The Great Hip-Hop Hope

Beneath the underground with the Abstract Workshop collective

Photo by Jeanne RiceIt was like a plot from a hip-hop-hater's handbook. DJ Cocoe was waiting in the parking lot of wannabe bling-bling, long-since-defunct Anaheim club Prestigio Towers, looking to get paid a lousy hundred bucks for his night spent spinning Top 40 rap songs.

He didn't pay much attention to the gangsters who were booted out of the club earlier that evening. Instead, Cocoe was thinking about rent and how the hundred was barely going to put a dent in what he owed. It was 1994. Cocoe was 18. He certainly wasn't thinking about being shot.

First he heard the rapid pop-pop-pop of an automatic pistol. Then he saw frightened people running in every direction around the parking lot. He knew it was for real when his friend Flip yelled with anguish and shock, "I'm hit! I'm hit!" Cocoe darted over to Flip, who had caught several bullets in his abdomen. Then a bullet found its way into Cocoe's left thigh, narrowly missing a major artery. A friend pushed Cocoe back into the nightclub, where the shooting and shrieking continued. Half an hour later, Cocoe was inside an ambulance rushing to UC Irvine Medical Center, fearing for Flip and not knowing what the hell was going to happen.

Through much of his teenage life, Cocoe's Greek-immigrant dad and the thinning ranks of authority figures in his life all said that nightclubbing was no good, that hip-hop attracted a bad crowd. Cocoe was close to saying they were right, but he didn't want to surrender. He knew hip-hop could be positive, but no one else was stepping up to defend it from the gangstas and the haters.

Years later, the wounds have healed, and Cocoe's still making an argument that hip-hop can be a constructive force through Abstract Workshop, his club and music collective. Abstract Workshop celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, and the club has only experienced one minor fistfight in its history. That's after bringing to Orange County some of underground hip-hop's top names, such as Aceyalone, Phife from Tribe Called Quest and Atmosphere. More important, Abstract Workshop has given OC's hip-hop scene a place to call home.

"They're the voice for independent hip-hop in Orange County," says Diego Carlin, who co-promotes Memphis Cafť's Diggin' Deeper club. "They're kind of like the last stand for this sound."

No one saw that in Cocoe's future back when he was shopping around for a venue to house his hip-hop night. Club owners looked at him with disbelief every time he said he wanted to do a hip-hop club dedicated to art and peace. "It was the whole thing that hip-hop was going to bring nothing but troublemakers," Cocoe says. "And here I was, a kid with dreadlocks, telling them that this club was going to be different."

If that was a laugh, a little relief from the comedy came after he met engineer Scotty Coats. Coats did sound at the Tiki Bar (now Club Rain) and persuaded the owners to green-light Abstract Workshop in 1998. The catch was that they'd be exiled to clubland's Siberia—Wednesday nights. But that was all right. Cocoe, Coats and another sound engineer, Jud Nester—all who later formed the Abstract Workshop collective with a host of other folks—wanted the club to fly under the radar anyway.

"It was an abstract workshop where we got to know one another sonically," says Coats, recalling how they came up with the name. "Between 20 and 30 people showed up—five of Cocoe's good friends, five of my good friends, and so on. They were almost practice sessions. We'd DJ with three turntables and two mixers. One of us would be juggling beats; the other would be scratching over it. We'd see what we do musically."

They hoped to create an intimate vibe with the club. But after the first nine months, it had become about as intimate as a searchlight's glare across a Lover's Lane. Crowds of up to 500 people started turning up, even on their rotten Wednesday nights. Whenever someone really big like Phife came out, crowds swelled to more than 700. And when huge mobs started coming to check out an Orange County unknown, that was when they knew that people were dropping by just to have a good time.

It could still be dangerous—but mostly for artists' egos. Like an edition of Abstract Workshop that took place this past August at its current home, the Detroit Bar. It was promoted as a head-nodding art night at which Bay Area turntablist Ricci Rucker was going to perform with some of the Abstract Workshop regulars such as Josh One and Cocoe. Not everyone was into it, though.

"Play some fucking music! We wanna dance!" screamed some kids close to the end of the dirge-like scratch symphony. Cocoe got the message and was soon spinning some James Brown, De La Soul and Black Eyed Peas. The rebellion was quelled, but Cocoe concedes the kids had a point: "It was a Saturday night. We were trying to provide a party. But people got educated. Most people never saw turntablism."

If he aimed to please with the club, the Abstract Workshop label, scheduled to be launched in December, with more than 20 workshop-associated musicians on board, will be of purer purpose. Cocoe expects that starting the label will be an even tougher fight than launching a club night.

"We're not talking about blunts, hookers and fancy cars," he says. "We're talking about our life experiences. It's jazz, funk and conscious hip-hop."

Aceyalone performs at Abstract Workshop at The Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $10. 21+.
 
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