a handful of graff writers that became tattoo artists,” said Venegas, who is one of them.
“Who else from the SD graff scene transitioned into the tattoo world?” I asked.
“Mr. Flaks and Motive are doing good,” Venegas said. “They were in Las Vegas tattooing yesterday.”
Venegas said that an average tattoo artist makes about $200 per hour; a good one can make $400 – $500 an hour.
“I don’t have any tattoos,” DeGracia said, “but if I ever get one, Zodak’s gonna do it for me.”
“Zodak’s been here and painted three times,” Venegas said. “Zodak’s skills — can control, blends, letter structure, and his characters — were ahead of their time. If you see his stuff from 20 years ago, you’d think it was created just last week…. He was with Severe a lot.”
Local hip-hop clothes
“Severe used to go by ‘Big Boy,’” DeGracia said. “They might’ve been the first graffiti writers for Tribal; then they did the Top 2 Bot’m clothing line.”
“Who else from here in San Diego has or had their own hip-hop inspired clothing brand?” I asked Venegas.
“Wild Style Technicians started with Daze and Izze,” he responded. “They’re from Spring Valley and started in the 1990s as well. They were both poppers and breakers and into MCing. They do a lot of the graffiti on t-shirts.”
On their website, they sell hoodies, tanks, tees, beanies and focus much of their designs on lettering.
“The first Wild Style Technicians items were created primarily for crew members,” says the website. “However, we quickly and easily sold all of the overrun from our original crew production and immediately realized that there was a place in the market for clothing embellished with our style of artwork.”
“Then there’s DyseOne,” Venegas said. “I saw his stuff growing up when he had Ruen Clothing, and then he started doing his own DyseOne brand.”
“Back in 1986, 12-year-old DyseOne moved from rocking graffiti on stationary walls to denim jackets, pants, hats, and anything else that his peers could sport around the neighborhood,” says his website. “This became his Southern-Cali way of going ‘All City.’”
Venegas remembers seeing DyseOne’s t-shirts with zip codes and ‘San Diego’ on them. “Back then you would hardly see that [concept], especially in graffiti-or-old-english fonts on t-shirts.”
(In 2014-2015, I photographed DyseOne at the Writerz Blok when he was interviewed for Lowrider Magazine. Then around the same time, I documented when he and his buddy HASLER were commissioned to spray paint the four cement pillars in the parking garage underneath the Westfield Mission Valley mall. Dyse utilized some of our photos for his social media campaign and his catalog for the bi-annual MAGIC clothing trade show in Las Vegas.)
“We took some of the youth in our program to the tradeshows,” Venegas said. “We already showed them how to screen print and we wanted to expose them to the business aspect where people would pay you to either design a custom logo or to purchase [the rights to] your designs to put on their clothing line.”
Artists-turned-business owners spend thousands of dollars to set up shop at these shows in hopes to pick up retail outlets and distributors from around the world. DyseOne added sunglasses and denim jeans to his his recent catalog — and a set of headphones with his logos on each earpiece.
“Did we miss any other lines that came outta San Diego?” I asked Venegas.
“We have GStyle, he goes by Glock, he was a writer in the ’90s. Then we have the Usual Suspects; Rolling Hard from Paradise Hills; KleenHouse; The Armory; Ducqets; and Fabricali — to name a few off of the top of my head.”
Meanwhile, DeGracia and DJ Lil Ski still rock their Padres gear when they DJ a party.