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Sights & Sounds of East Oakland: Making dad hip hop

Bryon Malik
Music producer, Tahaj Edwards, in his East Oakland studio

Hip hop music originally captured the spirit of a generation that was young in the 1980s. That generation and others that came after it are no longer young, but many of the people making the music are not ready to call it quits.

Can a musical genre age with the people who make it, or does it stay rooted with the demographic who initially consumed it? And what happens to a rapper when they get older? Oakland Voices correspondent Tony Daquipa brings us some of those answers in a story about a veteran Oakland rapper and beatmaker.

In a garbage-strewn, graffiti-covered alley near the train tracks in Oakland’s San Antonio District, I meet up with producer, MC, and record label owner Tahajiye Edwards, to see how he plies his craft. Edwards, also known as "Tahaj the First" calls his workspace the Drum Dealership. It’s home to Drum Dealer Music, his recording studio, record label, and artist development agency.

“I like to use old equipment and old gear when I can to create music that sounds, you know, I guess for lack of a better term, vintage,” he says of his production style. “You know, versus using after effects where everything is in a computer that falsely creates that sound, which is cool too. I’m not mad at that, but I like to do it this way.”

Credit Bryon Malik
Records and vintage keyboards line the walls of Edwards' Drumdealer Music Studio

An eclectic collection of vinyl records covers an entire wall of the studio. In front of the records, Edwards stores 14 vintage Casio and Yamaha synthesizers from the 70s and 80s. While he also has a collection of vintage sampling machines that he uses, these keyboards are what really form the core of Edwards’ sound as a producer. He says that most of his keyboards have an analog component to them that makes them sound like they’re breathing.

He has a DX synthesizer, which is kinda like the synth sound that you hear on just about all your 80s pop music. “You know. Van Halen's Jump? that's a dx7.”

There’s also a Yamaha keyboard that he uses in almost everything he produces. “Its got a lot of cool, little sparkly sounds and you know, like spaceship noises and just kind of cool little additive little touches that we can throw in there. I guess they call them zipper sounds.” Along with those vintage keyboard sounds, Edwards adds in a vintage drum machine from the 90s, and comes up with beats that have a “lot of musicality” to them. He says, “I try to take the things that are made maybe in a low-fi means, but make them sound lush and nice and sweet to the ear.”

Edwards originally gravitated towards hip hop when he was in the fourth grade. By that time, he already had an interest in political speeches, writings, and poetry.

“Hip hop was like, you know, the most oratory based form of music ever, so I think it, you know, it fit my inclinations,” he says. He started off reciting other rappers’ rhymes, memorizing entire verses as early as fifth grade. By high school, he was ready to hit the stage with his own original rhymes.

Credit Bryon Malik
Edwards at home with his daughter, Lulah, who has changed the way he makes music.

Edwards has made a lot of music throughout his career, but his most important production is his nine year-old daughter Lulah. Back home at his apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, he needs to make dinner for Lulah before we can continue our interview. Tonight’s dinner? Tofu tacos. I ask, Does a fourth grader really like tofu? “Mm hmm. Love it,” says Lulah. “I want some right now.”

Almost a decade into fatherhood, Edwards says the experience has affected his music. “It’s made me have a need and a desire to make it more economically viable, you know, in real life terms.” 

He also says that fatherhood has made him more conscious of the misogyny and male chauvinism in music. 

“It wasn't —before she was born — really my jam anyway, but I have a lot less tolerance for it now as far as music that I make, and music that I put out, and music that I choose to consume," he says. I'm not really trying to hear a whole lot of that kind of talk in my music. Generally it’s hard not to be more aware of the myriad ways in which the world plots against little girls once you have one.” 

As for whether or not he is raising his daughter to follow in his footsteps, Edwards says that her musical interests are more in singing. “She likes to sing a lot and perform. She's a little bit of a ham, but she's gonna learn how to make beats whether she likes it or not.”

Now that he’s a hip hop elder, I want to know: what does Edwards think about the state of modern hip hop music?

“Hip hop has a sort of a Peter Pan component built into it,” says Edwards. “It doesn't permit people to like, grow up, or see themselves as the age that they are. But the reality is, several generations of hip hop enthusiasts are now grown up. Some of us are adults and the music that we might desire to make or probably should be making, if we aren’t, could be considered like adult contemporary hip hop,” he continues. “Which is kind of a scary thing I think for people, because hip hop implies youth for so many people the same way rock and roll once implied youth.”

Now though, he says, ask anyone under 30 about rock and roll, “and they think of probably like old people and old rocker dudes, you know what I mean? Like to them, rock and roll has long been a senior citizen, you know, as far as terminology. So hip hop is now in its middle ages. Hip hop is their parents' music.”

Hip hop at middle age? Mom and dad music? Ouch. Where can hip hop go from here then?

Edwards muses, “I think now like there’s a point where we’re gonna start seeing more and more adult rappers that are old enough to have kids and grandkids who don’t think that they should just stop rapping, you know what I mean? Like, who don't think they should just retire, you know what I mean? No more so than the old men who played blues until they died. The Rolling Stones are still somewhere touring right now. These old men, like no one tells them to stop ever, but rappers are supposed to retire because it’s this weird, you know, youth thing, but that’s just not the case.”

Thanks to Edwards and many others who have contributed to the evolution of the genre, hip hop is not necessarily just a youth thing anymore.

This story was produced for Sights & Sounds of East Oakland, a collaboration between KALW and Oakland Voices, a community journalism program of the East Bay Times and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.