By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
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Even though it starts and lives and thrives in Orange County, the story of Abstract Workshop has a little more Hollywood hip-hop in it than you'd think—Suge Knight makes an offstage appearance in the late '80s, hoping to manage DJs Scotty Coats and Jud Nester's baby boy band, and DJ Cocoe suffers a bullet wound outside a club in Anaheim in 1994, shot innocent-bystander style while waiting to get paid for deejaying. But that's just the cheese around the real center: the preternatural ambition of four local producers and DJs—each with experience and resources that together stack into skyscrapers—who eight years ago made the handshake meetings that took them from random sets of dudes spotting other random sets of dudes to the powerhouse collective responsible for the longest-running independent hip-hop club in Orange County.
Before underground venue-packers like Zion I headlined the Knit or Atmosphere headlined the Glass House or Aceyalone headlined the El Rey, they all took an unfamiliar drive down the 5 to meet with the four workmen—Jud Nester, 29; Scotty Coats, 29; Kosta "Cocoe" Tsimahidis, 30; and Josh One, 30—behind the Abstract Workshop. Most famously, Phife from A Tribe Called Quest once plugged more than 700 people into Costa Mesa's Tiki Bar—"A full-on rock club!" says Cocoe—on a Wednesday night. But most tellingly, Abstract is still going, outlasting not just the downer guy who told Cocoe underground hip-hop couldn't be done locally way back in 1998 ("That was my drive," he says) but venues (like the Tiki Bar) and clubs and even certain formats of music: CDs will be obsolete in two years, but Abstract will be celebrating their 10th anniversary. And they'll be celebrating the second anniversary of their own long-time-coming record label, the next logical progression for guys who set up a lasting home for hip-hop in the 714 (before it turned into the 949). First they made a place for the music, and now they're making the music itself.
"We used to invite people in," says producer and MC Jud Nester, whose vocals carry five of the six songs on the very first Abstract Workshop label EP, available for digital download Friday from abstract-workshop.com. "And now we're pushing outward—we're bringing our vibe to the world."
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"To say, 'Yeah, I'm Orange County hip-hop,' that brings a chuckle," says Jud. But that's a bit unfair: OC labels like Ubiquity (officially world-class, thanks to the Label of the Year award they won from the BBC) and Sound in Color routinely release and promote national and international hip-hop/soul/funk artists, even if they don't always get the local shows to go with them. And super-producer Madlib and super-group the Lootpack (which would disband into components still flourishing in independent hip-hop today) came out of Oxnard, which—though it is the lima bean capital of California—can't be much more cosmopolitan than Orange County.
So it's not so much that OC is so awful as that it suffers the short side of the Long Beach/Los Angeles axis—drive toward Leimert Park, and you can be an LA rapper and enjoy the various glories thereof. Drive the other direction, and the freeway eventually empties into a floodplain of bedroom communities long figured to have petered out—if they ever petered in—sometime around the year punk broke. But the suburbs deserve their shot too, and so the lifers in Abstract—all except Josh still live locally—remember a lively local scene. There were lots of little things in OC: the Palace club in Anaheim, says Josh, where Cocoe and Fountain Valley's budding Beat Junkie J.Rocc would deejay, clubs and parties in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley and even Irvine, or Koo's touchstone freestyle nights, where the open mic sessions, graffiti wall and breakdance crew would incubate most of the 21st century's local hip-hop musicians.
"I wouldn't change where I grew up," says Josh, who now lives in LA but admits to liking Long Beach better ("You can put that in," he says).
"It's not where you're from, it's where you're at," says Cocoe. "I feel my knowledge of music is pretty deep, and I'm from Garden Grove, dude—there's no record store there! It's what you go and dig for and what it becomes."
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After Jud and Scotty met in that pre-Knight boy band—really, they were called Kinetic Krew and they were supposed to cheese out New Kids-style, until the producers (who were also supposedly working with DJ Quik) discovered Jud could rap—they found themselves the hardest hip-hop dudes in Mission Viejo ("Coto de Caza, those streets were tough!" laughs Scotty), listening to Melle Mel and breakdancing on their own linoleum while other kids spent recess swinging on the monkey bars. In Garden Grove, young Cocoe—who would become an accomplished enough dancer to join a crew called Tribal Connections and share episodes of Soul Train with Gang Starr and Keith Sweat, though he says now he was pretty disappointed to find out they lip-synced their whole performances—was about to meet slightly less young Josh One, an already distinctive hip-hop fan (Reebok runners and Fresh Jive T-shirt, Cocoe laughs) who also already had his driver's license.