FanBros You Should Know: Al Gragg and Jamaica House
In the 21st century most new artists are being discovered online via YouTube, a mixtape on datpiff or a soundcloud link that wasn’t spammed to your Twitter. However, in the eighties and nineties, things were done differently. The club was where new emcees and artists had to prove their mettle. Nowadays clubs are known for the most recent celebrity affair or scuffle, but back then it was the breeding ground for our current legends. One such club was Jamaica House in Los Angeles. Jamaica House hosted acts like, Tupac, Biggie, Wu-Tang, and more. The rise and fall of Jamaica House has been turned into a short documentary by one of the founders, Al Gragg. In 2014 I had a chance to see the film and interview Gragg about his film and the cultural impact of Jamaica House. Check out our conversation below!
It’s been a number of years since Jamaica House closed, why do the documentary now? What inspired you to go back to that period?
Yeah, the club was over 20 years ago—Jamaica House started in ’89 in LA. But amazingly, people still talk about it, ask about it. These are legendary moments in the music and culture that live on. If you grew up in LA in the 90s, or just affiliated with the rap or reggae or industry anywhere in the country—you were there. It was the premier spot for hip-hop and the culture then…ground zero for a decade. For people reading this who don’t know about the club Jamaica House, let me explain— it represented a flashpoint in history, even beyond the music. From the crack epidemic, the golden era to gangsta rap, the crips and bloods conflict, the L.A. Riots— our story encompasses all of that…making it a perfect film. I was in film school at the time, so thank God I had a camera, and the presence of mind to document it. Plus, now it seems like there’s even more fascination with the whole 90s/golden era hip-hop thing. We were breaking all these artists in LA, from both the east and the west, kinda unifying the coasts during this whole “coastal beef.” As one of the original founders of the club, myself along with Dave Ferguson, Howard Lynch, Mike O’Connor, big up to my partners, we were fortunate to just be part of this movement. Us, and lots of other promoters in LA that would come in and out, sometimes collaborate, all for this now global movement called hip-hop.
Was it hard shooting a documentary that was about your life?
Definitely. We originally just wanted to focus on the rise and fall of the club, the artists, the whole scene at the time—more about the music and lifestyle. But, the best stories aren’t just about a broad huge “scene”— the dvd discount bin is full of cheap rap docs like that. The best stories are personal, specific “character-driven” stories, any one of us can related to—whether I’m a kid in the mid-west, Brooklyn, or LA, cuz they’re real human stories. When I’d pitch the story of the club to real movie people, they’d always wanna know more about the promoters’ personal story, the four founders as the main characters, behind the scenes. So we had to get really personal, open about this innocent boyhood friendship that maybe became fractured or corrupted some, by new money, fame, egos, commercialism, by our old demons— really the same things that corrupted hip-hop. Our story is really a microcosm of what happened in LA, and later the entire hip-hop culture. But, trust me, the true hip-hop head is gonna see everything they want, not just about us in LA, but get an education on the entire scene at the time.
How did you get such big names to come to the venue, especially in the beginning?
They would actually always come to us. Or their labels would come to us and pay, sponsor the whole night, cuz hip-hop was so new, it didn’t have many outlets in the late 80s early 90s. So we filled in that gap in the market then, if you really wanted to be seen and your name our there. Otherwise, you had to be able to afford cable just to get “yo MTV Raps” or “The Box”. But really only “Pump it up” with Dee Barnes was giving more love to the west-coast. Then we started blowing up, and moving to venues like “THE ROXBURY” on sunset strip, where you’d see Tupac with Madonna, or Eakamouse and Bad Brains standing next to EPMD. And if you actually got on stage, that meant you were the shit. A place where both Biggie and ‘Pac came at different times. That was a big deal, cuz honestly the east coast didn’t give the west any love back then. They didn’t play west coast artists much, but our stations and fans always supported them when they came here. In the early days, LA felt kinda hated on, cuz NY looked at our gangsta rappers like we were kinda country and couldn’t rap as good…then our genre took over. Kind of the same thing you see happening with the South now.
If Jamaica House was still running, what current artists would you like to have perform?
Starting off with the obvious– Kendrick [Lamar], School Boy Q Jay Rock, all the Top Dawg artists. Firstly, because they’re local LA artists, and we supported that. And obviously because they’re some of the biggest artists nationally and all over the radio….’cept for maybe Jay Rock who’s dope, and probably gonna get another crack it national attention this time. We would have been had Drake, all of Young Money, Rick Ross, etc (doing promotional shows). And maybe reggae artists you had to search out more, like Bunji Garlin. Plus, some underground, more hardcore drill music artists from “Chi-raq”. Seems like they kinda spawned all these new artists like Bobby Shmurda and Dej Loaf, who we’d have definitely have perform. Personally, I’d like to bring Jamaica House back with the return of those golden-era artists, maybe mixing in performances with some of today’s artists.
How did you become interested in film, specifically documentaries?
I fell into making documentaries by accident. A friend named Yosi Sergant, who worked at the White House, was organizing these artists for Obama, and commissioning that iconic “HOPE” piece Shepard Fairy did for Obama’s inauguration. He allowed me to interview Shepard about his whole process, plus document all these other cool street artists. I shot De La Soul, Moby, and Rosario Dawson there, everything around that historic 2009 inauguration, called Manifest Hope. Shepard’s manager Lorrie Boula, liked it and basically cosigned to help out, along with moveon.org making it official. I had directed lots of music videos in the past with decent budgets, too, so this was totally different and much harder. These days documentaries are kind of expected to look as slick and polished, like other narrative films you see in the theater, which kind of sucks. That’s where the bar has been set because everyone has easy access to cheap digital technology these days. Lots of documentaries may look and sound good technically, but not necessarily be saying as much. When I came out of film school at USC in the 90s, the whole raw, gritty aspect of a film lended to it’s aesthetic and authenticity…I think that’s what’s different now.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m working on another street-art documentary, and a kind of TV version of the Jamaica House story, plus other projects I can’t really talk about. And in this digital age, you have to adopt different projects for the new media. I’ll still direct a music video like I did recently, or shoot a friend’s band, but I am cognizant of what my audience is– are they gonna see this on a big theater screen, their computer monitor, or maybe their iPod…all that matters.
You said you’re a fan of the show, what got you to listen?
I was a fan and still am an avid listener of the Combat Jack Show, and really dug the little mix breaks DJ BenHaMeen would do. Then I stopped hearing him on the show, and realized he got his own show on the network. The whole fanboy-geek connection was ideal and just a bonus
What makes you a fanbro?
I’m a fanbro cuz I am a straight up geek when it comes to horror films and zombie movies, way before it became trendy…and I know that sounds weird to say. Like it’s more cool to be a geek now, ha. But my dad took me to see “Dawn of the Dead” the very first time it came out in theaters, and we saw it at the drive in. So I’ve pretty much seen every zombie film, George Romero or otherwise, and collected comic books since elementary school…got made fun of, the whole nine. This was way before Comic-Con and it became cool. And of course, I follow the fanbro podcasts and blog updates. Listening to DJ BenHaMeen and Chico was really funny. They have a cool, quirky dynamic, like on their “The Man Of Steel Stinks” episode.