RC Jamerson can remember when he first heard hip hop. It was 1979 and he was in his early teens.
“That’s when I heard ‘Rapper's Delight,’” says Jamerson. He was at Nathan Hale High School in North Seattle, “a cat named Nate Wells came through with the boombox and he was playing this music and it sounded like ‘Good Times’ from Chic, but there were people doing poetry on it.”
“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang was largely responsible for spreading rap, a fledgling music genre in the late 70s, around the world. Like many kids who heard the song, Jamerson wanted to rap. He even tried to form a hip-hop group called The Funkatizers.
“It wasn’t very successful,” he says.
They never made it very far, but Jamerson would eventually meet up with Ed “Sugarbear” Wells and James “Captain Crunch” Croone. They would call themselves the Emerald Street Boys and they’d come to be known as Seattle’s first rap group. They’d be written about in newspapers, perform at the Mercer Arena and record the first ever hip-hop song in Seattle, “Christmas Wrap,” with a track called “The Move” on the B side.
However, hip hop in the early 80s wasn’t like it is today. The Emerald Street Boys were known as much for their performances as for their rapping.
“Part of the allure of their show was the intricately choreographed dance moves that they would also have,” says Dr. Daudi Abe – the author of the forthcoming book Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle.
“Right now, hip hop is very siloed. If you're a rapper, you're a rapper. If you're a DJ, you're a DJ. If you're a breaker, you're a breaker. Well, early on, young people who embraced hip hop participated in pretty much all aspects and all kinds of four elements of the culture. And so, it was not an unusual thing to have a group that rapped like the Emerald Street Boys also have these really great dance moves that would put on a kind of a full show.”
Jamerson will tell you the same thing – the Emerald Street Boys were guided by a group of adults (including their parents) who had experience in show business and advised them to wear matching, tailored outfits and create synchronized dance routines.
Eventually the group started booking bigger shows. They appeared regularly in the local arts and culture weekly The Rocket with reviews that read:
The Emerald Street Boys lived up to their reputation. Seattle may not be the Bronx, but the boys are great. They did a mighty job of rapping and rocking the house. Although the word cute does come to mind, the boys are both talented and sophisticated in both dancing and rapping. Rapping in unison is this group strength and they use it to good effect. The Emerald Street Boys have been together for about a year and a half playing clubs and parties around Seattle.
They played Bumbershoot and opened for the Gap Band.
“We did the Torchlight parade just out of nowhere,” says Jamerson. “We were walking down bopping in the street on the parade.”
They did local TV interviews, A.M. Collins, who wrote Angry Housewives created a play about them. They played basketball with one of the most notable hip hop groups of the time, The Treacherous Three.
“It will be easy to feel like kind of like your celebrity,” says Jamerson, “but you didn't feel like that. You just felt like I did that. I performed and people liked it and we enjoyed ourselves.”
The group eventually broke up in the late 80s, but they laid the groundwork for future artists. Dr. Abe notes that the impact of the group might not be obvious, particularly because Seattle has long been mocked as a city without a strong hip hop scene. While researching his book, he found a Billboard magazine from the mid-80s that mocked the Seattle hip hop scene, just recently he was tuned to a music channel on a TV and a Macklemore song came on accompanied by a piece of trivia.
“It said, did you know Macklemore grew up in the spoken word community due to Seattle's barely there hip hop scene, something like that,” he says. “This was on a TV screen within the last like three or four years. So, the utter kind of dismissal and disrespect of the historical aspects of local hip hop had been going on for a long time.”
Dr. Abe counter this with the fact that Seattle has produced multiple Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artists, some who were directly influenced by the Emerald Street Boys -- like Ishmael Bulter, who won a Grammy with the group Digable Planets
Bulter is the cousin of RC Jamerson of the Emerald Street Boys and saw the group as celebrities growing up. There is also Sir Mix a Lot, who was directly inspired by the Emerald Street Boys’ performances. In fact, Sir Mix a Lot paid homage to the group on a guest verse of the Travis Thompson track “Glass Ceiling.”
The Emerald Street Boys briefly reunited 2010, but they also live their own lives outside of hip hop. James "Captain Crunch" Croone became a pastor. Ed "Sugarbear" Wells continued to make music but passed away earlier this year.
RC Jamerson can be found under the grass roof and fake palms of the Sneaky Tiki in Georgetown -- singing on Wednesday nights. After the Emerald Street Boys, he performed a bit more and took a job at a youth center, which is when he wrote and performed his last rap song called “Decisions”.
“Then after that, then it was like, okay, you're getting kind of old to be rapping,” says Jamerson.
He started hitting Karaoke bars and fell in love with singing. He got a band together and started jamming at a Georgetown Tiki Bar. As he performs, friends show up and jump on a second mic. There’s dancing. Some copious drinking. All while a trailblazer of Seattle hip hop performs.
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